Down with Barriers, Up with Iraq
Once it was impossible to keep track of all the bloodshed. Now it's impossible to keep track of all the progress.
November 24, 2008 - 9:30 am
On November 13 I covered a mission in South Baghdad with soldiers from the 4th Infantry Division. General Petraeus once told me during the height of the fighting, back when violence was the lingua franca and victory was very much in question, that this area was the canary in the mineshaft. In his exact words regarding what Lieutenant Colonel Pat Frank had to deal with in one of the toughest places in Iraq, “SW Baghdad … has every challenge imaginable — AQI, JAM, micro fault lines, good/bad ISF partners, good/bad neighborhood leaders, and Route Irish! It will be the canary in the mineshaft; if they can pull it off, this will be doable.”
It is critical to point out that General Petraeus told me this in 2007 — just at the crest of the surge during some of the fiercest fighting in the war. Many people at home were saying the new strategy was a complete failure, but the coalition and Iraqi soldiers were not tapping out, not taking a break, giving no quarter to the enemy, and expecting none in return.
General Petraeus went on about what he was seeing: “Just back from a patrol base in Arab Jabour, SE of Baghdad, another incredible place. Was an AQI sanctuary three weeks ago. Now the head sheik has given four of his best men to the newly arrived Bn Cdr to help him find/kill/capture AQI in the AO. Very impressive/heartening.”
I’ll finish this story where General Petraeus could not, because this was still at the height of combat; the war truly had just peaked and nobody knew this yet. A year later, in June 2008, I emailed to Gary Sinise: “I bet you 5 bucks it will end this year. Probably a few casualties for us still, but that by early 2009, a reasonable person will say it’s over.”
Gary emailed back, asking if that was what I really thought, and my responding email was candid and informal:
Just a gut instinct, Gary. I’ve spent so much time all over that war that I’ve developed an instinct for it that’s becoming more and more accurate. I predicted the civil war back in February 2005, more than a year ahead of anyone else. During 2005, I was saying and writing that AQI was intentionally trying to start it. Identified General Petraeus in 2005-2006 as a man that I thought could lead us out of this mess … maybe! In about January or February 2007, I wrote that General Petraeus was the man we needed but it might be too late. In about early July 2007, I came on Hugh Hewitt’s radio show and said the surge was working. I thought I was the first to say that, but I believe that Hugh said that John Burns had just noticed the same thing. In 2006, I wrote from Afghanistan that we were losing the war there and that 2007 would be a lot worse (got huge flak for that, but was sadly correct). 2007 got a lot worse in Afghanistan, and this year looks to be worst so far.
Now to Iraq: every indicator to me is that we are winning the Iraq war at an ever-increasing rate. In about January, I predicted in writing a couple months of higher casualties before it would begin to settle down. That is what has been happening. May 2008 was the best month in the war. We lost 19 — 19 too many, but much less than has been the norm. AQI is being defeated ([redacted] is at this moment in the middle of it.) This is shaping up into a strategic defeat for al-Qaeda, not just AQI. I first started writing this in about July 2007; people thought I was nuts. Now it’s being widely recognized that al-Qaeda global is being devastated. (Though they will continue to kill us, and especially be a problem in places like Afghanistan.) The loss in Afghanistan and also their crimes against humanity are sending shockwaves through the Arab and Islamic world. If anyone hates al-Qaeda more than Americans, it’s Iraqis and some others who have suffered under them.
Now to Iraq again: I believe that by the end of this year, there is a very high chance that a reasonable observer will be able to say, “The Iraq war has ended.” This does not mean that we will not take a small number of casualties each month, but that the war will end and we can switch to helping Iraq stand, and truly start to bring more of our folks home. Touch wood.
Our biggest wild card is Shia militias, but we see that the government is standing up to them. Also, support for the militias has diminished as AQI was crushed down and Sunni militias mostly ended their attacks. (We just need to make sure no knuckleheads use the Koran for target practice, or commit any crimes against Iraqis.) The Iraqi Army gets stronger by the month, and is increasingly reliable. The defections in Basra did not surprise me. Those are the worst soldiers I’ve seen in Iraq, and also the newest. That would not have happened in Mosul or Diyala or Baghdad, for instance. I expected poor performance in Basra, but amazingly, they completed their mission anyway. That they were able to penetrate Sadr City is excellent. Expect more fighting there, but make no mistake, many Shia are as sick of JAM (Shia militias) as they are of AQI. Support for Shia militias has diminished greatly because they mistreated their own people and behaved criminally even toward other Shia.
I am increasingly confident about Iraq. Was telling [redacted] the other day that our next challenge is with certain journalists. I am in daily contact with journalists in Iraq and some of them do not want to let the war go. The war has lofted them into positions that they did not previously have (like me, for instance), and some of them do not want to let it go. I can see it. On the one hand, it’s clear they want it to end, but on the other, it’s the highlight of their careers. I have not discussed this with the journalists, but I have noticed the pattern in their communications. They seem almost worried that it’s ending. Remember the book, My War Gone By, I Miss It So?
Anthony Loyd was a journalist who clearly missed his war. I am detecting this with a number of the key voices in Iraq. This could affect coverage and needs to be addressed.
Otherwise, I am increasingly confident. I think we are going to make it. Petraeus worked like magic. Now we need him to concentrate on our growing troubles in Afghanistan.
Knock on wood!