Sunday, September 09, 2007
Listening to General Petraeus
Listening to Petraeus
The president had the courage to change course on Iraq. Does Congress?
BY JOHN MCCAIN AND JOE LIEBERMAN
Monday, September 10, 2007 12:01 a.m. EDT
Today, Gen. David Petraeus--commander of our forces in Iraq--returns to Washington to report on the war in Iraq and the new counterinsurgency strategy he has been implementing there. We hope that opponents of the war in Congress will listen carefully to the evidence that the U.S. military is at last making real and significant progress in its offensive against al Qaeda in Iraq.
Consider how the situation has changed. A year ago, al Qaeda in Iraq controlled large swaths of the country's territory. Today it is being driven out of its former strongholds in Anbar and Diyala provinces by the surge in U.S. forces and those of our Iraqi allies. A year ago, sectarian violence was spiraling out of control in Iraq, fanned by al Qaeda. Today civilian murders in Baghdad are down over 50%.
As facts on the ground in Iraq have improved, some critics of the war have changed their stance. As Democratic Congress man Brian Baird, who voted against the invasion of Iraq, recently wrote after returning from Baghdad: "[T]he people, strategies, and facts on the ground have changed for the better, and those changes justify changing our position on what should be done."
Unfortunately, many more antiwar advocates continue to press for withdrawal. Confronted by undeniable evidence of gains against al Qaeda in Iraq, they acknowledge progress but have seized on the performance of the Iraqi government to justify stripping Gen. Petraeus of troops and derailing his strategy.
This reasoning is flawed for several reasons.
First, whatever you think of the performance of Iraq's national leaders, the notion that withdrawing U.S. troops will "shock" them into reconciliation is unsupported by evidence or experience. On the contrary, ordering a retreat will only serve to unravel the hard-fought gains we have won.
The recent National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq was unequivocal on this point: "Changing the mission of Coalition forces from a primarily counterinsurgency and stabilization role"--the Petraeus strategy--"to a primary combat support role for Iraqi forces and counterterrorist operations"--which most congressional Democrats have been pressing for--"would erode security gains achieved thus far."
This judgment is echoed by our commanders on the ground. Consider the words of Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, commander of the 3rd Infantry Division, who is leading the fight in central Iraq: "In my battlespace right now, if soldiers were to leave . . . having fought hard for that terrain, having denied the enemy their sanctuaries, what happens is, the enemy would come back."
In addition, while critics are right that improved security has not yet translated into sufficient political progress at the national level, the increased presence of our soldiers is having a seismic effect on Iraq's politics at the local level.
In the neighborhoods and villages where U.S. forces have moved in, extremists have been marginalized, and moderates empowered. Thanks to this changed security calculus, the Sunni Arab community--which was largely synonymous with the insurgency a year ago--has been turning against al Qaeda from the bottom-up, and beginning to negotiate an accommodation with the emerging political order. Sustaining this political shift depends on staying the offensive against al Qaeda--which in turn depends on not stripping Gen. Petraeus of the manpower he and his commanders say they need.
We must also recognize that the choice we face in Iraq is not between the current Iraqi government and a perfect Iraqi government. Rather, it is a choice between a young, imperfect, struggling democracy that we have helped midwife into existence, and the fanatical, al Qaeda suicide bombers and Iranian-sponsored terrorists who are trying to destroy it. If Washington politicians succeed in forcing a premature troop withdrawal in Iraq, the result will be a more dangerous world with our enemies emboldened. As Iran's president recently crowed, "soon we will see a huge power vacuum in the region . . . [and] we are prepared to fill the gap."
Whatever the shortcomings of our friends in Iraq, they are no excuse for us to retreat from our enemies like al Qaeda and Iran, who pose a mortal threat to our vital national interests. We must understand that today in Iraq we are fighting and defeating the same terrorist network that attacked on 9/11. As al Qaeda in Iraq continues to be hunted down and rooted out, and the Iraqi Army continues to improve, the U.S. footprint will no doubt adjust. But these adjustments should be left to the discretion of Gen. Petraeus, not forced on our troops by politicians in Washington with a 6,000-mile congressional screwdriver, and, perhaps, an eye on the 2008 election.
The Bush administration clung for too long to a flawed strategy in this war, despite growing evidence of its failure. Now advocates of withdrawal risk making the exact same mistake, by refusing to re-examine their own conviction that Gen. Petraeus's strategy cannot succeed and that the war is "lost," despite rising evidence to the contrary.
The Bush administration finally had the courage to change course in Iraq earlier this year. After hearing from Gen. Petraeus today, we hope congressional opponents of the war will do the same.
Mr. McCain is a Republican senator from Arizona. Mr. Lieberman is an Independent Democratic senator from Connecticut.