Petraeus Doesn’t Cook the Books

For those reading this after watching General David Petraeus’s Monday testimony, I strongly suspect that my main argument will have become apparent to many: General Petraeus is a straight shooter who does not and will not cook the books.

From what we know of his thinking already, Petraeus will talk of significant military momentum for combined U.S./Iraqi forces. But this momentum will be placed in the context of a still very lethal and dangerous battlefield. Petraeus, and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, will also highlight the absence of Iraqi political progress, progress without which our long-term aspirations for that country will almost surely fail. He will have enough evidence to back up this claim of military momentum, on the plus side, combined with ongoing extreme danger on the streets and political paralysis in the halls of parliament on the other side, that his argument will sound right to most who hear it. And while he will surely favor continuing the effort, he will not present the evidence about Iraq in a way that attempts to invalidate the judgment of those who would disagree. War opponents will be able to accept most of the specific evidence he presents yet retain their positions that a rapid and large-scale American withdrawal from Iraq is warranted. That is because, in the end, our decisions about Iraq must be based more on a judgment call about politics and human psychology than on hard science or data.

On the violence, in keeping with a Saturday New York Times article by Michael Gordon that reflects current DoD data on the country, Petraeus will argue that the overall situation has improved substantially this year. He will be right to do so, based on virtually any primary-source data I have seen (in my capacity as co-author of Brookings’s “Iraq Index”). Depending on which category of violence one emphasizes, and which starting and end points one uses for the comparison, most categories of killings are down 20 to 50-percent since the surge began. This is true for overall civilian fatalities from all causes, including victims of extrajudicial killings (basically reprisal assassinations), murders, and for the most part, car- and truck-bombing victims.

This story, of course, is not totally uniform. U.S. troop casualties have not dropped. The August 14 truck bombings in Ninevah province made that month, relatively speaking, quite lethal, particularly if one focuses on car- and truck-bombing victims. And the apparent 75-percent reduction in extrajudicial killings in Baghdad, using the same month of August as an endpoint, would not be as great if we averaged over the whole country — or over the whole summer.

In this regard, there will be some room for serious, legitimate disagreement over which categories of violence are most indicative of underlying trends in Iraq. The GAO, in a recent report (that in my view is seriously flawed in its assertion that overall violence in Iraq may not have declined at all this year), is nonetheless correct to point out that the distinctions between sectarian killings and non-sectarian killings can be overdone on analytical grounds. Indeed, it is not clear that they are even possible to make in the first place on evidentiary grounds. Still, Petraeus will, I believe, be able to argue that non-sectarian violence is down too (or at least not up). No matter how you look at it, overall civilian fatality rates in Iraq have surely been reduced, even if they remain way too high — and still comparable to 2004/2005 levels.

Petraeus may argue that sectarian assassinations matter more than tolls of vehicle bombings, since trends for the latter can be skewed by one-time events like the August 14 tragedy whereas sectarian killings represent a more fair barometer of the daily state of the civil war. I do not know if he will make this case or not. But I am confident that if he makes it, he will do so with a serious argument, and will also be open to the perspective of those who take a different view.

It is clear from his recent letter to American troops in Iraq that Petraeus, like Ambassador Crocker, President Bush, and most other American officials, is very frustrated by the absence of Iraqi political progress on issues like reforming the de-Baathification process and ensuring fair distribution of oil revenue. He has already made this quite clear, underscoring (in contrast to some neocons) that Iraqi performance falls far short of what he would consider an acceptable standard. This should help convince skeptics about whether he is cooking the books, as some allege.

The political picture will not be painted in a wholly pessimistic light. Petraeus will express hopeful words that political progress at the local level in various provinces, not only al-Anbar but Ninewah and Babel and elsewhere, can partially compensate for the failures to date of national-level politicians. He will also probably make note of the increased flow of financial resources from Baghdad to key provinces, even in the absence of a national hydrocarbons law. And he will likely observe that, within the Iraqi army, sectarian relations seem to be improving somewhat, as the Army shows fewer signs of Sunni-Shia tension and greater professional competence than before (this general finding was recently confirmed by the Jones report, even as it rightly lambasted the national police).

Some of Petraeus’s critics will argue, as they already have, that he wrote an oped in the fall of 2004 that was too optimistic about the training of Iraqi Security Forces then — and too closely timed to the American elections that November. To them, that suggests he was and is acting as an agent of White House spin. That oped may in retrospect have been somewhat too optimistic; I was wrong then myself in believing that a very vigorous training program we had created for the Iraqis would suffice to create a professional, dependable force. In the end, sectarian tensions proved too great, culminating as they did in the December 2005 parliamentary elections that rewarded parties built around sectarian identity, as well as the February 2006 Samarra mosque bombings. The security forces then faltered under the weight of Sunni-Shia hatred and mistrust dispute their improved technical proficiency.

However, a possible misjudgment on this matter hardly shows Petraeus to be a spinmeister. If anything, it shows him to be human. That means senators and Congressmen will be within their fair rights to question him on facts and judgment this week (as is always the case whenever a military officer testifies on a crucial matter of national security). It does not mean we need doubt his integrity or his capabilities; this is one of the most committed and best prepared generals we have ever asked to lead our nation in war. Win or lose, he is a remarkable soldier. He will teach us a great deal this week if, whether supporters or opponents of the ongoing war effort, we make the effort to listen.