Turning of the Tide

In her Sept. 29 op-ed article, “Iraqis Can Do More,” Jessica Mathews makes a number of constructive observations, especially with regard to Iraq’s politics and economy, about how the United States and its partners can improve their chances of a successful mission. But as another member of the recent Defense Department-sponsored delegation to Iraq, I would dispute her overall sense of pessimism, especially in regard to security matters. The United States and its partners are indeed still at war — an expression many commanders use themselves. They also did get off to a very poor start in stabilizing post-Saddam Hussein Iraq. But the war is going reasonably well, by the standards of counterinsurgency, and the tide may finally be starting to turn.

Mathews rightly points out three worrisome aspects of the security environment in Iraq today — recent increases in ambushes of supply convoys, more daily attacks on U.S. troops than a few weeks ago, and some fresh evidence of collaboration between former Baathists and so-called “jihadists” from abroad. Indeed, the commander of U.S.. ground forces in Iraq, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, has just said that “the enemy has evolved. It is a little bit more lethal, little bit more complex, little bit more sophisticated and, in some cases, a little bit more tenacious.”

But these facts are balanced, if not outweighed, by several other factors. First, the tragic truck bombings of August did not recur in September, as we have taken overdue steps to protect high-value targets from such standard terrorist tactics. And the recent assassination of a Governing Council member, Akila Hashimi, is leading to better protection for top Iraqi officials — again, something we should have done sooner but will do and are doing now.

As for Baathist remnants of Saddam’s regime, they are diminishing with time as coalition forces attack and arrest them. For example, in the region north of Baghdad now run by Gen. Ray Odierno’s 4th Infantry Division, some 600 fighters have been killed and 2,500 arrested in recent months. Not all of these are Baathists, to be sure, but with such attrition rates, a group of fighters that probably numbered 10,000 to 20,000 at peak strength will decline significantly over time — especially because it has no appealing ideology with which to attract more members (unless we so mishandle the operation as to make anti-Americanism that rallying ideology — a prospect that remains unlikely at present, given our plans to intensify reconstruction efforts and turn over power to Iraqis quickly.) Around Tikrit, Hussein’s hometown, and other parts of the northern “Sunni triangle,” for example, former regime loyalists have been sufficiently weakened that they need reinforcements from other parts of Iraq to continue many of their efforts. Most Baathists from the famous deck of cards are now off the street; many second-tier loyalists of the former regime are also being arrested or killed daily.

Terrorist jihadists are admittedly a greater worry because it cannot yet be confidently asserted that their numbers in Iraq have begun to decline or even plateau. In an overdue move, coalition forces have been strengthening border patrols. They can hardly be expected to seal off all entry points into Iraq (though a few thousand more coalition troops might help, for that and other purposes, at least until more Iraqi border police can be trained). But they can continue to contain the problem.

In these counterinsurgency operations, American troops are following much better practices than they did in Vietnam. Firepower is generally being used quite carefully, even if mistakes such as the accidental killing of some 10 Iraqi policemen earlier this month are sometimes made, and even if the coalition’s initial raiding tactics were sometimes culturally insensitive. Regional commanders are hiring Iraqis to help with recovery and reconstruction, a key kind of foreign assistance effort that Congress must continue to support. Moreover, while insurgents have displayed the full range of standard terrorist tactics — truck bombings, assassinations, use of remotely detonated explosives, mortar and rocket attacks — they are neither very sophisticated nor organized at the national level.

American troop casualty rates, while still higher than the Bush administration prepared the country to expect at this phase of the mission, are not increasing with time. Meanwhile, we are training several types of Iraqi security forces that, while limited in their skills in some cases, are already helping coalition forces. Partly as a result, there have been fewer devastating attacks on infrastructure in recent weeks, and the all-important Iraqi electricity levels are gradually increasing.

Mathews may yet prove right, and her suggestions for improving our approach are sober and constructive. But her worries should not prevent us from also seeing what is going right today in Iraq.