MSM Sign of the Times?

This morning's London Times lead editorial -- The Petraeus Curve - boldly goes where few "mainstream media" news outlets dare, stating flat out that serious success in Iraq is not being recognized as it should be.

Is no news good news or bad news? In Iraq, it seems good news is deemed no news. There has been striking success in the past few months in the attempt to improve security, defeat al-Qaeda sympathisers and create the political conditions in which a settlement between the Shia and the Sunni communities can be reached. This has not been an accident but the consequence of a strategy overseen by General David Petraeus in the past several months...

Moreover, The Times recognizes that the "surge" is much more than the number of boots on the ground -- it is "what" they are doing that is showing results.

While summarised by the single word "surge" his efforts have not just been about putting more troops on the ground but also employing them in a more sophisticated manner. This drive has effectively broken whatever alliances might have been struck in the past by terrorist factions and aggrieved Sunnis. Cities such as Fallujah, once notorious centres of slaughter, have been transformed in a remarkable time...

Continuing, the editorial rightly cautions that this success does not necessarily guarantee that past difficulties are history.

A weakened al-Qaeda will be tempted to attempt more spectacular attacks to inflict substantial loss of life in an effort to prove that it remains in business. Although the tally of car bombings and improvised explosive devices has fallen back sharply, it would only take one blast directed at an especially large crowd or a holy site of unusual reverence for the headlines about impending civil war to be allowed another outing. The Government headed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has become more proactive since the summer, but must immediately take advantage of these favourable conditions...

And in conclusion.

Politicians on both sides of the Atlantic have to appreciate that Iraq is no longer, as they thought, an exercise in damage limitation but one of making the most of an opportunity. The instinct of too many people is that if Iraq is going badly we should get out because it is going badly and if it is getting better we should get out because it is getting better. This is a catastrophic miscalculation. Iraq is getting better. That is good, not bad, news.

Related

Not Cricket - Jules Crittenden's Forward Movement

In Iraq, a Lull or Hopeful Trend? - Washington Post

Iraqi Civilian Deaths Plunge - Los Angeles Times

Deaths in Iraq 'Continue to Fall' - BBC

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While I think most of us are pleased at the new strategies/TTP initiated since GEN Petraeus took charge, and are reassured by the changes that have occurred in Iraq since then, I am unaware of anyone thinking that that victory is assured.

I think that the intent was to point out the inconsistency of the media. It seems that every Soldier's death is presented as an omen of imminent defeat when things are going poorly in Iraq, but there is relative silence among the establishment media when the situation improves.

Certainly the ethnic cleansing in Baghdad has been a factor in recent improvements - and not one overlooked by MNF, but also not one that MNF chooses to highlight in press conferences for obvious reasons. However, it also seems fairly obvious that many actions taken by MNF have significantly impacted the operational environment for the better.

Rather than FOB consolidation - the path that we were on prior to GEN Petraeus - forces have been pushed deeper into the population. There is greater emphasis on developing ISF by way of direct action missions rather than training on firing ranges. There is tremendous focus on standing up tribal security forces and reconciliation. These initiatives are clearly significant factors as we see locals effectively taking responsibility for their areas, former/current insurgents communicating and cooperating with us, and tremendous damage done to al-Qaeda in Iraq thoughout the country, not just in Baghdad.

If someone has evidence or a hypothesis to support any of the following, then please present it...
- pushing forces into combat outposts and patrol bases, rather than FOBs, COBs, and LSAs, has not resulted in significantly more actionable intelligence and greater cooperation from the populace
- our efforts to stand up tribal security forces have not resulted in tribes securing their own lands and purging them of cells from al-Qaeda in Iraq
- co-opting and reconciling with current/former insurgents has not resulted in significant damage to al-Qaeda in Iraq, in Anbar, Baghdad, and northern Iraq
- joint US-Iraq direct action missions have not enhanced ISF capabilities more than static range training and sticking IA Soldiers on checkpoints

As General Caldwell from Once an Eagle said, "victory is a matter of opportunities clearly seen and swiftly exploited."

I do not doubt the abilities of the leadership or personnel of MNF, but with Iraq still a political football, exploitation may end up being limited to cheap political gains, which would be a true tragedy.

Matt

Leftists and other defeatists certainly want the US to lose in Iraq. They want Iraq to be perceived as a "no-win situation." Recognising this, it is easier to understand the incessant fog of defeatism pouring from journalists, who dominate the left.

The slowly improving circumstances in Iraq place these "gotta lose" ers in an awkward, squirming situation, as gian illustrates. They certainly cannot let up in the face of defections from the London Times. Instead they must step up their efforts, turn up the smoke.

It should be fun to watch.

"In a nutshell, yes we all know about time and we talk about it quite a bit here. That said, if what success we have shown so far is not recognized as such then we will not be afforded the time to see this through. Catch-22?"

This highlights a key problem in communicating success from the battlefield back to politics. Namely, the military believes it has the tools and the right approach to win in Iraq, and all it needs is time. This means that Petraeus has an incentive to trumpet success as long as success remains plausible in the future - even if success remains elusive in the present. Really, if you believe success is possible/probable, wouldn't that lead someone to believe that they should convince Congress to give them more time, regardless of whether the situations on the ground justify it at the moment of Congress' decision?

Unfortunately, there are no real objective sources of information. Metrics and data are unreliable in an environment as chaotic as Iraq, plus as Eli showed earlier on this blog, metrics must change as strategy changes, and strategy changes as it interacts with the enemy, thus it will be almost impossible to build reliable data over time. The news media is not a reliable source of information even disregarding any issues of bias, as their job is to sell papers and advertising and to maintain access to sources, rather than to tell the objective truth. Think tankers can't say anything that will cut off their streams of funding. So - how do we know what's actually going on?

Short answer = read SWJ. Long answer = ?

Dave:

Interesting that you use the term "Catch 22." I just finished up a gig as a co-chair at West Point's annual Student Conference on United States Affairs (SCUSA). I was co-chair of the table "Challenges of Insurgency" along with a retired Philippine General Victor Corpus. When discussing the predicament in Iraq he also used the term "Catch 22" to describe what he sees as an almost no-win situation for the US in Iraq.

Having said that yes I do appreciate your use of the term Catch-22 and the fine line that the term implies that we walk when trying to assess the effects of the Surge and the way ahead in Iraq. If we are on the right tack then acknowledgement of success to reinforce the effort is important. But if we are on the wrong approach and are assessing recent events in Iraq incorrectly then proclaiming success does cloud the reality of the situation there. Hence that fine line as expressed by your use of the term Catch-22.

Best

gian

Gian,

In a nutshell, yes we all know about time and we talk about it quite a bit here. That said, if what success we have shown so far is not recognized as such then we will not be afforded the time to see this through. Catch-22?

Dave

Maybe.

But as I suggested to the SWJ editors in a posting a few weeks ago where I thought their title "Custer Blames Grant?" was over the top in its attempts at lionization and hagiography ought to be a little more cautious especially without the temporal insights of history on their side. It is the same with assessing the Surge. I find ironic that the Small Wars community who continuously tutors us that small wars and counterinsurgencies take time--many, many, many years--that now its members are so quick to proclaim success and implicitly victory without the insights of time on their side to really gage success or failure and the true meaning of the effects caused or not caused by the Surge.

There are alternative explanations for the reduction in violence in Baghdad that have little to do with the Surge that ought to at least be considered before proclamations of success and victory. Namely that the sectarian cleansing that allowed the shia to win the battle of baghdad is almost complete and the few mixed areas of baghdad are still seeing high levels of violence as the last few battles for these areas are fought. The Partlow piece in the Wash Post last week about Sadiya (my old area of responsibility) is a good example of this and also suggests the possibility that the surge was irrelevant in stopping this process from happening. Clearly the reduction in violence is taken directly from our cutting a deal with the non-alqueda sunni insurgents. That deal has starkly--and thankfully--reduced the big buried ieds that used to kill so many Americans. Also from this alliance it has allowed us to get after alqueda causing them to slow down in their spectacular suicide attacks against shia civilians. But to borrow a quote from Gen Petraeus, where does this end? I see this more as a "lull" than a permanent trend. Since I view the country in civil war what we in effect have done is not resolved that conflict but hardened it by arming the side that fights against the government that we are there to support. I do not buy the fancy, clever arguments by some Coin experts that this reduction in violence is allowing us to "rewire the environment." That sort of pop-anthropology might work if we were facing fundamentally an insurgency there but it is much more than that and the warring sides in this civil war still have much hatred, violence, and fight left in them. Think to history, the Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1850 were heralded as political successes by many but there were a few skeptics like Thomas Jefferson who realized that the fundamental political and social problems had yet to be solved by those compromises. They were ultimately solved, however, but through the violence of the American Civil War.

But I may be wrong. But at least I can admit that. It is possible that so much of this cock-sureness of success and victory might be clouding the true reality of Iraq. Being a student of history has taught me to be skeptical and to be humbled by the complexity of war and the human condition. I only ask that others take the same measured and cautious approach to assessing the Surge. I commend to the readers of this Blog an excellent article in this regard by Phil Carter, "Raw Data: The Dark Side of Iraqs Good News" (http://www.slate.com/id/2177250/) for a nuanced and cautious examination of the "good news" coming out of Iraq.