An Annotated Guide to What the General Could Say to Congress
Originally published at the Washington Independent
On Tuesday, Gen. David H. Petraeus will update Congress on the status of the Iraq war. The general is so respected as a military officer that his September run through the Capitol Hill gauntlet effectively deflated political opposition to continuing the war and forestalled Democratic calls for withdrawal. The surge received a congressional reprieve after his testimony.
Now the surge is over -- the final additional brigades are just leaving Iraq -- and Petraeus' goal is different: halting troop reductions amid a rising tide of violence from terrorists, insurgents and militias.
The leading Democrats in Congress, well aware of the political potency of Petraeus' last round of testimony, are already sending the general the message that he'll face tougher questioning in this election year. But with all the talk about what questions Petraeus is likely to face next week, less attention has been paid to what the general's potential answers could be -- and what his comments could indicate about the war and the politics of continuing it.
Here's a guide to four expected questions. Presented with each are some of Petraeus's possible options for addressing them -- and what his choice of answers could mean.
Q. Doesn't the recent uptick in violence -- including last week's Basra and Sadr City explosions -- indicate that even with the greatest amount of U.S. combat power in Iraq during the occupation, we can't keep a lid on Iraq? We've tried the surge, and the results are in. Increasing troop levels isn't an option. Why should we pause further reductions?
Potential Answer #1: "Actually, violence is still down compared to the levels experienced in the aftermath of the 2006 Samarra shrine bombing. We've known all along -- and have said -- that there was still tough fighting ahead."
Translation: Petraeus is either unwilling or unable to confront the implications of the last, best chance for the Iraq war coming up short.
Potential Answer #2: "It's true that our enemies have adjusted to our strategy. What we're doing now is making further adjustments to throw them off-balance, so we can preserve the security gains of 2007. Drawing troop levels down further will complicate that."
Translation: Petraeus wants to have an honest debate about Iraq, but he's not going to give up on the war. Don't expect many concessions.
Potential Answer #3: "I can only tell you what my military advice would be, and it's to keep troop levels as close to pre-surge levels as possible. To go beyond that is to get into a question of national strategy, which is not appropriate for a military officer."
Translation: Petraeus is not going to cover for President George W. Bush any more. He might well be looking to what assignment he'll get -- if he chooses to stay in uniform -- under a Democratic successor.
Q. In Basra and Sadr City last week, the Iraqi security forces performed below our expectations, and contrary to the predictions of many, including many of your commanders. U.S. armor units had to come to the aid of Iraqi forces in Sadr City. That resulted in troop deaths and the destruction of a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle. How much more evidence do we need that the Iraqi security forces will not be competent within a time frame that the American public is prepared to support?
Potential Answer #1: "I share your concerns about the Iraqi security forces. This is why we need to pause to consider the wisdom of additional troop withdrawals. After all, no one desires the chaos that would result if we reduced forces beyond the level that Iraqi Army and Police capacity can sustain."-
Translation: Petraeus wants to use jujitsu. The premise of the question is that the condition of the Iraqi security forces is itself a scandal, and such bad news militates for withdrawal. But by conceding the poor performance of the Iraqis, Petraeus can leverage that into an argument for remaining in Iraq. Democrats want, above all else, to prevent withdrawal from becoming associated with chaos.
Potential Answer #2: "I don't entirely share your concerns about the Iraqi security forces. Many units performed admirably, and we should recognize the bravery of Prime Minister Maliki in standing up for the rule of law against a threat from a militia of his fellow Shiites. Yes, there's unevenness, but we have to support those forces until their condition improves -- perhaps not to an American level, but one commensurate with a force that can meet any internal challenge."
Translation: Petraeus is not actually in the room. Donald Rumsfeld has had plastic surgery to make himself look like the general. There might be diplomatic value in praising the Iraqi security forces -- Petraeus, after all, has to deal with Iraqis every day and will not wish to appear disrespectful -- but to deny reality could easily indicate disrespect for the Congress.
Potential Answer #3: "I share your concerns about the Iraqi security forces. It's important for our strategy that we train and equip them as rapidly as is commensurate with assured quality. The American people cannot and should not be asked to wait forever for such qualified forces to materialize, nor can the U.S. military sustain such an open-ended commitment. Our strategy going forward, as I testified in September, will be to place as much of the burden on the shoulders of the Iraqi security forces as we can."
Translation: Petraeus recognizes that the Iraqi security forces are the weak leg of the stool. He's indicating that the post-surge strategy is going to be a lot like the pre-surge strategy -- heavily reliant on training Iraqis for combat missions and punting on the sustainability of that approach to elected and appointed officials.
Q3: One of the signature accomplishments of the surge, something that you praised in September, was to enlist Sunni insurgents disillusioned with Al Qaeda onto the side of U.S. and Iraqi forces. But these so-called Sons of Iraq or Concerned Local Citizens militias pose a great long-term threat to the Iraqi government. That government, led by Shiites, is understandably fearful of giving security-force jobs to those who were, a few months ago, planting IEDs on the sides of the road. These former militants have ballooned to 90,000 in strength, and many of them openly boast of overthrowing the Shiite government. This is all financed by the United States. Has this creative and well-intentioned program not accelerated the breakup of Iraq?
Potential Answer #1: "The concern is a real one. Progress has not been as expeditious as we desire. We're aware that we have a limited window to incorporate them into the Iraqi army and police. We are working with our Iraqi partners tirelessly to make sure the brave Sons of Iraq -- many of whom have saved the lives of U.S. troopers -- have a place within the Iraqi security forces."
Translation: Petraeus knows he's in a bind and has no good solution. It's an honest reckoning with the problem.
Potential Answer #2: "The Sons of Iraq represent precisely the sort of bottom-up reconciliation we desired when we began the surge. It remains a historic achievement that a Muslim population, and particularly an Arab one, rejected Al Qaeda after extended exposure to their blend of tyranny and fanaticism. Their goal is simple: to serve Iraq with dignity. We should remember that everyone wishes the Sunnis to be part of the solution, not the problem."
Translation: Petraeus remains emotionally invested in the Sons of Iraq program. After all, it was an innovative solution -- months ago. But hubris prevents him from recognizing that his clever short-term fix sows the seeds of future calamity.
Potential Answer #3: "The Iraqi government has made many promises to incorporate the Sons of Iraq into the Iraqi security forces. We're starting to see that happen. But ultimately this will be an Iraqi-generated solution."
Translation: Petraeus recognizes that this is all out of his hands, and so he's washing them.
Q4: The goal of the surge was never just to reduce the level of violence. It was to reduce the level of violence to engender political reconciliation. Not only has that not happened, by some measures -- for example, a looming crisis over Kirkuk and emerging divides with both the Sunni and Shiite communities -- the political situation is even more tenuous. The politicians we support in Iraq are not only unpopular, but, in many cases, supported by Iran. Why is an intransigent, sectarian, incompetent, distrusted, theocratic government worth a single drop of American blood?
Potential Answer #1: "Yes, there are problems with the Iraqi government. But to characterize it as you have misunderstands the magnitude of both the challenge and how far the Iraqis have come in a short period of time. Over the past year, we've had laws passed governing oil wealth distribution, de-Baathification, provincial elections and we have more on the way. What's more, bottom-up reconciliation has paid real dividends in provinces like Anbar, and that can only influence national decisions. When the provincial elections occur in October, those reconciliation efforts will be evident among the new leadership."
Translation: Petraeus feels that lying about Iraqi politics is necessary to preserve current troop levels.
Potential Answer #2: "I can't tell you whether the Iraqi government is worth supporting. What I can tell you is that as long as it remains the policy of the U.S. to support that government, there are certain resources that I, as a military commander, require to complete my mission. Those include an at-least-temporary pause in troop reductions."
Translation: Petraeus is trying hard to stay out of the broader political debate over whether the war is worth the costs. He's also telling Congress that he's an apolitical figure caught in the midst of a policy dispute. The subtext: he'll be just as willing to do what a Democratic president wants.
Potential Answer #3: "That's more of a question for Amb. Crocker. Ryan?"
Translation: Petraeus wants to go home. Now.