… And optimism in Iraq

Anyone remotely familiar with the analysis provided by retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey since the Iraq war began four years ago knows that he has been sharply critical of the Bush administration’s diplomatic/military management of the Iraq war. Gen. McCaffrey (whose long, distinguished resume in the military and public service includes a stint as Bill Clinton’s drug czar), visited Iraq last month, where he conducted “a strategic and operational assessment” of the security situation that provides ammunition for both sides of the U.S. debate. The first section of the report detailing the general’s stark descriptions of the problems in Iraq have received extensive coverage in the press — a report in The Washington Post, for example, was titled “McCaffrey Paints Gloomy Picture of Iraq.” But the fact that Gen. McCaffrey also provides readers with reasons for optimism in Iraq (and said in a separate interview that it would be a military mistake for the Democrats to impose a binding deadline for withdrawal) tends to get overlooked.

Although only a fraction of the scheduled U.S. reinforcements had arrived in Baghdad when Gen. McCaffrey visited last month, he found that in the Iraqi capital “the murder rate has plummeted. IED attacks on U.S. forces during their formerly vulnerable daily transits from huge U.S. bases on the periphery of Baghdad are down — since these forces are now permanently based in their operational area.”

Some of the best news comes from Anbar Province in western Iraq, home to Sunni insurgents aligned with al Qaeda. “There is a real and growing ground swell of Sunni tribal opposition to the Al Qaeda-in-Iraq [AQI] terror formations,” Gen. McCaffrey wrote. “This counter-Al Qaeda movement in Anbar Province was fostered by brilliant U.S. Marine leadership. There is now unmistakable evidence that the western Sunni tribes are increasingly convinced that they blundered badly by sitting out the political process. They are also keenly aware of the fragility of the continued U.S. military presence that stands between them and a vengeful and overwhelming Shia-Kurdish majority class — which was brutally treated by Saddam and his cruel regime.”

The Anbar Sunnis, Gen. McCaffrey said, are taking up arms to defeat al Qaeda and are cooperating with Iraqi security forces: “There is now active combat between Sunni tribal leadership and AQI terrorists. Of even greater importance, the Sunni tribes are now supplying their young men as drafts for the Iraqi police.” Al Qaeda has responded with stepped-up violence aimed at intimidating the Sunni tribesmen — further alienating them. While this has been occurring, critical improvements are being made in the Iraqi security forces. “The equipment and resources for the Iraqi security forces [ISF] has increased dramatically,” he wrote. “The ISF training system is beginning to work effectively with their own trainers.”

As Gen. McCaffrey made clear, a major reason why this has been going so well has been the performance of U.S. armed forces. American combat forces “are simply superb. The Army and Marine brigade, battalion and company commanders are the most experienced and talented leaders in our history. Re-enlistment rates are simply astonishing,” he wrote. “The command and control technology, training, contractor support and flexibility of Marine and Army combat formations are magnificent.”

This is not to say that success in Iraq is by any means assured. But Gen. McCaffrey’s analysis shows that there is another side to the story in Iraq — beyond all of the grim television footage and dire predictions about Iraq’s future.

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