Thursday, June 28, 2007

Measuring Success

Gen. David Petraeus' new strategy of going after "al-Qaeda in Iraq" in anticipation of an inevitable drawdown of American forces somehow manages to make perfect sense despite the fact that the justification he offers is at odds with everything we know about the situation on the ground.

On the one hand, getting rid of as many non-Iraqi bad actors before we ourselves pull up stakes seems like a solid first step towards re-Iraqifying the civil war. It would also be madness to allow the jihadists -- who have undoubtedly taken advantage of the chaos and violence in Iraq to recruit and train new operatives -- to consolidate their strategic gains after we've left.

But Petraeus seems to be suggesting that the violence taking place in Iraq is all the result of foreign agitators, and that eliminating them will eliminate sectarian violence as well:

The emphasis on Al Qaeda, described by commanders in interviews here this week, marks a shift in focus from Shiite Muslim militias and death squads in Baghdad. It reflects the belief of some senior officers in Iraq that the militias probably will reduce attacks once it becomes clear that a U.S. pullout is on the horizon...

Al Qaeda's attacks against Shiite religious sites and civilians brought the Shiite militias into the conflict last year, Petraeus said. Reducing the threat of Al Qaeda will reduce the militia threat, he added.

Of course, the "Golden Mosque narrative" has already been debunked, so while the campaign against foreign agitators is strategically sound, it's just not for the reasons given.

This little nugget, on the other hand, better explains some of the urgency behind the shift:

The fight involves the kind of high-intensity operations that play to U.S. strengths. It pits American forces against an opponent that the U.S. public already considers an enemy, and provides clear "metrics" for measuring success.

After largely steering away from body counts of insurgents for most of the Iraq war, U.S. officials recently have been reporting the number of militants killed in operations against Al Qaeda.

Now, we already know what happens to the logic of these kinds of "metrics" because we've seen them before. If the US military is targeting Viet Cong al-Qaeda, then anyone it engages becomes, by definition, Viet Cong al-Qaeda. Meanwhile, body counts get inflated by any innocent bystanders who happen to get caught in the crossfire.

For the time being, Petraeus' team is avoiding overly optimistic appraisals. It will be interesting to see how much that changes as we approach September.

Posted by Judah in:  Iraq   

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