By Frederick Kagan, the author of Finding the Target: the Transformation of the American Military. A longer version of this article appears in the latest issue of the Weekly Standard (THE GUARDIAN, 24/04/07):
The new effort to establish security in Iraq has begun. At this early stage, the most positive development is a rise in hostility to al-Qaida in the Sunni community. Al-Qaida has responded with its own "surge", which so far has not revived support for the terrorists or reignited sectarian violence. The coalition has also made unexpectedly rapid progress in reducing the power of Moqtada al-Sadr, killing or capturing more than 700 members of his Mahdi army. At the same time, the rhetoric of the Iraqi government has changed dramatically, and there are indications among Iraq's Arabs of an increased willingness to attempt reconciliation. Meanwhile, some challenges are intensifying; Diyala province in particular poses serious problems. But on balance, there is reason for wary optimism.
Sectarian killings began to drop significantly in January, and remain well below their December level (although they are now somewhat higher than at the start of current operations). The continuing terror campaign is tragic, but it has not yet reawoken the widespread sectarian conflict that was raging as recently as the end of last year.
One of the things that struck me on my visit to Iraq this month was a growing Iraqi desire to exercise sovereignty. The insistence on evidence rather than intelligence as the basis for arrests reflects a desire to see the rule of law functioning. So does the establishment of a chain of command under the control of the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki. So does his appointment of subordinates in whom he has confidence, even when we prefer others. This burgeoning sense of Iraqness can be seen beyond central government. Pictures of the recent Sadrist demonstration in Najaf showed many people carrying Iraqi flags and few carrying pictures of Sadr. The movement's strategists clearly felt a need to show they are Iraqis rather than followers of a particular leader.
Can America succeed in Iraq? Definitely. Will we? It's too soon to say. The most that can be said now is that we seem to be turning a corner. Last December most of the trends were bad. Today many are positive, despite the daily toll of al-Qaida-sponsored death. This reversal results from our own actions, from enemy mistakes, and from positive decisions by potential spoilers. Our actions are proceeding in the right direction, as our forces work skilfully to establish order and support reconstruction. The enemy is maintaining the strategy that led to its difficulties in Anbar province: ruthlessly attacking Sunnis and Shias in an effort to terrorise populations into tolerating its presence. And the key potential spoilers are holding to their vital decision to call for sectarian calm rather than sectarian war.
Americans have been subjected to too much hyperbole about this war from the outset. Excessively rosy scenarios have destroyed the credibility of the administration. The exaggerated certainty of leading war opponents that the conflict is already lost is every bit as misplaced. Too much optimism and pessimism has prevented Americans from accurately evaluating a complex, fluid situation.
Today victory is up for grabs, and the stakes for America are rising as the conflict between us and al-Qaida shifts to the fore. It is no hyperbole to recognise that a precipitous American withdrawal would undermine the positive trends and increase the likelihood of mass killing and state collapse. Painful and uncertain as it is, the wisest course now is to support our commander, soldiers and civilians as they struggle to foster security in Iraq and defeat the enemies who have sworn to destroy us.