Passage of Year Makes Petraeus Look Good, Congressional Critics Look Bad

By Kevin Mooney | September 10, 2008 | 7:26pm EDT

( - On Sept. 11th of last year, when Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, chaired by Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), that the U.S. troop surge in Iraq was working, he was met by a hail of criticism from members of Congress who believed it was failing.
On the eve of his testimony, ran a full-age ad in the New York Times that read: “General Petraeus or General Betray Us?” and “Cooking the Books for the White House.”
In the intervening year, according to a database, U.S. casualties in Iraq have dropped to the lowest level since the start of the war six years ago. The Iraqi government, meanwhile, has made real, if faltering, progress toward political reconciliation between Iraq’s Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds.
See chart on U.S. casualties, click here.

“As a bottom line up front, the military objectives of the surge are in large measure being met,” Petraeus told the Senate committee a year ago.  “In recent months, in the face of tough enemies and the brutal summer heat of Iraq, coalition and Iraqi security forces have achieved progress in the security arena.
“Though improvements have been uneven across Iraq, the overall number of security incidents in Iraq, for example, has declined in eight of the past 12 weeks. During this time, ethnosectarian violence has also been reduced and the number of overall civilian deaths has declined, though both are clearly still at troubling levels,” Petraeus added.

“The progress is a result of many factors,” Petraeus testified. “Coalition and Iraqi forces have dealt significant blows to al Qaeda-Iraq and have disrupted Shi'a militia extremists. Additionally in a very significant development, we and our Iraqi partners are being assisted by tribes and local citizens who are rejecting extremism and choosing to help secure Iraq.
“Iraqi security forces have also continued to grow and to shoulder more of the load albeit slowly and amid continuing concerns about the sectarian tendencies of some elements in their ranks,” he added.
“Innumerable challenges lie ahead,” Petraeus said, “however, coalition and Iraqi security forces have made progress toward achieving sustainable security.”
At the start of the hearing, before Petraeus gave his statement, Biden gave his own statement saying the surge was a failure and should be ended and that U.S. troops should start home. 
“It's time to turn the corner in my view, gentlemen,” Biden said. “We should stop the surge and start bringing our troops home. We should end a political strategy in Iraq that cannot succeed and begin one that can.”
The next day in Clinton, Iowa, Sen. Barack Obama gave a speech dismissing Petraeus’ conclusion and calling for the beginning of an immediate withdrawal from Iraq.
“I opposed this war from the beginning,” Obama told the crowd in Clinton on Sept. 12, 2007. “I opposed the war in 2002. I opposed the war in 2003. I opposed it in 2004, and 2005 and 2006. I introduced the plan in January to remove all of our combat brigades out of Iraq by next March. And I am here to say that we have to begin to end this war now – not tomorrow, not the next day, not six months from now, but now.

“The administration points to selective statistics to make the case for staying the course. Killings and mortar attacks and car bombs in certain districts are down from the highest level that we've seen. But they're still at the same horrible levels that they were 18 months ago or two years ago. Let me repeat that,” Obama said.
“Yesterday, General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the Senate Armed Services Committee pointing to this reduction in violence,” Obama added.
“We are at the same levels of violence now that we were back in June of 2006. That is the improvement that's been made after an additional 30,000 troops and billion dollars have been spent in Iraq,” he said.
Although Bush administration critics on Capitol Hill distanced themselves from the ad in the New York Times, Obama was not the only senator who suggested that the statistics Petraeus used did not entirely capture the reality on the ground in Iraq.
Sen. Hillary Clinton (D.N.Y.) told Petraeus, “I think that the reports that you provided to us really require the willing suspension of disbelief.”
The surge, which included an influx of more than 20,000 new troops into Iraq, began in January 2007 and was fully implemented by June 2007. As the new U.S. troops arrived in Iraq, the U.S. launched several offensive operations against al Qaeda, focusing mainly on the Anbar Province, Baghdad and the Diyala River Valley.
In the early months of last year, as the surge began, U.S. combat casualties increased as the battles against al Qaeda intensified. But after peaking in May 2007, monthly casualty figures began to dramatically decline, according to the database.
By August, combat-related casualties were occurring at a lower rate, compared on a month-to-month basis, than in 2006. In December, there were 14 U.S. combat-related casualties, the fewest at that time for any month in the previous two years.
Between August and December 2007, there were 163 combat casualties. By comparison, there were 339 combat casualties in the same five-month period for 2006, a decline of almost 52 percent, the analysis shows.
The security improvements and military progress in the Anbar Province were especially noteworthy, Petreaus pointed out in testimony. Monthly attacks declined from 1,350 in October 2006 to just over 200 in August 2007, he observed.
“This dramatic decrease reflects the significance of the local rejection of Al Qaeda and the newfound willingness of local Anbaris to volunteer to serve in the Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police Service,” he said. “As I noted earlier, we are seeing similar actions in other locations, as well.”
For much of the war, Anbar had been the center of the Sunni insurgency and violence related to the Sunni insurgency.
But U.S. casualties in Anbar reached an all-time peak in November, December and January 2004-2005, during a U.S. offensive aimed at Sunni insurgents and terrorists who were then occupying the city of Fallujah, the database shows.
The U.S. offensive there began on Nov. 8, 2004. That month, U.S. forces suffered more than 300 casualties in Anbar. In December 2004, U.S. forces suffered more than 100 casualties in Anbar. In January 2005, they suffered 53.
U.S. casualties in the province reached a secondary peak in the late fall of 2006, before the surge began, going as high as 45 that December.
Yet, Anbar was sufficiently pacified by the surge that on Sept. 1, 2008, U.S. forces handed over responsibility for the province’s security to the Iraqi government.
The military progress Petraeus cited in his testimony last September unfolded after the April 2007 press conference at which Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) declared the Iraq war to be lost.
“Now, I believe myself that the secretary of State, the secretary of Defense – and you have to make your own decision as to what the president knows – that this war is lost and that the surge is not accomplishing anything, as indicated by the extreme violence in Iraq yesterday,” Reid said at an April 19, 2007 press conference.
About the same time, in an April 23, 2007 interview with CNN’s Dana Bash, Reid told CNN he would not believe it if General Petraeus told Congress there had been progress in Iraq.
Bash said to Reid that President Bush had said “that General Petraeus is going to come to the Hill and make it clear to you that there is progress going on in Iraq, that the so-called surge is working. Will you believe him when he says that?”
“No, I don't believe him, because it's not happening,” said Reid.  “All you have to do is look at the facts. The factors are this has been going on for three months. American deaths are at the highest they've been in two years. We have – it's like a balloon. Things have quieted down a little in Baghdad, but just a little bit.
“They've even moved up in the Kurdish area now. Have tremendous explosions up there, killing two dozen people today. The situation in Iraq is not getting better, and it won't until we change course,” he said.
But the passage of a year has shown that it was not Gen. Petraeus but his congressional critics who were out of touch with reality, Fred Kagan a scholar with the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) told in an interview.
Kagan was an early advocate of the troop surge strategy embraced by the White House.
The troop surge has been remarkably successful and will “go down in the annals of history as probably the most effective, fastest turnaround in any counter-insurgency in history,” he said.
Kagan credits Petraeus, Gen. Raymond Odierno, and a number of “really outstanding brigade commanders” for crafting the offensive operations that put al Qaeda and other terrorists on the run.  
“We’ve got probably the best counter-insurgency force that’s ever existed in my view,” he observed.
Meanwhile, monthly U.S. combat casualties dwindled to their lowest level of the war this past July with non-combat incidents outpacing combat deaths. Pentagon reports show combat deaths ticked upward in August to 13 as compared to five in July.
However, combat deaths for August were down 77 percent from where they were a year ago and were the lowest for any August of the war.
There have been two combat deaths recorded so far this month through Sept. 9, bringing the total since the beginning of war to 4,142.

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