U.S. commanders plan a summer of stepped-up offensives against Al Qaeda in Iraq as they tailor strategy to their expectation that Congress soon will impose a timeline for drawing down U.S. forces here.
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. By contrast, they believe Al Qaeda in Iraq could be emboldened by a withdrawal plan and must be confronted before one is in place.
When the Bush administration began sending additional troops to Iraq, U.S. commanders spoke frequently of the threat posed by the Al Mahdi militia, and they issued thinly veiled threats against its leader, radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr. Although military leaders say the militia remains a priority, Sadr has tacitly cooperated with the U.S. troop buildup, telling his followers to avoid confronting U.S. forces. He is also a key supporter of the U.S.-backed government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki.
Now, with the final infantry troops of the U.S. "surge" strategy having arrived in Iraq, the military is increasingly focusing firepower on the Sunni Muslim side in Iraq's civil war, especially Al Qaeda in Iraq.
...the strategy is driven by the belief of senior officers that they have a window this summer in which to suppress Al Qaeda activity before a withdrawal timetable is determined.
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.
"Al Qaeda gave them an excuse. Al Qaeda is their raison d'etre," Petraeus said. "So you really have to reduce Al Qaeda's ability to carry out sensational attacks."
If the U.S. can show dramatic progress against Al Qaeda, other pieces of the Iraqi puzzle may fall into place, Petraeus said.
Okay, let's sort this out together. First, although the Bush administration has repeatedly conflated Iraq with the larger "war on terror" it has never been made any explicit claim that the "surge" was intended largely to be an offensive against Al Qaeda in Iraq. Instead they made it fairly clear that the strategy was to secure Baghdad, and to do all that such a strategy entails, such as rousting out insurgents, tamping down death squads, controlling Shiite militias, and securing the populace against spectactular bombings carried out by Al Qaeda. However, that strategy has shifted subtly since it was first implemented in February. For one, we have forged an alliance of convenience with Sunni insurgents in Anbar province against Al Qaeda, as a result of Al Qaeda's over-reaching. This has reduced the need for American forces in Anbar, and freed them up to operate in other parts of the country. Second, security in Diyala province (northeast of Baghdad) has disintigrated largely as a result of Sunni insurgents who have settled there upon retreating from Baghdad. The general opinion of military leaders is that insurgents in Diyala are using the province as a base to continue operations into Baghdad, and that Diyala must be secured so Baghdad can be secured. As a consequence valuable resources have been shifted to Diyala in an effort to reduce insurgent and Al Qaeda activity there. But there's also been a subtle shift in the language that military commanders and Bush administration officials use in Iraq, referring to all militants opposed to our operations as "Al Qaeda" as opposed to distinguishing between Al Qaeda and Sunni insurgents allied-but not affiliated-with Al Qaeda. And while upon reading about that shift I simpy assumed that it was the Bush administration playing fast and loose with semantics again, this article gives me serious reason to question that conclusion. Perhaps they're referring to everyone as Al Qaeda because that's who they're really going after, and the use of the terms sets the stage for some kind of acknowledgment to the public that the strategy in Iraq has changed?
You'll have to forgive me for not quite knowing what to make of this, but the military commanders interviewed in this article-including top commander General Petraeus and his deputy-are astonishingly frank in their admission that a cut in forces in Iraq is not only inevitable, but on the horizon, and that their only achievable goal is to beat back Al Qaeda to an extent that permits Iraqi security forces to stabilize contentious regions. And I say "astonishingly frank" because so far, nothing the Bush administration has said-other than using the term "Al Qaeda" everytime they refer to the enemy in Iraq-has indicated that there is any shift in the strategy from the program that was laid out in January and February, let alone that American troops will be coming home anytime soon.
I can promise you that a) I will be on the lookout for news that confirms this shift in strategy and b) I'll be writing more about this when I see such news. For now, make of it what you will.