UPDATE: Okay, so the Iraqi Benchmark Assessment Report indicates that we have shifted our strategy to battling al Qaeda in Iraq (via James Joyner via Kevin Drum.) Here's an excerpt from the report:
These new operations are targeting primarily al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI) havens in Baghdad, Babil, Diyala, and Anbar provinces. While AQI may not account for most of the violence in Iraq, it is the organization responsible for the highest profile attacks, which serve as a primary accelerant to the underlying sectarian conflict. We presently assess that degrading AQI networks in these critical areas ‑‑ together with efforts to degrade Iranian-backed Shi’a extremist networks ‑‑ is a core U.S. national security interest and essential for Iraq’s longer-term stability.
Okay, that's pretty clear. The surge is now officially about beating back al Qaeda in Iraq. Unless it isn't, and this language is yet another attempt to conflate the insurgency with al Qaeda in Iraq, so as to conflate al Qaeda in Iraq with al Qaeda overall, so as to convince us to stay in Iraq just that much longer. The reason there's so much confusion is because President Bush keeps speechifying about the threat of al Qaeda, and it's quite clear he would like us to confuse the danger of terrorists attacks against us with the danger al Qaeda in Iraq presents to Iraqi citizens. Perhaps commanders in Iraq have been given instructions on how to talk about the fighting in Iraq, modelled on former statements, only with the phrase "al Qaeda" replacing the term "insurgents." But let's take this shift in strategy at face value. Let's assume that in fact we have decided to shift our focus away from Sunni insurgent groups and towards al Qaeda in Iraq. Here's what James Joyner has to say about that:
So, essentially, despite [Al-Qaida in Iraq] comprising something like five percent of the insurgency, we have diverted most of our resources to combating it. And we're failing. Not only is AQI stronger but, as another report being released today suggests, al Qaeda in general is enjoying a resurgence.
And here's what Kevin Drum has to say:
Actually, I think things are considerably worse than James suggests. Despite what the White House says, we're fighting AQI not because they're "high profile" or because they're actually a genuine branch of al-Qaeda, we're fighting them because we don't have any choice. Who else are we going to fight? The Badr Organization? The Mahdi Army? The Sunni insurgents? The Iraqi Security Forces themselves? Hell, we're allied with the Sunni tribes these days. We're training the Iraqi Security Forces, making them into an ever more efficient sectarian killing machine. We're supporting a government that supports the Badr Organization and we've apparently got back channel negotiations taking place with Muqtada al-Sadr and the Mahdi Army too. This leaves us with distinctly limited options.
We're not fighting AQI because they're the real problem in Iraq. We're like the drunk looking for his car keys under the street lamp. And we're doing about as well.
Actually, we are still fighting the Sunni insurgents, and the Mahdi Army, along with other various groups that oppose our presence. It's just that the primary focus now appears to be on al Qaeda. But Kevin's despair is justified nonetheless. I've been awfully confused about exactly what our strategy in Iraq is lately, and now it seems that would be because nobody seems to know exactly what our strategy in Iraq is anymore. According to President Bush, we have to stay until al Qaeda is utterly defeated. But in Anbar, the Sunni insurgents we're fighting in other provinces are themselves fighting al Qaeda. In Baghdad our soldiers are being killed by Shiite militias and Sunni insurgents, and supposedly al Qaeda is behind the unending "spectactular" attacks against civilians. Members of the Mahdi Army, supposedly trained by Iranian agents, are planting IEDs which are killing our soldiers, but their supreme leaders is the most powerful member of parliament, and al-Maliki continues as Prime Minister of the country at al-Sadr's sufferance. Various Shiite groups openly war against each other in the streets in southern Iraq. The Kurds look upon this all pensively, while we anger them by kidnapping protected Iranian agents off the streets in Kurdish areas. And we won't even get started on the Kuridish rebels crossing into Turkey and provoking the Turkish army into thinking about crossing into Iraq.
So as Kevin says, we're now fighting al Qaeda because they are really the only clear enemy in Iraq, they're someone that everyone can hate, and they're the only group that we have sufficient resources to fight. And conveniently for our President, it serves ours (and his) larger domestic fears of terrorism to conflate success in Iraq with success against al Qaeda in Iraq. Of course, even were we to somehow defeat al Qaeda in isolation from everything else I listed above, we'd still have a mess of a country that's torn primarily between the Sunnis and Shiites, and a civil war that appears only to be winding up, not down.
Ironically enough, this shift in strategy is exactly what's being recommended by those who want a drawdown in forces but want to leave some American troops behind, one of the purposes being to hunt members of al Qaeda. The difference is that whereas our President seems to think defeating al Qaeda is some predicate to stability in Iraq, and that it takes 160,000 soldiers to do it, opponents of the current strategy realize that shifting our focus to al Qaeda is the necessary consequence of an admission that we can't bring stability to Iraq, and we only need perhaps 50,000 well-fortified and less exposed soldiers to do it.
Sorting out what's going in anybody's head up at the White House is an impossible puzzle. Maybe our President really thinks that if we can just defeat al Qaeda, we can move on to putting the country together again. Maybe his advisors see the writing on the wall, and realize that scaling back our mission in Iraq should be done in advance of troop drawdowns, and not because of them (the military command seems to see it that way.) Or maybe fighting al Qaeda is all we've got left, whatever the reason. Either way, a drawdown-and eventual full withdrawal-is inevitable. It was from the moment our troops set foot in Iraq.