Of course, among those of us don't look to the number of schools being built as an indicia of success, the questions is why are levels of violence down, and what does that mean? The lowered numbers of deaths are encouraging...at least until you read articles like this one in yesterday's Washington Post:
Before the war, Sadiyah was a bustling middle-class district, popular with Sunni officers in Saddam Hussein's military. It has become strategically important because it represents a fault line between militia power bases in al-Amil to the west and the Sunni insurgent stronghold of Dora to the east. U.S. commanders say the militias have made a strong push for the neighborhood in part because it lies along the main road that Shiite pilgrims travel to the southern holy cities of Najaf and Karbala.
American soldiers estimate that since violence intensified this year, half of the families in Sadiyah have fled, leaving approximately 100,000 people. After they left, insurgents and militiamen used their abandoned homes to hold meetings and store weapons. The neighborhood deteriorated so quickly that many residents came to believe neither U.S. nor Iraqi security forces could stop it happening.
The descent of Sadiyah followed a now-familiar pattern in Baghdad. In response to suicide bombings blamed on Sunni insurgent groups such as al-Qaeda in Iraq, the Shiite militias, particularly the Mahdi Army, went from house to house killing and intimidating Sunni families. In many formerly mixed neighborhoods of Baghdad, such as al-Amil and Bayaa, Shiites have become the dominant sect, with their militias the most powerful force.
"It's just a slow, somewhat government-supported sectarian cleansing," said Maj. Eric Timmerman, the battalion's operations officer.
Over the past two months, the U.S. soldiers have recruited more than 300 local residents, most of them Sunnis, into a neighborhood defense force. This has proved more controversial in Sadiyah than elsewhere; the Iraqi government has openly accused the force's members of abusing residents and has limited their freedom of movement. In September, after Glaze led an eight-month campaign to kick out the Wolf Brigade, soldiers from the Iraqi army's Muthanna Brigade, which has clashed with Sunni volunteers in the Abu Ghraib area, arrived in Sadiyah.
The Iraqi army's arrival and the emergence of the Sunni volunteers have coincided with some positive signs, the soldiers said. Some of the shops along the once-busy commercial district of Tijari Street now open for a few hours a day. The number of violent incidents has dropped, although it rose again over the past two weeks, officers said.
"This is a dangerous place," said Capt. Lee Showman, 28, a senior officer in the battalion. "People are killed here every day, and you don't hear about it. People are kidnapped here every day, and you don't hear about it."
This article is headlined by a quote from one of the soldiers serving in Sadiyah, who concludes that the "place isn't worth another soldier's life." So peace of a sort has been brought to Sadiyah, but only after an ethnic cleansing that has left few Sunni Arabs to fight the Shiite militias. The "peace" that has been bought is the peace that comes when there's no one left to fight. And yet, some of American soldiers still regard Sadiyah as a unredeemable hell-hole.
Desite the intense focus on "boots on the ground" in the surge, it also appears that American forces have resorted to a drastic increase in the use of airpower to deal with Shiite militias and insurgents. Here are the figures from Juan Cole:
The US launched 1,140 bombing missions in 2007 through the end of September, as opposed to 229 in all of 2006. The US has flown as many as 70 such air missions a day this October, more than at any time since the November, 2004, assault on the Sunni Arab city of Fallujah.
These bombs are being dropped in urban areas and predictably, Iraqi civilians have died in greater numbers as a result. Though, those numbers are rarely tabulated by the U.S. military, which has little interest in counting how many Iraqis are killed in these attacks. As you can probably imagine, each bomb dropped means less soldiers that have to fight in deadly urban environments. Frankly, it's impossible to know if American commanders have stepped back the use of ground forces and increased the tempo of airstrikes in a deliberate effort to avoid casualties. But it's not hard to speculate that the increased tempo has had such an effect, whatever the purpose. Less American soldiers are dying because they have fewer enemies to fight (at least in Sunni Iraq) but they also appear to be dying less because they are letting bombs do the work for them.
Of course the surge was sold as a chance to give the Iraqi government "breathing room", to lower tensions between the Shiites and the Sunnis so as to bring about a more inclusive government. Whatever argument there may be about the levels of violence, there is no argument that primary goal of the surge has not been met, as Iraqi leaders have quite publicly denounced efforts at reconciliation (and they're not the only ones who aren't interested.) And the Iraq national government's mostly Shiite leadership are extremely uncomfortable with the efforts of American forces to incorporate more Sunnis into the security forces, and are attempting to subvert or block such efforts. They have little desire to share power with the Sunnis in any meaningful sense, and given that they thus far have suffered no consequences for their efforts to hijack the national government to their ends, their relucatance seems entirely rationale.
So what is the true picture in Iraq? Violence is down, in Sunnis areas as a result of a tentative "understanding" between the Sunnis and American forces, and in Shiite areas because Sunnis have been driven from those areas (though Shiite militias continue to battle each other.)But it's clear that the increased American security presence-which is set to end next year with or without a change in strategic policy-has in no way furthered a change in fundamental conditions in Iraq. Instead we appear to be aiding the Sunnis in their desire to build a unified front against the Shiite, fighting the Shiite militias of our ostensible allies in the national government as part of a proxy war with Iran, and killing Iraqi civilians at an unsustainable clip as a result.
What is our ultimate goal in Iraq? How will we know if we've met that goal? What are the pre-conditions for withdrawal or redeployment? How long can we go on occupying Iraq without any effort by either side for true political reconciliation? From the right these questions go unasked, and from our government these questions go unanswered. Our strategy in Iraq is being set by people who have an eye on elections at home, not progress overseas, and it's impossible not to come to the conclusion that whatever successes we experience in the short-term in Iraq, we have moved no closer to a point at which the war hawks will admit that we can change our strategy and begin bringing troops home as a result.
UPDATE: I really should survey my favorite blogs before I go wading into things. Marc Lynch has written basically the same post I just did, only with more informed opinions and better questions. Lynch wonders if our strategy-instead of encouraging reconciliation-is actually fostering a warlord state (a la Afghanistan, though on a much worse scale.)
UPDATE II: I also didn't mention other problems in Iraq that aren't quite related to the central question of what our strategy should be, but are difficult problems nonetheless. The Blackwater fiasco hasn't helped, and in response to please to crack down on the PKK, the Kurds have essentially told us to go suck an egg.
UPDATE III: Via Kevin Drum it appears that the Turks are seriously prepared to also tell us to suck an egg while they invade northern Kurdistan. And while it was reported that President Bush offered to bomb Kurdish rebels, U.S. military commanders indicate that they actually have no plans to confront the rebels. Here's a quote from an article I cited to last week about the Kurds:
The United States “is like a man with two wives,” said one Iraqi Kurd in Sulaimaniya. “They quarrel, but he doesn’t want to lose either of them.”
That's amusingly apt, though if you carry the analogy further Turkey appears to be headed to divorce court according to this Turkey expert:
At the funerals of Turkish soldiers killed at the hands of the PKK, a common refrain among the (often thousands) mourners is “Down, down PKK…Down, down USA.” Heartwarming, I know. This is a huge shift from the late 1990s when America was quite popular in Turkey despite the fact that the government in Ankara was under the leadership of that prickly nationalist Bulent Ecevit, who seemed preternaturally suspicious of the United States. Currently, if 10 is the best and 1 is the worst, I’d put US-Turkey relations at 3.