Are we succeeding in Iraq? Look no further than the front page of your daily newspaper. What had been a steady barrage of bad news has now slowed to a trickle.
Our military’s success on the ground is changing public expectations as well. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that most Americans (53 percent) now think “the U.S. will ultimately succeed in achieving its goals” in Iraq. That’s up from 42 percent in the fall of 2007.
Why the improvement? We can thank the “surge.”
A little more than a year ago President Bush announced he would be sending more U.S. troops to Iraq. They deployed over the course of several months, and were all in country by June. It was a bold decision. His party suffered a humiliating defeat in the mid-term elections, and the Iraq Study Group had recommended a troop withdrawal. Plus, opinion polls showed the public had soured on the war.
Still, more American troops flowed into Iraq under a new commander, Gen. David Petraeus, with a new counterinsurgency strategy that puts a premium on protecting Iraqi civilians and dispersing U.S. troops more widely to create areas of security. The results have been breathtaking.
In December 2006, there had been more than 1,600 sectarian killings in Iraq. Within six months that number had been more than cut in half. Before the surge, Anbar province was under al Qaeda’s control. “We haven’t been defeated militarily but we have been defeated politically -- and that’s where wars are won and lost,” one Army officer said in the fall of 2006.
That, too, turned around in just a few months. “I think, in that area, we have turned the corner,” Marine Gen. James Conway told reporters after visiting Anbar in April 2007, barely three months into the surge.
Things turned around fast because the surge convinced many of Iraq’s Sunnis to stop fighting the Iraqi government and join us in fighting al Qaeda.
Now, al Qaeda in Iraq has been decimated as a fighting force. Iraq’s interior ministry announced late last year that three quarters of its terrorist network had been destroyed. But all this progress is, as yet, fragile.
“I did run into anxiety among many Iraqi officials about talk of a precipitous American withdrawal from Iraq,” Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., reported after a recent trip to Iraq. “Regular Iraqis on the street see the vital and critical importance of a durable American presence, at least in the near term. And people understand the American soldier, combined with the cooperation of Sunni and Shia Arabs in this country, is the pathway toward stability and a successful free and democratic Iraq.”
This support is critical, because the United States cannot simply wash its hands of the Middle East, no matter how much we might want to. As we learned on Sept. 11, the oceans no longer protect us against the pathologies of a handful of religious extremists.
The U.S. needs to engage Muslims and encourage them to settle peacefully the differences within their faith. We’re seeing that today in Iraq, where Sunni Muslims increasingly are working with Shia Muslims to put an end to violence. This is the best way forward.
It was five years ago this month that the United States led a coalition into Iraq to, finally, remove Saddam Hussein and defend the international law he’d flouted for decades. In the years since, we’ve enjoyed successes and suffered setbacks. Predictably, opinion polls have moved up and down over the course of the war.
But the bottom line is that the surge is working.
“He conquers who endures,” the Roman poet Persius once wrote. That’s true in Iraq as well.
If we press on in helping to pacify that nation and bringing Muslims together to battle al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, we can make the world a safer, more secure place. A worthwhile goal, to say the least -- even if the news doesn’t make the front page.
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