The news on the military front in Iraq continues to improve thanks to a new commander's new strategy, aka The Surge, and to the continued courage and competence of the troops entrusted with executing it. At last they seem to have a commander worthy of them. Every wartime president struggles to find his Grant. George W. Bush's may be named Petraeus.
Kimberly Kagan of the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War ran the numbers the other day:
"The total number of enemy attacks has fallen for four consecutive months, and has now reached levels last seen before the February 2006 Samarra mosque bombing. IED explosions have plummeted to late 2004 levels. Iraqi civilian casualties, which peaked at 3,000 in the month of December 2006, are now below 1,000 for the second straight month. The number of Coalition soldiers killed in action has fallen for five straight months and is now at the lowest level since February 2004. These trends persisted through Ramadan, when violence had typically spiked."
However encouraging, raw numbers can scarcely convey the depth of the sacrifice being made by American troops - and their families. Every American killed or maimed is a blow to the heart. But if the heart doesn't break, if the American will remains strong, defeat is not only avoidable but victory possible.
How? They tell a story about Stonewall Jackson, that lemon-sucking Iron Presbyterian who was Lee's right arm, maybe right brain. As he rode through the smoking ruins of a little town in Virginia that the Yankees had plundered, devastated and torched, he was approached by a young private. "General," the young trooper asked, "How are we going to stop this?" To which Thomas Jonathan Jackson replied with his usual, acerbic economy: "Kill 'em. Kill 'em all."
There's an even more effective way. It is David Petraeus' way: Make them allies. Sunni tribesmen, formerly the best source of enemy recruits, continue to change sides. And with every suicide bombing, al-Qaida continues to lose whatever popular support it still has.
Al-Qaida will continue to wreak havoc as best or rather as worst as it can, but its back is broken in Baghdad, in Anbar, around the country. It is being compressed into tighter and tighter corners. Volunteer forces are springing up to clear their towns and villages of outsiders like al-Qaida.
Town by town, a separate peace is being worked out between American forces and the Sunnis of Iraq. And not just peace but an alliance. What better way to destroy an enemy than by making him a friend?
David Petraeus wrote the manual on counter-insurgency strategy, or at least edited it, and now his troops are following it with encouraging and impressive results. (If only our old ally, Iraq's Shi'a-dominated government, were as cooperative as our new Sunni friends.)
Not just Americans in uniform but those in the Foreign Service are making the Surge work. FSOs (Foreign Service Officers) are spreading throughout the country to cement local alliances and set up joint reconstruction projects. Don't be misled by that disgraceful show at Foggy Bottom the other day, when some of the louder mouths in our diplomatic corps objected - vociferously, shamefully - to being assigned to Iraq.
Meanwhile, their counterparts already in Iraq are making friends and influencing sheiks. Even in Washington, the number of American diplomats volunteering for Iraq has shot up, making it unnecessary to order them to go there.
The news is encouraging not just on the military front: Tens of thousands of Iraqis are returning to their country as security improves. The flow of refugees is reversing as hopes of normalcy begin to return. This long, long struggle may be turning around. What ever happened to all that talk about a civil war about to erupt?
But just as in Vietnam 40 years ago, this war could be lost at home. Democratic leaders of both the House and Senate are holding up some $50 billion for the armed forces unless the president agrees to start withdrawing some troops from Iraq immediately and all of them from combat by the end of next year. That's not an exit strategy; it's just an exit. But what great good news for the enemy: Just hold out that long and the Americans won't be a problem.
If the president (and commander-in-chief of the armed forces) vetoes the bill requiring him to reduce troop levels, says Harry Reid, the Democratic majority leader in the Senate, "then the president won't get his $50 billion." And neither will the troops. Nancy Pelosi made much the same threat earlier in a Democratic caucus.
However encouraging the news from Iraq, the news from Washington grows ever grimmer. Divided we fall.