Feature

Iraq: Giving Petraeus his due

Gen. David Petraeus, who just turned over command in Baghdad to his deputy, Gen. Ray Odierno, neutralized the Sunni insurgency and dramatically reduced violence, enabling the Iraqis to make political progress.

Gen. David Petraeus turned over command in Baghdad to his deputy, Gen. Ray Odierno, last week, said David Ignatius in The Washington Post, but only after having accomplished something “astonishing.” When Petraeus took over in Iraq in 2007, the country was a sectarian bloodbath, “hurtling toward civil war.” Even his fellow military leaders “had begun to think, deep down, that this war was unwinnable.” But Petraeus neutralized the Sunni insurgency and dramatically reduced violence. Over his 20-month command, Petraeus and President George W. Bush “didn’t win in Iraq, but they created the possibility of an honorable exit.”

The increased security in Iraq has already borne fruit, said The Wall Street Journal in an editorial. The Iraqi parliament “just undid the biggest political knot in the country,” striking a deal to hold regional elections in 14 provinces by January. This is further proof that the surge enabled Iraqis to “feel secure enough to make political progress.” So where are the apologies owed to Petraeus for enduring months of “character assassination”? asked Jonathan Gurwitz in the San Antonio Express-News. Last year, Sen. Joe Biden said Petraeus’ strategy was “dead flat wrong,” and the antiwar group MoveOn.org famously accused “General Betray Us” of “cooking the books for the White House.” Even Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama—who adamantly opposed the surge—now concedes it “succeeded beyond our wildest dreams.” Isn’t it time for surge critics to thank Petraeus for a “job well done”?

Fair enough—Petraeus deserves enormous credit for turning Iraq around, said Linda Robinson in The Washington Post. But the bigger question is: How did he do it? It wasn’t through the extra troops of the surge alone. “We cannot kill our way to victory,” he said. Instead, Petraeus used his head. For the first time since the war began in 2003, Petraeus addressed the “underlying dynamic” of the conflict—the rage and alienation of the Sunni population in a country suddenly ruled by Shiites. Petraeus engaged with influential Sunni leaders, brought basic services to their regions, and empowered battalion commanders to work out political deals with local tribes. The Sunni alliance with foreign-born al Qaida terrorists “had always been an uneasy marriage of convenience, and it broke up when Petraeus made a better offer.” Petraeus’ “willingness to grapple with Iraqi politics made all the difference.” If the next general—or president—doesn’t understand that, “the extraordinary success of the last 18 months is likely to unravel.”

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