[Upate at the end.]
There are clearer signs that Iraq is becoming less violent, perhaps sustainably so. Civilian casualties are one measure for gauging the success or failure of a counterinsurgency operation, and they have dropped for the third consecutive month.
(Hat tip to Engram for the graphs.) The three-month moving average shows a similar trend.
The source for the above is the Iraq Coalition Casualty Count, which takes its data from independent media reports. Al Qaeda will still get away with spectacular suicide bombings, but the above doesn't look like statistical noise to me. It's a noticeable trend, and it doesn't take the willing suspension of disbelief to see it. For one thing, al Qaeda is losing its gambit. Here's what Strategypage says:
Al Qaeda appears to be moving its main effort to Afghanistan, after operations in Iraq, North Africa, Somalia and Europe (not to mention North America) have all largely failed. But continued Taliban activity in Pakistan and Afghanistan has provided al Qaeda with one area where they might be able to have a little success. But that will require a change in methods. In the rest of the world, al Qaeda has caused itself lots of problems by using terror tactics against Moslems (who refused to support the terrorists). This approach worked, for a while, but eventually the Moslem victims had enough and turned on al Qaeda. There have already been some clashes in Pakistan, between angry tribesmen, and al Qaeda groups that tried to use force to get what they wanted. To many of the Pushtun tribes along the Pakistani-Afghan frontier, the al Qaeda gunmen are seen as haughty foreigners, who look down on Pushtuns, and are quick to use force on anyone who gets in their way.
To take advantage of this, U.S. forces are talking to Afghan tribes about opposing al Qaeda, and letting the Americans help them do it. The news of what al Qaeda did in Iraq gets around, as does the eventual angry reaction of Iraqis. The U.S. is offering the potentially anti-al Qaeda tribes weapons, equipment and other aid. This might work, as the Afghan tribes are amenable to gifts, especially from someone they have shared interests with.
When 40 senior al Qaeda members are killed or captured in one month, it's time to leave. Al Qaeda has irretrievably lost, in my opinion. For another, Muqtada al Sadr have made threatening noises, but he and his Mahdi militias are still on the sidelines. The violence on the Shiite side has lessened considerably, and Sunni insurgent groups are working with the coalition (for the most part). Looking ahead, it's easy to foresee increased tensions between Sunni tribes as well as intraparty squabbles between Shiite groups (as well as lots of other squabbles), but for the last several months, there are few signs of a civil war, intractable or otherwise. In concert with fewer civilian casualties, U.S. troop casualties are also lower despite relatively high troop numbers and despite continuing kinetic operations and despite the fact that more soldiers are on the streets instead of parked in forward operating bases.
More below the fold...
I don't have other graphs because Engram doesn't, and I'm shamelessly cutting and pasting from his work. The fewer numbers of troop casualties are also meaningful because they're an indicator of lessening violence and that our forces are gathering better intelligence. For example, when there was a terrorist blast at a Baghdad pet market a couple of weeks ago, the Iranian-backed militants were caught quickly.
Speaking of Iran, the threat of their developing atomic bombs has lessened, but the threat of their meddling in Iraqi affairs has not. Bill Roggio:
The Long War Journal has spoken to several mid-level and senior US military and intelligence officers, all of whom have declined to go on the record due to the sensitive nature of the Iranian issue. Based on these conversations as well as other information, The Long War Journal has learned the nature of the Qods Force operations in Iraq and how they move resources into the country.
Iran began to extend its influence in Iraq immediately after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in April 2003. Through the Qods Force, Iran's external wing of the Revolutionary Guards Corps, Iran immediately moved money, weapons, and operatives inside Iraq to influence the various fractured Shia political parties and militias.
Iran worked through various militias such as the Mahdi Army, the Badr Corps, the Qazali Network, the Shebaini Network, and a host of other surrogates to attack Coalition forces, Iraqi Security Forces, and rival political leaders. When groups like the Badr Corps and its political backer the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq broke from the Iranian sphere of influence and integrated with the government, the Iranian-backed militias, which have since been designated the Special Groups, began attacking them as well.
To streamline operations in Iraq, the Qods Force established a unified command, called the Ramazan Corps, and split Iraq into three roughly geographical regions.
The picture of Qods Force's command structure and operations in Iraq became clearer since US forces began heavily targeting the Iranian networks in late December 2006. Several high-level Qods Force officers – including Qais Qazali, Azhar al Dulaimi, Ali Mussa Daqduq, and Mahmud Farhadi – have been captured in Irbil, Baghdad, and several unnamed locations.
During these raids, Coalition forces seized computers and computer drives, documentation, journals, and other evidence that reinforced information obtained through the interrogations of the Qods Force officers. While military and intelligence sources would not discuss other methods, communications intercepts and satellite imagery are also likely to play a key role in understanding the Qods Force's activities in Iraq.
Critical information about the structure of the Ramazan Corps comes from the Iranian operatives captured in Iraq. Qais Qazali was the leader of the Qazali Network, which was responsible for several high-profile attacks on US and Iraqi forces. Qais, along with his brother Laith Qazali, and several other members of the Qazali Network were captured in early 2007. Azhar al Dulaimi, also a member of the Qazali network, was the tactical commander behind the attack on the Karbala Provincial Joint Coordination Center, which resulted in the kidnapping and subsequent murder of five US soldiers. Ali Mussa Daqduq, who served as the chief of guard to Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and was the commander of Hezbollah's special forces, was tasked by Iran to organize the Special Groups and "rogue" Mahdi Army cells along the lines of Lebanese Hezbollah. Mahmud Farhadi was the Qods Force officer in charge of the Zafr Command, one of the three units subordinate to the Ramazan Corps.
Multinational Forces Iraq learned that Iran set up the Ramazan Corps as a sophisticated command structure to coordinate military, intelligence, terrorist, diplomatic, religious, ideological, propaganda, and economic operations. "This Corps is responsible for most of the Qods Force operations in Iraq," said Major General Kevin Bergner, the spokesman for Multinational Forces Iraq, during a briefing in Baghdad on October 3.
The Ramazan Corps is based out of the Ramazan Command Center in Tehran, but information obtained by The Long War Journal indicates significant elements have forward deployed to Mehran on the border to coordinate activities.
The Ramazan Corps is split into three separate commands – Nasr, Zafar, and Fajr – each covering a roughly geographical area in Iraq.
The Long War Journal confirmed this information with a spokesman at Multinational Forces Iraq, which was hesitant to provide additional information on the Ramazan Corps. "At this particular time MNF-I is only prepared to confirm the names of the three commands that are subordinate to Ramazan Corps and that [Mahmudi] Farhadi is the Commander of the Zafr Command," said Lieutenant Commander Kevin S. Anderson.
The Nasr Command is based in Marivan in the Iranian north and deals with operations in the Kurdish regions and portions of Diyala province. The Zafar Command is based in Mehran in central Iran, and deals with operations in central Iraq, including Baghdad, Najaf, Karbala, Babil, Wasit, and portions of Diyala province.
The Fajr Command is based in Ahvaz in the south, although information obtained by The Long War Journal indicated command elements have moved forward to bases in Khorramshahr and Shalamcheh to direct operations. The Fajr Command directs operations in Basrah, Dhi Qhar, Maysan, and Muthanna.
Inside Iraq, the city of Amarah in Maysan province serves as a Qods Force / Ramazan Corps command and control center as well as one of the major distribution points for weapons in southern Iraq.
The Ramazan Corps' operations begin inside Iran and flow through several points of entry along the border to destinations inside Iraq. Once inside Iraq, weapons are stockpiled and then distributed to local cells to conduct attacks on the primary and secondary targets of opportunity. The Long War Journal has obtained detailed information on the Qods Force ratlines in the central and southern regions.
Inside Iran, Qods Force manufactures and distributes weapons, provides training for Iraqi recruits, then facilitates the movement of weapons and fighters inside Iraq. Iraqi recruits, largely radicalized Shia from Muqtada al Sadr's Mahdi Army, are sent to Iran for what one US military officer described as "basic jihadi training." The recruits receive several weeks of training with small arms and, depending on the units assigned, mortars and the use of explosively formed penetrators, or EFPs.
Several US military sources stated the EFPs are indeed "manufactured" inside Iran at "production lines" in the Iranian hubs of Ahvaz and Mehran. One officer stated the EFPs should not be considered IEDs, as they are professionally manufactured landmines.
"The EFP is not an IED, in that there is nothing improvised about them. They are manufactured in factories, mostly I believe in Iran," said the US military officer who is familiar with both the Sunni and Shia variants of IEDs used in Iraq. "The true IED can be put together by small insurgent cells with little or no support. The EFP indicates a large logistical network."
In the south and center, recruits and weapons are smuggled through four points of entry. In the central regions, the Mehran point of entry in the central province of Wasit is controlled by the Zafar Command. This is the primary conduit of Iranian weapons into Baghdad. The Al Sheeb entry at Maysan province and the Majnun and Shalamcheh entry points at Basrah province are fed by the Fajar Command based out of Ahvaz.
After being smuggled through the border crossings, Iranian weapons are moved to what are described as "strategic distribution hubs" in the cities of Badrah, Al Kut, Amarah, Qurnah, and Basrah. From these distribution hubs, weapons stocks are then moved forward to "tactical distribution hubs" in Hillah, Diwaniyah, Al Fajr, Samawah, and Nasiriyah.
After the weapons are moved to the strategic distribution hubs, they are warehoused for later use. From strategic hubs, the weapons are distributed to the tactical distribution hubs. From these tactical hubs, the weapons are then distributed to local cells for attacks on US troops, Iraqi Security Forces, and rival political and militia leaders as needed.
Baghdad is considered strategic center of gravity for EFP and mortar strikes. The Iranians believe they can influence events decisively by attacking Coalition and Iraqi targets in and around Baghdad. Iranian-made mortars and larger rockets are fired regularly at the massive Victory complex south of Baghdad where the US military maintains a large presence. US and Iraqi military patrols are targeted by EFPs inside Baghdad.
Iraqi and Coalition forces and rival political groups are targets for the Iranian-backed terror groups. The Ramazan Corps views the south as a means to shape and influence operations in and around Baghdad.
The cities of Diwaniyah, Nasiriyah, and Basrah are the primary target locations in the south. Diwaniyah is fed by caches in Al Fajr; Nasiriyah is fed by the caches in Amarah, Qurnah, and Basrah.
I excerpted quite a bit of the post because it's new information and it looks newsworthy.
Iraqis are seeing the improved security situation and are voting with their feet. There are more telltale signs that more Iraqis are returning home than leaving, and the government is now becoming concerned that a large influx will have destabilizing effects:
Iraq's government acknowledged Tuesday that it cannot handle a massive return of refugees, as the U.N. announced a $11 million relief package to help the most vulnerable Iraqi families trickling back to their war-ravaged homeland.
Sunni Arabs ended a yearlong political boycott Tuesday in Kirkuk — the hub of Iraq's northern oil fields — under a cooperation pact that marked a bold attempt at unity before a planned referendum on control of the strategic region.
The Sunni-Kurdish deal — urged by U.S. diplomats — could also move ahead other reconciliation bids demanded by Washington but stalled by disputes that include sharing oil wealth and compromising with Sunnis who backed Saddam Hussein's Baath party.
Nationally, the impasse in the Iraqi government is not much more gridlocked than our own national government. It'll take time to hammer out de-Baathification, oil revenue sharing and power sharing, and it's clear that the earlier political benchmarks were too ambitious timingwise.
In terms of our own politics, Republicans shouldn't get too triumphant because the situation is still fragile. But many Democrats are seeing the improved situation and are changing tack. Too bad Harry Reid didn't get the memo.
As I see it, the Nevada Senator is invested in American defeat in Iraq. A quagmire there will win him more Democratic seats in the Senate, which explains why he said three weeks ago that "it's not getting better; it's getting worse." It explains why he said last April that "as long as we follow the President's path in Iraq, the war is lost," demanding a "change of course" barely two months after Bush changed course. As Media Matters also noted, Reid also said the following in a press conference: "This war is lost, and that the surge is not accomplishing anything, as indicated by the extreme violence in Iraq yesterday." What was that "extreme violence"? It was a series of four suicide bombings in Baghdad that killed at least 183. Harry Reid was so influenced by these events that he declared the war "lost", surrendering to al Qaeda without even apparently being aware of it. Liberals may like him, but to me, he is a detestable politician. Am I accusing him of being unpatriotic? No. I'm convinced that he believes we've already lost and I'm convinced that he believes that what's best for America is more Democrats in Congress.
To cap off an already long post, Michael O'Hanlon has some observations:
Rarely in U.S. history has a political party diagnosed a major failure in the country's approach to a crucial issue of the day, led a national referendum on the failing policy, forced a change in that policy that led to major substantive benefits for the nation — and then categorically refused to take any credit whatsoever for doing so.
This is, of course, the story of the Democrats and the Iraq war over the past 13 months. Without a Democratic takeover of the Congress in 2006, there is little chance that President Bush would have acknowledged his Iraq policy to be failing, and that Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker would have been accorded the resources and the policy latitude needed to radically improve the situation on the ground.
Democrats were not the authors of the surge and in fact generally opposed it. But without their pressure, it probably never would have happened. We now have a realistic chance, not of victory, but of what my fellow Brookings scholar Ken Pollack and I call sustainable stability. Violence rates have dropped by half to two-thirds in the course of 2007, the lowest level in years. Iraq is still very unstable, but it has a chance.
Democrats should change course. Rather than demand an end to the operation no matter what, they should continue to keep up the pressure for positive results in Iraq. They can retain their anti-war stance, emphasizing that their default position is that U.S. troops should soon come home absent continued major progress. The surge was never designed as just a military operation; it was intended to create political space for Iraqis to forge reconciliation with each other across sectarian lines. Since that is for the most part not yet happening, it is perfectly reasonable for the Democrats to demand more as a condition for continued funding.
The way to do this is to tie funding for Iraq operations to further progress by Iraqi leaders on their nation's political front. Release of our money should be partly contingent on progress on the so-called benchmarks in this year's funding bill — reforming the de-Baathification process to allow amnesty for lower-level former Baathists, expunging extremist and militia leaders from key government jobs and the security forces, passing a hydrocarbon law, moving to provincial elections and creating a provincial powers act. But we should add other stipulations to the list as well, some already raised by the Iraq Study Group in 2006.
O'Hanlon has a punchlist in his USA Today article, and I would add another item: that enough Iraqi security forces are sufficiently trained so that required U.S. troop reductions can take place without adversely affecting security. We're scheduled to have 30,000 come home by next spring, and Iraqis (reinforced by U.S. embeds) will need to step up.
Disclaimers: I don't think we are winning or that we have "turned the corner" in Iraq, but nor am I convinced that Iraq is "irretrievably lost". I believe the current surge strategy is the best plan available. It appears to be bearing fruit, but a lot needs to happen politically. The COIN plan may well have been implemented too late, and it's likely that our manpower levels are too low, but I'm giving the plan 'til year end before I make a judgment on whether we should stick with the current strategy or opt for Plan B (orderly, phased withdrawal of American troops). As it is, I'm leaning toward sticking with the current strategy. In their September testimony before Congress, the Petraeus-Crocker team bought themselves a Friedman unit, so it looks like the current strategy is going to last at least through March 2008.
Update: The Washington Post piece by Gen. John Bastiste and Lt. Pete Hegseth is relevant:
We believe America can and must rally around five fundamental tenets: First, the United States must be successful in the fight against worldwide Islamic extremism. We have seen this ruthless enemy firsthand, and its global ambitions are undeniable. This struggle, the Long War, will probably take decades to prosecute. Failure is not an option.
Second, whether or not we like it, Iraq is central to that fight. We cannot walk away from our strategic interests in the region. Iraq cannot become a staging ground for Islamic extremism or be dominated by other powers in the region, such as Iran and Syria. A premature or precipitous withdrawal from Iraq, without the requisite stability and security, is likely to cause the violence there -- which has decreased substantially but is still present -- to cascade into an even larger humanitarian crisis.
Third, the counterinsurgency campaign led by Gen. David Petraeus is the correct approach in Iraq. It is showing promise of success and, if continued, will provide the Iraqi government the opportunities it desperately needs to stabilize its country. Ultimately, however, these military gains must be cemented with regional and global diplomacy, political reconciliation, and economic recovery -- tools yet sufficiently utilized. Today's tactical gains in Iraq -- while a necessary pre-condition for political reconciliation -- will crumble without a deliberate and comprehensive strategy.
Fourth, our strategy in fighting the Long War must address Iran. Much has been made this week of the intelligence judgments that Iran has stopped its weapons program. No matter what, Iran must not be permitted to become a nuclear power. All options should be exhausted before we use military force, but force, nonetheless, should never be off the table. Diplomatic efforts -- from a position of strength, both regionally and globally -- must be used to engage our friends and coerce our enemies to apply pressure on the Iranian regime.
Fifth, our military capabilities need to match our national strategy. Our military is stretched thin and will be hard-pressed to maintain its current cycle of deployments. At this critical juncture, we cannot afford to be weak. Numbers and capacity matter.
Batiste is one of the six generals whose career was cut short by Donald Rumsfeld, and he has been a longtime critic of Bush and our venture in Iraq. Hegseth is on the other side of the ledger. When two ex-soldiers such as these can find this much common ground, it's worth taking notice.