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What the NIE Really Says

We're making progress on Iraq.

12:00 AM, Aug 24, 2007 • By FREDERICK W. KAGAN
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The second question is: how long do we have before failure to achieve national reconciliation begins to undermine local, grassroots movements? That question can't be answered either, of course, but there are some points worth noting. The grassroots movement has developed rapidly and spontaneously, and it continues to spread rapidly and spontaneously. It has now grown into important movements in almost all of Central Iraq. The Sunni Arab community may continue to be fragmented, as the NIE notes, but what is new is the appearance of groups of local Sunni leaders who are both willing to negotiate with the Coalition and able to deliver on their promises. This means the emergence of a new Sunni leadership that is likely to press its demands and desires on recalcitrant Sunni politicians in the Parliament, who were selected before the Sunni Arab community had decided to participate actively in Iraqi politics. The NIE notes dourly that "Broadly accepted political compromises required for sustained security, long-term political progress, and economic development are unlikely to emerge unless there is a fundamental shift in the factors driving Iraqi political and security developments." But there is such a shift underway--a tectonic shift within the community that had been the most committed to undermining the political process. And the shift is accelerating--more sheikhs and young Sunni men are negotiating with U.S. forces and volunteering for the ISF every day. There is no sign that the movement is being undermined at this point by the lack of national political progress.

The NIE is at best a snapshot of the current situation in Iraq. It should be a surprise to no one that significant problems remain, since neither the administration nor any of the supporters of this new strategy imagined or suggested that all of Iraq's problems would be solved by September 15th. The questions to ask are: Has the new strategy succeeded in accomplishing the goals it set out to achieve at this point? And are the trends positive or negative? The answer to the first is: definitely. The initial goals of the surge were to stabilize and then reduce sectarian and terrorist violence in Iraq, and that is happening. The answer to the second is: the trends are mostly positive. The NIE and many observers predict with confidence that security will continue to improve in Iraq, and the current trend of the grassroots movement toward reconciliation is both positive and important. There's no way to know for sure if or when the Iraqi Government will make the necessary national-level moves to secure the progress made to date, but the progress itself is unquestionable.

Finally, let's recall the purpose of this discussion. America's leadership will decide in a few weeks whether or not to continue with the strategy that has brought this progress. The NIE is unequivocal on that point:

"We assess that changing the mission of Coalition forces from a primarily counterinsurgency and stabilization role to a primary combat support role for Iraqi forces and counterterrorist operations to prevent AQI from establishing a safehaven would erode security gains achieved thus far Recent security improvements in Iraq, including success against AQI, have depended significantly on the close synchronization of conventional counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations. A change of mission that interrupts that synchronization would place security improvements at risk."

Critics of the current strategy can use parts of the NIE to raise concerns about the political process in Iraq. Using those concerns to justify abandoning the current strategy, as the NIE itself clearly states, will jeopardize the enormous progress already made against al Qaeda in Iraq, which remains a potent threat that could reconstitute itself rapidly if we lifted the pressure from it. The fact that we have achieved a great deal without yet achieving all of our objectives is not grounds for abandoning a successful strategy. It is grounds for continuing it.

Frederick W. Kagan is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He is the author of Finding the Target: The Transformation of the American Military (Encounter).