The Magazine

Progress, Actually

Things are looking up in Iraq, which is why the Democrats have forgotten about benchmarks.

Apr 21, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 30 • By FREDERICK W. KAGAN
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The last time General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker reported to Congress on the state of the Iraq war, "benchmarks" were all the rage. Congress had established 18 criteria in early 2007 both to pressure the Iraqis and to keep score on their progress. And in September, Congress faulted the Iraqi government for failing to meet many of those measures. Concocting a checklist of laws and actions that would lead to national reconciliation in Iraq was always a fool's errand and misunderstood the complexity of the situation. But having laid down this marker, Congress would want to hear an update, surely. Not so. The word "benchmarks" was scarcely heard last week when Petraeus and Crocker reappeared before Congress. Crocker testified that the Iraqis have actually met about two-thirds of the benchmarks, including four or five of the six key legislative benchmarks and all of the benchmarks measuring their contribution to their own security. In reply, the congressmen who insisted on legislating these benchmarks now say benchmarks are a poor way to measure progress in Iraq.

Their disingenuousness is monumental--but they are right. So by all means, let's look beyond the benchmarks. Let's look instead at the fact that the overwhelming majority of the Sunni Arab community turned against al Qaeda and the Baathist insurgents in 2006 and 2007 and opted for political engagement instead of armed struggle. The Sunni militias who were previously fighting against us and the Iraqi government have been reconstituted as the Sons of Iraq (SOI) and have enlisted in the fight against al Qaeda. Polls show that about 90 percent of them mean to vote in upcoming provincial elections. One of the most overlooked developments of 2007 was the flood of volunteers from Anbar province into the Iraqi Security Forces themselves, not just into the SOIs, or "concerned local citizens," as they were previously called. The behavior of the SOIs in Baghdad during the recent violence has also been instructive: They did not leave their posts, they did not seize the opportunity to kill Shia; they behaved professionally, and helped maintain order at a very fraught moment. The Shia Iraqi government, as a result, has a new sense of the value the Sunni SOIs add in Baghdad and that sense is likely to lead to even greater integration and cooperation.

Now let's look at the Shia side. Since the seating of the Maliki government in May 2006, a constant criticism has been that it is eager to send money to Shia areas and send troops against Sunni fighters, but not the other way round. Well, the Sunni leadership in Anbar province has succeeded in drawing $100 million from the central government while Shia provincial governors in Karbala, Qadisiyah, and Babil complain that they're not getting what they need from Baghdad. Similarly, the Iraqi Security Forces are now fighting with Anbaris against common enemies, and an Iraqi army unit was just deployed from Anbar to Basra to fight against Shia militias. General Petraeus testified that about 20 percent of the Sons of Iraq are Shia, and Maliki has announced new plans to develop SOIs in Shia areas. So much for the notion that SOIs are a militia-in-waiting for the next Sunni takeover. Taking a step back, we can identify an even more important dynamic. In late 2006 and 2007, Shia, Kurds, and the majority of Sunni Arabs formed a political and military bloc to defeat al Qaeda and the Baathist insurgents and negotiate their differences peacefully. In early 2008, Shia, Kurds, and Sunni Arabs strengthened this political bloc while using it to strike against illegal, Iranian-supported Shia militias and terrorists. That is the most important and positive sign of reconciliation of all.

At the same time, Ambassador Crocker testified (and almost everyone who has been watching politics in Baghdad concurs) that there is a new fluidity and willingness to compromise and act politically rather than in a sectarian way, even within the badly flawed Council of Representatives. Last year, the council could not even debate, let alone pass, laws. In February it passed three at once as part of an omnibus logrolling package that would have made any American congressman proud.