But now the facts on the ground are entirely different. Sectarian killings, suicide truck bombings, and attacks on U.S. forces and the Iraqi Army and police are down by an order of magnitude. Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) has been tactically defeated in the streets of Baghdad and in the Sunni stronghold of Anbar Province. Roadside-bomb and rocket attacks (which can be deadly to our troops even when they are riding in armored vehicles) from Shiite militias are down markedly. Border crossings by suicide jihadists from Syria have plummeted. The intelligence picture has shifted from night to day as Iraqis by the thousands come forward to identify AQI and criminal Shiite extremists in their communities.
However, we must decide if this inflection point is real. Is it sustainable as we begin our inexorable drawdown and disengagement from the theater?
There are several profound changes taking place in Iraq. The Sunnis who dominated the country in the Baathist era have come to realize that al Qaeda was terrorizing their own community with a malignant and extremist form of Islam. The Sunnis also woke up to the fact that the Americans would eventually leave — and they would be soon out in the cold with little participation in an Iraqi Army or police dominated by Shiites and Kurds.
The “tribal awakening” began a separate kind of surge , this one to put Sunnis into the police and the Army. In addition, the Coalition Forces created armed “concerned local citizen” groups that number some 60,000 to guard neighborhoods. These groups feed enormous amounts of real-time intelligence into the counterterrorism forces and provide security.
The Shiite militia forces of Moqtada al-Sadr have also been maneuvered into a ceasefire that is making peace possible in the major cities. This is a fate Mr. Sadr and his gunmen brought on themselves after carrying out attacks in the Holy City of Najaf, which was widely reported on TV throughout the Arab world. In addition, Coalition special forces are effectively targeting both Shiite terrorists and al Qaeda leaders with intelligence-driven raids.
Finally, the Iraqi Army is now coming online with disciplined and courageous units. They are successfully confronting the thugs and extremists who dominate the streets of Iraq. The police, previously a disaster, have been forcibly retrained, better equipped, and most of their senior leaders replaced. Although corruption, incompetence and inadequate equipment are prevalent, in many neighborhoods Iraqi Security Forces now control the streets.
Brilliant leadership by Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker , and a new counterinsurgency strategy combined with the uncommon valor and creativity of U.S. combat forces, have turned the situation around for now. In the coming months we will withdraw all five “surge brigades” and learn if the Iraqis can hold it together. The jury is out because of a weak and sectarian central government run by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a clumsy Iraqi constitution, and continuing centrifugal forces from a bitterly divided and fearful nation.
We need to press our advantage while it exists. The key to winning the war is to massively build Iraqi Security Forces with the equipment, training and leadership needed to maintain internal order and security as we withdraw. Without security for the population there will never be reconciliation in Iraq. In addition, we must recognize that economic recovery is a prerequisite to success. Congress must support programs to rebuild the electrical, oil, transportation and agricultural systems. Our new diplomatic outreach to Syria, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia must continue unabated.
We are running out of time. The American people have lost faith in this war. Some 34,000 of our sons and daughters have been killed or wounded as we’ve poured $400 billion into the mess. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has begun to heal fissures in the national security process. He is creating transparency with the media, offering respect to Congress, giving initiative to his field combat forces, and leveling with the international community and the American people.
It will probably be two years before we know whether this will work. But there is now a sense of momentum and advantage among our soldiers and our Iraqi allies on the streets of Iraq. And that counts for a lot.
Gen. McCaffrey, a professor of international security studies at West Point, led the 24th Mechanized Infantry Division in the 1991 Gulf War.