General David Petraeus was recently interviewed by the BBC:
"Northern Ireland, I think, taught you that very well. My counterparts in your [British] forces really understand this kind of operation... It took a long time, decades," he said.
The question is how can we gradually reduce our forces so we reduce the strain on the army, on the nation and so forth.
"I don't know whether this will be decades, but the average counter insurgency is somewhere around a nine or a 10 year endeavour."
I'm surprised this statement hasn't gotten more play in the media. With all of the focus on the much-anticipated "progress report" coming in September, little attention has been paid to the bigger picture: that any counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq is likely to last at least another 10 years. This reality makes the whole point of measuring progress by September rather irrelevant. Wherever we are in September it will still be at least another 10 years before the insurgency in Iraq is defeated. The question in September won't be whether the surge is working to the point that victory is just around the corner. Instead, the question will be, given what we have seen of the results of the surge so far, do we as a nation want to pursue this strategy, or one similar to it, for at least a decade or more. The answer to that will, of course, be a resounding "no" from both sides of the aisle.
The Northern Ireland analogy is one that I use quite often and I find it interesting that Petraeus has chosen it. As we all know, the Northern Ireland conflict ended with a negotiated solution between the warring parties. One wonders if Petraeus believes that aspect of the Northern Ireland conflict applies to the situation in Iraq. Surely he doesn't believe that Al Qaeda can be reasoned with, but I think it's highly likely that he is at least considering a path towards a negotiated settlement with the various Sunni insurgent groups that are responsible for the majority of the problems in Iraq.
A negotiated peace agreement with the Iraqi insurgent groups will be very difficult to achieve given the fragmented and dysfunctional nature of the current Iraqi government. There simply is no credible or legitimate government that could negotiate such an agreement at this point in time. The Sunnis will no doubt continue to demand an end to the foreign occupation, curbs on expanding federalism, equal distribution of oil profits and a reversal of the onerous deBaathification policies. None of this is likely to occur given the current position of the Shiites who enjoy outright control of the government, police and military. There simply is no compelling reason for them to accommodate the Sunnis at this point in time, and they have 170,000 US troops in country to back up that stance.
Ultimately, what all this means is that evaluation of the success or failure of the surge come September is really irrelevant. The process of political reconciliation has gone nowhere and the Sunni insurgency is in a position to continue their fight for decades. As for Al Qaeda, it seems highly unlikely that Petraeus will announce they have been finished off or that there is any prospect for doing so in the foreseeable future. There are not enough US troops in the country to seal the borders and prevent new recruits from replenishing the ranks of Al Qaeda who've been killed or captured in the country. Therefore, any tactical successes over Al Qaeda are merely short term given the virtually limitless supply of young men in the Arab world who are willing to take up their cause in Iraq.
So the question in September really boils down to this: do we want to keep at this another 10 years or have we had enough already?
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