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Dead Dogs, Dead Ponies: The Petraeus Show

Pierre Tristam

On Sept. 7 Gen. David Petraeus, commander of the Iraq operation, wrote a letter to U.S. troops detailing, in his words, "what I believe we have - and have not - accomplished" with the troop "surge" in Iraq. Petraeus wants to convey the Bush Administration's message: The "surge" must continue because on the whole it's working more than it's failing. Is it? A mammoth report in the Times (the word count approximates the American death tally in Iraq) answered the question grimly enough. But so did Petraeus. The very words he used to convince Congress to go on with the "surge" prove the bankruptcy of the campaign. Here's a point-by-point analysis of Petraeus' claims:

"Up front, my sense is that we have achieved tactical momentum." Petraeus is right, but the operative word is "tactical." Are U.S. troops able to overwhelm the enemy in battle-by-battle situations? Of course. The tactical advantage of the most massive military in the world has never really been in question. It's the strategic momentum that's in question: Are troops winning hearts and minds? Not quite. Is stability maintained after troops withdraw from a "secured" neighborhood? No. Are U.S. military successes followed by political successes? No.

We are "a long way from the goal line but we do have the ball and we are driving down the field." Petraeus is using a football metaphor in a soccer country. To Americans the war is about holding on to the ball, keeping up the offense, driving "down the field" one down after another. To Iraqi nationalists and the Iraqi insurgency, it's more like soccer: Possession isn't offense. Strategy is - waiting out the opponent, defending, even letting him exhaust himself through possession. The difference is exclusively who scores more. In Iraqi public opinion, Americans are playing the wrong game-and losing.

It's about "Al-Qaeda, associated insurgent groups, and militia extremists." Petraeus has his order wrong. In the Iraqi insurgency, al-Qaeda's influence and foreign fighters come last. As The New York Times reported on Aug. 25, "The military says that 78 percent of attacks against the United States are now carried out by Shiites, not Sunni militants, who had caused the vast majority of the violence in the early years of the war." Al-Qaeda in Iraq is itself reviled and considered an outsider even among most Sunnis. Petraeus is right: It's about "militia extremists." But most are Shiites, and they're biding their time.

It's Sunnis' fault. It's Shiites' fault. It's Saddam's fault. Petraeus makes a curious statement: "All of this takes place in a climate of distrust and fear that stems from the sectarian violence that did so much damage to the fabric of Iraqi society in 2006 and into 2007, not to mention the decades of repression under Saddam's brutal regime." It's as if the American-led invasion that did so much to destabilize the country, along with massive blunders by the Bush Administration in the early days of the war (fighting the war on the cheap with few troops and big firepower, disbanding the Iraqi military, the de-Baathification program) never happened. But those events precipitated the chaos and sectarian violence that followed. Petraeus is projecting a convenient blind spot.

Sectarian violence is "at considerably reduced levels from 8 months ago." If numbers from all six months of the surge are analyzed, including those from June and July, when troop levels peaked, no progress is shown on car-bomb attacks; IED attacks broke a record by exceeding 300 in May, and again in June by nearing 400. July's IED tally was the second-heaviest of the entire war. The monthly civilian death toll remains far higher than in 2003, 2004 and 2005.

"You have taken many of al-Qaeda's former sanctuaries away from them." That's one of Petraeus' most deceptive statements. Al-Qaeda had no foothold in Iraq before the American invasion. It's now one of its battlegrounds. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda has strengthened and expanded its presence elsewhere. The very day Petraeus wrote his letter to troops, CIA Director Michael Hayden was warning "with high confidence that al-Qaeda's central leadership is planning high-impact plots against the American homeland." From where? From al-Qaeda's reconstituted lairs in western Pakistan, where it operates with impunity.

Insurgents "continue to sustain losses that are two to three times our losses." An irrelevant and callous statement. The American casualty rate is at its highest level in 2007. More to the point, The estimated number of insurgents keeps rising. The Brookings Institution estimated that number at 20,000 in June 2006. In August 2007, the figure was put at 70,000. And that's just for Sunni insurgents.

Finally, here's a Petraeus unplugged, in his own words: "There are reasons for optimism.... Equipment is being delivered. Training is on track and increasing in capacity. Infrastructure is being repaired. Command and control structures and institutions are being reestablished. Most important, Iraqi security forces are in the fight. Progress has also been made in police training. ... Considerable progress is also being made in the reconstruction and refurbishing of infrastructure for Iraq's security forces.... Momentum has gathered in recent months. With strong Iraqi leaders out front and with continued coalition -- and now NATO -- support, this trend will continue." And when did he speak those words? Three years ago, in a Sept. 26, 2004 OpEd for the Washington Post. Petraeus, of course, used that "momentum" word again in his most recent letters to troops. Some momentum.

Petraeus isn't analyzing Iraq. He's not even addressing his troops. He's spinning the political balance in the United States at President Bush's behest, with a report written line by line by White House schemers hopped up on Oval Office hubris and caffeine from some coffee shop on Pennsylvania Avenue. Keep that in mind as you watch Petraeus invent a new lease on folly - and Congress yet again buy in. Pierre Tristam is a News-Journal editorial writer. Reach him at or through his personal Web site at .

© 2007 Pierre Tristam

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