Assessing The Surge Three Months Later

It’s been three months since President Bush announced the so-called “surge” plan to increase American troops in Iraq temporarily, with the idea being that they would bring increased stability to the country.

So where do things stand now ? Well, at best, the results are mixed:

BAGHDAD, April 21 — Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said the ongoing increase of nearly 30,000 U.S. troops in the country has achieved “modest progress” but has also met with setbacks such as a rise in devastating suicide bombings and other problems that leave uncertain whether his counterinsurgency strategy will ultimately succeed.

Assessing the first two months of the U.S. and Iraqi plan to pacify the capital, senior American commanders — including Petraeus; Adm. William J. Fallon, head of U.S. forces in the Middle East; Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, commander of military operations in Iraq; and top regional commanders — see mixed results. They said that while an increase in U.S. and Iraqi troops has improved security in Baghdad and Anbar province, attacks have risen sharply elsewhere. Critical now, they said in interviews this week, is for Iraqi leaders to forge the political compromises needed for long-term stability.

The commanders search for signs of success. On Friday night at dusk, Petraeus boarded a helicopter to look for scenes of normalcy and progress from above the maelstrom of the capital.

“On a bad day, I actually fly Baghdad just to reassure myself that life still goes on,” he said, leaning back and propping his legs on the seat in front of him.

Not exactly a reassuring sign of success, especially when car bomb attacks seem to once again be on the rise. The more important question, though, and the true unknown is whether the Iraqi government is truly capable of doing what needs to be done on its end:

Another major concern shared by U.S. military leaders is whether the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is capable of solidifying gains in security as well as making the crucial political compromises needed to achieve peace. “Will the Iraqis generate the capacity in their security forces and in their government to sustain this over time? That’s what keeps me up at night,” Odierno said.

Iraqi leaders “come from narrow political backgrounds . . . but now there is an expectation they will be able to make decisions well beyond the group they represent. This is struggle for them,” Fallon said.

As the Maliki government moves slowly, and patience in the United States wears thin, commanders worry that their window for action is rapidly closing. “We’re trying to somehow speed up the Baghdad clock and put time on the Washington clock. That’s all we can do at the end of the day,” Petraeus said.

Well, politically, I think it’s pretty clear that they have at least until Election Day 2008. The Democrats have demonstrated that they don’t have the political courage to even attempt to cut off funding for the troops. And President Bush — whether you call him courageous, stubborn, or just stupid — is not oging to deviate from his present policy. Whether a year and a half is enough time to fix the mess that is Iraq is, of course, an entirely different question.