“Viewed from Iraq…the political debate in Washington is surreal”

Brookings Institution scholars Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack have published a “read the whole thing” quality op-ed in today’s New York Times on the situation in Iraq. Pollack co-authored a Brookings institute paper titled “Waning Chances for Stability in Iraq” as recently as February, so this author combo cannot be considered cheerleaders for either the Bush administration or the war. This is from their opening paragraph…

The Bush administration has over four years lost essentially all credibility. Yet now the administration’s critics, in part as a result, seem unaware of the significant changes taking place.

Three items worth taking special note of in this article…
1. Much of the recent focus has been on America’s growing success in al-Anbar against al-Qaeda units because of co-operation from local Sunni Sheiks. O’Hanlon and Pollack, however, note that the popular tide is also beginning to turn against the Shi’ite militias that have been destabilizing Southern Iraq…
In war, sometimes it’s important to pick the right adversary, and in Iraq we seem to have done so. A major factor in the sudden change in American fortunes has been the outpouring of popular animus against Al Qaeda and other Salafist groups, as well as (to a lesser extent) against Moktada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army.
2. O’Hanlon and Pollack are yet another source who note the dramatic improvement in the work being done by American Embedded Provincial Reconstruction Teams…
Another surprise was how well the coalition’s new Embedded Provincial Reconstruction Teams are working. Wherever we found a fully staffed team, we also found local Iraqi leaders and businessmen cooperating with it to revive the local economy and build new political structures. Although much more needs to be done to create jobs, a new emphasis on microloans and small-scale projects was having some success where the previous aid programs often built white elephants.
…as well as the continuing excellence of American soldiers who step into the breech when PRTs cannot be fully staffed…
In some places where we have failed to provide the civilian manpower to fill out the reconstruction teams, the surge has still allowed the military to fashion its own advisory groups from battalion, brigade and division staffs. We talked to dozens of military officers who before the war had known little about governance or business but were now ably immersing themselves in projects to provide the average Iraqi with a decent life.
It’s now beyond obvious that a major mistake in planning for Iraq was not readying PRTs to deploy across the country the moment a region was secured.
3. The creation of professional Iraqi security forces that can defend their own country is the biggest bottleneck to a responsible withdrawal. Progress is being made, but there is still much work to be done…
All across the country, the dependability of Iraqi security forces over the long term remains a major question mark.
But for now, things look much better than before. American advisers told us that many of the corrupt and sectarian Iraqi commanders who once infested the force have been removed. The American high command assesses that more than three-quarters of the Iraqi Army battalion commanders in Baghdad are now reliable partners (at least for as long as American forces remain in Iraq).
In addition, far more Iraqi units are well integrated in terms of ethnicity and religion. The Iraqi Army’s highly effective Third Infantry Division started out as overwhelmingly Kurdish in 2005. Today, it is 45 percent Shiite, 28 percent Kurdish, and 27 percent Sunni Arab.
In the past, few Iraqi units could do more than provide a few “jundis” (soldiers) to put a thin Iraqi face on largely American operations. Today, in only a few sectors did we find American commanders complaining that their Iraqi formations were useless — something that was the rule, not the exception, on a previous trip to Iraq in late 2005.

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