Gen. David Petraeus has no intention of doing a victory lap on his way out of Iraq. As he heads off next month to take over the U.S. military's Central Command, in charge of Afghanistan as well as Iraq, he leaves a country on the rebound. People in Baghdad feel so safe they are out on the streets at midnight. The scourge of Al Qaeda in Iraq is a spent force. They've lost Anbar province and Baghdad, where at best they can mount a couple of mostly insignificant attacks a day. They've vacated the Sunni Triangle. Virtually the entire Sunni Arab population has turned against them, and nowadays not a single Sunni imam, politician or tribal leader of note inside the country supports them. So why then don't we just say it: Al Qaeda in Iraq has been defeated.
"You won't find a single military leader in this theater who will say that," says Petraeus, whose counterinsurgency guidance to his troops warns against "premature declarations of success." Petraeus is far too politic to refer to his commander in chief's May 1, 2003, "mission accomplished" declaration, but he's clearly not making that mistake.
Other players are quick to rush in where Petraeus declines to tread. "Al Qaeda is definitely defeated, tactically," says Iraq's national-security adviser, Mowaffaq al-Rubaie, citing intercepted communications in which Al Qaeda in Iraq asked senior Qaeda officials in Pakistan "not to send any more foreign mujahedin," only suicide wannabes. "This is very significant—it means they no longer have any territory to defend." Petraeus says U.S. intelligence confirms the basic point: two months ago, the jihadi influx stopped completely. "They just said, 'Stop bringing in anybody.' Some of that traffic has resumed, but only a trickle," he says.
Doesn't this suggest Al Qaeda is at a tipping point, too weak to disrupt Iraqi lives, much less spark a renewal of sectarian warfare? "Yes, Al Qaeda in Iraq has been significantly diminished, its capability substantially degraded," says Petraeus, "but we assess they remain lethal—what we call the wolf closest to the sled." And, he adds, "every time you start to feel really good, there will be some kind of incident."
Will he take along the lessons learned in Iraq, and perhaps its surge strategy to Afghanistan next? "It's premature to say." On many days now, the violence there is actually higher than in Iraq; something urgently needs to change. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates says he's waiting for Petraeus's assessment before deciding what to do there, but the general is already busily managing expectations. Afghanistan, he says, "will be the longest campaign" in this long war.