Despite Gains, Petraeus Cautious About Iraq

Gen. David Petraeus has no intention of doing a victory lap on his way out of Iraq. So when his aides proposed a valedictory interview with NEWSWEEK, they made it clear the theme would not pick up from our 2004 cover, "Can This Man Save Iraq?" As "the boss" (which is what his subordinates call him) heads off next month to take over the U.S. military's Central Command, which is in charge of Afghanistan, as well as Iraq, there would be none of this, "So Did This Man Save Iraq?" No surprise there, from a military leader wise enough to quote Seneca in his guidance to the troops and media-savvy enough to warn them, "Don't put lipstick on a pig."

OK, instead we'll talk about Al Qaeda in Iraq. 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—which was not the case even a year ago. While they're still duking it out in the northern provinces of Nineveh and Diyala, the territory AQI can operate in is a tiny fraction of what it was. Their situation is so grim that foreign jihadis are looking for other stomping grounds, and Al Qaeda's top leadership has turned its attention to Pakistan and Afghanistan. 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.

"You could be the first, general."

"Yeah, I could, but I won't be."

"At least can't we say 'strategically defeated'?"

"We'll leave that to the academics. [U.S. Ambassador Ryan] Crocker and I explicitly, from day one, together, said that we have got to be coldly realistic and not let our enthusiasms creep into our assessments ... [Success] is still not self-sustaining; there is still a degree of fragility to it, and it could be reversed."

As the general's counterinsurgency guidance puts it, under the rubric "Manage Expectations": "Avoid premature declarations of success." And another of his bon mots (the Iraq War is littered with them): "Enemies get a vote too." He is far too politic to refer to the commander in chief's May 1, 2003, declaration of "Mission accomplished." But Petraeus acknowledged that this policy of modesty in the face of success is very much informed by our premature victory ejaculations of previous years (before he took charge, of course). "The champagne bottle remains in the back of the refrigerator," he says. "When you've been in Iraq for as long as actually both of us have, coming up on four years, you're a little less prone to get too excited too quickly."

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. "As a tangible organization it is not any more around, just isolated pockets with no connection between them." Recently, Rubaie says, intelligence agencies intercepted communications between Al Qaeda in Iraq and senior Al Qaeda officials in Pakistan. "They asked them not to send any more foreign mujahedin, only suicide bombers. This is very significant—it means they no longer have any territory to defend." Petraeus as well confirmed intelligence intercepts along those lines, and said at one point two months ago the influx stopped completely. "They just said, 'Stop bringing in anybody'," apparently because the insurgents were too beleaguered to handle them. Some of that traffic has resumed, but on the order of 20 a month, Petraeus said—compared to hundreds a month previously.

In what was its birthplace, its happiest recruiting ground and its symbolic redoubt, Anbar province, including the cities of Ramadi and Fallujah, AQI's defeat is even more evident. "Al Qaeda in Iraq is the laughingstock among their extremist brethren now," says U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Tony Barrett, in charge of intelligence in Fallujah, noting the Marines haven't come across a foreign jihadi since last year. "They don't want to come here because they're losing." Sheik Talib Hasnawi is one of the leaders of the large Abu Issa tribe, which is concentrated across the Euphrates River from Fallujah and which were big Al Qaeda in Iraq supporters. "Eighty percent of my tribe was with Al Qaeda," the sheik says, while treating a group of American diplomats and Marines to dinner in the garden of his riverside villa. "Now 100 percent are against them. They'll never come back, they killed too many good people."

To be sure, Al Qaeda's terrorists do still occasionally manage to wreak havoc, as they did in Karmah, outside Fallujah, on June 26, when a suicide-vest bomber dressed in a police uniform got into a meeting of local sheiks with the U.S. military. The butcher's bill: three Marines, including a battalion and a company commander, and 26 sheiks. Significantly, though, Karmah's municipal government went right back to work with a new council of sheiks, and a cell of 18 AQI activists were rolled up within a week. Perhaps more significantly, virtually all of Al Qaeda's dwindling number of attacks have been suicide bombers—and they're so hard up for paradise-seeking fanatics that now 70 percent of them are women, an embarrassing dependence for ideologues who wouldn't even let a woman drive a car. And suicide bombers are virtually their only weapon, and even that has usually been less effective—massive car bombs with hundreds of pounds of explosives are rare now, and the occasional IEDs are amateurish, more often than not detected before detonation. "We haven't seen a complex attack [involving ambush along with bombing] in months now," Barrett said.

So wouldn't the general agree that a tipping point has been reached, then, in which Al Qaeda in Iraq is so weak that it no longer has the capability to affect how Iraqis live, much less spark a renewal of sectarian warfare? This is the first summer that Iraqis have returned to their traditional means of beating the unbearable heat: shopping and socializing late at night, often well past midnight. Insurance rates for flights landing in Baghdad have halved; a five-star hotel is planned in the Green Zone and another in the Red Zone. "There's a whole host of these [indicators]," Petraeus says. "Yes, Al Qaeda in Iraq has been significantly diminished, its capability substantially degraded," he says. "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. There will be a suicide-vest attack; there will be a car bomb attack or what have you."

Petraeus is careful not to credit all the progress to the surge of U.S. troops in 2007. The sea change came last year from a series of movements now known as the Awakening, when Sunnis, organizing around traditional tribal leaders, decided to turn on Al Qaeda as "an organization that embraces an extremist ideology, employs indiscriminate violence, and practices oppressive social customs," in the general's words. One of those customs was a ban on smoking. "That was the turning point when they cut the fingers off the first person who was smoking," he jokes. "Can you imagine an Anbar sheik being told he can't smoke?" So would the Sunni Awakening have succeeded without the surge? Possibly, he concedes, but the surge came at that time and helped empower Sunni leaders, paying their fighters and backing them up on the streets. This is where Seneca the Younger comes in: "Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity."

There was also what Petraeus refers to as the "intellectual piece," a counterinsurgency strategy building on years of lessons learned the hard way, and intense coordination of military and diplomatic efforts. There was also, Petraeus says, "a civilian surge—[U.S. Ambassador Ryan] Crocker has seven ambassadors on his staff" and in the economic section of the embassy alone, staffing went from 130 to 200 this year with State Department augmentees; for the first time, all of the American Embassy's vacancies are filled, and with volunteers rather than draftees. And Iraqis have had an even bigger surge in their own security forces. Still, he no sooner ticks off all the good news than he warns against complacency—and any premature withdrawal of U.S. forces. Presently, the United States and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki are in protracted negotiations over a status of forces agreement (SOFA), allowing the United States to stay in Iraq after the U.N. Security Council mandate expires at the end of this year, and many Iraqi leaders have called for an explicit timetable—including Maliki. "Even when he's used a date, he has always used the words 'hope' prior to the date. And then he's used words such as 'conditions permitting'," Petraeus says. In effect, that's the U.S. position too, except for the date.

Petraeus's command over Afghanistan is already eagerly anticipated—and already he's busy managing expectations. He's quick to note an assessment he did of Afghanistan in 2005 for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. "I presented to him a sense that Afghanistan was going to be the longest campaign of what was then called 'The Long War.' And I think that's still very much true." Petraeus demurs on whether he'll propose an Iraqi-style surge there, but notes that Defense Secretary Robert Gates on July 31 called for greatly expanding the Afghan military, and increasing U.S. troop levels, too. (Estimates are that there would be an expected five new brigades in Afghanistan—almost as much as the Iraq surge.) When pressed, Gates also wouldn't go into many details about the military's plans there. "We'll just have to wait and see what General Petraeus's views are before we can make that judgment," Gates says. Petraeus may or may not go down in history as having won the war, but more than anyone else, he has come to personify it.