Friday, March 23, 2007

How's the surge going?

With the House having passed an Iraq withdrawal timetable and the Senate hoping to follow suit, the big question becomes "are such timetables a good idea?" And the answer to that, in turn, depends mightly on how the Iraq "surge" is going.

Time has a broad assessment, so we'll start there.

First, it seems clear that if anyone can make it work, Gen. David Petraeus can. I've been impressed by his energy, tactics and professionalism. He knows what needs to be done and how to do it. The former isn't particularly impressive: the need has been obvious for a long time. But execution is a different matter, and he has shown to be highly capable in that department, from the actual deployment of security forces in Baghdad to collateral operations like those conducted in neighboring areas to catch insurgents fleeing Baghdad.

Some simple measures -- like banning car and truck traffic during business hours -- has helped cut back on car bombings in crowded places. Mostly, though, it's the "hold" part of "clear and hold" that has (unsurprisingly) proven quite effective.

But such moves don't succeed in isolation. Things have gone smoothly in large part because the Iraqi government continues to act serious about supporting nonsectarian security measures -- such as the recent arrest of former Mahdi Army members -- and has helped persuade the Mahdi Army itself to stay off the streets.

The numerical results have been promising, but with a couple of notes of caution. A week or so ago, military officials reported that killings in Baghdad were down significantly. But even as the crackdown expands, the number of deaths has been creeping back up. Yesterday 33 bodies turned up in Baghdad, uncomfortably close to pre-surge numbers.

Plus there's one key question: Can we trust the numbers? Because we've been through this once before, and it turned out they weren't counting bombing deaths.

So the answer remains "we don't know yet." Early signs are encouraging, but then they often are. Even Petraeus notes that it will take months -- until mid or late summer -- before we know whether the surge is working. And after that comes the really big question: can we sustain whatever gains we make? What happens when its time for the U.S. troops to go home?

All we can do is be patient. And it's a patience that is unaffected by the proposed Congressional timetables, because they won't take effect until long after we have a verdict on the surge -- the operation that will really determine the future of our mission in Iraq.

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