It has been a busy few weeks. Operation Fadr al-Qanoon (which the media calls the "Baghdad security plan") is shaping up. Progress is measurable, but this is a marathon, not a sprint, and it's still too early to know how it will turn out.
The message for all of us, as professionals who do this for a living, is patience, patience, patience. The war has been going for nearly four years, the current strategy less than four weeks. We need to give it time.
It will take time to provide security to the population. To do this right, we need to build trust with the people, engage community leaders closely, develop intelligence and trusted networks, then work our way in and compete with the insurgents and death squads to deny them access to their targets -- their own people, whom they cynically exploit and kill. All these things we are doing, but the process cannot be rushed, and requires detailed local understanding: so we move at the pace the Iraqis can sustain.
Patience and stamina are vital. Political reconciliation -- at the grass roots -- is what will make this work, with security as breathing space. Needless to say, we are not leaving this to chance: some commentators have focused on the troop surge, but the main effort is the political effort, by Iraqis with our support, to reconcile at the local level. This is going to be a lot like heavy peace enforcement or police work, not so much like classical counterinsurgency, let alone conventional combat.
Our task is to stay alert and read the situation, ready to modify our approach as things develop. In outline (and at the unclassified level, of course) these are the major trends:
Muqtada al-Sadr has run off to Iran, leaving some of his people scratching their heads and wondering if they have been Persian stooges all along.
Iraq outside Baghdad remains relatively quiet, as it has been for much of the past year. At least half the incidents in Iraq still happen within Baghdad city limits.
Al Qa'ida in Iraq is increasingly marginalized, with alliances of local Sunni leaders, and some other jihadist groups, opposing its brutality or contesting its self-styled leadership.
Increased targeting of helicopters has led to several shoot-downs (out of hundreds of flights every day) -- a Baghdad helicopter ride is still safer than a cab ride in some major cities, but this is a trend to watch carefully.
Security in certain key neighborhoods of Baghdad shows signs of improving, as Americans and Iraqis partner at the grass roots to reduce violence and insurgent influence.
Terrorists have used car bombs against innocent bystanders in several markets and public places -- a sign that they know where the danger lies (loss of influence with the population) and are trying to sink the "surge" using negative publicity.
Some sectarian and insurgent groups have "come out of the woodwork" to attack outposts, local communities working with the government, and security forces.
This last trend is the most professionally interesting. In counterinsurgency killing the enemy is never difficult, if only you can find them. But finding them, and distinguishing them from the innocent population, can be forbiddingly difficult. By shifting our approach away from directly hunting down insurgents, and towards protecting the population, we have undercut their influence -- they know it, and their options are to flee, wait us out, or come into the open to contest control of the neighborhoods. The fact that some are coming into the open suggests they realize that waiting us out is not an option. It also makes the job of finding the enemy far easier. This is encouraging, as long as we can protect the people.
On this score, again, it's too early to say for sure but initial signs are encouraging. One indicator that's not very useful is car bombs -- we can expect these to be one of the last insurgent tactics to diminish, for two reasons. First, it takes an entire community partnering with its own local security forces to defeat a clandestine suicide bomber, and it will take a while to build effective networks to do this. Secondly, insurgent tactics are driven by the need to make a media splash, and nothing does this better than a big bomb. So the enemy will cling to this method as long as the news media reward it.
Overall, then, though early signs are encouraging, prudence and professional judgment counsel patience. There will be tough days ahead; the problems remain immense, complex and deeply embedded in the social and political structures we deal with. The violence will ebb and flow, and there will be lethal "spikes". But over time, if the strategy works, we should see a downward trend in violence and an increase in trust and reconciliation at the street level -- while remaining ready, as we certainly are, to refine our approach if needed.
The one thing we must not do is to confuse the real country of Iraq, where there is a real war, a real population, and a real obligation to protect them, with the parallel-universe "quagmire Iraq" of popular imagination. As professionals we have a duty to be clear-headed, to analyze and constantly re-assess the situation in a hard nosed fashion, adapting our approach as needed. And we have a duty of care to our people, their families, and the Iraqis, to give this time, take it carefully, and not rush either to judgment or failure. Insh'Allah together with the Iraqis we will run this race to its finish.