Gen. Petraeus ranked the enemies the U.S. is fighting in Iraq at the behest of Sen. Mel Martinez (R-FL), and there was a notable absence: the non-al-Qaeda Sunni insurgency. All of a sudden, practically every Sunni anti-U.S. fighter is now defined as al-Qaeda.
Petraeus listed al-Qaeda as "the wolf closest to the shed," followed by Shiite militias, who are the cause of much of the "ethno-sectarian violence in Baghdad." After that came the "non-kinetic" enemies, such as getting the "institutional structures" established for the Iraqi government, problems with training the Iraqi security forces, corruption and so forth. As he was finishing his list, Petraeus then realized he had forgotten someone: "There are certainly still some Sunni insurgents out there."
Al-Qaeda in Iraq is, at most, 15 percent of the Sunni insurgency. One expert, Malcolm Nance, who's worked with the U.S. military and intelligence in Iraq, puts AQI at two to five percent of the Sunni insurgency. It's good news that several insurgent groups, like the 1920 Revolution Brigades, have turned against al-Qaeda in Iraq and toward us. The August National Intelligence Estimate is silent on the Sunni insurgency, but certainly doesn't say it has been marginalized.
That shouldn't be surprising: the recent ABC/BBC/NHK poll found that 93 percent of Sunnis believe that attacks on the U.S. are justified. What's more, the Association of Muslim Scholars, a Sunni clerical powerhouse, recently issued a communique to the entire, fractious Sunni "resistance." If there's only a rump Sunni insurgency, someone forgot to tell the AMS.
Petraeus has repeatedly referred to himself as a "realist" over the past two days. But suggesting the Sunni insurgency is diminished to the point of marginality after the anti-al-Qaeda shift is, at best, wishful thinking.
Good question from Sen. John Thune (R-SD) to Gen. Petraeus. If the Iraqi security forces are ready to take over responsibility for Iraq before sectarian reconciliation has occurred -- not an unlikely scenario, given the dismal prospects for political progress, Crocker notwithstanding -- is the U.S. mission, you know, accomplished? Petraeus' answer: not necessarily. If the government was set to collapse, the U.S. might stay in Iraq to prop it up, even if the Iraqi Army and police are able to control the country. That's quite an extraordinary statement. Petraeus probably means to avoid limiting his options, but it's never before been suggested by anyone in uniform that we would stay in Iraq to support an Iraqi government after the Iraqi military has Stood Up.
With the largest U.S. presence in Iraq of the entire war, Baghdad is still being ethnically cleansed, and at least 1000 Iraqis (a very conservative estimate) are dying every month. Petraeus and Crocker didn't get any questions about Iraq in this context. Instead, senators have asked about a prospective humanitarian catastrophe in the wake of a U.S. withdrawal.
There's no doubt that's a legitimate question, since any withdrawal scenario has to contemplate disaster, not just for U.S. forces but for Iraqis. Here Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) asks Crocker if post-occupation Iraq will be worse than the genocide in Darfur. Crocker doesn't quite endorse the statement, but says "the prospects for a truly catastrophic humanitarian disaster could be considerable." And indeed, it could be, and the country needs to debate that. Yet part of that debate should be the fact that sectarian cleansing is happening in Iraq right now, despite the best efforts of the largest U.S. force in Iraq since the invasion.
It's the American dream to retire to a job as a prison warden near topless beaches in Barbados. Well, at least, that was former state Rep. Pete Kott's (R-AK) dream, and Veco CEO Bill Allen was going to do his best to make it happen -- in exchange for a lucrative oil pipeline, of course.
In opening statements in Kott's public corruption trial, the prosecution played the jury phone conversations recorded by the FBI where Kott jokes (at least once while audibly tipsy) about his hopes for the prison position, but is serious about a future with Veco after leaving his post.
For an excellent illustration of the difference in candor between Gen. Petraeus and Amb. Crocker that's emerged during these three hearings, take a look at this exchange with Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME). Collins asked how much longer Americans could be expected to expend blood and treasure on a war without evident Iraqi political progress.
Petraeus responded that "if we arrive at that point a year from now, it's something I'll have to think very, very, very hard about," since America has "real national interests at stake." Even if you disagree with Petraeus' assessment, it's a fair point, and he didn't duck a hypothetical, which he easily could have done.
Crocker, by contrast, simply repeated his claim that the "trajectory" of political progress is "upward," thereby waving away the concern. "I can't say what I'll be saying in a year, or even six months from now, but I can tell you that I'll make the same objective and honest assessment I tried to do for this testimony."
Petraeus has been slippery in his own way during these hearings (see here and here for examples), but Crocker's statement that Iraqi politics is on the right course certainly doesn't instill confidence in his objectivity.
So much for "conditions." Under questioning from Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI), Gen. Petraeus conceded that his timetable for ending the surge by July 2008 is due to the five extra active-duty Brigade Combat Teams coming to the end of their scheduled deployments and the lack of available units to keep U.S. troop strength at 162,000.
Remember this when President Bush on Thursday unveils his (read: Petraeus') "drawdown" plan -- and, for that matter, any time a politician says that the only "responsible" reduction of forces is one that's "conditions-based."
Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) doesn't think Gen. Petraeus has enough war on his hands. The senator (changing the subject from Iraq with "I want to go to Iran...") asked Petraeus if he wanted "the authority" from Congress to "pursue the Qods forces into Iranian territory." Petraeus, for some reason, politely declined to start a third contemporaneous U.S. war.
Once again, Gen. Petraeus was asked about how long it will take to draw down to his strategy's envisioned end state of five U.S. brigades on an "overwatch" mission. And once again he dodged, saying when the reductions need to take place will have to wait until "we get closer each of those times."
In the hearings' most stunning moment so far, Sen. John Warner (R-VA) asked Gen. Petraeus if success in the Iraq war will make America safer. His response -- by far the most surprising moment of the hearings -- was a blunt "I don't know." This is the first time that any general officer, let alone the commanding general in Iraq, has ever equivocated on whether success in Iraq will contribute to U.S. security.
By contrast, President Bush describes a victory in Iraq as an epochal achievement for America and a potentially decisive blow to terrorism. For instance: "[The terrorists] know that the success of a free Iraq, who can be a key ally in the war on terror and a symbol of success for others, will be a crushing blow to their strategy to dominate the region, and threaten America and the free world."