We've been writing for a while about the difficulty of getting clear and consistent measurements about security in Iraq. The Government Accountability Office stated this week that there hasn't been a measurable decline in attacks on civilians over the course of the surge, something that General David Petraeus' command sharply disputes. Making matters more complicated, the Pentagon's quarterly Iraq reports have recently taken to revising its earlier estimates of sectarian killings without indicating what prompted the change. The statistical confusion is likely to play a prominent role in Petraeus' Congressional testimony next week.
So it's significant that Petraeus gave a subtly defiant interview to the Boston Globe's Charles Sennott. Petraeus, true to form, attaches qualifiers and caveats to his assessments, but he hits his main points hard: his is a "solid plan" that is achieving results, from the pacification of Anbar province to the increased capability of Iraqi Army and police forces that "hold" neighborhoods in Baghdad. He implies that the Sunni tribal turn against al-Qaeda is a turn for "reconciliation" with the Shiite-led Iraqi government, something that his subordinate commanders have doubted.
Unlike his interview last weekend with the Australian, though, he cites no statistics about overall declines in casualties. Instead, he pointedly states that "what our troopers have achieved is measurable and important." It's a loaded statement, implying that to question the statistics distributed by Multinational Forces-Iraq is to criticize the troops on the ground. That's something the GAO took great care not to do in its report this week, writing that the troops have "performed courageously under dangerous and difficult circumstances."
Something else to look for: Petraeus appears to anticipate a question about whether all or most of Baghdad has, in fact, been made secure. (He told the Australian that sectarian violence was down 75 percent in the capitol.)
As we have demonstrated through the employment of the forces that we have, we do not necessarily have to secure every part of Baghdad at once -- this can and has been done in stages. As the security situation in an area improves, forces are required to hold the gains that we have made. Over time some of those forces can be local police units working with the Iraqi Army and Coalition Forces in Joint Security Stations.
That sounds like Petraeus is conceding that Baghdad remains, at least in parts, unsecured. He's never explicitly said otherwise, and he would understandably resist being expected to solve the capitol's problems in less than a year. Indeed, to me and to other reporters, he's discussed how the Iraqis need to come to terms with an "acceptable" level of violence: after all, no city of 7 million can be completely secure. But expect Congress to grill him on what he's actually saying about the levels of security throughout Baghdad -- and how he measures it.