It came late in the final day of hearings yesterday so you may have missed it. Gen. Petraeus was asked by Sen. Mel Martinez (R-FL) to rank the enemies the U.S. is fighting in Iraq. Petraeus ran through the list of threats, then, as an afterthought, said, "There are certainly still some Sunni insurgents out there."
You don't say?
As Spencer Ackerman notes, the non-al-Qaeda Sunni insurgents have accounted for most of the U.S. military casualties in Iraq. There likely has been some reduction in Sunni insurgent violence against U.S. troops in Anbar this year, and in fact the U.S. strategy of joining with the Anbar Sunnis against al Qaeda in Iraq is probably part of the reason Petraeus is downplayng the Sunni insurgency at the moment.
But whatever the short-term exigency, this has been a conflict marked by our inability, unwillingness, or ideological aversion toward accurately identifying our enemies. Even the use of the blanket term "enemy" is misleading in a conflict with multiple competing interests, where alliances come and go, and in which the enemy of thy enemy is not necessarily thy friend.
There's a convincing argument to be made that the U.S. effort in Iraq was doomed from the start, but the strategic and tactical miscalculations arising from the misidentification, to put it charitably, of the competing groups there crippled whatever chance there was of the U.S. effort succeeding.
In today's New York Observer, an interview with the noted counterinsurgency expert Bard E. OâNeill reminded me how this myopic view of the Sunni insurgency has been paralyzing us since shortly after the U.S. invasion, if not even earlier, during pre-invasion planning:
Whatâs most striking, Bard says, is how his students in his counterinsurgency and terrorism classes at Washingtonâs National War College, freshly returned from Iraq, testified to the paucity of strategic thinking on the ground.
âThis was a Special Forces colonel, a really sharp guy, heâs a guy who knew all this stuff on counterinsurgency. He said to me, âLet me give you a specific example: Iâm on the tarmac at an airbase in Iraq, and up walks [then Deputy Secretary of Defense] Paul Wolfowitz. He says, âHowâs everything going, Colonel?â And I say, âThis is a pretty tenacious insurgency, Mr. Wolfowitz.â And Wolfowitz looks back and says, âThis is not an insurgency.âââ
At which point, Mr. OâNeill relates, his student ârolled his eyes, and said, âWhat can you say to someone like that?ââ