Iraq Progress Report: Reading Between the Lines

With Gen. David H. Petraeus scheduled to appear before Congress next week, Belfer Center experts and researchers offer their insights and analysis — as well as items that Congress should not overlook.


Graham AllisonGraham Allison
Director, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs

Heated rhetoric from all parties will in the end be followed by a compromise that includes a change of mission and a date for beginning to drawdown. The new mission will transition from "clear and hold" to countering al Qaeda, training Iraqi forces, and protecting Americans still in Iraq.  Petraeus will advocate sustaining the surge through next summer; Democrats will urge beginning withdrawal now.  My bet is that the compromise will bring home the first brigade by Christmas 2007 and promise withdrawal of an additional combat brigade approximately every month thereafter -- depending on conditions.

On the ground in Iraq, as American combat groups leave, security will erode.  Thus as Americans move out of neighborhoods in Baghdad or areas in Anbar province, the most likely result is a reversion to the conditions prior to their arrival, which, as the NIE of January 2007 stated, will "deteriorate at rates comparable to the latter part of 2006."

Following this script, the new president who takes office in January 2009 will inherit 75,000 Americans in Iraq under conditions in which security is worse, sectarian divides deeper, and Iraq's government even more dysfunctional than today.

If leaders in Congress judge this outcome unacceptable, they must rise up and reject the lines President Bush has given them.


Kevin RyanBrigadier General (ret.) Kevin Ryan
Senior Fellow, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs

All indications are that President Bush will not withdraw any troops from Iraq as an immediate result of the Petraeus and Crocker report due out this month.  Instead, it appears that ground commanders are preparing for the initial withdrawals to begin in April 2008 when the first of the five surge brigades will reach its 15-month deployment limit.  The plan is to allow the surge units to withdraw without replacing them so that by August 2008 the US force level is back to 15 combat brigades and about 130,000 troops - where it was before the surge began. 

Congress should focus on two major force level goals: ten brigades and five brigades.  Drawing down to 15 brigades by August 2008 only gets the US back to the tenuous pace we had before the surge: one year of deployment to one year of refit and training.  In order to get to the desired target of two years training/refit for every one year in Iraq, the US would have to reduce the number of brigades in Iraq to ten.  With ten brigades (less than 100,000 troops) US ground forces could still conduct significant military operations, help train Iraqi forces, and sustain the effort indefinitely.  This should be the first goal.  The second drawdown goal should be five brigades (less than 50,000 troops) once a decision has been taken to turn over all responsibility for policing sectarian violence to Iraqi security forces.  Five brigades can protect US diplomats and offices, train Iraqi security forces, and ensure a long-term presence which could be expanded if necessary.


Paul KanePaul Kane
Research Fellow, International Security Program

Having served as a Marine in Iraq, I believe there are two things Congress should focus on in the coming weeks.

The first is that while the media have hyped the mid-September progress reports from Ambassador Crocker and General Petraeus on Iraq, another report is actually far more important. 

General Jim Jones, former Commandant of the Marine Corps and head of NATO, was asked to do a comprehensive evaluation of the Iraqi Security Forces.  He presented his findings this week.  This report helps us address the central issue going forward:  How do we empower Iraqis to successfully take over provision of security, restore greater order and stem the violence?

The second thing Congress, particularly Democrats, should be mindful of is a lesson from Vietnam. 

Most Democrats have pushed for a troop withdrawal date or rapid exodus from Iraq.  After Vietnam, the party who had provided the nation with great wartime leaders like Wilson, FDR, Truman and Kennedy yielded its strong-on-defense mantle to Republicans. 

Most Americans after Vietnam perceived Democrats as weak on national security.  Since 1972, the Democrats have lost six of the last nine national elections. To the extent Congressional Democrats come away from the fiasco in Iraq perceived as they did after Vietnam - - overly anxious to declare defeat and unsupportive of military action - - a high price will be paid.  Democrats might do better to embrace FDR's Depression Era approach.  FDR did not know what policy would work but he refused to accept defeat and relentlessly tried new strategy after new strategy to do anything possible to improve the situation. 

Such a mindset and approach on Iraq might prove to be the Democrats' best chance to avoid becoming the last casualty of the Iraq war.


Eric RosenbachEric Rosenbach
Executive Director for Research, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs

What General Petraeus will tell Congress on September 10 is predictable: the surge has had some military successes and the US should be able to reduce the number of troops in Iraq in early spring.  It's what Petraeus won't say that represents the reality of Iraq: political reconciliation is nowhere on the horizon. Shia and Kurdish leaders talk about the "80/20 Plan" that excludes Sunnis (20% of the population) from the government and focuses on strengthening the hand of the Kurds and Shia (80%). The progress in Anbar is real, but Petraeus will not say that Diyala and Basrah are more analogous to the overall security situation in Iraq. In Diyala, Al Qaeda in Iraq is alive and well. In Basrah, Shia-on-Shia violence continues to escalate. And Petraeus will certainly not say that there will be neither victory nor defeat for the US in Iraq. He will not highlight that American soldiers continue to die every day in Iraq for a war in which the outcome can only be determined by the Iraqis themselves.


Stephen M. WaltStephen M. Walt
Faculty Chair, International Security Program

Ever since the Bush administration decided to invade Iraq, its policies have been a model of consistency. They have been consistently too confident of success, consistently wrong, and consistently incapable of devising an effective strategy for dealing with the consequences of the invasion. While our armed forces have fought bravely and well, continuing the occupation will not advance U.S. national interests. Past "turning points" (Saddam's capture, the restoration of sovereignty, the parliamentary elections, the adoption of a new constitution, etc.) all failed to reverse our fortunes, and there is no evidence that the recent "surge" has had or will have a decisive effect on conditions on-the ground. Most importantly, we are no closer to a formula for effective governance and political stability in Iraq. The administration's past record of falsehoods and misjudgements offers no basis for accepting its recommendations today, and the most patriotic course of action would be to end a war that should never have been fought.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Allison, Graham, Kevin Ryan, Paul Kane, Eric Rosenbach and Stephen M. Walt. “Iraq Progress Report: Reading Between the Lines.” News, , September 7, 2007.

The Authors

Graham Allison

Eric Rosenbach

Stephen M. Walt