WASHINGTON – On what may be his final battlefield tour, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he was convinced by commanders that the surge has worked because there are fewer insurgent frontal assaults on superior U.S. forces and more “high-profile” spectacular bomb attacks on locals, signifying a desperate enemy on the ropes. Sound familiar?
Now, can you name the war Mullen was describing? It turns out that flying from Afghanistan to Iraq this year is a bit like going forward in counterinsurgency time. The narrative the Pentagon has used for years to explain away sustained insurgent/extremist violence in Iraq is now a narrative for Afghanistan.
Before this year, news accounts of massive suicide bombings killing dozens of indigenous civilians and security forces in Iraq forced Defense Department officials and military commanders to explain that violence in Iraq – or at least violence against U.S. troops – actually was falling. And that meant the war was going in the right direction.
That’s exactly what’s happening in Afghanistan, commanders have been saying for months. In July, Gen. David Petraeus, before leaving his Kabul command, said the U.S. had not seen the massive wave of returning insurgent fighters for the warm-weather offensive that intelligence had predicted. Commanders in Helmand province told reporters traveling with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta that the insurgents’ plans were derailed because NATO forces found and destroyed an unexpectedly large number of weapons caches.
This weekend, Mullen picked up the message on his visit, saying insurgents are turning instead to mass casualty attacks on local government buildings, police outposts, and other civilian areas.
Mullen is now in Iraq, where the overall numbers of violent attacks have remained far lower than the 2006-2009 days, but where extremists have increased attacks on major government centers in cities across the country all winter and spring. Now they have again taken aim at U.S. forces, and U.S. leaders said they expected Iraqi opponents to try and “bloody our noses” before the drawdown.
The Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction made it official, saying Iraq is more violent and less safe than one year ago. A report counted 193 security forces killed since April, 248 civilians, and more than 100 killed in “mass casualty” attacks nationwide.
In response, on Monday, Pentagon spokesman Col. David Lapan downplayed the significance of those figures, saying the number of overall violent attacks in Iraq against everyone fell within the same window as last year.
The flip side of the Pentagon’s narrative is this question commanders already are asking: What is the acceptable level of violence of any kind before the U.S. can or should pull out? If the U.S. can effectively pull out nearly 50,000 troops from Iraq now, what is will be the baseline before the Defense Department feels a little more comfortable recommending drawing down the remaining 60,000 troops from Afghanistan after next year?