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October 15, 2007

WaPo: Al Qaeda In Iraq Reported Crippled

If only we'd surrendered to them when Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi wanted:

The U.S. military believes it has dealt devastating and perhaps irreversible blows to al-Qaeda in Iraq in recent months, leading some generals to advocate a declaration of victory over the group, which the Bush administration has long described as the most lethal U.S. adversary in Iraq.

But as the White House and its military commanders plan the next phase of the war, other officials have cautioned against taking what they see as a premature step that could create strategic and political difficulties for the United States. Such a declaration could fuel criticism that the Iraq conflict has become a civil war in which U.S. combat forces should not be involved. At the same time, the intelligence community, and some in the military itself, worry about underestimating an enemy that has shown great resilience in the past.

"I think it would be premature at this point," a senior intelligence official said of a victory declaration over AQI, as the group is known. Despite recent U.S. gains, he said, AQI retains "the ability for surprise and for catastrophic attacks." Earlier periods of optimism, such as immediately following the June 2006 death of AQI founder Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in a U.S. air raid, not only proved unfounded but were followed by expanded operations by the militant organization.

There is widespread agreement that AQI has suffered major blows over the past three months. Among the indicators cited is a sharp drop in suicide bombings, the group's signature attack, from more than 60 in January to around 30 a month since July. Captures and interrogations of AQI leaders over the summer had what a senior military intelligence official called a "cascade effect," leading to other killings and captures. The flow of foreign fighters through Syria into Iraq has also diminished, although officials are unsure of the reason and are concerned that the broader al-Qaeda network may be diverting new recruits to Afghanistan and elsewhere.

The deployment of more U.S. and Iraqi forces into AQI strongholds in Anbar province and the Baghdad area, as well as the recruitment of Sunni tribal fighters to combat AQI operatives in those locations, has helped to deprive the militants of a secure base of operations, U.S. military officials said. "They are less and less coordinated, more and more fragmented," Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the second-ranking U.S. commander in Iraq, said recently. Describing frayed support structures and supply lines, Odierno estimated that the group's capabilities have been "degraded" by 60 to 70 percent since the beginning of the year.

...

"AQI is definitely taking some hits," the official said. "There is definite progress, and that is undeniable good news. But what we don't know is how long it will last . . . and whether it's sustainable. . . . They have withstood withering pressure for a long period of time." Three months, he said, is not long enough to consider a trend sustainable.

Views of the extent to which AQI has been vanquished also reflect differences over the extent to which it operates independently from Osama bin Laden's central al-Qaeda organization, based in Pakistan. "Everyone has an opinion about how franchisement of al-Qaeda works," a senior White House official said. "Is it through central control, or is it decentralized?" The answer to that question, the official said, affects "your ability to determine how successfully [AQI] has been defeated or neutralized. Is it 'game over'?"

...

While a victory declaration might have the "psychological aspect" of discouraging recruitment to a perceived lost cause, the White House official said, advantages overall would be minimal. "I recognize that there are pros to saying, 'Hey, listen, the bad guys are on the run.' " But if AQI were later able to demonstrate residual capabilities with a series of bombings, "even though it was temporary," he said, "the question becomes: How does this play out in terms of public opinion?"

Some military commanders want to declare AQ "all but eliminated," but that seems partly motivated by a desire to bug out faster and get the military some much needed, and much deserved, downtime. I can understand the impulse, but a military defeat caused by a premature evacuation would break the military as much as an extended period of overtaxing.


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posted by Ace at 01:29 PM

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