By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
Oct. 9, 2008 - Just weeks after wrapping up his stint as the top commander in Iraq, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus said yesterday that progress there has become a little less fragile and more durable. The soon-to-be commander of U.S. Central Command spoke to the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank, here. Petraeus finished his 19-month command of Multinational Force Iraq three weeks ago.
But Petraeus qualified the statement, saying that enormous difficulties lie ahead for long-term stabilization in Iraq.
The general said that violent attacks in Iraq spiked to 180 a day in June of 2007, but are now down to as low as 20. Civilian deaths are also down, he said. He credited much of the success to the surge in troops there, saying it allowed the Iraqi security forces to grow and allowed coalition forces to clear and hold neighborhoods, ridding them of hard-core extremists and building the trust of the local people.
Iraqi security forces grew to about 135,000, he said, and now are more professional. Their ranks had been hijacked by sectarian interests, Petraeus said, and it took nearly two years to rid the force of those still holding on to sectarian ideals. In the national police, every leader from the national commander, division commanders, brigade commanders, and about 80 percent of the battalion commanders were removed in the process.
"All of that has helped turn the national police into a force that is now quite a credit to Iraq and one that our commanders ... actually want to see working with them in their areas of responsibility," Petraeus said.
Those forces were joined by the addition of about 100,000 "Sons of Iraq" citizen security group members and allowed the deployment of more effective counterinsurgency concepts, he said.
"It was not just additional forces, it was how those forces were employed that proved to be very, very important," Petraeus said.
The general explained how the surge worked.
"The first big idea was that we had to secure and serve the population," he said. "The decisive terrain in counterinsurgency is the human terrain -- not the physical terrain, not necessarily the high ground or the bridge or the usual focus of military operations, but very much the people."
This led to moving coalition troops out of forward operating bases and into the communities.
"You cannot secure the people of a neighborhood from a large base by driving through it a couple of times a day and going back to that large base," Petraeus said. "You have to locate with them. You have to share risk with them."
The general said that soon after troops moved into the neighborhoods, the local people felt safer and began to trust coalition forces. This led to more information on the enemy and more precise operations by forces to root out extremist elements in the communities.
"We knew where those strongholds and safe havens were. And we had to go in and not only clear them, but hold them," Petraeus said. "You've got to stay after the enemy."
Over time, forces drove down the level of violence, which opened the door for "folks to live together again and foster local reconciliation," he said.
At the same time, Petraeus said, coalition forces began attacking extremists' networks, limiting their access to weapons and explosives. They cut down the number of foreign fighters flowing into the country from more than 100 a month to fewer than 20 now.
But security is only a piece of the process that leads to stability, and the overall plan had to include economic, diplomatic and political efforts, the general said.
"Military action – security -- is an absolutely vital foundation. It is necessary, but it is not sufficient," Petraeus said. "You don't end these operations by killing or capturing your way along the line. What you do is you end up ... getting rid of the hardest of the hard-core and then [trying] to make the others part of the solution instead of a continuing part of the problem."
Part of making local people part of the solution was to improve the abilities of the Iraqi security forces and to incorporate the Sons of Iraq into those forces. As the al-Qaida threat was diminished, Petraeus said, the illegal militias came to be seen as a Mafia-like element in the neighborhoods.
Petraeus warned, though, that even as extremist threats are increasingly defeated in the country, they can't be given space to regroup and "lick their wounds."
"This is an enemy who may be barbaric, may carry out absolutely heinous activities, but a very, very savvy enemy and a very lethal and determined and learning enemy. And we have to continue to learn," Petraeus said. "We have to continue to assess the situation on the ground and always continue to refine our approach."
The general said forces must continue to degrade the enemy's command and control networks and reduce links to al-Qaida senior leadership. Forces must also work to cut extremists' sources of income, he said, by combating their extortion and other money-generating illegal activities.
"You have to try to take away as much of the oxygen from the movement as you can, and the oxygen is money," he said.
In the end, though, stabilizing Iraq will not fall solely on kinetic operations, Petraeus said. The need remains for a large conventional force on the ground with increasing support from Iraqi forces to take and hold extremist strongholds and safe havens. And political activity needs to complement and capitalize on security gains, he said.
"You have to try to reduce the reasons that they embrace al-Qaida Iraq, ... to reduce them so that there's no reason why a Sunni Arab would throw himself into the camp of al-Qaida in Iraq," Petraeus said.