Only the most die hard Bush Haters are unable to admit that the conditions in Iraq have improved. Democratic talking points seem to be that the addition of troops was inconsequential to the improvement, that it would have happened anyway. While this is just posturing for a political audience, serious students of war recognize that this is a very complex issue with multiple moving parts. Sort of like the wag's definition of a helicopter - "a loose collection of parts flying in close formation," the application of many different types of power, political, military and economic, have fused into a solution that does seem to be working. While it is a truism, that there is no pure "military solution" to a problem, this truism operates in a vacuum since military force is just politics by other means. If they are separated, it is just mindless violence.
While I have always been opposed to the calls for a withdrawal from Iraq on an arbitrary timeline, in order to "force the Iraqis to act responsibly" the fact is that the Iraqi government is now calling for a withdrawal by 2010. So, why is it a good thing for the Iraqis to call for a withdrawal and not such a good thing for US political candidates to do the same thing? First off, it has always been the US position that Iraq is a sovereign nation, but it is also a fragile one since the destruction of most of the institutions that existed prior to April 2003. There have been many mistakes made along the way, but we are starting to get all of our acts together and there has been tremendous progress. Sure, the Anbar Awakening started prior to the surge, but it could not have been maintained without the additional troops, nor the change in policies that resulted in moving from "Force Protection" to a force presence stance that put troops into the neighborhoods. If you don't get the chance to travel outside of the US very much, you don't really learn to appreciate how much the rest of the world loves Americans, even if they don't like our policies, or the fact that we are a superpower. By putting troops on the streets, every soldier from the lowest private to the highest ranking general becomes an ambassador for America. The interaction and friendships that are created just by walking around are too invaluable to quantify.
Another tremendous factor in the change in conditions, has been the improvement of the Iraqi troops. Until 2007, the Iraqi Army was not much different from other Arab armies of the region. They had little discipline, and poor training. Preferring to rely on personal valor as a way to overcome training and tactical deficiencies. When they came under fire, they tended to rely on the "death blossom" of shooting everywhere, without any controlled, aimed or directed fire. The result was just as likely to be fratricide as anything else. But through the training efforts of the American forces, they are becoming more professional and competent. Which can be both a good thing and a bad thing.
The good, is that they are more likely to exercise the proper means of controlled violence to conduct their operations and achieve maximum efficiency. Talking to the soldiers that I know that have returned from there, there has been tremendous progress in their competency. The Iraqi Army has moved from being a toddler who American politicians wanted to run in the Olympics, to the four year old child that declares "I can do it myself." This is not to say that they are fully prepared to operated separate from US support, particularly in logistics and air support, but they are getting better all the time.
The bad thing about this improvement in competence, is that they are rapidly becoming the strongest institution in Iraq. They are more trusted than the police or the government. If they have been trained in our values, that the soldier serves the people, not the Prime Minister, they will be fine. But Iraq has a long history of military coups whenever a government appears to be feckless or incompetent, just as they seem to be now.
I was rather disappointed to learn that the Iraqi government went on vacation without finishing the business of holding a new vote in October. Hmm, I wonder where they could have learned that?
While it was dramatic for the Iraqis to vote even under threats of intimidation from Al Qaeda, the government that they have elected is hopelessly out of date, in that it simply reflected sectarian voting blocks. A new vote could dispel the need for the sectarianism, which has dominated Iraqi politics of late.
If there is a new vote, the Iraqis will be stronger if they reject sectarianism, as they seem to be wont to do. If there is no vote, I would be worried that the Iraqi Army may take matters into their own hands, and overthrow the government. Keeping at least one heavy brigade, one artillery brigade and an aviation brigade in Iraq would have a cooling effect on any such desire for another regime change.
We have invested a lot in Iraq in terms of blood and treasure. The pay off is going to be the most successful country politically, economically and militarily in the region. Other countries will look at Iraq and wonder if their model of ancestral based leadership is going to last.
We have made great progress in the Middle East. Now if we can just keep it from going to hell to soon, it will result in the most dynamic change there since Winston Churchill first drew lines on a map to create most of these countries.