The slow road to "progress"

Those "early indicators" of success for the "surge"? They seem to have disappeared.

Published May 31, 2007 2:45PM (EDT)

In a speech on April 20, the president said that the "first indicators" show that the "surge" is "meeting expectations." Among the "indicators" the president cited: The number of sectarian killings in Baghdad had "dropped by half" since the surge began, and the Iraqi government was "working hard to make progress on some key benchmarks, progress to help this country reconcile and unite after years of tyrannical and brutal rule."

Now comes the reality check.

As the Wall Street Journal reports today, the number of sectarian killings in Baghdad "has begun to climb again." The U.S. Embassy says more than 400 unidentified bodies have been found in Baghdad in May -- about 25 percent more than were discovered there in January, when the first "surging" soldiers arrived.

As for political progress? The Journal puts it bluntly: Since the surge began, there has been "little to no progress on crucial Iraqi political goals."

So what's the next step? Buy more time, of course. Although the president was comfortable talking about the "first indicators" of progress a month ago, Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno, the commanding officer of the Multi-National Corps-Iraq, is telling reporters this morning that it's still too early to say much about whether the surge is working.

"Units that are part of our surge into the theater began deploying in January -- about the middle of January," Odierno said in a videoconference briefing from Iraq. "However, the full impact of that surge is yet to be felt."

So when will the "full impact" be felt? When can we actually start measuring results? "In conventional warfare, a mass of troops can have an immediate impact on the fight," Odierno explained. "However, in a counterinsurgency we've quickly learned they must be immersed into the local populace, and it will take new units anywhere from 30 to 60 days to really get a feel for their sectors, so they truly can have an impact on security and stability in their area.

"When fighting a counterinsurgency, you have to first understand the environment you're operating in: its people, the enemy, the physical and human terrain and the local dynamics. And only then can you begin to understand what must be done to accomplish your mission.

"So my message is that the surge is not yet fully in place, and that it will take time and patience before we begin to realize its effects."

But we'll know more by September, when Gen. David Petraeus is scheduled to make his big assessment, right? Not necessarily. Challenged by a reporter who noted that the answer to everything about Iraq seems to be more time, Odierno said it's all so "complicated." "And," he added, "I can't predict what progress we're going to have made by August or September."

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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