We've just made our way through the declassified key judgments in the new National Intelligence Estimate, and the thing that strikes us is this: It's hard to find a single sign of progress in the report that isn't offset by some corresponding note of caution.
Levels of violence: Improvements in Iraq's security situation have been "measurable but uneven," the NIE says. "The steep escalation of rates of violence has been checked for now," but "the level of overall violence, including attacks on and casualties among civilians, remains high; Iraq's sectarian groups remain unreconciled; [al-Qaida in Iraq] retains the ability to conduct high-profile attacks; and to date, Iraqi political leaders remain unable to govern effectively."
Levels of violence, Part 2: If "Coalition forces continue to conduct robust counterinsurgency operations and mentor and support the Iraqi Security Forces," Iraq's security situation "will continue to improve modestly during the next six to 12 months, but ... levels of insurgent and sectarian violence will remain high and the Iraqi government will continue to struggle to achieve national-level political reconciliation and improved governance."
Sunni resistance to al-Qaida: "Sunni Arab resistance to AQI has expanded in the last six to nine months but has not yet translated into broad Sunni Arab support for the Iraqi Government or widespread willingness to work with the Shia." These "'bottom up' security initiatives" represent "the best prospect for improved security over the next six to 12 months, but we judge these initiatives will only translate into widespread political accommodation and enduring stability if the Iraqi government accepts and supports them ... We also assess that under some conditions 'bottom up initiatives' could pose risks to the Iraqi government."
Iraqi security forces: "Iraqi Security Forces involved in combined operations with Coalition forces have performed adequately, and some units have demonstrated increasing professional competence. However, we judge that the ISF have not improved enough to conduct major operations independent of the Coalition on a sustained basis in multiple locations and that the ISF remain reliant on the Coalition for important aspects of logistics and combat support."
We'd say that the NIE goes on like this as it covers other areas of concern, but that wouldn't be right. On other topics -- most centrally, the outlook for Iraq's government -- the NIE has virtually no progress to report and therefore no countervailing "however" to add to the end of it. It's just all bad from start to finish:
"The [intelligence community] assesses that the Iraqi government will become more precarious over the next six to 12 months because of criticism by other members of the major Shia coalition ..., Grand Ayatollah Sistani, and other Sunni and Kurdish parties," the NIE says. "The strains of the security situation and absence of key leaders have stalled internal political debates, slowed national decisionmaking, and increased [Nouri al-] Maliki's vulnerability to alternative coalitions."
The only thing that passes for good news on the government front: "We judge that Maliki will continue to benefit from recognition among Shia leaders that searching for a replacement could paralyze the government."
The White House will undoubtedly seize on the part of the NIE in which the intelligence community opines that a "change of mission" for U.S. troops would "place security improvements at risk." Fair enough; the NIE does in fact say that. But the thing to remember is this: Those "security improvements" are in place now, and there's no suggestion in the NIE that they'll be enough to prompt the political progress that the Iraqi government has so far failed to make. Indeed, as we noted above, the NIE predicts that the Iraqi government "will continue to struggle to achieve national-level political reconciliation and improved governance" even if security conditions continue to improve over the next six to 12 months.