The surge worked

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Wall Street Journal: It was exactly one year ago tonight, in a televised address to the nation, that President George W. Bush announced his fateful decision to change course in Iraq, and to send five additional U.S. combat brigades there as part of a new counterinsurgency strategy and under the command of a new general, David Petraeus. The Wall Street Journal

COMMENTARY

By JOHN MCCAIN and JOE LIEBERMAN
January 10, 2008; Page A15

It was exactly one year ago tonight, in a televised address to the nation, that President George W. Bush announced his fateful decision to change course in Iraq, and to send five additional U.S. combat brigades there as part of a new counterinsurgency strategy and under the command of a new general, David Petraeus.

At the time of its announcement, the so-called surge was met with deep skepticism by many Americans — and understandably so.

After years of mismanagement of the war, many people had grave doubts about whether success in Iraq was possible. In Congress, opposition to the surge from antiwar members was swift and severe. They insisted that Iraq was already “lost,” and that there was nothing left to do but accept our defeat and retreat.

In fact, they could not have been more wrong. And had we heeded their calls for retreat, Iraq today would be a country in chaos: a failed state in the heart of the Middle East, overrun by al Qaeda and Iran.

Instead, conditions in that country have been utterly transformed from those of a year ago, as a consequence of the surge. Whereas, a year ago, al Qaeda in Iraq was entrenched in Anbar province and Baghdad, now the forces of Islamist extremism are facing their single greatest and most humiliating defeat since the loss of Afghanistan in 2001. Thanks to the surge, the Sunni Arabs who once constituted the insurgency’s core of support in Iraq have been empowered to rise up against the suicide bombers and fanatics in their midst — prompting Osama bin Laden to call them “traitors.”

As al Qaeda has been beaten back, violence across the country has dropped dramatically. The number of car bombings, sectarian murders and suicide attacks has been slashed. American casualties have also fallen sharply, decreasing in each of the past four months.

These gains are thrilling but not yet permanent. Political progress has been slow. And although al Qaeda and the other extremists in Iraq have been dealt a critical blow, they will strike back at the Iraqi people and us if we give them the chance, as our generals on the ground continue to warn us.

The question we face, on the first anniversary of the surge, is no longer whether the president’s decision a year ago was the right one, or if the counterinsurgency strategy developed by Gen. Petraeus is working. It is.

The question now is where we go from here to sustain the progress we have achieved — and in particular, how soon can more of our troops come home, based on the success of the surge.

Gen. Petraeus has already announced that five “surge” brigades will be withdrawn by mid-July. The process is now underway. The Pentagon has also announced that it is conducting a series of internal reviews to examine whether and when additional troops can be withdrawn — with Gen. Petraeus, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and U.S. Central Command each asked to offer their own analysis. As the president awaits these recommendations, it is important for the rest of us to keep some realities in mind.

First, it is unknown whether the security gains we have achieved with the surge can be sustained — and deepened — after we have drawn down to 15 brigades. Until we know with certainty that we can keep al Qaeda on the run with 15 brigades, it would be a mistake to commit ourselves preemptively to a drawdown below that number.

As the surge should have taught us by now, troop numbers matter in Iraq. We should adjust those numbers based on conditions on the ground and the recommendations of our commanders in Iraq — first and foremost, Gen. Petraeus, who above all others has proven that he knows how to steer this war to a successful outcome.

Every American should feel a debt of gratitude to Gen. Petraeus and the great American troops fighting under him for us. This gratitude is due not simply for the extraordinary progress they have accomplished in Iraq, but for what they have taught us about ourselves.

If the mismanagement of the Iraq war from 2003 to 2006 exposed our government’s capacity for incompetence, Gen. Petraeus’ leadership this past year, and the conduct of the troops under his command, have reminded us of our capacity for the wisdom, the courage and the leadership that has always rallied our nation to greatness.

As Americans, we have repeatedly done what others said was impossible. Gen. Petraeus and his troops are doing that again in Iraq today.

The war for Iraq is not over. The gains we have made can be lost. But thanks to the courage of our troops, the skill and intellect of their battlefield commander, and the steadfastness of our commander in chief, we have at last begun to see the contours of what must remain our objective in this long, hard and absolutely necessary war — victory.

Mr. McCain is a Republican senator from Arizona. Mr. Lieberman is an Independent Democratic senator from Connecticut.

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