War testimony, while seminal, is unlikely to alter course

Gen. David Petraeus will testify in front of Congress on Monday.
Gen. David Petraeus will testify in front of Congress on Monday. U.S. Army

WASHINGTON — Besides commanding U.S. forces in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus has become the administration's top pitchman for the strategy in Iraq.

On Monday, he, along with Ryan Crocker, the U.S. envoy there, will present an assessment of the current strategy in what has become the most anticipated testimony on the war before Congress since the conflict began. It has been billed as the defining moment for a Congress and an American public increasingly frustrated by what's happening on the battlefield.

Not since Gen. Creighton Abrams, who replaced Gen. William Westmoreland in Vietnam, "has the political leadership looked to a military man to resolve a war many people feel has gone badly," said Ret. Brig. Kevin Ryan, senior fellow with the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. "It's a first for this generation."

But even on the eve of the testimony, many in Washington do not anticipate major changes in Iraq. There are not enough votes in Congress to override the president's course. And while there is deep respect for the general and ambassador, many believe they will describe the situation in Iraq in the most favorable light.

Since taking command in February, the general has been celebrated as an intellectual — he's earned a doctorate degree from Princeton University. And many at the Pentagon believe he is one of the few generals amongst them who can help the institution shift from fighting traditional wars to combating counterinsurgencies with rogue elements.

Throughout the surge, Petraeus has been the face for the administration, employing his charm to tell the public that surging 30,000 into Baghdad has quelled sectarian violence, even as some agencies and Iraqis themselves disagreed over his assessment.

He's taken U.S. senators to Baghdad markets to show how much safer the neighborhoods are, even as a growing number of Iraqis fled the capital throughout the surge, according to a group associated with the United Nations.

Petraeus has said that the sectarian violence has dropped by half since the nearly 30,000 troops reinforced the capital, even overall levels of violence remain unchanged. And he has described Iraqi security forces as improving, even as a report last week said that Iraqi forces could not take over from their U.S. counterparts for another 18 months.

In the run up to his testimony, several government agencies have published reports that contradict one another. Those drafted by the administration have offered a rosier assessment than those commissioned by Congress.

A July National Intelligence Estimate, which Petraeus reviewed, found that the surge improved the security situation, but offered no statistics to back that up.

And a report published last week by the General Accountability Office, the government watchdog group, included several charts showing the number of attacks against Iraqi civilians, Iraqi security forces and U.S. troops. Only attacks against U.S. troops have declined in recent weeks.

The dichotomy appears to have dented Petraeus' creditability.

In a Washington Post-ABC News poll taken this week, 53 percent said they anticipate Petraeus report will be more optimistic than the reality on the ground.

And last week, David Walker, the head of the GAO and the author of the benchmark report, compared his role to that of an auditor, warning Congress to carefully assess the testimony. Walker said the GAO was like an auditor while Petraeus was like company management.

"Just as in corporate America, the reason you have auditors is, do you want to just rely upon the people who are responsible for executing?" Walker said. Military officials are "totally professional — no question about that — and you definitely ought to consider their opinion, but they are not independent."

Despite some question about how reliable Petraeus' statistics have been, the general always has promised to be candid about what is happening.

In a letter to troops Friday, Petraeus previewed some of his testimony. He said some parts of the surge, like political reconciliation had not gone as well as he would have liked. But the decision by tribal leaders in the once restive Anbar province to work with U.S. troops and fight al Qaida was an unanticipated, but welcome, success.

"The progress has not, to be sure, been uniform across Baghdad or across Iraq. Accomplishments in some areas — for example, in Ramadi and in Anbar Province — have been greater than any of us might have predicted six months ago.

"The achievements in some other areas — for example, in some particularly challenging Baghdad neighborhoods and in reducing overall civilian casualties, especially those caused by periodic, barbaric Al Qaeda bombings — have not been as dramatic," the general wrote in a letter dated Sept. 7. "However, the overall trajectory has been encouraging, especially when compared to the situation at the height of the sectarian violence in late 2006 and early 2007."

Many in Congress have said they will show deference to the general and the ambassador.

Instead of a public battle, many in Congress are cobbling together various bills they hope will garner enough bipartisan support to override the president. Some call for timelines, while others propose shifting the U.S. mission in Iraq toward protecting the borders, not securing the capital.

But so far, the decision on how to proceed in Iraq still appears to rest with President Bush. He is expected to give a speech to the nation later this week on what he described as "the way forward" in Iraq.