Earlier this afternoon, I attended an AEI panel on Frederick Kagan's new report on Iraq/>/>. He was joined by Michael O'Hanlon and Ken Pollack.
Kagan opened up by declaring that "the civil war in Iraq is over," because the surge succeeded in quelling sectarian violence and now the Iraqi public is increasingly focused on preventing an uptick in violence. Attacks that would have triggered a wave of tit for tat in 2006, are now being met with restraint on both sides.
While Al Qaeda in Iraq/> is not fully defeated, Kagan argued, there is "no measurable likelihood" that it will achieve its goals of transforming Iraq/>/> into an Islamist state, because the Iraqi people have rejected them. This means that Iraq/> has been a major setback for global Al Qaeda, which has viewed Iraq/>/> as the central front in the War on Terror.
Kagan argued that though the prevailing narrative is that the Iraqi government has failed to meet the benchmarks set by Congress, by his count, the Iraqis have actually met 12 of 18 benchmarks, while making progress on 5 others.
Looking to troop withdrawals, Kagan said that a drawdown of troops to 15 brigades from the current 20 would still allow us to complete our mission successfully, but anything below 15 would put our mission in jeopardy.
O'Hanlon said that supporters of the surge had been "vindicated" by the success of the strategy, but that we are by no means out of the woods in Iraq/>/>. In terms of troop numbers, he noted that the surge would be over by the summer, and said that we would only be able to pull out troops at a gradual pace. He supported maintaining pre-surge levels for at least another year, and said the next president would not be able to responsibly withdraw more than 3 or 4 brigades a year, which means by the end of 2012, we’d be looking at a troop presence in Iraq/>/> of about 30,000. While "not as sanguine" as Kagan on the political situation in Iraq/>/>, O'Hanlon acknowledged that there has been a lot of political progress.
He also blasted the idea of a counterterrorism strategy that would have U.S./> troops withdraw to Kuwait/>/> and re-enter if Al Qaeda strikes. What our experiences in Iraq have proved thus far, O'Hanlon argued, is that if we aren't on the ground providing security in the urban areas, Al Qaeda will infiltrate them, and it will make it much more difficult to locate and disrupt them.
Pollack chimed in to say that it was "remarkable" to him as a military analyst that the surge has worked exactly as it was intended to. A year ago, he would have given very low odds to a best case scenario in Iraq/>/>, but now that scenario is not just possible, but perhaps even probable. He cautioned, however, that the progress we have made is fragile, and the big question was, "How much can we do in the south without sacrificing the gains we've made in the north?" Southern Iraq/>, all panelists acknowledged, was doing much worse than the other regions. If we pull out from Iraq/>/> precipitously, Pollack said, we may return to the levels of violence we saw in 2006 and run the risk of an all out civil war that would have ramifications for the rest of the region.