18 September 2007

The Petraeus Narrative

I've allowed my comments on the Petraeus Report to slip to the backburner, so let me return to that theme.

Historians all normally tackle a mass of inchoate facts that they must shape into narrative. General Petraeus basically had the same job in writing his report. It was very clear from his testimony to the House committee that he had constructed his narrative and stuck to it like a catechism.

The Petraeus narrative is as follows:

1) After the U.S. invasion, it was imperative to rebuild the Iraqi state.
2) U.S. measures at first went as well as one could legitimately expect, given the many problems. However, the bombing of the mosque at Samarra by al-Qaeda unleashed the pent-up sectarian divisions in Iraq.
3) Sectarian violence then threatened to spin out of control, and coalition forces were unable to protect the civilian population.
4) After the height of the problems in December 2006, American forces and their Iraqi associates slowly began to reassert a measure of authority.
5) A sudden and dramatic transformation occurred during the summer of 2007, and now the success in Anbar province provides a model to apply to the rest of the country.

Neither the House nor the Senate committees sought to challenge this narrative at all. I'm not so sure that was helpful. Where, for example, do we fit in the bombing of the UN headquarters building in the Canal Hotel? Or there is the Imam Ali mosque bombing also in 2003. These events took place in the distant past, relatively speaking. Presumably Petraeus regards the problems they provoked as being under way to solution before the Samarra bombing. Yet American and Iraqi authorities have been eager to find evidence that these were the product of al-Qaeda's strategy of stirring up sectarianism.

I don't know, even this event, when al-Qaeda's Iraqi mastermind formally declared war on Shia Iraq seems to have been swept under the carpet. I'm afraid if I were marking Petraeus's exam paper, I'd give him a C for this narrative. Samarra was just another episode in a long series. If the Shia didn't respond as vigorously, it might be because they lacked the means to do so.

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