The Case of The Missing Victory

There’s been a strange silence lately in the Presidential election: silence about victory in Iraq.

Number of U.S. combat fatalities in Baghdad this October? Zero, for the first time in the war. It’s part of a larger trend:

Thirteen deaths were reported during October, eight of them in combat. The figures exactly match those of last July and reflect a continuing downward trend that began around Sept. 2007.

October 2007 saw 38 deaths reported (29 combat); in October 2006 there were 106 U.S. deaths (99 combat) and in October 2005 there were 96 (77 combat).

October 2008 was the best (or, more accurately, least-worst) month of the war so far:

U.S. deaths in Iraq fell in October to their lowest monthly level of the war, matching the record low of 13 fatalities suffered in July. Iraqi deaths fell to their lowest monthly levels of the year….The sharp drop in American fatalities in Iraq reflects the overall security improvements across the country following the Sunni revolt against al-Qaida and the rout suffered by Shiite extremists in fighting last spring in Basra and Baghdad.

But the decline also points to a shift in tactics by extremist groups, which U.S. commanders say are now focusing their attacks on Iraqi soldiers and police that are doing much of the fighting.

Iraqi government figures showed at least 364 Iraqis killed in October – including police, soldiers, civilians and militants.

Despite the sharp decline, the Iraqi death toll serves as a reminder that this remains a dangerous, unstable country despite the security gains, which U.S. military commanders repeatedly warn are fragile and reversible.

Iraq WallsPerhaps the most tangible sign of victory in Iraq is the removal of the security walls in Baghdad; one would have to be positively churlish towards the war effort to resist being moved by the sight of those walls coming down, and what they mean to life in the Iraqi capital. And it’s not just walls of concrete crumbling as the counterinsurgency “surge” pays its dividends:

On Oct. 1, the Sunni-dominated Awakening movement, widely credited with helping restore order to neighborhoods that were among the most deadly, passed from the American to the Iraqi government payroll in Baghdad. There is deep mutual mistrust between the new employer and many of its new employees, many of whom are former insurgents.

Another element of the transition, which has attracted far less notice than the Awakening transfer, is the effort by the Iraqi Army to begin turning over neighborhoods to the paramilitary National Police. In the future, its officers, too, will leave and be replaced by regular police officers.

Iraq ProvincesAt a macro level, only 5 of Iraq’s 18 provinces have yet to have full control handed back to Iraqi authorities, although U.S. efforts are still important in securing Iraq’s borders.

Have we gone so far along the path to victory that even Barack Obama couldn’t screw it up? Not so fast:

U.S. commanders are also worried that security could worsen if the Iraqi parliament refuses to approve a new security agreement by the end of December, when the U.N. Security Council mandate under which the coalition operates in Iraq expires.

Without a new agreement or a new U.N. mandate, U.S. military operations would have to stop. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government is pressing for changes in the draft agreement before submitting it to parliament.

December, of course, is still on George W. Bush’s watch, but nobody doubts that the President-elect will have real influence on that process, let alone on the U.S. military’s ability to keep faith with our allies in Iraq going forward. But while an Obama Administration may still present a threat to victory in Iraq, the declining public interest in the conflict and the prominence of economic issues at home has basically made it politically impossible to make the case against Obama’s wartime leadership, even as he plainly and inarguably got one of the two most important decisions of his time in the U.S. Senate – his opposition to the surge – as wrong as possible (on the other, preventing the financial crisis, he did no better).

Republicans in the 1990s tasted the bitter fruit of electoral irrelevance of one issue after another on which conservative policies had been implemented and succeeded – the Cold War, crime, welfare. (The Democrats don’t have this problem). If John McCain loses, it may be because he really did prefer losing an election to losing a war. Certainly many Iraqis would prefer to see McCain win. It will be too bad if American voters don’t see things the same way.