Packer answers some questions from O’Hanlon

George Packer got Michael O’Hanlon, he of the “infamous”: “op-ed”: extolling the successes in Iraq, and “managed to suss out some details”:

He spoke with very few Iraqis and could independently confirm very little of what he heard from American officials. In eight days he travelled to half a dozen cities — *that’s not much time in each*. The evidence that four or five Iraqi Army divisions, with most of their bad commanders weeded out, are now capable of holding, for example, Mosul and Tal Afar, *came from American military sources*. Pollack found that U.S. officers sounded much more realistic than on his previous trip, in late 2005. He gauged their reliability in answers they gave to questions that he asked “offline,” after a briefing — there was a minimum of happy talk, but also a minimum of dire gloom. The improvements in security, he said, are “relative,” *which is a heavy qualification, given the extreme violence of 2006 and early 2007*. And it’s far from clear that progress anywhere is sustainable. Everywhere he went, the line Pollack heard was that *the central government in Baghdad is broken and the only solutions that can work are local ones*. (My emphasis.)

Yeah, that’s pretty much what I expected. From my time in Iraq, I would often hear from local commanders who would tell me how great and successful their local area was going, but who couldn’t give me a broader picture. (How could they? They were busy trying to deal with micro-level stuff.) The commanders and embassy briefers who offered backgrounders rarely seemed to have feet planted in reality that I could see with my own eyes living outside the Green Zone. (The CPA was the worst, by far. It was better under Khalilzad, who was more of a straight-shooter when he was on background.)
But back to the “op-ed”: O’Hanlon and Pollack have apparently tried to walk back a bit from their triumphal tone that was probably what riled so many people up. (The headline wasn’t theirs, so cut them some slack on that one.) And they did have some caveats about the political process having “huge hurdles” to overcome. But while they may not have meant to deceive in their observations of what sound like real improvements in security, they should have known that war supporters in the White House and in the media would leap on their piece like it was a life preserver and use it in ways they may not have intended.
I’m surprised at the pair’s naivety in the writing and marketing of this piece. And I’m also surprised at their naivety in taking such a limited collection of data as painting a fuller picture than there is in Iraq.