General Faces Tough Questions, Despite Better News

The last time Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker came before Congress, they faced skeptical Democrats who accused them of cooking the books, as well as a full-page newspaper ad calling Petraeus "General Betray Us."

Not this time.

Sure, the Democrats, and a few Republicans, are still skeptical about what has really been accomplished in Iraq. But there is no longer any real debate that violence has dropped, and dropped dramatically, since the strategy to "surge" U.S. troop levels went into effect last year.

Drop in Attacks

Petraeus comes to Capitol Hill armed with charts tracking the turnaround in every grim category: car bombs, sectarian murders and U.S. casualties are all down dramatically. Overall, military figures show a decline in attacks of nearly 75 percent since the surge began.

When Petraeus claimed security improvements during his first report to Congress last September, Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., told him, "The reports you provide for us really require the willing suspension of disbelief."

Others shared her skepticism and for good reason: the U.S. had just been through the deadliest summer of the war — 263 American troops were killed in June, July and August 2007.

Now, there is little debate that security has improved, but Petraeus and Crocker face two potentially tougher questions: 1) What has the security improvement accomplished? And, 2) Will it last?

Watch an exclusive interview with Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker tonight on "Nightline" at 11:35 p.m. ET

Holding What Has Been Gained

Petraeus is clear that he believes the security improvement is fragile and reversible. Violence is down, but there is no guarantee it will remain down.

That is why he wants a so-called "pause" in planned troop reductions. Most of the combat forces that came to Iraq as part of the surge are due to go home by mid July. Petraeus doesn't want to commit to any further reductions until he can see what happens once the surge is over.

Already there are worrying signs: Over the past two weeks, 27 American service members have died in Iraq.

As for what the security improvement has accomplished, the short answer is not enough. The idea behind the surge was to improve security to give the Iraqis time to get their act together, strengthening the central government and achieving some degree of political reconciliation. As Defense Secretary Robert Gates put it last spring, "We are buying them time with American blood."

Pace of Political Progress

Crocker is expected to report some progress on the political front. The Iraqi parliament finally has some accomplishments, including a $48 billion budget for 2008, plans for long-overdue provincial elections, and a new law allowing some former members of the late Saddam Hussein's Baath party to get government jobs.

But, as Crocker himself has said, the progress has been slow and insufficient. U.S. troops have bought the Iraqis time, but the time is running out.