On the Offensive

Mackubin T. Owens

October 1, 2004

According to a recent AP report, "U.S. and Iraqi forces battled their way into the heart of [the Sunni stronghold of Samarra] Friday [Oct. 1] and moved house to house in search of militants in what appeared to be the first major offensive to regain control of areas lost to insurgents before the January elections. More than 100 guerrillas were killed and 37 captured, according to an Iraqi official. The military said one American soldier was killed and four were wounded."

This is good news. It indicates that the final battle against the insurgency may now be underway.

This action is also based on assumptions completely at odds with two key criticisms that John Kerry and others have leveled against the decision to invade Iraq in the spring of 2003: 1) that Iraq has diverted our attention from the global war on terrorism; and 2) that by invading Iraq we have spawned more terrorists, making the United States less safe in an already-dangerous world. The assumption underlying both of these lines of attack is that there was no link between radical Islamist groups such as al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. There were no terrorists in Iraq before the war, goes the argument, but now there are terrorists there because of the war. This assumption is demonstrably false and thus so are the arguments based on it.

Recent reports issued by the 9/11 Commission and the Senate Intelligence Committee demonstrate that there were substantial links between Iraq and al Qaeda. Stephen Hayes, author of The Connection: How al Qaedas Collaboration with Saddam Hussein has Endangered America, provided a nice summary of the facts in his July 26 Weekly Standard piece, "The Missing Link":

Before the Iraq war, the US intelligence community reported that from 1996 to 2003, the Iraqi Intelligence Service [IIS] had focused its terrorist activity on Western interests, including the United States; "throughout 2002, the IIS was becoming increasingly aggressive in planning attacks against US interests;" Saddam Hussein was open "to enhancing bin Laden’s operational capability" and may have provided training to al Qaeda; bin Laden had made direst and specific requests for Iraqi assistance; al Qaeda had demonstrated and "enduring interest" in WMD expertise from Iraq; the Iraqi regime "certainly" knew that al Qaeda agents were operating in Baghdad and northern Iraq; and Saddam Hussein had made a "standing offer" to Osama bin Laden for safe haven in Iraq.

Indeed, intelligence linking al Qaeda and Iraq was much less ambiguous than pre-9/11 intelligence that might have indicated an imminent attack.

The claim that Iraq is a theater in the global war on terrorism is supported by the emerging science of mapping social networks, including terrorist organizations. The Belmont Club, which is rapidly becoming my favorite blog dealing with the terror war, posted a discussion on September 23 showing why eliminating state sponsorship of terrorist groups is critically important. "Because security comes at a price in performance and flexibility… you can have small, operationally secure terrorist groups, but you can’t have large, operationally secure cells without a state sponsor."

The logic of social networks explains why defeating the Taliban in Afghanistan and affecting regime change in Iraq helped to cripple global terrorism. "Without the infrastructure of a state sponsor, terrorism is limited to cells of about 100 members in size in order to maintain security." The logic of social networks also illustrates that Kerry was wrong when he claimed the war in Iraq "made America less safe than it should be in a dangerous world." Kerry’s argument inverts the logic: Allowing the growth of terrorist enclaves — such as those in Afghanistan and Iraq — is what really makes the world less safe.

But what about the escalating violence in Iraq, illustrated by the recent barbaric attack that killed 42 Iraqis, including 35 children? Doesn’t this indicate that terrorists are proliferating there, making a favorable outcome to the coalition effort unlikely? In a recent New York Times story, James Glanz and Thom Shanker wrote that

Over the past 30 days, more than 2,300 attacks by insurgents have been directed against civilians and military targets in Iraq, in a pattern that sprawls over nearly every major population center outside the Kurdish north, according to comprehensive data compiled by a private security company with access to military intelligence reports and its own network of Iraqi informants.

The sweeping geographical reach of the attacks, from Nineveh and Salahuddin Provinces in the northwest to Babylon and Diyala in the center and Basra in the south, suggests a more widespread resistance than the isolated pockets described by Iraqi government officials.

Is this evidence that the insurgency is spreading? Not necessarily.

First of all, the data cited by Glanz and Shanker is misleading. Here again the Belmont Club looks beneath the surface, and in so doing vindicates Prime Minister Allawi’s claim that most of Iraq’s provinces are secure and peaceful. In fact, a more detailed analysis of the Times’s data reveals that 2,139 of the 2,429 attacks listed in the story by Glanz and Shanker took place in six of the 18 Iraqi provinces. Says Belmont: "The real hotbeds are Baghdad and areas to the northwest — the Sunni Triangle. By far the greatest density of violence is in Baghdad, where 1,000 attacks have taken place in a 732 kilometers square." In other words, Allawi was correct when he said that most of Iraq is fairly stable.

Second, it seems clear that the rash of attacks represents an attempt by the insurgents to influence the outcome of the November presidential election in the United States and to undercut the January elections in Iraq. The likes of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his fellow killers must reason that their only hope for success is to cause enough chaos and mayhem in Iraq to create war weariness in the United States and ensure the defeat of George W. Bush. The situation today is eerily similar to that prevailing before the election of 1864. Then, the Confederacy’s best hope of achieving its goal was the election of George McClellan. Today, the insurgents hope for a Kerry victory. To be fair to Kerry, they may be wrong in their assumptions. A President Kerry might well prosecute the war just as vigorously as President Bush has. Unfortunately for the war effort, however, Kerry’s public pronouncements have led Zarqawi to believe that he can succeed by escalating the violence.

But if the insurgency is contained in certain parts of Iraq and if terrorist networks depend on sanctuaries such as Fallujah, it makes sense for the coalition to readopt the strategy I described generically in my April 30 piece "Delenda est Fallujah": cleaning out the rats’ nests of Fallujah, Ramadi, and other "no-go" areas in which the insurgents can plan such atrocities as the murder of 35 Iraqi children. Samarra is a start.

The AP story has a troubling passage however. "…Both Pentagon officials and defense analysts have said a U.S. military offensive into difficult-to-capture cities, like Ramadi and Fallujah, might still be delayed, or avoided altogether, if Baghdad and Washington decide to settle for partial Iraqi participation in elections in January." But the decision to eliminate these enclaves must be made not strictly on the basis of the elections but rather because their continued existence permits terrorists to expand their networks to a larger and more potent size. As the Belmont Club observes, without those sanctuaries terrorist networks would be reduced to "small, clandestine hunted bands."

We shouldn’t repeat the mistake we made earlier in the year when we agreed to a cease fire in Fallujah just as the Marines were on the verge of success. Here’s what I said in April:

The Fallujah rats’ nest should have been cleared out much earlier. It must be, eventually, if there is to be any hope of long-term Coalition success in Iraq. By not doing it now, we are likely to increase the cost — not only to the Marines who will have to retake real estate they were forced to give up, but also to the very civilians the negotiations seek to spare.

Urban warfare is difficult under any circumstances. It becomes more deadly when the defenders are permitted the time and leisure to prepare. The initial Marine offensive was successful in knocking the insurgents off balance and keeping them on the run. The cease-fire agreement, which now has been extended, gives the insurgents breathing space.

We should have learned by now that "giving peace a chance" is not an option when it comes to terrorists.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center and a professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. He led a Marine infantry platoon in Vietnam in 1968-1969.