Are We Winning in Iraq?: Defeatism is Unwarranted

Mackubin T. Owens

September 1, 2006

Tom Ricks of the Washington Post calls the Iraq war a “fiasco” and opines that it was guided by “perhaps the worst war plan in American history.” Retired Marine general Anthony Zinni, Tommy Franks’s predecessor as commander of Central Command, describes the actions of the Bush administration as ranging from “true dereliction, negligence, and irresponsibility” to “lying, incompetence, and corruption” and calls Rumsfeld “incompetent strategically, operationally, and tactically.”

Andy Bacevich, a retired Army officer who teaches at Boston University, goes farther, concluding that “the sun has set on the age of unquestioned Western military dominance.” Muslims, he writes in the September issue of The American Conservative, have solved the riddle of the Western Way of War. They have stopped fighting on Western terms and have started winning.

What the Islamic Way of War does mean to both Israel and to the United States is this: the Arabs now possess—and know that they possess—the capacity to deny us victory, especially in any altercation that occurs on their own turf and among their own people. To put it another way, neither Israel nor the United States today possesses anything like the military muscle needed to impose its will on the various governments, nation-states, factions, and political movements that comprise our list of enemies.

The Democrats, attempting to leverage adverse public opinion regarding the war into political advantage for the 2006 election, have simply adopted such rhetoric as their talking points. But the defeatism that permeated the symposium on Iraq published in the last issue of National Review makes it clear that even many conservatives have lost hope in our enterprise there.

I continue to be guardedly optimistic about the U.S. enterprise in Iraq. Although violence continues, there are a number of factors that favor the Iraqi government. The principal one is that, arguably, we have broken the back of the Sunni insurgency, the main threat to the Iraqi government.

Skeptics might object by pointing to the recent report by a Marine intelligence officer, which concludes that the military situation in al-Anbar province can best be described as a “military stalemate.” How can my contention be true in the light of this report, which has been publicly endorsed by Lt. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, commander of Multinational Corps-Iraq?

There is no doubt that al-Anbar remains a dangerous and violent place. More than 30 percent of all attacks in Iraq from May to early August took place in al-Anbar. More than 900 U.S. troops have been killed in al-Anbar since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Nonetheless, the meaning of “military stalemate” must be placed in the proper strategic context.

Compare the situation there today to that of spring and summer 2004. Al-Anbar was completely under the control of insurgents. Fallujah, one of the province’s major cities, served as the headquarters of the late Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the arch-terrorist who turned the city into one big torture chamber from which he dispatched suicide bombers to other parts of Iraq. Control of the city had given the insurgents the infrastructure—human and physical—necessary to maintain a high tempo of attacks against the Iraqi government and coalition forces.

In November 2004, Marines and soldiers wrested Fallujah from the insurgents in bloody fighting. Of course, in and of itself, the loss of Fallujah didn’t cause the insurgency to collapse, but it did deprive the insurgents of an indispensable sanctuary, absent which large terrorist networks are reduced to small, hunted bands that cannot easily survive. And the fall of the city marked the first phase of a campaign: a series of coordinated events—movements, battles and supporting operations—designed to achieve strategic or operational objectives within al-Anbar.

After losing the city, Zarqawi apparently tried to reconstitute the insurgency in Mosul, but was unable to do so because the Coalition continued a high tempo of offensive operations that maintained pressure on the insurgents. In Mosul, as in Fallujah, Coalition forces killed and captured enemy fighters, forcing Zarqawi to move west into al-Anbar province. In March, an Iraqi special operations unit captured an insurgent camp near Lake Tharthar on the border of al-Anbar and Salaheddin provinces. Such operations forced Zarqawi back to positions along the Syrian border.

Next came the “rivers campaign.” No force, conventional or guerrilla, can continue to fight if it is deprived of sanctuary and logistics support. Accordingly, the central goal of the U.S. strategy in al-Anbar province was to destroy the insurgency by depriving it of its base and infrastructure in the Sunni Triangle and its “ratlines” west and northwest of Fallujah. The first of these ratlines follows the Euphrates River corridor—running from Syria to Husayba on the Syrian border and then through Qaim, Rawa, Haditha, Asad, Hit, and Fallujah to Baghdad. The other follows the course of the Tigris—from the north through Mosul-Tel Afar to Tikrit and on to Baghdad. These two river corridors constituted the main spatial elements of the campaign to implement U.S. strategy in the Sunni Triangle.

The rivers campaign consisted of five operations that took place from May to August 2005: The high operational tempo associated with this campaign was intended to degrade rapidly the rebels’ lines of communication at both ends of the two river corridors, while killing and capturing as many of the enemy as possible.

  • The first operation, Operation Matador, was a week-long Marine action centered on Qaim, near the Syrian border. Matador sought to kill and capture followers of Zarqawi known to be located there and to interdict the smuggling routes they used to move downriver to Baghdad. Some 125 insurgents died in the fighting.
  • Next came Operation New Market, another Marine operation, in the Haditha area southeast of Qaim. Here, a major highway from Syria crosses the Euphrates and then branches north toward Mosul and southeast toward Fallujah and Baghdad. While the insurgents did not stand and fight as they had in Qaim, the operation still netted substantial intelligence.
  • The third was a joint U.S.-Iraqi operation in the Mosul-Tel Afar region that contains the Tigris River ratline.
  • The fourth operation of this campaign was Operation Lightning/Thunder in Baghdad itself, which led to the capture of a former general in Saddam’s intelligence service, who (according to the U.S. military) led “the military wings of several terror cells” operating in west Baghdad. Hundreds of other insurgents were captured as well.
  • The fifth, Operation Quick Strike, differed from earlier operations in that it was substantially larger in both scope and magnitude, enabling the Coalition to apply force against a number of insurgent strongholds simultaneously. The previous operations, although successful up to a point, nonetheless couldn’t prevent the insurgents from abandoning one town and moving to another not threatened by allied forces. The additional forces that made it possible to conduct simultaneous operations of this magnitude were Iraqi security forces.

While military means alone cannot defeat an insurgency, these operations did weaken the Sunni insurgency. Although the Sunni insurgents can still cause damage, the threat they pose to the government was reduced considerably by the rivers campaign. Thus the strategic meaning of “military stalemate” in al-Anbar province is that the Sunni extremists, the main threat to the emerging Iraqi state, have been neutralized militarily.

But what about the Shia? It is true that Shia militias have proliferated and that their attacks on the Sunni have resulted in sectarian violence and even raised the specter of civil war. But in the long run, the Shia are much less of a threat to the stability of the Iraqi state than Sunni extremists.

My optimism concerning the Shia is based on the argument of Fouad Ajami in his book The Foreigner’s Gift: The Americans, the Arabs, and the Iraqis in Iraq. To begin with, the Shia are divided; there is no monolithic Shia position. Ajami rejects the idea that Iraq’s Shiites are intent on acting as the religious henchmen of Khomeinist Iran, or that Shia clerics such as Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani wish to establish a theocracy in Iraq. While acknowledging the damage Moqtadar al-Sadr can do in the short run, he denies the claim that al-Sadr can sabotage the new democracy.

The situation is summarized very nicely by Mario Loyola in the current issue of National Review:

For all their divisions, the Shiites have one very important thing in common: their overwhelming interest in defending Iraq’s democracy. They are the majority in the country, and democracy has allowed them at long last to assert majority rule. They may have accepted Kurdish autonomy, but it is inconceivable that they would accept the outright secession of the Kurdish or Sunni provinces. This is why even the most radical of the militia leaders have consistently called for national unity and none has advanced an anti-democratic agenda. Indeed, what nobody seems to have considered is that Iraq’s Shiite leaders—even the radical ones—might actually have every intention of making the democratic experiment work.

…the anti-government insurgency in Iraq is almost entirely based in the Sunni minority and remains localized to the Sunni provinces and Baghdad. The Sunni insurgents’ failure to achieve national scope (more than half of all attacks against security forces and civilians still happen in Baghdad and Anbar Province alone) is indeed amazing, considering their evident resources and how long they have been at it. Confined to a minority, and bereft of any political program that anyone can understand, the insurgency is destined to remain local. The civil strife currently sweeping Iraq—and especially its capital—is exacting a terrible human toll. But Iraqis will eventually tire of the violence, as the Algerians did, for the simple reason that violence for the sake of violence cannot indefinitely sustain popular support.

In other words, while the Sunni can generate sectarian violence in the short run, they are unlikely to defeat the government over the long haul as long as the United States remains committed to Iraqi freedom.

But the key to success in Iraq is time. Iraq still needs time to create a competent military. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki understands this. During his recent visit to the United States, his constant refrain was that the Iraqis need time before they can take care of their own security.

American commanders have made it clear that the near-term priorities for U.S. troops are securing Baghdad and training Iraqi troops. Sectarian violence surged in the wake of the bombing of the Sammarah Mosque in February and peaked in Baghdad during June and July. Substantial U.S. and Iraqi forces were moved to Baghdad to secure the city. The subsequent combined military operations seem to have reduced sectarian attacks in August in Baghdad neighborhoods, according to Gen. Chiarelli. But the transfer of troops to Baghdad from al-Anbar and other provinces in Iraq has made those locations less secure, leading critics of the administration to renew their call for more troops in the country.

But the additional troops in Iraq should be Iraqi, and, in this area, much progress has already been made. Five of ten Iraqi Army Divisions Headquarters have assumed the leads in their areas of responsibility. In May 2005, Iraqi forces took the lead in only 20 percent of Coalition operations. By August of last year it was up to 80 percent, and is higher today. According to Gen. George Casey on August 30, Iraqi forces will be able “to take on the security responsibilities for the country with very little coalition support” in about 12 to 18 months.

More and more people are coming to understand that it’s not so much how many U.S. troops there are in Iraq, but what they are doing. Keeping in mind the adage of T. E. Lawrence, aka “Lawrence of Arabia,” that “better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them, not to win it for them,” the focus must continue to shift from “direct action” to training the Iraqis.

Yet as Seth Moulton, a former Marine infantry officer who spent time training Iraqis, recently observed in the New York Times, there are two serious problems with our current approach to replacing American troops with capable Iraqi forces:

First, despite all rhetoric in Washington to the contrary, American commanders are being pressured to meet timelines rather than encouraged to wait until Iraqi forces are ready. “Standing up” Iraqi troops is not enough; they must be well-trained.

Second, our strategy is based on consolidating American forces in huge megabases as a means to reduce numbers and, as advocated by several members of Congress, to “move to the periphery.” This is exactly the opposite of what has been prescribed for decades to fight a counterinsurgency, or to squelch a fomenting civil war.

American military advisers, and the Green Berets they take after, are our greatest assets in Iraq because they are a model for how to fight insurgents and build indigenous forces.

The likelihood of success in Iraq has been improved in direct proportion to the recognition that what is happening in that country is a classical insurgency and that the correct response is the proper application of counterinsurgency techniques and operational approaches. But as was the case with Vietnam, success in Iraq will also depend on the vicissitudes of American domestic politics.

Mackubin T. Owens is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center and an associate dean of academics and a professor of national-security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. He is writing a history of U.S. civil-military relations.