Thursday, December 16, 2004

Can We Win in Iraq?

In the November 29 Washington Post, Brian Gifford argues that "The Costs of Staying the Course" in Iraq are too high to bear for much longer. His key argument is as follows:

The focus on how "light" casualties have been so far rather than on what those casualties signify serves to rationalize the continued conduct of the war and prevents us as a nation from confronting the realities of conditions in Iraq. Even more troubling, daily casualties have almost tripled since before the first attack on Fallujah in April. Conditions are getting worse, not improving. To be sure, American forces are winning the body count. That the insurgency is nonetheless growing more effective in the face of heavier losses makes it difficult to imagine an exit strategy that any reasonable person would recognize as a "victory."

Gifford's essay is a thinly veiled call to cut and run, as that is the only logical conclusion to draw from his argument. The perception that Iraq is a quagmire, that the insurgency cannot be defeated, that the idea of a pluralist, democratic Iraq is a hopeless fantasy spun by out of touch "neoconservative" intellectuals, has become increasingly widespread. Even noted conservative icon William F. Buckley has written that "the insurrectionists can’t be defeated by any means we would consent to use." (Thanks to Simon X for the link)

I have previously made the case as to why abandoning Iraq would be a monumentally bad idea. But what if staying in Iraq is an even worse option? Wouldn't it be better to cut our losses now? The answer to this question depends upon whether or not Gifford is correct in implying that Iraq is an unwinnable quagmire. A close analysis of the situation suggests that he is wrong: we are in fact well on the way to defeating the Baathists and jihadists.

For one thing, the recent liberation of Fallujah was a major blow to the enemy. Max Boot puts the battle in perspective:

Coalition troops killed 1,200 to 1,600 guerrillas and captured more than 1,000. They uncovered 26 bomb factories, 350 arms caches (containing thousands of weapons), several chemical weapons laboratories and eight houses where hostages were held and probably tortured and killed. And they accomplished all this with less than half the number of casualties suffered in Hue, Vietnam, in 1968, the last major urban assault mounted by the Marine Corps.

This victory did not come without a cost, as Boot correctly points out. 71 American Marines and Soldiers perished in the battle, along with a number of our Iraqi allies. I mourn their sacrifice and humbly offer my thoughts and prayers to their families, and to those wounded in the battle. Through their heroism, they achieved an important victory by depriving the jihadists and Baathists of their major safehaven and base of operations.

The terrorists had successfully turned Fallujah into a Taliban-style city state, brutally enforcing Islamic law and exercising a reign of terror against its inhabitants. The extent to which Fallujah had become a major operational and logistical base for the insurgents is illustrated by this November 24th report from ABC News:

Eleven IED factories were uncovered, with cell phones for detonators and hand-held radios and receivers.

There was a weapons cache found on one out of every five blocks, the U.S. assessment says, and in 60 of the city's 100 mosques, U.S. Marines found weapons or fighters inside.

Military officers say there were enough weapons uncovered in Fallujah to fuel a nationwide rebellion.

By denying the terrorists Fallujah, we have dealt a major blow to the logistics of the insurgency. As Mackubin Thomas Owens wrote in the December 6th issue of the Weekly Standard:

All wars hinge on logistics. No force, conventional or guerrilla, can continue to fight if it is not resupplied. Storming Falluja was absolutely essential to the destruction of the rebel logistics infrastructure. The city was the terminus of what the Belmont Club calls "the conveyor belt of destruction that flow[s] from the Syrian border toward Baghdad." Just as the capture of Caen and St. Lô by the Allies in 1944 was a necessary prelude to the breakout from the bocage and the use of Cherbourg and Le Havre to support the drive across France, so the takedown of Falluja is necessary to the security of Baghdad.

The capture of Fallujah has provided US and Iraqi forces with other advantages. According to the December 3rd New York Times, the city has yielded "a treasure-trove of intelligence that is giving commanders insights into the next phase of the insurgency, and helping them reshape the American counterinsurgency campaign, senior Pentagon and military officials say." More specifically, the Times says that:

Documents and computers found in Falluja are providing clues to the identity of home-grown opponents of the new Iraqi government, mostly former Baathists. The intelligence is being used to hunt those leaders and their channels of financing, as well as to detect cracks, even feuds, within the insurgency that can be exploited to weaken its base.

Reuters also noted the gains made by coalition forces in this December 9th dispatch:

The assault by more than 10,000 U.S. troops backed by Iraqi units and begun on Nov. 8 killed, by U.S. estimates, some 1,600 rebels, including foreign Islamists and Iraqi Sunni Arab nationalists, and deprived survivors of their main stronghold.

"They have been pushed backwards in the development of an insurgency from conventional operations to small attacks.

"So large-scale operations like the liberation of Falluja are not expected as long as insurgents cannot establish a major supply and operations hub," West said. "Therefore, the current pursuit operations are extremely important."

The best overall assessment of the post-Fallujah state of affairs in Iraq is provided in a December 6th piece from the Washington Post. It describes the belief of senior US commanders that the Fallujah battle has turned the momentum against the insurgency, though the fight is far from over. The Post article notes two especially important points: that the vast majority of insurgent activity is confined to the Sunni Triangle; and that the number of attacks has declined by over 50% since the capture of Fallujah:

The officers said they have been heartened by evidence of greater security and stability in Iraq's southern, Shiite-populated provinces since the assault in Najaf in August against the militia of radical cleric Moqtada Sadr. They also described moves toward next month's elections as generally on track, with more than 200 political entities certified and voter registration proceeding in most of the country. The notable exceptions are the Sunni-dominated provinces of Anbar, which includes Fallujah and Ramadi, and Nineveh, which includes Mosul.

"This is a fight, and in fights you have good days and bad days," Casey said in an interview. "But you don't measure success a day at a time. It's a constant process of going forward and, at the same time, keeping a lookout for what's going wrong."

As a sign of the damage done to the insurgency by the Fallujah operation, U.S. officers point to a sharp decline in the number of attacks nationwide, from a high of more than 130 a day at the start of the offensive in early November to about 60 now. But U.S. military intelligence officers expect the number to rise again before the national elections set for Jan. 30.

The fact that most of the violence is confined to a relatively small part of Iraq is an important one to keep in mind. Iraq's Shia and Kurds, who together make up 75-80% of the population, are firmly in favor of the transition to democracy and against the insurgency. With US forces having decisively defeated Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia in August, the Shia heartland of south-central Iraq is once again stable. Iraqi security forces have taken control of the city of Najaf, and even the Baghdad troublespot of Sadr City "is now embracing peace and reconstruction." While the terrorists are desperately seeking to ignite a civil war, their efforts have so far met with failure.

Finally, there's one other person who believes the insurgency is losing in Iraq, and his name is Abu Musab al-Zarqawi:

An audiotape purportedly made by Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and posted on a Web site Wednesday lashed out at Muslim scholars for not speaking out against U.S. actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, saying they have “let us down in the darkest circumstances.”


“You have let us down in the darkest circumstances and handed us over to the enemy. ... You have quit supporting the mujahedeen,” al-Zarqawi purportedly said on the tape. “Hundreds of thousands of the nation’s sons are being slaughtered at the hands of the infidels because of your silence.”

The tape, released on Wednesday, November 24, is apparently a re-edited version of an older speech. Still, it indicates that Zarqawi is less than happy with the current state of affairs.

A message from a jihadist Web site, reported on November 23rd by ABC News, confirms that the loss of Fallujah has hurt the insurgency:

The new message opens with a plea for advice from Palestinian and Chechen militants as well as Osama bin Laden supporters in Afghanistan and Pakistan. "We face many problems," it reads in Arabic, "and need your military guidance since you have more experience."

The problems, the message says, are the result of losing the insurgent safe haven of Fallujah to U.S. troops. It says the insurgency was hampered as checkpoints and raids spread "to every city and road." Communications broke down as insurgents were forced to spread out through the country.

The arrest of some of their military experts, more "spies willing to help the enemy," and a dwindling supply of arms also added to the organizational breakdown, it reads.

Contrary to the assertions of Mr. Gifford, Iraq is not an unwinnable quagmire. There is plenty of evidence that we are defeating the Baathists and jihadists. In the last month we have deprived them of their major operational and logistical base, inflicted heavy casualties, and substantially reduced their ability to mount large-scale operations. The overall number of insurgent attacks has declined by over half. Most of the country is stable, and the vast majority of Iraq's people support the transition to democracy and pluralism.

This does not mean that Iraq is on the verge of peace and prosperity. The terrorists have been all too successful at sowing chaos and slowing the pace of progress, and retain the capability to stage further atrocities. Their attacks will only intensify in the runup to January's elections. For all their efforts, however, the Baathists and jihadists cannot stop the process of building a free Iraq. Make no mistake, the costs of staying the course will be painful. If we are willing to pay that price, we can succeed in creating a pluralist, democratic Iraq, and inflict a major defeat on the forces of Islamist extremism. It won't be easy, but America, Iraq, and the world will all benefit.


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