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The Right Fight Now

From Weekly Standard regular contributors Tom Donnelly and Gary Schmitt in the October 26, 2003 Washington Post: Counterinsurgency, not caution, is the answer in Iraq.

12:10 PM, Oct 27, 2003 • By GARY SCHMITT and THOMAS DONNELLY
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AMERICANS HAVE DEBATED a lot about Iraq: whether the war was justified, whether the administration lied about Iraq's weapons programs, whether sufficient postwar planning was done, and whether the coalition, the United Nations or the Iraqis themselves should be put in charge of reconstruction. In short, we have debated virtually every topic possible--with scant attention to the one most relevant to what is happening daily on the ground there: Does the United States have the right military strategy in place to defeat what its own generals admit is an increasingly sophisticated insurgency?

It's an urgent question, because American servicemen and women--along with cooperating Iraqis--are coming under attack virtually every day. The number killed and wounded is rising. Yet the debate has focused on whether we have enough troops, rather than whether we have the right forces, in the right places, using the right stratagems to defeat the amalgam of hard-core Baathists, Iraqi opportunists and radical Islamists from outside the country who continue to wage unconventional war against the U.S.-led occupation. Although the Bush administration can rightly point to successes in reconstructing Iraq since Saddam Hussein's regime was toppled, the fact remains that unless the security situation in Iraq is brought under control and the insurgency there decisively defeated, those successes can never be made permanent and the president's larger hopes for a stable, democratic Iraq will never be fulfilled.

Developing and executing a successful counterinsurgency strategy for Iraq is a challenge, to be sure, but far from an insurmountable one.

For one thing, the conditions for a successful American counterinsurgency campaign are good. The vast majority of Iraq is not "a sea" in which insurgents can hide and find ready support. The de facto American defense of Iraqi Kurdistan over the past decade has created an increasingly free and stable northern Iraq. And the war itself has liberated the Shiite "silent majority." This long-repressed community and its mainstream leaders have, contrary to many predictions, proven to be relatively reliable partners, despite bombed mosques, assassinated imams and the machinations of radical clerics such as Moqtada Sadr. Whatever grievances Iraq's Shiites, Kurds and other repressed minorities have among themselves or with the occupying authority, there is no sign that these disputes are either metastasizing or bringing those groups together with the Sunni and Islamist guerrillas. In short, the good news is that the insurgency is largely localized in the Sunni regions and it appears the insurgents are few in number.

Our foes in Iraq also lack a leader to rally around. There is no Mao Zedong, no Emilio Aguinaldo capable of summoning citywide, let alone nationwide, support. Saddam Hussein is too discredited even among Iraqis to become a hero to ordinary people there.

On the military side, U.S. post-combat stability operations in Iraq have made progress. After the immediate postwar pause, U.S. and British forces regained the initiative with a series of sweeps--operations such as Peninsula Strike, Planet X, Desert Scorpion, Sidewinder and Soda Mountain--that dealt heavy blows to the reorganizing Baathists in May, June and July. Other military operations struck the camps of foreign terrorist organizations. In all, thousands of suspects were detained and large arms caches seized.

Yet the Bush administration can't rest easy. Military sweeps and follow-up strikes by special forces are not enough for a successful counterinsurgency campaign. The insurgents have plenty of guns and more than enough money to pay people to attack a wide variety of targets--not just Americans, but Iraqis or anyone else working to create a different future for Iraq.

Moreover, to be effective, these military operations require precise intelligence--which commanders themselves say is in short supply. Without that intelligence, sweeps apply a broad military brush to a discrete set of adversaries. Even with the best of planning, they may result in arrests and casualties of non-belligerents, potentially spreading opposition to the United States instead of marginalizing it. Right now, we are not facing a full-blown Sunni ethnic rebellion. The majority of Sunnis in the Baathist-dominated areas are probably trying their best to keep their heads down, fearing both the insurgents in their midst and the American military's incredible firepower. The last thing we want is a backlash among these fence-sitting Sunnis, seeking revenge for what they perceive to be the indiscriminate application of U.S. military power.