The Magazine

Fighting to Win

With the proper strategy, victory in Iraq is far more likely than people think.

Dec 19, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 14 • By FREDERICK W. KAGAN
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IS RETREAT FROM--or withdrawal from--or defeat in--Iraq inevitable? Almost all opponents of the Bush administration say it is. As Rep. Jack Murtha put it in mid-November, when demanding the "immediate redeployment of U.S. troops" consistent with their safety, "The United States cannot accomplish anything further in Iraq militarily. It is time to bring the troops home." This was echoed more recently by Democratic chief Howard Dean: "The idea that we're going to win this war is an idea that, unfortunately, is just plain wrong." Advocates of withdrawal point to continuing attacks on coalition and Iraqi targets and to the steady, somber flow of U.S. casualties, as well as the increasing fear that our Army will break under the strain of prolonged occupation.

Administration supporters of course share these concerns, and some seem (privately) to share the view that the war may be unwinnable. Even a few inside the administration may have their doubts. In any case, the administration clearly believes that it has to promise a significant reduction of U.S. forces in Iraq--"conditions permitting"--in 2006. Reports are circulating that preparations for troop reductions have already begun.

The irony is that demands for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces do not spring from any particular recent bad news from Iraq (there has been little) or justified alarm about the Army's ability to sustain itself (high levels of retention continue to make up for problems with recruitment). On the contrary, the most recent news from Iraq is promising. American strategy has improved, and prospects for success are better than they have ever been.

Since early September, coalition efforts along the Syrian border to clear towns of insurgents have not generated anger, violence, and outbursts--on the contrary. The clearing of Tal Afar in mid-September by a combined American and Iraqi force followed a request by the citizens of that town for an American intervention. Operations in villages in the upper Euphrates since then have generated limited and sporadic resistance, mainly from cornered insurgents. The lessons of the October referendum are very clear, moreover: Dramatic and aggressive joint action by U.S. and Iraqi forces to preempt and defeat the insurgents' attempt to derail the election worked spectacularly well.

There is at this point at least as much evidence that the aggressive use of coalition forces is effective as that the presence of those forces is--as U.S. critics insist--harmful. Desirable though the withdrawal of U.S. forces is from both the American and the Iraqi perspectives, therefore, it must not be the first goal of U.S. operations in Iraq. The truth is that calls for a precipitous retreat from Iraq, or for setting arbitrary deadlines or milestones for withdrawal, now threaten to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

A Baseless Urgency

THE URGENCY of an American withdrawal from Iraq is no greater now than it has been for some time, and those most loudly demanding immediate withdrawal have no convincing evidence to support their demands. In his passionate speech, Murtha quoted selectively from the statements of CENTCOM officials to present a picture of Iraq in which resentment of U.S. forces appeared to be growing and to be deepening the insurgency. "I have concluded," said Murtha, "the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq is impeding this progress. Our troops have become the primary target of the insurgency. They are united against U.S. forces, and we have become a catalyst for violence. U.S. troops are the common enemy of the Sunnis, the Saddamists, and the foreign jihadists." In response to questions, he repeated: "It's time to bring [U.S. troops] home. . . . They're the targets. They have become the enemy! . . . We're uniting the enemy against us!"

But these assertions are simply wrong.

Coalition forces have always been the primary targets of the insurgents, but over the past year Iraqi security forces and Iraqi civilians have borne a larger share of insurgent attacks than they did before the first battle of Falluja and the revelation of the Abu Ghraib scandal. Recent spectacular attacks on Iraqi police and security forces and assassinations of Sunni political leaders participating in the election underscore this point. Nor are the insurgents any more "united" than they have ever been. On the contrary, growing numbers of Sunni Arab leaders are joining the political process in defiance of the terrorists within their communities. It is even possible, according to recent news reports, that some Sunni Arab insurgent groups have put out feelers to the Iraqi government about the possibility of themselves joining the political process.