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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The reaction of Sunni Arabs to terrorist leader Abu Musab al Zarqawi's repeated calls in September for civil war against the Shiites was also significant. Although a handful of Sunni Arab clerics denounced Zarqawi for raising issues that distracted attention from the fight against the Americans, most kept silent, tacitly accepting the priority of the struggle against the Shiites. This silence does not necessarily bode well for civil order in Iraq, but it certainly suggests that the radical Sunni Arab clerics do not identify the American presence as the major problem they face. On the contrary, it is another argument for the importance of continued American involvement in this struggle in order to avert civil war.

MURTHA AND HIS ALLIES, then, ignore the fact that, while the Americans are a common enemy of the insurgents, the Iraqi government is also a common enemy--and a much more threatening one for most of the rebel groups. The presence of U.S. forces in Iraq is simply not the primary problem in that country, and the removal of those forces would therefore not end the insurgency.

Data about insurgent attacks in Iraq do not support any sense of urgency about withdrawing either. The October constitutional referendum saw significantly fewer attacks than the January 2005 elections: 299 attacks on January 30 generating 213 casualties, versus 89 attacks and 49 casualties on October 15. Insurgents attacked only 19 election sites in October; in January they struck 88. Although the significance of such data is not clear, and other trend lines are less promising than this, there is certainly no case to be made that the situation is worsening enough to support urgent demands for immediate withdrawal. On the contrary, it appears that significant progress is being made.

Another of the central arguments Murtha and others, including some CENTCOM leaders and Bush administration officials, have used to support a shrinking U.S. footprint in Iraq is that a reduction in American forces will "incentivize" the Iraqis to take responsibility for their own security. This argument would make sense if there were Iraqi military and security organs ready and able to take control of the fight against the insurgents, but there are not. James Fallows has recently described (in excessively dark terms, to be sure) the plight of the Iraqi army, and it is clear that the Iraqis cannot now control the insurgency by themselves. The preparation of Iraqi police forces has been lagging far behind that of the army; what is more, and it will be still longer until they are ready. More responsible advocates of withdrawal allow for the possibility of maintaining American support troops and contractors in Iraq, to make up for the near-total inability of the Iraqi army to support itself. Murtha would remove even those (he declared: "Setting an exit-strategy with some kind of event-driven plan doesn't work because they always find an excuse not to get them out"), allowing the Iraqi military to crumble instantly, as it surely would. We cannot "incentivize" the Iraqis to take responsibility before they are ready to do so.

Nor do the Iraqis need much in the way of incentives. Evidence both statistical and anecdotal underlines the determination of the new Iraqi army to participate in the counterinsurgency on its own. Iraqi units have planned and conducted their own operations on numerous occasions, and in 2005 there have been no instances of Iraqi army units running from combat. U.S. officers repeatedly express pride in the Iraqi troops they are training and fighting with--and offer numerous stories to back up that pride. The Iraqis are fighting and will continue to fight without the "incentive" of being required to take on tasks for which they are unprepared.

Perhaps the most serious argument made by those who advocate reductions in the American presence in Iraq is that the U.S. Army is in danger of breaking. General Barry McCaffrey recently warned that the "wheels are coming off" the Army. Andrew Krepinevich accepted this assumption as one of the key bases for his argument that the United States should simultaneously reduce its forces in Iraq and adopt an "oil-spot" strategy of focusing on the security of a small number of key locations and spreading that control gradually over the country. We will return to the wisdom of the "oil-spot" approach momentarily, but we must first consider the assertion that the Army is in imminent danger of collapse.