The Magazine

A Plan for Victory in Iraq

Defeat the insurgents militarily--here's how.

May 29, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 35 • By FREDERICK W. KAGAN
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In eastern Ramadi, U.S. Army Capt. Joe Claburn visited a house beside an alley from where four guerrillas . . . had attacked a guard tower on a U.S. base. . . . Claburn asked the man if he was willing to signal U.S. troops when insurgents turned up. "I'm telling you sincerely, I cannot cooperate with you," the man replied, shaking his head. "We know you are trying to protect us, but the insurgents would cut off my head. We are too frightened to do anything. They're everywhere. They're probably watching us right now."

-Associated Press, May 8, 2006

The security environment and continuing strength of the insurgency have made it difficult for the United States to transfer security responsibilities to Iraqi forces and progressively draw down U.S. forces. The security situation in Iraq has deteriorated since June 2003, with significant increases in attacks against Iraqi and coalition forces. In addition, the security situation has affected the cost and schedule of rebuilding efforts.

-GAO Report to Congress, February 8, 2006

THE MOST BASIC FUNCTION OF ANY GOVERNMENT is to provide security to its people. That the Iraqi government is currently failing at this task in large areas of the country reduces the Iraqi population's willingness and ability to support the counterinsurgency effort, undermines the government's legitimacy, hinders the political process, and derails reconstruction. It is the single most serious problem in Iraq today. Yet coalition forces have not stepped in to fill the security gap.

Establishing security throughout Iraq has always been a stated goal of the coalition forces, but it has never been their clear priority. Operations against insurgents have consisted mostly of raids and isolated sweeps, apparently divorced from any larger strategic aim. The coalition has never devised a deployment, or planned an operation, aimed at establishing security in the unstable areas of Iraq on a large scale. Coalition strategy has tended to focus instead on minimizing the role of coalition troops in handling the insurgency and pushing indigenous forces into the front of the fight, sometimes even when they were unprepared for such a role. The Bush administration did articulate the strategy of "clear-hold-build" in late 2005, declaring it a "strategy for victory." But U.S. forces have not, on the whole, been ordered or permitted to execute that strategy, and do not currently seem to intend to do so.

One of the reasons for this reluctance is the conviction, reinforced by the first battle of Falluja in early 2004, that coalition forces cannot really perform such missions. Generals John Abizaid, George Casey, and many others have argued that the mere presence of U.S. forces is an irritant, and their active operations against insurgents alienate more Iraqis than they win over. Yet a number of developments in 2005 should have called this assumption sharply into question.

Coalition forces partnered with Iraqi units were able to put down an uprising in Sadr City, a huge predominantly Shiite district of Baghdad, in early 2005 and then clear out a major insurgent stronghold in Tal Afar in September. In both cases, skillful preparation, the intelligent and discriminate use of force, and attention to vital "nonkinetic" parts of the operation (efforts to change local attitudes by improving water and sewer systems, building schools and clinics, handing out military rations, and so on) led to great and lasting success. These operations seriously undermine the argument that only the Iraqis can successfully prosecute such clear-and-hold missions, though they also show that the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) will not be ready to conduct them on their own for the foreseeable future. In fact, the present course of "muddling through" while attempting to draw down as rapidly as possible is almost certain to prolong the insurgency, and with it the American troop presence in Iraq.

Such a prolongation has always been problematic from a political perspective, but it has become worrisome from a regional perspective as well. The United States has ground and air forces stationed on both the western and eastern borders of Iran at a time of crisis over Iran's nuclear programs. In principle, that presence should give the United States leverage in Tehran; the Iranians clearly feared this in the immediate wake of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. But the oft-repeated American determination to withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan as rapidly as possible, together with the continuing violent insurgencies in both countries, has turned the tables. The Iranians now derive leverage from America's difficulties on their borders, and may be emboldened to press harder on the nuclear issue than they would otherwise find comfortable.