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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Common wisdom, especially among senior military leaders, holds that any thought of combining military power with diplomatic, political, economic, and other nonkinetic tools to bring the violence in Iraq rapidly under control is absurd. When pressed on the applicability of the Tal Afar model to problems elsewhere in Iraq, officials of CENTCOM (the central command responsible for U.S. security interests from the Horn of Africa, through the Arabian Gulf region, into Central Asia) dismiss the relevance of that success by pointing to the uniqueness of that town and of the brilliant commander of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, which conducted the operation, Colonel H.R. McMaster. They also dismiss as unattainable the troop levels needed to replicate Tal Afar "throughout Iraq." There is no alternative, they declare, to the current strategy.

As a result, the road not taken--a strategy of actually fighting the insurgency to defeat it--has never been examined seriously. But is it really impossible to replicate Tal Afar and Sadr City elsewhere in Iraq? Are the troop requirements (usually placed in the hundreds of thousands) really so large as to make such efforts ridiculous to contemplate? The only way to answer these questions is to think through a battle plan with care. And when appropriate models are applied, the answer that emerges is likely to be: It is indeed possible to imagine a campaign that would bring more rapid success. No individual could devise such a plan alone, and the considerations that follow do not pretend to be a finished blueprint. Rather, they amount to a kind of opening bid, intended to invite a serious examination of the question.

Military operations alone will not solve Iraq's problems. Yet they are essential to maintain political progress, support economic and infrastructure development, and lower intersectarian and interethnic tensions. Iraqi forces must play a central role in any such operations, especially during the process of clearing out insurgents, and they would be the ones to hold and build after the coalition had cleared. Even thinking about such integrated political-economic-military efforts executed jointly by the coalition and the ISF was not possible until about six months ago. The ISF did not have the capability to function even on this basic level, and coalition forces were only beginning to work through the complexities of integrated planning. The experiences of 2005, the rapid growth in the capability of the ISF, and the seating of a permanent Iraqi government now coincide to make possible a strategy for victory such as the president suggested last year. The plan offered here addresses only the military component of what would necessarily be a multifaceted program.

The Security Problem in Iraq

Iraq today presents four military challenges: insurgency among the Sunni Arabs, the growth of Shiite militias, Islamist terrorism conducted by "Al Qaeda in Iraq" and related organizations, and a breakdown of law and order in some areas. American military strategy since the beginning of the insurgency has largely focused on Islamist terrorism. After the February bombing of the al-Askariya mosque in Samarra, however, General John Abizaid testified at a Senate hearing that, as the New York Times put it, "sectarian violence in Iraq was replacing the insurgency as the greatest threat to security and stability." From the beginning of the insurgency, American strategy for handling the Sunni insurrection has centered on helping the Iraqis to defeat the rebels, rather than doing it for them. Coalition efforts to clear out specific trouble areas, such as Falluja, Tal Afar, and the Upper Euphrates river valley have been largely reactions to immediate dangers rather than parts of any strategy for establishing security throughout the country.

Today, the Sunni Arab insurgency is the single most powerful force for disorder and violence in Iraq. Shiite militias, present since the beginning of the occupation, have grown in power in response to the spectacular bombings conducted by Islamist terrorists. Those terrorists, some of them foreigners, rely on the Sunni Arab community for safe havens, supplies, and other necessary assistance. They receive that support primarily because fear and disorder prevail. The breakdown of law and order in parts of the country reflects the difficulty of establishing a robust Iraqi police force in the face of the insurgents' continuous attacks.