The Magazine

Fighting to Win

Now is hardly the time to end our support and abandon our Iraqi allies.

Apr 23, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 30 • By FREDERICK W. KAGAN
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As Congress again takes up the issue of support for our troops fighting in Iraq, members should have the decency to take account of the successes those troops have fought for and achieved in recent weeks. Much of the support in the Democratic caucus for cutting off funds for Iraq comes from a conviction that the war is irretrievably lost. One could be excused for thinking that in the fall of 2006, when sectarian violence seemed to be cycling out of control against the backdrop of a wrong-headed U.S. strategy. But President Bush has adopted a new strategy, put in place a new command team, and provided new resources for the effort, and the situation has begun to improve. Failure remains possible, as it always does in war, but the possibility of victory has grown significantly. Prospects for success are brightest, moreover, in the struggle against al Qaeda--the challenge that many opponents of the war claim is America s only interest in Iraq. It would be the height of folly to cut off support for the war effort just as it is beginning to show glimmers of hope in a struggle central to the safety of all Americans.

There is no question that Iraq has become the central front for al Qaeda in the world today. Thousands of foreign fighters flow along recruiting networks that span the Muslim world and into Iraq to attack our soldiers and the Iraqi people. Most opponents of continuing the war admit that fighting these committed terrorists remains a national priority for America. Some argue that an American withdrawal would reduce Iraq s attractiveness to al Qaeda, reducing the number of terrorists and the threat they pose. Many believe that it is possible to fight al Qaeda using special forces and long-range missiles without engaging in the "civil war" they believe is still raging in Iraq. Neither proposition is true.

Al Qaeda fighters flow into Iraq because we are there, to be sure. But they do not confine themselves to fighting us. They also work to establish control over the Sunni regions in Iraq, to impose their version of Islam, and to terrorize and punish Iraqis who resist them in any way. When the Soviet Union left Afghanistan in abject defeat, the radical Islamists who had fought them did not lay down their guns. They undermined and destroyed the Afghan government and went on to seize power. Al Qaeda in Iraq aims for no less. They will not stop fighting when we leave; they will redouble their efforts to take control of the country.

We will not be able to resist this development simply by using targeted strikes either with Special Forces troops or long-range missiles. Al Qaeda's approach in Iraq is different from its approach in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) does not establish remote training camps; it mixes among the population. It does not remain aloof from the fighting between tribes and sects; it encourages and benefits from that fighting. It uses sectarian violence to drive Shiites out of mixed areas and terrorizes the Sunnis who are left into supporting it. We have seen this process at work in Diyala province and Baghdad. In Anbar, AQI used Sunni resentment at their community s loss of power in Iraq to create safe havens, but even there they found it necessary to unleash violence against Sunni hosts whom they found lacking in piety and commitment. Such problems cannot be resolved by Special Forces raids from over the horizon. They must be solved by convincing the Sunni and Shiite populations that we will help them fight and defeat AQI. That is precisely what has started to happen over the course of the past several months.

Al Qaeda s atrocities in Anbar have alienated a large and growing segment of the Sunni population there. A tribal confederation including two-thirds of the major tribes has formed to combat al Qaeda. The sheikhs of this confederation are sending their sons to join the local police formations, which six months ago could hardly find a single local recruit. Iraqi police in Anbar have fought valiantly even as al Qaeda has attempted to derail this effort with new and horrific attacks, including using chlorine gas bombs.

Nor is this process limited to Anbar. Across Iraq, Sunnis and Shiites are coming to recognize that al Qaeda is an enemy that is worse and more dangerous than any other, and that American and Iraqi government forces are their best potential allies. A new group of local Sunni leaders have begun to reach out to the central government, offering the hope that, with months of careful and patient negotiations, the Sunni insurgency that has festered since the invasion might begin to wind down. Iraq, lest we forget, is an ally in the war on terror--more Iraqis have died fighting al Qaeda than the soldiers and civilians of almost any other country. The Iraqi determination to continue that fight is strengthening. Now is hardly the time to end our support and abandon our Iraqi allies.