How We'll Know When We've Won
A definition of success in Iraq.
May 5, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 32 • By FREDERICK W. KAGAN
The president's nomination of generals David Petraeus and Raymond Odierno to take command of U.S. Central Command and Multinational Force-Iraq, respectively, was obviously the right decision. By experience and temperament and demonstrated success, both men are perfectly suited to these jobs. Given the political climate in Washington, however, their nominations are likely to be attacked with the same tired arguments war critics used to try to drown out reports of progress in Iraq during the recent Petraeus-Crocker hearings. So before the shouting begins again, let us consider in detail one of the most important of these arguments: that no one has offered any clear definition of success in Iraq.
Virtually everyone who wants to win this war agrees: Success will have been achieved when Iraq is a stable, representative state that controls its own territory, is oriented toward the West, and is an ally in the struggle against militant Islamism, whether Sunni or Shia. This has been said over and over. Why won't war critics hear it? Is it because they reject the notion that such success is achievable and therefore see the definition as dishonest or delusional? Is it because George Bush has used versions of it and thus discredited it in the eyes of those who hate him? Or is it because it does not offer easily verifiable benchmarks to tell us whether or not we are succeeding? There could be other reasons--perhaps critics fear that even thinking about success or failure in Iraq will weaken their demand for an immediate "end to the war." Whatever the explanation for this tiresome deafness, here is one more attempt to flesh out what success in Iraq means and how we can evaluate progress toward it.
A representative state. Some war critics (and even some supporters) argue that the goal of "democratizing" Iraq is overoptimistic, even hopeless. So what are the alternatives? Either Iraq can be ruled by a strongman, as it was in the past, or it can be partitioned into several more homogeneous territories, each ruled according to its own desires. Before settling for either of these, we should note that the overwhelming majority of Iraqis continue to manifest their desire for representative government, as evidenced by the 8 million who voted in the last elections, the 90 percent of Sunni Arab Iraqis who tell pollsters they will vote in the upcoming provincial elections, and the sense on the streets that anyone who tries to eliminate representative government will do so at his peril. Beyond that, we must note that neither of the two suggested alternatives is compatible with stability. Nevertheless, let us examine them.
A strongman. Iraq is a multiethnic, multisectarian state just emerging from a sectarian civil war. How could a strongman rule it other than by oppression and violence? Any strongman would have to come from one or another of the ethno-sectarian groups, and he would almost certainly repress the others. Although he might, in time, establish a secure authoritarian regime, the history of such regimes suggests that Iraq would remain violent and unstable for years, perhaps decades, before all opposition was crushed. This option would not sit well with American consciences.
Partition. Partitioning Iraq would generate enormous instability for the foreseeable future. Again, virtually no Arab Iraqis want to see the country partitioned; the Sunni, in particular, are bitterly opposed. But their desires aside, could a partitioned Iraq be stable? The Kurds, after all, already have their region. What would happen if the Shia got all nine provinces south of Baghdad, and the Sunni got Anbar, Salah-ad-Din, and whatever part of Ninewa the Kurds chose to give them? Well, there would be the problem of Baghdad and Diyala, the two mixed provinces, containing mixed cities. Despite the prevailing mythology, Baghdad has not been "cleansed" so as to produce stable sectarian borders. The largely Sunni west contains the Khadimiyah shrine, which the Shia will never abandon, while the largely Shia east contains the stubborn Sunni enclave in Adhamiya. The Sunni in Adhamiya have just gone through many months of hell to hang on to their traditional ground. And there are other enclaves on both sides of the river. Any "cleansing" of them would involve the death or forced migration of tens or possibly hundreds of thousands. Attempts to divide Diyala and even Ninewa would produce similar results. If ethno-sectarian conflict restarted in Iraq on a large scale, cleansing might make this solution more feasible, but at enormous human cost. In the current context, even to seriously propose it threatens Iraq's stability.
A state that controls its territory. We already have an example of a sovereign, quasi-stable state confronting terrorist foes that is theoretically allied to the United States but has no American troops and does not control all of its own territory. It is Pakistan, whose ungoverned territories in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and the Northwest Frontier Province have become safe havens for the leaders of the global al Qaeda network. If the United States abandoned Iraq before Iraq could control all of its territory with its own forces, we might make way for similar safe havens in the heart of the Middle East. It is clearly not in America's interests to create a Pakistan on the Euphrates.
A state oriented toward the West. It is also clearly against America's interests for Iraq to become an Iranian puppet. Some in the United States, however, see that development as inevitable; they point to geography and religious ties. Some even say that the United States should not only acquiesce in the inevitable but embrace it, reaching out to the Iranians for their assistance in smoothing our withdrawal as they establish their domination. But why? Iran has not dominated Iraq in centuries. True, the Sunni-Shia divide is profound, but so is the Arab-Persian divide. Iraq's Shia, remember, enthusiastically supported Saddam Hussein's war against their Iranian co-religionists in the 1980s--a sectarian "betrayal" for which the Iranians have never forgiven them. Again, American troops and civilians who live day to day with Iraqis throughout the country report a dramatic rise in anti-Persian sentiment, coincident with a rise in Iraqi Arab nationalism. But back in the United States, the debate over Iraq is scarcely tethered to reality on the ground. In the simple terms suitable to that debate, then, suffice it to say that neither shared Shia faith nor a shared border has historically led to Iranian domination of Iraq. There is no reason to assume it will do so now.
An ally in the struggle against militant Islamism. Whatever Saddam Hussein's ties were to al Qaeda before the invasion, the reality today is that an important al Qaeda franchise has established itself in Iraq. It initially had the support of a significant portion of Iraq's Sunni Arab community, but that community--with critical American support--has rejected al Qaeda and united with Iraq's Shia and Kurds to fight it.
As a result, there is no state in the world that is more committed than Iraq to defeating al Qaeda. None has mobilized more troops to fight al Qaeda or suffered more civilian casualties at the hands of al Qaeda--or, for that matter, taken more police and military casualties. Iraq is already America's best ally in the struggle against al Qaeda. Moreover, the recent decision of Iraq's government to go after illegal, Iranian-backed Shia militias and terror groups shows that even a Shia government in Baghdad can be a good partner in the struggle against Shia extremism as well.
Much has been made of the inadequacy of the Iraqi Security Forces' performance in Basra. If the Pakistani army had performed half as well in its efforts to clear al Qaeda out of the tribal areas, we would be cheering. Instead, Pakistani soldiers surrendered to al Qaeda by the hundreds, and Islamabad shut the operation down; it is now apparently on the verge of a deal with the terrorist leader who killed Benazir Bhutto. Iraqi Security Forces who underperformed were fired and replaced, and operations in Basra and elsewhere continue. The United States has given Pakistan billions in aid since 9/11 so that it could fight al Qaeda in the tribal areas. To be sure, it has spent far more billions on the Iraq war. Still, one may wonder which money has produced real success in the war on terror, and which has been wasted.
At the end of 2006, Sunni Arab insurgents controlled most of Anbar province, large areas of Salah-ad-Din and Diyala, southern Baghdad and northern Babil provinces (the "triangle of death"), and large areas of Baghdad itself including the Ameriya, Adhamiya, Ghazaliya, and Dora neighborhoods, which were fortified al Qaeda bastions. Shia militias controlled Sadr City almost completely--American forces could not even enter the area, and virtually no Iraqi forces in Sadr City operated independently of the militias; the militias also controlled the nearby districts of Shaab and Ur, from whence they staged raids on Sunni neighborhoods; they operated out of bases in Khadimiyah and Shula in western Baghdad; they owned large swaths of terrain in Diyala province, where they were engaged in an intense war against al Qaeda; they fought each other in Basra and controlled large areas of the Shia south.
Today, al Qaeda has been driven out of Dora, Ameriya, Ghazaliya, and Adhamiya; out of Anbar almost entirely; out of the "southern belt" including the former triangle of death; out of much of Diyala; and out of most of Salah-ad-Din. Iraqi and coalition operations are underway to drive al Qaeda out of its last urban bastion in Mosul. Remaining al Qaeda groups, although still able to generate periodic spectacular attacks, are largely fragmented and their communications partially disrupted. Iraqi Security Forces have been on the offensive against Shia militias in the "five cities" area (Najaf, Karbala, Diwaniya, Hilla, and Kut) and have severely degraded militia capabilities and eliminated militia control from significant parts of this area; the attack in Basra resulted in a reduction of the militia-controlled area, including the recapture of Basra's lucrative ports by government forces; tribal movements in Basra and Nasiriya are helping the government advance and consolidate its gains against the militias; and Iraqi Security Forces, with Coalition support, are moving through parts of Sadr City house by house and taking it back from the militias.
The fall in violence in Iraq, therefore, reflects success and not failure. Enemy control of territory has been significantly reduced, and further efforts to eliminate enemy control of any territory are underway. Spikes in violence surrounding the Basra operation reflect efforts by the government to retake insurgent-held areas and are, therefore, positive (if sober) indicators.
As for the argument that this stability is based solely on the increased presence of U.S. forces, which will shortly end, or that it is merely a truce between the Sunni and the Shia as they wait for us to leave--we shall soon see. Reductions of U.S. forces by 25 percent are well underway. The commanding general has recommended that after we complete those reductions in July, we evaluate the durability of the current stability, and President Bush has accepted his recommendation.
Representative government. The Iraqi government is the product of two elections. The Sunni Arabs boycotted the first, with the result that Iraq's provincial councils and governors do not reflect its ethno-sectarian make-up. The second saw a large Sunni Arab turnout and the seating of a multiethnic, multisectarian government in Baghdad. The Iraqi government recently passed a law calling for provincial elections later this year, and the United Nations special envoy to Iraq, Steffan de Mistura, has been consulting with Baghdad about the details of the election, including efforts to ensure that the various committees overseeing it are not unduly influenced by militias or political parties. Surveys show that the Iraqis are nearly unanimous in their desire to vote, particularly in Sunni areas. The Anbar Awakening has turned into a political movement, introducing political pluralism into Sunni Arab politics for the first time. Similar movements, including the splintering of Moktada al-Sadr's "Sadrist Trend," are underway more haltingly among the Shia.
Each of Iraq's elections has been more inclusive than the last. Each has seen more enthusiasm for voting among all groups. Political pluralism is increasing within both sects. Whatever the popularity of the present government of Iraq, the overwhelming majority of Iraqis see elections as the correct way to choose their leaders, believe that their votes will count, and want to participate. The provincial elections this fall--and the national legislative elections next year--will be important indicators of the health of representative government in Iraq, and we should watch them closely. So far, all indications in this area are positive.
Control of territory. The restoration of large urban and rural areas formerly held by insurgents and militias to government control is a key indicator of Iraqi progress. And there are others: the Maliki government's determination to clear Basra and Sadr City of militia influence; Iraqi operations to clear Mosul of al Qaeda fighters; the dramatic growth of the Iraqi Security Forces in 2007 and the further growth underway in 2008. There is anecdotal confirmation of this progress, such as the dramatic decline in the number of illegal militia-controlled checkpoints, most of them set up in and around Baghdad in 2006 for purposes of control, extortion, and murder. Although some war critics claim that the Anbar Awakening has simply put the province into the hands of a new militia, the truth is that the first stage of the movement saw more than 10,000 Anbaris volunteer for the Iraqi Security Forces. Two divisions of the Iraqi army remain in Anbar, and they are mixed Sunni-Shia formations. The Iraqi police force in Anbar, paid for, vetted, and controlled by the Iraqi government, has also grown dramatically. The "Sons of Iraq," who are the security component of the awakening movement, are auxiliaries to these government forces, supplemented by the presence of American troops. In Baghdad's neighborhoods, Sons of Iraq are dwarfed in number by the two Iraqi army divisions stationed in the city (in addition to the mechanized division based just to the north in Taji) and the numerous police and national police formations, all supported by American combat brigades. The Iraqi government is steadily extending its control of its own territory, and has demonstrated a determination to retake insurgent-held areas even from Shia militias.
Orientation toward the West. Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Iraq in March 2008 and was warmly received, prompting concern in the United States that the Iraqi government was tilting toward Tehran. War critics, attempting to spin the Iraqi government's offensive against Shia militias in Basra, argued that Iran "supports" both the militias and the principal Shia parties fighting them--the entire operation, they claimed, was simply "Shia infighting" among groups already devoted to Tehran.
A closer examination shows this to be false. While it is true that Iran "supports" both ISCI and Dawa, the two leading Shia parties in the government, with money, and it provides the Sadrist militia not only with money, but with lethal weapons, training, trainers, and advisers inside Iraq to support the militia's fight against the United States and the Iraqi government--nevertheless, Iran does not provide such support to the government of Iraq or to the Iraqi Security Forces, which the United States and its allies have worked hard to develop into effective fighting forces, at the behest of the United Nations and the request of the legitimate government of Iraq. This is not simply "Shia infighting" in which the United States has no stake.
More to the point, we might ask what the Iraqi government itself has done to show its preferences. It has asked the United Nations to endorse the Multinational Force mission supporting it, a mission that includes American forces--but not Iranian ones. It has requested a bilateral security agreement with the United States--and not with Iran. It has determined to purchase American weapons and equipment for its armed forces, to replace the Warsaw Pact gear it had been using--and has not requested equipment from Iran or its principal international suppliers, Russia and China. Baghdad is organizing, training, and equipping its military and police forces to be completely interoperable with the United States--and not with Iran. For a government accused of being in Tehran's thrall, the current Iraqi government appears to have demonstrated repeatedly a commitment to stand with the United States, at least as long as the United States stands with Iraq.
An ally in the war on terror. Al Qaeda has killed many more Iraqis than Americans. Iraq has eight army divisions--around 80,000 troops--now in the fight against al Qaeda, and another three--around 45,000 troops--in the fight against Shia extremists. Tens of thousands of Iraqi police and National Police are also in the fight. Thus, there are far more Iraqis fighting al Qaeda and Shia militias in Iraq than there are American troops there. Easily ten times as many Iraqi as Pakistani troops are fighting our common enemies. At least three times as many Iraqi soldiers and police as Afghan soldiers and police are in the fight. And many times more Iraqi troops are engaged in the war on terror than those of any other American ally. In terms of manpower engaged, and sacrifice of life and limb, Iraq is already by far America's best ally in the war on terror.
These facts will surely not put to rest the debate over definitions and measures of success in Iraq. Certainly, the American people have a right to insist that our government operate with a clear vision of success and that it develop a clear plan for evaluating whether we are moving in the right direction, even if no tidy numerical metrics can meaningfully size up so complex a human endeavor. As shown here, supporters of the current strategy do indeed have a clear definition of success, and those working to implement it are already evaluating American progress against that definition every day. It is on the basis of their evaluation that we say the surge is working.
The question Americans should ask themselves next is: Have the opponents of this strategy offered a clear definition of their own goals, along with reasonable criteria for evaluating progress toward them? Or are they simply projecting onto those who have a clear vision with which they disagree their own vagueness and confusion?
Here is a gauntlet thrown down: Let those who claim that the current strategy has failed and must be replaced lay out their own strategy, along with their definition of success, criteria for evaluating success, and the evidentiary basis for their evaluations. Then, perhaps, we can have a real national debate on this most important issue.
Frederick W. Kagan is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute