The Magazine

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
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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.


Stability. Violence is the most obvious indicator of instability and the easiest to measure. The fact that violence has fallen dramatically in Iraq since the end of 2006 is evidence of improving stability. But critics are right to point out that areas tend to be peaceful both when government forces control them completely and when insurgents control them completely. Violence can drop either because the government is winning or because insurgents are consolidating their gains. So in addition to counting casualties and attacks, it is necessary to evaluate whether government control has been expanding or contracting. In fact, it has expanded dramatically over the past 15 months.

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