A Winnable War
With a new commander and a renewed commitment from the commander in chief, we will make military progress in Afghanistan.
Between 2003 and 2005 it appeared that the largest problem in Iraq was the Sunni insurgency and the al Qaeda organization with which it interacted symbiotically. In 2006 it became apparent that the problem was larger than that. Shiite militias had been systematically cleansing Baghdad and other mixed areas of their Sunni populations, fueling the insurgency and deepening the hold of al Qaeda, which seemed to offer the Sunni communities under assault their most reliable protection. Individuals within the Iraqi government actively supported the Shiite militias. The deputy health minister allowed them to use ambulances to drive death squads around Baghdad. The Iraqi National Police were badly infiltrated and committed horrendous atrocities at the orders of officials within the government. The minister of finance had brought into the National Police the infamous Wolf Brigade of the Badr Corps that set the standard for sectarian brutality. Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki tolerated this behavior and protected some of those who were engaged in it.
Maliki is still prime minister (for now). The sectarian deputy health minister (who escaped trial by intimidating the judges) has been elected to the new parliament. The Badr Corps finance minister remained in position, as did many others engaged in sectarian activities that were fuelling the insurgencies. But the Shiite death squads have stopped cleansing. The National Police are now welcomed in Sunni districts they once terrorized. Maliki himself led military operations against the strongholds of the most dangerous Shiite militias, in Basra and Sadr City, in 2008. Some of the worst offenders were removed from power, but many were not. What is both remarkable and promising is that even those who remained were persuaded to stop engaging in the activities that were driving Iraq toward unlimited sectarian civil war by the end of 2006. The cessation of malign behaviors can be as important as the removal of malign actors, in Afghanistan as well as in Iraq.
Iraqi sectarian actors did not suddenly see the light and embrace diversity. They changed their behavior in response to a wide array of pressures brought on them and their patrons by the entire American team, from General Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker down to soldiers in the streets. Petraeus and Crocker in particular adopted a highly nuanced approach to the problem. When they had strong information (not necessarily legal evidence) that particular leaders were behaving badly, they confronted the prime minister with that information as a policy matter rather than a legal one. Lower level commanders did the same thing with their counterparts within the Iraqi Security Forces. In some cases, American units simply partnered with misbehaving Iraqi units so closely that the Iraqis could not engage in malign behavior.
As these efforts were going on, Petraeus and Crocker inserted American forces into contested neighborhoods and effectively took control of the ground. Their presence changed the equation—local people reported on the misbehavior of Iraqi officials; American forces took notice and, when appropriate, took action. By simultaneously taking the fight into the safe-havens and strongholds of the Sunni insurgents and Al Qaeda in Iraq, U.S. forces reduced the capability of those terrorists and began to bring down the violence. As the overall level fell, Shiite militia violence, which had been to some extent concealed by the spectacular attacks of al Qaeda, became more prominent, reinforcing the pressure on malign Shiite actors to take a knee. The fact that American forces then remained in the neighborhoods for a couple of years permitted the emergence of a political process based on new calculations and facilitated the restoration of the most basic confidence among Sunnis that the government was not committed to their annihilation.
The problem in Afghanistan is similar. Power-brokers are not engaged so much in tribal cleansing or death squads, but they do use their own private security companies to enforce order, sometimes at the expense of marginalized groups who fuel the insurgency. Ahmad Wali Karzai is the most prominent example of such a powerbroker, but he is far from unique. A sound ISAF strategy would attempt to remove malign actors where necessary and possible, but also work to shape them and the environment in which they operate in ways that persuade or prevent them from engaging in the malign behavior that is fueling the insurgency and preventing stable governance from taking hold. Improving the way ISAF contracts with local companies—a process that has already begun—is part of the solution, but only part. ISAF will have to refocus its efforts at every level away from a binary choice between removing and empowering the malign actors, and toward the kind of nuanced approach that was successful in Iraq, appropriately modified.
There are never any guarantees in war. But the fact that efforts now will be led by General David Petraeus, with his record of judgment and creativity, is grounds for confidence that we can succeed.
Frederick W. Kagan is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and director of the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute. Kimberly Kagan is president of the Institute for the Study of War.