SENATORS LEVIN AND REID have introduced an amendment that would order the immediate withdrawal of American forces in Iraq--a stampede, in fact, that would require the military to pull 169,000 soldiers and their equipment out of active combat within nine months. There is no way that such a withdrawal would look like anything other than a rout and a humiliation for American arms. Such a proposal can only be supported on the premise that our efforts in Iraq to date have failed utterly and that there is no hope of protecting vital American interests in Iraq through the current strategy. That premise results from willful blindness. American and Iraqi successes in pursuing our joint and individual vital interests over the past nine months have been nothing short of staggering. The attempts of war critics to focus the discussion entirely on the failures of the Iraqi central government are disingenuous, almost dishonest, when they ignore these incredible, and in many cases, unexpected achievements.
Defeating al Qaeda in Iraq
Of America's vital interests in Iraq today, none is more important than defeating al Qaeda in Iraq. AQI, as I have argued elsewhere, is closely linked to the global al Qaeda movement, which has declared Iraq the central front in its terrorist war against America. It has stated its intention to use Iraq as a base to attack American interests and stability throughout the Middle East and beyond, and it has acted on that intention at least twice: Zarqawi used Iraq as a base from which to kill USAID official Lawrence Foley in Amman in 2002, and again to conduct a massive coordinated suicide attack on hotels in Amman in 2005. The current head of AQI, Abu Ayyub al Masri (an Egyptian), recently announced a bounty for the assassination of a Swedish cartoonist who drew a disrespectful cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed. Al Masri clearly sees himself as part of the same team as Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri if he is aping them in these outrageous gestures aimed at people far beyond the problems of his own country and of the country he seeks to take over.
AQI had safe-havens in Ramadi, Fallujah, and Karmah in Anbar. Virtually no Anbaris were willing to join the Iraqi Security Forces-a total of 1,000 recruits volunteered in Anbar in 2006.
AQI had seized control of Arab Jabour and other villages south of Baghdad and was using them as bases to launch massive suicide car-bomb attacks into the capital;
AQI had fortified strongholds in the Dora neighborhood in East Rashid in Baghdad (a key transit point for the suicide car bombs coming from the south), and in Ameriyah in West Mansour in Baghdad;
AQI owned Baqubah, the capital of Diyala Province so thoroughly that it was able to establish a massive fortified position with multiple houses rigged to explode, stacked artillery rounds deeply buried that could destroy American tanks, and safe-houses throughout the city. The situation got so bad that the governor of Diyala Province sought to move the capital from Baqubah to Muqdadiyah;
AQI had spread its influence throughout Diyala Province and was using it as a base to attack Baghdad;
AQI was in the process of coopting the Sunni insurgent groups like the 1920s Revolution Brigades that had not previously supported al Qaeda's ideological agenda
AQI was able to conduct spectacular attacks almost unimpeded, including the destruction of the Samarra Mosque in February 2006 and massive car bomb attacks on markets and other gatherings of large groups--mostly Shia--throughout Baghdad;
The flow of foreign fighters via Syria continued unabated, and those fighters comprised 80-90 percent of al Qaeda's suicide bombers
Reversing the Slide toward Civil War
It is not possible to separate operations against AQI from the effort to stop sectarian fighting in Iraq. Sectarian conflict in Iraq was triggered by the deliberate strategy of AQI leader Abu Musaab al Zarqawi, and AQI uses that violence as a key means to implant itself among the Sunni population. Unlike in Afghanistan under the Taliban, al Qaeda in Iraq establishes safe-havens in urban areas, surrounded by Iraqis. It cannot be effective in Iraq without those urban safe-havens, which in turn cannot be eliminated if the sectarian violence is not brought under control.
Sectarian violence exploded after the destruction of the Samarra Mosque in February. It increased almost every month in 2006. Brief declines during American military operations in Baghdad vanished almost immediately as the violence continued to climb. The trendlines at the end of 2006 all pointed toward exponentially increasing violence in 2007.
Sectarian violence was initially conducted by extremist groups on both sides--AQI for the Sunni and the Jaysh al Mahdi, primarily, for the Shi'a. By the end of 2006, the Iraqi people themselves had begun to mobilize to fight a civil war. Neighborhood vigilante groups formed to protect their areas, but then started striking neighboring areas of different sectarian composition. Iraq seemed head toward a full-scale civil war in which everyone had to choose a side and fight.
The current strategy has failed?
Tell it to the tens or hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who have not been killed, wounded, or driven from their homes because the new strategy has reversed the slide toward civil war.
Tell it to the tens of thousands of former insurgents and local people who have volunteered to join the Iraqi Security Forces this year to stop the violence in their country.
Tell it to the shop owners in Baghdad, Ramadi, Fallujah, and Baqubah who spent last winter with shuttered stores hiding from bullets and are now once again selling their wares.
Tell it to the Iraqi children who have started going to school again without fear of being blown up or kidnapped and tortured to death.
Tell it to the Marines, whose own intelligence analyst declared Anbar hopelessly lost this time last year, but who now proudly share credit with Army soldiers for a miraculous recovery in the heart of the Sunni insurgency and al Qaeda base.
Tell it to the leaders of al Qaeda who went from the brink of triumph in December 2006 to abject and humiliating flight in September 2007.
Tell it to the American people, whose belief in the possibility of success in Iraq has steadily grown over the past few months despite all the efforts of war critics to deny reality.
Above all, tell it to our soldiers fighting in Iraq. Tell them that all the hard-fought gains they have won against America's principal foe in the world should be thrown away because some confused or disingenuous leaders over here refuse to recognize them. Tell them that their sacrifices and losses really have all been in vain because some Americans would rather impose defeat on them than continue with a difficult and complex, but successful strategy.
Or, better yet, don't tell them that. Tell them instead that we recognize their accomplishments, mourn their losses, but will remain steadfast in our support for them. Tell them that we will reinforce success rather than throwing it away, and continue to try to win a struggle that is essential to America's security and well-being. Tell them that.
Frederick W. Kagan is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.