Winning One Battle, Fighting the Next
America needs to be heartened by our success in Iraq, and seize a victory.
Nov 5, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 08 • By FREDERICK W. KAGAN
America has won an important battle in the war on terror. We turned an imminent victory for Al Qaeda In Iraq into a humiliating defeat for them and thereby created an opportunity for further progress not only in Iraq, but also in the global struggle. In the past five months, terrorist operations in and around Baghdad have dropped by 59 percent. Car bomb deaths are down by 81 percent. Casualties from enemy attacks dropped 77 percent. And violence during the just-completed season of Ramadan--traditionally a peak of terrorist attacks--was the lowest in three years.
Winning a battle is not the same as winning a war. Our commanders and soldiers are continuing the fight to ensure that al Qaeda does not recover even as they turn their attention to the next battle: against Shia militias sponsored by Iran. Beyond Iraq, battles in Afghanistan and elsewhere demand our attention. But let us properly take stock of what has been accomplished.
At the end of 2006, the United States was headed for defeat in Iraq. Al Qaeda and Sunni insurgent leaders proclaimed their imminent triumph. Our own intelligence analysts and commanders agreed that our previous strategies had failed. The notion that a "surge" of a few brigades and a change of mission could transform the security situation in Iraq was ridiculed. Many experts and politicians proclaimed the futility of further military effort in Iraq. Imagine if they had been heeded.
Had al Qaeda been allowed to drive us from Iraq in disgrace, it would control safe havens throughout Anbar, in Baghdad, up the Tigris River valley, in Baquba, and in the "triangle of death." Al Qaeda In Iraq had already proclaimed a puppet state, the Islamic State of Iraq, and was sending money and fighters to the international al Qaeda movement even as it was supplied with foreign suicide bombers and leaders by that movement. The boasts of Osama bin Laden that his movement had defeated the Soviet Union were silly--al Qaeda did not exist when the Soviet Union fell--but they were still a powerful recruiting tool. How much more powerful a tool would have been the actual defeat of the United States, the last remaining superpower, at the hands of Al Qaeda In Iraq? How much more dangerous would have been a terrorist movement with bases in an oil-rich Arab country at the heart of al Qaeda's mythical "Caliphate" than al Qaeda was when based in barren, poverty-stricken Afghanistan, a country where Arabs are seen as untrustworthy outsiders?
Instead, Al Qaeda In Iraq today is broken. Individual al Qaeda cells persist, in steadily shrinking areas of the country, but they can no longer mount the sort of coherent operations across Iraq that had become the norm in 2006. The elimination of key leaders and experts has led to a significant reduction in the effectiveness of the al Qaeda bombings that do occur, hence the steady and dramatic declines in overall casualty rates.
Al Qaeda leaders seem aware of their defeat. General Ray Odierno noted in a recent briefing that some of al Qaeda's foreign leaders have begun to flee Iraq. Documents recovered from a senior Al Qaeda In Iraq leader, Abu Usama al-Tunisi, portray a movement that has lost the initiative and is steadily losing its last places to hide. According to Brigadier General Joseph Anderson, chief of staff for the multinational coalition in Iraq, al-Tunisi wrote that "he is surrounded, communications have been cut, and he is desperate for help."
How did we achieve this success? Before the surge began, American forces in Iraq had attempted to fight al Qaeda primarily with the sort of intelligence-driven, targeted raids that many advocates of immediate withdrawal claim they want to continue. Those efforts failed. Our skilled soldiers captured and killed many al Qaeda leaders, including Abu Musab al Zarqawi, but the terrorists were able to replace them faster than we could kill them. Success came with a new strategy.
Al Qaeda excesses in Anbar Province and elsewhere had already begun to generate local resentment, but those local movements could not advance without our help. The takfiris--as the Iraqis call the sectarian extremists of al Qaeda--brutally murdered and tortured any local Sunni leaders who dared to speak against them, until American troops began to work to clear the terrorist strongholds in Ramadi in late 2006. But there were not enough U.S. forces in Anbar to complete even that task, let alone to protect local populations throughout the province and in the Sunni areas of Iraq. The surge of forces into Anbar and the Baghdad belts allowed American troops to complete the clearing of Ramadi and to clear Falluja and other takfiri strongholds.
The additional troops also allowed American commanders to pursue defeated al Qaeda cells and prevent them from reestablishing safe-havens. The so-called "water balloon effect," in which terrorists were simply squeezed from one area of the country to another, did not occur in 2007 because our commanders finally had the resources to go after the terrorists wherever they fled. After the clearing of the city of Baquba this year, al Qaeda fighters attempted to flee up the Diyala River valley and take refuge in the Hamrin Ridge. Spectacular bombings in small villages in that area, including the massive devastation in the Turkmen village of Amerli, roughly 100 miles north of Baghdad, that killed hundreds, were intended to provide al Qaeda with the terror wedge it needed to gain a foothold in the area. But with American troops in hot pursuit, the terrorists had to stay on the run, breaking their movement into smaller and more disaggregated cells. The addition of more forces, the change in strategy to focus on protecting the population, both Sunni and Shia, and the planning and execution of multiple simultaneous, and sequential operations across the entire theater combined with a shift in attitudes among the Sunni population to revolutionize the situation.
Some now say that, although America's soldiers were successful in this task, the next battle is hopeless. We cannot control the Shia militias, they say. The Iraqis will never "reconcile." The government will not make the decisions it must make to sustain the current progress, and all will collapse. Perhaps. But those who now proclaim the hopelessness of future efforts also ridiculed the possibility of the success we have just achieved. If one predicts failure long enough, one may turn out to be right. But the credibility of the prophets of doom--those who questioned the veracity and integrity of General David Petraeus when he dared to report progress--is at a low ebb.
There is a long struggle ahead in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and elsewhere against al Qaeda and its allies in extremism. We can still lose. American forces and Afghan allies defeated al Qaeda in Afghanistan in 2001 as completely as we are defeating it in Iraq. But mistakes and a lack of commitment by both the United States and the NATO forces to whom we handed off responsibility have allowed a resurgence of terrorism in Afghanistan. We must not repeat that mistake in Iraq where the stakes are so much higher. America must not try to pocket the success we have achieved in Iraq and declare a premature and meaningless victory. Instead, let us be heartened by success. We have avoided for the moment a terrible danger and created a dramatic opportunity. Let's seize it.
--Frederick W. Kagan