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After Zarqawi's Death By: Frederick W. Kagan
Weekly Standard | Thursday, June 22, 2006

The death of Zarqawi and the completion of the new Iraqi government have created a moment of opportunity for President Bush in Iraq. If the United States acts quickly to take control of lawless areas, improves security throughout the country, and wins a series of tangible victories, it might break the back of the insurgency. If we return to "business as usual" and the counterproductive Washington obsession with troop withdrawals, the moment will be lost. In fact, the quickest and only path to responsible troop withdrawals is visible progress toward victory over the insurgency and security in Iraq.

Insurgencies end when the population and the insurgents believe the government will triumph. People do not flock to losing causes. The U.S. failure to convince the Iraqi people--especially the Sunni Arabs--that the insurgency will lose has been destabilizing Iraq for the past three years. Many Sunni Arabs doubt the ultimate victory of the current government. Others see violence as a lever to use in a political process they feel is stacked against them. The political progress in Iraq so far is impressive and important. But it will not suffice to end the violence. And it will not continue for long if victory remains uncertain.

Establishing the inevitability of victory is important in ending any insurgency. It is more urgent in the current conflict because of the increasing impatience of the Shiites. Fear and resentment of the Sunni Arab insurgency is one of the main ingredients fueling the rise of Shiite militias and of Shiite reprisal attacks on Sunni Arabs. Both the militias and Shiite attacks and atrocities will continue to grow as long as it appears that the Sunni Arab insurgency is out of control. It is as important, therefore, to convince the Shiites that the Iraqi government's victory is assured as it is to show the Sunni Arabs that the insurgents' defeat is certain.

Saying all this is easier than doing it, of course, and the Bush administration and the Iraqi government have been trying in their own ways to accomplish this goal. The Bush administration has consistently argued that the growth of the Iraqi Security Forces and various rebuilding projects would convince Iraqis to side with their new government. The trouble is that although progress in these areas is a sign of victory for the Iraqi government, continued violence is seen as a victory for the insurgents. When both sides can claim successes in an insurgency, it is really the government that loses.

There is only one thing the administration and the Iraqi government can do that generates both a sense of their victory and an obvious defeat for the insurgency: clear, hold, and rebuild cities and towns wracked by violence and lawlessness, as the president declared we would do last fall. When Iraqi and American troops clear a town in which the insurgents have been operating freely, we know we've won, the Iraqi people know we've won, and the insurgents know we've won. This is the way to create a sense of victory that everyone understands.

The other virtue of clear-and-hold operations is that they bring security. Without security, further political and economic progress is extremely difficult. And the ultimate goal of reconciling Iraq's sects, ethnicities, and tribes will be much easier once the population is secured. Insurgents take advantage of the absence of coalition and effective Iraqi military and police units to assassinate key officials seen as collaborators, intimidate or punish anyone who might provide information about the rebels to the coalition, and recruit supporters from disaffected and terrorized young men. Those young men are frequently unemployed, moreover, because it is nearly impossible to have a functioning local economy in such lawless conditions. Even the nonmilitary elements of counterinsurgency strategy that the Bush administration has rightly been emphasizing require security to succeed. Yet clear-and-hold is not actually the primary objective of U.S. forces in Iraq today. American commanders instead claim to be focused on "handing over battlespace" to newly trained Iraqi troops. Like the body counts of the Vietnam war, the percentage of "battlespace handover" has become the statistical proxy for success in this war.

That must change. With the Iraqi government now complete and the Iraqi Security Forces growing more rapidly than anyone had a right to expect, there is no more urgent task for the coalition in Iraq today than establishing security throughout the country. This is not merely part of a defensive operation to control the spreading violence. Now is the time for a surge in military operations to clear and hold contested areas in Iraq that can offer the prospect of convincing large numbers of Iraqis that the government will win and the insurgents will lose. This is the best hope for breaking the insurgency rapidly, strengthening the new Iraqi state, and achieving victory.

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Frederick W. Kagan is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of Finding the Target: The Transformation of the American Military (Encounter).

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