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Blueprint for Victory By: Frederick W. Kagan
Weekly Standard | Wednesday, October 26, 2005


The nature of the conflict in Iraq has shifted over the past 30 months. A basic assumption of the war plan executed in March and April 2003, and of the counterinsurgency campaign waged since then, was that the overwhelming majority of Iraqis would welcome the establishment of democracy in their country. And although a majority of Iraqis clearly do welcome democracy, there is an important complication. The most significant challenge the coalition faces in Iraq today is the fact that the Sunni-Arab community is in large part unwilling to accept the consequences of democracy, and has not yet reconciled itself to the loss of its dominant position in the country. U.S. military strategy has largely ignored this problem so far. Victory in Iraq thus requires a refocusing of coalition military efforts against this central challenge.

The coalition counterinsurgency effort has focused on three major military objectives. Between April and December 2003, the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) concentrated on finding Saddam Hussein and his two criminal sons, Uday and Qusay, and on breaking the Saddamist insurgency. The deaths of Uday and Qusay in July and the capture of Saddam in December 2003 largely achieved this goal.

The second objective emerged starkly with the capture of a letter from Abu Musab al Zarqawi to Osama bin Laden in February 2004. Coalition forces thereafter began to focus primarily on "jihadists" and "foreign fighters" who were thought to be masterminding the terrorism campaign in Iraq. During the first half of 2004, coalition forces took the lead in this campaign because Iraqi military and police units were for the most part incapable of doing so.

The third objective is the transfer of responsibility for Iraqi security to the Iraqis themselves as rapidly as possible. This objective was prominent in the initial war plan, but received new attention in mid-2004, with the transfer of sovereignty to the interim government headed by Ayad Allawi and the refocusing of coalition strategy on training Iraqi soldiers to take the lead in the counterinsurgency. In accord with this emphasis, coalition forces have moved away from the centers of Iraqi cities and towns and worked to put increasing numbers of Iraqi troops on the front lines instead. This objective has apparently been predominant in coalition strategy.

These three objectives have interacted with one another since the fall of Baghdad. The goal of getting coalition troops away from the front lines and replacing them with Iraqis has been a consistent CENTCOM aim since June 2003. The focus on Zarqawi and the problem of foreign fighters and jihadists has remained largely unchanged since February 2004. There have been notable exceptions to the doctrine of removing coalition forces from the front lines, particularly in the battles of Falluja of April and November 2004, and in Tal Afar in September of 2004 and 2005. Generally speaking, however, these three goals have defined the operational patterns of the U.S. military in Iraq. (CENTCOM officials would point out that the command has also been pursuing many other "lines of operation," as it calls them, including humanitarian relief and support for the political process, and so on. These undertakings, although critical to the overall success of the counterinsurgency, fall outside the realm of military strategy proper, and so are not considered here.)

There is no question that accomplishing these three objectives is essential to success in Iraq. The question is whether it is sufficient.

Objective I: fighting Saddam

The United States invaded Iraq in March 2003 and captured Baghdad in early April, ending major combat operations. Before the war, Saddam Hussein had created the Fedayeen Saddam, a large group of unconventional warriors trained, equipped, and supplied to conduct guerrilla-style attacks on advancing U.S. forces during the war, and to continue a guerrilla struggle on behalf of their deposed leader after the end of major combat operations.

The activities of the Fedayeen Saddam first attracted the attention of American commanders and civilian leaders during the war. The continuation of guerrilla attacks after the fall of Baghdad seemed to be an obvious and natural extension of those tactics, now carried on by "bitter-enders," "Baathists," and "former regime elements," as the military called them. U.S. military strategy therefore focused on convincing these recalcitrant Saddamists that Saddam would not be returning to power--and bent every effort to finding Saddam and his sons as the linchpin of this strategy. This view of the problem seemed to be vindicated following the killing of Uday and Qusay on July 22, 2003, and the capture of Saddam himself a few months later.

Riots over unemployment and other economic issues nonetheless suggested that "former regime elements" were not the whole problem--and that nonmilitary measures might also be brought to bear on the violence. Under General John Abizaid, CENTCOM commander from July 2003 to the present, the military increasingly emphasized humanitarian assistance to improve the quality of life of ordinary Iraqis, and CENTCOM argued repeatedly that improving the Iraqi economy was the key to reducing the violence. The assumption was that Iraqis generally desired democracy, but might become disillusioned with it if the quality of their daily lives did not improve.

At the same time, the coalition was working to re-establish an Iraqi army and police force. The organizations overseeing that process reported to the Coalition Provisional Authority, headed briefly by Jay Garner and then by L. Paul Bremer. The CPA's efforts to rebuild the Iraqi army aimed at producing a force incapable of meddling in Iraq's domestic affairs, yet minimally able to defend Iraq from foreign threats. It was to be an organization of three light infantry divisions with no special training in or focus on counterinsurgency.

The conflict between this process and CENTCOM's hope of replacing U.S. forces with Iraqi troops may not have seemed stark to strategists in 2003. The belief was that the insurgency would dwindle quickly as the Saddamists were hunted down and the Baathist leadership was captured. Once the few malcontents committed to the old despotism were eliminated or cowed, ran the common wisdom, the coalition would be able to withdraw.

The focus on a small military footprint that would minimize the appearance of a U.S. occupation made sense in this context. The Iraqis would not naturally support their former oppressors and would do so only out of fear that the Americans would become new foreign oppressors. The CPA's failure to develop an Iraqi army able to put down internal rebellion was therefore viewed as regrettable but far from disastrous. CENTCOM was much more worried about getting critical infrastructure and the economy up and running.

The killing of Uday and Qusay and the capture of Saddam seemed to strengthen this view. Those events led to a significant increase in the amount of intelligence CENTCOM was receiving from Iraqis, and in the number of surrenders of "former regime elements" who recognized that their day was done. The Bush administration and its military commanders entered 2004 confident that they had the winning strategy and that the continuing attacks and explosions were the sputterings of a dying insurgency.

Objective II: fighting terrorists and foreign fighters

The insurgency, however, did not wind down, and in early 2004 a new element appeared on the scene in the form of Abu Musab al Zarqawi, who claimed to be running an al Qaeda branch office in Iraq. Coalition forces intercepted a letter from Zarqawi to Osama bin Laden in February of that year, which seemed to lay out Zarqawi's future program of action. He told bin Laden that the transition of authority and military power from the coalition to the Iraqis would be a major and unfortunate turning point for him, one that might even destroy his justification for continued violence in Iraq. He therefore intended, he wrote, to launch an intense campaign to split the country along sectarian lines before the June 2004 transfer of sovereignty. He would incite Sunni violence against Shiites, intending to provoke a Shiite response that would lead to civil war and thereby galvanize the Sunnis to fight both the Shiites and the Americans.

Since then, Zarqawi and his organization have transfixed American strategists. U.S. officials began in early 2004 to focus heavily on terrorists and on foreign fighters. A Jordanian (of Palestinian descent) by birth, Zarqawi founded an organization that not only includes fighters drawn from outside of Iraq, but also has introduced into Iraq the tactics, techniques, and procedures of international jihad, including suicide bombings, car bombings, and al Qaeda's cell system of organization. As attacks on coalition forces and terrorist attacks continued after Saddam's capture, it was natural to see these foreign elements as the key to the problem.

The focus on counterterrorism operations and the foreign fighters was a strategy on which all sides could agree. No one doubted that jihadists were evil, and few U.S. or Iraqi leaders wanted to consider the possibility that their more basic assumptions were mistaken. This view of the problem was justifiable until April 2004, when Marines sent into Falluja to capture those responsible for the brutal deaths of four American contractors encountered not only a determined, organized, well-equipped, and well-supplied enemy that attempted to fight them toe to toe, but also a hostile populace. Not only did the people of Falluja give aid and shelter to the insurgents, but many young Fallujans grabbed their trusty AK-47s and made a game of shooting at advancing Marines and then disappearing. They were spurred on not just by radical imams preaching anti-Americanism and the virtues of jihad, but also by their families and friends, who exhorted them to be martyrs. A common thread in these sermons and exhortations was that the Americans had turned Iraq over to the Shia and thereby dispossessed the Sunni Arabs of their birthright to rule Iraq. (An excellent account of the April and November battles of Falluja can be found in Bing West's new book, No True Glory.)

The first battle of Falluja should have rung alarm bells about the assumptions underlying American strategy. The widespread and enthusiastic participation of the population made nonsense of the notion that a handful of former Saddamists and foreign fighters were the major problem. Hostility to the United States and also to the nascent Iraqi government was widespread and deeply rooted. The refusal of the Fallujans to accept or participate even in humanitarian assistance and economic recovery efforts raised grave doubts about that focus of CENTCOM's activities. Above all, the Marines' inability to find local leaders who could engage in meaningful negotiations was evidence of a deep crisis within the Sunni-Arab community.

The immediate political context, however, obscured the larger strategic lessons. The Marines' attack had been hastily prepared, without adequate political groundwork, and within days members of the Governing Council, the Iraqi face of the American occupation authority, were threatening to resign. At the same time, coalition forces faced a worrisome challenge from the radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army, which launched operations in Najaf, Karbala, Baghdad, and a number of other Shiite cities. The dread possibility that the majority Shiite community might rebel against American efforts to implant democracy could not be ignored. Fear of the Shia community in Iraq, which some in the administration wrongly believed wished to unite with or follow the dictates of Tehran, had profoundly influenced U.S. policy in Iraq from the end of the war. The specter of such a rebellion in the person of Moqtada al-Sadr was nearly paralyzing. For all of these reasons, the U.S. military leadership decided that the political price of crushing opposition in Falluja was too high and implemented a unilateral cease-fire that included the withdrawal of American soldiers from the city and the creation instead of the so-called "Falluja Brigade," to be manned by locals and commanded by former Baathist generals.

These events also reinforced the CENTCOM belief that American forces in Iraq were an irritant and created more problems than they solved, and that only Iraqi forces could suppress the insurgency. Because they had not been trained to fight counterinsurgency wars (and because their training was inadequate in any case), the Iraqi forces that were to have accompanied the Marines into Falluja largely fled. The Marines withdrew from the city at the conclusion of the battle and were replaced by the Falluja Brigade. The city suddenly became much quieter. A similar policy of restraint and the more successful use of Iraqi forces led to the isolation of Moqtada al-Sadr and the gradual erosion of his support and of his uprising, although only an assault by Iraqi and coalition forces on the Imam Ali Mosque in August 2004 finally ended his military resistance. The successful transfer of sovereignty to an interim government in June 2004 seemed both to have eliminated the appearance of an occupation and, according to Zarqawi himself, to have destroyed the jihadists' justification for their presence in Iraq.

Yet the insurgency continued. The rebels shifted their fire from coalition forces, which were generally too heavily armed and armored to be attacked successfully, to Iraqi police, Iraqi military and paramilitary units, and Iraqi civilians. And by the fall of 2004, it had become clear that the Falluja Brigade had melted away and the insurgents had made Falluja an organized base in which neither the coalition nor the Iraqi government had any power or presence. The withdrawal from Falluja was thus an emblem of a larger failure of imagination about the real problem the United States faced in Iraq.

Objective III: Iraqification

The first battle of Falluja should also have led to questions about the goal of turning Iraqi security over to the Iraqis as quickly as possible. This objective had been a key tenet of U.S. strategy from the first moment of the occupation. It rested on the assumption that coalition forces would be far less effective at counterinsurgency operations than Iraqis, and that it was important to minimize interactions between American soldiers and Iraqi civilians.

The initial efforts to create an Iraqi army were problematic. General Tommy Franks, CENTCOM commander during the war, had effectively disbanded Saddam's army, instructing its soldiers to surrender by laying down their weapons and going home. The coalition took only a handful of prisoners of war. When CPA head Bremer issued an edict formally disbanding that army, he was ratifying a fait accompli. The coalition therefore needed to build an Iraqi army from scratch. After the fiasco with the half-trained forces that fled Falluja in April 2004, CENTCOM brought in Lieutenant General David Petraeus in mid-2004 to overhaul the Iraqi army completely, with the particular goal of focusing on counterinsurgency. This undertaking has proven far more successful than the handful of light infantry divisions originally envisioned. Iraqi units performed admirably in the second battle of Falluja (in November 2004), in Tal Afar (September 2005), and in numerous other fights. But the question remains: Is the best strategy to focus on building up Iraqi units to fight the counterinsurgency battles? This question is more problematic than the coalition has let on. It may, in fact, be the central question of Iraq strategy today.

The months between the two battles of Falluja were tumultuous and confusing. Despite rising violence, the Bush administration held to its determination to transfer sovereignty to an Iraqi government as rapidly as possible, and to encourage that new government to set aggressive timelines for framing a constitution and holding elections. These decisions, much criticized at the time, turned out to be wise. They ensured that the coalition did not lose the support of the Shia and Kurds by losing momentum in a political process both groups knew would favor them. The political process also offered a prospect for creating a new Sunni-Arab elite that has legitimacy within the Sunni community and a commitment to democracy. So far, the emergence of such an elite is just a hope. Without the ongoing political process, though, there would be no hope at all.

The wisdom of the political process was to some degree undercut by the shortsighted decision to pull the Marines out of Falluja. Within months, the insurgents had not only taken over the city but established defensive positions, stockpiled food and ammunition, and set up sharia courts. Falluja for a time became a safe haven for the insurgents and a base for exporting rebellion throughout Iraq.

With Iraq's first elections, set for January 30, 2005, approaching, the CENTCOM leadership realized it could not surrender Falluja (and the larger Sunni Triangle) to Zarqawi and the insurgents. The Marines therefore prepared to return to the city in November 2004, but with a new approach. Effective Iraqi Army units accompanied them this time, and the now-sovereign Iraqi interim government fully backed the assault. It held firm even through the hard fighting that proved necessary to clean out this insurgent stronghold.

The insurgents met the Marines' attacks with everything they had. Estimates suggest that some 3,000 rebels fought fiercely, turning the town's cement houses and mosques into thousands of miniature pillboxes. They were confident that the Americans would not engage them in close-quarters fighting, and were disagreeably surprised when the Marines went house-to-house and room-to-room to clear them out of the city completely. The result was a devastating setback for the insurgency. Thousands of their most determined fighters were killed or captured, a safe haven that had come to look like an impenetrable fortress fell in a matter of days, and Zarqawi himself was forced to flee ignominiously to save his skin, after having promised his warriors that he would stay with them until the end.

The second battle of Falluja marked a major turning point in the course of the insurgency. From that point on, the insurgent military threat became much less grave. Insurgents now rarely concentrate in groups of more than two or three. They do not undertake direct attacks on U.S. soldiers if they can help it, and they have focused their improvised explosive devices on the softer targets of the Iraqi army, Iraqi police, and Iraqi civilians. The guerrilla war is effectively over because the enemy dares not even attempt guerrilla attacks, and the coalition is faced with a nearly pure terrorist campaign. The handful of exceptions, such as the recent fights at Tal Afar, simply prove the rule--the insurgents know that they cannot hold ground, and so they have largely given up trying. In this sense, the U.S. military strategy in Iraq has been extremely successful.

For the U.S. military, Falluja was important mainly because it seemed to validate the retraining efforts that were producing the new Iraqi army. Iraqi soldiers fought bravely and well in Falluja in November, and helped the Marines gain intelligence and fight the enemy. When the battles were over, the Marines moved as quickly as they could to turn the patrolling of the city back over to the Iraqis and to withdraw to the outskirts of town, ready to support their local allies if necessary. The mantra that the Iraqi soldiers needed to take over the fight before victory could be achieved continued monotonously, and President Bush began to say of the Iraqi troops that "as they stand up, we will stand down."

This is the posture that U.S. forces have tried to adopt throughout Iraq. Coalition forces have steadfastly attempted to hold positions on the outskirts of towns and cities, leaving actual patrolling within population centers as much as possible to Iraqis. At first the emphasis was on joint patrols with new Iraqi units, but U.S. forces say that their aim is to move to Iraqi-only patrols as quickly as possible, providing a backup and security force on which the Iraqis can rely as necessary. This strategy has been consistently followed by Abizaid from the beginning of the struggle, and there is no evidence to suggest that it is simply making a virtue of the necessity imposed by low American troop levels. On the contrary, Abizaid's belief in the inherent value of this approach is the principle that explains his consistent refusal to request more U.S. soldiers for Iraq. He and many others at CENTCOM genuinely believe that this is the best strategy and the right approach for the country, and can point to the history of the insurgency offered above as proof of the validity of this view. The question is: Are they right?

Before considering the wisdom of the particular approach to Iraqification that CENTCOM is using, we must first step back and reconsider the nature of the problem that confronts the coalition in Iraq. The notion that foreign fighters were the main problem should not have survived contact with the armed young men of Falluja attacking coalition tanks and armored personnel carriers with AK-47s. The real problem lies within the Sunni-Arab community itself. By eliminating Saddam's regime, the coalition simultaneously disenfranchised that community and decapitated it. Saddam had either co-opted the leaders of that community or killed them, and those that remained fell when he was captured. Radical imams and people like Zarqawi gained power within the Sunni-Arab community by stepping into a vacuum created by coalition success. Their appeal came, as it so often does, from their ability to focus anger and hatred. They spewed anti-Americanism, of course, and thereby drove countless young Iraqi men to their deaths in hopeless combat, but they also preached hatred against Shiites and the doctrine that Iraq should be ruled by the Sunnis forever.

Sunnis have dominated what is now Iraq for centuries--under the Ottoman Empire, the British, and subsequently. Even today, Sunni Arabs claim to be a "majority" in Iraq. For the most part, they do not mean that they are more numerous than the Shiites (though some propaganda tracts attempt to "prove" just that), but rather that they are (or should be) the dominant element in Iraq. In this sense, they are inherently hostile to any arrangement granting power to the Shia--which of course almost any real democracy will do. American assumptions that the Sunnis had been victimized as badly by Saddam as the Shiites and would therefore welcome democracy have turned out to be wrong, undermining U.S. military strategy in the Sunni Triangle.

The decapitation of the Sunni-Arab community in Iraq posed another problem as well, beyond the vacuum exploited by Zarqawi and radical clerics. It meant that there was no recognized authority figure who could speak for that community or control it. The contrast with the Moqtada al-Sadr uprising was stark: At a pivotal moment in that rebellion, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the recognized leader of the Iraqi Shia communities, spoke against Moqtada and urged the Shia not to support him. Sistani thereafter worked to broker several deals that gradually stripped Moqtada of his base and ultimately eliminated the military threat he posed. There was no leader who could perform a similar service in the Sunni-Arab regions.

The failure to occupy the Sunni Triangle after the war in April 2003 aggravated these challenges. Besides allowing Zarqawi and his ilk to step in, it also meant that the Sunni Arabs of Iraq never felt that they had been defeated. They did not fear American forces, as evidenced by the fact that Fallujans of all ages, men and women, came out to watch the first battle of Falluja as though it were a spectator sport--not the behavior one would expect of a people in awe of America's military might.

The very fact that the insurgents held their ground in Falluja is one of the most important and least examined events of the war. Insurgents do not ordinarily behave in this fashion, fearing the destruction of their organizations in pitched battles against stronger military forces. Yet the rebels held in Falluja, in many cases fighting to the death. Why? Because it is important to them that they hold ground. Sunni Arabs resisting the vision of a Shia-dominated Iraq are defending their homeland. And they did not believe that the Marines would fight them--the quick and relatively bloodless war had left them unbowed.

The debacle (from the insurgents' perspective) of the second battle of Falluja has certainly convinced them to fear U.S. forces in close combat, and they have largely eschewed such fights ever since. But they have turned now to a campaign that is clearly aimed at another perceived American weakness--they do not believe we will stay long enough to defeat them. In a recent letter, bin Laden's lieutenant Ayman al-Zawahiri wrote to Zarqawi: "Things may develop faster than we imagine. The aftermath of the collapse of American power in Vietnam--and how they ran and left their agents--is noteworthy." Repeated assertions by American leaders that U.S. troop withdrawals were just around the corner no doubt reinforced this belief among the rebels and encouraged them to hold on.

The nature of the targets the insurgents are choosing also speaks volumes about the problems the coalition faces. With few exceptions, the rebels are attacking Iraqis, both Sunnis and Shiites, with the aim of destroying support for the nascent Iraqi government. CENTCOM rightly argues that this shift reflects the insurgents' recognition of their inability to hurt American forces seriously, but that argument misses a more important point. If the insurgents are willing to focus their efforts on attacking Iraqis, then the real aim of the insurgency cannot simply be getting the Americans to leave. It must also be to prevent the establishment of a stable democratic government in Baghdad. Who has an interest in such a fight? Sunni Arabs who are unwilling to see a Shia-dominated government have such an interest. Why are they willing to kill Iraqis to prevent that from happening? Because they think it will work.

The Bush administration has always said that convincing the Sunni Arabs that they have a bright future in the new Iraq is an essential component to success, and that is quite true. There is, however, a precondition for the success of that endeavor: convincing them that they cannot hope to improve their bargaining position through force. But the coalition reaction to the continued terrorism in Iraq has been a mixed message. Repeated coalition statements about our intention to begin withdrawing as soon as possible, and about the need to turn the task of security over to the Iraqi forces, have tended to send the message that the insurgents can wait us out. President Bush's periodic statements that we will stay for as long as necessary have been drowned in the much louder noise of withdrawal-mania from below. And the absence of coalition forces from many of the cities in the Sunni Triangle has reinforced the message that the U.S. presence is fleeting and will lighten as the weeks go by.

The real danger lies in the months ahead. So far, the Sunni Arabs in Iraq have proven unwilling to accept the possibility that they cannot control the country's destiny any more. They have manifested that unwillingness through violence and through a failed political strategy of boycotting the January elections to delegitimize them and now unsuccessfully trying to vote down a constitution that many Sunni Arabs feel leaves too much power in the hands of the Shiites and the Kurds. What will they do now that that effort has failed?

Some may decide that they must play even more aggressively in the political game. But many others may well conclude that the political process is hopelessly rigged against them. The Sunni Arabs are a minority community in Iraq. Giving them power approximating their desires is certain to infuriate the Shiites (and the Kurds). Such a course of action is almost certain to lead to civil war. The only political solution, therefore, is to compel the Sunni Arabs to accept a far lesser voice in Iraq's affairs than they have had for centuries, and a far smaller role than they are now demanding.

In the unfolding of the political process, recalcitrant Sunni Arabs may well turn back to violence, noting that they have wrung concessions, including the withdrawal of U.S. forces from their cities, with such an approach before. The best hope for success in Iraq rests on convincing the overwhelming majority of Sunni Arabs that this course of action is doomed from the outset.

The policy of Iraqification, unfortunately, does not lead in this direction. First, the Iraqi military units are necessarily far less capable than coalition forces, both of attacking the enemy and of defending themselves. The insurgents are far more capable of hurting the Iraqi military than they are of harming coalition troops, and are more likely to survive even small guerrilla-style encounters with Iraqi army troops. Nor is it true that using Iraqi army troops is inherently better than using Americans from the standpoint of the hostility they arouse in the local population. Shiites and Kurds comprise a high percentage of the soldiers in the Iraqi forces. Using Shiite troops in Sunni-Arab villages offers precisely one advantage over using American forces--they speak Arabic. The Sunni Arabs still regard them as outsiders--precisely the outsiders, in fact, whom they despise for taking control of the country.

The use of either Shiite or American soldiers in Sunni-Arab villages is likely to generate hostility on the part of the locals. And in truth it is almost certainly better for the Americans to bear the brunt of that hostility. Because the U.S. forces will leave Iraq eventually, the long-term consequences of Sunni-Arab resentment of an American presence will be mitigated. It is therefore more advisable for American units to operate in Sunni areas in conjunction with Iraqi army forces rather than to leave the task to the Iraqi army by itself. The history of U.S. and Iraqi military operations since June 2003, moreover, shows that such joint operations are by far the most effective militarily and politically.

It is easy to misinterpret the anti-American hostility. When an American unit rolls into or through a Sunni-Arab village, the locals may look on with hostility. They may gesticulate, yell, gather, and even attempt to attack the Americans with rocks, sticks, or other such weapons. Such behavior would be a fairly normal way to indicate displeasure with an occupying force. But when an American force rolls into a village and is met with mortar rounds, heavy machine guns skillfully positioned, defensive obstacles, concerted counterattacks, or sophisticated explosive and car bomb attacks, the problem is not the size of the American footprint. Such activities demonstrate not merely anti-Americanism, but a high degree of organization possible only in a populated area beyond the central government's control. The lesson to learn from such firefights as those in Falluja, Tal Afar, and elsewhere is not that the American presence is an incitement to violence, but that the absence of effective occupying forces permits the insurgency to grow to dangerous and unacceptable levels.

It would always be a problem to have sizable cities or towns outside the government's control. But the complicated voting pattern of Iraq's transition to democracy makes such a situation wholly untenable. The need to ensure freedom of movement for election workers and voters every six or nine months has required repeated operations to clear towns that are then allowed to fall back into chaos in the intervals as coalition forces withdraw. This process has led to multiple "invasions" of Falluja, Tal Afar, Baquba, Samarra, and other towns. Each time coalition forces must retake a city in which they have allowed the insurgents to establish themselves, the cost is high--high in casualties for the insurgents, but also high in collateral damage, in the loss of public support, in noncombatant casualties, and in the loss of the sense of peace and progress attendant on any large-scale military operation. The coalition secured the country for the referendum. Will it now loose its hold once more, necessitating still further operations to make possible the December election? For it is nearly certain that Iraqi forces by themselves, or even with modest coalition support, will be unable to police their country adequately in the interim.

A better course would be to act aggressively now to pacify the Sunni Triangle. Coalition forces should increase the number of joint patrols with Iraqi units into Sunni-Arab towns, and should work to establish a long-term joint presence in each of the major troubled population centers. If CENTCOM is right, and towns that seem quiet really are pacified, it is extremely unlikely that the addition of American forces to the mix within those towns will lead to explosions of violence. It is easy to forget that American forces have periodically entered Sunni towns that were, in fact, under control, and generated no explosion. If the towns or cities really do explode as the coalition troops gradually increase their presence, the odds are high that they were not under control or moving in a positive direction anyway.

It is also essential for the U.S. political elite to abandon the current fad of discussing "exit strategies" and withdrawal timetables. There are few, if any, examples in history of a regime as young and fragile as the current Iraqi state inheriting an insurgency and defeating it. To imagine that the coalition can withdraw, turn an insurgency over to the inexperienced Iraqi army, and expect that army to defeat the insurgency is folly. The measure of success is not the number of "trained" Iraqi battalions available, but the defeat of the insurgency. Both the strategy and the message must be: America will not leave Iraq until the Sunni Arabs, and all other groups and ethnicities, have abandoned the hope that violence will lead to political advantage. This condition is the definitional requirement for any peaceful state, and the job Bush started will not be completed until this condition is met, no matter how many Iraqi soldiers or police are on the job.

Should more U.S. soldiers be deployed to pursue this strategy? Ideally, yes. It remains true that major military operations in Iraq require the coalition to concentrate forces from around the country, denuding some areas of needed troops. CENTCOM finds no difficulty accepting this fact, since its strategy deliberately rejects the idea of occupation. The whole point of CENTCOM's approach, in a certain sense, is to provide forces only where needed at the moment. A strategy of using American forces in conjunction with Iraqis to establish an ongoing presence in the major troubled cities of the Sunni Triangle would force a revision of this calculus that would probably call for more troops, although likely only on the order of some tens of thousands. A mitigating factor is that the coalition has many soldiers now based on the perimeters of towns who could be moved to more central locations. The strategy of occupying rather than abandoning population centers requires first a redeployment, and only then, possibly, an augmentation of U.S. forces.

This suggestion will immediately encounter the retort that there are no more American forces to send to Iraq. It is true that the Army is having difficulty enough meeting the current requirement; it may well be impossible to increase that requirement except in the short term--and adopting a military posture that is unsustainable over the long term would be counterproductive. We should fight at all times to avoid anything that encourages the insurgents to try to wait us out.

The obvious solution is therefore what it has been for several years:to begin to increase the size of the U.S. Army. Any such increase would not produce usable units for a year or perhaps two, and so this suggestion has been repeatedly rejected, since the premise of the CENTCOM strategy has always been that victory is just around the corner. If the Army had been increased in 2001, 2002, 2003, or even 2004, as was suggested each year, there would already be additional forces available. If the Army begins to increase now, new troops will still come on line before the end of Bush's term. We may well need them, for the challenges we face are unlikely to be resolved quickly. Weighing the costs of adding new soldiers against the costs of protracting--or, worse still--losing the war reveals the folly of depending on optimistic prognostications.

The Bush administration and the U.S. military deserve much praise for what has occurred in Iraq these past 30 months. The establishment of a new state, the formation of a new army, the rebuilding of a shattered economy, the foundation of a new democracy--all these are remarkable achievements in a short period of time. They will come to nothing, however, if they do not end in success.

So many things have gone right, and so much momentum has developed behind the idea of victory, that there is no reason to become defeatist. In the military realm, the successes have been astonishing and important. But errors in coalition strategy have also created a certain momentum for defeat, primarily by misapprehending the problem and focusing too heavily on our own preconceptions. Americans have become so accustomed to seeing themselves as the problem, to imagining that their presence is the catalyzing factor of the insurgency, that they are too easily blinded to more serious problems that relate to them only peripherally. The main problem in Iraq is not the American presence, nor is it the presence of our now-perennial enemy, al Qaeda. Reducing our footprint or closing the borders will not win the war.

The problem is within Iraq and specifically within the Sunni community. The coalition and the Iraqis are creating the political preconditions for success and have largely confined the military problems to the Zarqawi network and the Sunni Triangle (where that network is, for the most part, based). But until we, working with our Iraqi partners, have persuaded the Sunni community that violence is counterproductive and cannot improve its political position, the insurgency will continue. That persuasion will require political incentives and military pressure. If we and the Iraqi government apply both in judicious measure over the course of the next few years, there is no reason we cannot win.

Frederick W. Kagan, a military historian and coauthor of While America Sleeps, is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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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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