A truism among those who study insurgencies is that time is on the insurgents’ side, and that they do not have to win so much as avoid losing. They prevail by waiting the enemy out. However, this truism is not always true. Time is not necessarily on the side of the insurgents if they are not gaining public support, are not able to continue operations, and are best by internal feuds and effective external pressure. Also, such movements are not always content to simply outlast the enemy. In Iraq, for example, the insurgents are seeking not to wait Coalition forces out but to drive them out. They are not awaiting the absence of defeat, they are pursuing victory. This is not a protracted, decades-long strategy; they want us out of there ASAP.
The insurgents look to the past for models, chiefly Mogadishu 1993 and Beirut 1983. In both cases U.S. forces facing technologically inferior Muslim adversaries were dealt crippling blows–not to our military capacity, but to our political will. The Beirut barracks bombing is particularly salient, and terrorists described the recent attack on troops in the mess tent in Mosul as a “mini-Beirut.” Osama bin Laden frequently invokes the memory of Beirut as a model of Americans being driven from “Muslim soil” by one spectacular operation. Of course, this does not take into account the complexities of that time and the various factors that led to the eventual pullout; and as 9/11 demonstrated, the single spectacular attack can have the opposite of the intended effect. But bin Laden in particular has shown a degree of impatience in his conduct of war, so his desire for the climactic engagement is understandable.
The insurgents seek to influence American public opinion, one third of the Clausewitzian “trinity” of the military, the government, and the people. Turning the people against the conduct of the war places the government in a difficult position, at least in a democracy. National will is a critical requirement in conducting a counter-insurgency, and as such also a critical vulnerability. The terrorists can wage the public opinion battle with something very near symmetry, that is with access to the same resources and channels of information that the Coalition has. If enough people begin to object to the conduct of the war, the policymakers will buckle (so goes the model) and the troops will be withdrawn without having to be defeated militarily. This is true whether the insurgents seek the “one big attack” or a series of smaller engagements. Unfortunately, public support for the war in Iraq is on a slow slide. A recent Pew survey showed continuing decline in public perceptions of the course of the military effort, with only 50 percent seeing things going positively, down from 75 percent a year ago. Interestingly, this has coincided with a decline in public attention being paid to Iraq news with only 34 percent following the news “very closely” compared to around 50 percent a year ago. So we have a less well informed and increasingly negative public–willful ignorance joining with declining support, not a satisfactory situation.
In order effectively to respond to this situation the Coalition must not simply be resolute but to demonstrate that resolve. The counterinsurgency cannot be placed on the defensive, handing the initiative to the terrorists. Rather the Coalition ought to continue to act in ways that keep the terrorists off balance and forces them to be reactive. Last month’s successful offensive in Fallujah, for example, which was an overdue but highly effective use of military power. The terrorists are unlikely to give us another such opportunity (i.e., massing in numbers that play to our firepower advantages, and standing to fight and die rather than retreating to fight another day). But we can still keep the pressure on, through continued patrolling, special operations, and effective counter-intelligence to build more reliable Iraqi security forces.
We must also increase pressure on the external supporters of the insurgency. The U.S. defeat in Vietnam was in great measure the result of our reticence to confront the North Vietnamese on their turf with effective force. Even covert operations in the North were curtailed by the Johnson administration when they became too effective. (Richard H. Shultz’s The Secret War Against Hanoi is excellent reading on this unfortunate failure of political will at the national level.) There is growing evidence that the insurgency in Iraq is being abetted by Iran, Syria, and unofficial sources in Saudi Arabia, as well as the al Qaeda network. It would be a mistake to ignore cross-border safe havens, finance, and weapons channels, and personnel being sent into theater from countries that do not wish our efforts well, or that would feel threatened by the establishment of a free, democratic Iraq. In his September 20, 2001 address to the Joint Session of Congress and the American people , President Bush stated that the United States would “pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism. Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists. From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.” Iraq’s neighbors need to be reminded of this pledge, and those that either as acts of policy or through conscious neglect are abetting the insurgents in Iraq need to be placed on notice. We have not sacrificed the blood and treasure of this nation to see the Iraqi people driven back into tyranny by authoritarian regimes that fear the influence a free Iraq would have on the budding aspirations of their own oppressed peoples.
Finally the Coalition needs to formulate more effective communications strategies, not only to inspire and nourish the hopes of the freedom-seeking people in the Middle East and elsewhere, but to better inform the American people what is at stake in this front in the war on Islamic terrorism, and why the sacrifices being made are necessary for our long term security. The terrorists will continue to pursue the single, dramatic, high-casualty, media-enthralling event through which they will attempt to redefine the war effort and crystallize opposition to administration policies. Hopefully this event will never take place. But if it does, the United States must not be left in a state of paralysis and resignation. The coming year will be a critical one in the war effort, in which our gains in Iraq will either be consolidated or lost. It is no time to go on the defensive, but rather to seek a new year’s resolution.
–James S. Robbins is senior fellow in national-security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council and an NRO contributor.