Defeatism about Iraq is in the air. Newspapers and TV news alike repeat the refrain that things in Iraq are “spiraling downward,” that the “descent into chaos” can only culminate in civil war. I often feel like I’m in a time warp. All I have to do is substitute “Vietnam” for “Iraq” and I’m lost in 1970, at which time we were in fact turning the corner in Vietnam, at least militarily. But now as then, the press has given up all pretense of objectivity and has taken up the “antiwar” cause, ensuring that the good news is drowned out by the drumbeat of negative perceptions.
But isn’t it a fact that the news is bad? Isn’t the press merely reporting the reality on the ground in that sad country? The press, after all, didn’t make up the fact that October was the most costly month for American troops since January and that over 2,000 have died during the war. Insurgent attacks continue. Where’s the “light at the end of the tunnel”?
The good news in Iraq must start with the recent referendum on the new Iraqi constitution. While swamped in the U.S. press by the unseemly, indeed disgraceful, reporting of the 2,000-dead-Americans “milestone,” the acceptance of the draft constitution by the Iraqi people indicates a real accomplishment.
The second bit of good news is the publication of a letter from al Qaeda’s number-two official, Ayman al-Zawahiri, to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the bandit-in-chief of al Qaeda in Iraq, which lays out al Qaeda’s long-range plan for Iraq and the rest of the region. According to the Washington Post of October 7:
The letter of instructions and requests outlines a four-stage plan, according to officials: First, expel American forces from Iraq. Second, establish a caliphate over as much of Iraq as possible. Third, extend the jihad to neighboring countries, with specific reference to Egypt and the Levant — a term that describes Syria and Lebanon. And finally, war against Israel.
. . . bin Laden’s deputy also purportedly makes clear that the war would not end with an American withdrawal and that anything other than religious rule in Iraq would be dangerous. “And it is that the Mujaheddin must not have their mission end with the expulsion of the Americans from Iraq, and then lay down their weapons, and silence the fighting zeal. We will return to having the secularists and traitors holding sway over us,” the letter reportedly says.
But some of the best news from Iraq is obscured by the propensity of the press to focus completely on American casualties. The problem with such a focus is that it ignores any broader strategic context. What do these casualties signify? What are the trends?
To begin with, the military situation is much better today than it was only a year and a half ago. As I observed in my review of Bing West’s book about Fallujah, No True Glory (“Boots on the Ground,” NR, Oct. 24), it appeared likely in the spring of 2004 that the Coalition was about to confront the “perfect storm” of a unified Sunni-Shiite “national front.” There could have been a simultaneous uprising of Sunni insurgents in al-Anbar province west of Baghdad and Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi army in the south, and Fallujah could have emerged as a national symbol of resistance. Even though they were on the verge of defeating the insurgents, the Marines were ordered to stop while Sadr was crushed. By the time the Marines went back on the offensive in November 2004, Fallujah had become a symbol of a different sort–a slaughterhouse where Sunni terrorists, under the direction of al-Zarqawi, turned the city into a large torture chamber in which they killed ordinary Iraqis and from which they dispatched suicide bombers to other cities.
Ironically, it may well be that the evolution of Fallujah from backwater to slaughterhouse contributed to the success of the Iraqi election in January 2005: One of the reasons that Iraq is likely to establish a viable government is because the terrorists of Fallujah, deluded into believing they had won in April 2004, overreached, earning the everlasting enmity of ordinary Iraqis who were their victims.
When the Marines took Fallujah at the end of last year, they began the strategically important process of interdicting the “ratlines,” the insurgents’ infiltration routes from the Syrian border into the heart of Iraq. One ratline follows the Euphrates River corridor–running from Syria to Husayba on the Syrian border and then through Qaim, Rawa, Haditha, Asad, Hit, and Fallujah to Baghdad. The other follows the course of the Tigris–from the north through Mosul-Tel Afar to Tikrit and on to Baghdad.
Operations followed throughout the spring and summer of 2005. While the earlier operations succeeded in keeping the pressure on the insurgents in Al Anbar province they could not prevent the insurgents from abandoning one town and moving to another not threatened by allied forces.
That has begun to change lately and one of the reasons is very good news indeed: Coalition forces are able to apply simultaneous force against the insurgent strongholds and, more important, to stay in the area because many Iraqi units are now able conduct combat operations with minimal U.S. support. In a Pentagon press briefing on Sept. 30, Gen. George Casey, the U.S. ground-forces commander in Iraq, pointed out that the number of U.S.-Iraqi or independent Iraqi operations of company-size or greater had increased from about 160 in May to over 1,300 in September, and that US-Iraqi or independent Iraqi operations now constituted some 80 percent of all military operations in Iraq.
The increasing number of capable Iraqi units means that the Iraqi government can begin to extend the writ of the Iraqi government to Al Anbar province, the heart of the Sunni Triangle. For instance, the recently completed Operation River Gate has established a substantial Iraqi government presence in Haditha, Haqlaniyah, and Barwana, three former insurgent strongholds along the Euphrates River.
It may seem counterintuitive, but from a strategic standpoint, it is possible to argue that the spike in U.S. casualties actually reflects military success, not failure. Of course we mourn the loss of all service members fighting in this war. But the recent up-tick in casualties indicates not so much that the enemy is becoming more aggressive, but that we are. Casualties always increase when one side goes on the offensive. That we are applying force simultaneously means that the enemy has no place to run and must stand and fight. As in Fallujah, this means more Coalition casualties, but it also means that the insurgents are being killed and captured away from Baghdad. This buys more time for the Iraqis.
I remain guardedly optimistic about progress in Iraq. Militarily and politically, the “correlation of forces favors the Coalition.” The continuing river campaign in Al Anbar province will eventually deprive al-Zarqawi’s bandits of time and space. He can only hope that American will breaks before that comes to pass.
–Mackubin Thomas Owens is an associate dean of academics and a professor of national-security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. He is writing a history of U.S. civil-military relations.