When President Truman sent General Matthew Ridgeway to replace Douglas MacArthur, a surprise Chinese offensive had pushed American forces all the way back to the starting line of the Korean War. An entire American division had been shattered; the troops and the country were demoralized; and Truman decided that enough was enough. But before the U.S. could withdraw, South Korea had to be saved and left in good enough shape to defend itself with a minimum of help. The enemy would have to be thrown back on the defensive, and made to suffer such a fearsome blow that sheer exhaustion would overtake its will to keep fighting. So almost as soon as General Ridgeway arrived, the order went out all along the front: Regroup — and attack.
In his visit to Washington this week, General David Petraeus left little doubt that he intends to attack and keep attacking — until the government of Iraq can survive on its own. But as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has made clear, America’s commitment is not limitless — nor can it be. In the end, Iraq will have to stand up on its own two feet, just as South Korea did 50 years ago.
Now everyone is watching for signs of the success — or failure — of what is almost certainly the final American offensive of the Iraq War. In private and in public, General Petraeus delivered a mixed progress report — giving almost everyone in Washington ammunition for their pet argument. The Democrats immediately argued that the war is lost — that’s their position, and they’re sticking to it. Meanwhile, Republicans insisted that progress was being made, that victory was still possible, and that defeat was still unacceptable. And so did General Petraeus.
In a Pentagon press briefing, he described multiple areas of significant progress, and then said this:
I am well aware that the sense of gradual progress and achievement we feel on the ground in many areas in Iraq is often eclipsed by the sensational attacks that overshadow our daily accomplishments.
There was both an admission and a warning. Civilian casualties from spectacular terrorist attacks have become the public metric by which success is measured in Iraq. But that is the wrong metric. Such terrorist attacks influence public opinion in the U.S. much more than they do the strategic reality of daily life across Iraq.
The United States will begin withdrawing in large numbers soon — perhaps not this year, but almost certainly next. The truth is that it will be many years before we know whether we withdrew in victory or in defeat. But one thing is certain — when we do withdraw, it will be against a media-enhanced backdrop of spectacular terrorist attacks. It needs just a handful of al Qaeda terrorists to see to that.
But those attacks cannot answer the key question — whether the new Iraqi state will be able to survive our departure. No one piece of information can tell you that, which is why the surge looks to a multiplicity of metrics — basic security, economic progress, political development, and the rule of law — for the population as a whole. There have been many signs of progress since the surge — building on the unsung achievements of years of coalition and Iraqi sacrifice. Most surprising in recent weeks has been the turn of events in the crucial geographic base of the Sunni insurgency — Anbar province — where whole tribes have turned against al Qaeda and their Saddamist allies.
As for Baghdad, General Petraeus described a helicopter ride he took over the city recently:
This is a day in which I think there was a car bomb in Iraq. Some of [Baghdad’s] seven million citizens were affected by that, but you could not have told that from what we saw over the city. There were three big amusement parks operational. I’m talking about, you know, roller coaster kinds of — these are not just a couple little merry-go-rounds in small neighborhood parks. Restaurants in some parts of the city were booming. Lots of markets were open. The people were on the street…. There had to be a thousand soccer games ongoing…. There is a city of seven million in which life goes on … citizens are determined to carry on with their life.
The withdrawal of American forces in large numbers is likely to occur during an election season — and that means politics. The Democrats will strain every nerve to make the whole effort in Iraq look like a regrettable failure — and that won’t be hard. Meanwhile, the Republicans, who are as politically invested in “victory” as the Democrats are in defeat, will argue the opposite. The Democrats are likely to get the better of the political argument because in Iraq the good news is incremental and difficult to report, while the bad news is spectacular and easy to report.
But the Republicans still stand a good chance of winning the historical argument. On the ground in Iraq, friend and foe alike agree on one thing: The struggle being waged there is a central front in the war between Islamist extremism and Western civilization. The looming end of the occupation is a light at the end of the tunnel for both sides. But the enemy should make no mistake. We are getting tired, but so are they — and we know it. They have done little to prove that they can bring about the collapse of the central government in Iraq. For all their murderous power, they are too few, and too weak, and too limited in geographic reach to win it outright.
It is often said that an insurgency wins if it does not lose. But that is only true when the insurgency is fighting an occupying foreign power that has the option of leaving. Today the principal enemy of al Qaeda in Iraq and their Saddamist allies is the government of Iraq — and that government has no option but to stay, fight, and win. And with every day that passes, that government grows in scope and capacity in all the dimensions of social life — and the insurgency is powerless to stop it. Our enemies in Iraq are likely to discover that when fighting a domestic government that is broadly representative of the people, insurgencies lose if they do not win.
The real purpose of the surge is to not to eliminate terrorism in Iraq, but to prove that the terrorists cannot win. The more clearly they see this, the quicker sheer exhaustion will overwhelm their will to continue fighting. Nobody can fight forever. But none of the forces at war in Iraq is as irrevocably committed to victory as the government of Iraq. And that spells victory for the United States — even if it that victory does not become apparent until long after we are gone.