The insurgency in Iraq has no military capability either to drive the United States military from Iraq or to stop the American training of Iraqi police and security forces–or, for that matter, to derail the formation of a new government. The United States air base at Balad is one of the busiest airports in the world. Camp Victory near Baghdad is impenetrable to serious attack. And even forward smaller bases at Kirkuk, Mosul, and Ramadi are entirely secure. Instead, the terrorists count on three alternate strategies:
First, through the use of improvised explosive devices (IED), assassinations, and suicide bombings, they hope to make the Iraqi hinterlands and suburbs appear so unstable and violent that the weary American public says “enough of these people” and calls home its troops before the country is stabilized. In such a quest, the terrorists have an invaluable ally in the global media, whose “if it bleeds, it leads” brand of journalism always favors the severed head in the street over the completion of yet another Iraqi school.
Second, the al Qaedists think they can attack enough Shiites and government forces to prompt a civil war. And indeed, in the world that we see on television, there is no such thing as a secular Iraq, an Iraqi who defines himself as an Iraqi, or a child born to a Shiite and Sunni. No, the country, we are told, is simply three factions that will be torn apart by targeted violence. Sunnis blow up holy places; Shiites retaliate; and both sides can then blame the Americans.
Third, barring options one and two, the enemy wishes to pay off criminals and thugs to create enough daily mayhem, theft, and crime to stop contractors from restoring infrastructure and thus delude the Iraqi public into believing that the peace would return if only the Americans just left.
One of the great lapses in world journalism is investigating what happened to the 100,000 criminals let out by Saddam Hussein on the eve of the war. Thus the terrorists have succeeded in making all the daily mayhem of a major city appear to be political violence–even though much of the problem is the theft, rape, and murder committed by criminals who have had a holiday since Saddam freed them.
We are at a standoff of sorts, as we cannot yet stop the fear of the IED, and they cannot halt the progress of democracy. The Americans are unsure whether their own continued massive use of force–GPS bombings or artillery strikes–will be wise in such a sensitive war of hearts and minds, and must be careful to avoid increased casualties that will erode entirely an already attenuated base of public support for remaining in Iraq at all. The terrorists are more frustrated that, so far, they cannot inflict the sort of damage on the Americans that will send them home or stop the political process entirely.
During this sort of waiting game in Iraq, the American military silently is training tens of thousands of Iraqis to do the daily patrols, protect construction projects, and assure the public that security is on the way, while an elected government reminds the people that they are at last in charge.
The IED and suicide bomber answer back that it is a death sentence to join the government, to join the American-sponsored police and army, and to join the rebuilding efforts of Iraq.
Who will win? The Americans I talked to this week in Iraq–in Baghdad, Balad, Kirkuk, and Taji–believe that a government will emerge that is seen as legitimate and will appear as authentic to the people. Soon, ten divisions of Iraqi soldiers, and over 100,000 police, should be able to crush the insurgency, with the help of a public tired of violence and assured that the future of Iraq is their own–not the Husseins’, the Americans’, or the terrorists’. The military has learned enough about the tactics of the enemy that it can lessen casualties, and nevertheless, through the use of Iraqi forces, secure more of the country with far less troops. Like it or not, the American presence in Iraq will not grow, and will probably lessen considerably in 2006, before reaching Korea-like levels and responsibilities in 2007.
The terrorists, whom I did not talk to, but whose bombs I heard, answer back that while they fear the Iraqization of their enemy and the progress of democracy, they can still kill enough Shiites, bomb enough mosques, and stop enough rebuilding to sink the country into sectarian war–or at least something like Lebanon of the 1980s or an Afghanistan under the Taliban.
It is an odd war, because the side that I think is losing garners all the press, whether by blowing up the great golden dome of the Askariya shrine in Samarra, or blowing up an American each day. Yet we hear nothing of the other side that is ever so slowly, shrewdly undermining the enemy.
The Iraqi military goes out now on about half the American patrols, as well as on thousands of their own. It is not the Fallujah brigade of early 2004–rather, it is developing into the best trained and disciplined armed force in the Middle East. While progress in reestablishing the infrastructure necessary for increased electricity and oil production seems dismal, in fact, much has been finished that awaits only the completion of pipelines and transmission lines–the components most vulnerable to sabotage. It is the American plan, in a certain sense, to gradually expand the security inside the so-called international or green zone, block by block, to the other 6 million Iraqis outside, where sewers run in the streets and power from the grid is available less than 12 hours per day.
The nature of the debate has also changed at home. Gone is “my perfect war, your screwed-up peace” or “no-blood for oil” or even “Bush lied, thousands died.” And there is little finger-pointing any more that so-and-so disbanded the Iraqi army, or didn’t have enough troops, or didn’t supply enough body armor. Now it is simply a yes or no proposition: yes, we can pull it off with patience, or no, it is no longer worth the cost and the lives.
Most would agree that the Americans now know exactly what they are doing. They have a brilliant and savvy ambassador and a top diplomatic team. Their bases are expertly run and secured, where food, accommodations, and troop morale are excellent. Insufficient body armor and unarmored humvees are yesterday’s hysteria. Our generals–Casey, Chiarelli, Dempsey–are astute and understand the fine line between using too much force and not employing enough, and that the war cannot be won by force alone. American colonels are the best this county has produced, and they are proving it in Iraq under the most trying of conditions. Iraqi soldiers are treated with respect and given as much autonomy as their training allows.
Again, the question now is an existential one: Can the United States–or anyone–in the middle of a war against Islamic fascism, rebuild the most important country in the heart of the Middle East, after 30 years of utter oppression, three wars, and an Orwellian, totalitarian dictator warping of the minds of the populace? And can anyone navigate between a Zarqawi, a Sadr, and the Sunni rejectionists, much less the legions of Iranian agents, Saudi millionaires, and Syrian provocateurs who each day live to destroy what’s going on in Iraq?
The fate of a much wider war hinges on the answers to these questions, since it would be hard to imagine that bin Laden could continue be much of a force with a secure and democratic Iraq, anchoring ongoing liberalization in the Gulf, Lebanon, and Egypt, and threatening by example Iran and Syria. By the same token, it would be hard to see how we could stop jihadism from spreading when an army that is doing everything possible still could not stop Islamic fascism from taking over the ancestral home of the ancient caliphate.
Can-do Americans courageously go about their duty in Iraq–mostly unafraid that a culture of 2,000 years, the reality of geography, the sheer forces of language and religion, the propaganda of the state-run Arab media, and the cynicism of the liberal West are all stacked against them. Iraq may not have started out as the pivotal front in the war between democracy and fascism, but it has surely evolved into that. After visiting the country, I think we can and will win, but just as importantly, unlike in 2003-4, there does not seem to be much of anything we should be doing there that in fact we are not.