Politics & Policy

Are We Winning in Iraq?

The defeatism is unwarranted.

Tom Ricks of the Washington Post calls the Iraq war a “fiasco” and opines that it was guided by “perhaps the worst war plan in American history.” Retired Marine general Anthony Zinni, Tommy Franks’s predecessor as commander of Central Command, describes the actions of the Bush administration as ranging from “true dereliction, negligence, and irresponsibility” to “lying, incompetence, and corruption” and calls Rumsfeld “incompetent strategically, operationally, and tactically.”

Andy Bacevich, a retired Army officer who teaches at Boston University, goes farther, concluding that “the sun has set on the age of unquestioned Western military dominance.” Muslims, he writes in the September issue of The American Conservative, have solved the riddle of the Western Way of War. They have stopped fighting on Western terms and have started winning.

What the Islamic Way of War does mean to both Israel and to the United States is this: the Arabs now possess — and know that they possess — the capacity to deny us victory, especially in any altercation that occurs on their own turf and among their own people. To put it another way, neither Israel nor the United States today possesses anything like the military muscle needed to impose its will on the various governments, nation-states, factions, and political movements that comprise our list of enemies.

The Democrats, attempting to leverage adverse public opinion regarding the war into political advantage for the 2006 election, have simply adopted such rhetoric as their talking points. But the defeatism that permeated the symposium on Iraq published in the last issue of National Review makes it clear that even many conservatives have lost hope in our enterprise there.

I continue to be guardedly optimistic about the U.S. enterprise in Iraq. Although violence continues, there are a number of factors that favor the Iraqi government. The principal one is that, arguably, we have broken the back of the Sunni insurgency, the main threat to the Iraqi government.

Skeptics might object by pointing to the recent report by a Marine intelligence officer, which concludes that the military situation in al Anbar province can best be described as a “military stalemate.” How can my contention be true in the light of this report, which has been publicly endorsed by Lt. Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, commander of Multinational Corps-Iraq?

There is no doubt that al Anbar remains a dangerous and violent place. More than 30 percent of all attacks in Iraq from May to early August took place in al-Anbar. More than 900 U.S. troops have been killed in al-Anbar since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Nonetheless, the meaning of “military stalemate” must be placed in the proper strategic context.

Compare the situation there today to that of spring and summer 2004. Al-Anbar was completely under the control of insurgents. Fallujah, one of the province’s major cities, served as the headquarters of the late Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the arch-terrorist who turned the city into one big torture chamber from which he dispatched suicide bombers to other parts of Iraq. Control of the city had given the insurgents the infrastructure — human and physical — necessary to maintain a high tempo of attacks against the Iraqi government and coalition forces.

In November 2004, Marines and soldiers wrested Fallujah from the insurgents in bloody fighting. Of course, in and of itself, the loss of Fallujah didn’t cause the insurgency to collapse, but it did deprive the insurgents of an indispensable sanctuary, absent which large terrorist networks are reduced to small, hunted bands that cannot easily survive. And the fall of the city marked the first phase of a campaign: a series of coordinated events — movements, battles and supporting operations — designed to achieve strategic or operational objectives within al Anbar.

After losing the city, Zarqawi apparently tried to reconstitute the insurgency in Mosul, but was unable to do so because the Coalition continued a high tempo of offensive operations that maintained pressure on the insurgents. In Mosul as in Fallujah, Coalition forces killed and captured enemy fighters, forcing Zarqawi to move west into al-Anbar province. In March, an Iraqi special operations unit captured an insurgent camp near Lake Tharthar on the border of al-Anbar and Salaheddin provinces. Such operations forced Zarqawi back to positions along the Syrian border.

Next came the “rivers campaign.” No force, conventional or guerrilla, can continue to fight if it is deprived of sanctuary and logistics support. Accordingly, the central goal of the U.S. strategy in al Anbar province was to destroy the insurgency by depriving it of its base and infrastructure in the Sunni Triangle and its “ratlines” west and northwest of Fallujah. The first of these ratlines 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. These two river corridors constituted the main spatial elements of the campaign to implement U.S. strategy in the Sunni Triangle.

The rivers campaign consisted of five operations that took place from May to August, 2005: The high operational tempo associated with this campaign was intended to degrade rapidly the rebels’ lines of communication at both ends of the two river corridors, while killing and capturing as many of the enemy as possible.

‐– 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.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is senior national security fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) in Philadelphia, editing its journal Orbis from 2008 to 2020. A Marine Corps infantry veteran of the Vietnam War, he was a professor of national-security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College from 1987 to 2015. He is the author of US Civil–Military Relations after 9/11: Renegotiating the Civil-Military Bargain.

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