Politics & Policy

Lessons on the Long War

Understanding the stakes and strategy in Iraq.

Baghdad, Iraq The Democratic leadership in Congress haven’t got their facts straight on Iraq. They continue in failing to account for the surge’s dramatic success here, and persist in using a public rhetoric stubbornly suited to conditions in the past. This week, Democrats will bring two bills to the Senate floor whose aim is to immediately redeploy U.S. troops out of Iraq under the mistaken notion that doing so will serve our broader (and presumably, legitimate) fight against al-Qaeda. If success against al-Qaeda is the goal, Senators Russell Feingold, Harry Reid, and Barack Obama need to catch up on their reading and acquire all the relevant facts. I know two important books that are a good place to start.

While traveling to Baghdad, I had plenty of downtime to re-read large portions of House to House, Staff Sergeant David Bellavia’s memoir of urban combat in Fallujah, and the U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual authored by General David Petraeus and (new Vets for Freedom board member) Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl. The two books highlight fundamental aspects of the Iraq war today — and are must-reads for anyone who wants to understand the enemy we face and the strategy we’re currently employing against them, with great success.

Congressional Medal of Honor nominee David Bellavia’s first-person account of deadly hand-to-hand combat in Iraq paints a realistic and detailed picture of the enemy he faced in Fallujah — what he called “an insurgent global all-star team” that included “Chechen snipers, Filipino machine gunners, Pakistani mortar men, and Saudi suicide bombers.” The insurgents were not ordinary Iraqis fighting for their freedom against an invading power — but international Islamic militants supported by al-Qaeda. “They seek not only to destroy us here in Iraq, but to destroy American power and influence everywhere. They revile our culture and want it swept clear, replaced with Sharia law.” If only certain U.S. Senators truly understood the global nature of our vicious enemy in Iraq.

The second book outlines the military doctrine behind our counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq — and is a testament to military adaptation and leadership. In the military theater, Petraeus’s manual calls for “securing and controlling the local populace,” but also for “providing essential services” and “supporting government reforms and reconstruction projects” — all of which requires “a high ratio of security forces to the protected population” (i.e., enough troops). Meanwhile, on the home front, the manual warns that “protracted counterinsurgency operations are hard to sustain. The effort requires a firm political will and substantial patience by the government, its people, and the countries providing support.” In light of today’s Senate fights, these words are painfully prescient.

The extent to which our military and government can internalize and implement the lessons these books provide will determine whether or not we succeed in Iraq and in the broader war on terror. On this score, the Democratic leadership in Congress doesn’t seem to have done their homework.

Later today, Senators Feingold and Reid will introduce two bills whose ostensible goal is to force the administration to “re-focus on our top national-security threat — al-Qaeda and its affiliates.” Senator Obama — the Democrats’ leading man — will vote “yes” on both bills.

The first bill would mandate that national-security leaders create “a comprehensive strategy to combat and defeat al Qaeda globally.” An excellent idea: We all want to defeat al-Qaeda wherever they exist — Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria, everywhere. America needs a more comprehensive military, political, and cultural strategy to deal with modern Islamic radicalism, which promises to be a Long War (as Maj. Gen. John Batiste and I have argued in the Washington Post).

But it’s not 2003 anymore. Given the fact that today we are facing a determined al-Qaeda effort to destabilize Iraq, wouldn’t any rational person include Iraq in their list of places where al-Qaeda must be defeated? Not Obama, Feingold, and Reid, who believe “we need to safely [i.e., immediately] redeploy U.S. troops from Iraq.” Whatever misgivings these senators may have felt about the invasion of Iraq in the first place, today we are there. And so is al-Qaeda. Any “strategy to combat and defeat al Qaeda globally” must begin there.

The second bill entails an immediate timeline for troop withdrawal, regardless of conditions on the ground. The supporting evidence for this approach is thin — “the key to ending [the violence] is political reconciliation, not a huge U.S. troop presence.” When Senate Democrats refuse to recognize the gains we’ve already made, it’s impossible for them to understand the way counterinsurgency warfare develops.

Contrary to Senator Obama’s assertion that Sunni sheiks in Anbar Province rose up against al-Qaeda because of the Democrats’ midterm election victory (yes, he actually said that), the reason for the “Sunni Awakening” was a commitment of troops in patrol bases throughout Ramadi (reported first by Wade Zirkle and Sgt. Bellavia in July of 2006 — months before the midterm elections), followed by an increase in troops and sustained commitment throughout Anbar and Iraq in 2007.

In fact, the recipe for success in Iraq can be found in the pages of the manual authored by the general commanding Baghdad today. We’ve committed more troops, protected the population, and helped restore basic services. The result: local and national political reconciliation that eventually means a quicker redeployment of U.S. forces and a more stable and friendly Iraqi state.

We should all want this. But immediate withdrawal would mean the former (redeployment), without the latter (stability) — leaving behind a failed and bitter Iraqi state, vulnerable to coercion from outside groups, and ripe for radicalization. Read the manual, it’s all there.

For Obama, Feingold, and Reid to support such dangerous legislation requires a “willing suspension of disbelief” that ignores facts on the ground, and the progress the surge has enabled. They continue to sing off of last year’s song sheet.

As for “victory” in Iraq, which most Democratic senators (and even some Republicans) callously dismiss, I once again cite the Counterinsurgency Field Manual: “Victory [in any counterinsurgency] is achieved when the populace consents to the government’s legitimacy and stops actively and passively supporting the insurgency.”

I’ll leave it to you to decide where passive support for al-Qaeda still persists.

— Captain Pete Hegseth, who served in Iraq with the 101st Airborne Division from 2005 to 2006, is executive director of Vets for Freedom. He’s back in Iraq for the next week to cover the surge for NRO.


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