Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
June 9, 2006
WAR: A Quagmire In The Desert Is Just Sand
As I have argued before, given that the insurgency in Iraq will truly and completely be over when and only when the other side has lost the will or the means to fight, it is useful in the aftermath of the death of Zarqawi and the completion of the process of forming a legitimate, elected government to ask once again how this war must look to the other side. And no matter how much good press they get, I can't imagine the answer to that is anything but "terrible."
Consider this: we in the U.S. have been frustrated by the fact that we have not, since the end of major combat in the invasion phase of the war, had much in the way of taking-territory types of milestones to victory. And, as Glenn Reynolds often points out, democratization is a process, not an event. And yet, when you add them up, we do have a rather lengthy list of victories since then that can be strung together to demonstrate concrete, forward progress, one building on the next: capturing or killing Zarqawi, Saddam, Uday and Qusay; taking and holding cities like Fallujah; multiple free elections; the transfer of sovereignty, the ratification of a constitution, and the formation of provisional and permanent governments. Frustrated as we are, we can go to our soldiers, to new recruits, and to the taxpayers who support the war financially and show a series of steps forward.
Where are the other side's victories? They've had some - the original taking of Fallujah and the Madrid bombing that precipitated the withdrawal of Spain come to mind, but both of those are over two years ago now, and other examples are few and far between. Their victories are mostly either abstractions (e.g., a sense of chaos) or the mere continuation of conflict for its own sake. Which is an exhausting and demoralizing message to send to your men, even if they are religious zealots: we fight today so as to keep fighting for years without end. Don't worry about the fact that we never get anywhere. I mean, what does a car bombing or an IED or the decapatation of a hostage accomplish? Sure, it keeps the fight going, but each new day puts you back to zero. You wake up the next morning, and if you don't follow yesterday's car bomb with one today, then you lose the momentum, and that momentum is the entirety of what you have going for you.
The only way to hold together a fighting force that never wins any real battles, never takes any territory, never establishes any concrete milestones, is constantly suffering casualties and basically can claim the mere act of fighting as its only victories is through leadership. Leaders can play both on fear (the idea that a beachhead for liberty in Iraq will only be the beginning) and on the most distant of hopes. It is no accident that successful guerilla fighters have always had strong or charismatic leaders, from George Washington to Mao to Ho Chi Minh (and all three of them, despite their other dissimilarities, could also point to the gradual expansion of territory under their control). Which is why killing Zarqawi has to look like such a big thing from the other side: with the symbol of the insurgents' persistence squashed like a bug, who else enters the void, and how else do you keep men in the field who have been living in shadow and fear for three years without anything to show for it? How else do you keep raising money and new recruits to keep up the fight?
There are, of course, always bitter-enders who will go on, and there remain some in Iraq who fight less for any broader goal than for the ability to reap the benefits of fear in their local neighborhood. Nobody is saying the insurgency ended yesterday. But today the insurgents awaken to a world that still requires them to start their weary struggle afresh, and do so without the man who has symbolized their resistance and endurance. And the next time some broken-down old cynic on their side gives them the Jack Murtha "you boys can't beat them" speech, maybe there won't be anyone left to tell them otherwise. Day by day, man by man, they will grow weaker. If you were in their shoes, would you keep fighting now?