The Way Forward In Iraq

It is a truism that war is unpredictable, and as a result it is necessary from time to time to reconsider tactics, strategy and even the overall mission. Changing facts on the ground, the changing of the guard at the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill, and the imminent arrival of the Iraq Study Group report (the leaked potential contents of which are discussed here, h/t), all make it necessary that we revisit yet again first principles about why we are in Iraq, what we hope to accomplish there and what should be the conditions of our ultimate departure.
I have been a supporter of the Iraq War from the beginning, for reasons I explained at length in this February 2003 post, this June 2004 post examining where we then stood on our objectives, and this August 2006 post on democratization in Iraq (I also heartily endorse the global strategic vision laid out by Steven den Beste in this July 2003 “Strategic Overview of the War on Terror”). The short summary is that (1) Saddam Hussein’s regime presented a multifaceted threat to the U.S. and its allies and had a history of irrational aggressiveness that was inconsistent with any prospect of reliable deterrence, (2) there was simply no way we were ever going to win the War on Terror with Saddam Hussein’s regime still in place, and (3) Saddam Hussein’s regime openly cheered the September 11 attacks, which I regard as intolerable. Nothing that has happened in the three and a half years since has convinced me that leaving a regime of that nature in power would have been a good idea.
But regardless of the rightness of the original decision, the question remains: what now? I’m not an expert on military tactics, so all I can do is go back to first principles. Here are the principles that should remain our guides in the months and years to come:
I. Identify and Defeat the Enemy
As a general principle, as I have explained many times before (see here, for example), the essential condition for sending American troops anywhere is that you identify an enemy or enemies and gear all of your efforts to defeating the enemy, by destroying his capacity and/or willingness to fight. That, in a nutshell, is the difference between war and armed social work, the difference between rebuilding a conquered foe into an ally and nation-building for its own sake. Military organizations are designed to destroy the enemy; that gives them purpose and direction and enables them to determine whether or not they have achieved victory. Don’t talk to me about “securing” this or “stabilizing” that or “guarding” some other thing – all those may be important parts of the mission, they may even be things that need to be done on the way out the door before handing over the keys, but they are not the mission itself, and the moment they become the mission you have lost your way.
Who is the enemy? There are three main enemies that, to my mind, must be substantially defeated before we can leave, although once Iraqi forces are up to the task of finishing the job we can leave the mop-up work to them.
A. Saddam’s Regime
The original enemy we entered Iraq to defeat was the regime of Saddam Hussein. That regime was broken and dispersed by May 2003; its leader was captured in December 2003 and sentenced to death in November 2006; its heirs apparent were gunned down in July 2003.
There is a fair question as to whether some part of the Sunni forces still fighting at this stage represent a genuine hard core of Ba’athist refuseniks, and to the extent that we can so identify such a force it is appropriate to stay and crush it. But I am not inclined to automatically assume that every problem in the Sunni Triangle is necessarily a sign of an organized guerilla campaign, or that US troops should have a permanent job putting down every uprising in the area. Iraqi-vs-Iraqi violence is fundamentally a matter of the new government exercising sovereign authority, and in that regard our role should, at most, be training and handing over the reins (as we have in the two least problematic of Iraq’s 18 provinces) rather than trying to insert ourselves in between warring internal factions.
B. Foreign Jihadis
You have heard the President say it often enough: Iraq is the central front in the war on terror. From the summer of 2003 through the summer of 2006, this was indisputably true. Foreign extremists poured into Iraq, mostly congregating around Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al Qaeda in Iraq (AQIZ) organization, which was at a minimum affiliated with, modeled on and financially supported by al Qaeda itself. As I have said before, this “flypaper” strategy, in which we would attract terrorists and Islamic extremists to Iraq and kill them in battle, was always a silver lining to the insurgency, not an affirmative reason to want an insurgency to fight. But once an openly declared enemy enters territory you hold, you fight.
Leaving Iraq to the mercy of Zarqawi, as the Howard Dean faction would have done in 2004 or 2005, would have been foolish, irresponsible madness. America can not be seen to run from these guys. But all that changed starting in June 2006, when a U.S. airstrike killed Zarqawi, and our capture of the dying Zarqawi and his bodyguards, paperwork and computers yielded an intelligence bonanza that led to rolling up much of his network.
Today, there are still foreign extremists in Iraq – but are they still a significant threat? It is hard for us to declare victory over these guys, since that seems an invitation for more to come in just to prove us wrong. But if ever there is a situation where we ought to have been able to say “Mission Accomplished” about the insurgency, it is the destruction of Zarqawi and his network. The extent to which our leaders in the field feel comfortable declaring Iraq reasonably free of foreign extremist organizations, and its military capable of dealing with the remainder, is perhaps the most important goalpost in determining when our job is done.
C. Sadr and the Iranian Threat
I have always thought, and have written before, that Muqtada al-Sadr reminded me uncomfortably of the early careers of Saddam, Khomeini, Hitler, Lenin, Castro, and other obstreperous and charismatic troublemakers whose sheer ability to survive eventually helped nourish their arrogance, hate and extremism into full-blown megalomania when they finally seized power. All were frequently underestimated and counted out, exiled, imprisoned, even sentenced to death, but never actually finished off, to the great later grief of millions.
In another way, I will admit I was wrong about this one: after U.S. forces routed Sadr in Najaf in the spring of 2004, I thought it was enough that we destroyed his forces and left to the Iraqis the decision what to do with him (See here and here).
While I don’t agree with all of his diagnoses of the Iraq situation, Ralph Peters is dead on the money (also here and here) that Sadr must be killed and it is up to us to do it, because Iraq’s prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, is clearly afraid of Sadr and accedes to his demands. If we do not kill Sadr now, we will live to regret the decision.
Sadr is an enemy for three reasons. First, of course, he has from the outset been virulently anti-American and made open war against our troops. Second, he is the chief progenitor of Shi’ite violence, especially in Baghdad, and the chief rival to the elected government for the allegiance of Shi’ites. And third, it is increasingly clear that his resources come from Iranian support, and therefore he cannot be regarded solely as a domestic Iraqi problem. And if we allow an Iranian proxy to make war on us without consequence, this does become like Vietnam, where the nation that landed at Normandy, Okinawa and Inchon was never willing, even after smashing the North Vietnamese military in the Tet offensive, to land a major force up the coast, seize Hanoi and force the enemy to its knees.
It may be that we don’t actually need to invade Iran, even in “hot pursuit” of Iranian agents and suppliers entering Iraq, but if we are to contain Iran, we need to make clear to Ahmadenijad that we will decapitate his armed proxies, starting with Sadr and eventually Nasrallah as well.
II. Democratization
I won’t repeat here everything I said in the prior posts linked above, but I continue to believe that the attempt at democratization in Iraq was and is a worthy strategy. It is not the chief goal of the mission, never was. It is unfortunate that the way things played out on the WMD front, it has been difficult to sell the mission publicly since the invasion as anything but a democratization project, thus placing more of our prestige behind Iraqi democracy than we should have preferred.
But I also said from the very outset in February 2003 that the models for Iraq should not be New Hampshire and Wisconsin or even Germany and Japan, but rather the new democracies that arose in the aftermath of the collapse of the Communist empire in Eastern Europe, Russia, Central and Southeast Asia, Central America, and sub-Saharan Africa. Many of those democracies have had a rough go of it since then; Benjamin Franklin said that our own democracy was “a republic, if you can keep it,” and not everyone who received the opportunity for democracy in the 1986-93 period kept it. Some, like Vladimir Putin’s Russia, maintain the forms of democracy (elections, term limits) but the actual practice is on life support, with no free press, massive organized crime, spotty and politically driven law enforcement, and an economy in shambles outside of the oil business.
But nearly all of the post-Communist states, even ones that elect people like Daniel Ortega to public office, are better off now than they were before, and less dangerous to the United States. We should continue to offer what support we can, of the non-military variety, to Iraq’s democrats. And as in Eastern Europe and other post-Communist areas, we should continue to encourage democratization throughout the Muslim and Arab worlds – it won’t work everywhere, and will backfire in some places, but the places it takes root will be long-term potential allies or at least stabilizing forces in the region.
But our military forces in Iraq are there to defeat enemies, not to force democracy to work. As with the Cold War, the battle for Iraqi democracy will be waged in Iraq by Iraqi democrats and their foes long after we have won the victory we came for and gone home.
III. Negotiation
The proposals from the ISG that have been leaked thus far appear to involve the Mother of All Sellouts, a negotiated peace with Iran and Syria that not only validates their interference in Iraq but simultaneously compels Israel to hand over land to the Syrians. This is foolish and reckless.
I have made this point before, more times than I can count (see here for a sampling and more links): negotiations are war by other means, and will fail if not backed by a credible threat of new or continuing hostilities to the disadvantage of the other side. Treaties are contracts, and contracts only work if the remedies for violation are clear and credible. Iran and Syria are now meddling in Iraq, and have been for quite some time. The Bush Administration has not been willing to visit any adverse consequences on them for this, at least not publicly, and will not admit that we are at war with them. Their proxies make war on us and our allies without the consequence of the proxies’ destruction.
How can we make credible peace with them when we will not even admit we are at war? How are they now suffering from U.S. involvement in Iraq, and if not, what incentive do they have to make concessions? And what conditions will bring us back to the field – Iran has been careful to avoid an open casus belli by using proxies rather than an open invasion. If Sadr’s militia acts up again, the Iranians won’t be falling over themselves to admit complicity, and how will an American president then rally the nation to fight?
Never make peace with anyone who can’t be held directly responsible if war resumes.
IV. Other Issues
There are other issues I don’t have time and space to deal with here. I regard partition of Iraq as a thinkable but unfortunate last resort, and one that is really more up to the Iraqis and to us, though we do at a minimum owe our support to the Kurds, who remain the most advanced and pro-American faction in the country. McQ has some useful thoughts about oil revenues and moving forces into Kurdistan, both of which I file under the same general heading.
Winning the War on Terror will be a long, hard struggle. We can’t lose heart or will, but we also can’t allow a loss of clarity about the mission in Iraq to destroy public support for the long war. Keeping focused on the main goals is essential. I close with the full version Churchill quote I use as my tagline; his message about Germany then applies as aptly today, but also as a cautionary tale, since Churchill spoke these words during the First World War, the one that did not end the battle with German militarism:

Germany must be beaten; Germany must feel that she is beaten. No compromise with the main purpose, no peace till victory, no pact with unrepentant wrong.

So it is today.