This is the text of my oped in today’s Wall Street Journal:
Vicory Is Within Reach in Iraq
By MICHAEL A. LEDEEN
October 20, 2007; Page A11
Should we declare victory over al Qaeda in the battle of Iraq?
The very question would have seemed proof of dementia only a few months ago, yet now some highly respected military officers, including the commander of Special Forces in Iraq, Gen. Stanley McCrystal, reportedly feel it is justified by the facts on the ground.
These people are not suggesting that the battle is over. They all insist that there is a lot of fighting ahead, and even those who believe that al Qaeda is crashing and burning in a death spiral on the Iraqi battlefields say that the surviving terrorists will still be able to kill coalition forces and Iraqis. But there is relative tranquility across vast areas of Iraq, even in places that had been all but given up for lost barely more than a year ago. It may well be that those who confidently declared the war definitively lost will have to reconsider.
Almost exactly 13 months ago, the top Marine intelligence officer in Iraq wrote that the grim situation in Anbar province would continue to deteriorate unless an additional division was sent in, along with substantial economic aid. Today, Marine leaders are musing openly about clearing out of Anbar, not because it is a lost cause, but because we have defeated al Qaeda there.
In Fallujah, enlisted marines have complained to an officer of my acquaintance: “There’s nobody to shoot here, sir. If it’s just going to be building schools and hospitals, that’s what the Army is for, isn’t it?” Throughout the area, Sunni sheikhs have joined the Marines to drive out al Qaeda, and this template has spread to Diyala Province, and even to many neighborhoods in Baghdad itself, where Shiites are fighting their erstwhile heroes in the Mahdi Army.
British troops are on their way out of Basra, and it was widely expected that Iranian-backed Shiite militias would impose a brutal domination of the city, That hasn’t happened. Lt. Col. Patrick Sanders, stationed near Basra, confirmed that violence in Basra has dropped precipitously in recent weeks. He gives most of the credit to the work of Iraqi soldiers and police.
As evidence of success mounts, skeptics often say that while military operations have gone well, there is still no sign of political movement to bind up the bloody wounds in the Iraqi body politic. Recent events suggest otherwise. Just a few days ago, Ammar al-Hakim, the son of and presumed successor to the country’s most important Shiite political leader, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, went to Anbar’s capital, Ramadi, to meet with Sunni sheikhs. The act, and his words, were amazing. “Iraq does not belong to the Sunnis or the Shiites alone; nor does it belong to the Arabs or the Kurds and Turkomen,” he said. “Today, we must stand up and declare that Iraq is for all Iraqis.”
Mr. Hakim’s call for national unity mirrors last month’s pilgrimage to Najaf, the epicenter of Iraqi Shiism, by Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, a Sunni. There he visited Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the top Shiite cleric. The visit symbolically endorsed Mr. Sistani’s role as the most authoritative religious figure in Iraq. Mr. Hashemi has also been working closely with Mr. Hakim’s people, as well as with the Kurds. Elsewhere, similar efforts at ecumenical healing proceed rapidly. As Robert McFarlane reported in these pages, Baghdad’s Anglican Canon, Andrew White, has organized meetings of leading Iraqi Christian, Sunni and Shiite clerics, all of whom called for nation-wide reconciliation.
The Iraqi people seem to be turning against the terrorists, even against those who have been in cahoots with the terror masters in Tehran. As Col. Sanders puts it, “while we were down in Basra, an awful lot of the violence against us was enabled, sponsored and equipped by. . . Iran. [But] what has united a lot of the militias was a sense of Iraqi nationalism, and they resent interference by Iran.”
How is one to explain this turn of events? While our canny military leaders have been careful to give the lion’s share of the credit to terrorist excesses and locals’ courage, the most logical explanation comes from the late David Galula, the French colonel who fought in Algeria and then wrote “Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice” in the 1960s. He argued that insurgencies are revolutionary wars whose outcome is determined by control of, and support from, the population. The best way to think about such wars is to imagine the board game of Go. Each side starts with limited assets, each has the support of a minority of the territory and the population. Each has some assets within the enemy’s sphere of influence. The game ends when one side takes control of the majority of the population, and thus the territory.
Whoever gains popular support wins the war. Galula realized that while revolutionary ideology is central to the creation of an insurgency, it has very little to do with the outcome. That is determined by politics, and, just as in an election, the people choose the winner.
In the early phases of the conflict, the people remain as neutral as they can, simply trying to stay alive. As the war escalates, they are eventually forced to make a choice, to place a bet, and that bet becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The people have the winning piece on the board: intelligence. Once the Iraqis decided that we were going to win, they provided us with information about the terrorists: who they were, where they were, what they were planning, where their weapons were stashed, and so forth.
It’s easy to say, but quite beside the point, that any smart Iraqi would prefer us to the terrorists. We’re short-termers, while the terrorists promise to stay forever and make Iraq part of an oppressive caliphate. We’re going to leave in a few years, and put the country in Iraqi hands, while the terrorists — many of whom are the cat’s-paws of foreign powers — intend to turn the place into an alien domain. We promise freedom, while the jihadis impose clerical fascism and slaughter their fellow Arab Muslims.
But that preference isn’t enough to explain the dramatic turnaround — the nature of the terrorists was luminously clear a year ago, when the battle for Iraq was going badly. As Galula elegantly observed, “which side gives the best protection, which one threatens the most, which one is likely to win, these are the criteria governing the population’s stand. So much the better, of course, if popularity and effectiveness are combined.”
The turnaround took place because we started to defeat the terrorists, at a time that roughly coincides with the surge. There is a tendency to treat the surge as a mere increase in numbers, but its most important component was the change in doctrine. Instead of keeping too many of our soldiers off the battlefield in remote and heavily fortified mega-bases, we put them into the field. Instead of reacting to the terrorists’ initiatives, we went after them. No longer were we going to maintain the polite fiction that we were in Iraq to train the locals so that they could fight the war. Instead, we aggressively engaged our enemies. It was at that point that the Iraqi people placed their decisive bet.
Herschel Smith, of the blog Captain’s Journal, puts it neatly in describing the events in Anbar: “There is no point in fighting forces (U.S. Marines) who will not be beaten and who will not go away.” We were the stronger horse, and the Iraqis recognized it.
No doubt Gen. David Petraeus and Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno know all this. It is, after all, their strategy that has produced the good news. Their reluctance to take credit for the defeat of al Qaeda and other terrorists in Iraq is due to the uncertain outcome of the big battle now being waged here at home. They, and our soldiers, fear that the political class in Washington may yet snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. They know that Iran and Syria still have a free shot at us across long borders, and Gen. Petraeus told Congress last month that it would not be possible to win in Iraq if our mission were restricted to that country.
Not a day goes by without one of our commanders shouting to the four winds that the Iranians are operating all over Iraq, and that virtually all the suicide terrorists are foreigners, sent in from Syria. We have done great damage to their forces on the battlefield, but they can always escalate, and we still have no policy to direct against the terror masters in Damascus and Tehran. That problem is not going to be resolved by sound counterinsurgency strategy alone, no matter how brilliantly executed.
Mr. Ledeen is resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. His book, “The Iranian Time Bomb,” was recently published by St. Martin’s Press.