Michael Totten

Defining “Victory” in Iraq

As recently as the first half of 2007, the idea of an American victory in Iraq seemed like a fantasy to just about everyone, including me. General David Petraeus surged additional troops to Iraq, however, and he transformed the joint American-Iraqi counterinsurgency strategy into what nearly all observers now acknowledge is a remarkable and unexpected success. Few bother to argue otherwise anymore. What remains ambiguous and contested is the definition of an American victory.
It’s slightly tricky for a couple of reasons. Pinpointing the exact date when a counterinsurgency ends — not just in Iraq, but any counterinsurgency — is impossible. There are no final battles. There can’t be. And if we don’t know when the war is over, it can be difficult to figure out what over even means in the first place. So how will we know if we’ve won?
Part of the problem here is that the war in Iraq is usually thought of as a single war in Iraq. But there have been at least three wars in Iraq since 2003 — the U.S.-led war against Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party regime, the civil war between Sunni and Shia militias, and the insurgencies against government and international forces waged by a constellation of guerrilla and terrorist groups. All three wars are distinct from each other, and two of the three are already over.
The war against Saddam Hussein and his government ended when the regime was overthrown and what remained of its army was disbanded. You might say it didn’t officially end until he was captured in December of 2003, but he effectively lost when he was demoted from absolute dictator to fugitive. No matter what else might happen, Saddam Hussein will never be considered victorious.
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