This article is part of the Foreign Affairs Iraq Retrospective.
Soldiers during a protest in Basra, 2004. (Atef Hassan / Courtesy Reuters)
A FALTERING EFFORT
Despite the Bush administration's repeated declarations of its commitment to success in Iraq, the results of current policy there are not encouraging. After two years, Washington has made little progress in defeating the insurgency or providing security for Iraqis, even as it has overextended the U.S. Army and eroded support for the war among the American public. Although withdrawing now would be a mistake, simply "staying the course," by all current indications, will not improve matters either. Winning in Iraq will require a new approach.
The basic problem is that the United States and its coalition partners have never settled on a strategy for defeating the insurgency and achieving their broader objectives. On the political front, they have been working to create a democratic Iraq, but that is a goal, not a strategy. On the military front, they have sought to train Iraqi security forces and turn the war over to them. As President George W. Bush has stated, "Our strategy can be summed up this way: as the Iraqis stand up, we will stand down." But the president is describing a withdrawal plan rather than a strategy.
Without a clear strategy in Iraq, moreover, there is no good way to gauge progress. Senior political and military leaders have thus repeatedly made overly optimistic or even contradictory declarations. In May of 2004, for example, following the insurgent takeover of Fallujah, General Richard Myers, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated, "I think we're on the brink of success here." Six months later, before last November's offensive to recapture the city, General John Abizaid, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, said, "When we win this fight -- and we will win -- there will be nowhere left for the insurgents to hide." Following the recapture, Lieutenant General John Sattler, the Marine commander in Iraq, declared that the coalition had "broken the back of the insurgency." Yet in the subsequent months, the violence continued unabated. Nevertheless, seven months later Vice President Dick Cheney claimed that the insurgency was in its "last throes," even as Lieutenant General John Vines, commander of the multinational corps in Iraq, was conceding, "We don't see the insurgency expanding or contracting right now." Most Americans agree with this less optimistic assessment: according to the most recent polls, nearly two-thirds think the coalition is "bogged down."
The administration's critics, meanwhile, have offered as their alternative "strategy" an accelerated timetable for withdrawal. They see Iraq as another Vietnam and advocate a similar solution: pulling out U.S. troops and hoping for the best. The costs of such premature disengagement would likely be calamitous. The insurgency could morph into a bloody civil war, with the significant involvement of both Syria and Iran. Radical Islamists would see the U.S. departure as a victory, and the ensuing chaos would drive up oil prices.
Instead of a timetable for withdrawal, the United States needs a real strategy built around the principles of counterinsurgency warfare. To date, U.S. forces in Iraq have largely concentrated their efforts on hunting down and killing insurgents. The idea of such operations is to erode the enemy's strength by killing fighters more quickly than replacements can be recruited. Although it is too early to tell for sure whether this approach will ultimately bring success, its current record is not good: even when an attack manages to inflict serious insurgent casualties, there is little or no enduring improvement in security once U.S. forces withdraw from the area.
Instead, U.S. and Iraqi forces should adopt an "oil-spot strategy" in Iraq, which is essentially the opposite approach. Rather than focusing on killing insurgents, they should concentrate on providing security and opportunity to the Iraqi people, thereby denying insurgents the popular support they need. Since the U.S. and Iraqi armies cannot guarantee security to all of Iraq simultaneously, they should start by focusing on certain key areas and then, over time, broadening the effort -- hence the image of an expanding oil spot. Such a strategy would have a good chance of success. But it would require a protracted commitment of U.S. resources, a willingness to risk more casualties in the short term, and an enduring U.S. presence in Iraq, albeit at far lower force levels than are engaged at present. If U.S. policymakers and the American public are unwilling to make such a commitment, they should be prepared to scale down their goals in Iraq significantly.
THE FACE OF THE INSURGENCY
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