The push for a return to failure in Iraq

Frederick Kagan:

Many politicians and pundits in Washington have ignored perhaps the most important point made by Gen. David Petraeus in his recent congressional testimony: The defeat of al Qaeda in Iraq requires a combination of conventional forces, special forces and local forces. This realization has profound implications not only for American strategy in Iraq, but also for the future of the war on terror.

As Gen. Petraeus made clear, the adoption of a true counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq in January 2007 has led to unprecedented progress in the struggle against al Qaeda in Iraq, by protecting Sunni Arabs who reject the terrorists among them from the vicious retribution of those terrorists. In his address to the United Nations General Assembly Wednesday, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki also touted the effectiveness of this strategy while at the same time warning of al Qaeda in Iraq's continued threat to his government and indeed the entire region.

Yet despite the undeniable successes the new strategy has achieved against al Qaeda in Iraq, many in Congress are still pushing to change the mission of U.S. forces back to a counterterrorism role relying on special forces and precision munitions to conduct targeted attacks on terrorist leaders. This change would bring us back to the traditional, consensus strategy for dealing with cellular terrorist groups like al Qaeda--a strategy that has consistently failed in Iraq.

Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the consensus of American strategists has been that the best way to fight a cellular terrorist organization like al Qaeda is through a combination of targeted strikes against key leaders and efforts to discredit al Qaeda's takfiri ideology in the Muslim community. Precision-guided munitions and special forces have been touted as the ideal weapons against this sort of group, because they require a minimal presence on the ground and therefore do not create the image of American invasion or occupation of a Muslim country.

A correlative assumption has often been that the visible presence of Western troops in Muslim lands creates more terrorists than it eliminates. The American attack on the Taliban in 2001 is often held up now--as it was at the time--as an exemplar of the right way to do things in this war: Small numbers of special forces worked with indigenous Afghan resistance fighters to defeat the Taliban and drive out al Qaeda without the infusion of large numbers of American ground forces. For many, Afghanistan is the virtuous war (contrasting with Iraq) not only because it was fought against the group that planned the 9/11 attacks, but also because it was fought in accord with accepted theories of fighting cellular terrorist organizations.

This strategy failed in Iraq for four years--skilled U.S. special-forces teams killed a succession of al Qaeda in Iraq leaders, but the organization was able to replace them faster than we could kill them. A counterterrorism strategy that did not secure the population from terrorist attacks led to consistent increases in terrorist violence and exposed Sunni leaders disenchanted with the terrorists to brutal death whenever they tried to resist. It emerged that "winning the hearts and minds" of the local population is not enough when the terrorists are able to torture and kill anyone who tries to stand up against them.

...

The old strategy was also known as the "small foot print" strategy that encouraged Iraqis to take responsibility for their own defense. In contrast the new strategy moved US troops into the neighborhoods to protect the Iraqis and work with Iraqi forces to increase the force to space ration which makes it impossible for enemy forces to operate without detection.

The results have been in fact fewer US casualties and greater participation by Iraqis in their own defense as well as significantly increased intelligence on enemy locations and operations leading to al Qaeda being on its heels. In other words the new strategy is accomplishing what the old one was designed to do but could not. There is no good reason to go back to the failed approach simply because some people who know nothing about counterinsurgency warfare proposed in the Hamilton-Baker report.

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