Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Iraq War

John Keegan takes a brief look at the new Thomas Ricks book on the Iraq war, Fiasco. He seems to be generally impressed with Ricks' conclusions. So does Max Boot, in his review at the Weekly Standard.

Alright, now is as good a time as any to say this: I think Ricks and Boot and everyone else who has gone wobbly on this war are off their rockers. Seriously, people need to calm down about Iraq.

For what it is worth, here is my thumbnail sketch of the war:

Insomuch as the Bush Doctrine had any meaning--and it should be chock full o' meaning if we are serious (but, then, we aren't serious, are we?)--the Iraq war was absolutely the correct course of action. Saddam's terror sponsoring regime posed a real threat to the United States, and he needed to be removed from power. The initial plans for the war were brilliant, and the spring 2003 campaign was about as good as it gets--although it would have been useful, to say the least, to have been able to enter Iraq from Turkey.

The idea that Iraq should become free and democratic and not come under the leadership of yet another strongman-cum-tyrant was also the right idea, but complicated matters. The Bush administration underestimated the difficulties in getting the Iraqi people truly to embrace liberal democratic institutions. The administration's myopia on this point comes from an incomplete understanding of the history of such efforts (a point I address in another article that maybe, just maybe, will someday see the light of day).

But that is the crux of the problem: getting the Iraqi people to embrace liberal democratic institutions (Derek and I have an article on this that maybe, just maybe, will someday see the light of day). The idea that more Americans troops at the outset of the war would have made this easier is poppycock. The idea that keeping Sadaam's Baathist troops around would have made this easier is insane. You do not use tyrants to preserve freedom.

The problem is that people are confusing the short term goal of providing security in the face of an insurgency with the long term goal of institution building. That problem is compounded by the fact that most people are overestimating the strength of the insurgency. Don't get me wrong, the insurgents are a formidable enemy, and they were very effective in the first year and a half after the fall of Saddam.

But with just a little perspective on insurgencies in history, it's pretty clear that the bad guys are losing and losing badly. We were unprepared for the initial intensity of the the insurgency, but we adjusted and continue to adjust, and as a result turned around the fight in Iraq. We cleared out Fallujah in November 2004 and took away the insurgent's last large sanctuary within Iraq. We have improved our tactics for going after small groups of insurgents, and we take very few casualties in such efforts. We have increasingly allowed Iraqi forces to do their own operations so that they are responsible for their own security, which makes the insurgents look bad. We improved convoy security to make manned ambushes suicidal for the insurgents, so they fell back into using roadside bombs (the ridiculously named "improvised explosive devices" or "IEDs"). The IEDs have been effective in causing casualties, but the bombs are indiscriminate and often do not get their intended targets.

The upshot of all this is that the insurgents have devolved into small cells with IEDs who have trouble targeting Americans and get roughed up when they target Iraqi security forces, so they have turned the bulk of their attention to killing civilians and trying to foment civil war. This shift in tactics is an indication of failure and frustration, not success. The fact that they can continue inflicting casualties is frustrating to us and the Iraqis, but the clear bloodlust of the ongoing insurgent attacks hurts their cause with the Iraqi people, who they need on their side to win.

The tough reality is that the war in Iraq is really now in the gray area between a counterinsurgency and policing of a violent region. The insurgents are beginning to look more like criminals than guerrilla warriors. The only way for them to be revived into a serious fighting force is to receive a lot more outside aid from places like Iran and Syria, or for us to misstep and turn the Iraqi people against the new government.

At this point, we need to continue to develop Iraqi security forces. We must draw down our troop levels in Iraq so that we can avoid missteps, but keep enough in country so that we can react when areas inevitably flare up (like Baghdad right now). We must do everything possible to close down supply lines from outside the country (right now there are over 200 border forts around Iraq). Keep in mind also that this is not Vietnam--there are no regular divisions on the border ready to invade at the first opportunity.

And, most important, we must take a very long view of this policing action. It does not take much for a few fanatics to cause a painful amount of death and destruction. The enemy will continue to try to pinprick us until we pull out support for Iraq, at the cost of hundreds of American dead.

Those losses are painful but must not be prohibitive. For all the hand-wringing, no one has ever made a good case that we are not doing the right thing in Iraq.

We are on the side of good and we are winning. I'm at a loss as to why any of us--Thomas Ricks, John Keegan, and Max Boot included--would go wobbly now.


greg said...

Nice use of the word poppycock. One of TR's favorites.

greg said...

Add Andrew Sullivan as someone who has gone wobbly on the Iraq War.