Frederick Kagan: Why We're Winning Now in Iraq

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Mr. Kagan is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the author most recently of "No Middle Way: The Challenge of Exit Strategies from Iraq." (AEI, 2007).]

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 influx of American forces in support of a counterinsurgency strategy--more than 4,000 went into Anbar--allowed U.S. commanders to take hold of the local resentment against al Qaeda by promising to protect those who resisted the terrorists. When American forces entered al Qaeda strongholds like Arab Jabour, the first question the locals asked is: Are you going to stay this time? They wanted to know if the U.S. would commit to protecting them against al Qaeda retribution. U.S. soldiers have done so, in Anbar, Baghdad, Baqubah, Arab Jabour and elsewhere. They have established joint security stations with Iraqi soldiers and police throughout urban areas and in villages. They have worked with former insurgents and local people to form "concerned citizens" groups to protect their own neighborhoods. Their presence among the people has generated confidence that al Qaeda will be defeated, resulting in increased information about the movements of al Qaeda operatives and local support for capturing or killing them.

The result was a dramatic turnabout in Anbar itself--in contrast to the 1,000 recruits of last year, there have already been more than 12,000 this year. ...

What lessons does this example hold for future fights in the War on Terror? First, defeating al Qaeda in Iraq requires continuing an effective counterinsurgency strategy that involves American conventional forces helping Iraqi Security Forces to protect the population in conjunction with targeted strikes. Reverting to a strategy relying only on targeted raids will allow al Qaeda to re-establish itself in Iraq and begin once again to gain strength. In the longer term, we must fundamentally re-evaluate the consensus strategy for fighting the war on terror. Success against al Qaeda in Iraq obviously does not show that the solution to problems in Waziristan, Baluchistan or elsewhere lies in an American-led invasion. Each situation is unique, each al-Qaeda franchise is unique, and responses must be tailored appropriately.

But one thing is clear from the Iraqi experience. It is not enough to persuade a Muslim population to reject al Qaeda's ideology and practice. Someone must also be willing and able to protect that population against the terrorists they had been harboring, something that special forces and long-range missiles alone can't do.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Vernon Clayson - 10/1/2007

Explain all you like, this can only be called winning if a lull is defined as winning. Compared to our defining life, success and failure by election cycles, the Middle East is timeless.

Rodney Huff - 10/1/2007

I agree with all of your comments. I would just like to add that the article lacks internal coherence.

For instance, Kagan describes the strategy that worked in Afghanistan, a strategy that did not involve an "infusion of large numbers of American ground forces."

Then, in the next breath, he says, "This [same] 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."

But it wasn't the same strategy, because the Iraq invasion did involve an infusion of a large number of ground forces, with little or no cooperation with local dissidents or evidently even much planning.

The author is obviously confused and is straining painfully to justify U.S. intervention in Iraq.

Glenn Scott Rodden - 9/30/2007

Mr. Loftin: the neocon fellows at the AEI seem like shills for the Bush administration because they are shills. Professor Kagan is not fluent in any Middle Eastern language, has never visited the Middle East, but he is constantly touted by neocon publications an expert on US policy toward the Middle East.

This article is another attempt to justify the Bush administration's Iraq War policy, but it confuses rather than defines the issues. According to Kagan the surge is working because the US is now backing the Sunnis. But when did Iraqi Sunnis become the "good guys"? I thought the goal of the military surge was to break the insurgency led by Sunnis.

Craig Michael Loftin - 9/30/2007

I agree with your comment, and it's amazing to me that anyone takes seriously anything that anyone from the American Enterprise Institute or any other Neocon think tank has to say about Iraq anymore. For years now, everything they have said and everything they have predicted about the war in Iraq has been wrong. Oh, but NOW we're winning, just like they said we were six months ago, a year ago, two years ago... on and on and on... These think tank "fellows" just seem like neocon shills. Too bad their lazy, arrogant, and intellectually bankrupt scholarship has had such tragic consequences for the "liberated" people of Iraq and America's image around the world.

Tim Matthewson - 9/29/2007

Mr. Kagan is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the author most recently of "No Middle Way: The Challenge of Exit Strategies from Iraq." (AEI, 2007).Why We're Winning Now in Iraq: Anbar's citizens needed protection before they would give their "hearts and minds." Like his other writings, he editorial in the WSJ expresses more wishful thinking than solid analysis. Others have noted that the situation in Anbar is far more complex than Kagan has suggested. His assumption is that because the Sunnis in Anbar have turned against Al Qaeda, they have suddenly become pro-American. Just wait when the Sunnis find it convenient, they will turn against the U.S., as they are anti-American in the other parts of Iraq. They don't want to be dominated by Americans than they want to be dominated by Al Qaeda.

Friday, September 28, 2007 12:01 a.m. EDT