What We've Accomplished. Nine months of progress

por Frederick W. Kagan, 5 de octubre de 2007

(Published in The Weekly Standard, September 19, 2007)

Senators Levin and Reid have introduced an amendment that would order the immediate withdrawal of American forces in Iraq--a stampede, in fact, that would require the military to pull 169,000 soldiers and their equipment out of active combat within nine months. There is no way that such a withdrawal would look like anything other than a rout and a humiliation for American arms. Such a proposal can only be supported on the premise that our efforts in Iraq to date have failed utterly and that there is no hope of protecting vital American interests in Iraq through the current strategy. That premise results from willful blindness. American and Iraqi successes in pursuing our joint and individual vital interests over the past nine months have been nothing short of staggering. The attempts of war critics to focus the discussion entirely on the failures of the Iraqi central government are disingenuous, almost dishonest, when they ignore these incredible, and in many cases, unexpected achievements.
Defeating al Qaeda in Iraq
Of America's vital interests in Iraq today, none is more important than defeating al Qaeda in Iraq. AQI, as I have argued elsewhere, is closely linked to the global al Qaeda movement, which has declared Iraq the central front in its terrorist war against America. It has stated its intention to use Iraq as a base to attack American interests and stability throughout the Middle East and beyond, and it has acted on that intention at least twice: Zarqawi used Iraq as a base from which to kill USAID official Lawrence Foley in Amman in 2002, and again to conduct a massive coordinated suicide attack on hotels in Amman in 2005. The current head of AQI, Abu Ayyub al Masri (an Egyptian), recently announced a bounty for the assassination of a Swedish cartoonist who drew a disrespectful cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed. Al Masri clearly sees himself as part of the same team as Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri if he is aping them in these outrageous gestures aimed at people far beyond the problems of his own country and of the country he seeks to take over.


December 2006
September 2007
AQI had safe-havens in Ramadi, Fallujah, and Karmah in Anbar. Virtually no Anbaris were willing to join the Iraqi Security Forces-a total of 1,000 recruits volunteered in Anbar in 2006.
  • Ramadi has been completely cleared
  • The clearing of Fallujah and Karmah is being finished now
  • Violence overall in Anbar has dropped to the lowest level in years
  • Reconstruction is beginning for the first time
  • More than 12,000 Anbaris have volunteered to join the ISF this year, and there are more than 21,000 ISF and 'concerned citizens' operating in Anbar now
AQI had seized control of Arab Jabour and other villages south of Baghdad and was using them as bases to launch massive suicide car-bomb attacks into the capital;
  • Arab Jabour and other AQI bases south of Baghdad have been cleared
  • Car bomb factories and facilitators have been destroyed and captured or killed
  • Hundreds of local Sunni have volunteered to join 'concerned citizens' groups to protect their areas against AQI-including many who had previously helped AQI
AQI had fortified strongholds in the Dora neighborhood in East Rashid in Baghdad (a key transit point for the suicide car bombs coming from the south), and in Ameriyah in West Mansour in Baghdad;
  • Dora has been cleared, economic activity is picking up, hundreds of stores have reopened in a market that was entirely closed at the beginning of this year, and the neighborhood is no longer a safe transit area for car bombs;
  • Ameriyah was cleared of AQI with the assistance of former insurgents who attacked AQI themselves and then sought Coalition assistance; they are now being integrated as 'concerned citizens' into the ISF to keep AQI out of Ameriyah, where reconstruction is beginning
AQI owned Baqubah, the capital of Diyala Province so thoroughly that it was able to establish a massive fortified position with multiple houses rigged to explode, stacked artillery rounds deeply buried that could destroy American tanks, and safe-houses throughout the city. The situation got so bad that the governor of Diyala Province sought to move the capital from Baqubah to Muqdadiyah;
  • Baqubah has been cleared of al Qaeda;
  • Violence in Baqubah and the surrounding areas has dropped dramatically;
  • Coalition forces pursued AQI fighters fleeing from Baqubah up the Diyala River Valley, where they have captured and killed many terrorists, preventing them from reestablishing a safe-haven
AQI had spread its influence throughout Diyala Province and was using it as a base to attack Baghdad;
  • Coalition forces are pursuing AQI throughout Diyala province, preventing it from being used as a base for attacks against Baghdad, and working with the Iraqi Government and the provincial government to begin reconstruction;
  • Multiple cease-fires have been signed between former insurgents and warring tribes;
  • Baqubah is now protected by 'Baqubah Guardians,' another 'concerned citizens' group fighting AQI
AQI was in the process of coopting the Sunni insurgent groups like the 1920s Revolution Brigades that had not previously supported al Qaeda's ideological agenda
  • The Sunni insurgency has broken;
  • Some 30,000 former insurgents have rallied to the Coalition cause and are participating as 'concerned citizens' or volunteers for the ISF;
  • The remaining insurgents are inextricably tied to AQI and will share in its defeat;
  • Support for those insurgents among Sunni populations is collapsing apace with support for AQI
AQI was able to conduct spectacular attacks almost unimpeded, including the destruction of the Samarra Mosque in February 2006 and massive car bomb attacks on markets and other gatherings of large groups--mostly Shia--throughout Baghdad;
  • The number and especially the scale of AQI attacks has dropped dramatically over the past few months, particularly in urban areas;
  • Baghdad, Ramadi, Fallujah, Mosul, Baqubah, Kirkuk, and Samarra have all seen a steady reduction in the effectiveness of AQI attacks and, in many cases, in the absolute number of attacks;
  • AQI attacks against small villages like the one that killed 500 Yazidis in Ninewah or the recent bicycle bombing in Tuz Khormatu (in the Diyala River Valley) demonstrate the terrorists' inability to conduct large-scale attacks in major urban areas
The flow of foreign fighters via Syria continued unabated, and those fighters comprised 80-90 percent of al Qaeda's suicide bombers
  • MNF-I reports that the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq from Syria has been falling over the past weeks, a trend visible in the falling numbers and effectiveness of AQI spectacular attacks

Reversing the Slide toward Civil War

It is not possible to separate operations against AQI from the effort to stop sectarian fighting in Iraq. Sectarian conflict in Iraq was triggered by the deliberate strategy of AQI leader Abu Musaab al Zarqawi, and AQI uses that violence as a key means to implant itself among the Sunni population. Unlike in Afghanistan under the Taliban, al Qaeda in Iraq establishes safe-havens in urban areas, surrounded by Iraqis. It cannot be effective in Iraq without those urban safe-havens, which in turn cannot be eliminated if the sectarian violence is not brought under control.


December 2006
September 2007
Sectarian violence exploded after the destruction of the Samarra Mosque in February. It increased almost every month in 2006. Brief declines during American military operations in Baghdad vanished almost immediately as the violence continued to climb. The trendlines at the end of 2006 all pointed toward exponentially increasing violence in 2007.
  • The rise of sectarian killings in Iraq stopped immediately when the 'surge' strategy was announced in January;
  • It has fallen steadily thereafter, and is now something like 75% lower than in December;
  • The previous pattern of violence rising again after an initial drop has vanished, and the projections of dramatically expanded sectarian violence based on trends in 2006 have proven completely wrong
Sectarian violence was initially conducted by extremist groups on both sides--AQI for the Sunni and the Jaysh al Mahdi, primarily, for the Shi'a. By the end of 2006, the Iraqi people themselves had begun to mobilize to fight a civil war. Neighborhood vigilante groups formed to protect their areas, but then started striking neighboring areas of different sectarian composition. Iraq seemed head toward a full-scale civil war in which everyone had to choose a side and fight.
  • The mobilization of the population to engage in sectarian violence stopped almost immediately in January, and has not resumed;
  • Vigilante groups disbanded or stopped fighting;
  • Sectarian violence today is once again conducted almost entirely by extremist groups, but with diminishing effectiveness and local support;
  • Neighborhood groups are now forming, in cooperation with the Coalition and with the Iraqi government, to police and protect their own areas without posing any threat to their neighbors--many are joining or trying to join the legitimate security forces of the Iraqi State;
  • The slide of Iraq toward full-scale civil war has been not only halted, but reversed

The current strategy has failed?

Tell it to the tens or hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who have not been killed, wounded, or driven from their homes because the new strategy has reversed the slide toward civil war.
Tell it to the tens of thousands of former insurgents and local people who have volunteered to join the Iraqi Security Forces this year to stop the violence in their country.
Tell it to the shop owners in Baghdad, Ramadi, Fallujah, and Baqubah who spent last winter with shuttered stores hiding from bullets and are now once again selling their wares.
Tell it to the Iraqi children who have started going to school again without fear of being blown up or kidnapped and tortured to death.
Tell it to the Marines, whose own intelligence analyst declared Anbar hopelessly lost this time last year, but who now proudly share credit with Army soldiers for a miraculous recovery in the heart of the Sunni insurgency and al Qaeda base.
Tell it to the leaders of al Qaeda who went from the brink of triumph in December 2006 to abject and humiliating flight in September 2007.
Tell it to the American people, whose belief in the possibility of success in Iraq has steadily grown over the past few months despite all the efforts of war critics to deny reality.
Above all, tell it to our soldiers fighting in Iraq. Tell them that all the hard-fought gains they have won against America's principal foe in the world should be thrown away because some confused or disingenuous leaders over here refuse to recognize them. Tell them that their sacrifices and losses really have all been in vain because some Americans would rather impose defeat on them than continue with a difficult and complex, but successful strategy.
Or, better yet, don't tell them that. Tell them instead that we recognize their accomplishments, mourn their losses, but will remain steadfast in our support for them. Tell them that we will reinforce success rather than throwing it away, and continue to try to win a struggle that is essential to America's security and well-being. Tell them that.


Frederick W. Kagan is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of The End of the Old Order: Napoleon and Europe, 1801-1805 (forthcoming). He is grateful to Daniel Barnard for assistance with this article.
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