Anbar's citizens needed protection before they would give their "hearts and minds."
By Frederick W. Kagan
Friday, September 28, 2007 12:01 a.m.
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.
Despite an extremely aggressive counterterrorism campaign, by the end of 2006, al Qaeda in Iraq had heavily fortified strongholds equipped with media centers, torture chambers, weapons depots and training areas throughout Anbar province; in Baghdad; in Baqubah and other parts of Diyala province; in Arab Jabour and other villages south of Baghdad; and in various parts of Salah-ad-Din province north of the capital. Al Qaeda in Iraq was blending with the Sunni Arab insurgency in a relationship of mutual support. It was able to conduct scores of devastating, spectacular attacks against Shiite and other targets. Killing al Qaeda leaders in targeted raids had failed utterly either to prevent al Qaeda in Iraq from establishing safe havens throughout Iraq or to control the terrorist violence.
The Sunni Arabs in Iraq lost their enthusiasm for al Qaeda very quickly after their initial embrace of the movement. By 2005, currents of resistance had begun to flow in Anbar, expanding in 2006. Al Qaeda responded to this rising resistance with unspeakable brutality--beheading young children, executing Sunni leaders and preventing their bodies from being buried within the time required by Muslim law, torturing resisters by gouging out their eyes, electrocuting them, crushing their heads in vices, and so on. This brutality naturally inflamed the desire to resist in the Sunni Arab community--but actual resistance in 2006 remained fitful and ineffective. There was no power in Anbar or anywhere that could protect the resisters against al Qaeda retribution, and so al Qaeda continued to maintain its position by force among a population that had initially welcomed it willingly.
The proof? In all of 2006, there were only 1,000 volunteers to join the Iraqi Security Forces in Anbar, despite rising resentment against al Qaeda. Voluntarism was kept down by al Qaeda attacks against ISF recruiting stations and targeted attacks on the families of volunteers. Although tribal leaders had begun to turn against the terrorists, American forces remained under siege in the provincial capital of Ramadi--they ultimately had to level all of the buildings around their headquarters to secure it from constant attack. An initial clearing operation conducted by Col. Sean MacFarland established forward positions in Ramadi with tremendous difficulty and at great cost, but the city was not cleared; attacks on American forces remained extremely high; and the terrorist safe-havens in the province were largely intact.
This year has been a different story in Anbar, and elsewhere in Iraq. 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. Insurgent groups like the 1920s Revolution Brigades that had been fighting alongside al Qaeda in 2006 have fractured, with many coming over to fight with the coalition against the terrorists--more than 30,000 Iraq-wide, by some estimates. The tribal movement in Anbar both solidified and spread--there are now counter-al Qaeda movements throughout Central Iraq, including Diyala, Baghdad, Salah-ad-Din, Babil and Ninewah. Only recently an "awakening council" was formed in Mosul, Ninewah's capital, modeled on the Anbar pattern.
A targeted raid killed Abu Musaab al Zarqawi, founder of al Qaeda in Iraq, near Baqubah in June 2006. After that raid, al Qaeda's grip on Baqubah and throughout Diyala only grew stronger. But skillful clearing operations conducted by American forces, augmented by the surge, have driven al Qaeda out of Baqubah almost entirely. The "Baqubah Guardians" now protect that provincial capital against al Qaeda fighters who previously used it as a major base of operations. The old strategy of targeted raids failed in Diyala, as in Anbar and elsewhere throughout Iraq. The new strategy of protecting the population, in combination with targeted raids, has succeeded so well that al Qaeda in Iraq now holds no major urban sanctuary.
This turnabout coincided with an increase in American forces in Iraq and a change in their mission to securing the population. Not only were more American troops moving about the country, but they were much more visible as they established positions spread out among urban populations. According to all the principles of the consensus counterterrorism strategy, the effect of this surge should have been to generate more terrorists and more terrorism. Instead, it enabled the Iraqi people to throw off the terrorists whose ideas they had already rejected, confident that they would be protected from horrible reprisals. It proved that, at least in this case, conventional forces in significant numbers conducting a traditional counterinsurgency mission were absolutely essential to defeating this cellular terrorist group.
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.