Tuesday, December 19, 2006


As we look toward the next two years in Iraq, let us review where we stand.

The Iraq War has gone through a number of phases.

Phase I was the period of major combat operations beginning in March 2003 and ending about three weeks later when American forces stormed Baghdad. Although President Bush did not officially declare major combat operations over until May 1, 2003, this phase was over by mid-April at the very latest. The Baathist regime was crushed with the Republican Guard defeated, the regular army collapsed, the Special Republican Guards, Baath pary, and intelligence services scattered (taking the money with them), and Saddam's Fedayeen, the imported jihadis that Saddam would have used to restore control among the Shias of the south if a repeat of 1991 occurred, cut apart by our conventional forces. We suffered 139 deaths in March and April. The monthly average was thus 139.

Phase II was the initial Baathist insurgency beginning small in May 2003, escalating sharply in November, and continuing through the capture of Saddam Hussein in December 2003, and ending in February 2004. Through this period, primarily US forces were able to slowly throttle the insurgency. We were focused on building a small conventional Iraqi army of 40,000 organized to fight other conventional forces, and which would serve as a cadre for later growth. We recruited light infantry in a civil defense force to work with our forces and worked to put the long-ineffective police force back in service. By February 2004, our monthly death toll was 20 and it appeared as if the Baathist insurgency was broken. From May to December 2004 we suffered 347 killed. The average rate was 43 per month.

Phase III was the Syrian and Iranian counter-attack. This lasted from March 2004 to December 2004. Syrian-supported foreign jihadis and Sunni Baathists in concert with Iranian-backed Shia thugs under Moqtada Sadr rose up and attempted to provoke a national uprising against American "occupation." The contractor killing in Fallujah sparked this and saw the first Battle of Fallujah in April that was called off prematurely to allow "former" Baathist officers to lead a "Fallujah Brigade" to pacify the city. This also saw battles in April, May, and June against Sadr's thugs and again in August. Sadr's forces were defeated without provoking a Shia reaction against our presence. About half of the new Iraqi security forces collapsed in the face of this uprising, showing the inadequacy of our training program. Nonetheless, despite the heavy combat, I judge the enemy to have made a huge error in this uprising. The Baathists sided with the jihadis, thus alienating the previously wary Shias. The Shias had been happy to have us remove Saddam but were suspicious based on our abandonment of their uprising in 1991. In addition, our careful campaign against Sadr was done in a manner that did not provoke Shia anger at us. We also turned over the governing of Iraq to an interim appointed government, thus ending the official US occupying authority. One result of this phase was that the majority of the Shias sided with us. The major flaw was the survival of Sadr. By November 2004, we assaulted Fallujah a second time and this time cleared it of jihadis. In December, we coped with the jihadis who escaped to Mosul where they overran and collapsed the local police force. We lost 514 troops in these ten months for an average monthly rate of 51 deaths.

Phase IV lasted from January 2005 with the first free national elections for an interim parliament and a constitution-drafting body, and went to December 2005 with the election of the first permanent government under the new constitution approved in October 2005 in the second national election. We revamped our training program for the Iraqi military and scored successes with holding three major national elections where the enemy was held at bay and more Iraqis voted than in the previous election. The Iraqi security forces proved up to the task of partnering with us for election security and we began to push ground forces into Anbar province in the fall of 2005 for the first time to clear and hold cities and break up enemy strongholds. The Sunni insurgencies were essentially broken. The Baathists were doomed and the local and imported jihadis merged as each suffered heavy losses. In this year we suffered 846 dead. The monthly rate was 71 dead.

Phase V is the current phase beginning in January 2006 and lasting until November 2006 when our elections essentially mandated a new phase. At the beginning, with the Sunni Baathists and jihadis held back, we hoped that we'd be able to pull back our forces from routine combat and reduce our presence to under 100,000 troops in a mostly logistical and reserve role. Four features have defined this phase. One, the Iraqis had difficulty forming a cohesive government and the resulting government has been weak and unable to make hard decisions. Two, the Samarra Golden Shrine bombing in February unleashed Shia anger against the Sunnis that Sadr and other Iranian-backed Shia thugs exploited to begin a campaign of revenge atrocities against Sunni Arabs. This occurred after two years of Shias patiently enduring the Sunni attacks while trying to coax the Sunnis into ending their insurgency. Three, Sadr's radical Shias emerged as the primary threat to the new government. We pushed the Iraqi government to take on Sadr but failed. We were able to gain more cooperation from Sunni Arabs who knew they lost their shot at retaking the government. Of note was the Anbar tribal decision to throw in with the government to fight the foreign jihadis. And four, our national will to fight until we win has finally fragmented. This may not be permanent as past decreases in our home morale have rebounded. But with many political leaders rather than mere polls reflecting the pessimism, I think any renewed vigor in the war will be fleeting.

The increased violence in this phase since February was primarily Shia death squads under Sadr or similiary Shia death squad leaders killing Sunnis. To speak of increased violence is to ignore the fact that the Sunnis haven't been able to kill more--Shias began dishing it out even harder than they were taking hits. This isn't good, but it reflects the change in primary enemy to Sadr and Shia extremists rather than a resurgence of the Sunni-based insurgencies. Indeed, though the current sectarian violence is exactly what the Sunnis wanted in order to ride the chaos to power, the Sunnis will not be able to overcome their lack of numbers or power to win control. They are history. And many flee Iraq in recognition of their defeat. In this phase we've lost 708 dead over eleven months. The monthly average is 64.

Let's look at the players through five phases.

Iraq is made up of 60-65% Shia Arabs, 15-20% Sunni Arabs, and 15-20% Sunni Kurds:

The Sunni Arabs lost power and are losing numbers.

The Sunni Kurds are more secure than ever in their mountain stornghold and are prospering.

The Shia Arabs have the political power their numbers deserve and ended centuries of Sunni oppression and mass murder under Saddam. They are in the fight for their lives to build a government and military from scratch with few having the education and experience to build Iraq.

More specifically:

Baathists. Mostly Sunni Arab. We destroyed their government and defeated their hopes of winning the insurgency. The Baathists are defeated. They still fight but Sunnis are fleeing the combat areas and even Iraq itself.

Sunni Arab "nationalists." They may not have loved Saddam but they hate being ruled by "inferior" Shias and Kurds. And our presence is insulting to them and tantamount to occupation. They are defeated. They continue to fight at weaker levels. Some have come over to the government and some have sided with jihadis. But their power base flees the mixed areas of Iraq and even Iraq.

Foreign Sunni Arab jihadis. Present in Iraq since before the invasion, they keep fighting us. We killed many Fedayeen that Saddam imported in the years before the war during the invasion campaign and smashed the al Qaeda base in northern Iraq set up after we overthrew the Taliban regime in 2001. They alienated most Iraqis with their suicide attacks, and Sunni volunteers aren't as plentiful as they once were. They are defeated though they still fight. These have merged with the local jihadis.

Local Sunni Arab jihadis. Saddam was not the secular champion of popular mythology. He turned to Islam to bolster his authority after Desert Storm and built many mosques in the 1990s. They have alienated most Iraqis with their bloody attacks that killed Shias and Sunnis, and cannot win. They are defeated. They still fight but Sunnis flee mixed areas and Iraq itself.

Criminal gangs. They thrive in the chaos and contribute to the image of enemy success by inflicting for-profit violence that is indistinguishable from enemy violence from afar. They are not a threat themselves but aid others who seek power. They continue their crime campaign and won't be defeated until the primary threats to the government's power are ground down to managable proportions. We need to address corruption which makes forging an effective Iraqi government more difficult. Still, the enemy is beset by the same culture of corruption so we don't have to create a perfect government.

Arab Shia fanatics. Sadr is the most well known. Down but not out after 2004's disastrous uprisings, since the fall of 2005 they are the primary threat to Iraq's government. They kill Sunni Arabs, defy and paralyze the government, and are even part of the government. They draw on perhaps a third of the Shia community as supporters--or about 20% of Iraqis. Two-thirds of Shias, the Kurds, and certainly the Sunnis would never give them support. But the Sadr thugs are a major threat only because Iran backs them with men, money, and material. Without that support, they would be merely annoying. They have the advantage that the Iraqi government has not decided to destroy them.

Syria. Syria is weakened but still struggling to hold Lebanon. They support jihadis in Iraq to maintain their own hold on government. They have a Shia government ruling over an unhappy Sunni majority with Sunni Iraqis fleeing to Damascus. If Iraq succeeds as a democracy, the Syrians will see Lebanon set free and will face their own internal insurrection or civil war. Israel looms over them as does Turkey to a lesser extent. A conventional war with either would be a disaster for Syria. I once thought they could be flipped. No more. They are tied to Iran and have decided this alliance will preserve their regime. Perhaps. Or it will deliver their ruin. Their status is fragile.

Iran. They appear to be involved in a regional struggle for dominance that starts in southern Lebanon and Hizbollah, goes through their puppet state of Syria, gains support among Palestinians, and is influential in Iraq through their alliance with Syria and their support for Sadr and other Shia thugs. This is the main threat to us in Iraq. Iran's influence extends to the second-class Shia Arab communities in the Gulf who Tehran hopes to support against the Sunni Arab rulers. And Iran pursues nukes. Yet they rule a restless empire of subject peoples and even a majority of the barely majority Persians do not like the current mullah rulers. They are surrounded by hostile Arab states and Turkey which host American forces, and America's ally Afghanistan. The Iranians are advancing but are vulnerable to sudden reverses from inside the country. Iran's military is ramshackle and held together with duct tape. Ignore their scary-sounding military maneuvers. The few high-tech modern items they import are just isolated spots in a vast sea of obsolete weaponry.

Turkey. They watch the Iraqi Kurds with worry and see some common interest in cooperating against Iraq's Kurds with Iran who struggles against their own Kurds. The Turks are no friends to Syria. They are a member of NATO. They have problems with Islamic parties threatening their secular history.

Sunni Arab world. They send their jihadis to Iraq to die. They send money to Iraq's Sunnis. They fear Iran and the Shias. And they fear the jihadis at home. And they blame us for their difficulties. But they have oil.

With all this in mind, we are now debating the form of Phase VI. It began this month and will likely be the last phase dominated by American combat operations. I estimate it will last no more than sixteen months.

Phase VII will be the Iraq phase with the Iraqi government taking the lead in fighting the insurgents. We will supply air power, special forces, and keep at least seven brigades of troops inside Iraq to deter conventional invasion. I only question the pace of our draw down in this phase. The main question is whether we break Sadr's forces and the other Shia extremists and make the Iraqi government's task easier. The second question is whether Syria and Iran will continue to support their side, perhaps escalating to direct intervention. The third question is whether the government will win by winning hearts and minds or by slaughtering enemies. This phase will last as long as it takes one side or the other to win. Iraqis can't go home. It will be victory or death and on this struggle will depend our image for resolve in the Long War. And whether Iraq serves as a beacon of hope for others or simply reflects the realist-level goal of flipping an enemy Baathist state to a friendly authoritarian state.

We've fought off many threats. Don't lose hope people. In the broad sweep of the war, we are making progress. We faced setbacks in Phase III yet emerged in a stronger position to make real gains in Phase IV. We faced a different struggle in Phase V that we have not yet defeated, but it is not defeat for us by any stretch of the imagination. Yes, it is ugly in Iraq. I've never denied that. It is war. But that is what makes me avoid gloom. War is death and misery and tears. The only good thing is that we should fight to create something better out of that death and misery and plentiful tears. Who can doubt our Civil War produced far more of it all? Who can say we didn't create something far better? We can say the same for World War II. We can say the same for Korea. We can say the same for Afghanistan though that fight continues, too. I think we will be able to say the same about Iraq when we look back on it.

That's the situation in Iraq as I see it. So how do we shape the next phase for victory? [UPDATE: And to clarify my point that our will to win has fragmented. This doesn't mean I think we will lose. Since fall 2003 I've judged we are in a race between getting the Iraqi government ready to fight without us and our home front morale breaking. I think we are well enough along in preparing the Iraqis to fight that we will win the race against our declining will to win. But it is now clear that our will to fight will decline rapidly in the next two years. Unless we face another 9/11 situation, of course.]