January 1, 2006  

The political battles ahead

The idea of a more-extended “tipping period” in Iraq was first advanced by Jeffrey White, a longtime analyst with the Defense Intelligence Agency and now an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He observed that, while insurgencies can last decades, in hindsight they often exhibit a brief period where the basic direction of the conflict is set. “Turning period” might also capture the same underlying idea. It’s White’s assessment, now broadly shared, that late 2005 and the first half of this year will come to be regarded as the time when the future of Iraq is determined, the war fundamentally won or lost.

While military tactics and operations are of great importance, the truly decisive factors will be political. The questions are three: Can a new Iraqi government win enough legitimacy to guarantee the success of the democratic experiment in Iraq? Will the Iraqi Sunni population continue to tolerate and back the insurgency? And, perhaps most crucial, will Americans come to a consensus that permits us to remain engaged in — to again quote Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s most famous contribution to the Iraq debate — a “long, hard slog.”


Almost three years after the invasion of Iraq, the U.S. military seems at last to have settled on a potentially winning counterinsurgency strategy and set of tactics to match. “Clear, hold, build” is the bumper-sticker expression for the military plan.

The first step is to clear out insurgent structures and cadres in the Sunni towns that have been their base of strength. This is a refinement of the pattern of large-unit sweeps that have been the American habit from the days immediately after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s statues. Although some units and commanders understood from the start that this tactic was only step one, too often these sweeps, planned and executed with exquisite care, were conducted as ends in themselves.

In many ways, these sweeps were repetitions, on a local level, of the kind of blitzkrieg that characterized the initial invasion. But the problem, then as now, was not the stand-and-fight Iraqi resistance; that has been a very lopsided competition as the Iraqis well know. But what was so easy to sweep away was also so easy to put back together. The war has become more a struggle for territory, less a force-on-force battle.

Step two is to hold on to the towns — and make no mistake, the Iraqi insurgency is an urban insurgency, unlike the rural war in Vietnam — cleared in the sweeps. This has been, broadly speaking, where the campaign thus far has faltered. Holding ground is inherently a manpower-intensive business, and the size of coalition ground forces has always been wanting.

The failures of allies to aid in post-invasion Iraq and the challenges of creating reliable Iraqi national security forces to replace Saddam’s Army and secret police have been well-chronicled. (See Gordon Trowbridge’s following article on the state of the Iraqi Army.) But the heart of the problem is that U.S. ground forces, even in combination with British troops, have been too small in number. Indeed, the very success of the small invasion force misled senior American commanders and policy-makers to misunderstand the nature of the war.

This fundamental problem remains. No matter the progress now being made to build an Iraqi Army, the role of the U.S. Army and Marines remains central. As Iraqi forces “stand up,” it must be the business of U.S. ground forces to stand with them, or at least behind them, to assure that they do not lose in battle and successfully hold the cleared ground. It’s wise to look closely at the example of Afghanistan — rightly a model for correct counterinsurgency strategy — and keep in mind that U.S. force levels have not been reduced and that, even today, asking NATO allies to take on a larger burden is a plan of tremendous risk.

Thus, transitioning too rapidly to the “build” phase — if by this one means physical reconstruction — would be unwise. What really needs to be built are the institutions of a legitimate Iraqi state, beginning with the army but including the larger security apparatus and the creation of an impartial judiciary.

State-building is as exacting a task as any other dimension of a counterinsurgency effort. To rush is to take risk. There have already been complaints that the Iraqi Army is being held to too high a standard, that we’re trying to re-create the U.S. Army. There will similarly be arguments about Iraqi police or Iraqi judges not needing to meet a “Western” — meaning “artificial” — standard. But the new Iraqi government has a tough task to convince Iraqis that the phrase, “I’m from Baghdad and I’m here to help,” no longer means a ticket to the torture chamber. Given the multiple and severe stresses that the experiment in Iraqi democracy will face in the future, both internally and in a hostile region, building a rock-solid foundation of state structures will be the ultimate measure of strategic success.


White, at the Washington Institute, has done perhaps the best statistical analysis of the Iraqi insurgency over time, cataloging the trend of incidents since April 2003. His bottom line is that, as the Iraqi government has gained legitimacy, the focus of insurgent attacks has shifted away from U.S. soldiers and toward what the insurgents regard as “collaborators” — Iraqis of all sects and factions who want a new distribution of power and are willing to work through the nascent Iraqi democracy.

White identifies four “leadership elements” among the insurgents: foreign jihadis, Iraqi Islamists, former Ba’athists and various disgruntled tribal leaders. There are even more “action elements” — groups that employ violence — beginning with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaida in Iraq, but including the Islamic Army in Iraq, Jayish Muhammad and the Mujahedin Army as well as criminal organizations. These group recruit from a base that is broader still and from across the spectrum of Sunni Arab society. All in all, the insurgency is a complex “system,” diffuse and weak but difficult to stamp out.

While the big spike in insurgent attacks — the closest thing to an attempt at a Tet-like offensive — came at the end of 2004 and in January 2005 in the run-up to the first elections, the overall number of attacks has escalated. White has identified a handful of insurgent “lines of operation,” but the statistically startling revelation of his work is that “countercollaboration” and “counterstability” attacks, meaning those directed at Iraqis, now account for almost half the total.

Another striking aspect of White’s analysis is his comparison of insurgent propaganda and information operations to U.S. and coalition reporting. For example, the U.S. press reported one incident in dry language: “Six insurgents were killed and two Marines were wounded in a gun battle at 4 a.m. local time, the military said. Residents identified one of the attackers as an imam, the U.S. said. The attacker, identified as an imam by locals, in today’s gun battle opened fire on the Marines and Iraqi Security Forces with an AK-47 assault rifle, the military said.”

Contrast that to the Arab media account: “[Seventy-one]-years-old Sheikh Ismael Ashish, Imam of Saif al-Haq mosque in Haditha, was martyred on Tuesday. He took a direct hit in the chest as he ran like a 20-year-old fighter wielding an anti-armor [rocket]. He was a leader in the Resistance. He marshaled Anbar [province] Resistance fighters to join the fight against the American assault on Najaf last year.”

White’s conclusion is that “it’s all about the Sunnis.” The immediate goal of the insurgents is to foil the emerging political process in Iraq, and the larger strategic purpose is to ensure a strong Sunni position in Iraq, if not outright rule or Saddam’s return to power.


The government that emerges from the December Iraqi elections will be, despite the difficulty of the process, unique in the Arab world: the democratic product of a democratically drafted and ratified constitution. The government’s ability over its four-year term to rally Iraqis in support promises to be a tipping event, not only in Iraq but in the region.

At the same time, the way Iraqis make political decisions remains impenetrably opaque. The most potent political force in the country, Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, wields his power indirectly. Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, has been Iraq’s president, but he leads only one of the two Kurdish political parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. The other — and often rival — Kurdish faction, the Democratic Party of Kurdistan, is led by Massoud Barzani, who is the head of the autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq. Though split, Kurdistan is the most mature political community in Iraq, having enjoyed de facto independence for a decade. Indeed, the Shiites and Kurds, who together account for about 80 percent of Iraq’s population, have been remarkably constant American allies throughout the counterinsurgency campaign; the only occasional rejectionist has been the young Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. His “Mahdi Army” has not been a serious factor since 2004, although he continues to jockey for power and may be a longer-term player.

Likewise, secular Iraqis, though a relative minority, have been and remain a disproportionately influential group in Iraq, making up in savvy and ability to deal with Americans and Westerners in general what they lack in numbers. The redoubtable Ahmed Chalabi, alternately embraced and cast out by the Bush administration, has several times resurrected his political fortunes. He’s been a clever enough tactician to broker himself into the room whenever decisions are made.

The “tipping people” in this tipping period in Iraq are the Sunnis. They’ve now voted twice in significant numbers, but their willingness to accept the new government must still be considered uncertain. In his recent speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, President Bush described what he argued were improving conditions in two Iraqi cities, Najaf and Mosul. Najaf is a majority Shiite city, but Mosul, in northern Iraq, lies on a fault line between Sunni and Kurdish communities; it was the scene of brutal ethnic cleansing by Saddam and, after an initially peaceful period, became a hotbed of insurgent activity.

The president claimed that security has been improved and reconstruction restarted. He mentioned the reworking of roads and bridges over the Tigris River, which physically separates the traditional Sunni community in the older section on the eastern bank — it’s as close to an ethnic border as exists in Iraq. The Mosul airport, also in the midst of the Sunni districts and near the scene of a devastating suicide attack that killed 13 U.S. soldiers in their mess tent in December 2004, is likewise being refurbished. While it is impossible to judge the extent of progress from a distance, these are undeniable signs of improvement.

There is also an international dimension to the question of the future of free Iraq and the future of the Sunni minority in Iraq. Isolated from their support within the surrounding countries, particularly among the Sunni majorities in these countries, the insurgents will find it increasingly difficult to operate. The new Iraqi government must deal not only with Sunni rejectionists internally, but externally — the “tipping place” for Iraq extends to the broader region.


But if there’s one place in which the war can be lost during the tipping period, it’s in the United States. There is a minority of Americans, roughly a third to perhaps 40 percent, who will stand with Bush through thick and thin — although their commitment is more to the man than the war. There is another third, at most, at the other end of the spectrum. They are opponents of the war and opponents of the president, and have a hard time distinguishing between the two. The “tipping third” lies in the middle, ambivalent about the president and worried that the war is going badly. Bush’s strategy of articulating a strategy — and the modest admission of past error — is aimed primarily at this last third.

These people, Republicans and Democrats alike, want most to be convinced that we’re winning. Hence the president has emphasized a “strategy for victory,” and the National Security Council crafted a document by the same name. And the “National Strategy for Victory” in Iraq is almost unique among documents of this sort. It’s not a narrative or an argument so much as a PowerPoint presentation, barely in text form. It’s loaded with bullet points and arrows; it’s a collection of talking points. The target audience is not policy wonks so much as talk-show hosts and politicians who appear on talk shows.

This campaign to win back American hearts and minds has enjoyed some modest initial success, improving Bush’s poll numbers by 5 to 10 percentage points. What remains unclear is whether the White House sees the campaign as tactical — meant to solidify a small majority heavily dependent on the conservative base — or strategic — intended to build a larger and more durable majority of support for the war. Given the nature of the war in Iraq and on the broader Middle East, Bush would be wise to begin building toward the future when he is no longer in office.

For the truth is that the “Bush Doctrine” is only dimly understood, appreciated or accepted within the president’s own party. The Republican Party remains a coalition of traditional, country-club-and-chamber-of-commerce conservatives — think Sen. John Warner of Virginia — and graduates of the Gingrich Revolution of 1994. Absent the need to support a president of their party and the desire to maintain control of Congress, many Republicans would oppose the war as a misuse of American power, as they did the Clinton administration’s interventions in the Balkans and elsewhere. Support for the war among the president’s political base is, in fact, soft.

By contrast, opposition to the war and hatred of Bush is hard indeed among activist Democrats and party leaders. Howard Dean channels the inner desires of Democrats, now as always, when he claims the war cannot be won. Supposedly more responsible Democrats, like congressional minority leaders Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California and Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, essentially agree with Dean, even if they can better control their passions in public. New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, whose political savvy and ambitions for higher office make her a reliable leading-edge indicator of mainstream opinion in the party, first opposed the troop-withdrawal plan offered by Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania, then, in a letter to constituents little reported in the mainstream media, hedged her bet. Polonius-like, she wrote, “I do not believe that we should allow this to be an open-ended commitment without limits or end. Nor do I believe that we can or should pull out of Iraq immediately.” But a line later, she made it clear she expected the withdrawal to begin in 2006.

Perhaps the saddest figure at the moment is the lone, true War Democrat, Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut. “It’s time for Democrats who distrust President Bush to acknowledge that he will be the commander in chief for three more critical years, and that in matters of war, we undermine presidential credibility at our nation’s peril,” he recently asserted. The days when Lieberman could be a Democratic candidate for president seem to have passed.

For the moment, Bush seems able to reclaim the initiative in the American political debate over the war, but as the 2006 election season begins, expect more challenges. Other political controversies and scandals have weakened the Republican leadership, particularly former House Majority Leader Rep. Tom DeLay of Texas. And a smog-cloud of corruption hovers over many other senior Republicans. Back-benchers will be sorely tempted to act like rats on a sinking ship.

Indeed, it is unlikely that questions about America’s tipping period will be resolved until the 2008 election. President Bush can lose the war at home in the next year, but he cannot win it decisively. Until his policy and strategy win broader support at home, uncertainties about America’s commitment to Iraq and the greater Middle East will remain.