Who's On First?
Your editor returned to Iraq in April and May of 2005 for another embedded period of reporting. I could immediately see improvements compared to my earlier extended tours during 2003 and 2004. ... With the exception of periodic flare-ups in isolated corners, our struggle in Iraq as warfare is over. Egregious acts of terror will continue -- in Iraq as in many other parts of the world. But there is now no chance whatever of the U.S. losing this critical guerilla war.
Gregory Scoblete thinks it is premature to declare victory in Iraq because "guerilla wars" take decades to conclude; and since this one is only entering its third year, declaring the outcome makes as much sense as calling the result of basketball game in the first quarter. He further argues that by declaring the proceedings settled, Zinmeister is setting up the public for a cruel disappointment when the next flare-up occurs.
Don't get me wrong, I think on the whole, the trends are indeed positive in Iraq and that they can be sustained assuming continued American involvement and savvy leadership on behalf of Iraq's political class. I hope Zinsmeister is correct, and I'm optimistic about the longer-term prospects for our success in Iraq. But I'm actually amazed that after "Mission Accomplished," "cake walk" et. al. conservatives aren't more reserved when declaring victory.
Indeed, Zinsmeister's proclamations are irresponsible. Guerilla wars are notoriously long, bloody affairs. Expectation setting is crucial. Fault the media all you want for painting an unduly grim picture in Iraq, but isn't flatly asserting that victory is at hand equally wrong-headed? Reading Zinsmeister, you'd be forgiven for thinking that (a) U.S. troops could begin coming home shortly, (b) that in a few more months things will be noticeably calmer, or (c) that no course corrections are necessary. When A and B don't materialize, and it's hard to think they will, people will rightly wonder whether they've been lied to or whether the people making such sweeping claims were spinning or ignorant of the facts. Then - and this is crucial - the public support needed for seeing the war through to a successful conclusion will erode even quicker.
What does it mean to win a war against guerilla insurgents? What does it mean for a guerilla insurgency to triumph? The one answer that is popularly advanced -- one that is implicit in Scoblete's argument -- is that guerillas win if they simply remain in existence. This site lists more than 383 armed guerilla groups extant in the world today. Clearly all of them exist and just clearly not all of them are triumphant. There are, for instance 27 armed guerilla groups in India, 9 in Britain (the most famous of which is the Irish Republican Army) and 11 in the United States. Yet no one asks whether it is premature to declare the Westminster Parliament in control of the Northern Ireland or wonder whether Los Matcheteros will take over the Washington DC. And the reason is simple: while the IRA and Los Matcheteros are still likely to exist in 2010, there is little or no chance that these organizations will seize state power in all or even part of Britain or the United States. Seizing state power over a definite territory is the explicit objective of nearly every guerilla armed force in the world today: if they can achieve that, they win. If they cannot achieve that and have no realistic prospect of ever achieving that, they are defeated, however long they may continue to exist.
Guerilla leaders themselves know this and invariably attempt to create a state-in-waiting in the course of their campaign based on an armed force, a united front of allies willing to support the guerilla's political objectives and a hard leadership core in firm control of both. They also attempt to create micro-states in the course of insurgency usually styled "base areas" or "liberated zones". Political influence, combat capability and territorial control are the real metrics of a successful guerilla campaign. The argument that mere existence or avoidance of defeat constitutes victory is hogwash: both the IRA and the Red Hand Commandos exist, but clearly the IRA is the more successful guerilla organization because it has a national united front, some combat capability and hard and diverse leadership core where the Red Hand Commandos do not. Even Al Qaeda, which some claim to be a creature of pure thought has sought to control territory in Afghanistan and spread its influence through Islamic "charities" while under the control of a central group of militants. It was, in other words, no different from any other classic guerilla organization.
While the Iraqi insurgents still retain the capability to kill significant numbers of people they are almost total losers by the traditional metric of guerilla warfare. First of all, by attacking civilians of every ethnic group and vowing to resubjugate the majority ethnic groups in the country they have at a stroke made creating a national united front against the United States a near impossibility. Second, there is a battle for supremacy among the insurgent leaders. The New York Times (hat tip: DL) reports:
Late Sunday night, American marines watching the skyline from their second-story perch in an abandoned house here saw a curious thing: in the distance, mortar and gunfire popped, but the volleys did not seem to be aimed at them. In the dark, one spoke in hushed code words on a radio, and after a minute found the answer. "Red on red," he said, using a military term for enemy-on-enemy fire. ... "There is a rift," said the official, who requested anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the talks he had held. "I'm certain that the nationalist Iraqi part of the insurgency is very much fed up with the Jihadists grabbing the headlines and carrying out the sort of violence that they don't want against innocent civilians."
In that context, the battlefield victories of the US Armed Forces and its coalition allies are not the empty triumphs the press sometimes represents them to be but expressions of the complete strategic bankruptcy of the insurgency. No national united front; no united hard core of leadership; no victorious armed force. This in addition to no territory and increasingly, no money and what is there left? Well there is the ability to kill civilians and to avoid being totally exterminated by the Coalition; but that is not insurgent victory nor even the prospect of victory.
When Austin Bay, upon returning to Baghdad after the absence of a year notes that "the Baghdad of June 2005 is not the Baghdad I left in September 2004" because:
It was the first time I saw independently deployed Iraqi forces. Now, I see senior Iraqi officers in the hallways of Al Faw Palace conducting operational liaison with U.S. and coalition forces. I hear reports of the Iraqi Army conducting independent street-clearing and neighborhood search operations. Brigadier Gen. Karl Horst of US Third Infantry Division told me about an Iraqi battalion's success on the perennially challenging Haifa Street.
it is not an irrelevant anecdotal fact. It is an observation that the new Iraqi government increasingly has a national united front; control of territory and an ever more potent army at its disposal. This condition has a name, although it may be irresponsible to use it.