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July 16, 2008

Merry Xmas/War is Over?

Michael Yon cannot personally decide whether a country is in a state of war or not -- only the supreme military historians at NBC have that right -- but 1) he's there 2) he's sharp and 3) we all sort of are thinking this anyway.

Barring any major and unexpected developments (like an Israeli air strike on Iran and the retaliations that would follow), a fair-minded person could say with reasonable certainty that the war has ended. A new and better nation is growing legs. What's left is messy politics that likely will be punctuated by low-level violence and the occasional spectacular attack. Yet, the will of the Iraqi people has changed, and the Iraqi military has dramatically improved, so those spectacular attacks are diminishing along with the regular violence. Now it's time to rebuild the country, and create a pluralistic, stable and peaceful Iraq. That will be long, hard work. But by my estimation, the Iraq War is over. We won. Which means the Iraqi people won.

Big, big starting caveat with that "unexpected" business of an Israeli strike, which isn't really all that unexpected.

Similar thoughts from the Kagans and Keane:

All of the most important objectives of the surge have been accomplished in Iraq. The sectarian civil war is ended; al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) has been dealt a devastating blow; and the Sadrist militia and other Iranian-backed militant groups have been disrupted.

Meanwhile, the Iraqi government has accomplished almost all of the legislative benchmarks set by the U.S. Congress and the Bush administration. More important, it is gaining wider legitimacy among the population. The attention of Iraqis across the country is focused on the upcoming provincial elections, which will be a pivotal moment in Iraq's development.

...

As far as the civil war is concerned, there have been virtually no sectarian killings recorded for the past 10 weeks. Violence is still perpetrated by organized groups, but AQI, the remnant Sunni insurgents and Shiite fighters are now focused on attacking their own members who have defected to our side. This is a measure of their weakness. The Iraqi population is increasingly mobilizing against the perpetrators of violence, flooding American and Iraqi forces with tips about the locations of weapons caches and key militant leaders Sunnis turning in Sunnis and Shia turning in Shia.

The fighters have not simply hidden their weapons and gone to ground to await the next opportunity to kill each other. The Sunni insurgency, as well as AQI, has been severely disrupted. Coalition and Iraqi forces have killed or detained many key leaders, driven the militants out of every one of Iraq's major cities (including Mosul), and are pursuing the remnants vigorously in rural areas and the desert.

The Shiite militias have also been broken apart, sending thousands of their leaders scurrying for safety in Iran. Iraqi forces continue to hammer Iranian-backed Special Groups and elements of the Sadrist Jaysh al Mahdi that have been fighting with them in Sadr City, Maysan Province and elsewhere. At this time, none of these networks can conduct operations that could seriously destabilize the Iraqi government. But both al Qaeda and the Iranians are working hard to refit their networks.

They don't say the war is over, and in fact the rest of the article is about the firmness and vigilance with which we must continue the fight, but obviously they are saying something big has happened in Iraq, and something good.

Is the war over? I'm not sure any guerrilla terrorist war is ever officially over; as long as one extremist with a gun or a bathtub full of chemicals is willing to kill, it's not "over" in the sense that hostilities have ended as with a conventional war and conventional armistice.

But is it effectively over? The media will of course never deem it so, but if violence in Iraq falls to the level that any peaceful state might experience if terrorists take a bad interest in it, I'd say it's over.

At the peak of violence, and the lowest point for war support, I admittedly went pretty wobbly on the war. I'm not sure how honest I was about that at the time, though I did make statements along the lines of "The surge is our last, best hope for a success in Iraq; let us give it six months and see if it results in progress." Implicitly, I thought if there was no progress, we had to pull the plug.

I just could not conceive of any realistic series of events unfolding which would result in victory. I thought the surge had a chance of working and for that reason must be tried, but I didn't think that chance was very high, nor did I expect the success of the surge to be more than incremental.

Instead of incremental gains, this past year our troops (and the Iraqis fighting beside them, and the Poles and Australians too) have succeeded spectacularly. And not merely spectacularly in a military sense, but spectacularly politically as well. Al Qaeda and the Sadrists have not merely been decisively defeated on the battlefield -- always important, of course, but not necessarily the equivalent of the political victory all wars are ultimately fought to secure -- but in their well-nigh complete rejection by the population in which, as they say, they once swam.

Just as I was hard-pressed to imagine how victory could occur in 2007, I'm having a hard time conjuring scenarios in which the victory is lost now.

But then, I was wrong in 2007, due to a failure of imagination, and a lack of appreciation that all those "Red on Red" fights we read at the time (Sunnis insurgents fighting Al Qaeda) were actually more than isolated events and represented more than petty differences which would soon be papered over, and of course an ignorance at how profoundly strategy and tactics could turn a war. (I stupidly thought that war was 90% just numbers and logistics, and strategy and tactics, while obviously important, were very secondary concerns, and probably could not, except in the oddball case, reverse the course of a war.)

That last bit was stupidity that I now feel pretty embarrassed about.

I did, however, note a lot of times that it is not merely Americans who can be exhausted by war, and that the enemy was not the Supermen the media always portrays them to be (and which they sometimes seem in the collective imagination; the Nazis, too, were seen by some as unstoppable supermen), and that the terrorists might be pretty good at senseless destruction, but our boys were much better at sensible destruction.

I also kept in mind that prior to our breakthroughs in Afghanistan, it seemed to the media, and to those who weren't listening to reports from the military, that the situation was a "quagmire" and were were stuck in another unwinnable war. Look -- the battle-lines aren't moving! Our troops aren't moving! So we're not having any success at all?

Of course, the military reported we were doing quite a bit, despite those battle-lines not moving much. We were coordinating with the Northern Alliance. We were buying the support of warlords. And, of course, we were bombing the living shit out of the Taliban. We were hollowing them out. Their lines stood on paper maps, but in fact were barely there anymore; we were just waiting until they were all but decimated to move forward and take control of the ground.

When our troops finally did move, they blitzed all the major cities in a matter of a week with light resistance. What appeared to the ignorant, and by "the ignorant" I mean our quagmire-happy media, to be a stalemate (a stalemate of ten or fourteen days!) was in fact simply a catastrophic defeat for the Taliban which simply hadn't yet been formalized by ground control.

Similar stuff was going on in Iraq, under the surface of the water, such as the very real and very profound split between Al Qaeda and indigenous Sunni insurgents, and our troops' and intelligence agents' exploitation of that split by bringing the Sunnis over to our side. I hadn't been fooled by the superficial lack of progress in Afghanistan, but I was fooled by the apparent lack of progress in Iraq.

And then came the surge, and all those beneath-the-surface gains suddenly became apparent.

There may still be such subtle shifts going on Iraq, but in favor of the terrorists. I have to admit that's possible, having missed all the invisible but very real progress being made in Iraq while I despaired. But it seems pretty unlikely -- they're being demolished militarily, they have lost all their key havens, they have lost the people, and the once-derided government is now looked upon as favorably.

What would it take for the Iraqi population to suddenly choose civil war and terrorism over security and increasing prosperity, especially given their very recent memories of the former option? I'm having trouble seeing what could animate the public to begin shouting "Let's give Al Qaeda and Al-Sadr another chance."

Again, though, I've been wrong before.



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posted by Ace at 06:30 PM

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