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(Psst, don’t tell anyone- we’ve won in Iraq)

September 2, 2008

On Monday, following a parade on a freshly paved street, American commanders formally returned responsibility for keeping order in Anbar Province, once the heartland of the Sunni insurgency, to the Iraqi Army and police force.

U.S. Hands Back a Quieter Anbar – NYTimes.com.

And there you have it. Buried under a storm, a convention and a hot VP pick the news slips out: we’ve basically won the war.

Anbar- where 1,000 Americans died, a quarter of the casualties.

Anbar- home of Falluja.

Anbrar- birthplace of the Sunni Insurgency.

Handed back to the Iraqis with minimal fanfare.

Did you hear it on the news? Did you care? Even I passed over the link to this story this morning. And then I felt bad for it.

We are winning this war. Winning. Using a strategy championed by John McCain since at least 2005:

To build on what has been accomplished, and to win the war in Iraq, we need to make several significant policy changes.

Adopt a military counterinsurgency strategy. For most of the occupation, our military strategy was built around trying to secure the entirety of Iraq at the same time. With our current force structure and the power vacuum that persists in many areas, that is not possible today. In their attempt to secure all of Iraq, coalition forces engage in search and destroy operations to root out insurgent strongholds, with the aim of killing as many insurgents as possible. But our forces cannot hold the ground indefinitely, and when they move on to fight other battles, the insurgent ranks replenish and the strongholds fill again. Our troops must then reenter the same area and refight the same battle.

The example of Tal Afar is instructive. Coalition forces first fought in Tal Afar in September 2003, when the 101st Airborne Division took the city, then withdrew. Over the next year insurgents streamed back into the area, and in September 2004 Stryker brigades and Iraqi security forces went into Tal Afar again, chasing out insurgents again. They then left again, moving on to fight insurgents in other locations. Then in September 2005, the Third Armored Calvary Regiment swept into Tal Afar, killing insurgents while others retreated into the countryside. Most of our troops have already redeployed, and they may well be back again. The battles of Tal Afar, like those in other areas of Iraq, have become seasonal offensives, where success is measured most often by the number of insurgents captured and killed. But that’s not success, and “sweeping and leaving” is not working.

Instead, we need to clear and stay. We can do this with a modified version of traditional counterinsurgency strategy. Dr. Andrew Krepinevich, AEI’s Tom Donnelly and Gary Schmitt and others have written about this idea. Whether called the “ink blot,” “oil spot,” or “safe haven” strategy, it draws upon successful counterinsurgency efforts in the past. Rather than focusing on killing and capturing insurgents, we should emphasize protecting the local population, creating secure areas where insurgents find it difficult to operate. Our forces would begin by clearing areas, with heavy force if necessary, to establish a zone as free of insurgents as possible. The security forces can then cordon off the zone, establish constant patrols, by American and Iraqi military and police, to protect the population from insurgents and common crime, and arrest remaining insurgents as they are found.

In this newly secure environment, many of the things critical to winning in Iraq can take place – things that are not happening today. Massive reconstruction can go forward without fear of attack and sabotage. Political meetings and campaigning can take place in the open. Civil society can emerge. Intelligence improves, as it becomes increasingly safe for the population to provide tips to the security forces, knowing that they can do so without being threatened. The coalition must then act on this intelligence, increasing the speed at which it is transmitted to operational teams. Past practice has shown that “actionable intelligence” has a short shelf life, and the lag involved in communicating it to operators costs vital opportunities.

As these elements positively reinforce each other, the security forces then expand the territory under their control. We’ve done this successfully in Falluja. Coalition and Iraqi forces cleared the area of insurgents, held the city, and today Iraqi police and soldier patrol the streets, with support from two American battalions. And when the Iraqi forces are at a level sufficient to take over the patrolling responsibilities on their own, American troops can hand over the duties. Falluja today is not perfect, but our aim is not perfection – it is an improvement over the insecurity that plagues Iraq today.

This kind of a counterinsurgency strategy has some costs. Securing ever increasing parts of Iraq and preventing the emergence of new terrorist safe havens will require more troops and money. It will take time, probably years, and mean more American casualties. Those are terrible prices to pay. But with the stakes so high, I believe we must choose the strategy with the best chance of success. The Pentagon seems to be coming around on this, and top commanders profess to employ a version already. If we are on our way to adopting a true counterinsurgency strategy, that is wonderful, but it has not been the case thus far. After the recent operations in Tal Afar most American troops were redeployed from Tal Afar already, leaving behind Iraqi units with Americans embedded. I hope this will be sufficient to establish security there, but it is also clear that there has been no spike in reconstruction activity in that city.

John McCain was right in is strategic thinking; success bears that out. Everything

Barack Obama? Well you can read about his thinking here on his website. He still wants to leave in 16 months- as he has since 2007. As his campaign website proudly notes:

In January 2007, Obama introduced legislation to responsibly end the war in Iraq, with a phased withdrawal of troops engaged in combat operations.

That would have meant beginning to leave at the height of the violence, with all troops out by May of this year. I fail to see how Obama’s plan would have resulted in anything but more bloodshed.

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