Notes on the War in Iraq: What is Going Right

This is the sixth in a series. The bulleted points below are culled from many sources. They are compiled to show how much information on an issue is available to those who are seeking it.

  • Deposing the Taliban regime still remains the single most important blow that has been struck against the terrorists. And virtually no one could have predicted that a half-decade after the attacks on September 11th, we would not have been hit again. Such things don’t happen by chance.
  • Meanwhile, the Iraqi people were voting in elections – 8 million in the first, 10 million in the second, 12 million in the third. They created a new political class where there’d been none before.
  • The images of Iraq that come America’s way are of car bombs and daily explosions. But Iraqis report that missing from the coverage are the great, subtle changes undergoing in Iraq. Those who endured the brutality of the former regime, those who saw the outside world avert its gaze from their troubles, know the magnitude of the change that has come to Iraq.
  • One soldier, upon returning from Iraq, wrote this:
BAGHDAD — I don’t see a civil war in Iraq. I don’t see a constituency for civil war. The vast majority of the people want hope for their families, not to massacre their neighbors or divide their country. A poll conducted in June by the International Republican Institute, a nonpartisan group that promotes democracy, found 89 percent of Iraqis supporting a unity government representing all sects and ethnic communities. No wonder no “rebel army” steps forward to claim credit for vicious car bombs and cowardly executions of civilians.
I see debates among Iraqis — often angry and sometimes divisive — but arguments characteristic of political discourse, not political breakdown. The Council of Representatives meets here in Baghdad as the sole legitimate sovereign representative of the people, 12 million of whom braved bombs and threats last December to vote. No party has seceded or claimed independent territory.
  • Most Iraqis want to support the government and the fighting to stop. It is not inevitable that a full-blown civil war will break out. If it does, however, it will be much more violent than the present conflict. Preventing that war from happening is crucial to the U.S.’s long-term security. It is in the U.S. national interest to prevent Iraq from becoming a failed state where al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups will flourish and build bases from which to launch attacks.
  • Iraqis are fully engaged in the war against militias that had preyed upon the weakness of the national government. In the absence of law and order in some Iraqi cities, even in some of the districts in Baghdad, the militias imposed their own private laws–laws usually driven by extremism and a spirit of vengeance.
  • The Sunni Arabs in Iraq lost their enthusiasm for al Qaeda very quickly after their initial embrace of the movement. By 2005, currents of resistance had begun to flow in Anbar, expanding in 2006.
  • Al Qaeda responded to this rising resistance with unspeakable brutality–beheading young children, executing Sunni leaders and preventing their bodies from being buried within the time required by Muslim law, torturing resisters by gouging out their eyes, electrocuting them, crushing their heads in vices, and so on.
  • This brutality naturally inflamed the desire to resist in the Sunni Arab community–but actual resistance in 2006 remained fitful and ineffective. There was no power in Anbar or anywhere that could protect the resisters against al Qaeda retribution, and so al Qaeda continued to maintain its position by force among a population that had initially welcomed it.
  • This year has been a different story in Anbar, and elsewhere in Iraq. The influx of American forces in support of a counterinsurgency strategy–more than 4,000 went into Anbar–allowed U.S. commanders to take hold of the local resentment against al Qaeda by promising to protect those who resisted the terrorists. When American forces entered al Qaeda strongholds like Arab Jabour, the first question the locals asked is: Are you going to stay this time?
  • They wanted to know if the U.S. would commit to protecting them against al Qaeda retribution. U.S. soldiers have done so, in Anbar, Baghdad, Baqubah, Arab Jabour and elsewhere.
  • They have established joint security stations with Iraqi soldiers and police throughout urban areas and in villages. They have worked with former insurgents and local people to form “concerned citizens” groups to protect their own neighborhoods.
  • Their presence among the people has generated confidence that al Qaeda will be defeated, resulting in increased information about the movements of al Qaeda operatives and local support for capturing or killing them.
  • The result was a dramatic turnabout in Anbar – in contrast to the 1,000 recruits of 2006, there have already been more than 12,000 in 2007.
  • The new strategy of protecting the population, in combination with targeted raids, has succeeded so well that al Qaeda in Iraq now holds no major urban sanctuary.
  • This turnabout coincided with an increase in American forces in Iraq and a change in their mission to securing the population. Not only were more American troops moving about the country, but they were much more visible as they established positions spread out among urban populations.
  • According to all the principles of the consensus counterterrorism strategy, the effect of this surge should have been to generate more terrorists and more terrorism. Instead, it enabled the Iraqi people to throw off the terrorists whose ideas they had already rejected, confident that they would be protected from horrible reprisals. It proved that, at least in this case, conventional forces in significant numbers conducting a traditional counterinsurgency mission were absolutely essential to defeating this cellular terrorist group.
  • What lessons does this example hold for future fights in the War on Terror? First, defeating al Qaeda in Iraq requires continuing an effective counterinsurgency strategy that involves American conventional forces helping Iraqi Security Forces to protect the population in conjunction with targeted strikes. Reverting to a strategy relying only on targeted raids will allow al Qaeda to re-establish itself in Iraq and begin once again to gain strength.
  • In the longer term, we must fundamentally re-evaluate the consensus strategy for fighting the war on terror. Success against al Qaeda in Iraq obviously does not show that the solution to problems in Waziristan, Baluchistan or elsewhere lies in an American-led invasion. Each situation is unique, each al-Qaeda franchise is unique, and responses must be tailored appropriately.
  • But one thing is clear from the Iraqi experience. It is not enough to persuade a Muslim population to reject al Qaeda’s ideology and practice. Someone must also be willing and able to protect that population against the terrorists they had been harboring, something that special forces and long-range missiles alone can’t do.
  • Some critics have argued that President Bush’s freedom agenda is now a casualty of the war that began in 2003. They say we cannot “impose” democracy on “a country that doesn’t want it.” How can they be so sure that people in Iraq and elsewhere don’t long for democracy?
  • In 2005, on three separate occasions, Iraqis braved bombs and bullets to turn out and vote in greater numbers (percentage-wise) than do American voters, who merely have to brave lines.
  • Do critics of the war believe Iraqis prefer subjugation to freedom? Do they think they relish life in a gulag, or the lash of the whip, or the midnight knock of the secret police? Who among us wants a jackboot forever stomping on his face?
  • It is a mistake of a large order to argue that democracy is unwanted in Iraq simply because (a) violence exists three years after the country’s liberation–and after more than three decades of almost unimaginable cruelty and terror; and (b) Iraq is not Switzerland.
  • The critics of the Iraq war have chosen an odd time to criticize the appeal and power of democracy. After all, we are witnessing the swiftest advance of freedom in history. According to Freedom House’s director of research, Arch Puddington, “The global picture … suggests that 2005 was one of the most successful years for freedom since Freedom House began measuring world freedom in 1972. … The ‘Freedom in the World 2006’ ratings for the Middle East represent the region’s best performance in the history of the survey.”
  • Those who believe a form of democracy in Iraq is impossible ignore the words of Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a democracy activist from Egypt. Mr. Ibrahim, who was originally opposed the war to liberate Iraq, said it “has unfrozen the Middle East, just as Napoleon’s 1798 expedition did. Elections in Iraq force the theocrats and autocrats to put democracy on the agenda, even if only to fight against us.”
  • Those who say that there is no “existing democratic culture” that will allow liberty to succeed, scoff at the assertion by President Bush that it is “cultural condescension” to claim that some peoples, cultures or religions are destined to despotism and unsuited for self-government.
  • A mark of serious conservatism is a regard for the concreteness of human experience. If cultures are as intractable as these people believe, and if an existing democratic culture is indispensable, we would not have seen democracy take root in Japan after World War II, Southern Europe in the 1970s, Latin America and East Asia in the ’80s, and South Africa in the ’90s.
  • It was believed by many that those nations’ and regions’ traditions and cultures–including by turns Confucianism, Catholicism, dictatorships, authoritarianism, apartheid, military juntas and oligarchies–made them incompatible with self-government.
  • This is not to say that culture is unimportant. It matters a great deal. But so do incentives and creeds and the power of ideas, which can profoundly shape culture. Culture is not mechanically deterministic–and to believe that what is will always be is a mistake of both history and philosophy.
  • What has plagued the Arab Middle East is not simply, or even primarily, culture; it is antidemocratic ideologies and oppressive institutions. And the way to counteract pernicious ideologies and oppressive institutions is with better ones. Liberty and the institutions that support liberty are pathways to human flourishing.
  • The region has generated deep resentments and lethal anti-Americanism. In the past, Western nations tolerated oppression for the sake of “stability.” But this policy created its own unintended consequences, including attacks that hit America with deadly fury on Sept. 11. President Bush struck back, both militarily and by promoting liberty.
  • In Iraq, we are witnessing advancements and some heartening achievements. We are also experiencing the hardships and setbacks that accompany epic transitions. There will be others. But there is no other way to fundamentally change the Arab Middle East.
  • The process of democratic reform has begun, and now would be precisely the wrong time to lose our nerve and turn our back on the freedom agenda. It would be a geopolitical disaster and a moral calamity–and President Bush, like President Reagan before him, will persist in his efforts to shape a more hopeful world.