Al Qaeda in Iraq Defeated?
A huge operation to crush the 1,200 fighters who remained from a terrorist force once estimated at more than 12,000 began on May 10. Operation Lion’s Roar, in which the Iraqi army combined forces with the Americans’ 3rd Armoured Cavalry Regiment, has already resulted in the death of Abu Khalaf, the Al-Qaeda leader, and the capture of more than 1,000 suspects. The group has been reduced to hit-and-run attacks, including one that killed two off-duty policemen yesterday, and sporadic bombings aimed at killing large numbers of officials and civilians.
American and Iraqi leaders believe that while it would be premature to write off Al-Qaeda in Iraq, the Sunni group has lost control of its last urban base in Mosul and its remnants have been largely driven into the countryside to the south. Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s prime minister, who has also led a crackdown on the Shi’ite Mahdi Army in Basra and Baghdad in recent months, claimed yesterday that his government had “defeated” terrorism.
In a sidebar companion piece, Colvin explains how we got here:
The reversal of fortunes is attributed to the “surge” strategy of General David Petraeus, the commander of US forces, who targeted Al-Qaeda in Iraq above all else after securing an extra 30,000 troops last year. His officers exploited local resentment of the terrorists and promised to protect those who resisted them. Under Petraeus’s plan, they established awakening councils, or groups calling themselves concerned local citizens. These Sunni groups helped to drive Al-Qaeda from many of its bastions.
US and Iraqi forces were then able to retake large swathes of the country and complete the “clearing” of cities such as Ramadi and Falluja and large areas of Baghdad. The overall number of attacks in Iraq has fallen by 80% in the past year alone.
Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister, has gone on in recent months to reassert control over Basra in the south and Baghdad’s Sadr City, the two main strongholds of the Shi’ite Mahdi Army.
TigerHawk observes, “Notwithstanding the operation against the jihadis in Mosul, we have now gone nine consecutive days without an American KIA (which, if memory serves, is the longest stretch without a single KIA since [May 2003]). The implication is obvious: Iraqis, not Americans, are now at the tip of the spear. That is evidence of a successful counterinsurgency.”
Indeed it is. It is not, however, sufficient evidence that the counterinsurgency is a success.
Most obviously, AQI and other foreign fighters have always constituted a tiny fraction of the anti-government forces. Indeed, AQI barely existed when the insurgency started. They were, however, the most violent and ruthless element. Further, well-timed terrorist attacks such as the bombings of the Askariya shrine in Samarra escalated a relatively minor insurgency into a major sectarian conflict.
Even if AQI stays on the mat and the tide of replacements coming in from Syria and elsewhere remains stemmed, there’s still the domestic elements with which to contend. Most significantly, does the Mahdi Army continue its cease fire? If Muqtada al-Sadr and company decide to make another stand, violence could escalate dramatically.
Turning to US domestic politics, it’ll be interesting to see how this plays. One could argue that this is good news for John McCain, one of the earliest and staunchest advocates of the Surge. His argument that the war would have been far more successful if his calls for a larger force had been heeded years ago are buttressed. At the same time, however, Barack Obama can reasonably argue that, if AQI is defeated, the already tenuous relationship between the Iraq War and the global war on terrorism is ended. These positive developments actually undermine the argument that his calls for rapid withdrawal amount to surrender to the terrorists and acceptance of American defeat. If AQI is no more, then we’re left with a simple “nation building” operation.
UPDATE: Andrew Sullivan summarizes the “We’re winning, Vote Obama” position nicely:
[I]f someone had told me a year ago that fifteen of eighteen benchmarks had been reached, that all the parties were in negotiation over future politics, that al Qaeda was close to dead at the hands of the US and the Iraqis, and that oil contracts were being handed out amid four-year lows in violence, I wouldn’t have believed them.
Of course, this all makes Obama’s 16 month withdrawal timetable more and more feasible.
TigerHawk retorts, “If we are, as Andrew says, to judge the judgment of the two candidates, then the answer is clear. Eighteen months ago John McCain argued that the safest way out of Iraq was to win, then withdraw. Barack Obama, parroting the received wisdom of the Democratic foreign policy establishment, said that victory in any meaningful sense was not only unlikely, but that the presence of large numbers of American soldiers actually fed the insurgency and decreased the prospects for stability.”
Jim Hoft believes that this is “a huge blow to Democrats,” especially Obama, “Who was wrong about the surge, wrong about the US military, and wrong about turning Iraq over to its dangerous neighbors, and still flip-flopping like a wet noodle on where he stands.”
UPDATE: Glenn Reynolds: “If you have to go to The Belmont Club to find out how it’s going, then it’s a success. Failure, the NYT has no trouble covering.”