Winning and Losing in Iraq

Mark Mazetti describes the maddening nature of trying to gauge progress in the Iraq War:

July ended with a monthly death toll for American troops in Iraq that was the lowest this year. Then August dawned with car bombs in Baghdad that killed scores of Iraqis.

In war, good news and bad news often coexist. But in Iraq, where battle lines are murky, the snapshots emerging from the American counterinsurgency campaign can seem particularly contradictory. Ever since American troops first rumbled through Iraqi cities more than four years ago, the war has produced both victories and defeats, and most have been short-lived.

“Compared with a conventional war, when we can say that we are exactly 50 miles from Berlin, it is extremely difficult in a conflict like this to find data that shows any meaningful trend,” said Andrew J. Bacevich, a military historian and professor of international relations at Boston University.

But that does not stop defenders and critics of the war from trying. With a promised progress report from the top American commander in Iraq now just six weeks away, partisans on both sides of the debate in Washington are searching desperately for evidence to bolster their judgments about the success or failure of the strategy that the Bush administration calls a “surge.”

The war’s staunchest supporters have seized on the reduced death toll in July for American troops as a sign that an influx of troops is dampening sectarian violence in the country. Yet even before the car bombings on Wednesday, opponents of the war were citing reports that the Iraqi civilian deaths were on the rise — a fact they say belies any notion that the White House strategy is having its intended effect of protecting the Iraqi population. They also note that over the past two years, July has generally been a light month for American military deaths.

For his part, Adm. Michael G. Mullen of the Navy, nominated to become the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress this week that none of these statistics would matter in the long run unless Iraqi politicians could mend sectarian wounds. While progress in conventional wars can be measured by the amount of enemy territory captured or the number of cities liberated, the American military has had greater difficulty making such assessments in guerrilla conflicts like Iraq.

That’s because, in the short run, there just aren’t any good metrics. The enemy can point to people killed, bombs detonated, mosques destroyed, and other statistics to show that they’re making “progress” on the tactical front. Politically, they can point to blocs leaving the government coalition, votes in foreign legislatures to withdraw troops, op-eds written, speeches given, and other signs that the other side is wearing down.

There are no comparable numbers on the other side. Sure, we can point to insurgents killed and captured, elections held, treaties signed, and the like. But none of those truly matter so long as the bombs keep going off.

Phil Carter has an excellent piece in Slate subtitled, “Why the Latest Good News From Iraq Doesn’t Matter.” He cites a famous exchange between U.S. Army Colonel Harry Summers and his Vietnamese counterpart Colonel Tu:

With a tinge of bitterness about the war’s outcome, Summers told Tu, “You know, you never defeated us on the battlefield.” Tu replied, in a phrase that perfectly captured the American misunderstanding of the Vietnam War, “That may be so, but it is also irrelevant.”

So it is in any counter-guerrilla operation. Carter explains,

Security is not an end in itself. It is just one component, albeit an important one, of a comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy. Unless it is paired with a successful political strategy that consolidates military gains and translates increased security into support from the Iraqi people, these security improvements will, over time, be irrelevant.

Quite right. Of course, our military and civilian leadership is fully aware of that. As our ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, recently told Congress, “We are buying time at a cost of the lives of our soldiers.” Unfortunately, the signs that those lives are buying much progress on that front are non-existent. Further, the American public’s patience with the war has already worn out and we have only a few months that we can sustain anything like the current force levels.

Carter figures, therefore, that we simply can’t win and makes the logical conclusion: “If it is true that victory, or anything close to it, lies beyond our reach, we can no longer justify the cost of persevering in Iraq. It is time to begin the long march home.”

The plausible counter-arguments boil down to 1) hoping that al-Maliki and company will finally do what needs to be done on the political front, achieving miraculous results and 2) the consequences of withdrawal would be so catastrophic as to make the steady drip of American casualties the better alternative. The odds on the first are simply too long given the table stakes. The second argument is more powerful, although it’s far from decisive.

Mark Kleiman argues that war opponents should make Crocker’s words their mantra:

If I were Obama or Edwards or Clinton or Reid or Pelosi, I’d put a sentence into every speech, no matter what the topic, and update the figures every day:

    Since Ambassador Crocker said that we were buying time for the Iraqis at the cost of the lives of our soldiers, we have bought XXX (days, weeks, months) for YYY lives. And we’re no closer to peace, let alone victory. When will we have paid enough?

Ultimately, that argument is likely to prevail. That means that we’ll likely have the opportunity in the not too distant future to test counter-argument 2 above.

FILED UNDER: Blogosphere, Congress, Iraq War, National Security, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. We do these things, not because they are hard, but because they are easy. Or something like that.

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    I’ve been in the counter-argument 2 position or thereabouts roughly since the invasion. That’s why I’ve been urging advocates for whatever position to confront the worst case scenarios of those with whom they disagree squarely.

    I continue to believe that regardless of polls, stump speeches, and Senate votes, we’re probably going to have a substantial troop presence in Iraq for the foreseeable future (I have a good story about long-term vs. short-term planning I’ll have to tell you some time). However, my prediction is that if we do withdraw our forces by, say, spring of 2008 and if the worst-case scenario does come to pass, that one of two explanations will be put forward:

    1) well, it would have happened whether we were there or not (obviously untrue but appealing)

    2) we really didn’t believe it would get this bad (possibly the truth)