Winning the Iraq War?

David Sands and Sharon Behn join a growing chorus asking, “Are we winning the war?”

While stopping short of declaring victory, they cite “a growing number of indicators that the fighting has taken a new, more hopeful turn.” Most of them are familiar: lower casualties among American troops and Iraqi civilians, fewer mortar attacks, and the like. Those things tend to be cyclical and could be construed negatively as well — for example, as evidence that ethnic cleansing has done its dirty job or that we’ve given up fighting in certain territories. This, however, is good news:

Iraqi officials say they plan to reduce checkpoints, ease curfews and reopen some roads in and around Baghdad because of the improving security situation. Sunni Arab tribal leaders in western Anbar province, now allied with the U.S. military, say al Qaeda is “almost defeated” in their once-chaotic region.

AQI has been pronounced dead before but this does seem to be a sustained trend. More importantly, if Baghdad really is secure, it means that there’s at least a chance of political progress being made. If the government can’t provide a reasonable amount of security, it can’t deliver basic services and people can’t go about the business of work and everyday life. So, this is a significant matter.

Still, there’s a long way to go:

Despite recent trends, 2007 is the deadliest year for U.S. forces since the war began in March 2003. Even on a day like Monday, considered a relatively quiet one with no reported coalition casualties, at least 33 Iraqis were killed and an equal number wounded in violence around the country.

While declining, the fighting in Iraq has just returned to levels seen before the February 2006 bombing of the Shi’ite shrine in Samarra by extremists — an attack that sent violence between Sunnis and Shi’ites soaring. And ordinary Iraqis say the streets are full of danger, even with the improvement in security.

Then again, until that attack, it looked very much like the war was closing in on achieving its ambitious mission. Iraq had conducted several successful elections, come together on a constitution, and seemed to be closing in on political reconciliation. The Samarra bombing ripped that asunder and set off a long cycle of ethnic violence. Could a similar event do that again? Or has the violence run its course?

With U.S. forces and the weak Iraqi government still facing immense challenges, the central question in the Iraq war debate has shifted from who is winning to how to define victory — a question made even more urgent as the first of the U.S. troops that helped swell the military surge are now being withdrawn.

Mr. Bush himself justified the escalation as a temporary measure to give Iraq’s feuding ethnic and sectarian groups the space to come together on such difficult issues as sharing the country’s oil wealth, disbanding religious militias and amending the constitution.

“When you consider that Iraqi leaders are discussing the same issues today that they were fighting about in 2004, it’s hard to see that the surge led to any forward political movement,” said Brian Katulis, a national security analyst specializing in the Middle East at the Washington-based Center for American Progress. “While the numbers do seem to have come down on the violence, unfortunately the wheels have come off on the Iraqi political transition,” he said.

Baghdad remains a major security challenge; rival Shi’ite factions battle in the streets for power in southern Iraq; and control of the ethnically mixed city of Kirkuk looms as a flash point between the country’s Arab and Kurdish populations. Huge numbers of Iraqis have been driven from their homes, though Iraqi officials say some are finally returning as the violence lessens.

Anthony Cordesman, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in a recent analysis that “victory” in Iraq, however defined, will fall well short of the original hopes of many war supporters. “What is clear is that the military progress of the last 10 months is all too easy to waste at the political level, and that defeating al Qaeda is at best a prelude to dealing with the rest of Iraq’s problems. Time is running out and Iraq’s leaders need to act,” he wrote.

Katulis and, especially, Cordesman are right. Clearly, whatever progress is achieved will fall short of our original, lofty goal of creating a Jeffersonian democratic jewel in the Middle East that would serve as a shining beacon for the region.

The promise of the Surge, though, was that it would lead to improvements in security that would provide room for political progress. The former has happened, although the amount that the Surge contributed to that is disputed. The question now is whether the political follow-on will take place. Thus far, there’s not much evidence.

Then again, reconciliation takes time. It’s not going to happen overnight as if by magic. It hasn’t happened that way even in Western societies (say, the aftermath of the American Civil War or the long “Troubles” in Northern Ireland). We should soon see, though, whether steps in that direction follow. I wouldn’t hold my breath, however.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    However low both military and civilian casualties fall we’re going to need to maintain a substantial troop presence in Iraq for the foreseeable future, as all of the first-tier presidential aspirants of both parties agree. The rate of casualties in Iraq is still too high to be politically sustainable here and realistically speaking we need to expect a certain amount of instability for quite a while, probably a generation or more.

    That’s one of the reasons I opposed the invasion of Iraq to begin with but that die is long cast.

  2. Mike says:

    Dave – I agree – I think anyone who read anything about the operations in Bosnia/Kosovo knew that the Bush/Cheney/Wolfowitz lines of “they will welcome us”, “will only cost $2 billion”, it will be over quickly etc… knew that this was going to be a long protracted war although I don’t think anyone could have guessed at the sheer incompetence of our leadership at running the post-war situation.

    We will be there for many more years and somewhere along the way we will redefine what victory is and take the bulk of our forces out – of course we are talking about many, many billions of dollars later and hundreds of more soldiers killed – and Bush will go down as one of the worst presidents in our lifetime.

  3. Hal says:

    I just marvel at how low the bar has been set. Even so, let’s declare victory, let the war supporters have their day in the sun saying “I told you so” and bring the troops home.

  4. Mike says:

    Hal – don’t you remember – the president already declared victory – “Mission Accomplished” – even so, your right – bring them home.