The question of victory against an insurgency boils down to the will of occupier versus the will of occupied. In the case of the Iraq War, the will of America, the occupier, has been exhausted. A withdrawal is the inevitable outcome of a war that has already been lost. We have the materiel, the technology, the weapons, and, on a long enough timeline, we should have the correct skills to battle an insurgency. But the most important weapon in battling an insurgency is not killing insurgents. The most important benchmarks are not reviving local economies, stabilizing government, providing security, or even winning the hearts and minds of the local populace. The most important weapon is resolve. In the face of setbacks, or progress too slow to measure in anything less than years or decades, the ability of the nation to absorb slow progress while the conditions mentioned above are given time to reach effect, is the key to defeating an insurgency.
We can claim victory in Iraq only when those conditions have been met, and not before. The minimum amount of time for this outcome is a decade or more. There has been no progress in Iraq. In fact, there has been nothing but regress. With every day that passes in Iraq, victory is not closer, it is more distant. The will of the American people to support the war having long been exhausted, victory in Iraq is unattainable. Withdrawal is a foregone conclusion. Defeat is a foregone conclusion, but those in power are as unwilling to say so publicly as they fear the people are unwilling to hear it. Everyone, including our president, knows that we have lost the ability to dictate the outcome of the Iraq war. The day the tanks crossed the border from Kuwait, Iraq was lost. The American public had been duped into supporting a war that was painted as a cakewalk and just vengeance for a trauma that shook us to our core. There was no preparation for either battling the insurgency, or preparing the American people for the tough slog ahead. When the war turned sour, against all White House predictions, when weapons of mass destruction and Iraqi involvement in 9/11 dissipated like a puff of air, all that remained was for the American people to admit that invading Iraq was a mistake. Once that admission had been made, there was no case to be made for the type of open-ended commitment necessary to win.
The insurgents knew this. They understood that the only way to defeat the greatest military power the earth has ever seen was to dictate the terms of the battle. Refuse to fight the enemy on its strengths (open engagement), and instead fight a limited war of stealth and deception. They understood that a drawn out insurgency would erode American support for the war at home; that for every Humvee blown up in the desert, there would be another family struggling to equate their loved one’s death with progress, in vain.
The strategies of all the disparate insurgent groups in Iraq, despite what their ultimate aims are, have this one thing in common: bleed the Americans, and they will leave. The circle of insurgent strategy and American will is almost complete. But there is still one man in Washington who could continue to deny the inevitable.
It looks more evident as the days go by that President Bush will not end the war before his term is out, but will instead hand off the conflict to his successor, in his own mind washing his hands of defeat. At least those appear to be his intentions. With the growing cascade of Republican defection to the anti-war flag, he may not be able to wait things out until Inauguration Day 2009. He may not be able to choose to remain willfully stubborn.
Withdrawal being inevitable, the question becomes, what happens when we leave? The answer, of course, is chaos. The spigot of civil war in Iraq will be fully opened upon American withdrawal. Death will be widespread, and the refugee crisis will worsen. It will last for years, and there is a good chance that genocide will be a part of the equation. How, then, is withdrawal morally justifiable? The answer to that is, moral justifications are long past being relevant to what happens on the ground over there. The unchained violence following an American withdrawal short of victory is inevitable, whether it happens at the end of 2007, or 2010. Since victory is unattainable, there is nothing left to be done to prevent accounts from being settled in Iraq. We will try to mitigate the chaos, but it is an open-ended question as to how effective this will be. After all, even at our current commitment, we have been unable to bring peace to Iraq, much less end the insurgency. We will have to live with yet more deaths on our collective consciences. But if the small reach all the deaths in Iraq up to now has had on our psyches is any indication, our ability to deny culpability will surely compensate for the rivers of blood in Baghdad. Like Captain Willard said, “It’s a way we have of living with ourselves. We cut them in half with a machine gun and offer them a band-aid.”
One final question remains. Does the United States have the capacity to defeat an insurgency? The United States has almost unlimited capacity to pursue any objective. And when focused, those objectives are usually met. But ultimately, we are incapable of producing the national will necessary for battling an insurgency on the scale of Iraq. Limited disturbances are one thing. They don’t tax us in blood and treasure, and they tend to stay off the front pages. But in the all-consuming shit storm that is Iraq, even with support for an open-ended commitment, we may be up against our limits.
Two main reasons lead to this conclusion. One: the conflict is on foreign soil. It is far away, almost to the point of being out of sight and out of mind. While those directly involved in the war are acutely aware of its effects, the wider American public is detached, and has been asked to sacrifice nothing to pursue victory. The costs of this war have been great, but are absorbed to the point where the average American is unaffected by them. This leads to the second reason. Two: we can leave and lose, and not only does that scenario leave the United States intact and fundamentally unchanged, it could very well mitigate long term damage. We will be hurt less the sooner we leave Iraq, before the war does reach the point where we are no longer able to absorb it without sacrifices. From a strategic point of view, withdrawing, recouping, and re-distributing our defensive posture makes sense. We will no longer be drained by Iraq, we will begin to regain our international credibility, and we will also be able to commit more forces to Afghanistan, where we are still waging a bloody and very relevant conflict.
The Iraq War was perhaps the greatest strategic blunder in our history. We turned away from battling Al Qaeda, a true but limited enemy, in the process turning it into a brand name of apocalyptic jihad. Al Qaeda is more dangerous to us today than it was on 9/11. It has transcended the caves of Afghanistan and Pakistan and become a rallying symbol, the great battle cry of conflict with the Great Satan. Make no mistake, they were on the ropes in Tora Bora. But our leaders chose to shift focus to an old threat that had been contained in order to settle old grudges and put foolhardy neoconservative thought experiments into practice.
Osama Bin Laden reportedly has never had illusions that he or his cohorts could defeat the United States themselves. Like the insurgents in Iraq, their strategy is more sophisticated. Bin Laden believes that our own leaders’ deficient judgment will be our downfall. While not surprising, it is truly chilling how right he has been. Bin Laden and Al Qaeda’s success hinges on their confidence that our leaders will make poor decisions. Invading Iraq was the poorest decision of all, and somewhere in Pakistan, an evil man must be pleased with all he has seen us do.