US strategy in Iraq: Is it working?
Major sweeps show results in western Iraq. But insurgents keep adapting and attacking.
The US military strategy in Iraq has been consistent for months now: Use aggressive military operations to disrupt the flow of foreign fighters entering the country and the insurgent support lines that run along the Euphrates River west to the Syrian border. Simultaneously, the US is training Iraqi troops to fill the security vacuum that persists in the center and north of the country.Skip to next paragraph
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By any metric of tactical military success, it's working, say analysts. US forces have strung together victory after victory. Marine and Army operations from Najaf in the south to Fallujah in the heart of the Sunni triangle and on to Mosul in the north have ended with thousands of insurgents killed and captured and tons of enemy munitions destroyed with minimal US casualties.
This is what Vice President Dick Cheney probably had in mind when he told "Larry King Live" last week that the insurgency is in its "last throes."
But if another measure of success is used - a reduction in the number and lethality of insurgent attacks - the US and the new Iraqi government are failing. In the past two days, for example, US Marines and Army soldiers carried out Operations Spear and Dagger (designed to disrupt insurgent capabilities between Baghdad and Syria). At the same time, separate suicide attacks killed 20 policemen in the Kurdish city of Arbil and 23 people in a Baghdad restaurant popular with policemen, while insurgents overran a police station in southern Baghdad, killing eight officers.
The gap between tactical victories on the one hand, and few tangible improvements in the overall Iraqi security situation on the other, is creating a widening disagreement over whether the US is winning or losing the war in Iraq.
The Bush administration and its supporters insist the current course is the right one and, given enough time, will succeed. Administration officials say there's anecdotal evidence that more and more Iraqis are turning from the insurgency, as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Fox News on Sunday. The insurgents "are losing the Iraqi people," the US and its allies are "making steady progress," and political developments inside Iraq point to "a strategic breakthrough," she said.
Retired Marine Col. Mackubin Owens, now a professor at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., wrote in a commentary for the New York Post earlier this month that US offensive operations are yielding more gains than many in the press are crediting, and points especially to US efforts in the province of Anbar along the Euphrates River towns that serve as support lines for foreign fighters entering the country for Syria, and for domestic insurgents within the country.
He argues that capture of key insurgent leaders, including up to two dozen lieutenants for the Jordanian Al Qaeda affiliate Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, is yielding intelligence that has had "a cascading effect, permitting the Coalition to maintain pressure on the insurgency."
But the doubters - who anecdotally seem to include a growing number of US forces on the ground - say that Iraq's war is beyond the point where it can be won by force of arms and that "staying the course" is a recipe for a deeper Iraqi quagmire. They see few signs that the conditions for a political settlement, between the country's newly empowered Shiites and its now disenfranchised Sunni Arabs, are emerging. They point to the evidence of mounting attacks, and the increasingly sectarian nature of the violence, to back up their views.
"It's indisputable that the insurgents are enormously more popular among the Sunni Arab community today than they were two years ago,'' says Juan Cole, a professor of Middle Eastern History at the University of Michigan. "Every time you hear a suicide bomb has gone off ... I guarantee you that means there are 3,000 Iraqis who saw the preparations and decided that this would be a good thing."