US and coalition forces scored a significant victory with the elimination of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Al Qaeda's leader in Iraq. But the insurgents quickly retaliated by killing three US soldiers in Iraq – two of them in a barbaric fashion. And Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda's No. 2, came out with a new videotape lauding Mr. Zarqawi's martyrdom and claiming there are many more terrorists to replace leaders who have been killed.
Clearly, the removal of one more terrorist from a leadership position – although a very good thing – is far from the same thing as defeating Al Qaeda in Iraq or elsewhere. Zarqawi's death, as well as the terrorists' responses, raises the question: How is the US performing in the war in Iraq; and, maybe more significantly, in the larger global war on terror (GWOT)?
President Bush and members of his administration often note the Iraqi engagement to be a critical beachhead in the GWOT. One might then assume that a positive outcome in the insurgent war in Iraq brings about a corollary result in the GWOT. But this view is an overly simplified, misleading, and inaccurate measurement of our success in either conflict. Both counterterror and counterinsurgent effectiveness are difficult to gauge, because – unlike traditional warfare – capturing the capital or shutting down military and industrial production doesn't lead to fewer or less lethal attacks.
A number of metrics, such as body counts, group longevity, or estimates of the group's size or influence can indicate success in both types of conflict. But understanding the ultimate goals of winning each conflict dictates how we judge the efforts in combating them more precisely.
For example, in Iraq, is getting the US troops home or leaving the country capable of defending and policing itself while developing a democratic government the real measure of victory? And in the GWOT, is the real goal to wipe out all terrorism in the world, or are we actually trying to mitigate the impact on our nation?
One of the most often used methods for scoring success in Iraq or the GWOT has been the use of body counts. Coalition forces in Iraq herald the numbers of insurgents killed, and terrorists they've imprisoned, or point to the killing of Zarqawi to bolster their position. On the other side, though, are the growing numbers of US troop casualties – now more than 2,500 killed and more than 18,000 wounded.
Ultimately, though, body counts – as we should have learned from Vietnam – are an inaccurate and misleading measurement of effectiveness in terrorist or insurgent conflicts. Body counts alone do not reflect the strength or capabilities of either terrorist or insurgent groups. Rather, killing both fighter and leadership can bolster recruitment to both types of organizations.
Another metric is more helpful in scoring the war in Iraq. The increasing competence of Iraqi internal security is paramount to Coalition and Iraqi success. Recent estimates suggest between 110,000 and 135,000 Iraqi internal security forces are now equipped, trained, and operating in Iraq compared with 30,000 in June 2004 at the transfer of leadership from the Coalition Provisional Authority to the Iraqi interim government. This not only enhances internal security by putting forces in place who speak the language and understand the culture, but it frees up Coalition forces to return home or go on to other missions.
Related is the question of whether these increasingly capable internal security forces are able to deny insurgent control of geographic areas. When the Iraqi public believes the insurgency controls a given area, it undermines the legitimacy of the government. Similarly, where insurgents were at one time able to deny Coalition troops control of an area but later lost that control to Iraqi security forces, the insurgents lost momentum and legitimacy in the public's eyes. Certainly this loss of safe area is part of the reason Zarqawi was betrayed and killed and should be seen as a victory against insurgents in Iraq.
However, this success with internal security in Iraq has almost no corollary impact in the broader GWOT. We may talk of a "war on terror." But terror in the US is a criminal violation and our counterterror efforts domestically must reflect our commitment to operating within the rule of law.
A realistic measure of our triumphs in the GWOT is the reduction of terrorist attacks, both in frequency and intensity. Because domestic efforts and successful countermeasures are so rarely reported – and that's a good thing because it would telegraph our intent or capabilities to the terrorists – we may not see the relationship between these efforts and periods without attack.
Since 9/11, the efforts of the US government – especially the elimination of Al Qaeda bases in Afghanistan – have to be judged as successful by the lack of domestic attacks. Moreover, the terror attacks that have occurred, take London and Madrid for example, are less intense or lethal, and that, too, can be seen as a victory in the GWOT.
While we may be making real headway now in Iraq, no one knows how long it may take to beat back the insurgencies. And the GWOT may be more difficult for Americans.
If we judge our success or failure by our efforts in mitigating attacks against the US, then we've been successful. But if the ultimate goal is to eradicate terrorism from the world – then it isn't just about preventing crime, it is about changing the world's outlook, which requires diplomatic, economic, and social actions in addition to security efforts. If we judge our success against the president's stated goal, our progress in the GWOT has to be seen as less effective than efforts here at home.
• David Brannan lectures on terrorism and homeland security at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif.