The U.S. military believes it has dealt devastating and perhaps irreversible blows to al-Qaeda in Iraq in recent months, leading some generals to advocate a declaration of victory over the group, which the Bush administration has long described as the most lethal U.S. adversary in Iraq.
But as the White House and its military commanders plan the next phase of the war, other officials have cautioned against taking what they see as a premature step that could create strategic and political difficulties for the United States. Such a declaration could fuel criticism that the Iraq conflict has become a civil war in which U.S. combat forces should not be involved. At the same time, the intelligence community, and some in the military itself, worry about underestimating an enemy that has shown great resilience in the past.
"I think it would be premature at this point," a senior intelligence official said of a victory declaration over AQI, as the group is known. Despite recent U.S. gains, he said, AQI retains "the ability for surprise and for catastrophic attacks." Earlier periods of optimism, such as immediately following the June 2006 death of AQI founder Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in a U.S. air raid, not only proved unfounded but were followed by expanded operations by the militant organization.
Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, head of the Joint Special Operations Command's operations in Iraq, is the chief promoter of a victory declaration and believes that AQI has been all but eliminated, the military intelligence official said. But Adm. William J. Fallon, the chief of U.S. Central Command, which oversees Iraq and the rest of the Middle East, is urging restraint, the official said. The military intelligence official, like others interviewed for this report, spoke on the condition of anonymity about Iraq assessments and strategy.
For what it's worth, Gen. McChrystal is (via John Cole) not exactly in the best position to be promoting angles on the war in Iraq. But pay no attention to that; if it's framing we need, we'll take it from wherever we can get it. Frankly I think declaring victory over al Qaeda is about the stupidest thing we could do in Iraq or anywhere else...unless of course, it's a prelude to declaring victory in Iraq and leaving. I'm okay with the Bush administration promoting dishonest hackery to get out the war; it would be a bit much at this point to expect them to get out of Iraq with more honesty than they got in.
However, if we remain reluctant to leave, these former captains in the Army have an alternative for us; buckle down and institute a draft:
Even with "the surge," we simply do not have enough soldiers and marines to meet the professed goals of clearing areas from insurgent control, holding them securely and building sustainable institutions. Though temporary reinforcing operations in places like Fallujah, An Najaf, Tal Afar, and now Baghdad may brief well on PowerPoint presentations, in practice they just push insurgents to another spot on the map and often strengthen the insurgents' cause by harassing locals to a point of swayed allegiances. Millions of Iraqis correctly recognize these actions for what they are and vote with their feet -- moving within Iraq or leaving the country entirely. Still, our colonels and generals keep holding on to flawed concepts.
U.S. forces, responsible for too many objectives and too much "battle space," are vulnerable targets. The sad inevitability of a protracted draw-down is further escalation of attacks -- on U.S. troops, civilian leaders and advisory teams. They would also no doubt get caught in the crossfire of the imminent Iraqi civil war.
Iraqi security forces would not be able to salvage the situation. Even if all the Iraqi military and police were properly trained, equipped and truly committed, their 346,000 personnel would be too few. As it is, Iraqi soldiers quit at will. The police are effectively controlled by militias. And, again, corruption is debilitating. U.S. tax dollars enrich self-serving generals and support the very elements that will battle each other after we're gone.
This is Operation Iraqi Freedom and the reality we experienced. This is what we tried to communicate up the chain of command. This is either what did not get passed on to our civilian leadership or what our civilian leaders chose to ignore. While our generals pursue a strategy dependent on peace breaking out, the Iraqis prepare for their war -- and our servicemen and women, and their families, continue to suffer.
There is one way we might be able to succeed in Iraq. To continue an operation of this intensity and duration, we would have to abandon our volunteer military for compulsory service. Short of that, our best option is to leave Iraq immediately. A scaled withdrawal will not prevent a civil war, and it will spend more blood and treasure on a losing proposition.
Though what the men advocate is implied, they are in fact indicating to us that we do have a choice. The occupation of Iraq is unsustainable at present troops levels, and will be even less sustainable as we begin the inevitable drawing down of forces back to pre-surge levels at the beginning of next year. So our choice is simple: get out now, or ante up. You guess which one the American people are up for at this point. I'll give you a hint...it's the one that doesn't involve being in Iraq for another twenty years.