Our civilian leaders have been saying it for months: Iraq is now the center of the war against terrorism. But for just as long, our military leaders have been approaching the battle for Iraq as a small, contained insurgency. November dealt American commanders a blow sufficient to alter their static plans. For months, we have relied too much on winning hearts and minds, and now we need to just focus on winning.
November will be remembered as a particularly bloody month, brightened for the troops — no matter what the media tell you — by the President’s surprise Thanksgiving visit. It was an act of leadership, pure and simple. Dubya’s resolve is being tested, but it isn’t flagging.
We see it again and again. The feeling the troops have for the President — the guys in the worst places, who go in harm’s way — is exactly the reverse of what they felt for Lil’ Billy. They admire him, and cheer him without reservation. Contrast the President’s Thanksgiving drop-in with Miz Hillary’s visit to Afghanistan and Iraq. (Yes, I know Sen. Harry Whatsisname from New Mexico or wherever was with her. He probably felt only a bit better than the troops who were “volunteered” to shake hands with the lady impersonating the author of Living History. Some day we may actually discover who wrote the best selling revisionist history in living memory.) The troops that were turned out to greet her looked like they would rather be alone at midnight in some dark Tikrit alley than smiling for publicity photos. Think how easy it would have been for her to take a tray and sit with the guys in the chow hall, to talk to them and actually learn something from them. But why bother? She wasn’t there to learn, to encourage the troops or bring them a message from home. Hers wasn’t an exercise in leadership. It was to craft campaign tools for 2008.
While Hillary was cornering troops for photo-ops, our Army leaders were taking a page from the Israelis’ book on urban counter-insurgency operations. It’s good because our army commanders in Iraq have been operating in a tactical vacuum for months. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the commander of the Iraq contingent now, has been content to let his men sit in garrison, venturing out on vulnerable patrols, and on “hearts and minds” missions. Now, after bloody November, the tactics have changed.
According to the New York Times‘s latest miscalculation of the situation, “…the new approach appears to be succeeding in diminishing the threat to American soldiers. But it appears to be coming at the cost of alienating many of the people the Americans are trying to win over.” It’s unfortunate that we have to look to the Washington Post for a better view. But the writer is not one of the Post‘s usual suspects. It’s a real soldier.
No one can mistake Gen. Wayne Downing for one of the grumpy old generals such as Barry McCaffrey and Wesley Clark who still insist that the war plan was wrong. They apparently agree that we need a half million troops provided — and commanded — by the U.N. and the Axis of Weasels to make things right in Iraq. Downing is a spec ops guy, a very real soldier who has been there and done that. His point — His point — in an op-ed in Sunday’s Post — boils down to this: win the damned war and worry about hearts and minds later.
Downing says that our new tactic — “well-coordinated cordon and search operations prompted by the best available intelligence; willingness to enter known insurgent strongholds and directly engage the enemy even though these areas might be heavily populated; destruction of insurgents’ homes with smart bombs; and sweep operations that round up all likely suspects and turn them over to trained Arab interrogators…” — is both daring and risky. How will we know if the crackdown is working?
Downing poses four measures of success. Do the insurgent attacks abate? Do we catch Saddam and Izzat Ibrahim, a top aide thought to be planning the insurgent attacks? Does the situation improve enough to establish Iraqi security forces to police the Sunni Triangle? Does the majority of the Sunni population see the light and begin to cooperate with the Coalition to rebuild the country?
Downing’s tests are the best statement yet of what our goals should be in the next year. But as Downing points out, time is not on our side. One warrior-intellectual has been telling me for months that we should be doing what we have now begun to do. That’s the soldier’s view. What the president needs to do is put more heat on our generals to increase the pace. The danger in the passing of time is that the 2004 presidential election will serve as an incentive for the insurgents — for Saddam and his allies in Syria, Iran and elsewhere — to wait us out. If the election goes against Mr. Bush, they know from what the gaggle of Democratic presidential wannabes are saying that they will be able to cut a deal, and from that deal perhaps victory can come for them.
Downing’s measures of success are the mirror image of what the enemy’s have to be. To succeed, Saddam only has to not fail, and this he has not done yet. Saddam’s principal measure of success is the passage of time. Can he stay alive and out of American hands until January ’05? Can the U.N., the EUnuchs and the rest intervene to slow or stop the Coalition’s efforts to defeat the insurgents? Can the Vietnam and Mogadishu models he is trying to copy work by bleeding America long enough to defeat our resolve? Can Saddam and his pals continue to flow money and arms to the insurgents through Syria and other nations to make this so?
We have our measures of success, and the enemy has his. In the midst of a presidential campaign, we are always vulnerable to confusion about our motives, and our resolve. As Gen. Downing said, our new tactic is both daring and risky. To reduce the risk, we have to do more, and faster.