Defeating Daesh: We’ve Done It Before And We Can Do It Again

The problem of Daesh (or ISIS, ISIL, the Islamic State, etc.) seems to be an impossible one for the Obama Administration to solve. The group that President Obama one idiotically referred to as the “jayvee team” now controls a massive land area in Iraq and Syria. They’ve attacked Paris, attacked America, and will do so again. Yet the Obama Administration and the rest of the world seems powerless to do anything to stop them.

However, we already defeated the Daesh once, eight years ago. We kicked them out of their positions in the western Anbar Province of Iraq, prevented them from holding territory, and killed their leader.

Al-Qaeda In Iraq: The Forerunner of Daesh

Daesh (and I use this term because the bloodthirsty bastards hate anyone who calls them that) sprang out of the infamous al-Qaeda militant Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi. Those who read this blog years ago will remember that name well. al-Zarqawi was a Jordanian-born militant and two-bit thug who ended up at an al-Qaeda training camp before the September 11 attacks. After September 11, al-Zarqawi fled Afghanistan after US troops injured him during the American assault of Tora Bora. From there, he fled to Iraq.

Saddam Hussein’s intelligence service, the Mukhabarat, knew that al-Zarqawi was in Iraq. American intelligence believed that al-Zarqawi received medical care in Baghdad in the spring of 2002 as a “guest” of the Hussein regime. During this time, intelligence differs as to where al-Zarqawi was: the US believed that he was in Iraq or Iran, and Arab intelligence believed he was in northern Syria, and what is now the Daesh heartland.

al-Zarqawi’s first attack against America came when he engineered the murder of USAID administrator Lawrence Foley in Amman, Jordan in 2002. This would be the first attack of many.

After the coalition invasion of Iraq in spring 2003, al-Zarqawi was definitely in Iraq, coordinating attacks against US troops and swearing fealty to al-Qaeda. However, even among terrorists, al-Zarqawi had a reputation for brutality. al-Zarqawi ended up killing more Muslims than anyone else, especially Shi’a. al-Zarqawi viewed Iraq’s majority Shi’ite population as apostates, and murdered them indiscriminately. This caused commotion within the senior leadership of al-Qaeda, so much so that Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s second-in-command, wrote al-Zarqawi in 2005 and told him that his methods were so brutal that he was alienating fellow Muslims.

During the 2005–2006 period, al-Zarqawi’s group was alternately known as “Monotheism and Jihad” or more commonly as “al-Qaeda in Iraq” (AQI). AQI consisted of foreign fighters from across the Sunni world, many of whom came to Iraq from Syria. AQI was also led by former members of Saddam Hussein’s military. These former regime leaders were Sunnis who realized that Iraqi Shi’ites would gladly see them dead for years of repression under the Ba’athist regime.

In this time, AQI seized large amouns of territory in western Iraq, specifically the majority-Sunni al-Anbar Province. Cities such as Fallujah and Ramadi fell to AQI militants, only to be retaken by US forces. During this time, the brutality of AQI alienated the local population. By October 2006, AQI announced the formation of the “Islamic State of Iraq,” led by Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and another militant named Abu Ayyub al-Masri.

How Iraqis and Americans Defeated the First “Islamic State”

In January 2007, just months after AQI became the Islamic State, President Bush announced the “surge” in Iraq. Not only would more US troops be arriving in the restive country, but the rules of engagement would be changing. Instead of US troops only leaving their bases to respond to active battles, US troops would be working closely with the leaders of individual towns and villages to provide security, help repair infrastructure, and build relations between US forces and the people.

The Middle East Quarterly has an excellent article on how the “surge” worked with the native Iraqi “Anbar Awakening” to defeat the first Islamic State:

Within a year of its advent, the Awakening movement had dramatically changed the security situation in Anbar with monthly attacks dropping from some 1,350 in October 2006 to just over 200 in August 2007. By now, the movement had been established on a national basis as the coalition sought to replicate its success in other parts of Iraq. It played a particularly prominent role in improving the security situation in Baghdad as part of the troop surge, helping to slash murders by 90 percent and attacks on civilians by 80 percent, as well as destroying numerous insurgent networks. Its contribution in other provinces was no less substantial: By the end of the year, al-Qaeda leaders admitted that their forces throughout Iraq had been decimated by over 70 percent, from 12,000 to 3,500.

No less importantly, the Sahwa eventually became a tool for promoting sectarian reconciliation and weaning fighters away from sectarian militias.

This strategy worked. A combination of US airstrikes, raids, and Sunni tribes banding together to push the radicals out led to the downfall of the so-called “Islamic State of Iraq.” By 2008, Iraq was relatively stable. While there were still terrorist attacks, they were rarer and less destructive. The Iraqi Government was forced to treat Sunnis more equitably in order to keep the hard-won peace.

A US airstrike killed Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi in the summer of 2006, just before the Islamic State began. al-Zarqawi’s death, however, did not end the cycle of zealotry and brutality he commenced.

The secret to this victory was not only American “boots on the ground” but it involved using those boots effectively. Gen. David Petraeus spearheaded those strategies when he helped reduce violence in the Iraqi town of Tal Afar. Gen. Petreaus and his troops worked closely with local leaders, engaged in regular community patrols, and empowered local leaders to help fight terrorism.

What brought Iraq’s Sunnis into the hands of AQI and the first Islamic State was simple: fear. In Iraq, Sunnis are a 20% minority in the country. The Shi’ite majority was actively engaging in purges of Sunni neighborhoods in and around Baghdad. Iranian-backed radical Moqtada al-Sadr was whipping up a frenzy, pretending that killing Sunnis was necessary to stop the spread of al-Qaeda. While US troops were going after al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, they were also attacking Sunnis in order to fight al-Qaeda. Iraq’s Sunnis embraced al-Zarqawi in the hopes that he would drive away both the Mahdi Army and the Americans.

The brutality of the first Islamic State also helped create its downfall. Instead of bringing peace and prosperity, AQI put Iraq’s Sunni tribes into a Taliban-style hellhole where offenses such as smoking led to vicious punishments. AQI and al-Baghdadi’s thugs viciously attacked those perceived as insufficiently pious to their radical Islamic vision.

The “surge” ended with the defeat of the first Islamic State. It lost its territory, its leadership was scattered, and its appeal was greatly weakened. Had the story ended there, there would not be any Daesh today.

Obama Loses Iraq

The election of Barack Obama changed the equation dramatically. While US troops were scheduled to leave under a “status of forces agreement” (SOFA), that departure was conditional on Iraq remaining secure and the central government in Baghdad continuing to negotiate in good faith with Iraq’s Sunni population. But President Obama had every intention of leaving Iraq on a timeline, irrespective of the security situation. By the time Obama announced the end of US troops in Iraq, violence in Iraq seemed well-contained. Leaving did not seem, at least to Obam’s national security team, like a terrible idea.

In 2010, a US-led raid near Tikrit (Saddam Hussein’s home town) led to the death of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Abu Ayyub al-Masri. The first Islamic State was left temporarily leaderless, without territory, and with most of their leadership dead or in custody.

In December 2011, the last contingent of US troops left Iraq.

Leaving without establishing either a political solution or having a US peacekeeping force in the region was a terrible idea. Iraq’s Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki was not interested in political reconciliation with Iraq’s minority populations. Instead, he continued to marginalize Iraq’s Sunni population from the political process and short-change Iraq’s Sunni provinces on oil revenues that could be used to make life better for Iraq’s Sunnis. Without the stabilizing influence of US forces and active US diplomacy, the situation in Iraq continued to deteriorate.

Meanwhile, the Arab Spring threw the rest of the Arab World into turmoil. The Arab Spring changed the face of the Arab and Muslim world—inspired in large part by the fact that Iraq was a nascent democratic state. Long-standing regimes in Lebanon, Morocco, and Tunisia were overturned. Reactionary forces, both nationalist (Syria, Egypt) and Islamist (Iran, Libya) tried to prevent a wave of democratization from sweeping them away. When the US and other nations eliminated the Libyan regime of Mohammar al-Qaddafi, Islamist forces quickly took root there.

This wave of democratization had not changed much in Syria, at least at first. During the Iraq War, the Syrian dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad had allowed the free flow of weapons and fighters across the Syrian border and into Iraq. This created a powder keg in Syria, just waiting for the right spark to set it off. As the Iraqis pushed out the first Islamic State, many of those fighters ended up going back across the border into Syria. This included key members of the former Hussein regime.

Bashar Assad had reasons to want at least some al-Qaeda or Islamic State presence in Syria. That way, he could argue that his regime was all that stood between stability and turmoil. That argument would be the main argument for the regime in the civil war to come.

In 2011, a young Syrian spray painted anti-Assad graffiti on a wall in the southern city of Deraa, near the Jordianian border, just under 60 miles from Damascus. Syrian regime security forces arrested and severely the young man. In response, the boy’s family burned down the headquarters of the ruling Ba’ath Party and attacked security forces. The Syrian Civil War had begun.

Through 2011 and 2012, the security situation in Syria diminished immensely. As Assad’s fighters (backed by Russia, Iran, and Iraq) brutalized the opposition, they turned a blind eye towards Islamist radicals making their home along the Syria-Iraq border. Again, Assad hoped that by being the lesser of two evils, the Syrian people would choose him over the Islamists.

That strategy failed. Instead, the same radicals that had taken over al-Anbar Province in Iraq years before found a perfect base of operations in northern Syria. They took advantage of the chaos to establish a new capital in Raqaa, Syria. From there, the newly formed Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS, or in Arabic, Daesh) spread like a cancer. It was only by a combination of US airstrikes and Kurdish peshmerga forces that Daesh has recently been rolled back.

What The Defeat of the First Islamic State Teaches Us About Defeating Daesh Today

The defeat of the first “Islamic State” in Iraq should teach us key lessons about what to do today. First, and most obviously, it should teach us that Daesh can be defeated. The same fighters, the same leadership, the same techniques that Daesh uses today were used by the first Islamic State. Yet that first Islamic state lasted only a few years and never managed to hold much territory. Indeed, the First Islamic state was declared in October 2006 and by 2008 was virtually destroyed.

The second lesson is that Daesh cannot be destroyed from the air. Air strikes can degrade Daesh’s leadership, but that cannot destroy a terrorist network that can move easily through the civilian population. The first Islamic State was destroyed because the US was smart enough not only to commit troops, but to use them wisely.

Finally, it was not a matter of US troops staying in remote forward-operating bases and only coming out to fight. Instead, the “surge” followed Gen. Petraeus’ successes in having US troops regularly interact with and gain the confidence of local leaders. When the US kicked out the first Islamic State, US troops followed with resources that helped rebuild those downs that AQI had destroyed or terrorized. Not only did that help keep AQI from coming back, but it allowed us to get valuable intelligence that can only come from listening to people in the community. No satellite system, drone, or spy system can replace having people on the ground and having tea with the local sheik who knows everyone in the area.

The problem today is that those techniques could have stopped Daesh in its tracks in 2013, before they’d gained much territory. It will be a much tougher job today. For one, the Russian presence in Syria means that US-backed forces could be at risk of Russian airstrikes. In order to engage in ground operations in Syria, we would need to have a no-fly zone or at least a coordinated security response with the Russians. That may be difficult at best and perhaps impossible.

The reality is that Daesh is a cancer in the region. If we do not stop Daesh and eliminate it, it will spread once again. That is going to require a protracted US presence in the region for a long time: something like the 30,000 troops in Korea we have had for over 50 years now. But the alternative is worse: already Daesh have launched attacks in the West. They will do so again, and even if those attacks are just more shootings, the effects on the US and our allies would be severe. Worse, Daesh is undoubtedly looking to procure weapons of mass destruction—biological, chemical, or even a radiological “dirty bomb.” While the idea of Daesh getting their hands on a working nuclear weapon seems remote at best, it cannot be fully discounted. If that happens, the effects on the world economy would be a nightmare.

We can defeat Daesh. We have done it before. But it will take a commitment to get the job done, and an understanding that it is a long-term commitment of troops and resources. But it is worthwhile to prevent both a wider war in the Middle East and terrorist attacks here at home.

We learned many hard lessons during the Iraq War, at a cost of too many American sons and daughters. The fact that our political leadership has not digested those lessons less than a decade later should be troubling to every American. But while those who fail to learn from history may be doomed, those who apply history’s lessons can change the course of history for the better.

Can The Iraqis Hold It Together?

Rare is the day that I find that Thomas Friedman has written something actually worth reading, but he manages to deliver an even-handed and even insightful look into the end of the war in Iraq. Of course, he cannot resist putting in a few digs at President Bush, but overall his message is true: the future of Iraq will be decided by whether the Iraqi people can pull their country together.

Friedman writes:

Iraq had its strategic benefits: the removal of a genocidal dictator; the defeat of Al Qaeda there, which diminished its capacity to attack us; the intimidation of Libya, which prompted its dictator to surrender his nuclear program (and helped expose the Abdul Qadeer Khan nuclear network); the birth in Kurdistan of an island of civility and free markets and the birth in Iraq of a diverse free press. But Iraq will only be transformational if it truly becomes a model where Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, the secular and religious, Muslims and non-Muslims, can live together and share power.

As you can see in Syria, Yemen, Egypt, Libya and Bahrain, this is the issue that will determine the fate of all the Arab awakenings. Can the Arab world develop pluralistic, consensual politics, with regular rotations in power, where people can live as citizens and not feel that their tribe, sect or party has to rule or die? This will not happen overnight in Iraq, but if it happens over time it would be transformational, because it is the necessary condition for democracy to take root in that region. Without it, the Arab world will be a dangerous boiling pot for a long, long time.

Friedman thinks that Iraq was a war where the U.S. and Iraq both paid too high a price, but he’s right in pointing out that the war had its benefits. Without the invasion of Iraq, we would not have seen the wave of revolutions across the Arab world that we’re seeing now. The visions of Iraqis going to the polls and choosing their own leaders left an indelible mark on the region. From Tunis to Tehran others in the Arab and Muslim world saw Iraq hold peaceful elections and wondered “why can’t I do this?” It took years to come to fruition, and it is far too early to see whether the Arab Spring will lead to a victory for Islamists or a real democratic movement (or some combination of both). But in the end, one thing was right: the invasion of Iraq marked a turning point.

That’s where the critics of the war in Iraq kept getting it wrong: they assumed that the U.S. and its allies went to war for one reason and one reason only: weapons of mass destruction. But wars are never that simple: and while WMDs were chosen as the primary causus belli for the war, that wasn’t the only one. The war in Iraq was intended to be a transformational moment for the region. It was, but it happened on a far longer timetable than the planners of the war perhaps thought.

I also take issue with the idea that the war was waged “incompetently.” The fact is that we took out Saddam Hussein in a matter of days. Yes, we made plenty of mistakes in the post-war period. But that’s not because the U.S. was incompetent. It’s because the U.S. has not done anything like what it had to do in Iraq before in its history. The U.S. had never engaged in nation building on a scale like it had in Iraq. The analogies to the Marshall Plan ignore the fact that while Europe was devastated by World War II, it has had a tradition of democracy and civil society that has barely existed in Iraq. Of course we were going to screw things up: the most important thing was that we adapted to the situation as it happened. Sadly, the Bush Administration was slower to adapt than it should have, but the fact was that Bush’s embrace of the “surge” (against the political conventional wisdom) was the right choice, which even Friedman now admits.

If we had done what John Kerry would have had us do: abandon Iraq early and leave it to al-Qaeda and Iran, who knows what the Middle East would look like today. Iraq would have been ripped apart by a combination of al-Qaeda and Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias.

The planners of the surge were right in separating Iraq’s Sunnis from al-Qaeda. Once al-Qaeda in Iraq was destroyed by the joint U.S.-Iraqi forces, Iraq’s Shi’ites no longer felt the need to rally around groups like Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army. Instead of trying to force a “political solution” without changing the reality on the ground, President Bush and the U.S. military set the groundwork for a political solution to happen on its own: something that could have only happened once al-Qaeda was defeated.

Now it’s ultimately up to the Iraqis to decide their own fate. The U.S. has left Iraq, and while leaving so completely without at least establishing basing rights in Iraq was an utter failure of the Obama Administration, the mission in Iraq was going to have to transition to Iraqi control at some point. We could not provide a security umbrella in Iraq—otherwise the Iraqis would have had no incentive to develop their own security umbrella.

But there is still a problem: President Obama got his wish. We’re out of Iraq now. And now President Obama will basically ignore Iraq—not that any of the Republican candidates care to engage there either. But right now, as Friedman notes, Iraq is in a state of transition that could either lead to a chance at a lasting democracy or a renewed civil war, At the very least we should be active in getting both sides to negotiate rather than start to rearm sectarian militias.

Right now, Iraq’s future is in grave trouble: the Shi’ite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has accused Iraq’s Sunni Vice President of being involved in terrorism and is threatening to upset the delicate political balance that has kept the peace in Iraq. The arrest warrant for Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi threatens to split off the Sunni Iraqiya bloc, and since al-Hasmemi fled to Iraqi Kurdistan, it may lead to tension with the Kurds as well. If that happens, then Iraq could all too easily fall into civil war once again.

If President Bush were President, there would be extensive shuttle diplomacy going on to cool these tensions: but President Obama seems blithely uninterested in the long-term peace in Iraq. That mistake threatens to undo everything that more than 4,000 brave Americans fought and died to achieve.

We did pay a high price to bring a hope for democracy to Iraq, but what was achieved there could be transformative for the region and for the world. But if we neglect Iraq, we risk losing everything. It may be ultimately up to the Iraqis to shape their own future, but we cannot pretend that we’re not interested in the results, and we should not abandon them when we could help them create and maintain a stable and civil society.

Liveblogging Obama’s Iraq Address

I’ll be liveblogging President Obama’s address to the nation on the topic of Iraq. This will be a new kind of liveblog for this site. Updates will happen automatically, there’s no need to refresh the page. Don’t forget to read about Obama’s record on Iraq. After the speech, I’ll be assembling some commentary from around the blogosphere.

You can also follow the liveblog on my Twitter feed if you are so inclined.

6:24 pm I’m ending the liveblog for now. Click here to see some post-speech reactions from across the blogosphere.
6:20 pm This was a speech that sounded very much like something Bush would have given. Again, I mean that as a compliment.
6:19 pm “Our troops are the steel of our ship of state.” I love that line.
6:18 pm Obama seems to be getting a bit emotional describing the casualties of this war. As anyone would be. It’s very humanizing.
6:17 pm The stuff about a new GI Bill is nice, but how to pay for all of it?
6:15 pm The economic stuff seems tacked on and artificial. The Iraq section was quite good, but this part doesn’t live up to the tone that Obama set earlier.
6:13 pm Obama’s transitioning to the economy. This makes sense, to a point, but it’s a jarring transition.
6:12 pm The problem with Afghanistan is that it’s much less developed than Iraq was. Afghan civil society is nowhere near what Iraq’s was, even after decades of Ba’athist rule.
6:11 pm This is a speech I could see Bush giving. And I mean that as a compliment.
6:09 pm President Obama gives a nice tribute to President Bush. That’s quite classy, but will piss off the left to no end. I like it for both.
6:09 pm So far this is one of the most Presidential addresses that Obama has given.
6:08 pm “Iraqis are a proud people. They have rejected sectarian war.”
6:07 pm All U.S. troops to leave by the end of next year, pursuant to the Status of Forces Agreement.
6:06 pm “Our combat mission is ending. Our commitment to Iraq’s future is not.” Let’s hope that’s true.
6:06 pm The emphasis on the Iraqi people is good. This wasn’t just a victory for us, it was a victory for the people of Iraq. We did this together.
6:05 pm No, Mr. President, this wasn’t your campaign promise. The withdrawal date was set before you became President. It was in the 2008 SOFA.
6:04 pm “Tonight, I am announcing that the American combat mission in Iraq has ended.” Operation Iraqi Freedom is over.
6:04 pm The President’s tone in regard to the troops is exactly what’s needed here. He came close to blaming Bush, but didn’t do so directly.
6:01 pm Will talking about Iraq now make Obama seem out of touch? By focusing on Iraq, does it make the President look like he’s not concentrating on the economy?
6:00 pm The speech should begin shortly.
5:58 pm I’m guessing that ratings will be low for this speech. It’s the middle of summer, and people are more concerned about the economy than Iraq.
5:53 pm This is only the second time Obama has addressed the nation from the Oval Office. The first time was in response to the Gulf oil spill.
5:52 pm ABC News has excerpts from tonight’s speech on Iraq. President Obama will be speaking from the Oval Office.
5:46 pm Just a reminder, you don’t need to refresh this page. You should be able to get updates automatically. Obama’s speech will begin in about 15 minutes, at 8PM EST/7PM CST.

Post-Speech Reactions

This was a workmanlike speech that was delivered well. What’s striking about the speech is how much President Obama sounded like President Bush. Some of the rhetoric was downright stirring. I’m (obviously!) disinclined to like the President, but I found myself mostly liking this speech. But the weakest part was the part discussing the economy. For one, it was a digression from the topic of the speech. And for another, it was too generic to mean anything. What does Obama intend to do about the economy? Because what’s been done so far hasn’t exactly done much good. Stephen Green drunkblogged the speech and found it rather bland, other than some stirring rhetoric. I’m not so sure that it was that bad—the President let himself show just a crack of emotion, which helps him. Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) found Obama’s speech to be “awkward”. Apparently Rachel Maddow is positively livid that President Obama had anything good to say about President Bush. I have to admit, if Obama’s pissed off Maddow, that makes me like him more. Lawprof William Jacobson distills Obama’s speech into one sentence. At The Daily Kos, praise for the economic section of the speech. What’s interesting about that section is how mushy-mouthed it really is? Exactly what is meant by the President’s desire to “strengthen the middle class?” It’s a boilerplate phrase, which is probably why some want to read more into it than is actually there. Off-topic, but tonight’s liveblogging was brought by this great liveblogging plugin for WordPress. It’s a great plugin, and the Twitter integration was a definite plus. I highly recommend it. In speaking of Twitter, the speech wasn’t even one of the trending topics. I’m not sure very many people were paying attention to it. Jonah Goldberg found much of the speech to be “offensive.”

Obama On Iraq: Setting The Record Straight

Tonight, President Obama will speak to the nation about the end of combat operations in Iraq. I’ll be liveblogging the speech here. I’ll be using a new system for liveblogging — as I liveblog the speech, you’ll be able to follow along without the need to reload the page. I’ll also be sending out liveblog updates through my Twitter feed.

Setting the Record Straight

An Iraqi woman raises a purple finger after voting for the first time in a free Iraqi election.

But first, it’s important to set the record straight. We would not be able to be removing our combat troops from Iraq had we not successfully quelled the sectarian violence in Iraq. In short, without the surge back in 2007, Iraq would not be nearly as stable as it is now. The surge worked. It reduced sectarian violence.

Because the U.S. worked with Sunni leaders, Iraqi Sunnis helped us remove al-Qaeda in Iraq. This lead to the death of al-Qaeda leaders like Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi and more recently Abu Omar al-Baghdadi. While there are still al-Qaeda affiliated splinter groups in Iraq, they are nowhere near as powerful as they were in 2007.

Because the threat of al-Qaeda in Iraq was eliminated, the radical Shi’ite groups lost support. Iranian-backed radicals like Moqtada al-Sadr couldn’t use the fear of al-Qaeda to win over Iraqi Shi’ites. Instead of leading a Shi’ite civil war, Moqtada al-Sadr ended up being discredited. His band of thugs, the Mahdi Army, are no longer a major threat to the future of Iraq. Al-Sadr himself was forced to flee to Iran out of fear.

All of this was due to the surge—not just the fact that we added more troops, but we used better tactics to protect the Iraqi people and improve their security and their living conditions.

There are two reasons why Iraq never flew into civil war in 2007: the bravery of the Iraqi people and the bravery of the U.S. and coalition troops.

The Real Obama Record On Iraq

Notably absent from these reasons in President Obama. His record on Iraq is a record of being fundamentally wrong from the beginning. Then-Senator Obama was an ardent opponent of the surge from the very beginning. He is on record as saying that not only would the surge not work, but the added troops would have increased tensions in Iraq.

As a candidate, Obama strongly opposed the surge throughout 2007 and into the 2008 campaign. His position was that the U.S. should begin immediately removing troops from Iraq. Had President Bush listened to Obama then, there would have been a power vacuum in Iraq that would have turned the country into another Somalia.

In fact, Obama had said that even after it was clear that the surge was working, he still would have opposed it.

But Obama has subsequently changed his tune. He tried to scrub his prior criticisms of the surge from his campaign web page. And it would be only a few years after Obama ripped the concept of the surge to shreds that he would endorse the very same policy—but that time applying it to Afghanistan. President Obama may have opposed the surge when he was a candidate, but now he seeks the credit.

He deserves little credit. He can’t say that he fulfilled any campaign promise to withdraw from Iraq: in fact the timetable for US withdrawal was set before Obama took office. It was the 2008 Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that set the withdrawal date, not President Obama. Regardless of who had won in 2008, the situation would be the same. It was the surge that allowed the U.S. to draw down its forces in Iraq without creating a dangerous power vacuum that would have destabilized the entire region.

Now, if President Obama gives full credit to the troops without politicizing the issue, he’ll have set the right tone. But Obama’s statements must be set against Obama’s record on the war. He was wrong on the surge. The surge worked. The security of the Iraqi people was a necessary precondition to any political rapprochement. Obama’s preference for a “diplomatic surge” would never have worked.

No matter what Obama says tonight, the real heroes in this conflict and the American, coalition, and Iraqi soldiers, police, and security forces that put their lives on the line day in and day out to secure a better future for Iraq. If the President acknowledges this, he deserves credit. But if he tries to spin Iraq into a political victory for himself, it will backfire on him. This isn’t Obama’s victory, this is a victory for Iraq. We should never let the President forget that.

What Victory Looks Like

ABC News finds that Iraqis are more secure and more supportive of democracy. Security is a necessary prerequisite to any kind of political reconciliation, and it’s now looking like the Iraqi people really do feel more secure. For example, the poll found:

While deep difficulties remain, the advances are remarkable. Eighty-four percent of Iraqis now rate security in their own area positively, nearly double its August 2007 level. Seventy-eight percent say their protection from crime is good, more than double its low. Three-quarters say they can go where they want safely – triple what it’s been.

Few credit the United States, still widely unpopular given the post-invasion violence, and eight in 10 favor its withdrawal on schedule by 2011 – or sooner. But at the same time a new high, 64 percent of Iraqis, now call democracy their preferred form of government.

While it would be nice to be popular in Iraq, what we have achieved through the surge is what needed to be achieved. The goal of the surge: to provide enough security to prevent Iraq from exploding was met. The surge worked. It not only created a more secure Iraq, but thanks to our willingness to work with all sides, it has dramatically reduced sectarian tensions. The surge did exactly what it was supposed to do, and it represents one of the most important military turnarounds in the history of counterinsurgency. Future military leaders will be studying the tactics of great military minds like Gen. Petraeus and Col. H.R. McMaster for years to come.

Now, imagine an alternate scenario where John Kerry was elected President in 2004. He would have pulled U.S. troops from Iraq, leaving the country defenseless. An Iraqi civil war would have been inevitable. The Iraqi Shi’a would have looked to Iran for protection from al-Qaeda. Iraqi Sunnis would have banded either with al-Qaeda or looked to the Saudis and other fellow Sunnis for protection from the Iranians. The Kurds in the north would be fighting a pitched battle against both al-Qaeda and Iran.

For all the talk about how terrible a war Iraq was, it could have been much worse. Had Kerry been elected, it almost certainly would have.

Had now-Vice President Biden gotten his way and split Iraq down sectarian lines, the result would have been much the same. Iraq would be divided, and soon conquered.

Biden, now-Secretary of State Clinton, President Obama, Sen. Reid, Rep. Pelosi, all of them were wrong on Iraq. None of the advances that have been made in the past two years would have happened had they gotten their way. There should be a lesson in that.

Iraq still has a long period of transition. Other, more mundane problems like corruption and government efficiency still pose a threat to its future. But the days when terrorists threatened to destabilize the country are now over—and if we continue to meet our commitments to the Iraqi people and continue to train their military and government leaders, those terrible days will be over forever.

But peace is a tenuous thing. If Obama withdraws American troops in an irresponsible manner, the gains we’ve made could be lost as al-Qaeda, the Sadrists, or other groups exploit the vacuum. We must withdraw with full cognizance of the situation on the ground and be prepared to alter our timetable as necessary.

We have won in Iraq, and we should not ignore the lessons we have learned. Future conflicts in the 21st Century will look much like the one in Iraq, and we must be prepared to fight them—and we must also be willing to learn that the model of Iraq may not fit elsewhere as easily. What we need in Afghanistan is the same kind of visionary leadership that we had on the ground in Iraq as well as a political structure back home that will listen to them. President Obama should learn from President Bush’s mistakes and understand that the path to victory should be dictated by the theater of battle, not the politics of Washington.

So Much For The Whole “Change” Thing…

President-Elect Obama has unveiled his national security team, and it’s hardly what his supporters would have suspected. Hillary Clinton gets the thankless job of Secretary of State, ensuring that she’ll never be President and keeping her well away from Washington. Robert Gates remains as Secretary of Defense, meaning that the chances of Obama “ending” the war in Iraq any sooner than McCain would have seem slim. Former General Jim Jones, who probably would have served in a McCain Cabinet, will be National Security Advisor.

Putting Clinton in as Secretary of State is an excellent way that she’ll be sidelined for the next four years. Secretaries of State tend not to have political careers after their service, mainly because it is nearly impossible to build up political capital when you’re rarely in the US. Not only that, but Obama knows quite well that the position will not be a very happy one. Tasking her with something like the Israel-Palestine crisis is Obama’s way of ensuring that she’ll be set up to fail from the beginning.

Keeping Gates at Defense is a smart move. The military was quite pro-McCain, and is suspicious of what Obama’s brand of “change” will be. There is little doubt that Obama will not pull us out of Iraq any faster than McCain or Bush would have. The war is largely won, and the media will happily ignore what bad news there is. The anti-war faction was played for the fools they are—Obama’s policies towards Iraq will be the same as if Bush got a third term, and keeping Gates is just one sign of that. It’s bad news for the Kossacks and Code Pink, but a smart move on the part of the President-Elect.

Gen. Jones is a strong pick for NSA. Obama needs military advisors who aren’t Wesley Clark, and Jones’ records seems relatively strong. That pick is another sign that Obama will not pull out of Iraq on an arbitrary timetable. It would be even better if Obama put Gen. Petreaus on the Joint Chiefs and Col. H.R. McMaster in at CENTCOM—it would drive the left nuts, but it would also be a continuation of Obama’s independent-minded defense policy choices.

Janet Napolitano and Eric Holder are less strong picks. Napolitano has a mixed record on immigration, and it doesn’t look like Obama has much interest in defending this nation against illegal immigration—not when they can be used to buttress Democratic numbers through voter fraud. Eric Holder made some very questionable choices with the pardon of Marc Rich, and is anti-Second Amendment. Both, however, will be confirmed, and probably by a large margin.

The Obama national security team does not stand for “change”—which is a reassuring move on his part. In a time of turmoil, making dramatic moves like pulling out of Iraq is not smart policy. Instead, Obama seems to be making pragmatic moves when it comes to foreign policy. Rather than providing a clear break with the policies of the Bush Administration, Obama is likely to continue many of them, including the Bush Doctrine.

Unsurprisingly, Victor Davis Hanson puts it adroitly:

I think we are slowly (and things of course could change) beginning in retrospect to look back at the outline of one of most profound bait-and-switch campaigns in our political history, predicated on the mass appeal of a magnetic leader rather than any principles per se. He out-Clintoned Hillary and followed Bill’s 1992 formula: A young Democrat runs on youth, popular appeal and charisma, claims the incumbent Bush caused another Great Depression and blew Iraq, and then went right down the middle with a showy leftist veneer.

At least in foreign policy, that may be the case. But the reality is that even if Obama really wanted radical change, it would be politically suicidal to do so. The world is dangerous, and getting more so by the moment. Obama the freshman Senator could play fast and loose, but President Obama will not have that luxury. Why the left may hate it, the “change we need” in terms of foreign policy may end up looking much more like “staying the course.”

The Slow Death Of Moqtada Al-Sadr

The New York Times reports on the Mahdi Army’s slow destruction in Iraq. Moqtada al-Sadr, once one of the most powerful men in Iraq, and Tehran’s favorite agent, has all but disappeared from the world stage. His Jaish al-Mahdi “militia” has also largely disappeared. Their control over Iraqi life and politics has faded, and even in Sadr City (name for Moqtada’s wiser father), the Mahdi Army no longer have unfettered control.

There is no doubt that this is a phenomenal success, driven in large part by the Iraqis themselves. Al-Sadr’s band of thugs were a major threat for the last four years, and it is only because of the gathering strength of the Iraqi Army and government that the Sadrists have been sidelined.

The surge was also a major contributing factor. What was driving the Shi’ite militias was fear: the Shi’a had every reason to fear that groups like al-Qaeda would kill them. Decades of being ground under Saddam Hussein’s bootheel was enough to teach them that survival could only be found in strength. The Mahdi Army offered protection when no one else could. Even though they were thugs and criminals, they had their uses.

As al-Qaeda in Iraq was defeated, there was no longer a need for the Mahdi Army. They did not offer protection, but became little more than a greedy criminal syndicate. As the Times explains:

One young man said that even though his house was right across from a distribution center that sold cooking gas, he was not allowed to buy it there at state prices, but instead was forced to wait for a militia-affiliated distributor who sold it at higher prices.

“We had to get our share of the cooking gas from Mahdi Army people,” Um Hussein said. “Now, everything is available. We are free to buy what we want.”

Small changes like freeing up the supply of cooking oil can make a huge difference. These are signs that the new Iraq is being born. This new Iraq will not be free of problems—if anything it faces great long-term challenges like fighting corruption—but it is not the country on the brink of civil war that it once was.

It wasn’t all that long ago that this war was declared to be lost, and weak-willed politicians were calling for Iraq to be handed over to men like Moqtada al-Sadr. For all the mistakes that were made in Iraq, the one mistake that was thankfully not made was to give in to pessimism and fear. Even a dangerous man like Moqtada al-Sadr is nothing compared to the will of a people to live their lives free of fear and intimidation.

Tough Words, Weak Logic

Barack Obama has written an op-ed in The New York Times previewing his strategy in the Global War on Terrorism. The first thing to be noted is how suspect the timing is. Later this summer, Sen. Obama is planning to finally return to Iraq and get a first-hand look at the country and meet with the commanders in the field. By releasing his position now, it suggests that he should avoid expending the CO2 since he has apparently already decided his policy. To publish this piece now is not only bad timing, but insulting to the commanders on the ground who could have advised him.

Were his policies actually sound it would be one thing—but Sen. Obama makes the same predictable mistakes that Democrats keep making, and contradicts his own positions more than once:

In the 18 months since President Bush announced the surge, our troops have performed heroically in bringing down the level of violence. New tactics have protected the Iraqi population, and the Sunni tribes have rejected Al Qaeda — greatly weakening its effectiveness.

But the same factors that led me to oppose the surge still hold true. The strain on our military has grown, the situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated and we’ve spent nearly $200 billion more in Iraq than we had budgeted. Iraq’s leaders have failed to invest tens of billions of dollars in oil revenues in rebuilding their own country, and they have not reached the political accommodation that was the stated purpose of the surge.

Sen. Obama said that the surge would fail and that there was no long-term military solution. Like the rest of the Democratic leadership, he misunderstands the purpose of the “surge.” Security is an absolute prerequisite to political reconciliation. People who have every reason to fear their neighbors have no reason to engage in political compromise. Obama’s policies would have taken Iraq into utter chaos. Without the breathing room that the surge provided, Iraq’s descent into civil war would have continued unabated. On the surge, Sen. Obama was categorically wrong, while Sen. McCain’s political bravery was constant and recent events have vindicated his then-controversial stand.

As I’ve said many times, we must be as careful getting out of Iraq as we were careless getting in. We can safely redeploy our combat brigades at a pace that would remove them in 16 months. That would be the summer of 2010 — two years from now, and more than seven years after the war began. After this redeployment, a residual force in Iraq would perform limited missions: going after any remnants of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, protecting American service members and, so long as the Iraqis make political progress, training Iraqi security forces. That would not be a precipitous withdrawal.

We may be able to remove our troops in 16 months, but only if the conditions support it. To do otherwise is irresponsible. Obama’s insistence on an arbitrary timetable is much like Prime Minister Maliki’s—unrealistic, designed for domestic consumption, and quickly to be abandoned.

There is little doubt that the security gains are making a withdrawal more tenable each day—and now Sen. Obama is going against his own position his own policy of “immediate” withdrawal and embracing a weakened plan that will likely happen regardless of who takes office. It is a better bet for the country to embrace someone who was right from the beginning than someone who is running against their own policies from only a few months ago.

Sen. Obama also misunderstands the conflict in Afghanistan as well:

Ending the war is essential to meeting our broader strategic goals, starting in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the Taliban is resurgent and Al Qaeda has a safe haven. Iraq is not the central front in the war on terrorism, and it never has been. As Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently pointed out, we won’t have sufficient resources to finish the job in Afghanistan until we reduce our commitment to Iraq.

If Afghanistan is not the central front in the war on terror then al-Qaeda was unaware of that “fact” as they themselves believed that it was. Sen. Obama forgets that al-Qaeda is an Arab group. It’s heart is not in Afghanistan, but in the Arab world. Obama’s plan to defeat al-Qaeda by reinforcing Afghanistan is analogous to saying that you would raid the gangsters at their hideout after they had already left.

The rise in violence in Afghanistan is a byproduct of our victory in Iraq. The skills we have learned in years of vigorous counterinsurgency will serve us well in Afghanistan and in future conflict. We do need to reinforce Afghanistan, but not because of al-Qaeda. The Taliban are a threat, but only to the Afghans. We have a moral imperative to help them, but that does not make Afghanistan central to this war.

Pakistan is the major breeding ground for al-Qaeda, and the reason that it is that al-Qaeda knows we can’t risk the fall of the Musharraf government to take them out. Thanks to Pakistan’s nuclear capability, no sane President would authorize a cross-border raid and risk the outbreak of World War III unless absolutely necessary. Having troops in Afghanistan at best puts them closer to al-Qaeda, but as close as that border may be, it is still too far to do much good.

A truly enterprising journalist would ask Sen. Obama why al-Qaeda would risk going into Afghanistan, a country that is crawling with US and allied troops, when Pakistan offers them a relatively safe haven. Sadly, few journalists are that enterprising.

In this campaign, there are honest differences over Iraq, and we should discuss them with the thoroughness they deserve. Unlike Senator McCain, I would make it absolutely clear that we seek no presence in Iraq similar to our permanent bases in South Korea, and would redeploy our troops out of Iraq and focus on the broader security challenges that we face. But for far too long, those responsible for the greatest strategic blunder in the recent history of American foreign policy have ignored useful debate in favor of making false charges about flip-flops and surrender.

For a poker player, Sen. Obama has an obvious tell. Whenever he talks about something negative his political adversaries are saying about him, chances are he is telegraphing his own political weaknesses. The facts remain, Sen. Obama’s position up until it became political expedient was that we should surrender in Iraq. He changed his position when it he needed to paint an image of himself as being tough on terrorism. The American public cannot be sure where the political winds may take Sen. Obama. If the going gets tough in Afghanistan (as it likely will), can we trust Barack Obama not to give in?

Sen. McCain took a politically brave stand when it was not expedient for him to have done so. He took the heat because he was willing to stand on principle. While Barack Obama pre-judged the surge (as he now pre-judges the current situation), John McCain stood firm. McCain demonstrated political bravery, while Sen. Obama continues to change his position.

There is a reason why so many more Americans trust John McCain as Commander in Chief—because McCain has already shown a willingness to take the hard stands. Behind Obama’s rhetoric lies the reality of a neophyte politician who doesn’t want the facts to get in the way of his spin. We don’t need more of that in Washington. A true leader takes a stand based on a principle higher than political ambition. McCain has consistently done so, and that is why for all of Sen. Obama’s tough words, his logic is weak.

As Iraq Lifts Itself Up, Some Stick To The Script

Even as terrorists try to their best to sow fear, the signs of a major turnaround in Iraq continue as the inertia in the conflict now favors stability rather than violence.

Al-Anbar Province, once the center of violence in Iraq and a pipeline for terrorists, guns, and money is now a place of relative tranquility. The reason is simple: US resolve helped empower Iraqis to fight terrorism:

The U.S. military assault on Fallujah in 2004 yielded a significant U.S. victory both in moral and tactical terms, David Bellavia, a former staff sergeant with the U.S. Army who served with the First Infantry Division for six years, said in an interview.

“I call it my generation’s Normandy because it identified for the enemy what the American fighting man was all about,” he said. “They completely underestimated us and had this idea that because we couldn’t use our technology, we wouldn’t have intestinal fortitude to see the battle through, but this is what ultimately delivered us.”

In 2005, Bellavia received the Conspicuous Service Cross, the highest award for military valor in New York state. He is also the author of “House to House,” which chronicles the Battle of Fallujah in graphic detail.

The Rumsfeld strategy, while based on a sound premise, was ultimately based on the wrong premise. The worry was that more troops would mean more casualties, which emphasized the worries of American politicians rather than what really mattered—the security of Iraqi civilians. Even during the darkest days of the war, brave and resourceful military commanders like Col. H.R. McMaster were developing the tactics to fight and win in Iraq. In Fallujah, we demonstrated that we would not back down. That lesson was brought home time and time again, until finally the Iraqis started joining our side. Once that began to happen in a significant fashion, al-Qaeda was damned.

This ABC News report puts the usual spin on the good news: sure, violence is down, but will it last. What the media, Sen. Obama, and the rest of the antiwar partisans fail to understand is that the reduction in violence is the direct result of our fortitude on Iraq. For all of the President’s legion of faults, especially in the conduct of this war, his stubbornness may have saved Iraq from a humanitarian nightmare that would make Darfur look like nothing. His stubbornness and our military’s skill, combined with the bravery of the Iraqi people have paid off with a great peace dividend.

This peace will last so long as national reconciliation is in the interest of all the parties. The Sunnis are outnumbered. They tried violent resistance and were nearly ethnically cleansed. The Shi’ites also know that violence does not help them. They have political leverage, and because of that they have the most to lose if Iraq flies apart. They may have the numeric superiority, but if they start a civil war, the Sunnis will end up back in bed with al-Qaeda, and even if the Shi’ites win, it will be at a great cost, and would cause Iraq to fall into the hands of the Iranians. Iraqi and Iranians share a common religion, but nothing else.

Iraq can be peaceful, not because of some noble ambition, but because of enlightened self interest—and that is the most powerful force in the universe.

Yet all this could be undone by a public more interested in bread and circuses than world peace. The Democratic Party, by playing to the basest isolationist and xenophobic interests, is threatening the progress that has been made. A premature withdrawal from Iraq would undermine all this progress. If the US leaves, the Iraqis cannot yet keep the peace. A US presence is a necessity to provide the Iraqis with the security needed for progress. The argument that the US presence somehow undermines Iraq’s progress is ridiculous on its face—Iraq has made great political progress, and that progress is only possible because the Iraqis have security. If the Iraqi people cannot be secure in their homes, how can they possibly be expected to trust each other? I, for one, would love to see Sen. Obama spin his way out of that question.

Contrary to the ignorant and arrogant arguments that Iraqis are not pulling their weight, they are making great strides towards restoring the greatness of the nation of Iraq. Day by day, the Iraqis that work towards the betterment of their nation and fight against terror bring Iraq closer to the days when Baghdad can once again be a center of learning and commerce and a great world city.

We in America must never belittle their sacrifice. In a spirit of solidarity, we must continue to support our Iraqi allies in their fight against terror and oppression. Instead of giving them up, we should continue to support their struggles—after all, we were once a struggling young power as well.

It is fair to ask what we are fighting for. What we are fighting for in Iraq is this: that one day a joint US-Iraqi biotechnology venture can discover a cure for cancer, AIDS, or another terrible affliction. That some day, in a place like Darfur, US and Iraqi peacekeepers can work alongside each other again to restore another war-shattered country. That some day, Iraq will become a brother nation to us, an ally as great as those we liberated 60 years ago.

That dream is within the grasp of both the people of the United States and Iraq—but only if we do not let our short-term politics interfere.

The Other War In Iraq

Instapundit has a lengthy note from a Colonel in Baghdad on the recent fighting in Basra. He observes that the driving force in that conflict was not Moqtada al-Sadr, but the lack of services being provided by the Iraqi Government. Indeed, that highlights a bigger issue: over the long term, the biggest problem in Iraq isn’t terrorism. Al-Qaeda in Iraq has been largely crushed. Moqtada al-Sadr was forced to cry uncle and is viewed by all as an Iranian stooge. While there are still acts of violence in Iraq, they’re less and less the sort of organized attacks that we’ve seen over the course of the war.

The real issue is going to be corruption. The biggest roadblock to democratization is corruption, and it’s endemic in Iraq. The Iraqis have a source of revenue in oil, and it’s enough to sustain their development. The problem is without a system of accountability and transparency, that money won’t go to where it’s needed.

Over time, we’re going to need a new “surge”—but one that focuses on working with the Iraqi government to stop corruption. We’re in a unique position to help, and working alongside the Iraqis we need to develop systems that help make sure money goes to where it is truly needed and those that steal from the Iraqi treasury are brought to justice.

Most NGOs focus on issues other than helping improve the rule of law in foreign nations—and it seems counterintuitive to think that accountants rather than aid workers can truly help developing nations. Yet, if a nation is to transition successfully from autocracy to democracy, fiscal accountability is absolutely crucial. Many democratizing states fail to democratize because the government does not act with accountability to the people, which causes the people to lose faith in government.

The US needs to work with NGOs like Transparency International and the Iraqi government to create a more democratic and accountable political and financial system for the Iraqi people. We have made great strides in terms of fighting terrorism and providing security—yet that alone won’t be enough to make Iraq a strong and functional nation. The future of Iraq hinges on the ability of the government to provide critical services while remaining accountable to the people. If it cannot do this, then the Iraqi people will be forced to turn to militia leaders for help, and Iraqi society will fragment. This does not have to come to pass, but in order to prevent it we have to start looking beyond basic security and towards governmental reform.