The Enemy of My Enemy
How Sunni insurgents can help us.
It's time to start thinking cold-bloodedly about what we might yet eke out of Iraq.
An intriguing possibility is on display in Anbar province, where U.S. troops have formed an alliance with Sunni insurgents for the common purpose of killing al-Qaida jihadists.
These insurgents were killing American soldiers just a few months ago. They may resume doing so, once this operation is complete. Such is the nature of coalition warfare, especially when our original coalition partners have largely pulled out of the war.
The admittedly unnerving point is, we should be forming these kinds of joint ventures as often, and in as many places, as we can.
The U.S. military has several missions in Iraq, all of which involve stemming the consequences of going to war there—and botching it up so egregiously—in the first place. These missions include bolstering the new Baghdad government, creating civil order, tamping down sectarian violence, and defeating al-Qaida terrorists.
The "surge," which President Bush ordered late last year and is just now being completed, was meant not to achieve a military victory (almost nobody believes that's still possible) but rather to create a zone of security in Baghdad—a bit of breathing space—to allow the Iraqi government's feuding factions to reach a settlement.
By all accounts, the prospect of a settlement seems exceedingly remote. Nor is the surge succeeding in creating a zone of security. It was expected that the surge would trigger a rise in American casualties. The campaign, after all, mobilized thousands of U.S. soldiers out of their large, well-protected bases and into the seething neighborhoods that they were now ordered to protect. They were to engage the enemy close-up, and of course more of them—Americans and the enemy—would die in the process. Bush made this equation clear from the outset.
But it was not expected—and it can only be read as a sign of the surge's failure—that Iraqi civilian casualties would also rise. The point of the surge was to make the civilian population feel more secure. Yet a Pentagon report released Wednesday reveals that civilian casualties now exceed 100 a day, an all-time high.
The insurgents, it turns out, have mounted their own surge, and it seems to be outpacing ours. In a harrowing article in Time magazine, Baghdad bureau chief Bobby Ghosh quotes Brigadier Gen. Joe Ramirez Jr., deputy commander of the U.S. Combined Arms Training Center, as saying, "For every move we make, the enemy makes three. … The enemy changes techniques, tactics, and procedures every two to three weeks."
It may well be that many of the U.S. military's missions simply cannot be completed. Gen. David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, is a highly skilled and creative officer. Some of the most imaginative counterinsurgency specialists are working as his assistants. But sometimes smart people and good strategy can go only so far. An operation also requires sufficient resources and an amenable setting—and those are lacking in Iraq.
However, as the current campaign in Anbar suggests, we may yet make a go of one of the missions—the destruction of al-Qaida in Iraq. This also happens to be, from the vantage of strict U.S. interests, the most vital mission. The Bush administration's most persuasive argument in the debate on Iraq is that a U.S. pullout would embolden al-Qaida's leaders to broaden their campaign elsewhere.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of Iraqi militants by STR/AP Photo.