December 19, 2007

Iraq is Not a Model

By Jordan W.

Editor’s note: Reader and regular correspondent Jordan W. asked for my opinion on an anti-war essay he wrote. I think it is much more valuable and worth taking seriously than most — though I should note that my overall view is agnostic at this point, despite my initial support and my current approval of General Petraeus’s surge strategy. Jordan gave me permission to publish this, so I’ll let him tide you over while I work on my next long piece about Fallujah. If you don’t agree with the author, please be polite in the comments. Let’s see if a civil and educational discussion about this topic is possible. –MJT

The debate about the Iraq War is not internally consistent: there is no agreement on the proper parameters of judgment. Overlapping debates rage about momentum (whether we're “winning”), the shape of our ultimate goals, “victory”, the importance of any current success or failure, and the accuracy and/or significance of various costs and benefits for Iraq's inhabitants. Beneath this superficial confusion lies a deeper confusion, stemming from Iraq's dual role as both its own war, and as a leading aspect of the Global War On Terror (GWOT). While a victory in the Iraq war can be judged by its final score, we can only judge the Iraq War as a GWOT victory by tallying its consequences from beginning to end. The GWOT's ultimate metric is the prevention of terrorism, so an end state of decreased terrorism may not be a victory if it is preceded by an avoidable ten decades of increased terrorism.

General inability to separate these two dynamics leads to the confusion of a possible victory in the Iraq war with the vindication of Iraq as a model for the GWOT, perhaps along the lines of the National Security Strategy of “pre-emption.” While something that at least feels like victory in Iraq - to Americans, anyway - may be possible, it will not turn the Iraq War as a whole into an effective GWOT strategy. (The 2007 counterinsurgency doctrine may be extracted as a useful set of tactics, however).

Leave the WMD debate aside - Iraq was not a successful pre-emption of terrorism. Depending on your assessment of Iraq prior to 2003, the war serves as either a failed pre-emption that magnified the problems it wanted to solve, or else as the ex nihilo creation of a terrorism outbreak. Either way, the danger of terrorism from Iraq will be greater than before we started for the foreseeable future. A good metaphor for Iraq's role in the GWOT is Hurricane Katrina's role in the urban renewal of New Orleans. Decades later, the cause may be advanced, but that doesn't make it a recommended way to get the job done. The metaphor has its limits - Iraq is worse. Hurricanes are not the human byproduct of bad decisions, and hurricanes do not self-replicate.

It doesn't take a long look at the evidence to judge the Iraq Invasion's effect on terrorism. Terrorism in Iraq began to rise as soon as we arrived. Iraq suffered zero suicide bombings in January 2003, four in April-June 2003, 20 in January-March 2004, 78 in January-March 2005. (“Suicide Terrorism in Iraq: A Preliminary Assessment of the Quantitative Data and Documentary Evidence”. Hafez, Mohammed. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, Vol. 29, Issue 6. Figure 2.)

Two years later, we have killed some of the terrorists our invasion activated, bribed others into acquiescence, and appear to be slowly driving the remainder into hiding. A less violent Iraq is a victory for our soldiers over the alternative of a more violent Iraq. Eleven suicide bombings in October 2007 is a victory over seventy-eight in Q1, 2005 - but not a victory over zero suicide bombings in January 2003. And even if the number returned to zero and stayed there, we would not then break even; we have paid opportunity costs of unnecessary exposure and unnecessary risk.

The best reason that Iraq is no way to run a GWOT is as simple as asymmetry itself. We can't effectively fight as many internal wars in Muslim countries as Al-Qaeda may start, and therefore every 'optional' internal war - like Iraq - is a bad risk. Some quick calculation suggests that Iraq represents 3% of the land surface of Muslim-majority nations, and less than 2% of their population. Yet the number of troops and duration of high-intensity combat required to suppress this one Al-Qaeda “base area” in Iraq has led the US Army to the edge of “breaking”, according to some experts. In combination with other overseas commitments, the percentage of total US ground forces deployed overseas in any year has edged towards 50%. The percentage of available deployed ground forces is much higher. And there's still the other 98% of the world left for Al-Qaeda to fight from within.

How could we replicate the Iraq model - even the successful 2007 one - if Al-Qaeda had seeded three or four full-blown anti-government insurgencies at the same time? Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia - clearly we can't. Instead we've done our best at containing conflicts that we have failed to control. No one from these conflicts has blown up an American shopping mall, so we don't feel our attention to them is inadequate. But there's no reason to assume Al-Qaeda elements in any of these “secondary” conflicts are less of a threat to directly attack the West then the ones we're so flustered about in Iraq. Each of these conflicts constitutes a threat to U.S. citizens for every minute it continues to burn - and probably well beyond any cease-fire or de-escalation.

Some hawks suggest that “we're fighting them in Iraq so we don't have to fight them over here.” This appealing phrase is contradicted by evidence. In 2006, Al Qaeda fought in the slow-burning insurgency in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier and simultaneously planned from the same place to blow up as many as ten US airplanes. Nor did Al-Qaeda's investment in growing Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) prevent major terrorist attacks in several countries between 2003 and 2005. On the contrary, Peter Nasser has documented the prominent role the invasion of Iraq played in motivating the Madrid bombers. (“Jihadism in Western Europe After the Invasion of Iraq: Tracing Motivational Influences from the Iraq War on Jihadist Terrorism in Western Europe”. Nesser, Peter. Studies in Conflict & Terrorism. Volume 29, Issue 4, July 2006. Page 323-342. )

AQI has not attacked in America or Europe. However, the Radisson Hotel bombing conducted by AQI in Amman, Jordan was the highest-profile terrorist attack plotted from Iraqi soil in two decades. Neither the presence nor the anti-terrorism operations of US soldiers in a country eliminates the possibility of international terrorism plots from within. Even if the presence of US soldiers can help intercept a greater percentage of attacks, it may also prompt a higher number of those attacks. It's far from clear that the overall result is enhanced safety.

The bottom line is that unfinished insurgencies in Muslim countries make terrorism incidents more likely, not less. Victory in a local conflagration may reduce the threat of terrorism from locals - but not below the risk level we would find, in some cases, if the war had never occurred. Terrorist groups are born of mass violence and revolutionary change. Nasser's violent police state of Egypt fathered Al-Jihad, which fathered Ayman Al-Zawahiri. The USSR's violent invasion of Afghanistan fathered Al-Qaeda. The violent split of India and Pakistan fathered Jaish-e-Mohammed. Israel's Operation Peace of Galilee fathered Hizballah. Even when these organizations lose, even when they disband, they are not erased. Skills, equipment, veterans, and followers often survive - and some of them go on to lead the next bombing in America. The moral of the story is that mass violence, as the 'gateway drug' of terrorism, needs to be avoided. In many cases, this is not an easy objective to reconcile with our genuine need to deny Al-Qaeda freedom of action - such as in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is also hard to reconcile with an aggressive strategy to break down other terrorism indicators, such as dictatorship. Nevertheless Iraq, circa 2003, is an easy case: avoid optional wars and save capacity for unavoidable ones.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at December 19, 2007 3:52 PM
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