November 10, 2005
Winning the War in Iraq
(This major policy address was delivered at the American
Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.)
The past weeks in Iraq have filled our news with numbers. 10 million
Iraqis streaming to the polls to determine their future democratically.
A new constitution, enshrining fundamental rights, approved across
the country by a 4 to 1 margin. Two Sunni-dominated provinces
dissenting. Over 2,000 Americans killed in action since the war
all being counted: the number of safe areas, daily attacks, billions
spent per month, days left until the December 15 elections. And
yet, as has been so often the case in Iraq, these numbers cannot
indicate where that country is heading, because the figures themselves
point in different directions. There is, at the same time, both
great difficulty and great hope. And just as we’d be unwise
to focus solely on the hopeful signs, so too would we be foolish
merely to dwell upon the difficulties.
this not because I seek to whitewash the situation in Iraq. On
the contrary, not all is well there. But as we look on events
there, let us not forget that the Iraqi people are in the midst
of something unprecedented in their history.
has witnessed Iraqis of all stripes exercising those very democratic
habits that critics predicted could never take root in a country
with little democratic tradition. They voted in January for an
interim government. They put Saddam on trial and dictators throughout
the world on notice. They produced a landmark constitution that,
while not perfect, nevertheless enshrines critical rights that
go far beyond the standards elsewhere in the region. On October
15, they braved explicit death threats from Zarqawi and his ilk
in order to determine their future democratically. Try as they
might, the terrorists and the insurgents in Iraq got no veto.
Instead, an Arab country adopted a democratic constitution by
a free vote for the first time in history
daily bombings and attacks, the terrorists have not achieved their
goals. They have failed to incite a civil war, because Kurds and
Shia still have faith in the future and in American and Iraqi
security efforts. The insurgents have not prevented Iraqis from
joining the military and police, in spite of horrific attacks
at recruiting centers. Oil exports continue, despite concerted
efforts at sabotage. And the insurgents have not stopped the political
process, even while they assassinate government officials and
attack polling places.
I would like to offer thoughts today about events in Iraq, the
stakes for the United States, and current American policy, I do
so remembering just how far the people there have come. With our
help, the dictator who ruled their lives is gone from power, and
with our aid the Iraqi people are establishing a true democracy.
The Middle East will be forever changed by the choices we have
made, and by those we continue to make over the next months. We
must get Iraq right.
We must get
Iraq right because America’s stake in that conflict is enormous.
All Americans, whether or not they supported American action to
topple Saddam Hussein, must understand the profound implications
of our presence there. Success or failure in Iraq is the transcendent
issue for our foreign policy and our national security, for now
and years to come. I would submit that the stakes are higher than
in the Vietnam War.
an understandable desire, two and a half years after our invasion,
to seek a quick and easy end to our intervention in Iraq. We see
this in the protests of Cindy Sheehan; we saw it recently in Senator
Kerry’s call to withdraw troops whether or not the country
is secured. But should America follow these calls, we would face
consequences of the most serious nature. Because Iraqi forces
are not yet capable of carrying out most security operations on
their own, great bloodshed would occur if the main enforcer of
government authority – coalition troops – draw down
prematurely. If we were to leave, the most likely result would
be full scale civil war.
toppled Saddam, we incurred a moral duty not to abandon the people
there to terrorists and killers. If we withdraw prematurely, risking
all-out civil war, we will have done precisely that. I can hardly
imagine that any U.S. senator or any American leader would want
our nation to suffer that moral stain.
And yet the
implications of premature withdrawal from Iraq are not moral alone;
they directly involve our national security. Instability in Iraq
would invite further Syrian and Iranian interference, bolstering
the influence of two terror-sponsoring states firmly opposed to
American policy. Iraq’s neighbors – from Saudi Arabia
to Israel to Turkey – would feel their own security eroding,
and might be induced to act. This uncertain swirl of events would
have a damaging impact on our ability to promote positive change
in the Middle East, to say the least.
before there is a stable and legitimate Iraqi authority would
turn Iraq into a failed state, in the heart of the Middle East.
We have seen a failed state emerge after U.S. disengagement once
before, and it cost us terribly. In pre-9/11 Afghanistan, terrorists
found sanctuary to train and plan attacks with impunity. We know
that there are today in Iraq terrorists who are planning attacks
against Americans. We cannot make this fatal mistake twice.
If we leave
Iraq prematurely, the jihadists will interpret the withdrawal
as their great victory against our great power. Osama bin Laden
and his followers believe that America is weak, unwilling to suffer
casualties in battle. They drew that lesson from Lebanon in the
1980s and Somalia in the 1990s, and today they have their sights
set squarely on Iraq. The recently released letter from Ayman
al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s lieutenant, to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi,
draws out the implications. The Zawahiri letter is predicated
on the assumption that the United States will leave Iraq, and
that al Qaeda’s real game begins as soon as we abandon the
country. In his missive, Zawahiri lays out a four stage plan –
establish a caliphate in Iraq, extend the “jihad wave”
to the secular countries neighboring Iraq, clash with Israel –
none of which shall commence until the completion of stage one:
expel the Americans from Iraq. Zawahiri observes that the collapse
of American power in Vietnam, “and how they ran and left
their agents,” suggests that “we must be ready starting
let them start, now or ever. We must stay in Iraq until the government
there has a fully functioning security apparatus that can keep
Zarqawi and his terrorists at bay, and ultimately defeat them.
Some argue that it our very presence in Iraq that has created
the insurgency, and that if we end the occupation, we end the
insurgency. But in fact by ending military operations, we are
likely to empower the insurgency. Zarqawi and others fight not
just against foreign forces but also against the Shia, whom they
believe to be infidels, and against all elements of the government.
Sunni insurgents attack Kurds, Turcomans, Christians and other
Iraqis, not simply to end the American occupation but to recapture
lost Sunni power. As AEI’s Fredrick Kagan has written, these
Sunni are not yet persuaded that violence is counterproductive;
on the contrary, they believe the insurgency might lead to an
improvement in their political situation. There is no reason to
think that an American drawdown would extinguish these motivations
cannot pull out and hope for the best, because we cannot withdraw
and manage things from afar, because morality and our security
compel it, we have to see this mission through to completion.
Senator Kerry’s call for the withdrawal of 20,000 American
troops by year’s end represents, I believe, a major step
on the road to disaster. Drawdowns must be based on conditions
in-country, not arbitrary deadlines rooted in our domestic politics.
and his advisors understand that, and I praise their resolve.
They know that the consequences of failure are unacceptable and
that the benefits of success in Iraq remain profound. And yet
at the same time there is an undeniable sense that things are
slipping – more violence on the ground, declining domestic
support for the war, growing incantations among Americans that
there is no end in sight. To build on what has been accomplished,
and to win the war in Iraq, we need to make several significant
Adopt a military
counterinsurgency strategy. For most of the occupation, our military
strategy was built around trying to secure the entirety of Iraq
at the same time. With our current force structure and the power
vacuum that persists in many areas, that is not possible today.
In their attempt to secure all of Iraq, coalition forces engage
in search and destroy operations to root out insurgent strongholds,
with the aim of killing as many insurgents as possible. But our
forces cannot hold the ground indefinitely, and when they move
on to fight other battles, the insurgent ranks replenish and the
strongholds fill again. Our troops must then reenter the same
area and refight the same battle.
of Tal Afar is instructive. Coalition forces first fought in Tal
Afar in September 2003, when the 101st Airborne Division took
the city, then withdrew. Over the next year insurgents streamed
back into the area, and in September 2004 Stryker brigades and
Iraqi security forces went into Tal Afar again, chasing out insurgents
again. They then left again, moving on to fight insurgents in
other locations. Then in September 2005, the Third Armored Calvary
Regiment swept into Tal Afar, killing insurgents while others
retreated into the countryside. Most of our troops have already
redeployed, and they may well be back again. The battles of Tal
Afar, like those in other areas of Iraq, have become seasonal
offensives, where success is measured most often by the number
of insurgents captured and killed. But that’s not success,
and “sweeping and leaving” is not working.
we need to clear and stay. We can do this with a modified version
of traditional counterinsurgency strategy. Dr. Andrew Krepinevich,
AEI’s Tom Donnelly and Gary Schmitt and others have written
about this idea. Whether called the “ink blot,” “oil
spot,” or “safe haven” strategy, it draws upon
successful counterinsurgency efforts in the past. Rather than
focusing on killing and capturing insurgents, we should emphasize
protecting the local population, creating secure areas where insurgents
find it difficult to operate. Our forces would begin by clearing
areas, with heavy force if necessary, to establish a zone as free
of insurgents as possible. The security forces can then cordon
off the zone, establish constant patrols, by American and Iraqi
military and police, to protect the population from insurgents
and common crime, and arrest remaining insurgents as they are
In this newly
secure environment, many of the things critical to winning in
Iraq can take place – things that are not happening today.
Massive reconstruction can go forward without fear of attack and
sabotage. Political meetings and campaigning can take place in
the open. Civil society can emerge. Intelligence improves, as
it becomes increasingly safe for the population to provide tips
to the security forces, knowing that they can do so without being
threatened. The coalition must then act on this intelligence,
increasing the speed at which it is transmitted to operational
teams. Past practice has shown that “actionable intelligence”
has a short shelf life, and the lag involved in communicating
it to operators costs vital opportunities.
elements positively reinforce each other, the security forces
then expand the territory under their control. We’ve done
this successfully in Falluja. Coalition and Iraqi forces cleared
the area of insurgents, held the city, and today Iraqi police
and soldier patrol the streets, with support from two American
battalions. And when the Iraqi forces are at a level sufficient
to take over the patrolling responsibilities on their own, American
troops can hand over the duties. Falluja today is not perfect,
but our aim is not perfection – it is an improvement over
the insecurity that plagues Iraq today.
of a counterinsurgency strategy has some costs. Securing ever
increasing parts of Iraq and preventing the emergence of new terrorist
safe havens will require more troops and money. It will take time,
probably years, and mean more American casualties. Those are terrible
prices to pay. But with the stakes so high, I believe we must
choose the strategy with the best chance of success. The Pentagon
seems to be coming around on this, and top commanders profess
to employ a version already. If we are on our way to adopting
a true counterinsurgency strategy, that is wonderful, but it has
not been the case thus far. After the recent operations in Tal
Afar most American troops were redeployed from Tal Afar already,
leaving behind Iraqi units with Americans embedded. I hope this
will be sufficient to establish security there, but it is also
clear that there has been no spike in reconstruction activity
in that city.
our chances of success with this strategy, and enable our forces
to hold as much territory as possible, we need more troops. For
this reason, I believe that current ideas to effect a partial
drawdown during 2006 are exactly wrong. While the U.S. and its
partners are training Iraqi security forces at a furious pace,
these Iraqis should supplement, not substitute for, the coalition
forces on the ground. Instead of drawing down, we should be ramping
up, with more civil-military soldiers, translators, and counterinsurgency
operations teams. Our decisions about troop levels should be tied
to the success or failure of our mission in Iraq, not to the number
of Iraqi troops trained and equipped. And while we seek higher
troop levels for Iraq, we should at last face facts and increase
the standing size of the U.S. Army. It takes time to build a larger
army, but had we done so even after our invasion of Iraq, our
military would have more soldiers available for deployment now.
enemy is the essential precondition to defeating him, and I believe
our counterinsurgency strategy can do more to exploit divisions
in the strands of the insurgency. Foreign jihadists, Baathist
revanchists and Sunni discontents do not necessarily share tactics
or goals. Recent Sunni participation in the constitutional process
– and especially the decision by Sunni parties to contest
parliamentary elections – present opportunities to split
Sunnis from those whose only goal is death, destruction and chaos.
officers in place. The Pentagon has adopted a policy of rotating
our generals in and out of Iraq almost as frequently as it rotates
the troops. General Petraeus, a fine officer who was the military’s
foremost expert in the training of Iraqi security forces, now
uses his hard earned experience and expertise at Fort Leavenworth.
Others, including General Conway, General Odierno, and General
Chiarelli, have been transferred to Washington or elsewhere. This
is deeply unwise. If these were the best men for the task, they
should still be on the job. These generals and other senior officers
build, in their time in Iraq, the on-the-ground and institutional
knowledge necessary to approach this conflict with wisdom. They
know, for example, the difference between a battle in Falluja
and one in Tal Afar, or what kind of patrols are most effective
in Shia areas of Baghdad. We need these commanders – and
their hard-won experience – to stay in place.
counterinsurgency efforts at senior levels. While it is critical
to focus our military efforts on insurgents, particularly against
Sunni fighters using violence to improve their political position,
the non-military component is also essential. All Iraqis need
to see a tangible improvement in their daily lives or support
for the new government will slip. Sunnis need to feel that should
they abandon violence once and for all, there will be some role
in the political process for them. The Iraqi people must feel
invested in a newly free, newly powerful and prosperous country
a role for each element of the U.S. Government in this, whether
it implies aid, trade, wells, schools, training, or anything else.
Ambassador Khalilzad has done a fine job at coordinating these
efforts with the military campaign and the political process,
but it needs to be done in Washington too. This should be the
highest priority of the President’s team, and must be managed
by the most senior levels at the State Department, the Pentagon,
the NSC, USAID, and any other agency that can contribute to the
effort. To consign Iraq to the Pentagon to win or lose will simply
In this regard,
I am encouraged by Secretary Rice’s recent testimony before
the Senate Foreign Relations Committee which laid out a more comprehensive,
integrated political-military-economic strategy for Iraq. Implementing
it is essential and will require a more formal interagency structure
than we have seen to date.
in the armed forces. In building the Iraqi armed forces at a furious
pace, the coalition and Iraqi authorities have invited former
militia members to join. In the short run, it is most practical
to do what we have done thus far – swallow former militia
units whole. But in the long run, we must keep our focus on building
diversified individual military units.
of Afghanistan is instructive. There, the United States insisted
– over initial objections from the Afghan Ministry of Defense
– that each new military unit be carefully calibrated to
include Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, and others. This diversification
within units serves three important functions: first, over time,
it helps build loyalty to the central government; and second,
it makes it more difficult for militias to reconstitute, should
any decide to oppose the government. More broadly, the multiethnic
Afghan National Army has provided a powerful psychological boost
in a deeply divided country. Simply seeing Pashtuns and Tajiks
and Uzbeks, in uniform and working together, has had a great impact
on Afghan public opinion and the way Afghans imagine their country.
In Iraq the
policy has been to recruit former militia members as individuals,
rather than as units, but the reality has fallen short. Building
units in this way is more difficult and will require more time
than accepting homogenous Kurdish or Shia or Sunni units, for
reasons of language, culture, and all-around expediency. But that
is precisely why it is so important to do. Standing up the Iraqi
army is about more than generating manpower so that American troops
can withdraw. The composition and character of the force we leave
behind will have social and political ramifications far beyond
the military balance of power. In helping to build an army, in
short, we are helping to build a new Iraq.
Syria. For too long, Syria has refused to crack down on Iraqi
insurgents and foreign terrorists operating from its territory.
President Assad said last month that his government distinguishes
between those insurgents who attack Iraqis and the killers who
attack American and British troops, which “is something
different.” This is the same mindset that has led Syria
to defy the United Nations over the assassination of Rafik Hariri,
give sanctuary to Palestinian terrorist organizations, and attempt
to maintain some hold on Lebanon.
meetings of the UN Security Council, the international community
has an opportunity to apply real pressure on Syria to change its
behavior on all these fronts. While multilateral sanctions keyed
to Syrian cooperation with the Hariri investigation may be the
starting point, it should not be the end. Any country that wishes
to see the Iraqi people live in peace and freedom should join
in pressuring Syria to stop Iraqi and foreign terrorists from
using its soil.
Win the homefront.
While we make improvements in our political-military strategy,
the latest polls and protests at home show that we need a renewed
effort to win the homefront. If we can’t retain the support
of the American people, we will have lost this war as soundly
as if our forces were defeated on the battlefield. A renewed effort
at home starts with explaining precisely what is at stake in this
war – not to alarm Americans, but so that they see the nature
of this struggle for what it is. The President cannot do this
alone. The media, so efficient in portraying the difficulties
in Iraq, need to convey the consequences of success or failure
there. Critics in the Democratic Party should outline precisely
what they believe to be the stakes in this battle, if they are
willing to suffer the consequences of withdrawal.
of the effort includes avoiding rosy aspirations for near term
improvements in Iraq’s politics or security situation, and
more accurately portraying events on the ground, even if they
are negative. The American people have heard many times that the
violence in Iraq will subside soon – when there is a transitional
government in place, when Saddam is captured, when there are elections,
when there is a constitution. Better, I believe, would be to describe
the situation as it is – difficult right now, but not without
progress and hope, and with a long, hard road ahead – and
to announce that things have improved only when they in fact have.
winning the homefront means reiterating our commitment to victory
and laying out a realistic game plan that will take America there.
I believe that the vast majority of Americans, even those who
did not support our initial invasion, wish to see us prevail.
They are prepared to pay the human and financial costs of this
war if – but only if – they believe our government
is on a measurable path to victory. That we must give them. In
this war as in all others, there are two fronts, the battlefield
and the homefront, and we must tend to each.
daily attacks, and untold threats against the democratic process,
Iraq has held free elections, with open campaigns and a truly
free press. Iraq has ratified the most progressive constitution
in the Arab world and instilled justice in a country that for
so long lacked it. Iraq has put Saddam on trial and held his henchmen
accountable for their murderous rule. In doing all these things
and more, the Iraqi people have issued to their more peaceful,
prosperous neighbors a profound challenge.
We have seen
responses already in Lebanon’s cedar revolution, Egypt’s
elections, and the Arab spring. As Iraq consolidates its democratic
process, the challenge to its neighbors – and their necessary
responses – will be starker still. The Iraqi people have
shown their impulse toward democracy; they need security in order
to hash out the many remaining differences that still divide them.
They can get there, but they need our support.
Let me conclude
by stating the obvious: America, Iraq and the world are better
off with Saddam Hussein in prison rather than in power. Does anyone
believe the stirrings of freedom in the region would exist if
Saddam still ruled with an iron fist? Does anyone believe the
region would be better off if Saddam were in power, using oil
revenue to purchase political support? Does anyone believe meaningful
sanctions would remain or that there would been any serious checks
on Saddam’s ambitions? The costs of this war have been high,
especially for the over 2000 Americans, and their families, who
have paid the ultimate price. But liberating Iraq was in our strategic
and moral interests, and we must honor their sacrifice by seeing
this mission through to victory.
the steps I have outlined here would not achieve victory in Iraq
overnight – on the contrary. It will take more time, more
commitment, and more support, and more brave Americans will lose
their lives in the service of this great cause. And despite our
cajoling, nagging, and pleading, few other countries around the
world will share much of our burden. Iraq is for us to do, for
us to win or lose, for us to suffer the consequences or share
in the benefits. I began this speech by citing many numbers, and
I could have cited many more. But in the end, there is only one
United States of America, and it is to us that history will look
for courage and commitment.