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September 10, 2007

Vanquishing Al Qaeda Doesn’t Mean We Win in Iraq


For the small minority of Americans who support the continuation/escalation of the war in Iraq, there really are only two acceptable opinions on the current "surge": Either "the surge is working," or "it's too early to tell. You really should wait for Gen. Petreaus." Those opining that the surge isn't working at all, of course, are told not to pre-judge, but those holding the former take are free to assume away.


Gen. David Petreaus., newly installed as the U.S. commander in Iraq earlier this year, will give his long-awaited report to Congress on the surge this week. He will, according to The New York Times on Friday, speak about the successes the surge has created in reducing violence and dealing setbacks to Al Qaeda in the Sunni-dominated Anbar province. He is also expected to approve a small pull-back, starting in January.


How should we react to this complex, multifaceted situation? If you believe some Republicans and a new non-profit called Freedom's Watch, it's simple: It's us against the terrorists, we're starting to win and the choice is between "victory" and the "surrender" favored by the Democrats. Republican presidential candidates, including John McCain and Rudy Giuliani, discuss Iraq with the circular argument that we're going to win because we have to win, and we have to win because we're going to win.


Freedom's Watch also touts a survey arguing that 49 percent of Americans now believe that "the surge is working" while 45 percent believe it isn't, as though the perceptions of people half a world away have any bearing on the fact of whether it is or not.


Pundits of the right have been even more insufferable, with Bill Kristol arguing in the Weekly Standard that not only are we obviously winning in Iraq, but that critics of the war know that we're winning and are being dishonest by arguing otherwise.


And then there's the curious case of the Kagans: Neoconservative strategist Fred Kagan was an architect of the surge. Since its implementation, various op-eds have appeared, advocating same surge, by Kagan's wife, brother and Kagan himself, not always with the disclosure of the Kagan connection to the surge's origin. As blogger Matthew Yglesias joked, "If only the whole world were made up of members of the Kagan family, then maybe George W. Bush would be a really popular president."


All of these arguments made the erroneous assumption, likely prevalent among casual observers, that the war in Iraq boils down to "us vs. Al Qaeda," and that once Al Qaeda is defeated, the war will be over. But that's really far from the case. In fact, a piece published last week by Andrew Tilghman in Washington Monthly argues that Al Qaeda is actually only "2 percent to 5 percent of the Sunni insurgency," and, in the grand scheme of things, a very small part of the problem in Iraq.


We're fighting Al Qaeda, and if the pro-surge faction is right, we're winning. That's wonderful, and I'm glad it's happening. I wish Al Qaeda would disappear from Iraq – and every other country – immediately. But if they did, would that mean that we had "won" the war in Iraq? No. There would still be multiple insurgencies, a civil war with mass sectarian violence both between and among Sunnis and Shiites, no central government of any significance and a significant breakdown in law and order. And don't forget – there was barely an Al Qaeda presence in Iraq before the war. So we're really just fighting to get back to somewhere near where we started.


The Bushes and Freedom Watches and various Kagans all talk about "victory" in Iraq. But while a defeat of Al Qaeda would certainly be great, how exactly will we get there? We're no closer to a political solution than we were a year ago.


I'm not saying I'm for an immediate withdrawal. We have obligations to the Iraqis, and we can't walk away from them abruptly. But clearly, the political will isn't there, our troops are overextended and we're not going to accomplish what we set out to do – liberal democracy in Iraq. We need to find a way to wrap it up.


Petraeus will testify beginning Monday, and we should listen to and consider his recommendations. But it's important to note that there is a much bigger war going on than the battle against Al Qaeda. The latter war may be won, the former one is a long, long way from resolution.


© 2007 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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