One of the most common arguments employed by those who argue for a rapid drawdown of U.S. force in Iraq is that we don’t need to have a lot of troops trying to police a “civil war” between Shiites and Sunnis. A far smaller number of soldiers, primarily from the U.S. Special Operations Command, supposedly could achieve our core mission of disrupting al-Qaeda operations.
Never mind that we haven’t enjoyed much success in using commando forces to go after terrorists in unfriendly terrain. How often, after all, do we strike against terrorists in Syria and Iran? Or even in Pakistan? The reality is that without a permissive political climate and plenty of on-the-ground support our special operators, skilled as they are, have a very limited ability to prevent terrorist groups from making major gains.
Recent events in Iraq reinforce the point. As Rowan Scarborough notes in the Washington Examiner, the city of Baqubah served as a template for the previous U.S. strategy (which looks a lot like the future strategy advocated by most Democrats and Republicans, such as Richard Lugar and Chuck Hagel) of rapidly turning over “battle space” to the Iraqi Security Forces and drawing down our own forces.
By last year, the entire province of Diyala, of which Baqubah is the capital—an area with over a million people—was being held by just one U.S. brigade, no more than 5,000 American soldiers in all. Notwithstanding the presence of these combat forces—and the skilled commandos of the Joint Special Operations Command who could always swoop into the area, as they did when they killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi a year ago—Diyala became a hotbed of al-Qaeda activity. Alexandra Zavis summarizes what American troops have found in recent weeks as they have moved en masse back into Baqubah as part of the “surge of operations”:
For more than a year, hundreds of masked gunmen loyal to al Qaeda cruised this capital of their self-declared state, hauling Shiite Muslims from their homes and leaving bodies in the dusty, trash-strewn streets.
They set up a religious court and prisons, aid stations, and food stores. And they imposed their fundamentalist interpretation of Islam on a population that was mostly too poor to flee and too terrified to resist. . . .
Evidence of the group’s reign included an interrogation center with knives and saws, its walls peppered with bullet holes and smeared with blood. Nearby, a house had been converted into a prison, with six numbered cells with metal doors and bars across the windows.
Residents said they were terrified of being stuffed into the trunk of a car and carted off to one of these places for such minor infractions as smoking in public. . . .
Residents said the militants gradually began taking over last year, parading through the streets in trucks, brandishing Kalashnikov assault rifles and using bullhorns to inform residents that they were now part of the Islamic State of Iraq.
They banned smoking, closed down barbershops and coffeehouses, and required women to cover themselves in black robes with only a slit for their eyes. Iraqis working for the Baghdad government or for U.S. forces were hunted down and killed, residents said. Even a trip to Baghdad was grounds for suspicion.
If al Qaeda could set up a miniature Talibanistan almost under the noses of (undermanned) American bases, just imagine what they would be able to do in Iraq if most American forces withdrew altogether. If our commandos couldn’t stop the radicalization of Baqubah when they were located only a few miles away at Balad, how much luck would they have if they relocated hundreds or even thousands of miles away to someplace like Kuwait or Iraqi Kurdistan, as suggested by Jack Murtha and other advocates of “redeployment”?