Commentary Magazine


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Defining “Victory” in Iraq

As recently as the first half of 2007, the idea of an American victory in Iraq seemed like a fantasy to just about everyone, including me. General David Petraeus surged additional troops to Iraq, however, and he transformed the joint American-Iraqi counterinsurgency strategy into what nearly all observers now acknowledge is a remarkable and unexpected success. Few bother to argue otherwise anymore. What remains ambiguous and contested is the definition of an American victory.

It’s slightly tricky for a couple of reasons. Pinpointing the exact date when a counterinsurgency ends – not just in Iraq, but any counterinsurgency – is impossible. There are no final battles. There can’t be. And if we don’t know when the war is over, it can be difficult to figure out what over even means in the first place. So how will we know if we’ve won?

Part of the problem here is that the war in Iraq is usually thought of as a single war in Iraq. But there have been at least three wars in Iraq since 2003 – the U.S.-led war against Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party regime, the civil war between Sunni and Shia militias, and the insurgencies against government and international forces waged by a constellation of guerrilla and terrorist groups. All three wars are distinct from each other, and two of the three are already over.

The war against Saddam Hussein and his government ended when the regime was overthrown and what remained of its army was disbanded. You might say it didn’t officially end until he was captured in December of 2003, but he effectively lost when he was demoted from absolute dictator to fugitive. No matter what else might happen, Saddam Hussein will never be considered victorious.

The civil war between Sunni and Shia militias likewise is over. We know that now because we can look back in hindsight. Not one single person was killed in ethno-sectarian conflict in May or June of this year. That particular conflict had been winding down since December of 2006 when the monthly casualties began freefalling in an almost straight line from a high of more than 2,000 a month down to nothing. Nobody won that war. It’s just over.

Casualties from insurgent warfare haven’t slacked off as completely, but they have almost slacked off as completely. If all violent trends continue in their current downward directions, this war, too, will taper off to non-existence or relative insignificance. We’ll know in hindsight, too, when that war finally is over after no has been killed by insurgents for a few months.

What looks now like the last dying gasp of the various anti-Iraqi insurgencies is all that remains of these various wars in Iraq. If attacks against the Iraqi government and multinational forces drop off to zero or near zero, it ought to go without saying that the insurgent groups will have lost and the counterinsurgents will have won.

Whether these wars were worth fighting or not may be debated forever. Determining the winners and losers, though, is short and obvious work as long as the three conflicts are properly understood to be separate.