It’s early days in the Battle of Baghdad. Fewer than 3,000 of a promised 18,000 or more reinforcements have arrived. It will take at least six to twelve months before we know whether the crackdown is working. But already various commentators are stepping forward to dismiss the Bush plan as the “wrong surge” and to propose alternative strategies.
Three of the foreign-policy analysts I respect most—Charles Krauthammer, Fareed Zakaria, and Lawrence Kaplan—argue that we should be consolidating our forces in Anbar province, not trying to retake Baghdad.
There is no doubt that this Sunni province needs to be pacified eventually, but an Anbar-centric approach would not accomplish the goals these writers set out. Krauthammer notes correctly that, “If we had zero American casualties a day, there would be as little need to withdraw from Iraq as there is to withdraw from the Balkans,” but he gives little suggestion of how his plan to “maintain a significant presence in Anbar province” could be squared with keeping down casualty numbers, considering that Anbar is one of the most dangerous areas for American troops—more dangerous, in fact, than Baghdad over the past four years.
Zakaria frets that the Baghdad clampdown will be perceived as anti-Sunni since the most immediate target is Sunni militants (the Shia militants are lying low for the time being). He quotes an anonymous “senior U.S. military officer” who says, “If we continue down the path we’re on, the Sunnis in Iraq will throw their lot behind al Qaeda, and the Sunni majority in the Arab world will believe that we helped in the killing and cleansing of their brethren in Iraq. That’s not a good outcome for the security of the American people.” Yet Zakaria’s preferred solution—“drawing down our forces to around 60,000 troops and concentrating on al Qaeda in Anbar province,” while presumably leaving the Sunnis of Baghdad to the tender mercies of the Jaish al Mahdi—would, if anything, exacerbate the perception of American policy as anti-Sunni.
For his part, Kaplan postulates, without any proof, that the U.S. could have greater military success in Anbar than in Baghdad, even though conditions there have been worse than in the capital. He fears that “Washington’s decision to twin its fate to Baghdad’s means that, if the city careens away, the United States will walk away not only from the civil war it could not quell—but also from the insurgency [in Anbar] it could.” But what would be the point of winning Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, if we lose Baghdad, the capital of the country? Which city is more important to Iraq’s future—an isolated outpost in the western desert, or a metropolis with one-fourth of the country’s population and much of its news media, business, cultural, and political leadership?
Krauthammer, Zakaria, and Kaplan are right to worry that the Baghdad plan won’t work. The odds are definitely against us by this point. But no other strategy—certainly not an Anbar-first approach—offers greater hope of success. I am reminded of the reasoning of General Franz Halder, chief of the German general staff, about Case Yellow, the plan for the invasion of France and the Low Countries in 1940. He put the odds of its working at ten-to-one against but concluded that all the other alternatives were worse. Of course Case Yellow did work. And the odds of success in Baghdad are much better than ten-to-one against.
The enemy (both Sunni and Shiite) has chosen to fight in Baghdad. We have no choice but meet the challenge, or else concede defeat. Let’s at least wait to see what happens before moving on to Plan B.