Americans scouring news reports of the U.S.-led assault on the Iraqi city of Fallujah can be forgiven if they are experiencing a degree of confusion and uncertainty.
Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, assures us that U.S. and Iraqi government forces have moved steadily through the insurgent stronghold and that the assault has been "very, very successful." Last night, even as troops fought to secure the final section of the Sunni city, senior Iraqi officials declared it liberated. But it's hardly surprising that the measure of success in Fallujah is elusive: There's no uniformed enemy force, no headquarters, no central command complex for the troops to occupy and win. At the end, there will be no surrender.
Instead, the outcome of the battle must be judged by a less clear-cut standard: not by the seizure and occupation of ground, but by the impact it has on the political and diplomatic process in Iraq. Its chances for success in that area are highly uncertain. Will Fallujah, like the famous Vietnam village, be the place we destroyed in order to save it? Will the bulk of the insurgents simply scatter to other Iraqi cities? Will we win a tactical victory only to fail in our strategic goal of convincing Iraqis that we are making their country safe for democracy -- and specifically for the elections scheduled for the end of January?
An attack on Fallujah has been inevitable for many months. If we are to succeed in the democratization of Iraq, the interim government and its U.S. and coalition allies must have a "monopoly" on the use of force within the country's borders. There can be no sanctuaries for insurgents and terrorists, no fiefdoms run by private armies. Fallujah could not continue to be a base for those waging war on the Iraqi government and a no-go place for those organizing elections.
Now that we have engaged, there cannot be any doubt about the outcome. It, too, is inevitable. U.S. forces don't "lose" on the battlefield these days. We haven't lost once in Iraq. Nor in Afghanistan. Not in the Balkans, or in the first Gulf War. Nor in Panama. We fight where we are told and win where we fight. We are well trained, disciplined and, when we prepare adequately, exceedingly well equipped. We will take the city, and with relatively few U.S. casualties. And we will have killed a lot of people who were armed and resisting us.
But in what sense is this "winning?"
To win means not just to occupy the city, but to do so in a way that knocks the local opponent permanently out of the fight, demoralizes broader resistance, and builds legitimacy for U.S. aims, methods and allies. Seen this way, the battle for Fallujah is not just a matter of shooting. It is part of a larger bargaining process that has included negotiations, threats and staged preparations to pressure insurgent groups into preemptive surrender, to deprive them of popular tolerance and support, and to demonstrate to the Iraqi people and to others that force was used only as a last resort in order to gain increased legitimacy for the interim Iraqi government.
Even the use of force required a further calculus. Had we relentlessly destroyed the city and killed large numbers of innocent civilians, or suffered crippling losses in the fighting, we most certainly would have been judged "losers." And if we can't hold on and prevent the insurgents from infiltrating back in -- as has now occurred in the recently "liberated" city of Samarra -- we also shall have lost.
The battle plan was tailored to prevent significant destruction. It called for a slow squeeze, starting with precision strikes against identified targets, and followed by a careful assault directed at taking out the opposition and reoccupying the city, while minimizing civilian and friendly casualties. We have superior mobility, with heavily armored vehicles; we have superior firepower, with the Bradley's 25mm cannon, M1A1 Abrams tanks, artillery and airstrikes; we have advantages in reconnaissance, with satellites, TV-equipped unmanned aerial vehicles and a whole array of electronic gear. But urban combat partially neutralizes these advantages. A weaker defender can inflict much punishment with only a meager force fighting from the rubble, provided they fight to the death. So this has not been a "cakewalk." This has been a tough battle, and the men and women fighting it deserve every Combat Infantryman's Badge, Bronze Star or Purple Heart they receive.
During the recent presidential campaign, there was a lot of talk about supporting our troops in wartime. And yet calling what's going on in Iraq "war" has distracted us from marshaling the diplomatic and political support our troops need to win.
To a considerable extent, the insurgency in Iraq has been supported by external efforts: Syria's facilitating of passage by jihadists, Iran's eager efforts to reintegrate Shiism and assure the emergence of an Iraqi regime to Tehran's liking, efforts by some Saudis to reinforce Sunni dominance in Iraq. (On the eve of the battle in Fallujah, one group of 26 Saudi religious scholars urged Iraqis to support the insurgents.)
The success of our military efforts in Iraq is thus directly connected to the skill of U.S. diplomacy in the region. Certainly neither Syria nor Iran could welcome American success in Iraq if they believe it means they'll be next on a list of regimes to be "reformed" by the United States -- and yet that's precisely the goal of American policy. Bringing about change in those countries should be a matter of offering inducements as well as making threats, but not if it adds to the danger for our men and women in uniform. We need to choose: continue to project a grand vision, or focus on success in Iraq. Not only the safety of our troops, but the success of our mission depends on a degree of Syrian and Iranian accommodation for an American-supported, peaceful, stable, democratizing Iraq. And we won't get that support if they think they're next on the hit list.
It is equally important to seek a resolution of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, which has fueled the recruiting efforts and determination of the jihadists we're fighting in Iraq.
And then there's the matter of the political struggle inside Iraq. If, despite a high level of chaos, the elections do take place, the Bush administration must be prepared to accept and empower an Iraqi government and a nascent political process with sufficient independence to win support from the populace and undercut anger at the American troops. For most of a year, the effort at political transformation was been submerged beneath the rubric of "reconstruction" and hindered by the attitude that "security must come first." Security and domestic Iraqi politics go hand in hand.
Which brings us back to some of the factors that made last week's battle of Fallujah inevitable: a series of circumstances and errors in 2003 -- an initial coalition occupying force too small to achieve dominance over a historically restive population, the lack of a skilled political corps to reorganize the local inhabitants, the proscription of Baathist participation in the early postwar recovery and the disbanding of the Iraqi military. Then there was the aborted April 2004 effort to subdue the city, in which an under-strength Marine assault was called off by the White House. A silly plan of turning the city back over to a thrown-together Iraqi force left the enemy in control of the battlefield and turned Fallujah into even more of an insurgent stronghold.
This insurgency has continued to grow, despite U.S. military effectiveness on the ground. While Saddam Hussein's security forces may have always had a plan to resist the occupation, it was the failure of American policymakers to gain political legitimacy that enabled the insurgency to grow. And while the failure may have begun with the inability to impose order after Saddam's ouster, it was the lack of a political coterie and the tools of political development -- such as the Vietnam program of Civil Operations-Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS) -- that seems to have enabled the insurgency to take root amid the U.S. presence. These are the sorts of mistakes the United States must avoid in the future, otherwise the battle of Fallujah may end up being nothing more than the "taking down" of an insurgent stronghold -- a battlefield success on the road to strategic failure.
Troops are in Fallujah because of a political failure: Large numbers of Sunnis either wouldn't, or couldn't, participate in the political process and the coming elections. Greater security in Fallujah may move citizens (whenever they return) to take part in the voting; it's too early to say. But it's certain that you can't bomb people into the polling booths.
We should be under no illusions: This is not so much a war as it is an effort to birth a nation. It is past time for the administration to undertake diplomatic efforts in the region and political efforts inside Iraq that are worthy of the risks and burdens born by our men and women in uniform. No one knows better than they do: You cannot win in Iraq simply by killing the opponent. Much as we honor our troops and pray for their well-being, if diplomacy fails, their sacrifices and even their successes in Fallujah won't be enough.