Major General John Kelly is one of the Marine Corps’ most thoughtful and most able leaders. Many who hope to see the Marine Corps’ doctrine of Maneuver Warfare someday become real instead of just words on paper pray he has a bright future. When, as a major, he was commander of Infantry Officers Course at Quantico, he did what every Marine school director should do: he hauled all the old, Second Generation lesson plans out into the courtyard, poured gasoline on them and burned them. I have known him since that time, and I regard him as a personal friend.
In late September, speaking to the San Diego Military Advisory Council, General Kelly said:
"I left Iraq three years ago last month. I returned a week ago after a two week visit of getting the lay of the land for my upcoming deployment. It is still a dangerous and foreboding land, but what I experienced personally was amazing and remarkable we are winning, we are really winning. No one told me to say that, I saw it for myself."
I have to reply, not so fast, John. I have no doubt the situation General Kelly found in Anbar Province is much quieter than it was just a short time ago. That means fewer casualties, for which we are all thankful. But in the inherent complexity of a Fourth Generation situation, it does not mean we are winning. If we put the improved situation in Anbar in context, we quickly see there is less to it than first meets the eye.
That context begins with the fact that Anbar is quieter primarily because of what al-Qaeda did, namely alienating its base, not what we did. We enabled the local Sunnis to turn on al-Qaeda by ceasing or at least diminishing our attacks on the local population. But if al-Qaeda had not blundered, the situation would be about what it had been since the real war started. We have not found a silver bullet for 4GW.
Nor is the war in Iraq a binary conflict, America vs. al-Qaeda, although, that is how Washington now portrays it. Al-Qaeda is only one of a vast array of non-state actors, fighting for many different kinds of goals. If al-Qaeda in Iraq disappeared tomorrow, Iraq would remain chaotic.
The fact that some Sunni tribes have turned on al-Qaeda does not mean they like us. It just means we have for the moment become the #2 enemy instead of #1, or perhaps #3, with the Shi’ites ranking ahead of us. Some think the Sunnis are just getting whatever they can from us as they prepare for another, more bitter round of the Sunni vs. Shi’ite civil war.
But the biggest reason for saying “not so fast” is that the reduction of violence in Anbar does not necessary point toward the rise of a state in the now-stateless region of Mesopotamia. As I have argued repeatedly in this column and elsewhere, we can only win in Iraq if a new state emerges there. Far from pointing toward that, our new working relationship with some Sunni sheiks points away from it.
The sheiks represent local, feudal power, not a state. We are working with them precisely because there is no Iraqi state to work with (the Maliki government is a polite fiction). From a practical standpoint, there is nothing else we can do to get any results. But our alliances with Sunni sheiks in effect represents our acceptance, de facto if not de jure, of the reality that there is no state.
The sheiks, we must recognize, do not accept the Shi’ite puppet government in Baghdad (nothing illustrates its puppet nature better than its inability to expel Blackwater) or its armed forces, which are mostly Shi’ite militias who get government paychecks. The Baghdad government recognizes this fact. A story in the October 1 Cleveland Plain Dealer quotes Prime Minister al-Maliki’s United Iraqi Alliance (Shi’ite) as condemning
“‘authorizing the (Sunni tribal) groups to conduct security acts away from the jurisdiction of the government and without its knowledge.’
"The statement went on: ‘We demand that the American administration stop this adventure, which is rejected by all the sons of the people and its national political powers.'”
Rightly, the ruling Shi’ites fear that what we are actually creating is new Sunni militias, which will fight the Shi’ite militias.
Finally, as if all this did not throw enough cold water on any notion that we are winning, just as the Marines are ramping down our war with the Iraqi Sunnis, in Anbar, the U.S. Army is ramping up a war with the Shi’ite population. Almost every day we read about another raid on the Shi’ites, all too often one where we have called in airstrikes on populated Shi’ite neighborhoods. A story in the October 6 Plain Dealer, "U.S. raid north of Baghdad kills 25,” was typical:
"An Iraqi army official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said U.S. aircraft bombed the neighborhood repeatedly and he claimed civilians, including seven children, were among those killed.
"He said the civilians had rushed out to help those hurt in the initial bombing
" the town’s top official said U.S. forces targeted areas built up by the locals to protect their Shi’ite neighborhoods against attacks by al-Qaeda gunmen.
If we have not enjoyed fighting the 20% of the Iraqi population that is Sunni, how much pleasure will we find in fighting the 60% that is Shi’ite? Of course, an American attack on Iran will only intensify our war with Iraq’s Shi’ites.
So no, we are not winning in Iraq. The only meaningful definition of “winning” is seeing the re-emergence of a real Iraqi state, and by that standard we are no closer to victory than we ever were. Nor can I see anything on the horizon that could move us closer to such a victory, other than a complete American withdrawal, which begins to look as unlikely under Hillary as under George. All we see on the horizon of Anbar province, sadly, is another mirage.