A hundred years would seem a harsh judgment, were it not for our performance in Iraq to date. In the fourth year of war, America teeters on the verge of defeat. By the fourth year of World War II, victory gleamed on the horizon. The Korean War was over inside four years. Even in Vietnam, the Viet Cong had been decimated by the fourth year, and the conflict had morphed from guerrilla warfare into a conventional slugfest against the North.
We are all too familiar with the strategic blunders that have characterized our engagement in Iraq. Still, some 500,000 American and Iraqi military and police personnel are confronting roughly 25,000 Sunni insurgents and Shia militiamen—a twenty-to-one edge that should give us a clear advantage. In terms of spending, the disparity is even greater: $320 billion versus less than $200 million. Yet despite being exponentially outnumbered and outspent, the forces of murder and chaos seem to be winning.
Is it too late to reverse this trend? Maybe not—if we make major tactical adjustments soon. In exploring this question, I made two extended visits to Iraq last summer and fall, during which I accompanied ten American and eight Iraqi battalions on operations. I concentrated on Baghdad and Anbar province, the heart of the insurgency, and I talked to everyone I could—from soldiers on the front line to Iraqi politicians and American military leaders at the highest levels, including Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki and General George Casey Jr., our top commander there.
Here’s one thing just about everyone told me: Iraq is not a military battlefield; it is a series of intense police actions, centered in Baghdad and a dozen key cities to the west and north, where Sunni insurgents and Shia militiamen, both sides dressed as civilians, control the streets. American and Iraqi soldiers have no idea who their enemies are. And in the rare instances when insurgents are actually captured, American rules and a corrupt Iraqi judicial system have converged to ensure that most are released.
A year ago, the abiding policy question was, How can the United States leave Iraq when there is no functioning army in place to keep the peace? The future of Iraq depends no less today than it did a year ago on a viable Iraqi security force. But the issue may be less a military one—in the conventional sense of clashing armies—than a policing one. If the insurgents are to be defeated, it will have to be by local tough guys in town after town, as happened in the American West in the 1870s. These guys will likely be more ruthless than we would like. But if we don’t let them establish some control—and give them help in maintaining it—any strategies for phased withdrawals or grand political bargains or international constabularies will be irrelevant. To achieve some sort of stability, we must change the way we work with the Iraqi military and police at the local level.