War Stories

There Are Four Iraq Wars

How many of them can we win?

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates

I came home from Iraq in September 2006 with a paradox ($) on my mind: How was it that we were making tangible progress in developing Iraq’s security forces, government, and economy, yet the overall security situation was worsening?

Thanks to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, I now have an answer: Our strategic stagnation results from the fact that we are fighting four wars, not one. According to Gates: “One is Shi’a on Shi’a, principally in the south; the second is sectarian conflict, principally in Baghdad, but not solely; third is the insurgency; and fourth is al Qaida, and al Qaida is attacking, at times, all of those targets.” The multifaceted nature of these four wars has frustrated American strategy since 2003. Successes in one area produce setbacks in the others, with al-Qaida hovering above the fray to spoil progress whenever it threatens to bring stability to Iraq, as they did by bombing the al-Askari Mosque in Samarra in February 2006 after the successful Iraqi elections. Consequently, any strategies implementing the “counterinsurgency playbook,” smart as those plans may be, will necessarily prove insufficient because we aren’t just fighting an insurgency anymore.

Gates’ first war in the south is a classic internecine political struggle between Shiite factions seeking dominance over the south’s oil-rich land and its religiously significant cities such as Najaf and Karbala. American politicians and generals have struggled mightily to control these tensions since 2003; Coalition Provisional Authority proconsul Paul Bremer spent enormous amounts of time juggling the interests and intrigues of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, rebel cleric Muqtada Sadr, and secular Shiite aspirants to power like Ayad Allawi and Ahmad Chalabi. Today, the problem is that Iraq is governed by a fragile Shiite coalition, led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which relies on all kinds of Shiite groups for its power. Any efforts to stamp out the Shiite-on-Shiite conflict will inflame Maliki’s base and possibly destroy his government. The same is true of efforts to neutralize Sadr and his Jaish al-Mahdi militia. Thus, stopping the first war would undermine the goal of building a legitimate and stable government for Iraq.

The second war, the bloody sectarian conflict, is an even thornier question. The textbook approach for managing internal tension calls for a massive imposition of force and control, which is how Saddam kept order before his fall and how Tito controlled Yugoslavia. The United States has chosen not to do this, both because it lacks the troops  in Iraq to impose order, and because it recognizes that such a police state would undermine its goals for creating a liberal democracy. So, the United States has opted instead for a lighter approach, seeking a “political” solution to the sectarian conflict that would bring together warring Shiite and Sunni factions. However, every attempt to reach out to Sunni militants is impeded by simultaneous U.S. efforts to crush the Sunni insurgency, and every attempt to rein in the Shiite militias threatens the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government, so these political overtures invariably fail.

Likewise, American efforts to implement “Counterinsurgency 101” to win the third war have faltered because they fail to deal with the other wars. Take, for instance, the much-touted effort to “stand up” the Iraqi security forces so we could “stand down” American forces. Indigenous army and police personnel have the requisite language, cultural, and political capability to effectively police their population. From Algeria to Malaya to the Balkans, successful peacemakers and counterinsurgents have achieved success by leveraging indigenous forces to provide security for the population. But in Iraq, this counterinsurgency strategy backfires. As Stephen Biddle wrote in Foreign Affairs, building the Iraqi army and police—a first step to beating insurgents—has merely trained and equipped the partisans fighting Iraq’s sectarian civil war. The same can be said for our efforts to rebuild the Iraqi economy and infrastructure. Rebuilding the economy is essential to gaining the popular support needed to weaken the insurgency. But by ceding control over much of those projects to the nascent Iraqi government, driven by its sectarian pedigree, we ensured that those projects would be doled out inequitably. The resulting disparity between reconstruction in Sunni and Shiite areas has only provided more fuel for the sectarian civil war which now engulfs Iraq.

Finally, we have the fourth war with al-Qaida. Gates rightly suggests that they play the role of spoiler in Iraq, intervening whenever and wherever they detect progress with a spectacular attack, such as the August 2003 bombing of the U.N. compound in Baghdad or the February 2006 Samarra mosque bombing.  However, what’s less appreciated is the interplay between coalition efforts to crush al-Qaida (a Sunni Muslim terrorist organization), contradictory efforts to make peace with or destroy native Iraqi Sunni insurgents, and the larger effort to enfranchise Sunnis as part of the Iraqi government. Counterinsurgency expert Ahmed Hashim writes that the ham-fisted U.S. military often conflated these goals during its initial efforts in 2003 and 2004, creating a general animus toward the United States among Iraqi Sunnis that persists today. Ironically, al-Qaida and its foreign militants are quite unpopular in Iraq. Most Iraqis I met in Diyala (both Sunni and Shiite) considered al-Qaida to be outsiders and troublemakers. Nonetheless, coalition moves against al-Qaida are popularly seen by Iraqis as attacks on Sunnis generally, and they tend to undermine America’s larger efforts to bring Sunnis into the fold.

America has sacrificed more than 3,000 men and women, and $500 billion, to fight a war in Iraq that we have never fully understood. For nearly a year, senior administration officials refused to use the phrases “insurgency” or “guerilla war,” only changing their rhetoric when their top general in the Middle East contradicted them publicly. Today, it is clear that Iraq has mutated into something more than just an insurgency or civil war, and it will take much more than cherry-picking counterinsurgency’s “best practices” to win. Secretary Gates appears to be both intellectually honest and curious enough to find the right words to describe this war—these wars. Finding and executing the right strategies to fight them will be much tougher.