August 31, 2005 | Scripps Howard News Service

Strategic Thinking

If American forces were not in Iraq, they'd have to be sent there. 

At least that would be the case if Americans were serious about waging a war against militant Islamism. The fact is that al-Qaeda in Iraq is the most active and efficiently lethal branch of that transnational movement. Month after bloody month, its commander, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, deploys suicide bombers, takes hostages and cuts off heads.

It does not appear that Osama bin Laden is nearly so industrious.

Zarqawi is evil but not foolish. If his aim were merely to get Americans to leave Iraq there is a simple means to that end: Stop fighting. Were he and his followers to lie low for, say, six months, American military commanders would probably conclude – with relief — that their primary mission had been accomplished. 

Under pressure from Republican members of Congress looking toward the 2006 elections, the White House would substantially reduce troop levels. It would be postulated that, with al-Qaeda no longer in the equation, Iraqi units should be able to handle a few thousand Baathist insurgents. 

Once Americans were out the door, Zarqawi could re-start his offensive, weakening the government through resumed bombings and assassinations and then staging a coup.

Zarqawi doesn't do that, one must suppose, because his goal is not to get Americans out of Iraq but to be seen on television screens around the world fighting Americans; and, he believes, eventually to claim credit for forcing Americans to turn tail and run. That would establish his legend. That would prove that bin Laden was right along: America is like the World Trade Towers – it looks big and strong but once hit, it quickly collapses.

That the U.S. cannot afford to lose to al-Qaeda in Iraq should be obvious. That the U.S. is fighting al-Qaeda in Iraq in the best possible way is debatable. Andrew F. Krepinevich, Jr., a retired army lieutenant colonel and the author of a well-regarded book on Vietnam, argues in the September/October issue of Foreign Affairs that while the Bush administration has the right goals, it lacks a coherent strategy to reach them. “The United States and its coalition partners have never settled on a strategy for defeating the insurgency,” he insists.

The administration's critics, he adds, also have done no strategic thinking. They have merely proposed “an accelerated timetable for withdrawal” with vague hopes about what might happen after.

Krepinevich makes the case for an “oil-spot strategy.” He would have American and Iraqi military forces provide intensive security to key areas, then gradually expand control over additional sections of the country — “hence the image of an expanding oil spot.” 

Reconstruction and development would be confined to the secured areas for safety's sake, because resources are limited, and to provide further incentives for Iraqi populations to assist with their defense. U.S. commanders who show an aptitude for this sort of unconventional warfare – not the kind of war Pentagon planners prepared for in recent decades – would be promoted and retained in the field rather than rotated in and out.

Other strategies can be devised and should be considered. For example, a strong argument can be made for taking the war, sooner rather than later, to regimes such as those in Syria and Iran that are providing material support to forces targeting Americans. 

A little over two years ago, when the US went into Iraq, the belief was wide-spread that America's smart bombs and sophisticated technology would “shock and awe” the enemy, destroying his will to fight. Not for the first, this enemy was underestimated. The pyrotechnics did not faze him.  

Instead, he has found a way to use vivid televised images of bloodshed to “shock and awe” us. An increasing number of Americans at home – though few on the battlefield — have lost their will to fight and now argue that the U.S. should accept defeat. To some – Cindy Sheehan and her friends, for example – defeat is what the United States deserves.

In other words, America's primary enemy has a serious strategy. The job of the White House and the Pentagon is to be absolutely certain that America has a strategy that is better.  

Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is the president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies a policy institute focusing on terrorism.

Read the Spanish translation.



Al Qaeda