Why the Iraq War is already lost, why we may well lose Afghanistan, and why we are losing the war on terror

Dan Lindley, 10/2/06


 The Iraq War is lost unless the military force on the ground is tripled.  As this will not happen, and because the Iraqi forces being trained are as much or more sectarian fighters than they are supporters of the central government, the War is likely already lost from a US point of view.  Iraqis, however, face years of civil war.  We are also on the way to losing the war in Afghanistan and, and we are losing the war on terror.  Why is the Iraq War lost for the US?

1.  This is no longer mostly an insurgency, but a civil war.  Civil wars are long and brutal, and do not lend themselves to outcomes that result in power sharing, much less democracy.  See: Fearon Testimony .  This is congressional testimony from James Fearon, one of the top political scientists and experts on civil war in the U.S.

2.  The situation in Iraq is getting worse at a fairly rapid rate.  The simplest definition of victory is stability.  Thus, the simplest indicator of a war in the process of being won is that stability is increasing.  Losing means that instability is increasing.  We are losing.  As there is little sign that anything on the ground will change for the better, this war is lost.  On increasing violence and sectarian militia infiltration of the Iraqi Army see: http://www.csis.org/media/csis/pubs/060927_iraq_evolving.pdf a report from the right of center CSIS by Anthony Cordesman, frequent ABC TV commentator, former DoD and Congressional official, and author of 20 books on defense issues ( http://www.csis.org/component/option,com_csis_experts/task,view/type,34/id,3/ ).  Note that Cordesman calls the level of violence short of civil war.

3.  We need 20 troops per 1000 population to stabilize Iraq.  We currently have about 6 troops per thousand, and the likelihood of ramping up is essentially nil.  Thus, we will lose.  Since we know we will lose, we have lost.  On force requirements for stablity operations and nation-building see:  http://www.rand.org/publications/randreview/issues/summer2003/burden.html and http://carlisle-www.army.mil/usawc/parameters/1995/quinliv.htm by James T. Quinlivan, an analyst at the Rand Corporation, which is a think-tank funded by the U.S. DoD.  I have advocated ramping up for several years, but it will not happen.

The only hope I see for a quicker and positive end to the civil war is that the Sunnis will continue with their ongoing realization that the power balance is against them, and make sufficient concessions to prevent further war.  Even though peace would help all sides economically and otherwise, and there is therefore an objective mutual interest in peace, there is too much mutual fear too many intra-sectarian divisions for this to happen.  One piece of good news is the 94% of Iraqis do not want Al Qaeda in their country.  65-80% of Iraqis also want the U.S. out of Iraq immediately: http://abuaardvark.typepad.com/abuaardvark/2006/09/what_iraqis_wan.html (a blog by Williams College professor Marc Lynch with further links to a Washington Post article citing, for example, US Dept. of State polling data).

What will happen in Iraq?  The civil war will rage on and get worse, until there is either a decisive victory (75% chance, see Fearon, above) or a stalemate.  The victory will go to the Shiites (who have 60% of the population) over the Sunnis (20%), and perhaps over the Kurds (20%) as well.  Shiite rule will likely be brutal because Sunni rule was brutal to them.  Iranian influence will be greater after years of supporting fellow Shiites after years of war than it already is today without that much support for so long.  The Kurdish situation of relative autonomy and peace looks good today, but once the war hits full tilt, they may get crushed by both the Shiites and Sunnis, backed by Iraq and Turkey respectively.  Iraq and Turkey are powerful neighbors who have a great shared interest in seeing the Kurds get crushed and thus head off Kurdish independence movements in their own countries.  If it's a stalemate will result in de facto partition.  Objectively, there is enough self interest to drape a confederation over the partition to share oil wealth, create a more general peace, and thus increase profits and investments, but any sort of power sharing is difficult after years of war (see Fearon, above).

Thus, like it or not, we are on the way out because A.  the war has shifted from mostly counterinsurgency to mostly civil war and we do not want to sit atop a civil war; B we are losing the war no matter how it is defined; C. instability has been increasing dramatically since at least last February 22 (the Samarra shrine attack); D. the Iraqis do not want us there; and E. ramping up and/or internationalization will not happen.  As more people come to realize these points (if I am right), then we will leave because staying makes little sense.  How fast we leave and what we do with our remaining influence are the relevant issues.  Winning is not an option. 

If we wish to end the war sooner than later, our only choice is to help the war get to one of its two most likely 'natural' outcomes sooner then later: Shiite victory and brutal dictatorship or stalemate and partition.  As we draw down, we can use our leverage to try to achieve one of those outcomes.  We may not succeed.  The Iraqis may have to fight their way to an outcome.

The U.S. should want the war to end sooner than later because of the risks of regional instability, danger to the world economy, relatively less Iranian influence, and less blood spilled.  Of the two distasteful options, in a situation where there are no options that are both good and realistic, the US should prefer partition.  In addition to the benefits of ending the war sooner than later, a partition will also allow some counterwieght to the Iranians, and allow for some US leverage in part/s of Iraq.  Partition is no panacea, and Turkey may intervene in the Kurdish area no matter the scenario.  It is possible that we have a narrow, and brutally-intepreted, self interest in seeing the war rage on with no definitive winner.  That may be the best way to lessen Iranian influence, but the risks of regional instability will remain high and the blood price will be maximized.

Why we are on the way to losing in Afghanistan

Two reasons.  First, as mentioned, we need 20 troops per thousand population to stabilize a country.  In Iraq we have about 6 per thousand.  In Afghanistan, we have less than 1 (see the first Quinlivan piece, above).  Even at the recent troop level of 20,000, we have less than 1 per thousand because Afghanistan's population is 27,000,000 (larger than Iraq's).  Second the violence is spiking fast, and is unlikely to get better.  It will worsen because Pakistan is withdrawing its armed forces from its Western provinces (N. and S. Waziristan, with more to come), essentially handing them over to the Taliban and Al Qaeda.  The Taliban is assassinating tribal leaders in these areas and consolidating its power.  Hence, the Taliban and AQ are gaining strongholds and safe-havens to conduct operations in Afghanistan (and elsewhere; the Western provinces are becoming pre-9/11 Afghanistan, shielded by the sovereignty of Pakistan).  Because of this, the situation in Afghanistan will only get worse.  These two blogs have extensive coverage of this under-reported situation: http://counterterrorismblog.org/ and http://billroggio.com/ .  Most but not all of the bloggers in the first seem credible to me, and Roggio seems credible to me.  For more info on who these bloggers are, see: http://counterterrorismblog.org/about/ and http://billroggio.com/about/ .

Ceding territory to terrorists and religious radicals may be a sign of instability in Pakistan.  Extensive US operations in Pakistan may also cause instability in Pakistan.  Pakistan has 24-48 nuclear weapons.  Instability and radicalization in Pakistan is the most dangerous *potential* situation in the world today.  Watch Pakistan carefully.

Why we are losing the war on terror

This is not my judgment, but it is the judgment of the recently declassified National Intelligence Estimate, the combined best estimate by 16 US intelligence agencies.  Most reporting on the NIE missed what I think are the central conclusions.  Reporting focused on two competing claims about Iraq.  First, that the war in Iraq was counterproductively making the war on terror worse by breeding and training terrorists.  Second, that victory over jihadists in Iraq would weaken the jihadists (The corollary is that pulling out or loss would strengthen the jihadists).   The parts of the NIE that were declassified are here: http://www.dni.gov/press_releases/Declassified_NIE_Key_Judgments.pdf .  These points are not central for reasons indicated above: the Iraq war is mostly not a Jihadi war, but is instead mostly a civil war, and this trend is increasing over time.  Moreover, we have lost the Iraq War, like it or not.  We may have some influence over what state we leave Iraq in, but we are leaving.

The real headlines from the report are that we are losing the war on terror, that the war on terror should not even be conceptualized as a war, and that the main tools in the campaign against terror are those which will win the hearts and minds of moderate Muslims.  Killing and arresting terrorists is helpful, but is not the main focus. 

Why we are losing, two quotes from the NIE:

"Although we cannot measure the extent of the spread with precision, a large body of all-source reporting indicates that activists identifying themselves as jihadists, although a small percentage of Muslims, are increasing in both number and geographic dispersion."

"We assess that the underlying factors fueling the spread of the movement outweigh its vulnerabilities and are likely to do so for the duration of the timeframe of this Estimate."

Why we are missing the point and missing the center of gravity, two quotes from the NIE:

"...the Muslim mainstream emerges as the most powerful weapon in the war on terror."

"Countering the spread of the jihadist movement will require coordinated multilateral efforts that go well beyond operations to capture or kill terrorist leaders."

In other words, things are getting worse and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.  The main way things will get better is if we go "well beyond" capturing or killing terrorists, and somehow engage the Muslim mainstream in denouncing terror and violence.


We have lost Iraq, are poised to lose Afghanistan, and are losing the war on terror.  Where do we go from here?