Iraq: Three Years On

Iraq: Three Years On

Three years after the war in Iraq began, experts weigh in on whether U.S. forces are winning or losing.

March 10, 2006 10:15 am (EST)

Expert Roundup
CFR fellows and outside experts weigh in to provide a variety of perspectives on a foreign policy topic in the news.


Hundreds of Iraqis have died since insurgents decimated the dome of a shrine holy to Shiites, sparking the postwar period’s worst stretch of internecine violence. A growing number of analysts agree that Iraq is experiencing what could be described as a low-intensity civil war. Others suggested the country has reached a turning point of sorts, where reprisal attacks by sectarian militias have escalated the conflict into a Lebanon-style state of perpetual violence. All of which begs the question: Three years after U.S. troops stormed into Baghdad, is this a war Washington is winning or losing? Is the situation on the ground sliding further into chaos, or will this remain a more or less manageable conflict—or low-intensity insurgency—that will sputter on indefinitely, regardless of U.S. actions?

More From Our Experts’s Lionel Beehner asked a number of prominent analysts, military experts, and journalists for their assessment of the state of affairs in Iraq, three years on, and which policy recommendations they have for U.S. planners.

Hilary Synnott, Consulting Senior Fellow, International Institute for Strategic Studies

Much depends on the formation and conduct of the new Iraqi government following the recent elections and, particularly, on whether the Iraqi people start actively rejecting the continuation of insurgency in their midst. Clearly, the security situation remains deeply worrying. But there have been considerable achievements, especially the establishment of a constitution and democratic elections held on that basis. These provide both an incentive for further progress and a foundation for its consolidation over the longer term.

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Wars and Conflict


As a former British diplomat, I would not presume to offer recommendations to the United States. But, when serving in a civilian capacity in southern Iraq after the 2003 conflict and later in Pakistan and Afghanistan, I was struck by the inadequacy of steps taken to remedy deficiencies in the civilian field identified in previous ’state-building’ crises. In particular, government procedures to deploy and manage sufficient numbers of appropriately qualified civilians on the ground at an early stage have proved wanting in the past and, to all appearances and despite work currently in hand, still appear to be fraught with problems.

Nir Rosen, fellow, New America Foundation; author of forthcoming In the Belly of the Green Bird: The Triumph of the Martyrs in Iraq

The Bush administration lost the war in Iraq after it defeated the Iraqi military, creating a vacuum that was filled by armed gangs, militias, insurgents and radical clerics. Since April 2003 it has only become further embroiled in failure. Its initial pretexts for the war were proven to be gross distortions at best and deliberate lies at worst, subverting democracy at home. Subsequent justifications, such as spreading democracy, also failed, since not only has Iraq become a haven for jihadis, but jihadi ideology—not democracy—has spread and strengthened in the region. Iraqis have been fighting a low-scale civil war since 2004, which is now spreading throughout the region, with neighboring countries supporting their proxies. The standard of living for many Iraqis has plummeted, the insurgency has not been weakened, sectarianism has become enshrined, and Iran is able to act with impunity. Only Kurdistan is a success, and it will soon be independent.

The Bush administration should initiate an immediate withdrawal from Iraq. This would take more than six months to complete so they must begin at once. The American occupation has provoked civil war and worsened relations between the West and the Muslim world for decades to come. American soldiers are not preventing the civil war, not protecting Iraqis, not improving the security situation and not winning hearts and minds. The American occupation of Iraq has not only destroyed the country, creating a collapsed state and the prospect of Iraq’s bloody disintegration, but the entire region is on a precipice, with reform, regime change, and democracy now given a bad reputation, political Islam stronger than ever, jihadi ideology rejuvenated. It has long been time to admit failure and recognize that American cannot repair the situation; it can also stop making it worse. There is nothing that President Bush or U.S. policymakers can do; it is up to Iraqis now.

Michael O’Hanlon, Senior Fellow for Foreign Policy Studies, Brookings Institution

It would be premature at best to say we are winning. It would also be inconsistent with the data, and the possibility of political transformation, to say we are losing. We are stuck on a fairly mediocre and quite violent plateau, in terms of the economy and Iraqis’ quality of life. That assessment is, to my mind, the clear one that comes out of a consideration of all data and all relevant trends. If right, it argues against hasty withdrawal. But it also suggests that three years into this, time is not yet on our side, and it may ultimately become our enemy (especially if the political side of things deteriorates).

In addition to fully funding existing plans for infrastructure and health care, the United States should work with the Iraqi government to develop a massive job- creation program. To some extent, military commanders have being doing this piecemeal with their commander emergency-response program funds. But these efforts have been under-funded and unsystematic. What is needed is a Roosevelt-like pledge that any honest Iraqi who wants a job can have one. The goals, pure and simple, are to reduce the number of Iraqis willing to fire grenades at passing police officers, plant explosives along the routes of troop convoys, or otherwise aid and abet the insurgency. In other words, the purpose is to win a war that is not yet won, but must be.

Marina Ottaway, senior associate, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Democracy and Rule of Law Project

We are not winning the war. We are not losing the war either. We are no longer in a war against a specific insurgency—although the insurgency still exists. We have now entered a very different situation, with multiple intersecting conflicts between Shiite and Sunni groups and militias, with the United States reduced to a spectator, unable to intervene because it is not clear who the enemy is.
More From Our Experts

U.S. policy at this point focuses on the formation of a government of national unity. Ambassador [Zalmay] Khalilzad is spending a lot of time in trying to put together such a government and, in particular, making sure that Sunnis get representation disproportionate to their numbers. By doing so, he risks alienating the Shiites. In the meantime, with every day of delay, the central government is becoming more irrelevant to what is happening in the country. Power clearly rests with the militias and the clerics. We need to engage with the people who have power, rather than pretending that the elected parliament and the politicians vying for position can control the country.

Bing West, author of The March Up: Taking Baghdad with the US Marines and No True Glory: A Firsthand Account of the Battle for Fallujah

No reasonable observer can say [we are winning]. It depends upon disbanding the Shiite militias and the emergence of true Iraqi leaders who will hunt down the insurgent cells. While successful Iraqi politics can strip some Sunni support away from the insurgency, there will be no Sunni epiphany embracing a Shiite-dominated democracy. The hardcore insurgents—whether Baathists, jihadis or Sunni nationalists—have to be killed until the remainder quit or retreat to Syria. That means a willingness to engage in small unit combat.

In Fallujah, Marine squads engaged in 200 no-quarter firefights inside rooms, an implacable ferocity the jihadis never expected. An Iraqi inside devastated Fallujah told me: "Your soldiers are the strongest tribe." Since then, the Sunnis and Shiites have attacked each other, while avoiding the strongest tribe. In the absence of Americans, the insurgents believe they will drive the predominantly Shiite Iraqi security forces out of the Sunni triangle. Without the U.S. presence, a spontaneous "wilding," or uprising, as in April of 2004 and February of 2006, would succeed, shattering the country into three enclaves. It is no compliment that Americans, having set out to build a unified nation, are viewed as the strongest among warring tribes. Iraqi leadership, extending from the rifle company to the prime minister, is the critical defect. Because they lack brave leaders, the government forces are not yet capable of standing on their own. The Iraqi military is improving; the core reason is that the Iraqi soldiers believe an American unit will rescue them in extremis. The police, however, are feckless in the Sunni cities and untrustworthy in the Shiite cities.

More on:

Wars and Conflict


If a strong, nonsectarian leader takes over at Interior to lead the police, the prospects look reasonable. If [Prime Minister Ibrahim al-] Jaafari remains as the cat’s paw of the Shiite militias, the U.S. military must systematically place the police under the Iraqi military in city after city and back up the Iraqi commanders as they fire the subversives. Although that guarantees conflict, the Interior Ministry and the police must be cleaned out.

Michael Rubin, editor, Middle East Quarterly; resident scholar, American Enterprise Institute

We are still winning. Iraqis have gone to the polls three times. Rather than spawn a refugee crisis, more than a million Iraqis have returned to their homeland. Newspapers flourish. Rather than rubberstamp some great leader, Iraqi politicians debate, compromise, and practice political brinksmanship. The voices that are most negative about Iraq are those that have never been there. Still, victory is anything but certain. As Washington politics becomes more shrill and commitment to succeed waivers, we risk snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.

Firstly, stop looking for some magic political formula to end the insurgency; it does not exist. The Iraqi insurgents can no more be bought off politically than the [Maoist rebel movement] Shining Path in Peru could. Second, stop pursuing a Sunni strategy. If there is any strategy, it should be an Iraqi strategy. Open U.S. outreach to the Sunnis enables the Iranian government to portray itself as protector of the Shiites. Thirdly, recognize that the U.S. debate influences events in Iraq. Congressmen are elected because of their judgment, not because of their military records. They express poor judgment when they speak in a way that emboldens the enemy, and should be rebuked when they do so. Lastly, it is not enough to have a strategy to advance Iraqi democracy. It is also necessary to have a strategy to make sure our opponents fail. Iranian influence is on the upswing because our plans are limited to paper, while Tehran’s take reality into account.


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