The elimination of al-Qaeda commander Abu Musab al-Zarqawi presents an opportunity that should not be missed: Now is the time to take a fresh look at America's goals in Iraq.
The White House's “National Strategy for Victory in Iraq” was written nineteen months ago. In the “medium term,” it looks forward to an Iraq that provides “an inspiring example to reformers in the region.” We're not there yet.
In the “longer term,” Iraq is to become a nation that proves “the fruits of democratic governance,” and serves as “an engine for regional economic growth.” At this point, most Americans would probably settle for less.
That does not imply that most Americans are ready to accept defeat in Iraq, which is what more than a few prominent politicians are advocating – no matter how they spin it or whom they blame. Defeat at the hands of Militant Islamist terrorists and the remnants of Saddam Hussein's forces would be disastrous.
The consequences would unfold over decades. The perception – and perhaps the reality – would be that the U.S. military, despite its technological prowess and the courage of its troops, is no match for enemies armed with cell phones and garage door openers (used to set off Improvised Explosive Devices), butcher knives and video cameras.
Those enemies would soon choose new battlefields, in the not unrealistic expectation that a winning strategy in Iraq can succeed in other parts of the world as well. Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda's second in command, has said, quite specifically, that after expelling the Americans from Iraq, the plan is to carry “the jihad wave” to countries “neighboring Iraq.”
How many suicide bombers would be required before the U.S. would retreat from Afghanistan – following a precedent established not only in Iraq but also, earlier, in Somalia, Beirut, Iran and Vietnam?
As bombs were detonated and throats were slashed in Jordan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and elsewhere, it would become apparent that geopolitical reality had undergone a tectonic shift -- that Militant Islamist forces possess an effective means to impose their will globally, and that Americans do not.
Is there is a middle ground between, on the one hand, U.S. defeat and, on the other, “victory” defined as Iraq blossoming into an economic and political model? Yes, and were it not for the hyper-partisan fog that now engulfs Washington, both political parties would be heading there.
Start with what should be obvious: America is waging war against a network of totalitarian movements of which al-Qaeda is the most lethal. For that reason, we fight al-Qaeda wherever we find al-Qaeda. Today, we find al-Qaeda in Iraq. So we fight al-Qaeda in Iraq. We don't retreat from al-Qaeda in Iraq.
That implies that the elimination of Zarqawi, significant as it is, must be followed by additional battles. Zarqawi's organization must be crippled. It probably is not possible any time soon to so thoroughly disable al-Qaeda in Iraq that it can no longer carry out terrorist attacks or inflict causalities on American troops. What should be feasible: abbreviating the careers of Zarqawi's successors and keeping al-Qaeda forces on the run and in the cross hairs. And effectively communicating that we are doing that.
Saddam loyalists also must be suppressed. That was not accomplished during the initial American-led assault on Saddam's regime. For whatever reasons, the dictator's toughest supporters were allowed to escape and re-group. That mistake needs to be fixed.
And a serious effort to stabilize Baghdad is long overdue. The capital is home to more than a quarter of Iraq's population. If a semblance of order can be restored there, if Shia, Sunni and Kurdish Iraqis can live together in relative security beyond the Green Zone, the symbolic and psychological impact would be enormous.
The National Strategy for Victory in Iraq contends that “neither terrorists, Saddamists nor rejectionists are able to prevent Iraq's political and economic progress.” Unfortunately, that is incorrect -- both grammatically and strategically. The experience of the past three years has demonstrated that as long as terrorist commanders can produce corpses day after day and live to tell the tale, no achievements in non-military realms will be seen as meaningful or durable – not by most Iraqis and not by most Americans.
Now is the time to prioritize: The primary goal should be suppression of the forces once led by Zarqawi and Saddam, particularly, in and around Iraq's capital.
Achieving that goal is the necessary pre-condition for all our other objectives. It is true that we can't win only militarily. But until we demonstrate that we won't be defeated militarily, Iraq's economic and political development will be fragile at best.