Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was the evil face of terrorism in Iraq. Killing him was a huge moral victory and a potent morale boost for a U.S. and allied cause that was looking increasingly beleaguered.
But now what?
Al-Qaeda in Iraq will find a replacement for al-Zarqawi and go on bombing and killing, hoping to incite a fratricidal bloodbath: a Sunni vs. Shiite civil war that would wreck Iraq and defeat the American mission there. We can hope that the follow-up U.S. and Iraqi raids, 17 of them in and around Baghdad in the hours after al-Zarqawi’s death, might yield enough new intelligence to roll up major portions of the al-Qaeda network.
But we also know that al-Qaeda is only part of the Sunni-based insurgency that has killed more than 2,000 American soldiers and Marines and tens of thousands of Iraqis since 2003. Even if al-Qaeda could be neutralized, we still would face a large, aggressive insurgency commanding perhaps 15,000 armed combatants that threatens Iraq’s fledgling democracy and, with it, the core objectives of the U.S. mission in Iraq.
So, if it’s back to business as usual in Iraq, meaning a mainly defensive posture for U.S. troops while they wait for Iraq’s new army and police to take on more of the battle, the gains from killing al-Zarqawi will likely be only temporary.
What alternative would offer better prospects?
In World War II, three Allied victories — Midway in the Pacific, El Alamein in North Africa and Stalingrad in Russia — won at the high tide of Axis conquest proved decisive turning points. Al-Zarqawi’s death, coupled with the simultaneous completion of the new, ethnically balanced Iraqi government, could conceivably prove a comparable turning point.
But only if American forces and their Iraqi allies seize the initiative against a terrorist enemy still wreaking havoc, especially in Baghdad.
What the Iraq war needs now is what followed the Allies’ turning-point victories in World War II — sustained counteroffensives. Six decades ago, those unrelenting offensives against a far more formidable foe ground on until they reached Berlin and Tokyo. In this new 21st century war against radical Islamists using the asymmetrical tactics of terrorism, the immediate equivalent of Berlin and Tokyo is the balance of power on Baghdad’s mean streets.
Restore a reasonable semblance of security in Baghdad and the confidence of millions of Iraqis in the better future we promised them will soar. So, too, would the morale of Iraq’s new, and rapidly improving, armed forces.
As the vile al-Zarqawi well knew, every terrorist car bomb that slaughters civilians further demoralizes Iraqis and discredits both U.S. forces and the new Iraqi government. That’s a victory for the forces of jihad.
Conversely, every terrorist cell uncovered, every arms cache and hoard of explosives found, every roadside bomb discovered and disarmed, every cutthroat jihadist apprehended or killed, and every Iraqi neighborhood kept safe is a victory for our side in this war.
In Baghdad especially, we need many, many more of these victories.
Iraq’s Health Ministry reports that more than 6,000 Iraqis have been killed in Baghdad by terrorist violence so far this year. The continuing failure to secure Iraq’s capital city is eroding the faith of ordinary Iraqis that a better future awaits them and that the new government they chose in three election cycles last year can in time deliver that future.
That’s the case for a U.S.-led counteroffensive aimed at dramatically improving security in Baghdad. This should now be the top priority for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s new government and for the U.S. command in Iraq. Iraq’s security forces now number about 255,000 reasonably well-trained if incompletely equipped soldiers and police. They are fighting far better than they were a year ago, and more of them can be deployed to the Baghdad area.
A Baghdad offensive would require redeploying to the capital region some U.S. military forces already in Iraq. Reinforcing that offensive with several new U.S. brigades (about 5,000 troops each) would greatly increase its prospects for success. One additional U.S. Army brigade in Kuwait has already been ordered to Iraq and a second in Germany has been alerted for deployment there.
Adding one or two additional brigades to help secure Baghdad would be politically difficult for the Bush administration in this year of supposed transition to full Iraqi sovereignty. But it’s certainly doable if the administration has the will. Domestic support for the Iraq war is declining mostly because more and more Americans doubt that it can end well. A successful effort to secure Baghdad and stop the daily toll of car bombings and terrorist attacks would go a long way toward restoring American confidence, too.
Tracking down and killing al-Zarqawi, long the most wanted terrorist in Iraq, was a stunning triumph for American arms. The vital intelligence information that made it possible came from within the ranks of the insurgents, a heartening sign of the already documented divisions among the jihadists. The American Special Operations forces that accomplished this coup are also credited with capturing or killing more than 200 al-Qaeda operatives in Iraq, many of them mid-level or top lieutenants.
Now is the time to exploit this success, and regain the initiative in a war America cannot afford to lose.