- The Washington Times - Friday, January 12, 2007

An article on the rout of the Islamic Courts forces in Somalia in the Jan. 3 Christian Science Monitor ends by citing unnamed “analysts” warning “the speed of the Islamists’ retreat is reminiscent of how insurgencies began in both Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Thus the good news of the battlefield victories is undercut by an attempt to paint a future holding an even worse danger: insurgency. This further promotes a too prevalent misunderstanding of the nature of conflict.

The Islamic Courts, like the Taliban in Afghanistan, sought to exploit a failed state. The Islamic militants fielded an army that captured most of the towns in Somalia, and held the capital Mogadishu for six months. The Taliban did the same, pinning the opposition Northern Alliance into a corner of Afghanistan, while imposing theocratic law on the rest of the country. Territorial control brought more resources to the Islamist cause and allowed terrorist camps to flourish.

In Iraq, the situation was even worse. Saddam Hussein exercised dictatorial control over a regional power with oil wealth to finance his ambitions. Breaking enemy control of the state, with its authority over territory, people and resources, is a major victory. Indeed, it is why wars are fought. Knocking the enemy back to the status of “insurgent” and denying him the means to put an army into the field to contest for control, is the essence of counterinsurgency strategy.

U.S.-led forces in Iraq and Afghanistan are not fighting to win a war, they are fighting to consolidate the victory they won during the swift campaign of regime change. It is likely Islamic Courts fanatics will continue to fight at some lower level of violence. Any coalition that forms in Mogadishu will need to defend its position, likely with the help of the Ethiopian forces whose intervention turned the tide. U.S. airstrikes also hounded fleeing militants.

Because insurgencies are much smaller than conventional warfare, they can be sustained for a long time. This is not a sign of strength but of weakness. Small arms, explosives and communications gear (such as cell and satellite phones) are easy to acquire. A pool of militants willing to risk their lives against high odds can be recruited. But such a force cannot seize control of anything. It can only kill people and disrupt society. Given the religious zealotry of the Islamic terrorists, peace may never be attained, if defined as the absence of all acts of violence.

An alarmist report from the liberal Center for American Progress claimed: “The Taliban have become increasingly sophisticated, employing new warfare tactics. They are now using improvised explosive devices and suicide bombs, tactics that appear to have been imported from Iraq. They are also attacking soft targets, such as schools, clinics, and government offices, rather than coalition forces.” Falling back to terrorism against civilian targets is not “sophistication.” Relying on such weapons and tactics indicates a movement small in numbers and capability.

Over one-third of American casualties in Iraq are the result of roadside bombs, the chosen weapon of those too weak to engage in combat. Most other casualties have come during offensive patrols and raids against insurgent bases, which have inflicted losses on the enemy orders of magnitude heavier. Al Qaeda and the Saddam loyalists are no closer to winning control of Iraq than when U.S. troops stormed into Baghdad in 2003. A movement that cannot advance beyond insurgency cannot win. As long as the Iraqi government remains in friendly hands, the core U.S. objective is fulfilled.

The nature and scale of the conflict in Iraq must be judged realistically as plans are drawn up for a surge of American combat brigades into Baghdad. The level of violence in the Iraqi capital should be reduced. The first priority of any regime, democratic or otherwise, is to provide basic security and public infrastructure so people can go about their business. In the long run, only Iraqi security forces can do this.

However, the measure of success cannot be set at zero hostile incidents or the outcome will be foredoomed to “failure” in the media. The American public must accept that violence is the norm in world affairs, while keeping their eyes on the larger prize of political dominance.

The proper focus of U.S. strategy is to destroy the only movement that could seize state power, that of radical cleric Sheik Muqtada al-Sadr, who has a political party, a militia and support from Iran. He has already infiltrated the state, as evidenced by the chanting of his name by guards at the execution of Saddam. This was clearly an attempt to arrogate to his movement the trappings of sovereignty. This cannot be allowed to go further.

But as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on Fox News the day after the president’s speech announcing the troop surge, there has been a shortage of “reliable” Iraqi forces to confront Sheik al-Sadr. This is the need that justifies the increase of U.S. forces in Iraq, not mere insurgency.

William R. Hawkins is senior fellow for national security studies at the US Business and Industry Council.

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