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Defining and Achieving Victory in Iraq

by Todd Keister

The Iraq war was won militarily with the overthrow of Saddam and his regime, this essay argues, but this did not achieve policy success, which involves building a viable democracy. We need to more clearly define what constitutes “victory” and how to achieve it in this new type of conflict, which is part of the broader struggle against Islamic extremism, the author maintains. He calls for ruthless neutralization of the enemy, after which hearts and minds can be more readily won. — Ed.

The war in Iraq is a phrase repeated every day by media outlets and politicians throughout the world. In the debate about how to proceed in Iraq, the unique nature of this conflict and its significance as a theater in the larger war against terror has been lost. More importantly, while “victory” is regularly talked about, no serious consideration has been given to exactly what that means.

The Bush administration has indeed made tactical errors in Iraq — that is to be expected in military operations — but the most serious mistakes have been in the language the president has used to describe the conflict.

As a military contest, the Iraq war was won years ago. When President Bush made his much derided “mission accomplished” carrier landing, the nation of Iraq, ruled by dictator Saddam Hussein, had been defeated, its military crushed and forced to surrender, and America, with its coalition partners, were in control of the entire country. As of today, we remain in control and there is a freely elected government in place. Having said that, there is no denying that a great deal of sectarian violence, crime, corruption, and a low level insurgency are at work in Iraq. U.S. forces are working to stabilize the country and, until recently, were having very little success. Intelligent discussion as to how to proceed would be welcome; but there are still many American politicians who have no other ideas but to summarily withdraw our troops.

The biggest mistake the administration has made has been continually referring to the situation in Iraq as a “war.” By using that term, they have set up a scenario wherein the victory so often talked about cannot be achieved. If what our soldiers and marines achieved in the spring of 2003 was not victory, then what is? Moreover, if we haven’t won yet, what is victory going to look like?The Mission
The immediate mission in Iraq was to remove Saddam Hussein from power and to prevent his use or acquisition of weapons of mass destruction. These goals were achieved in a stunning military victory; crushing that nation’s armed forces in only three weeks. That was the military objective.

The secondary goal was to establish a functioning democracy in the country, with the aim of addressing the root causes of Muslim extremism. That was a foreign policy objective. Terrorists, so the reasoning goes, draw their recruits from disaffected youths, who live under totalitarian rule and have few prospects for gainful employment and no hope of improving their position in society. The belief was, and still is, that by creating a democratic and civil society Muslims will benefit from the Western way of life and thus be unlikely to fall prey to the message of the jihadists. People concerned with running a business or saving to buy a new car are less likely to be enticed by the false glory of blowing themselves to pieces in the act of killing innocent women and children.

Perhaps the aspiration of establishing a free society in Iraq is too ambitious. But, as columnist Charles Krauthammer has said, the goal is too important not to try.A New Kind of War
The central problem is that this war on terror is an entirely new type of conflict. During World War II, we fought an enemy that wore uniforms, held allegiance to a nation state, and (in the European theater) generally obeyed the rules of war. Today, we fight an enemy that recognizes no national government; an enemy with the nebulous goal of establishing a new Muslim caliphate to dominate the world, and whose soldiers often prefer death to life — even in victory. When faced with such an enemy, our definitions of victory and defeat need to be carefully considered.

Another problem is that the Global War on Terrorism is itself a misnomer. Terrorism is a tactic, not an identifiable enemy. The enemy is Islamic fascism, or if you prefer, Islamic extremism or jihadism. Whatever you call it, the enemy is a widespread movement intent upon destroying Western civilization and subsuming the population of the world into the Muslim umma, or family, and killing all who refuse to submit. Their Islamic paradise would be a theocratic dictatorship, governed by the tenets of the backward and cruel sharia law; where offenses such as listening to music, shaving your face, or being a homosexual are punishable by death, and where woman who are victims of rape are murdered by their own families to erase the woman’s shame.

This war does not look like other wars. Victory will not come with a surrender ceremony on the deck of a battleship or a passing of the armies. This war is a savage conflict against enemies who cannot be placated. Their ‘army’ is not made up of soldiers, as we understand that term. “Winning” a war that is a monumental clash of two differing civilizations is different from liberating Europe from its Nazi occupiers. The Islamic fascists will not surrender; victory comes with each passing week that the terrorists are unable to carry out strikes against American citizens or interests. Insofar as the creation of a democratic Iraq is a component of the larger war on terror, we lose that fight only if we leave on terms other than our own; but we have to be clear about what those terms are.

The Bush administration has been criticized for committing our military to an open-ended mission in Iraq and for lacking an exit strategy. While most of the criticism has been politically motivated, the president has failed to properly articulate the goals of the Iraq operation. While leaving a democratic Iraq capable of “sustaining, governing and defending itself” is clear enough, it lacks specificity and an emphasis on the responsibility of the Iraqis for achieving such an end.

The current surge strategy appears to be achieving success, and most importantly places emphasis on increasing the role of the Iraqi government and security forces. As for an exit strategy, today, more than 60 years after the end of ‘major combat operations’ in World War II, more than 140,000 American troops remain stationed in Germany, Japan, and Korea; still without any “exit strategy” for these deployments.Defining “Victory”
America’s stated goal upon entering World War I was to “make the world safe for democracy,” and less than two decades later Hitler and Tojo were preparing to start World War II. Our stated goal in that conflict, according to the Atlantic Charter signed by President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill, was to allow all peoples the right to choose their own form of government. While we soundly defeated the Nazis, President Roosevelt’s shortsighted policies and poor handling of the Soviet menace condemned Eastern Europe to four decades of communist dictatorships. America then spent the next 48 years fighting the bitter and costly Cold War against communist expansionism. We won the war, but failed to achieve the policy goal of bringing freedom to all of Europe. Yet no one has tried seriously to make the case, then or now, that we lost either of those wars.

As for the comparisons made between the Vietnam War and the Iraq occupation, most have little merit. While all American deaths are tragic, only three thousand soldiers have lost their lives in Iraq. At the current rate of soldier deaths, the Iraq conflict would have to continue for another seventy-one years to reach the death toll of Vietnam. Other comparisons are apt however; in both conflicts, our military dominated the battlefield and have been unnecessarily hampered by political considerations. In Vietnam, our troops would move into a region, rout the enemy troops, and then leave. Until this year, we had been using the same tactics in Iraq. The key difference is that, in Vietnam, we were fighting against a nation-state that was controlling and directing both regular forces and civilian insurgents; a government that could have been forced to surrender.

In Iraq, we’ve already won a military victory, but continue to fight a faceless and disorganized enemy, with few identifiable leaders who could offer capitulation even if they wanted to. The operation’s opponents tell us that far too many lives have been lost, and speak darkly about the ‘spilling of American blood.’ Meanwhile, during the same time period here at home, more than 65,000 Americans have been murdered in violent crimes. No one is claiming that the situation in America is ‘out of control’, nor are they calling for the police to pull out of our major cities because of the hopeless situation.

On one point, the war’s critics are correct: Ultimately, it is the Iraqis who will determine the success or failure of their democracy. The notion that we are losing a ‘war’ in Iraq is preposterous. Ancient sectarian and ethnic hatreds have been unleashed with the fall of Saddam Hussein — not unlike what occurred in Yugoslavia after the fall of communism. Winning a war and successfully building a viable democracy are two very different endeavors, and it is the Bush administration’s failure to differentiate between the two that allows critics to make the public believe we are losing a war we have already won. If building and maintaining a peaceful democracy is considered a war, then all the enemy has to do to win is maintain enough sporadic violence to get on the evening news.

What all this means is that our definition of victory needs to be made clearer and explained to the American people. The military victory has been won in Iraq — and in spectacular fashion. It is vital that we clearly define what victory is and differentiate between military success and foreign policy achievement. Victory on the battlefield is not the same as success of policy. If we ultimately leave Iraq, and the government falls or the country degenerates into chaos, it is not a lost war, it is a failure of policy; a policy that failed because of the lack of commitment by the Iraqis themselves.

Even a full-blown civil war breaking out in Iraq should not be defined as ‘losing.’ Iraqis slaughtering one another by the thousands does not represent a military defeat for the United States; it is a tragic and unintended consequence of toppling the Hussein regime. As long as Iraq is not under the control of a hostile government trying to obtain weapons of mass destruction, and is not a safe haven for terrorists to train and equip themselves with impunity, America is winning.Achieving the Policy Goal in Iraq
The administration’s belief that Iraqis would welcome American forces after years of suffering under a cruel dictatorship, failed to take into consideration two important points: the presence of militant factions intent upon resisting American occupation and the fact that most people are not particularly interested in right and wrong — they want to be safe. As history has shown us time and again, a population will turn to anyone, from Mussolini to the Taliban, in order to be safe from chaos and to have the trains run on time. President Bush may well have erred when he embraced the belief that all men yearn to be free; as Sallust once said, “Few men desire liberty; most men wish only for a just master.”

Building legitimacy for the new government and avoiding the killing of innocents is a key element of the Defense Department’s counterinsurgency method. What is missing, however, is the ruthlessness required to neutralize the enemy. The counterinsurgent can win the hearts and minds of the population, but when the terrorists come to your door in the dark of night, you’ll swear allegiance to them on the spot in order to stay alive. As Charles Colson once succinctly stated, “When you’ve got them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow.”

During World War II, the United States and its allies bombed civilian population centers, killing millions of non-combatants. Today, we eschew bombing, send our soldiers into urban street fighting against non-uniformed civilian terrorist fighters, and then arrest them for murder if they kill the wrong civilians. No less a military thinker than Karl Von Clausewitz observed the folly of this weak posture and the need for ruthless tactics against such enemies:

“Let us accept the risk of repaying cruelty with cruelty, of answering violence with more violence. It will then be easy for us to overtake the enemy and to draw him back within the limits of moderation and humanity.”

In Iraq, our strategy should include significant expenditures for building infrastructure, creating jobs, and distributing aid, as well as all reasonable measures to avoid civilian casualties. Simultaneously however, military operations conducted against terrorists must ruthlessly pursue the enemy and not be hampered in any way by concerns about offending the sensibilities of the populace. Our soldiers are currently being placed in deadly combat and denied air and armor support because of concerns about civilian casualties. Unfortunately, our enemy is made up of civilians. Collateral damage should always be avoided where possible, but only when consistent with maintaining the best level of protection for our troops and ensuring a successful conclusion to the mission. If it is apparent to the population that innocent civilians are dying because of the terrorist civilians living in their midst, the Iraqi public will be more likely to call 911 when they see terrorists moving in next door or setting up a roadside bomb.

Concerns of ‘inflaming’ the population must be balanced with the need impose the rule of law and providing our troops the support they deserve. After decisive and violent destruction of the enemy, hearts and minds that are more compliant can be won over through such things as infrastructure building and provision of goods and services to the public.

America must declare victory in Iraq, and make clear that its mission there is not to prop up its weak government, but to ensure that the nation does not revert to a haven for terrorists or a hostile dictatorship. Differentiating between waging war and implementing policy is critical to maintaining public support and for providing a clear framework for decision-making.

To properly conduct our operations in Iraq and elsewhere, it is vital that we understand the nature of this conflict, and that Iraq is merely a part of the larger struggle against Islamic fascism, and not a “war” in any traditional sense of the word. Americans are a righteous and generous people, and so cannot understand the blind, nihilistic hatred that confronts us. Difficult as it may be, we must not be afraid to turn our faces toward this enemy and its millions of sympathizers who seek to annihilate us. Then, perhaps, we Americans will be able to marshal the courage to do what we must for the survival of our civilization.

Without the will to unmercifully crush the enemy and his sympathizers wherever they are found, winning hearts and minds is a losing proposition. Distasteful as it may be, in order to prevail we must kill the enemy where he lives. We should take heed of Clausewitz’s warning:

“The fact that slaughter is a horrifying spectacle must make us take war more seriously, but not provide an excuse for gradually blunting our swords in the name of humanity. Sooner or later someone will come along with a sharp sword and hack off our arms.

Or our heads.End.


Todd Keister is a 17-year veteran of the New York State Police, currently serving in the Bureau of Criminal Investigation as a lieutenant. He has previously served as a trooper, academy instructor, assistant zone commander, and director of field investigations for the governor’s office. He also served as a Navy Reserve Intelligence Specialist for the Defense Intelligence Agency from 2000 – 2005. He has authored a guide on vehicle theft and is a contributing writer for the Encyclopedia of Police Science. Lieutenant Keister is a graduate of the Navy and Marine Corps Intelligence Training Center, and he holds a master’s degree in criminal justice from the University at Albany. He resides in upstate New York with his wife and two daughters.

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