Despite what you may have read, the military situation in Iraq today is positive -- far better than it ever was when we were fighting guerrillas in Vietnam, or when the Soviets were fighting the Afghan mujahedin, or in almost any other major insurgency of the 20th century.
With few exceptions, the insurgents in Iraq are not able to undertake militarily meaningful attacks on U.S. troops. They cannot prevent U.S. forces from moving wherever they want in the country nor can they keep U.S. forces from carrying out the operations they choose to pursue aggressively. This situation contrasts markedly with both the Vietnam and Soviet-Afghan wars, in which insurgents actually besieged U.S. forces at Khe Sanh and isolated a large Soviet garrison at Khost for nearly the entire conflict, among other incidents.
Yes, the Iraqi insurgents have inflicted a steady stream of casualties on U.S. troops with improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, and car bombs, but they are not able to hold ground or attack prepared U.S. forces and fight them toe-to-toe as the North Vietnamese and mujahedin did regularly.
Another piece of good news from Iraq is that the insurgents are offering a mainly nihilistic message. Most skillful revolutionaries promise concrete benefits from their victory. Insurgents frequently work not only to terrorize local villagers but to help improve their lives in small ways.
The Iraqi insurgents offer only fear. They oppose formation of the new Iraqi government but have not offered any alternative. In January 2004, insurgent leader Abu Musab Zarqawi said, "We have declared a bitter war against the principle of democracy and all those who seek to enact it." Eight million Iraqis defied him and voted instead. Today, most Iraqis remain committed to finding a way to make the new government work.
One reflection of this is that Iraqis continue to wait in long lines to join the nascent Iraqi army and police forces, despite a campaign by the insurgents to explode bombs at recruiting stations. Not all recruits are idealistic -- many are simply seeking work or the prestige of being a member of the army or police. But their presence at the recruiting stations proves that the insurgents have neither offered them an alternative, terrorized them sufficiently nor de-legitimized the government enough in their eyes to keep them away.
Perhaps the best news from the region these days is that the Iraqi army is finally producing units able to fight on their own.
According to Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, there are now more than 170,000 "trained and equipped" Iraqi police and military personnel, and more than 105 police and army battalions are "in the fight." Over the next few months, tens of thousands more Iraqi troops will be able to take the field in the struggle against the insurgency. They should number around 250,000 by next summer.
By waging a terrorist campaign, the insurgents have designed a war they can sustain for a long time. Obtaining explosives, making bombs and setting them off does not require much skill, money or even courage. The next year will probably not see a significant reduction in the number of explosions, and it's possible, as the Palestinian intifada and the three-decade-long campaign of violence by the Irish Republican Army show, that this situation may last for many years. It is thus unwise to measure progress in Iraq by the number of deaths or bombs in a given period. Progress must instead be measured in the establishment of a stable and legitimate government and the creation of state structures able to function even in the face of attacks.
One big problem, however, is the paucity of coalition troops. Commanders, as a result, are required to make hard choices among such critical tasks as sealing borders, keeping critical lines of communication clear, defending their own troops, training indigenous forces, clearing insurgent-infested areas and attacking promising insurgent targets.
If the U.S. were to keep its troop levels constant over the next 18 months, the manpower available to perform all of these critical tasks would increase dramatically as Iraqi forces became available to handle basic security functions.
Unfortunately, it does not appear that the Bush administration favors such a course. Repeated rumors -- including a report about U.S. plans to withdraw, leaked by the British Ministry of Defense recently, and statements by the new U.S. ambassador to Iraq -- indicate that the administration would prefer to pull U.S. troops out of Iraq as Iraqi forces become available in larger numbers.
Understandable though that desire is, it is wrongheaded. Now, above all, is the moment when determination and perseverance are most needed. If the U.S. begins pulling troops out prematurely, it runs the risk of allowing the insurgency to grow, perhaps becoming what it now is not -- a real military threat to the government.
If, on the other hand, Bush stays the course and pays the price for success, the prospects for winning will get better every day.