A new pall of gloom has settled over the Iraq war. There is no doubt that the insurgency has increased its lethality in recent months, and that can’t be spun away. But neither is it cause for existential despair. We can still beat the insurgency, with the very same methods that have already proven successful in Iraq.
Last year, the U.S. military was faced with a radical Shia revolt led by Muqtada al-Sadr in the south, presenting a ticklish problem. If the U.S. were too heavy-handed in response, it could have lost the tolerance of the crucial majority Shia for its presence. If we are to prevail against the Sunni insurgency, success will look like our victory over Sadr — a messy, imperfect amalgam of military pressure and negotiations, ending with some of the bad guys getting positions in Iraq’s government.
In April 2004, it fell to Maj. Gen. Martin Dempsey’s 1st Armored Division to handle Sadr’s revolt in five southern cities. Dempsey realized that his most important task was to isolate Sadr politically, denying him the support of his fellow Shia. So Dempsey’s information campaign with the Iraqi public came first, and the military operation was supplementary to it. “We reversed the paradigm that we had lived with during my first 30 years in the Army,” says Dempsey.
Dempsey publicly said that he was going to systematically take back the cities, leaving Karbala and Najaf — the cities with especially important mosques — for last. “We were giving the Iraqi people a sense that we were giving [Sadr] a chance to stand down,” Dempsey says.
Eventually, Dempsey went after Sadr’s forces militarily. But he beat them back into the mosques at Karbala and Najaf, and stopped there. There was a negotiated solution, with the U.S. giving up on its demand to arrest Sadr, who was wanted on a murder charge. Importantly, Sadr lost political support during the confrontation, rather than gaining it. “This was very delicately done,” says an administration official.
With his forces still holed up in the mosques, Sadr lived to fight another day. In August 2004, Maj. Gen. Peter Chiarelli’s 1st Cavalry Division had to confront him again. Like Dempsey, Chiarelli realized the key was driving a wedge between the population and Sadr. The fighting in Baghdad was concentrated in the northern part of the slum of Sadr City, so Chiarelli redoubled his infrastructure work in the south: “We let them in the north look at what was happening in the south. We wanted them to say, ‘These guys who are fighting have stopped the improvement, all for what?’”
Again a deal was cut. Sadr’s forces were ousted from the mosques and stopped fighting. Sadr eventually decided to take part in the political process, and when the new elected Iraqi government was formed in May, his movement got two important ministries. Is this a perfect result? No; Sadr is a contemptible thug. In any orderly society he would be behind bars. But Iraq is obviously not orderly. If he is no longer shooting at Americans and his followers are venting their grievances through politics, that is all to the good.
We should be aiming to do the same with the Sunni insurgents (the foreign jihadists are truly irredeemable). That’s why news of the political process in Iraq is just as important as news of the latest bombing. If the balance of Sunni opinion embraces the new Iraq, this could isolate the insurgents within their own community, the same way Sadr was isolated within his. While applying military pressure, we will have to talk to the insurgency’s more reasonable fringes. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has confirmed that these kinds of conversations are taking place, prompting ritual denunciations from some conservatives for “negotiating with terrorists.”
Would that we could simply kill all our enemies in Iraq in a neat black-and-white battle. Alas, we can’t. Which is why the fight against Sadr has to be our model.