SOURCE: WSJ (9-28-07)
Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the consensus of American strategists has been that the best way to fight a cellular terrorist organization like al Qaeda is through a combination of targeted strikes against key leaders and efforts to discredit al Qaeda's takfiri ideology in the Muslim community. Precision-guided munitions and special forces have been touted as the ideal weapons against this sort of group, because they require a minimal presence on the ground and therefore do not create the image of American invasion or occupation of a Muslim country.
A correlative assumption has often been that the visible presence of Western troops in Muslim lands creates more terrorists than it eliminates. The American attack on the Taliban in 2001 is often held up now--as it was at the time--as an exemplar of the right way to do things in this war: Small numbers of special forces worked with indigenous Afghan resistance fighters to defeat the Taliban and drive out al Qaeda without the infusion of large numbers of American ground forces. For many, Afghanistan is the virtuous war (contrasting with Iraq) not only because it was fought against the group that planned the 9/11 attacks, but also because it was fought in accord with accepted theories of fighting cellular terrorist organizations.
This strategy failed in Iraq for four years--skilled U.S. special-forces teams killed a succession of al Qaeda in Iraq leaders, but the organization was able to replace them faster than we could kill them. A counterterrorism strategy that did not secure the population from terrorist attacks led to consistent increases in terrorist violence and exposed Sunni leaders disenchanted with the terrorists to brutal death whenever they tried to resist. It emerged that "winning the hearts and minds" of the local population is not enough when the terrorists are able to torture and kill anyone who tries to stand up against them....
The influx of American forces in support of a counterinsurgency strategy--more than 4,000 went into Anbar--allowed U.S. commanders to take hold of the local resentment against al Qaeda by promising to protect those who resisted the terrorists. When American forces entered al Qaeda strongholds like Arab Jabour, the first question the locals asked is: Are you going to stay this time? They wanted to know if the U.S. would commit to protecting them against al Qaeda retribution. U.S. soldiers have done so, in Anbar, Baghdad, Baqubah, Arab Jabour and elsewhere. They have established joint security stations with Iraqi soldiers and police throughout urban areas and in villages. They have worked with former insurgents and local people to form "concerned citizens" groups to protect their own neighborhoods. Their presence among the people has generated confidence that al Qaeda will be defeated, resulting in increased information about the movements of al Qaeda operatives and local support for capturing or killing them.
The result was a dramatic turnabout in Anbar itself--in contrast to the 1,000 recruits of last year, there have already been more than 12,000 this year. ...
What lessons does this example hold for future fights in the War on Terror? First, defeating al Qaeda in Iraq requires continuing an effective counterinsurgency strategy that involves American conventional forces helping Iraqi Security Forces to protect the population in conjunction with targeted strikes. Reverting to a strategy relying only on targeted raids will allow al Qaeda to re-establish itself in Iraq and begin once again to gain strength. In the longer term, we must fundamentally re-evaluate the consensus strategy for fighting the war on terror. Success against al Qaeda in Iraq obviously does not show that the solution to problems in Waziristan, Baluchistan or elsewhere lies in an American-led invasion. Each situation is unique, each al-Qaeda franchise is unique, and responses must be tailored appropriately.
But one thing is clear from the Iraqi experience. It is not enough to persuade a Muslim population to reject al Qaeda's ideology and practice. Someone must also be willing and able to protect that population against the terrorists they had been harboring, something that special forces and long-range missiles alone can't do.