Philadelphia Inquirer
August 11, 2006

Militarily, We Win; Politically, Maybe Not

By Charles J. Dunlap Jr.

The recent announcement of the redeployment of additional U.S. troops to Baghdad, along with the publication of Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, Thomas E. Ricks' scathing analysis of the conduct of the war in Iraq, give renewed energy to versions of the "no military solution" mantra, not just in Washington corridors but across the nation.

However, despite real setbacks, a dispassionate examination proves that the U.S. military is doing remarkably well in Iraq. Look at the numbers. Although even one death is a tragedy, and more than 2,200 combat deaths represents a terribly heartbreaking loss, in cold military terms the statistics hardly suggest defeat.

To invade, let alone occupy for more than three years, a supposedly hostile nation of 24 million with so few casualties is truly astonishing. Keep in mind that the Japanese killed more than 2,100 at Pearl Harbor in less than two hours. During World War I, the British lost more than 20,000 in one day at the Somme. The Vietnamese killed Americans at three times the jihadists' rate.

Despite think-tank babble about the "brilliance" of the "asymmetrical warfare" the enemy wages in Iraq, the reality is that the insurgents are losing. Force-on-force confrontations with U.S. troops massacre the terrorists. Frantic to do "something," they resort to suicide bombers and improvised explosive devices.

But they often kill civilians - and especially Shiites - not U.S. troops. This enrages the Shiite majority, and makes even Sunnis nervous as they contemplate the consequences of the grudges that terror bombings create. Obviously, this is not the way for an insurgency to win hearts and minds.

The insurgents have yet another problem: Their most effective weapons - suicide bombs and remote detonation devices - are vulnerable to scientific innovation. Adversaries who believe they can outwit America's entrepreneurial free enterprise system forget that the demise of Germany and Japan in World War II, not to mention the Soviet Union's collapse, was much the result of America's industrial might and technological prowess. U.S. business thrives on challenges, and right now hundreds of companies are beavering away at solutions. America's inventiveness may well become the insurgents' most dangerous enemy.

So what is the problem? Realistically, the military solution still requires the continued deployment of thousands of U.S. troops for several years to come. This might generate hundreds more deaths and thousands more wounded, as well as politically costly stories featuring amputees, war widows and orphans. The inability of Iraqis to show much gratitude for American sacrifice does not help either.

Additionally, there is the bill. In 2005, the Congressional Research Service estimated it at $540 billion by 2010. The real number is anyone's guess, but it surely will be a lot of bucks. Perhaps most costly is the impact on the U.S. military, which is energetically revamping itself into a force focused on counterinsurgency and stability operations. Doing so could drain energy and resources from preparing to confront tomorrow's really scary threat: powerful nations with mushrooming conventional and nuclear capabilities. "Victory" in Iraq might leave us with armed forces perfectly prepared to fight the last war.

Can we win enough? Maybe, if a theocratic democracy with a nodding acquaintance with the progressive values of tolerance and individual rights suffices. A pro-American regime? Clearly, there's no guarantee. Indeed, in the near term it may be anti-American as a totem of independence. Less of a threat to neighbors? Probably, but not much of a counterbalance to Syria or Iran either. More secure oil supplies? Very possibly, but even Saddam sold oil.

Such sober analysis may be the actual calculus of the American people's apparent consternation about the war in Iraq. Regardless, the real question should not be about the viability of a military solution; we can win and are winning. Rather, it is whether the effort required to win is worth America's precious blood and treasure. Ultimately, that is a political question, not a military one.

Charles J. Dunlap Jr. is an Air Force officer expressing his personal opinions, not necessarily those of the Defense Department.