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Why We Can't Afford to Fail in Iraq

Because the terrorists win if we prematurely withdraw.

Despite the cunning strategy displayed by Japanese military planners in the attack on Pearl Harbor, they made a grave miscalculation in thinking that America lacked the steely nerve to mount a credible counter-offensive. Only Admiral Yamamoto, the brilliant leader of the Japanese Fleet, recognized the predicament his nation would soon face when he remarked, “I fear all we have done is to awaken a slumbering giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.”

Osama bin Laden and Ayman Al-Zawahiri may be cunning, but they are clearly not good students of history. In launching its offensive on the U.S., al Qaeda misperceived that America had grown soft from its embrace of democratic ideals. But in 2001, just as it did some fifty years ago, this country did not wither under the Japanese assault, but took the fight to the Pacific and prevailed.

Beyond the tragic devastation wrought on 9/11, the fundamental aim of al Qaeda’s attacks was to incite a massive uprising in the Islamic world, buoyed by America’s seeming vulnerability and cowardice in the face of a new threat. This never came to pass, for the attacks failed to prove that the United States could be so easily defeated. Augmented by history’s only invocation of Article 5 of the NATO Treaty, where “an attack against one constitutes an attack against all others,” an allied coalition successfully uprooted the Taliban and eliminated terrorist training camps within Afghanistan.

And so once again, our foes have gambled that America and her allies are incapable of going the last mile, of seeing an overwhelming task begun through to its completion. Like previous occasions when Islamist fundamentalists issued global fatwas to resist the proliferation of Western ideas they regard as threats, hard-liner clerics have urged devout Iraqis to boycott the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) and the policies it is only beginning to implement. This and the more imminent armed resistance will continue to make rebuilding Iraq extremely challenging and costly.

But the cost of failure is a far more unenviable one to bear; shattered lives and a generation of Iraqi youth left with only bitter resentment on a broken promise will fester into a new strain of hatred.

Because a stable, functioning democracy strikes a crucial blow in the war on global terrorism.

While I might be quick to judge our adversaries for their failure to heed the lessons of history, it’s critical that we don’t make the same mistake.

After funding the mujahedin fighters that resisted and overthrew Soviet occupation the 1980s, America largely ignored Afghanistan between 1992 and 1996. Yet it was during this power vacuum and the fragmented leadership within the tribal Northern Alliance that allowed the Taliban’s malevolent rule to take hold. The Taliban provided a sanctuary for al Qaeda, which established large terrorist training camps that enlarged its own ranks of Islamic extremists to reap destruction around the world.

These terrorists enlisted in jihads everywhere from Bosnia, Chechnya, Kashmir, Gaza and the graduates of this training regimen can be traced to some of the most lethal attacks against noncombatants over the past decade, most notably Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, destruction of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the Bali bombings that killed 180 people and on September 11th.

In addition to Baathist loyalists wreaking havoc in Iraq, the porous, Western border Iraq shares with Syria has allowed foreign fighters to infiltrate the country. Terrorist and criminal activity thrives amid anarchy and lawlessness. Strong institutions, the rule of law, an effective judicial system, augmented by law enforcement that is free from corruption, will keep insurgents at bay. Ignoring Iraq now would guarantee that future terrorists bred there will threaten the world for decades to come.

Because we are only starting to recognize our weakness in confronting a dispersed, decentralized enemy.

The current guerilla-style tactics employed by hostile forces in Iraq represent the latest attempt to prevent America from fulfilling its promise to the Iraqi people. The fighting in Somalia illustrated that American troops continue to have difficulty engaging and defeating paramilitary, guerilla forces, a deficiency evident during the Vietnam War. Perhaps here, both al Qaeda and the dying embers of the Baathist Party regime took a superficial look at America’s struggles in Vietnam and Somalia as a means to force a premature withdrawal.

The survivability and increased organization displayed by the fighters in the Sunni Triangle suggests that Sadaam Hussein prepared safehouses, hid supplies and provided a fluid command structure that could constantly withdraw, regroup and remount offensive assaults against an occupying American force. Like most things in life that often appear too good to be true, the relative ease with which the Iraqi Republican Guard collapsed and the subsequent fall of Baghdad, indicate that our nemesis had one last trick up his sleeve.

Yet Vietnam in 1973 does not fit quite so neatly over Iraq in 2003-the commitment shown by the current administration to stay the course and provide a democratic foundation for a great people to flourish remains the crucial difference. To withdraw from Iraq now would play directly into the hands of the Islamic terrorists-it would solidify their desired perception that American power and will are vastly overrated and declining.
Because weapons of mass destruction may still be discovered.

The purpose of this article is not to argue whether or not America went to war under the false pretense that the Iraqi regime posed a clear and present danger to the world through its developing arsenal of WMDs.

American intelligence learned over six years ago that Sadaam had as many as four nuclear implosion devices and that he lacked only fissile material to make them operational. Given Iraq’s own very capable intelligence services, its longstanding, close ties to the KGB, the fact that every Soviet warhead simply cannot be accounted for, and the contingent of North Korean missile experts who visited Baghdad in the mid 1990s, it is not unreasonable to expect that Sadaam’s scientists could have fabricated a handful of nuclear weapons. Iraq is a large country with a complex network of underground tunnels and structures that its military used effectively to elude Coalition targeting during the decade-long Operation: SOUTHERN WATCH. These weapons or their chemical or biological counterparts may still be unearthed in locations we have yet to even identify, much less thoroughly inspect.

Because Iraq represents the opportunity for America and the current leadership to “get it right.”

None of this is to suggest that the Bush Administration has not made some very poor, often unilateralist decisions. The outright abnegation of the Kyoto Protocols, its failure to even consider the merits of the International Criminal Court and ignoring the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty signify a foolish display to “go it alone” when policies infringe even the slightest bit on America’s supremacy or long-term, strategic interests.

When I think back to the most compelling class discussions I have been privileged enough to be a part of here at HBS, every one of them incorporated diverse perspectives and interpretations that enhanced the level of understanding of the case for everyone in that room. The array of colors and flags around our classroom reflected the beautiful pageantry of countries my classmates represented. When I raised my hand to offer my admittedly uninformed take on the entrepreneurial climate in Nigeria or Prime Minister Koizumi’s troubles, my friends from Senegal and Japan listened to my clumsy inputs every time.

President Bush would do well to recall his own experiences while a student at this special place by more actively engaging those countries directly affected by Ira
q and the opinions of the larger world. In doing so, the administration will come to learn that a policy of advocating democracy and a policy of imposing it has a subtle, yet critical distinction. The careful application of America’s “soft power” needs to be given greater consideration over the one-sided urgings of certain neoconservative advisors.

Because we are making meaningful progress to rebuild a once proud nation.

The bulk of the most violent insurgent attacks against U.S. and allied forces have taken place in the Sunni Triangle, an area centered approximately 30 miles west of Baghdad. Iraqi Sunnis enjoyed special favors at the behest of Sadaam Hussein, so whatever the upset to the status quo, this population segment will invariably be worse off with a stable, democratic provisional government in place. In short, radical Sunnis and a thriving criminal element have everything to lose, creating an extremely lethal adversary. Our inability to find Sadaam Hussein exacerbates the situation; the loyalists cling to the hope their former status might be restored with a resurrected regime and the Iraqi populace is reluctant to embrace the liberators because they are still too accustomed to living beneath the cloud of fear and brutality Sadaam’s rule signified.

Our national intelligence community is very capable when it comes to studying large, highly-organized force concentrations. However, it is not nearly as effective when it comes to understanding the de-centralized, dispersed tactics and formless command elements employed in the current guerilla campaign. Much of this can be attributed to the lack of human intelligence assets on the ground who haven’t deeply penetrated these close-knit networks. This problem cannot be overcome overnight, so the best chance of gaining insight into future attacks will be from the everyday Iraqi citizen who might soon begin to see the good behind the rebuilding America and its allies have undertaken at considerable expense: their own blood and treasure.

The grieving parents, spouses and children of dead soldiers from America, Britain, Italy and Poland deserve to know their loved ones didn’t die in vain in some alleyway or along a crumbling roadside. The aggrieved will take at least some small recompense in knowing their sacrifice went towards a most profound and ultimately successful undertaking.

December 1, 2003
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