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Winning on Offense


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Ralph Peters

June 21, 2007 -- HALLELUJAH! For the first time since Baghdad fell, our military in Iraq has a comprehensive, integrated plan to defeat our enemies.

Until now, our efforts have always been piecemeal, stop-start affairs. Even our success in the Second Battle of Fallujah in 2004 went unexploited.

Things have changed. And terrorists, not just Iraqi civilians, are dying.

The 10,000-man operation reported in the Baquba area is only one part of a broader effort. In the words of a well-placed officer in Baghdad, "Operations like that are going on around Fallujah, Salman Pak, in Eastern Anbar, the belts around Baghdad, in Arab Jabour, outside of Taji and throughout the Diyala River Valley."

This widespread offensive against al Qaeda in Iraq and other terrorists is part of a carefully developed, phased plan. The first step as the troop surge proceeded was to establish livable conditions in key neighborhoods of the capital.

That step was vital, but insufficient in itself. Terrorists fled, but they didn't disappear. They just sought refuge elsewhere. And while neighborhood pacification involved aggressive tactical actions, it ultimately put our forces in a defensive posture.

And you can't win solely by playing defense, either in the NFL or in war.

Gen. David Petraeus understood that. He's done things methodically, operating from a coherent design - not just reacting as was our practice in the past, but imposing our will on the enemy. After regaining lost ground in Baghdad and exploiting Sunni Arab disillusionment with al Qaeda in Anbar Province, our military took the offensive. We pushed the enemy off "our" turf. Now we're going after "their" turf.

This balance between defensive and offensive operations, integrated across central Iraq, is the first time we've seen a classic approach to military operations in post-Saddam Iraq. Amazing, but true.

What hurdles lie ahead?

First, it remains an open question whether we've got enough boots on the ground. While Petraeus and his team are using our forces with remarkable efficiency, there ain't no more to send.

The second, enduring question is whether the Iraqis will finally knock off their squabbling and shoulder their share of the burden. Petraeus is giving us a lesson in skillful generalship, employing U.S. troops where he must, Iraqis where he can. But, in the end, we can't win this unless the Iraqis win it for themselves. Pious statements about "brave Iraqis" only get us so far: We're still only buying time - and no one can pretend that time isn't running out.

Which brings us to the home front, where the war just might be lost, no matter what progress we make on the ground.

Political hucksterism and poll-pandering on Capitol Hill amount to stabbing our troops in the back. Period. The insistence that success or failure will be determined beyond doubt by September is pure political quackery.

The military operations and political maneuvering in Iraq are infernally complex. The earliest we might know anything will be around Thanksgiving - and all we'll know then is whether or not the Iraqis are getting on board in a serious way.

After four lost years, we need to have realistic expectations - unless we intend to throw the game for domestic political reasons. Gen. Petraeus is playing a bad hand with greater skill than we had any right to expect. He's making meaningful tactical progress. We don't yet know if that will translate into a strategic turnaround - but, for God's sake, let's give him a chance.

And let's not lose sight of our own national-security priority, which is defeating al Qaeda. Terror International is having a really bad time in Iraq these days: More and more Sunni Arabs are breaking with al Qaeda and its affiliates over their insufferable brutality. The Baquba-area operations involve former enemies now fighting on our side against the foreign terrorists. That's not just good news for Iraq. It's good news for America.

Much could still go wrong. We don't know if those Sunni Arabs will keep faith with us over the longer term - and now the Shias who control the government are bewailing our new local alliances. Sunni Arabs have realized at last that they've got to "cooperate to graduate." Now the Shia are the ones who insist on playing a zero-sum game.

And, of course, we never eliminated Muqtada al-Sadr. For which we're going to be even sorrier than we are now.

Still, there's reason for sober optimism at the moment: We've finally got a coherent approach to defeating our enemies, not just parrying them. It looks like our military leaders have gotten serious at last.

God help us, it almost looks like we want to win.

Ralph Peters' new book, "Wars of Blood and Faith," hits stores on July 25.


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