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Published: Saturday, 10/2/2004

Iraq as Guadalcanal

JOHN Kerry has changed positions on Iraq more often than some of his supporters have changed their underwear. But if he sticks with his current position for the rest of the campaign, Americans will have the debate on Iraq policy we deserve to have.

For Mr. Kerry and most of his fellow Democrats, every war is like Vietnam, an (in their view) American overreach that begins in hubris and ends in tragedy.

U.S. Army Lt. Col. Powl Smith, a counterterrorism expert on the staff of the multinational force in Baghdad, thinks Iraq is more like Guadalcanal.

Guadalcanal is an island in the Solomons chain uncomfortably close to Australia. It was the site of the first American counteroffensive against the Japanese in World War II.

The Marines seized the Japanese airstrip on the island in a surprise attack. But, as Colonel Smith noted in an article in the Weekly Standard, "the Japanese recovered from our initial success, and began a long and brutal campaign to force us off Guadalcanal."

We held off the Japanese, and the tide in the Pacific was turned. Ever thereafter, the Japanese were on the defensive. But it took six months and 6,000 U.S. casualties (compared to 24,000 Japanese) to do it.

In Iraq as at Guadalcanal, we achieved stunning initial success. In Iraq as at Guadalcanal, the enemy has fought back ferociously, because they realize defeat would leave them in an untenable position. And in Iraq, as on Guadalcanal, we are grinding the enemy down.

American troops and Iraqi security forces have been killing terrorists in bunches. Maj. Gen. Gary Harrell, commander of Special Operations Forces in Central Command, told Bret Baier of Fox News that there are fewer than 10,000 enemy combatants in Iraq, and there may be fewer than 5,000.

The gruesome tactics of the terrorists in Iraq - kidnappings and beheadings and suicide bombings - have been cited by Democrats and journalists as signs that things are getting worse.

But to thoughtful observers, these seem more like signs of desperation.

Gilles Kepel, a French Arabist, thinks the followers of Osama bin Laden are losing, badly.

Not only have the Islamists failed to achieve their goal of seizing power in Muslim lands, they have suffered since Sept. 11, 2001, a string of major defeats, Mr. Kepel noted. The Taliban has been ousted in Afghanistan. Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have turned toward the West. Islamists in Sudan and Libya are in retreat. The plight of the Palestinians has worsened. The Americans are in Baghdad.

Mr. "Kepel argues that the insurgents' brutal tactics in Iraq - the kidnappings and beheadings, the car bombing massacres of young Iraqi police recruits - are increasingly alienating the Muslim masses," wrote Washington Post columnist David Ignatius. "No sensible Muslim would want to live in Fallujah, which is now controlled by Taliban-style fanatics. Similarly, the Muslim masses can see that most of the dead from al-Qaeda bombings in Turkey and Morocco were fellow Muslims."

Iraqis have noticed that they, and not the Americans, are now the chief targets: "Since Jan. 1 more than 700 Iraqi security force members have been killed, and hundreds of Iraqis seeking to volunteer for the police and military have been killed as well," said Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, who is in charge of training the Iraqi security forces, in an article in the Washington Post Sept. 26.

But this hasn't discouraged them. There continue to be more volunteers for the Iraqi police, national guard, and army than there are training slots available.

The level of violence in Iraq is likely to increase over the next few months as the terrorists try desperately to derail the Iraqi elections slated for January. They know that successful elections could be the final nail in their coffins.

In his Sept. 28 column in the New York Times, David Brooks noted the risks the people of El Salvador were willing to take to vote in elections in the midst of civil unrest in the 1980s, and how just having those elections undermined the insurgency.

"As we saw in El Salvador and as Iraqi insurgents understand, elections suck the oxygen from a rebel army," Mr. Brooks said. "They refute the claim that violence is the best way to change things. Moreover, they produce democratic leaders who are better equipped to win an insurgency war."



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