Editor’s note: Eilhys England contributed to this column.
Fallujah predictably fell like a bowling pin, proving once again that an insurgent force can’t withstand the awesome air and ground firepower delivered by well-trained, well-led, numerically superior U.S. combat forces. But a lot of damn good grunts were gunned down during their second bloody go at that age-old bastion of resistance.
In insurgency warfare, taking real estate – mountain or city – means zilch. Long-term winning is all about getting the people over to our side. As a Marine sergeant wrote last week from Fallujah, “… for every one killed five more are recruited.”
Now, the tough part begins: How to convince the Sunni survivors to join President Bush’s “march to freedom.”
Key to co-opting the rebels who’ve been supporting the insurgents is rushing in reconstruction aid right behind our lead tanks – a strategy that might incentivize the Sunnis to lay down their weapons and pick up tools to rebuild their city.
Jobs must be followed with a long-term security blanket to protect the people from insurgent intimidation through beheadings, kidnappings, assassinations and car bombings, and allow them to play their part in electing a new Iraqi government.
Ideally, this task should fall to Iraqi forces. But, so far, their performance, less a few elite units, has been amateur hour. They failed in the April Fallujah campaign and again in Najaf and Samarra, where more than 300 Iraqi soldiers beat feet in retreat after the first shot. Meanwhile, the complete police force in nearby Mosul – which came under assault while our forces were taking Fallujah – also cut and ran. Sources working closely with the Iraqis say that most units are penetrated by informants who rat out allied movements, plans and precise schedules before units even leave their assembly areas.
The U.S. 1st Infantry Division initially seized Samarra, a suburban rebel stronghold northeast of Baghdad, during a brilliant operation this past September that the U.S. Command in Iraq under Gen. George W. Casey hoped to use as a pacification model for restive Sunni Muslims around the country. But as U.S. forces were taking Fallujah last week, heavy fighting erupted again in Samarra, killing dozens of policemen and civilians as well as Gen. Abdel Razeq Shaker al-Garmali, a top commanding officer of the Iraqi army.
The policemen were killed when armed militants stormed police stations, while others died from well-placed mortar rounds. In other incidents, police reported that a suicide bomber detonated explosives inside a stolen police car near the mayor’s office, a second car bomb exploded in a residential area near a U.S. base, and mortar rounds fell on a crowded market. As usual, the insurgents knew exactly when and where to attack.
Before the smoke cleared, our grunts were back fighting insurgents in the city – “liberated” by us only two months before – while American aircraft patrolled overhead. After announcing an indefinite curfew, the U.S. military issued a statement proclaiming that Iraqi security forces and coalition forces were – again – in “full control of Samarra.”
Expect the same hubris in dispatches from Fallujah, Mosul and other cities in days to come.
In mid-1965, in one of the first large U.S. operations of the Vietnam War, the commanding general of the elite 173rd Airborne Brigade declared Vietnam’s formidable guerrilla-infested Iron Triangle to be “no more.”
By my count, it was retaken at least 20 additional times and remained a hornet’s nest until the end of the war 10 years later.
The new Triangle, the Sunni Triangle, will be an equal butt-blaster. Yes, it can be temporarily secured, but until the Iraqi security forces are on their feet – which won’t be anytime soon – expect more than the occasional bloody reversal. And get ready for security to be mainly made-in-the-USA, meaning that our forces will probably be stuck in Iraq for a long, hot spell.
I predicated in my books – “Vietnam Primer” in 1967, and “About Face” in 1989 – that insurgency warfare was the new face of war. Although these warnings were totally ignored by the Pentagon, Command and General Staff College Commandant Lt. Gen. William Wallace did comment last summer, as Army authors were crashing a new counterinsurgency manual, “We needed to update the counterinsurgency doctrine … that hadn’t been looked at since the post-Vietnam era.”
Hopefully our commanders will read it this time around.