Falluja: It's about taking terrain and holding it

Posted in Iraq | 11-Nov-04 | Author: James Marks| Source: International Herald Tribune

U.S. soldiers from 1st Platoon, Apache Troop, 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division move tactically between buildings in Falluja as they enter and clear objectives during Operation Al Fajr (New Dawn) in Falluja, Iraq, Nov. 9, 2004.
FAIRFAX, Virginia The Marine and army forces now entering Falluja have prepared for this fight for some time, and not just since the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime last spring.

The U.S. military has a long history of training for and battling against unconventional enemies - the Revolutionary War, the Indian wars, Vietnam and, in particular, a battle few Americans think much about: the invasion of Panama City in 1989.

In the effort to topple the corrupt government of Manuel Noriega, the American military pulled off one of the most complex and risky operations in the history of warfare.

The elements were daunting: a diversity of urban and jungle terrain; a need to synchronize air power, airborne troops, light forces and special operations troops (some 23,000 Americans in all) on nearly 30 simultaneous missions; and a desire to keep civilian casualties and damage to a minimum.

Yes, some things went wrong, and two dozen Americans were killed. But on the whole it was an overwhelming success.

That fight served to inform, teach and train a generation of leaders, many of whom are entering Fallujah today. The young lieutenants, corporals and privates of 15 years ago are now battalion commanders and senior sergeants in Iraq. They carry with them the scar tissue of experience.

Urban fighting is grinding, destructive and deadly. When I entered Baghdad last year the city was without power, order or livestock. Dead horses rotted in the slums of Sadr City while looters, called "couchpushers" by the coalition troops, made off with everything.

Nothing was without value; everything was pilfered. But other than a few isolated spots where there had been pitched battles, the city wasn't destroyed.

In Falluja things may be different. We will use precision weapons in situations where there is a high risk of killing innocent Iraqis, but for the most part we will use conventional artillery, mortars and rockets.

Buildings will crumple - the train station demolished on Monday will not be the last - because we will destroy them and so will the insurgents. Dust will be everywhere, small fires and smoke will obscure the vision of our troops and the enemy.

But it will not be as out-of-control as it may seem; the destruction will have a purpose. We will not do what the Russians did to Grozny, the capital of Chechnya: level the city and completely strip it of its form and shape.

Our goal is to bring democracy and liberty to Iraq, and that won't happen if we destroy whole cities and towns. Fortunately, our soldiers have extensive training in urban operations down to the platoon and company level.

This training paid off last spring, when our army and Marine Corps executed the largest urban maneuvers since World War II on their march northward to Baghdad.

The most important lesson they learned was voiced to me by a soldier from the 507th Maintenance Company, who was taken prisoner when his unit was ambushed at Nasiriya. After his rescue and return to American control he told me, "there is no front line." The corollary is true as well: there is no rear. The enemy is everywhere and will fight everywhere. So must we.

What can we expect in the next few days? Unlike last year's invasion, in which the military's primary goal was to defeat the Iraqi troops and move toward Baghdad, the fight in Falluja is about taking terrain and holding it. It does no good to push the insurgents out and move on. They are like water; they will flow right back into any void.

This is why the military placed so much importance on taking the roads that lead into the city and securing a foothold. They will not be given back. In theory, controlling access into and out of Falluja is key; with no escape possible, the enemy must surrender or die.

This is also why the military is likely to launch a number of "lillypad" operations, in which forces move by ground or air into a contested area, kill insurgents and then return to a secure base to refuel and rearm. While this doesn't gain territory, it sends a psychologically devastating message: We will go where we want to go.

Firepower is important, but so is intelligence. In fact, the intelligence we gather in Falluja will dictate the pace and scope of the operation. The focus will be on "human intelligence" - that is, soldiers and marines will get information from Iraqi civilians and captured insurgents and use it to kill the bad guys or capture key leaders.

Why will ordinary Iraqis help? Many reasons, but the most effective tool in any counterinsurgency is money - we will pay, and they will talk - just as sources already have in places like Sadr City. In addition, the people want combat and its hell to go away, which will happen only when the insurgents are killed or captured.

The insurgents are surprisingly vulnerable, too - in large measure because we can exploit the differences among them. Some are former Baathists, who believe they are fighting for their lives. Others are fighting for religious reasons, especially the foreign jihadists who came from across Asia to fight the satanic Americans.

But many are fighting out of a sense of Iraqi pride, or simply to improve their political position in a postwar Iraq, and may thus be open to negotiation. As their situation deteriorates, so will their cohesiveness.

There is a reason the operations are beginning now: It is because our top military and intelligence officials feel that conditions are right. As in Panama, we chose the timing of the fight, not the enemy.

After Falluja, what then? One of the goals in this fight is to gather more information on how the insurgents wage war and what their support systems are throughout the country. American units that are training in the United States today will absorb the lessons learned in Falluja into their training for their deployment in coming months.

These troops will in turn conduct operations throughout the Sunni Triangle: Ramadi, Tikrit, Mosul. In the longer run, the counterinsurgency campaign will be defined by the breadth of its daily mission.

Seemingly insignificant steps like seeing to it that medical teams provide inoculations to American engineers building roads or schools can be as important as military operations. Over time, the coalition will take away the insurgents' home court advantage and turn each city, town and stretch of road into a neutral playing field.

Thus it is vital that we have included several thousand Iraqi troops in the Falluja operation. The press may emphasize that the Iraqis do not have the skills and training to close on and kill the insurgents, and that the heavy lifting will be left to us.

That's true, but the criticism misses the point. The Iraqis will be of great help in talking to the locals and gathering leads. And, in the longer run, their presence will give them the experience they will need to take over the security of their country when our troops come home.

And when will that day come? One of the most difficult aspects of counterinsurgency operations is deciding when to declare victory and head on home, and it is far too early to even begin thinking about that. But with each American and Iraqi soldier that steps into Falluja this week, we are that much closer to the end.