November 28, 2004

The Next Front Post-Fallujah: Baghdad's Southern Approaches

First, the (relatively) good news:

Commanders expect the main offensive to last another week. But nobody is talking about quick victories, rather of the new raids setting the scene for more later on.

A chart of suspected rebels that was developed over months by American intelligence officers and Iraqi undercover agents, laid out like a genealogical table, measures 10 feet by 4 feet. Unrolled in the command center at this Marine base in the desert southeast of the town of Iskandariya, it lists hundreds of rebel leaders, financiers and fighters, grouped together by family, by tribe and by past links in Mr. Hussein's military, political and intelligence apparatus.

"Every day, we have to stay the course," said Col. Ron Johnson, 48, a native of Duxbury, Mass., who commands the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, whose operational area covers parts of three Iraqi provinces with a combined population of 1.2 million. "We're in here for the long haul," he said.

Still, the mood among Marine officers is cautiously upbeat, and the belief, as put to reporters embedded for the offensive, is that the war here can still be won. The immediate objective is to deal a hard enough blow to the insurgents that plans can proceed for the election scheduled for Jan. 30.

Sounds like a smartly-conducted, sophisticated counter-insurgency campaign to me. And it's wise indeed to strike a hard blow now still two months before the election--the better to try to be able to defend polling stations in such areas (if voting can indeed take place) by eliminating some of the worst trouble-makers now.

But here's the bad news:

Early on in American military planning, commanders knew that a campaign to wrest Falluja from the insurgents would necessitate an offensive here, but limitations of logistics, air power and troops dictated the two offensives be staged sequentially. One disadvantage was that this gave the Falluja rebels a ready refuge, one that American generals sought to inhibit by asking Britain to move an 850-soldier battalion of the Black Watch north from Basra to a base just west of the Euphrates.

Marine intelligence officers estimate that 200 to 500 rebels from Falluja, many of them natives of the region south of Baghdad that is the focus of the new offensive, have come here in the past few weeks; some officers say those estimates are too low, as they also say official estimates of 1,200 insurgents killed in Falluja are too high.

Marine intelligence officers say there are 400 to 500 "core leaders" of the Sunni insurgency in the area, many of them former ranking members of Mr. Hussein's Baath Party or senior officers in his military. Although they describe the insurgency as heavily decentralized, they have identified two new political groups that knit together these rebel leaders, one of them known as the Return or Restoration Party. These men, they say, have made common cause in the insurgency with the numerous criminal gangs in the area, who also have much to lose in the new American push. The intelligence estimates say that insurgent attacks in the area are carried out by 2,000 to 6,000 rebels, many of them unemployed youths or criminals released from jail by Mr. Hussein before he was driven from power. In many cases, American officers say, captured men have told them that they were paid sums ranging from $20 to $200 to stage ambushes or plant explosives that are detonated by "part-time triggermen," many of them also paid.

Like the Marines who know infinitely more than me about what is going on on the ground--I remain cautiously optimistic that we will prevail in these military actions through the coming weeks and months (it is interesting to note that many of the cell leader's foot-soldiers are criminals resisting for mere cash--hardly true believers whether of the Salafist or restorationist stripe). Prevail in the sense that we will decimate and kill enough of the "core leaders"--without alienating overly broad swaths of the local populace--so as to begin to get some of these Sunni areas on the path towards conditions conducive to normal, post-conflict reconstruction. It won't be easy, and I'm very concerned about security surrounding the electoral process in particular, but I think all of it is achievable (sorry, Kos and Co.!).

But, as John Burns' article makes clear, it would likely have been far more effective (remember, time is of the essence with elections looming) to have more forces on the ground during the Fallujah offensive so as to prevent insurgents fleeing it getting refuge in the Sunni areas south of Baghdad. Having to transplant the U.K.'s Blackwatch contingent, I fear, is symptomatic of the biggest problem that has confronted us throughout this Iraq conflict. Too few troops. And while Colin Powell is the man exiting the Cabinet--his Powell Doctrine, imho, looks better and better than the too easy nostrums of the "transformationalists". Don Rumsfeld, I continue to hope, will be held accountable for these and other missteps after he has helped see through the elections (switching Defense Secretaries pre-Fallujah offensive, pre-ongoing counter-insurgency operations, pre-elections--all would have sent the wrong signal to our foes and likely proven disruptive to the prosecution of the war effort).

Posted by Gregory at November 28, 2004 11:28 PM

Prevail in the sense that we will decimate and kill enough of the "core leaders"--without alienating overly broad swaths of the local populace."

Ah, yes. Greg Djerejian endorses Ye Olde Attrition Strategie. You do realize that the old split between Army and Marines on counterinsugency strategy is opening up again; first you endorsed the Marine position but then sided with the Army ...

Posted by: praktike at November 29, 2004 06:24 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Greg -

Do you read Thomas Barnett's blog? You and he are about 180-degrees apart on both Powell and Rumsfeld. He's a smart guy too, and I think your analysis would be better for considering what he has to say. I'm not saying you have to agree with him, of course, but perhaps we're messing up in Iraq BECAUSE OF the Powell doctrine.

Posted by: Brock at November 29, 2004 11:02 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I do not believe that it is possible or wise to try to secure Iraq and its borders by flooding it with troops (and who knows how much is enough?).

But if the success of a specific and costly campaign is compromised for a lack of troops and other assets, there is nothing smart about that.

Posted by: werner at December 1, 2004 04:48 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

brock, no haven't read the guy. I'll check him out...

Posted by: greg at December 1, 2004 06:46 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

the leaders in computer disk retrieval

Posted by: computer disk retrieval at December 7, 2004 06:17 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
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