May 10, 2005

More War Stories

Outstanding reports from embedded reporters today describe some of the difficulties being faced by the Marines attacking insurgent forces in western Iraq, near the Syrian border.

Solomon Moore recounts some anecdotes from action that occurred over a large area around the Euphrates River for the Los Angeles Times. The Chicago Tribune's James Janega has a story focused on fighting around the town of Ubaydi. Both deserve to be read in full. As Eric Umansky notes on his blog, the Post and NYT have no reporters filing from the combat area, and base their far less detailed coverage on military briefings in Baghdad.

A few comments:

* Janega observes about the enemy in Ubaydi that the Marines had not expected to find them there (obviously the Marine who wrote this story last month wasn't able to tip them off), certainly not in prepared positions. This has obvious implications as to the relative state of American and enemy intelligence in the area.

* Both stories imply and Janega's suggests directly that the enemy casualty figures released by the military in Baghdad may be high, or may just be guesses. From Janega's story, which quotes a Marine colonel:


"Though military commanders in Baghdad announced that 100 insurgent fighters were killed in the early fighting, along with three Marines, Davis' figures were lower. He said "a couple of dozen" insurgents had been killed in Ubaydi, about 10 at another river crossing near Al Qaim, and several who were killed by air strikes north of the river.

Other commanders said they had recovered few bodies but had seen blood trails that suggested insurgents were dragging away wounded or dead fighters."


* Moore cites an Marine official's observation that the Corps is stretched pretty thin in Anbar Province:


""We require more manpower to cover this area the way we need to," said one military official, who requested anonymity.

The Marines have three battalions in Al Anbar, one fewer than six months ago — and each of those battalions is missing a company, say military commanders. A battalion consists of about 1,000 Marines and a company generally has about 150 troops."But for another battalion or two, we would have crossed that river [i.e. the Euphrates] Sunday," the military official said."


* Both stories note the Marines' reliance on tactical air power in situations where artillery could respond more quickly if it were available.

* Both stories report what Marine officers call a high level of enemy coordination and tactical skill. Moore hints that some insurgents are using night vision equipment; Janega reports enemy casualties recovered wearing flak jackets, to the Marines a sign that they are not Iraqis (presumably this means the flak jackets are different from the ones American troops use and have distributed to some Iraqi government forces). Finally, both stories report intelligence that insurgents are being trained outside Iraq.

For what it is worth, my sense has been for some time that though most of the insurgents in Iraq are Iraqi Sunni Arabs, the number and importance of foreign fighters to the insurgency is growing. With the long-planned Marine offensive in northwest Iraq expected to continue for some time, it may be only a matter of days or weeks before we have a better idea of which countries these people are coming from and where they are getting trained. With that said, the thing I take away from these stories is that in this crucial area of Iraq at least American forces are spread pretty thin. I understand how important it is to the country that the Secretary of Defense not have to concede any errors in assigning troops to Iraq -- I know our Marine officers in Iraq appreciate as much as anyone how damaging it would be for Sec. Rumsfeld to admit he's made a mistake -- but it sounds like the Marines could hurt the enemy a lot worse if they didn't have quite so much ground to cover.

Posted by at May 10, 2005 01:59 PM | TrackBack (3)
Comments

I understand how important it is to the country that the Secretary of Defense not have to concede any errors in assigning troops to Iraq -- I know our Marine officers in Iraq appreciate as much as anyone how damaging it would be for Sec. Rumsfeld to admit he's made a mistake --...

When I first read this, I was sure it was sarcasm, but considering the nature of right-wing arguments concerning Iraq, I'm not really certain anymore.

Please advise.

Posted by: p.lukasiak at May 10, 2005 09:41 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

yeah, JB, there's way too much territory to cover for these guys.

to wit:
---------------------------
As of mid-October 2003 about 1,000 soldiers from the 1st Squadron of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment (ACR), based in Fort Carson of Colorado Springs, Colorado, were stationed in al-Qaim. The 3rd ACR has converted an abandoned train station into home and called it Tiger Forward Operating Base. There is a cafeteria, or chow hall with a Pueblo motif painted on its walls. The men of the 3rd ACR police a porous Syrian border 195 kilometers wide. They studied historical patterns and compiled intelligence to establish Named Areas of Interest, or locations where people are known to cross borders.

By the end of October 2003 parking was at a premium at Tiger Base, as Tiger Squadron, 3d Armored Cavalry Regiment consolidated as a complete squadron for the first time since entering Iraq on April 30th. The consolidation took place at Tiger Base near the border town of Al Qa’im. The assumption of responsibility for the Al Anbar province by the 82d Airborne Division allowed the 3d Armored Cavalry Regiment to reorganize its largely spread-out Tiger Squadron. Tiger Squadron covered over 20,000 square kilometers of Iraqi’s western desert before the consolidation. Units were spread between three different operating bases at Al Asad Airbase, Haditha Dam, and Al Qa’im. The squadron’s area of responsibility now covers just over 14,000 square kilometers along the border of Iraq and Syria.
------------------
I imagine the Marines' situation is similarly bad.

Posted by: praktike at May 10, 2005 09:48 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Well, also remember that the 3rd ACR is a cavalry unit, not an infantry or armor unit. A Cav squadron, with appropriate slice elements, is actually organized to operate across larger sectors than either an infantry or armor battalion.

Really, the 3rd ACR was ideally suited for the Al Anbar province.

Marine units are not equipped the same way. The Cav was mounted, with an organic helicopter squadron at the regimental level.

Marine infantry tends to operate dismounted, and is trained and organized to fight dismounted. Great in the cities in a close-in fight, like Fallujah. But not well suited to large area-control operations, as they don't have the mobility or long-range (2000 meter +) firepower that a cav unit with Bradleys, M-1s and infantry does.

Further, the fire support concept in the Marine Corps is different than that of the army, by design. The Marine Corps operates much more efficiently with their organic fixed wing air than the U.S. Army operates with Air Force close air support, for one thing. The Army compensates for this with a heavier measure of artillery. The Marine Corps, of course, countercompensates with Naval gunfire, which is the sine qua non of artillery (though it just ain't the same since they got rid of the old battleships and their 16 inch guns).

It's not a planning error. Just a different kind of unit.

The Marine CAS will not be as responsive as organic artillery. But if the muj is dumb enough to want to fight it out on that ground, then the Marines just need to plan accordingly, and be very deliberate about synchronising the air and ground elements.

They'll be ok. They'll just use time differently.

Jason
www.iraqnow.blogspot.com

Posted by: Jason Van Steenwyk at May 11, 2005 01:56 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Jason, I'm aware of the doctrinal differences. This offensive has been in preparation for some time, however, and whatever logistical and inter-service obstacles there might be to getting artillery where it was needed would seem to me of secondary importance compared to getting the damn artillery where it is needed.

Posted by: JEB at May 11, 2005 09:39 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
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