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Back to the Wild West of Anbar Province

| 16 Comments | 3 TrackBacks

In an article titled “Insurgents Flourish in Iraq's Wild West”, the Los Angeles Times offers a bleak assessment of the availability of Coalition and Iraqi forces in the Anbar province. While the Marines involved in Operation Matador were able to easily sweep through Western Iraq and kill and capture al Qaeda members, they have not established a long term presence and may have left the area open to re-infiltration by al Qaeda.

Yet as soon as the operation [Matador] concluded, the Marines crossed back over the Euphrates River and left no U.S. or Iraqi government presence in the region — generally considered a major mistake in counterinsurgency warfare.

"It's classically the wrong thing to do," said Kalev Sepp, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., who last fall was a counterinsurgency advisor to Army Gen. George W. Casey, the top U.S. general in Iraq. "Sending 1,000 men north of the Euphrates does what? Sometimes these things can be counterproductive, because you just end up shooting things up and then leaving the area."

Military officials in Iraq and Washington said there was little reason to expect that insurgent fighters would not return to the villages.

"The right thing to do would have been to sweep the area with U.S. troops, and hold it with Iraqi troops," said a military official and counterinsurgency expert at the Pentagon who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not an official Pentagon spokesman.

The Los Angeles Times is discussing the merits of “clear and hold” operations (forcing the enemy from a region and establishing a permanent government presence and garrison forces) over “search and destroy” operations (finding, engaging, killing or capturing the enemy without holding ground). The consensus in military and counterinsurgency circles is the clear and hold strategy is more effective in defeating an insurgency. We have seen clear and hold operations work effectively in Najaf, Baghdad, Basra and a host of other areas in Iraq (granted this does not mean 100% security, only that the enemy is not free to operate at will). Once Iraqi forces became available to police the local regions, US forces were freed to move forward to fight elsewhere.

A limiting factor in continually executing a clear and hold strategy is troop availability. The Marines used to execute Matador were pulled from local garrison duties to execute the assault. It appears there is no significant rapid reaction force available to conduct operations such as Matador.

Iraqi security forces are still being constituted. The Iraqi government appears to prefer local/regional security forces to patrol close to home for various cultural and political reasons. The Sunnis have just begun to embrace joining the security services after appointing a Sunni as Minister of Defense only a month ago. It will take time to arm, train and deploy these recruits, and they will need to be brought along slowly as their mission will take them into the hottest areas of Iraq.

There is a shortage of forces, and search and destroy missions are being conducted until sufficient Iraqi forces are available to secure territory. Waiting for enough forces available to execute clear and hold missions alone would cede the initiative to the insurgency. At the very least search and destroy is being used to keep the enemy off balance. The potential fatal wounding of Zarqawi would show there are indeed benefits to operating in this matter in the interim.

But it is wrong to assume the Coalition and Iraqi forces have completely ceded the western portion of the Anbar province to the insurgency. Marines of the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Regiment are currently garrisoned Qaim to police the border with Syria (this is the site of al Qaeda’s failed company-sized assault on Camp Gannon). Also, the coalition is in the process of establishing forts and other military facilities in the region as well as training Iraqi troops to enter Western Iraq.

Hoping to clamp down on the smuggling of people and weapons, the United States is paying for the rebuilding of 190 Iraqi border forts, including 58 already completed, accounting for a large portion of nearly $2 billion being spent on Iraqi camps, barracks and other military structures, according to U.S. officials involved in training the new Iraqi forces. About 140 miles of berms are also being constructed, mostly along the Syrian border.
A senior American commander familiar with the border situation said effective control of foreign-fighter infiltration was still "some months away." But he added that border control is crucial to Iraq's security because foreign fighters are believed to comprise a large percentage of suicide bombers. "It's not Iraqis who are blowing themselves up," he said.

Another item to consider is the hostility of the local tribes towards the foreign jihadis. Local tribes are not particularly fond of al Qaeda’s’ attempts to establish the laws of Shariah and the Taliban. These tribes have fought to eject al Qaeda from their homes. While the Coalition and Iraqi forces are not establishing full security in the region, al Qaeda is certainly not welcomed, either. This can cut both ways: the local tribes may become distrustful and resentful of the central Iraqi government, but the longer they are exposed to the machinations of al Qaeda, the less likely they are to support their jihad.

The criticism of troop strength in Iraq is perhaps the most cogent point made by critics of the war. But military personnel do not spring from an endless well, there are always limitations to an Army's capabilities. As Chester articulated last fall, "The US cannot commit more troops to Iraq because it has no more troops to commit. Troops must be cycled and rotated on a manageable schedule. We have maxed that out. Any further increase in troop rotations would leave us strategically vulnerable in other theaters. 150,000 or so at a time is the best we can do."

Nations have struggled with manpower and supply shortcomings since wars have been fought. The United States has decided to compensate for the shortcoming of troops in Iraq by relying on the establishment of the Iraqi security forces. While this may make the war tougher to fight, it by no means is proof the war is unwinnable or the decision to fight was wrong. And it also gives the Iraqis the opportunity and experience in fighting for their own freedom.

3 TrackBacks

Tracked: May 25, 2005 2:56 PM
Indian Country from Caerdroia
Excerpt: Bill Roggio talks about the US/Iraqi approach to pacifying western Iraq. This reminds me of another pacification effort the US fought more than 100 years ago. Then, as now, our advantages included numbers, technology, Western military doctrine, a recen...
Tracked: May 26, 2005 7:54 AM
Operation New Market from The Adventures of Chester
Excerpt: News is sparse on Operation New Market. Not even CentCom has any mention of the new op. Perhaps something new will be up in the morning. It looks like most of the major news outlets are regurgitating the intial AP...
Tracked: June 1, 2005 5:52 PM
[Schwartz] ME - maghreb majnun fil-Anbar from Thinking-East Weblog (Beta)
Excerpt: Sheikh Muhammad al-Khaznawi (or "al-Haznawi"), a popular Syrian-Kurdish cleric, went missing three weeks ago in Damascus (May 10th). The Syrian Human Rights Committee (SHRC) condemned the abduction: [Sheikh al-Khaznawi] enjoys a wide range of relation...

16 Comments

I don't know if it is that bad, depends on the arrangement we have with the tribes in the region.

Our troops were invited into the area by the tribes. They're likely to kick Al Qaeda back out themselves if the fundamentalists re-infiltrate, now that their foundation is now nonexistent. The question is how much support the area gives to the Sunni element of the insurgency, rather than the fundamentalists, who they openly invited us to kick out.

Who's to say we will not go right back at them. A new operation just started similar to the Anbar one. I think we know what's up. The LA times can keep hoping for despair and destruction ....

Call me naive and old fashioned but I really do not like it when some military people are quoted in the media criticizing the actions of other military people. Especially in the current climate. If what they say is correct - they should be saying it in the chain of command - not the media.

I just don't like it.

The LAT article by reporters Mark Mazzetti and Solomon Moore is head-and-shoulders above most dispatches. Moore is actually in Anbar province! Multiple sources are quoted, and most are even named! Sure, it's framed as "The US Military is Losing," and implicitly assumes that all the problems are on the Army/Marine/Iraqi Gov't sides, and none on the FRE/jihadis'. But there is real information here, and emphasis on a serious issue--the limits to US actions imposed by the numbers of available soldiers--that policymakers and informed citizens should know about.

It's reasonable to suppose that AQ's thinkers have appreciated this point for some time now. It provides the strategic context for appreciating the enemy's 3-11 (2004) Madrid victory. They used their intimate knowledge of Western societies to determine Spain's vulnerability, then worked through local proxies to swing a close election from Aznar to Zapatero. Beyond the propaganda value of 194 dead, this denied about 1400 soldiers to the Coalition (al-Jazeera gloating here ).

From Mosul, embedded reporter Michael Yon's latest dispatch reflects on the way most news stories get processed in Iraq, and then reported in the U.S. Unlike the LAT staff, but reminiscent of WW2's Ernie Pyle, Yon has chosen the side of the democratic elements of Iraqi society, and thus the Coalition.

A useful contrast for the enquiring reader.

Its a QUAGMIRE. Withdraw all of our troops now and negotiate with the insurgents

The debate between "clear and hold" versus "search and destroy" is strategic.

But there's a policy consideration, too. The pundits refer to the "flypaper" policy -- I wonder if leaving the area open to lure foreign nationals across borders isn't part of an ongoing policy effort to expose Syrian and Saudi terror factions in those nations to world public scrutiny. "The U.S. is in Iraqi nation-building, but we killed and captured THESE guys red-handed killing orphans and desecrating the mosques..."

A one-time release of such info after Fallujah might be some sort of fluke. But if it happens again and again after Fallujah, the Matador operation, and whatever is next -- even the UN might be inclined to admit the scumbags are in fact scumbags.

I wouldn't generalize about "the tribes." Clearly, some tribes support the bad guys, and some don't like them and want the Marines to get rid of them. Some tribes in the area are fighting directly against each other.

I think you make an important point that sometimes seems lost - it's the Iraqi's that will determine their future. We can help the good guys, but ultimately the responsibility for what kind of nation they end up with rests on their shoulders. There is no such thing as a turn key nation that the US can create in place and the Iraqi'd simply move into. Since Iraqi forces ultimately will win or lose the war, it makes sense to constitute a complete Iraqi security force and fight the war with us helping than to do everything ourselves, declare victory, and then turn it over to a bystander Iraqi force that will then fight the real war.

It's too easy to excuse the current situation on the ground as a simple lack of troops. We stationed a quarter million troops in Europe 20 years ago during the Cold War with the same volunteer army. I dont suppose our population has decreased since. Certainly it takes time to build new divisions, but if im not mistake it has been coming up on 4 years since 9/11 and nothing has been done in this regard. That was a political calculation. Period.

Were the entire strategy being shifted from clear and hold to search and destroy, there might be a point. But this NYT article indicates the Iraqis are starting to pick up some of the responsibility. In the mean time, there is military value in doing things that are unexpected, that make the enemy worry about something else. I would expect to see a wide variety of activities by coaltion forces. As long as Iraqi involvement is increasing and we are dictating time, place and tempo of actions, we're headed in the right direction.

While the Marines involved in Operation Matador were able to easily sweep through Western Iraq and kill and capture al Qaeda members

you should look up the definition of easy. It means something else than what you think it means.

We have seen clear and hold operations work effectively in Basra

Basra is run by the Shiite goverment or is it Shiite resistance. Doesn't really matter but the British have very little influence there.

Really, a, what is your definition? More detail, please, or you are adding very little to this comment thread. I'd say about five days to sweep through this area with light casualties and heavy casualties among the enemy woudl classify as easy among many who have served in the military.

Basra is being run by Shiites, so what's the problem here? The area is relatively secure from attacks by insurgents. Isn't that the point?

#9 There is a difference between being in Germany drink beer and ogling the local girls and being shot at. Some would even say that it is a big difference.

but we killed and captured THESE guys red-handed killing orphans and desecrating the mosques..."

So what is the diffence between those guys and US soldiers?

There is a difference ...

Good point, and those that do join in time of conflict are the highest caliber people, which makes losing them even more painfull.

So what is the diffence between those guys and US soldiers?

And there you go insulting yourself with a smear worse than anyone here could get away with without a permban.

Richard Heddleson (#10):

One interesting aside on that New York Times piece you cited, A Series of Iraqi-Led Raids Nets Hundreds of Suspects. Reporter Sabrina Tavernise’s second paragaph included

[American officials said the operation] was aimed at rooting out insurgents and closing down car bomb assembly lines in Abu Ghraib …

Her article had room for these sentences:

But recent large-scale raids, particularly by Shiite and Kurdish security forces, have raised fears in Sunni areas that nets are being cast too widely, catching many innocent Iraqis along with those who have ties to insurgents.

Colonel Talabani acknowledged that some of those swept up in the raids were probably not guilty of anything, and said that those people would be released as the group was interrogated.

One local resident, a 19-year-old vegetable seller who gave his name only as Ali, told Colonel Talabani that his friend had been arrested and had no ties to the insurgency.

and

Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia… said the soldiers looked only for Sunni Arabs in their raids and ignored Shiites, according to a Web site that tracks such messages.

Unfortunately, space was too tight to include a detail that the Daily Telegraph squeezed into their coverage:

…the office of Ibrahim al-Jaafari, the prime minister, described the most significant breakthrough as a successful raid on a car bomb "factory". "They found sufficient bombs for 70 cars, a production line if you like," said Mr Jaafari's spokesman, Laith Kubba. "It was either the factory or one of the two factories that has caused the carnage in Baghdad."

I wonder how long it took Sabrina Tavernise to realize that mention of the discovery of a car bomb factory doesn’t square with the current implementation of the New York Times’ durable if stodgy slogan. After all, readers are easily confused by the inclusion of such irrelevant local color.

#12

The Shiite are in a holding pattern but that doesn't mean that they are not insurgents.

#14

It is no a smear, just a fact. Especially the desecrating of mosques is something that happens more by US soldiers (lets say mostly unwithingly to not make you angree)

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