Saturday, April 03, 2004

Command Decision

The Washington Post is reporting that an operational plan to clean up Fallujah is pretty well written up. In an article headed 2 U.S. Troops Killed; Fallujah Plan Readied, it says:

Lt. Gen. James T. Conway, the commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, is coordinating military plans to reestablish control in Fallujah, a top U.S. military official said in Baghdad. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Conway also will oversee a "top to bottom" review of the conduct of Iraqi security forces and local officials during and after the killings of the civilians. The Marines replaced the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division in western Iraq on March 24.

"At first blush, one has to ask: How does this happen in a city of that size, which does have a police force and an Iraqi Civil Defense Corps presence?" said the official. "We are going to be looking at all organizations inside Fallujah that have responsibility and authority . . . and anyone who has a leadership position inside that city." The official added, "The stakes are too high, the outcomes too important, to give anyone the luxury to sit on the fence in Fallujah." Army Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the top military spokesman in Iraq, called for residents of Fallujah to identify those responsible for the killings. "I think they'll make the right choice and turn these people over to us," he told reporters in Baghdad. "If not, we're prepared to go in and find them."

The level at which the response is being coordinated gives away the possible size of the operation. General Conway commands a force of 25,000 men, with about a division's worth of infantry (9 battalions) and supporting arms, so the operation will probably involve more than a brigade. The Fallujah incident is also calling into question the reliability of Iraqi police forces not only in Fallujah, but probably throughout Iraq. The question is whether the police owe their fundamental allegiance to the new Iraqi government or to the local chieftains.

An ABC news article suggests that the contractors, who were escorting a convoy of food through the area, fell into a prepared ambush -- arranged for the media to witness -- an act impossible without the connivance of the local Iraqi police and security forces.

Iraqi insurgents had set up several ambush points around Fallujah, the city west of Baghdad that is a hotbed of anti-American sentiment, and had stocked them with gasoline on the morning of the attack, intelligence sources told ABCNEWS. Some townspeople had been warned to stay inside.

"This was clearly an attack to get maximum media exposure," said one source.

The four contractors left the Iraqi city of Taji on Tuesday to escort a convoy of several flatbed trucks full of goods. The plan was to spend the night at a U.S. base called TQ, west of Fallujah. Instead, the convoy ended up at a base east of Fallujah. On Wednesday morning, with two contractors in the lead SUV and two others in an SUV at the rear of the flatbeds, a decision was made to drive through Fallujah. Each of the security guards was armed with an assault rifle and an automatic pistol. The contractors also had satellite communications on board.

At around 8 a.m., the convoy approached a traffic circle on highway 10 going into the city. According to intelligence sources, eyewitnesses say a vehicle full of gunmen pulled in front of the lead SUV, while occupants from several other vehicles fired Kalashnikov machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. The contractors were killed, but the truck drivers escaped by driving away. Another vehicle full of attackers then pulled up and dragged two of the bodies out of the SUVs, doused them with gasoline, set them on fire, and dragged them behind vehicles.

The security contractors obviously drove through Fallujah as a last resort. They had planned to avoid it, but caught on the wrong side of the river, they decided to cross as quickly as possible. They probably assumed that there could be no fixed ambush positions in the town itself, certainly not in so prominent a place as the junction of Highway 10 without the Iraqi police being aware of it. Even so, the contractors deployed as best they could with their limited resources, and it perhaps saved the rest of the convoy. They drove into a classic L shaped ambush and took fire from ahead and from one flank in the kill zone from automatic weapons and RPGs.

It is entirely possible and more than probable that the contractors coordinated their move through Fallujah with the Iraqi security officials. And it is in this light that we can understand Conway's brief to "oversee a 'top to bottom' review of the conduct of Iraqi security forces and local officials during and after the killings of the civilians". Readers will recall that the several police stations were destroyed in Fallujah some months ago. It is conceivable that Anti-Coalition Forces then followed up this intimidation with offers of money, essentially hammering home the message that cooperation with Americans was a losing business proposition. General Conway apparently intends to demonstrate the reverse, or at least establish that he can deal out far more fearsome punishment than the Anti-coalition warlords.

One cannot but have some momentary sympathy for the Iraqi cops who are now between the hammer and the anvil. It may have been a mistake to leave this center of anti-coalition power unbroken and to rely on the local law enforcement to clean it up. Rather than the police controlling the local warlords, the warlords ended up controlling the police. The impending operation must now rectify the mistake and smash the warlords so thoroughly that any who see the light of day will end up selling pencils out of a tin cup. Every Iraqi policeman who collaborated with these thugs should be punished severely. The real trick will be to rip apart the structure of Fallujah without causing too many civilian casualties. It will be a hard, but as the Washington Post source said, "The stakes are too high, the outcomes too important, to give anyone the luxury to sit on the fence in Fallujah". The speed with which the operational plan has been drafted means that the choices long avoided have been faced. Now the Muslim holy day of Friday has come to an end and a waxing moon will soon rise over a Saturday night in Fallujah.


Anyone who can read a map is invited to look at Global Security's 1:10,000 aerial photograph of Fallujah. Some quick observations. The built up section of the town is about 2.5 miles on each side and covers about 6.5 square miles. My guess (just a guess) is that any of the perps who didn't make it out of town in the first few minutes of the mutilation attack on the contractors have split up and are trying to walk out through ratlines of sympathizers by going farmhouse to farmhouse until they can clear the cordon. There are two problems with this. The first is that traveling strangers stick out in a rural community and are vulnerable to snitches looking to make a quick buck. The second and far more severe problem is that ratline movement can shift only a handful of people. The great majority of bad guys, especially senior men who can travel only by vehicle, are still in Fallujah.

The obvious approach is use the river, the clear demarcations to the north and east as the basic anvil. The river, railway and the eastern highway (Highway 10?) are naturally open fields of observation which are hard to cross. The area south shades into a suburb called Hamid Kanna and a marshy area with a prominent hill in the southeast corner. The hammer then, might go from the south to north, taking the high ground, and going through less built-up area, possibly picking up ratline exfiltrators in the process until the east-west main road through Fallujah is reached (the one leading to the bridge). This is a natural phase line to pause until the area south of the main road is processed. The northern section of the town is unfortunately for the defenders laid out in grid with roads intersecting at right angles. Americans may not go down these roads at all but through the walls of houses and come at the defenders from any direction. However, because the roads can be swept by fire they will work in the American favor by isolating one neighborhood from another. The Marines will gobble up Fallujah in detail and there is nothing anyone can do about it.

Any defender smarter than a cockroach will see that a conventional defense is impossible. Their goals must therefore be more modest. One may be to cause as many American deaths as possible by planting mines or IEDs wherever they can along approaches. But that will only delay, not alter the result. The other may be to create as many civilian casualties as possible. An example of this would be for Anti-coalition forces to set the whole town ablaze and exploit the pandemonium. However, if the Marines exert only gradual pressure, and use neighbors or Iraqi police from outside Fallujah to guide other neighbors into processing areas, the defenders will never be presented with a clear opportunity to precipitate a crisis. Once the Marines get the momentum of processing going, the tribal leaders will lose control and the whole structure will start to crumble. The Marines can exploit their physical domination by offering clemency or even rewards to those who rat out on other perps. The inner bastion of Fallujah will collapse like a termite-eaten post as each man looks out for himself.

There is another possibility. Cornered Islamists in Pakistan and Mindanao have historically used the counter-siege to get them out of tight spots. This involves staging an attack either on Marine rear lines or making a huge bomb attack on another Iraqi city to force a diversion of resources. But Iraq is already inured to attacks like this and they cannot significantly damage Marine lines of communication to a useful degree. What works in Pakistan or the Philippines will not work against the Marines.

The wildcard is the press. The Anti-coalition forces used the media to start this game and they are doubtless thinking of ways to use it to either save their hides or finish it, politically at least, in their favor. Unfortunately, the Bush administration has everything to lose and nothing to gain by backing down, and will persevere, come hell or high water.

Cleaning out Fallujah will be a hard and dangerous operation requiring a lot of skill and good command judgment. There was a good reason why the Marines just didn't barrel into town with all guns blazing on the day the contractors were attacked.