Tuesday, April 13, 2004

The Recursive Battle

It is difficult now to remember that the scheme of operational maneuver during Operation Iraqi Freedom consisted not of slaughtering the enemy but disorganizing him. Where possible, enemy units were deprived of their sustenance and allowed to disintegrate. Most cities, except those which absolutely had to be traversed, were simply bypassed, including Najaf, Karballah and Fallujah, none of which saw heavy fighting. Only Iraqi units which stood and fought were destroyed. Most enemy combatants simply took off their uniforms and melted into the general population.

Throughout the campaign, the Press took the view that Americans had brought far too few men. At An-Nasiriyah, the Marines faced heavy resistance while supply columns were beset by bands of guerillas known as the fedayeen, who ambushed supply trucks and took Americans hostages, including Jessica Lynch, to national despair. In the realm of political warfare, Americans seemed singularly ill-equipped. All they had with them were a pitiful band of emigres, many of whom had lived abroad most of their lives, to set against a Ba'athist regime deeply rooted in the clan structure of Iraq.

If the story sounds disturbingly familiar, that is because it describes the current campaign by US forces against the new enemy, insurgencies fueled by Syria and Iran. Even before Operation Iraqi Freedom, thousands of Iranian and possibly Syrian operatives were infiltrated into Iraq to contest the control of post-Saddam Iraq, a process described in The Wider War. They constitute the current equivalent of the conventional forces and feyadeen encountered by US Forces in March and April of 2003. Instead of Saddam's Ba'ath Party, current armed elements are led by a coalition of Islamists, former Baathists, professional terrorists and secret agents.

Once again, the US is trying to engage only hard core elements which actively resist, attempting to bypass the population masses, leaving them "unoccupied" as it were, to be dealt with later. In place of a band of emigres, the US has the Iraqi Governing Council, comprised of representatives from various religious and ethnic groupings, with which to conduct political warfare. Force is apparently being used, in conjunction with Council, to effectively replace Anti-coalition leadership in Fallujah and Najaf with Iraqis who are more congenial to the coalition. With what results remains to be seen.

A briefing given by Generals Abizaid and Sanchez at CENTCOM is maddeningly hazy about the acceptable end-states of Sunni fighting at Fallujah and the rebellion of Moqtada al-Sadr.

Q: Again, in Fallujah, you said it was a tenuous peace. Could you elaborate on that and talk about key U.S. and Iraqi Governing Council demands? What will make that into a lasting peace?

Sanchez: The part that is tenuous is that we are continuing to get attacks from the insurgents that are in the city. As I stated, we suspended our offensive operations to allow these discussions to go forward, and I must add that these are just initial discussions. We are not negotiating at this point until we achieve some confidence building and a period of stability; then we would consider going into significant negotiations to end this battle. But at this point, we have had continued attacks by the insurgents up until about eight to 12 hours ago.

One gets the sense that something is being held back. It would be inconceivable for commanders as experienced as Sanchez and Abizaid to tie down three battalions of Marines to indefinitely await the result of "initial discussions" or "confidence building". Things are rather clearer on the Shi'ite front, where Moqtada al-Sadr's forces have been in retreat from cities his forces had claimed to occupy.

Sanchez: Sir, the situation down in the south, the area that was being terrorized by Muqtada al-Sadr over the course of the last few days, is now stabilized. We are clearly in control of al Kut, which, as you' know, had been controlled by his gang for some time, for about a day and a half before we maneuvered 1st Armored Division forces down there. That is now completely under our control, with Muqtada's elements gone. Nasiriyah, we have reestablished control down there, and we have great cooperation in both of those cities from the moderate Shi'a, and they were glad to get rid of that element that was terrorizing them. In the Hillah area, also that is now stabilized, and getting great cooperation from the people down there.

The obvious line of speculation is that US forces, which have always regarded the Shi'ite situation as the most dangerous, have concentrated on diffusing it first. There are broad hints that the Iraqi Governing Council, almost certainly in consultation with Sadr's rival, Sistani, have decided themselves to neutralize him.

Abizaid: Well clearly, it is the intent of the Governing Council to bring Sadr to justice. How they go about doing that I think will probably end up being a uniquely Iraqi solution, but I believe that they're moving in that direction themselves. We're applying the military force necessary to assist in that regard, as you might imagine.

Once Sadr is brought under control and the Shi'ites placed unambiguously under the leadership of a moderate cleric, the strategic protection of Fallujah will evaporate overnight. Its main defenses have always been the human shielding afforded by its civilian population and its potential as an inflammatory symbol to create Shi'ite-Sunni cooperation. Fallujha's military defenses are negligible in the face of Marine manuever. And that may in fact be the plan. CENTCOM has driven Sadr's Madhi Army from the field and may be poised to arrest or kill him with assent of moderate Shi'ites. Once that is accomplished, Sanchez would be in a position to issue new orders to the Marines encircling a Fallujah conveniently evacuated of civilians.

Yet the most tantalizing nuggets in Abizaid's CENTCOM briefing are the lines no one had time to pursue.

Q: Generals, Bret Baier again at Fox News Channel. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld said last week that Iran is meddling in the situation inside Iraq. General Abizaid, can you tell us how Iran is playing a factor in the current situation on the ground? And have you taken any action along the border that may have involved Iranians?

Abizaid: Well, we haven't taken any action recently on the border that had to do with any specific Iranian activity. But clearly, there are indications from intelligence folks that there are some Iranian activities going on that are unhelpful, as the secretary put it. He's absolutely right. And there's also unhelpful actions coming from Syria.

But on the other hand, with regard to the Iranians, there are elements within Iran that are urging patience and calm and trying to limit the influence of Sadr. So it's a complicated situation. But what we need is all of the nations around Iraq to participate in calming the situation and assisting with a sovereign and stable government emerging.

Sanchez: If I may add, Bret, as part of our ongoing operations, we had increased the capacity of the border police out in the Iranian sector, and we had also increased some of our patrolling along the southeast and up in the central part of the country to prevent some of the illegal movement that had been occurring from Iran. So, as part of our current operations over the course of the last 30 to 45 days, we had increased some of our ops in that area.

 This is the first direct confirmation that CENTCOM was to some degree expecting Iranian-fueled trouble among the Shi'ites. And then, there is this:

Abizaid: It's also very clear that we've got to get more senior Iraqis involved, former military types involved in the security forces. And in the next couple of days you'll see a large number of senior officers being appointed to key positions in the Ministry of Defense and in Iraqi joint staff and in Iraqi field commands. And General Sanchez and I are very much involved in the vetting and placing of these officers, and I can tell you the competition for these positions have been fierce.

That and the suggestion that American Special Forces are going to be deployed with Iraqi Army units. Taken together, they provide a fairly interesting preview into the shape of the coming campaign. In sum, it looks like US forces are going to be used in a targeted fashion against elements which directly resist the coalition. However, the main weapon will be political warfare. The priority now will be to displace enemy leaders from their community positions with members from the new Iraqi government. It is possible that the US has decided to deal with the Shi'ite situation first, and has purposely left the Fallujah matter in abeyance until the Sadr matter is settled. It also looks like the US has decided to rebuild the Iraqi Army out of proven command elements, even though it risks the return of former Saddam-era officers and to stiffen it out with Special Forces. Lastly, the US has clearly recognized the aggressive role the Iranians have played in the current crisis and may be preparing to wage a defensive war against Teheran's agents -- as a first step. There may be a new Deck of Death, with terrorists like Imad Mugniyeh as face cards. And that's as far as Belmont Club speculation will go.