Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Fallujah Again

Although the US military has refused to give a timeline for the capture of Fallujah developments suggest they are moving at very rapid operational pace.

Hours after starting the offensive, U.S. tanks and Humvees from the 1st Infantry Division entered the northeastern Askari neighborhood, the first ground assault into an insurgent bastion. In the northwestern area of the city, U.S. troops advanced slowly after dusk on the Jolan neighborhood, a warren of alleyways where Sunni militants have dug in. Artillery, tanks and warplanes pounded the district's northern edge, softening the defenses and trying to set off any bombs or boobytraps planted by the militants.

Marines were visible on rooftops in Jolan. This reporter, located at a U.S. camp near the city, saw orange explosions lighting up the district's palm trees, minarets and dusty roofs, and a fire burning on the city's edge. Just outside the Jolan and Askari neighborhoods, Iraqi troops deployed with U.S. forces took over a train station after the Americans fired on it to drive off fighters.

The Fallujah can be conceived as a rough rectangle two miles on a side bounded by the Euphrates to the west, the railroad track to the north, a highway to the east and an "industrial park" and suburbs to the south. The recognized enemy stronghold is the upper northwest corner called the Jolan but their forces are likely to be more widespread than that. But in two successive nights, US forces have compressed the enemy from three sides (probably a fourth, as it is likely the US has also seized the 'industrial area' to the southeast) and have actually penetrated the enemy stronghold of Jolan in parts, without any published casualties apart from the two Marines who died when their bulldozer flipped into the Euphrates.

Readers will recall the same pattern of operations in Najaf where US infantry secured the buildings and rooftops while vehicles advanced on the streets below. In Najaf as in Fallujah too, apparently, US forces did not advance on a single broad front but snaked in to seize key areas, breaking up enemy defenses into pockets which can no longer support each other. The pockets may be further isolated by bulldozing fire lanes. The low number of casualties so far indicates that US forces have successfully sidestepped enemy forces the way a broken field runner dodges tackles. The Strategic Studies Institute warns that heavy casualties may result from assaulting "mini fortresses", but many of those redoubts may be entirely bypassed and fields of fire cleared around them.

"The big fights, where you're going to see lots of casualties, are when defenders create miniature fortresses," Millen said. "Your infantry gets sucked into those things, and that's when you see casualties building up."  U.S. forces have managed to keep casualties relatively low in previous urban battles in Iraq. In three weeks of fighting a Shiite Muslim insurgency in the streets and massive cemetery of Najaf this summer, seven Marines and two soldiers were killed out of a force of about 3,000. "If you go in there well and you go in there methodically - if you have a good plan - you're not going to have as many casualties," Millen said.

I believe (speculation alert!) that the enemy mobile defense is nearly at an end; that his active response has probably fallen to pieces much quicker than he anticipated and they are probably going to concentrate their resistance into mutually supportive strongpoints or explosive barriers fairly soon. The enemy's remaining hope is to hit the "jackpot" by demolishing a building or blowing up a street just as US forces occupy or overrun it. As they become squeezed into a smaller and smaller area, the risk that US forces will run into an exploding house or building will increase. But the rapid progress of the last two nights may be tempting US commanders to accept the risks and snap at the enemy's heels. Going fast may prevent the enemy from setting up their defense. One almost certain thing is that a fearful execution is being inflicted on the enemy, and probably worst among their officers and NCOs. Tonight's events will probably indicate whether the US goes for broke or takes a more deliberate approach.


The Daily Telegraph has an atmospheric article which describes the terrible effect of networked forces on the enemy inside Fallujah.

"I got myself a real juicy target," shouted Sgt James Anyett, peering through the thermal sight of a Long Range Acquisition System (LRAS) mounted on one of Phantom's Humvees. "Prepare to copy that 89089226. Direction 202 degrees. Range 950 metres. I got five motherf****** in a building with weapons." A dozen loud booms rattle the sky and smoke rose as mortars rained down on the co-ordinates the sergeant had given. "Yeah," he yelled. "Battle Damage Assessment - nothing. Building's gone. I got my kills, I'm coming down. I just love my job."

... The insurgents, not understanding the capabilities of the LRAS, crept along rooftops and poked their heads out of windows. Even when they were more than a mile away, the soldiers of Phantom Troop had their eyes on them. Lt Jack Farley, a US Marines officer, sauntered over to compare notes with the Phantoms. "You guys get to do all the fun stuff," he said. "It's like a video game. We've taken small arms fire here all day. It just sounds like popcorn going off."

This engagement is all the more chilling because it probably happened at night. Five enemy soldiers died simply because they could not comprehend how destruction could flow from an observer a mile away networked to mortars that could fire for effect without ranging. All over Fallujah virtual teams of snipers and fire-control observers are jockeying for lines of sight to deal death to the enemy. For many jihadis that one peek over a sill could be their last.

"Everybody's curious," grinned Sgt Anyett as he waited for a sniper with a Russian-made Dragonov to show his face one last, fatal time. A bullet zinged by. ...

His officers said that the plan to invade Fallujah involved months of detailed planning and elaborate "feints" designed to draw the insurgents out into the open and fool them into thinking the offensive would come from another side of the city.  "They're probably thinking that we'll come in from the east," said Capt Natalie Friel, an intelligence officer with task force, before the battle. But the actual plan involves penetrating the city from the north and sweeping south. "I don't think they know what's coming. They have no idea of the magnitude," she said. "But their defences are pretty circular. They're prepared for any kind of direction. They've got strong points on all four corners of the city." The aim was to push the insurgents south, killing as many as possible, before swinging west. They would then be driven into the Euphrates.

From UAVs wheeling overhead to Marines going through alleys linked by their intra-squad radios (a kind of headset and boom-mike operated comm device), the US force is generating lethal, real-time information which is almost immediately transformed into strike action. Against this, the jihadis have no chance. This doesn't mean (as I pointed out above) that there will be no American losses. The battlefield is too lethal to hope for that. But it does mean that terrorism has unleashed a terrible engine upon itself. Capabilities which didn't exist on September 11 have now been deployed in combat. It isn't that American forces have become inconceivably lethal that is scary; it is that the process has just started.

Update 2

An NYT article with an accompanying photo essay illustrates the high level of skill which some of the enemy display. It's not that the enemy is dumb, just that the US is that much better. A sequence of photos shows US troops observing targets from a rooftop to call in fires. Right after the Americans scoot off, enemy mortars land on the roof, too late to hurt their tormentors. It is a perfect illustration of the lethality of information and essentially futile enemy attempts to negate it. As the battle progresses, enemy snipers, mortarmen and machinegunners -- who are desperately trying to deny Americans their lethal targeting information -- will be picked off or run low on ammunition. The combat, already lopsided to start with, will grow more unequal. If it sounds unfair, it meant to be.

The Strategy Page points out that the enemy has dug tunnels under streets, utilized overhead cover and knocked holes in walls in an attempt to negate the US information warfare advantage. But the price for living like moles is relative immobility in trading concealment for stasis. The battle for Fallujah illustrates the relative strengths and weaknesses of both sides. The enemy, whatever his faults, is not obviously short on courage or resourcefulness and America can expect to encounter the same tenacity anywhere he is met. But against these strengths, enemy inherited not only the weakness of a poor technological base but a fundamentally flawed concept of American determination. They wrongly assumed, as Osama often claimed, that Americans were too morally weak to fight. They believed they could use physical remoteness and terrorist tactics to wage "asymmetrical warfare" on an American force geared to fight conventional battles -- the army of Desert Storm. Both these assumptions have proved poor bets. There are now tens of thousands of Americans with a good understanding of the Middle East; there are many systems now coming online which are designed to fight the terrorist enemy. They are going to get snowed under by the same tidal wave that buried the Imperial Japanese Army and the Wehrmacht in World War 2.

Thinking Muslim and Arab leaders probably recognize the handwriting on the wall, but like the peace factions in wartime Germany and Japan, are still reluctant to step forward. This is tragic, because like the unequal struggle in Fallujah, once the US gains the strategic upper hand its advantages will progressively mount and a hideous, irresistible annihilation of enemy forces will unfold, until despair brings an enemy statesman forward; not too late for his society, but too tardy to save the wasted lives of their young men.