Wednesday, November 05, 2003

Traffic Analysis

Today  CENTCOM went six days without a single new press release. Not that it had many even before. The last was issued two days before the the tragic shootdown of a Chinook helicopter carrying 33 American soldiers over Fallujah -- and had to do with administrative matters. Not a single press release in October announced the start of a new operation or campaign against the terrorists. Even blogs based in Iraq have been notably short on detail on what, if any, riposte CENTCOM has in store for spate of terrorist attacks launched against a variety of targets during the Ramadan, except that they have ceased to post as frequently as they used to. While the US reacted to the North Vietnamese Tet offensive in 1968 in a lot of public announced detail --  the Marines moving to retake Hue City, the First Cavalary moving against NVA formations moving down from the North -- CENTCOM has successfully managed to obliterate nearly every detailed account of its recent intentions and doings, even before the Ramadan.

Yet there are tantalizing glimpses into the frenzied activity taking place unnoticed by media coverage. There was, for example, a foiled attempt to attack the Iraqi Central Bank which resulted in the capture of six Moroccans. There are fragmentary reports of skirmishes between terrorists and American troops swirling around Iraqi judges in Mosul and Kirkuk and Najaf. There are hints of the scope of the intelligence assets that have been analyzed by US agencies. There are even suggestions that the Army has developed a set of new tactics for use in Baghdad and its environs. And there's the fact that the Muslim holy days come to a close on November 25th, opening the window to a sustained period of action.

When a large organization like CENTCOM goes silent it often implies that something is up. During the run up to the operation in Afghanistan in the months following September 11, there was also a marked decline in the definiteness of news accounts, a smoothing out of detail which was almost disorienting to the observer of current affairs. If it is a given that America is at war with terrorists in Iraq; it is also safe to say that America has shown a recent tendency to conduct operations in discontinuous bursts, introducing a package of new strategies and tactics and even equipment fairly suddenly to achieve surprise and decisive results before the enemy can react and adapt to them. One of the lessons of Vietnam, after all, was never again to respond incrementally to enemy actions. And the sustained quiet despite recent terrorist attacks, instead of a volley of announced security makeshifts and public assurances is ominous indeed.

For maximum destructive effect, American forces usually aim to draw the enemy into a sack; lull them into a false sense of success so that they redouble their efforts and expose more of their forces before dropping the hammer. Right now the Ba'athists and the Jihadis have expended a large portion of the monetary and strategic resources in acquiring standoff weapons, preparing remotely detonated explosive devices, car-bombs and training the personnel to use them. This has replaced the RPG and rifle attacks of the early days. Clearly this new terrorist operational doctrine is supported by a corresponding network of supply, training, planning and control. In principle, this doctrine is nothing more than an extension of the feyadeen tactics that were applied to the rear of US forces advancing on Baghad. Although its first incarnation was defeated, the enemy and some of the mainstream press feel that it may succeed in its improved form. The more successful this doctrine appears to be, the greater will be their material and political investment in underpinning it, and the more catastrophic its loss.

The Belmont Club has no crystal ball into the future. But it is reasonable to infer that CENTCOM would like nothing better than to deliver a riposte which will not only inflict heavy losses on the enemy, but force them to find a new operational doctrine as well. While the enemy may eventually adapt and rediscover newer methods, the Taliban experience demonstrates it may take months or years to so. By then, it will forever be too late for the Ba'ath or the Jihadis to reverse the course of Iraqi reconstruction.