Saturday, June 26, 2004

The Grand Bumblers

People who really insist on characterizing US strategy and forces in Iraq as bumbling failures should really go back to 1995, in the golden era of Clintonian peace, where despite appearances all was not well. President Boris Yeltsin had attempted to reassert Russian influence over Chechnya by covert means. It failed and Chechen President Jokar Dudayev responded by parading captured Russian operatives on television. Unaccustomed to such cheek, the Russian President ordered his armies into the Chechen capital, Grozny, from three sides. Parameters describes what happened.

The first unit to penetrate to the city center was the 1st battalion of the 131st "Maikop" Brigade, the latter composed of some 1,000 soldiers (120 armored vehicles and 26 tanks) ... Russian forces initially met no resistance when they entered the city at noon on 31 December. They drove their vehicles straight to the city center, dismounted, and took up positions inside the train station. Other elements remained parked along a side street as a reserve force.

Sixty hours later, the unit had been wiped out. "By 3 January 1995, the brigade had lost nearly 800 men, 20 of 26 tanks, and 102 of 120 armored vehicles." It had been surrounded and despite urgent pleas for relief, been utterly destroyed. "Its commander, Colonel Ivan Savin and almost 1000 officers and men died and 74 were taken prisoners. As for the two Spetsnaz groups south of the city, they surrendered to the Chechens after having tried to survive without food for several days," one historian observed. A Russian soldier described what he saw as they approached the train station around where the "Maikop" Brigade had been.

En route to the Central Train Station, the streets are crammed with burnt and mangled hulks of "armor" and strewn with dead bodies. The bodies of our Slavic brothers, all that's left of the Mikop Brigade, the one that "spooks" burnt and wiped out on the New Year's Eve 95-96.

Whoever said "spooks" couldn't fight forgot to tell the Russians. They met tactical methods which have since become refined and familiar. The sniper, the RPG ambush, the IED, and using civilians for cover. More from Parameters:

The principal Chechen city defense was the "defenseless defense." They decided that it was better not to have strong points, but to remain totally mobile and hard to find. Hit-and-run tactics made it difficult for the Russian force to locate pockets of resistance and impossible to bring their overwhelming firepower to bear against an enemy force. Russian firepower was diluted as a result and could be used only piecemeal. Chechen mobile detachments composed of one to several vehicles (usually civilian cars or jeeps) transported supplies, weapons, and personnel easily throughout the city. Chechens deployed in the vicinity of a school or hospital, fired a few rounds, and quickly left. The Russians would respond by shelling the school or hospital, but usually after the Chechens had gone. Civilians consequently viewed this action as Russians needlessly destroying vital facilities and endangering their lives, not realizing who had initiated the incident. The Chechen mobility and intimate knowledge of the city exponentially increased the effect of their "defenseless defense."

These methods were used in far greater force against American forces eight years later with a different result. US forces in Iraq defeated an entire multidivisional conventional army and fought a yearlong campaign against a more sophisticated version of the resistance the Russians encountered, in an area the size of California, abutted by two hostile countries for fewer deaths than the Russians bore in sixty hours over a few city blocks. These two map (1 & 2 ) sections showing the density of IEDs encountered in the Baghdad-Ramadi road corridor alone should tell the reader why terrorist groups were so confident in believing that America could be driven out of Iraq. It's not that the enemy lacked the metal; its that the American targets were not cooperating. The Russians were brave but the American methods were better. The Strategy Page remarks:

It’s no accident that American tactics in Iraqi are remarkably like those in Israel. American officers and NCOs have been visiting Israel for years (usually in civilian clothes in the past decade) to observe and study the Israeli counter-terrorist tactics. This is kept quiet, but not secret. The Israeli tactics work, and have been widely adopted by American combat troops. ... The key to this ... is the greater use of intelligence (information gathered on what the armed Palestinians are up to and where they are), and using Israeli troops in high speed and unpredictable maneuvers. This is a classic military tactic. Using a combination of informers, electronic eavesdropping, overhead surveillance (cameras and spotters in helicopters) and constant analysis of Palestinian operations, the Israelis gain an information advantage over their opponents. They then use this edge to conduct raids to disrupt Palestinian combat operations.

Saddam Hussein, many people now forget was captured using operations research -- the logical analysis of information from all sources. The recent series precision strikes against terrorist safehouses in Fallujah are reminiscent of the Israeli helicopter strike tactic, except that Americans use way bigger bombs. And they are aimed, like the Israeli strikes, at leadership targets. But the Americans have one further weapon: they can wield the wedge of sectarian politics. The killers in the Sunni triangle, now on the payroll of Zarqawi, were saved from extermination in April 2004 by matching Shi'ite unrest in the south. But after the US pulled the wheels from Moqtada al-Sadr's wagon and outmaneuvered the UN's Lakhdar Brahimi's attempts at constituting an Interim Government preferred by Kofi Annan, the strategy of Sunni noncooperation with the Coalition authorities backfired big-time. The new Iraqi government was going to be dominated by Shi'ites outwardly prepared to cooperate with America. What looked like a Shi'ite-Sunni deal to drive the US out of Iraq in April turned out to be a deal, all right, but not the kind the Al Qaeda had bargained for. An enraged Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's vowed to kill Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, murdered 100 Iraqis in a single day and probably engineered an attack on Shi'ite political party headquarters.  Allawi responded by announcing a plan for checkpoints, a curfew, a ban on demonstrations and even hinted at declaring martial law. The man who had pleaded with America to lift the siege on Fallujah was all smiles at the news of the latest American precision strike. Zarqawi's woes were compounded by Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani whose response to his offensive was pretty nearly blood-curdling.

At a Friday prayer meeting in Karbala, a spokesman for Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani told worshipers that Al Qaeda's top leaders are "filthy infidels". He names Osama bin Laden and the Jordanian-born terrorist purportedly operating in Iraq, Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi. He says they are "bastards" who "nurture malignance" against Shiite Muslims. A prominent Shiite leader was assassinated in Iraq on Thursday night. Al Qaeda's leadership is made up of Sunni Muslims from the Wahabi sect.

The Strategy Page thinks Zarqawi's offensive is already failing. Despite the importation of fighters from all over the world and the use of weapons in numbers orders of magnitude greater than those directed at the Russian Maikiop brigade, the Jihadis have been unable to keep the inept Americans from creeping to within a hairsbreadth of installing a new government in the heart of Arabia.