Thursday, November 11, 2004

The River War

The Fallujah battle, which is just winding down, should be seen in the context a wider campaign against the enemy in the Sunni triangle. To properly understand the goals of that campaign, we should first put ourselves in the shoes of the enemy. The Command Post reproduces an extensive extract of a press statement by a former Republican Guard general who now styles himself as a spokesman for the 'resistance'. Although it is probably puffed up for propaganda purposes, it contains a degree of plausibility from which we can infer the outlines of their strategy.

We are very satisfied indeed concerning the reality of the resistance and its results on the terrain. The Resistance in fact has become an every day popular state no one can ignore. We can speak about the Resistance in two terms: First in Iraqi terms: the Resistance has spread its complete control over a great number of Iraqi towns. What is happening in Fallujah, Samaraa, Qaem, Baaquba, Hawijah, Tallafar, Heet, Saqlawyia, Ramadi, Anah, Rawa, Haditha, Balad, Beiji, Bahraz, Baladruz, and other cities and towns of Iraq, confirm perfectly this reality. The Resistance also controls totally some areas in Baghdad and its suburbs such as Yusufya, Latifya, Abu Ghraib, and Mahmudya, which shows the political and the security impasse encountered by the Occupiers and their agents. Here we have to mention the widespread popular cover the Resistance enjoys in these areas and elsewhere, rendering all Iraqi resistance fighters in the confrontation moments with the enemy.

... After this rapid and summary lecture of the Iraqi resistance reality, I can say that we are very confident about the future. What we planned before the Occupation is being achieved on the terrain in a good way. This shows the correct political and military Iraqi leadership long-term vision, when it planned the Resistance and started its fire. There is a unified military leadership, which leads the operations in the terrain in every town of Iraq. This leadership includes the best officers of the Iraqi Army, the Republican Guard, Saddam’s Fidayyins, and the Security and Intelligence services. What is happening in the Provinces of al Anbar, Diyala, Mosul, and Salah el Din, Babel and elsewhere is a bright sign of what I am telling you.

There are two factual nuggets in this screed. First, it gives us a map of the the towns which the enemy considers its bastions. Second, it hints of a fallback plan conceived before the launch of Operation Iraqi Freedom, a subject earlier discussed in War Plan Orange. By plotting the enemy strongholds on the map it is at once evident that they are coextensive with two pathways. The first goes northward along the Euphrates from western Baghdad, Fallujah, Ramadi, Hadithah, Anah and Qusabayah -- along the river and road from Baghdad to the Syrian border. The omission of Qusabayah from mention is very peculiar, since it has been the scene of battalion sized battles between infiltrators and Marines guarding the Syrian frontier since the earliest post-OIF days, but I include it here on that account. The second set of towns goes northeast along the Tigris towards Tikrit and parts of Kurdistan: Hawijah, Balad and Samarra. A spur runs off toward the Iranian border: Baqubah and Baladruz, on the road to the Iran. It is hard not to think that we are looking at their lines of communication.

The towns along these pathways are probably waystations where men and weapons can be smuggled by stages, a kind of Sunni Ho Chi Minh  Trail. My own guess is they are probably superimposed on traditional smuggling routes from Syria and Iran which have now been converted to serve the enemy cause. I caution the reader that this is guesswork, but I think it is correct. The discovery of carbomb factories in Fallujah suggests that town was the easternmost terminus of a finger that extended straight from the Syrian border, a final launching pad where enemy delivery systems were "bombed up" for their sorties at US targets in the city or as convoys made their way along the highways west of Baghdad.

Taking Fallujah then, was not merely a symbolic political act to reduce a 'symbol of defiance', but a sound operational move. It interdicts the conveyor belt of destruction that flowed from the Syrian border towards Baghdad. The logical next step is to cut the line again near the Syrian border, perhaps at Anah, so that by taking out both ends the middle is left unsupported. Alternatively, the US could roll up the enemy line of communication going north by taking out Ramadi which would force the enemy to sortie from Haditha, a little ville a lot farther from Baghdad. Although this will not totally destroy the insurgency, it will throttle movement along their lines of communication considerably. Guerilla warfare, like all warfare, is logistics. It just takes different forms.

In order to accomplish this task, the US has approximately 18 brigades -- about 50 battalions -- at hand. But many of these are assigned to important security duties and about 10 battalions were directly employed in the Fallujah operation or in support, and it will be some days, even weeks, before these units are available again to mount other operations. But the Prime Minister Allawie's 60 day declaration of martial law strongly suggests that the Sunni campaign will be finished before elections are held in January and that means there will be very little pause in American operational tempo. In fact, although the focus of media coverage has been on the urban battle in Fallujah, pursuit operations up and down the ratline to Syria are probably in progress. Chester was surprised to learn that contrary to his expectations, the British Black Watch regiment was to the west and probably north of Fallujah, not east as he expected. That means it was not between Fallujah and Baghdad, but between Fallujah and Ramadi. This suggests the hammer could fall on Ramadi, with Black Watch in a blocking position. One can only wait and see.

Every campaign has a political dimension. The campaign in the Sunni Triangle is probably aimed at convincing the enemy that resistance is now futile and their best hope lies in participating in the new Iraqi government through elections. Personally (speculation alert!) I doubt it can achieve as much. The campaign will absolutely gut the enemy as a guerilla force, but it will not be enough to prevent them from terrorizing Sunni politicians who may wish to participate in the coming elections. But this will only postpone unconditional Sunni defeat for another year because a terrorist enforced boycott will mean that Kurds and Shi'ites will dominate the new administration and most importantly, its Army. By next year, the regular Iraqi Army will be a far more potent force and the Sunni insurgency a far weaker one. But that's the old sad human story; to miss the chance when it comes and pine for it ever afterward.