Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Hearts and Minds

Bill Roggio and Chester have come up with a refined map of what they believe to have happened in Operation Matador. Their map reflects their common scenario, whose general characteristics, although speculative, are probably correct based on the terrain. In general, they believe the Marines have swept west along both sides of the Euphrates river, along the axis of the river, with blocking positions in the east. The purpose of these deployments is to basically trap enemy forces between a hammer and an anvil, the hammer being the forces sweeping west and the anvil being the blocking forces preventing escape.

For readers who may not have seen military map symbols before, the following guide to unit types and sizes may prove useful. Thus, in Bill and Chester's joint map, they believe a cavalry or recon platoon is on the ridge northwest of the area of operations and it is represented as a diagonally crossed box with three circles above it.

Cavalry. An oval in the box means mechanized.
Infantry. An oval in the box means mechanized.
Squad o
Section oo
Platoon ooo
Company I
Battalion II
Regiment III

Just a few comments. Both sides have been fighting for control of this border area from the beginning of OIF.  As described in this very old Belmont Club post (April, 2004), it was a high intensity battleground even before the Marines took over from the 82nd Airborne. Opinion may differ over the relative importance of foreign support to the insurgency flowing along the Euphrates River line (see The Western Road and the River War). However, the fact that Operation Matador is taking place at all and is being fiercely resisted strongly suggests that both the Coalition and the insurgents regard controlling access to the Syrian border important. That it is contested is an empirical fact, but the really fascinating question is why should this be so. My own belief (speculation alert) is that the single most important requirement of the insurgency is not vast quantities of weapons but a supply of trained fighters and money. There is very little prospect of moving very large quantities of munitions and materiel into Iraq from Syria. Camp Gannon at Qusabayah has closed the road for some time now. But this is unimportant because there are huge amounts of loose explosive and weaponry lying around Iraq and the absolute quantities of these needed to wage a terrorist war is very low. But what is needed, above all, is a steady supply of trainers who will teach locals to build ever more sophisticated weapons from any available material; men who are absolutely committed, unwavering and ruthless; and who are well supplied with money to pay their way. It may be impossible to infiltrate trucks of materiel through the Syrian border, but it is perfectly feasible to trickle in terrorist technicians and pedagogues. Cash and small groups of men are easy to hide. The Counterterrorism Blog argues that the most important input of the Iraqi insurgency is trained militants; and that moreover, its most important output is trained militants as well.

Nowadays, Zarqawi's "martyrdom" volunteers aggressively prowl the streets of Iraq in dump trucks, fire engines, and even police cars laden with tons (literally) of makeshift explosives. Rather than striking at targets of opportunity, the suicide bombers are often used to kickoff coordinated attacks on major targets, as seen in recent Al-Qaida operations on the Al-Sadeer Hotel in Baghdad, Abu Ghraib prison west of Baghdad, Camp Gannon in far western Iraq, a U.S. intelligence base in Tikrit, and (most recently) the "Battles of Omar Hadeed and Mohammed Jassem al-Issawi". Many of these attacks are recorded and subsequently distributed by Zarqawi's Media Wing; some of them are filmed from several different angles and at close enough range for the cameraman to be knocked down by the resulting blast. ... There are few tallies of precisely how many foreign fighters have joined the insurgency in Iraq since 2003, but the estimated number may now exceed 10,000. ...

While many of these men are quickly "martyred" in local combat operations (as has undoubtedly occurred frequently in Iraq), the survivors develop advanced combat experience in an urban environment. They learn in detail the arts of sabotage, assassinations, suicide bombings, and downing commercial aircraft with missiles. Eventually, the local conflict comes to an inexorable end, and the majority of the foreign mujahideen are forced to exfiltrate the area and return to their countries of origin--Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Morocco, Algeria, Jordan, Syria, Yemen, Kuwait, and even France and Italy.

The insurgency becomes a kind of interest-bearing machine in the investment of militants. That endows Zarqawi with a tremendous operational flexibility. Logistically, all he has to move is men and money, because the right kind of men provided by funds, can make weapons anywhere, especially in Iraq. The Euphrates River ratlines, are above all, a mechanism for moving men and disseminating deadly learning. For that reason the Syrian border and its approaches are vitally important to him and he will fight for them. (BTW in historical campaigns terrorists purposely killed far more local Muslims than their direct enemies. For example, in Algeria, terrorists killed almost 20 Algerians for every Frenchman. Terrorists learned that as long as they can maintain a hold on the population by intimidation it is actually not necessary to militarily defeat the army of the primary enemy. One point which I think the Counterterrorism Blog does not discuss is that the Iraqi insurgency is also a foundry for American militants of a different kind. It creates a mirror cohort of American experts who have fought Islamic terrorism and learned from it. The effect of hundreds of thousands of returning veterans whose views and careers will have been changed by the Global War on Terror is something whose effect has not yet been measured.)

The US military would at first glance appear to be at a tremendous disadvantage. Unlike Zarqawi's terrorist force, they must move uniformed men and vast quantities of materiel and must seem helpless against the Al Qaeda meme dissemination machine. But in reality it is not so. The US military forms the counterbackground against which its real maneuver assets, which are intelligence assets, can operate. Just as Zarqawi's terrorists move in a civilian sea from which they can improvise weapons, US intelligence assets maneuver in a battlespace dominated by the uniformed armed forces. In their own way, US intelligence assets can match Zarqawi's men for flexibility: once they find Zarqawi's men the American dominated battlespace can quickly kill them. They have a nimbleness of a different kind. From the US perspective, the Euphrates River ratlines are a human infrastructure to be disrupted, infiltrated and turned. For different, but equivalent reasons, the Syrian border and its approaches are an opportunity to bankrupt Zarqawi's investment in militants. Some indication the nature of the contest between US intelligence and Zarqawi's army of zombies, and the role of the uniformed military, which delivers the actual blow, can be seen in this statement by Col Bob Chase, operations officer of the 2nd Marine division. "The enemy, as you expect, once you hit them hard they have a tendency to go to ground ... There are some locations that we are waiting for the timing to be correct." From that it is reasonable to infer that we are not witnessing an isolated operation, but part of a campaign. In the coming months, both sides will probably attack and counterattack not only in geographical breadth, but in along the depth of each other's echelons.