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Thursday, April 29, 2004

Going Retro in Iraq

First, let me say how much of an honour it is to join the Shotgun crew. There is a world of a difference between prolific commenting and actually posting!

The latest news out of Iraq is that the Marines currently surrounding Fallujah will end their siege and will be replaced by about 1000 former (i.e. Baath) Iraqi soldiers and commanders in a "Fallujah Protection Army".

(Correction: the Marines have not actually said that they will be ending the Fallujah siege. And the transition is "gradual", but nonetheless the intention is that "eventually the whole of Fallujah will be under the control of the Fallujah Protection Army.")

Not surprisingly, some of those soldiers' old buddies are the ones that are causing the whole mess in the first place.

It's already bad enough that Iraqis in the new army are refusing to "fight Iraqis". Now the Coalition is asking for people who are either neck-deep complicit in the crimes of the old regime, or are such opportunists that no one can trust them anyways.

The real kicker though, is that even if I give them the benefit of the doubt and say that they are decent human beings, that probably would suggest that the insurgents would be less inclined to cooperate. At which point this "new" force would have to use harsher methods than the Marines to pacify Fallujah, since they are less well trained.

I know the idea is that the insurgents would see other Iraqi faces and be more likely to cooperate. But when even civilians are under insurgent attack, why would army forces be any less likely to get shot at, unless they bend over backwards to the insurgents' demands?

So basically we're trading in for highly trained, dedicated Marines for less competent, less loyal Iraqi soldiers. Care to explain why anyone could even say that this is a good idea with a straight face?

-Kelvin Chan

(Another update: now evidently the idea is to pull back, but there's no deal yet (although any idea of a "deal" is not very tangible in my book anyways). This story, if anything, illustrates the utter futility of commenting on developing events. But my initial purpose was to point out that rushed "Iraqification" is not the panacea it's often thought to be, and I'm going to stick to that)

Posted by Kelvin on April 29, 2004 in International Affairs | Permalink


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I think your assessment is mistaken, perhaps being based on misleading news reports. The news media is so desperate to surrender they spin any movement as a retreat. I would be astounded if what you're saying proves to be correct.

They may very well incorporate some Iraqis in the operation. This is not a new strategy, they incorporated Iraqi units from the very beginning, of which one unit fought well and the other refused and returned to base.

Posted by: Kevin Jaeger | 2004-04-29 10:23:39 AM

The transition between the two forces is "gradual", according to the report. So I suppose that the Marines may be able to seriously weaken the insurgents enough that Iraqi troops can take over. But the report does suggest a single self-contained force of Iraqis only. It would be under the 1st MEF, but it's not clear how American would be directly involved in the unit.

The point that Iraqis would probably not do a better job in fighting determined insurgents still stands.

However, I do admit I was a bit rash: the report did not say explicitly that the siege was ending. That will be corrected.

Posted by: Kelvin | 2004-04-29 11:32:38 AM

From Fox News:

On the southern edge of Fallujah, U.S. Marines from the 1st Battalion, 5th Regiment were packing up Thursday, saying they had been ordered to withdraw from the industrial zone they have held throughout the siege. Bulldozers flattened sand barriers that troops had set up.

But a senior military source told Fox News that the Marines were packing up their gear in the southern industrial zone of the city as part of a simple repositioning of troops — not a pullout from the city. This repositioning may include adding some Iraqi forces into the mix.

In this case I suspect "repositioning" is likely to include preparations to reposition right into areas currently held by insurgents.

Posted by: Kevin Jaeger | 2004-04-29 11:33:59 AM

At a guess the tactical withdrawal of the Marines has more to do with the inherent nastiness of finishing off the Fallujah job than anything else. There is very little question that the Marines could put down the insurgency but the potential price might be huge Iraqi hostility as the butcher's bill was presented. Close quarters urban fighting is going to create a lot of collateral casualties and many of those will be the women and children it appears the insurgents are holding as shields.

From a propaganda perspective the ideal outcome for the insurgents is a "Jenin" - low actual casualties, perceived massacre. If the Marines were to secure the city all of the pieces would be in place for exactly that spin.

So, strategically, the US will want to avoid creating that perception. (Not to mention the very real civilian casualties the presence of human shields will certainly cause.) It would do them no good and, at least as much to the point, would cause a significant headache for the putative interim Iraqi government.

Now, this may very well be a strategic blunder in that there are good arguments that the only thing the jihadi/terrorist thugs in Fallujah respect is main force. But, for the moment, main force is not on the politically dictated menu. And if the Marines are being asked to fight "nice" for political reasons then there is no question that their own officers will want to get their people out of unnecessary harm's way. While the Left learned nothing from Viet Nam, the American Armed forces learned a lot: and one of the things they learned was to disengage where the objectives were not clear and the rules of engagement were unsafe.

Posted by: Jay Currie | 2004-04-29 11:44:20 AM

Putting aside the fact that the media has shown a shocking lack of understanding of military matters, the political situation we face is the difficulty of getting Sunnis, Shi'ites and Kurds to form one nation and live peaceably side-by-side.

It may be necessary to abandon that plan, but should it be successful it will help challenge the factionalism that dominates in the Mid-East, (think Syria and, to a lesser extent, Turkey.)

Actually, I think the WaPo got part of it right, but not the important part. The insurgents have been retreating (or killed) and the purty Live Video that CNN is so proud of is not even from the primary battle sites or troop positions.

The news that the Marines withdrew was followed up by the news of a bombing run on the southern part of the city.

Semper fi!

Posted by: Debbye | 2004-04-29 12:05:27 PM

The media are truly incompetent in these things. Anyone remember reading how superior the Brits were at taking Basra compared to those gung-ho yanks who just barged into Baghdad guns a-blazing? Now the Marines are putting Falluja under siege almost exactly the way the Brits did at Basra - surround the city, infiltrate with snipers to thin out their ranks, and launch occasional raids on known hostile positions supported by air attacks. Except they are also trying to incorporate Iraqi units for taking final control. Sounds to me like they are executing the operation with skill, patience and diplomacy. It doesn't necessarily mean it will end well, but the ideal ending would be for the resistance to finally collapse with the Marines staying outside, while Iraqi forces take control with little resistance. They may be close to engineering just such an ending, but the real world is usually much messier than an ideal one.

Posted by: Kevin Jaeger | 2004-04-29 12:42:40 PM

I wouldn't call the US approach to Baghdad "gung-ho" compared to the British approach to Basra.

One consideration is that the British troops essentially took a more restrained approach because the Coalition didn't want to demonstrate its ability to fight urban warfare too early in the conflict, lest Baghdad defenders learn and beef up their defences.

Also, the entire March-April campaign demonstrated the impressive power of speed and agility against Iraqi forces. US commanders wanted to take advantage of the momentum of breaking through the Karbala Gap. By the time it was clear that Iraqi regular forces would fold over easily, the British have been outside Basra for some time, and the momentum was lost.

The same applies in Fallujah. There is no momentum to speak of in reaching the city, so a speedy approach wouldn't work. Hence the Marines are indeed taking a Basra-like approach (although the Fallujah cordon is considerably tighter).

It's not just a difference of US and British attitudes, but also different circumstances as well.

Posted by: Kelvin Chan | 2004-04-29 1:07:31 PM

If it's the same event I read about, the "Belmont Club" blog has a very topical analysis that's illuminating.

Could also be the Marines giving the friendlies a chance to learn their trade somewhere "warm" rather than "hot", so they can build up their own confidence.

And the Marines can go have a decent nights rest and a warm meal.

Posted by: Fred | 2004-04-29 4:41:34 PM

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