Ramadi: Marines Own the Night, 3.5 Years Into Iraq War

BY Herschel Smith
7 years, 10 months ago

The Marines in Ramadi are quite capable of counter-insurgency (COIN) operations and the proper conduct of “small wars.” The bone of contention is the doctrine of use of proxy fighters to effect stability while signficant enemy remain. To the extent that this remains a pivotal doctrine of COIN strategy, it may be a failing strategy.

As backdrop for this post, I will give a few points to help the discussion below make some sense. My post Ramadi, Iraq: A Mess, continues to be one of the most visited posts I have made since the start of blogging, visited by multiple visitors every day since its post date of August 1, and many of the visits continue to be from military personnel using military network domains. In part, my thinking about Ramadi led me to publish my post on The Debate Over Diminished Force Projection. In my post Afghanistan’s Lessons for Iraq: What Strategy?, I argue that premature cessation of operations to combat the enemy (and hence, the premature invocation of counterinsurgency tactics) is counterproductive. In my post Will we Lose the Anbar Province?, I stated:

Remembering Iraqi politics is necessary to understand why these things have happened, and invoking the lessons of Vietnam is not very helpful. Politics teaches us that to refer to “Iraqis? is too broad, since there are three very distinct groups: Kurds, Shia and Sunni. The army is made up largely of Shia Muslims, and after displacement of the Sunni population upon the fall of the regime, the Sunni and Shia have an understandably suspicious view of each other. For the Iraqi army to wage war on the insurgents in al Anbar is not what it seems. Rather, in reality, it would approximately be the Shia army waging war on the remaining Fedayeen fighters and regime loyalists, with Sunni citizens caught in the middle who have no love for the Shia and a certain amount of sympathy for the loyalists. Al Qaeda in Iraq is a nuisance and a violent organization, but to the extent that they serve to repell government forces from al Anbar, they prevent revenge killings of the Sunnis (not so much from the army, but from the certain police presence to follow).

To refer to politics in al Anbar is to refer to something that doesn’t currently exist. The brass in Iraq, by diminishing force projection in al Anbar in order to let “reconstruction win the hearts and minds of the people,? are deferring to a phantom. The very people whose hearts and minds we want to win are being protected by the enemy who destroys their political institutions and prevents reconstruction.

In a remarkably analogous assessment, the Strategy Page has this:

September 18, 2006: The worst trends of the week include; Sunni Arabs fleeing the country, corruption in the police, Shia and Kurd death squads, government corruption and Sunni Arab terrorism. The Sunni Arabs are getting out of Iraq because the Kurd and Shia, especially the Shia, death squads are operating more frequently in formerly “safe” Sunni Arab areas. Anbar province (western Iraq) is becoming particularly active, and the government has told tribal leaders out there to either do something to reduce the terrorist attacks launched from bases in Anbar, or face escalating attention from death squads and army (American and Iraqi) raids. A coalition of Sunni Arab tribes has agreed to do something about the terrorism. But it will take a few weeks to see if this latest pledge is worth any more than the last few. The Sunni Arabs show more enthusiasm for anonymous terrorism, than tribal warfare. However, over the last two years, several tribes have expelled all al Qaeda members from their territory. However, there are plenty of Sunni Arab nationalist (“we should run the country”) terror groups to fill in. While the Sunni Arab terrorists have not brought down the Shia dominated government, they have kept the Sunni Arab tribal and religious leaders terrified. That may be changing, as more tribal leaders improve their own militias, and learn from the tribes that have chased out the terrorists and assassins. The government has made it clear that, until the terrorist violence stops, the entire Sunni Arab community will be held responsible. The government is saying, in effect, that they will not try too hard to halt the anti-Sunni death squads until the Sunni Arab leadership makes an effort, a real effort, against the terrorists.

The al Anbar Province continues to devolve into terror and violence. The Fedayeen and other hard core Baathists have nothing to lose, and the ones who have not fled the province will fight to the death. It is in their interest to destroy the political process. Al Qaeda in Iraq is using the al Anbar province as safe haven, and politics makes for strange bedfellows. The fact that they are not countrymen is irrelevant. They fight for the same goal – the ouster of the U.S. and the destabilization of Iraq. The balance of the Sunni – and the Marines who are in Ramadi – are described in the article below. This is lengthy, but informative, concerning the condition of Ramadi.

The AP is reporting:

RAMADI, Iraq — Their first silhouettes appear at dusk, moving briskly under dim moonlight or the rare street lamp. Sometimes the crunch of their boots on trash-strewn streets will stir families dozing on lawns in the cool of evening.

It’s another night patrol by Marines in one of Iraq’s most dangerous cities.

When night falls on Ramadi, hundreds of Marines confined to bases during the day return to the streets. Daytime foot patrols are limited because of the threat of skilled snipers or roadside bombs, but the cover of darkness — and night vision technology — allows Marines to fan out into contested neighborhoods.

“We don’t like going out during the day. They fight a lot more in the day,” explained Cpl. Anthony Rusciano, 22, of New York, as he prepared for another midnight patrol.

In the quieter western side of Ramadi, 70 miles west of Baghdad, most night patrols are geared toward holding conversations with residents to build trust, acquire tips and erode the daytime influence of insurgents. But in other parts, such as the abandoned span of crumbling buildings that make up the city center, Marines are simply trying to keep insurgents from staging ambushes or planting more bombs.

The night also makes the summertime heat more bearable. Lugging up to 80 pounds of weapons and equipment on their patrols, sweat usually covers the Marines’ faces as they speak to residents.

U.S. troops across Iraq use a common refrain — “We own the night” — to describe their edge over insurgents in darkness. But danger still lurks at night for the Marines who traverse along unfamiliar streets.

Marines sprint through lighted intersections and warily examine suspicious mounds of trash that could contain bombs. Sometimes they trip over miniature canals in the road that serve as sewers, stirring putrid fumes into the air. Roving packs of wild dogs usually announce the Marines’ presence and trail closely behind.

Residents are often caught between roving insurgents in the day and the patrolling Marines at night. Though U.S. forces have recently pushed farther into the city, tens of thousands of people still live in neighborhoods that rarely see Americans.

“All the people in Ramadi are scared — scared of the mujahedeen (holy warriors), scared of the Americans,” said one man to visiting Marines. Several deep gouges marked his living room wall, which he blamed on an errant U.S. grenade that tore through his home but didn’t harm his six children and wife.

Many residents spoke of their desperate situations, complaining about the three to four hours of available electricity per day, the rising price of gas and water shortages.

“We need our lives back. For us, it’s OK, we can deal. But our children cannot do this,” said one man in his mid-30s as his young son ran around the home wearing an oversized helmet borrowed from a Marine. The man asked not to be named for fear of insurgent reprisal.

Some residents, long accustomed to Marines dropping by at odd hours, casually try to continue what they were doing. On one recent patrol, a family watched televised reports of a car bombing in Baghdad earlier that day. In a neighboring home, a heavyset man encouraged the Marines to watch the World Cup in his bedroom — in part so that he, too, could catch the last minutes of a match.

Most homes in Ramadi are surrounded by courtyard walls that provide ample cover for possible gunmen. Though a curfew reduces the number of pedestrians for Marines to monitor, they believe insurgents are always watching.

“I’m sure they were watching our movement tonight. … I’d say within 15 to 20 minutes, everyone in the neighborhood knew we were over here. It doesn’t take long for word to get around,” said Cpl. Brad Bruce, 23, of LaPorte, Ind., shortly after a three-hour patrol.

Marines communicate through whispers or hand signals passed down from patrol leaders. Disciplined squads can limit their noises down to the sounds of water swishing in containers, the soft beep of their radios and the occasional Marine tripping on uneven roads.

Some homes in the city hardly seem affected by the war. Marines said on one recent patrol they found a college student reading Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” — in English — as another man instant-messaged a friend on the Internet. A third young man was smoking a hookah, or a traditional Arab water pipe.

“There’s some really Westernized parts here,” said 1st Lt. Daniel Greene, 25, of Stafford, Va. “Sometimes I wonder what I’d feel like if a couple guys banged on my door at night and stayed for a couple days.”

There has been intensive debate over the use of special forces operators and COIN strategy versus regulars and the (allegedly) more heavy handed tactics that they bring to bear. I discussed this in my posts linked above (Afghanistan’s Lessons for Iraq). But what we see here calls into question this whole debate, encouraging us to see the debate as a smokescreen and subterfuge, even if unintentional.

The Marines are quite capable of using night vision, working with the locals to effect stability, smoking with the men, watching World Cup soccer, shooting with care at targets in order to avoid collateral damage, and setting up defenses to protect themselves (while also protecting the social and physical infrastructure of the region). The depiction of Marines and other regulars as knuckle-draggers is as incorrect as it is insulting.

The debate over tactics has thus far centered on COIN versus regular (or conventional) operations. What we read above suggests that this conversation is too coarse to accomplish anything useful. The real debate lies not in strategy, but rather, when to utilize and implement a strategy. The Marines in Ramadi cannot conduct anything but COIN operations given their force size.

We are now three and a half years into the war in Iraq, and forces are finally lining up for a showdown in al Anbar. Evan Kohlmann is reporting that:

As-yet unsubstantiated reports have begun circulating on radical Arabic-language Internet chat forums that a major effort is now underway to bring the notorious Ansar al-Sunnah Army in Iraq officially under the umbrella of Al-Qaida’s Mujahideen Shura Council (MSC). Active since at least mid-2003, Ansar al-Sunnah is one of the few Iraqi insurgent groups other than Zarqawi’s Al-Qaida to openly advocate a pro-Bin Laden platform, to carry out suicide bombing attacks, and to distribute beheading videos on the Internet. According to the reports, discussions and “planning sessions” are currently being held in the restive western Al-Anbar province between representatives of Al-Qaida and Ansar al-Sunnah, with the ultimate objective of announcing their would-be merger during the coming month of Ramadan (approximately September 24 to October 23, 2006).

Over at The Fourth Rail, Bill Roggio is covering the coalition of twenty-five tribes who have organized to oppose the insurgency. They tribes are said to be scared (see above, ” … all the people in Ramadi are scared.”). They should be. The tribes are unprepared, untrained, unarmed (at least as compared to the insurgency), inexperienced, without command and control, and tethered to families. In contrast, the insurgency is committed, trained, experienced, well-armed, well-funded by the largesse of the regime, and have nothing to lose because they either flee or fight.

The capabilities of the Marines in Ramadi show that they can handle the insurgency while conducting “small wars.” The question is not one of strategy. It is one of timing. I had previously recommended — completely apart from the recent intelligence report on al Anbar — another division of Marines in al Anbar. We can win this war, and to me it was an issue of taking the fight to the enemy. But as long as political talking points in Washington (“we’ll come home when the Iraqis can take over”) become military strategy, the Generals in Iraq will continue to tell the administration that they have enough troops.

It requires very few troops to train others. We could cut the force size by three quarters and accomplish the training of the Iraqi army. However, if the mission is to bring stability to the region without reliance on proxy fighters (i.e., unorganized tribes in al Anbar), then we don’t have enough troops, and have not had enough troops from the beginning.

In summary, there is simply no substitute for killing the enemy in war. Purposely circumventing urban regions in our push towards Baghdad leaving significant enemy left behind to fight another day, ignoring the al Anbar province to fester for 3.5 years, and simultaneously invoking COIN strategy, is not really COIN. It is premature cessation of conventional operations. It isn’t the failure of COIN that is to blame. It is the timing … a timing that is too connected to political altercations stateside.


You are currently reading "Ramadi: Marines Own the Night, 3.5 Years Into Iraq War", entry #287 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Small Wars,War & Warfare,Weapons and Tactics and was published September 19th, 2006 by Herschel Smith.

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