Racoon Hunting and the Battle for Anbar

BY Herschel Smith
7 years, 8 months ago

There is a dichotomy developing in the Anbar Province.  On the one hand, there is a window of opportunity to score the finishing defeat of al Qaeda.  On the other hand, U.S. forces rules of engagement and command lack of willingness to engage the enemy is holding this defeat in abatement.

The Strategy Page is discussing the battle for Anbar, and after rehearsing things we have covered at TCJ (e.g., the ongoing factious fighting between Sunnis, Tribal loyalties being stretched to the limits, Tribal agreements to oust al Qaeda, etc.), they offer up this penultimate status assessment:

… after Saddam was overthrown, and al Qaeda offered to help the Sunni Arabs eject the Americans, and regain control of the country, the Sunni tribes kept fighting. But the alliance with al Qaeda soon unraveled. By 2004, Sunni Arab tribesmen were fighting with al Qaeda. The problem was that al Qaeda did not believe the tribes were aggressive enough, or religious enough. First threats, then the murder of Sunni Arab tribal chiefs, brought al Qaeda into open warfare with the tribes. At first, the anti-al Qaeda tribes were not the majority, and they were outgunned by the Baath Party terrorist organizations and pro-Saddam tribes. But month-by-month, more tribes turned against al Qaeda and Baath. For the last year, as more American and Iraqi troops moved into western Iraq, the fighting became more intense.

Over a dozen tribes are now pro-government, with tribemen joining the police force, and serving in their own neighborhoods. Recruiting was slow at first, even with the approval of the chiefs. Only 30 stepped forward last June, but now there are 1,300 tribesmen in the police force. During that same period, some 750 al Qaeda and Baath terrorists have been killed in Ramadi, the center of al Qaeda power in Anbar. There are only a few hundred of them left, and the government controls two-thirds of the city. During that same period, the number of terrorist attacks, including roadside bombs, has also fallen by two-thirds.

This has brought about a civil war in western Iraq, with Sunni tribes fighting each other. Even with al Qaeda and the Baath Party terrorists, the anti-government tribes are on the defensive. Ramadi, which was to be the capital of the new al Qaeda sanctuary, is in ruins, and the scene of daily fighting, and defeats for the terrorists.

Al Qaeda no longer boasts of a base in western Iraq. To do so would have to address the fact that most al Qaeda losses in the area have been at the hands of angry Sunni Arab tribesmen. The tribes are fighting for their homes, and western Iraq is the only part of the Iraq that is almost wholly Sunni Arab. Angry Kurds and Shia Arabs are driving Sunni Arabs out of other parts of Iraq, and the only alternative to foreign exile, is moving to western Iraq. The only way to hang on to western Iraq is to eliminate the al Qaeda and Baath Party groups that refuse to halt their terrorist operations. Al Qaeda knows it’s losing its battle for western Iraq, which is one reason why they have shifted so many resources, especially cash and leadership, to Afghanistan. The al Qaeda defeat in western Iraq has not gotten much attention in the media, but it’s there, it’s real and it will soon be over. (italics mine)

I discussed the fissure that was occurring in al Qaeda high command in Iraq in Al Qaeda Reorganization, pointing out that al Qaeda in Iraq today might be likened to a wounded animal.  Wounded, yes, but a wounded animal is a dangeous thing, with nothing left to lose and hence unable to be deterred.  My son, who before he went to Boot Camp at Parris Island was quite the hunter, has hunted and killed deer, opossum, rabbit, turkey, snakes, coyote (they are all over South Carolina), and Racoon.  This last one is interesting.  The wounded Racoon is the most dangerous.  We have suffered from a Racoon problem at my home (trash strewed everywhere), and Daniel has always warned me against confronting a Racoon without having an edge.  You’d better have an edge.  I didn’t believe him until I faced off a Racoon one night with a tire iron (I can’t discharge a firearm within the city limits), and he ended up backing me down with Daniel shouting “Dad back off — get away from that thing.  He’ll tear you apart!”  Daniel recalls seeing Racoons tear ‘Coon dogs apart after being shot multiple times by rifle (the Racoon, that is).  He recalled seeing dogs limp, whine, sleep and recover from injuries.

It would be good had the Generals gone ‘Coon hunting and watched some dogs get chewed up before beginning the Iraq war.

Al Qaeda is wounded.  Robust rules of engagement, constantly offensive operations and strong force projection is required, now more than ever before.  Yet this is precisely the opposite of what is occurring in the Anbar Province.  In my post “Unleash the Snipers,” I covered the story of countersnipers in the Anbar Province, and the objection of the Marines to the “straightjacket” that the ROE had them in.  I suggested that small, mobile teams with maximum latitude be allowed to make war on al Qaeda in Ramadi, with robust rules of engagement.  There have been teams lost due to the smallness of the excursions, but as the Marines observe:

Snipers argue a counterintuitive point, saying that even though two-man teams have less firepower and fewer men, they are safer because they can hide more effectively.

Sgt. Joseph W. Chamblin, the leader of the battalion’s First Sniper Team, said the sniper community was suffering from an overreaction. “It’s sad that they got killed, but when you think about it, we’ve been here three years, going on four, and we’ve only had two teams killed,? he said. “That’s not that dramatic.?

Sergeant Chamblin killed for the first time on Nov. 10, shooting an insurgent who was putting a makeshift bomb beside a bridge near Saqlawiya, near Falluja, a spot where a similar bomb killed three marines and a translator this summer.

He said snipers were willing to assume the risk of traveling in pairs. “It’s a war,? he said. “People are going to die, and the American public needs to get over that. They need to get over that and let us do our job.?

The military has also tightened rules of engagement as the war has progressed, toughening the requirements before a sniper may shoot an Iraqi. Potential targets must be engaged in a hostile act, or show clear hostile intent.

The marines say insurgents know the rules, and now rarely carry weapons in the open. Instead, they pose as civilians and keep their weapons concealed in cars or buildings until just before they need them. Later, when they are done shooting, they put them swiftly out of sight and mingle with civilians.

Like a bad and annoying broken record, Marines from Fallujah report that they are hamstrung:

From Observation Post Blazer, marines view Fallujah through a thick sheet of bullet-proof glass – already tested with numerous impacts. Or they stare through night-vision goggles or a thermal imaging scope that can pick up the heat of a dog hundreds of yards away.

The marines still patrol key roads. The US military, which still travels boldly through town despite a surge in deadly sniper attacks and roadside bombs, is spending $200 million on 60-plus projects to rebuild the city, heavily damaged in fighting two years ago.

But with just 300 marines, the US military footprint is smaller in this Sunni stronghold of more than 300,000 than it has been in two years. As the marine presence shrinks and Iraqis take more control, Fallujah – once a template for counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq, where US forces have controlled all the variables – is likely again to set a standard for the rest of the country.

“A lot of us feel like we have our hands tied behind our back,” says Cpl. Peter Mattice, of Bravo Company, 1st Battalion, 24th Marine Regiment. “In Fallujah, [insurgents] know our [rules of engagement] – they know when to stop, just before we engage.”

It isn’t just the ROE, but it is also force projection that is lacking.  Fallujah is hallowed ground for Marines, and it might soon be desecrated:

“As soon as we leave, I’m afraid that the insurgents will take over…. They watch us, as we watch them,” says Mattice, echoing the fears of Fallujans who, while unhappy with the marine presence, are far more worried that a hurried US departure will leave them vulnerable to Sunni militants, and exposed to sectarian killings.

That fear has been fueled by a spike in insurgent attacks since summer, against both Iraqis and US troops. The 1/24 Marines, a reserve unit headquartered in Detroit and recently arrived, suffered nine dead and more than 40 seriously wounded in their first month in Iraq. Another marine died Sunday from a roadside bomb.

Since August, an assassination and intimidation campaign here has also killed the head of the city council and another prominent member; numerous policemen – including the deputy police chief – and contractors and workers on US-funded projects have also been murdered.

The numbers underscore the dilemma for marines in Fallujah, and for US troops across Iraq, as they begin to pull back and hand more responsibility to Iraqi forces.

The 300 marines here are attacked five to eight times each day. That presence is a significant drop from the 3,000 marines posted here in March 2005, and the 10,000 that took part in the late 2004 invasion.

Another metric: Officers say the number of direct fire incidents against US forces has shot up 650 percent in the past year. Three marines had been hit by snipers in one 48-hour span earlier this week.

“It is no secret,” Col. Lawrence Nicholson told the Fallujah City Council during their regular Tuesday meeting. “My mission is to do less, every single day, as Iraqi forces do more.”

Fallujah was the test case counter-insurgency invasion in November 2004 – effectively destroying the city to root out insurgents in the biggest urban battle for US marines since Hue City in Vietnam in 1968. Fallujah later became the model for a “go and stay” strategy attempted in cities along the Euphrates in the fall of 2005, which the August intelligence report found to have failed.

Senior officers now refer to Fallujah as a “gated community” – putting a deft gloss on the fact that Fallujah has for two years had only six entry points, and entering Iraqi residents still require US-issued biometric cards with retinal scans and fingerprints on file.

But among those Iraqi residents are 150 newcomers a week, fleeing the sectarian violence in Baghdad to a known “Sunni safe haven,” in the words of one officer. Others say hundreds of highly trained insurgents, Iraqis from outside Fallujah, have also recently moved in to step up attacks.

“Fallujah has an iconic value to the Marine Corps,” says Colonel Nicholson, commander of the Regimental Combat Team 5, which covers Fallujah and a populated swath of Anbar Province, in an interview. “Fallujah falling [to insurgents] would be like Iwo Jima falling to the Japanese again after World War II – it would be intolerable.”

Losing Fallujah might be intolerable, but it might just happen without the right force projection and ROE.  The Strategy Page’s assessment might be somewhat optimistic.  Will we lose this hallowed soil, this soil on which so much U.S. blood has been shed?

  • http://www.rightrainbow.com Paul

    Here on link from Instapundit. Excellent, informative post. Thank you.


You are currently reading "Racoon Hunting and the Battle for Anbar", entry #397 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) al Qaeda,Iraq and was published November 25th, 2006 by Herschel Smith.

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