Watching Anbar

BY Herschel Smith
9 years, 5 months ago

The object lesson may be that the axiomatic irreducible, or presupposition upon which all stratagem rests, is that nonkinetic operations may succeed in the suppression of recurring guerrilla activity only after it has been dealt a hard blow, not as the primary offensive tactic upon which our hope rests. 

I have been watching the al Anbar Province for most of the Iraq war, and I beg to differ with the U.S. generals.  I believe that however Anbar goes, so goes the war.  The key to Iraq is the Anbar Province.  While Anbar remains unpacified, insurgent groups (al Qaeda in Iraq, Ansar al-Sunna, etc.) can continue to split the tribal loyalties in the region with some tribes siding with the insurgents and others siding with the government in Baghdad.  This is done not only by propaganda, but by intimidation of the tribal leaders and violence perpetrated on their people.

This is a clever way to effect force multiplication.  The insurgents not only have their own military and personnel assets with which to conduct guerrilla operations, they coax and cajole others to join them in the fight.  This way, tribes fight tribes in internecine war throughout the Anbar Province, ensuring that the insurgents are free to continue their geurrilla operations against coalition forces.  This tactic was successfully used by the Viet Cong in the war in Vietnam.

Being freed to continue guerrilla operations, in addition to attacks against coalition forces, the insurgents can conduct death raids against Shi’ite elements, ensuring a response by Shia militia, which ensures a counter-response by more insurgents (including some tribal elements), and so the cycle goes.  Pulling troops from the Anbar province to pacify Baghdad may have been a huge mistake.  The far preferable solution might have been troop level increases resourced by extended tours of duty, further callups of reserve and national gaurd, or other means.

Anbar remains a very dangerous place to be.  Today another soldier and marine died in combat operations in Anbar, and the total U.S. killed so far in December is 54, even as an al Qaeda leader is arrested in Fallujah.  December is on track to be a very deadly month, rivaling even the first and second battles for Fallujah, with 135 and 137 killed in action, respectively.

The Multi-National Force web site has issued a press release concerning the killing of insurgents emplacing IEDs.

An estimated four insurgents were killed by aviation fires after precision munitions were employed to destroy a bongo truck used to transport improvised explosive devices Friday south of Fallujah.

Marines assigned to Regimental Combat Team 5 observed insurgents excavating IED-making material from the side of a road and loading it into a bongo truck. The truck then proceeded to another location where the insurgents began emplacing the IEDs.

The Marines established positive identification of the insurgents, ensured no civilians were in the vicinity and destroyed the truck with precision munitions.  The insurgents were killed by direct fire.

This press release raises an interesting question.  The U.S. forces observed insurgents excavating IED-making material.  Yet they didn’t engage at that time.  The Marines apparently followed the insurgents to another location where IED emplacement began.  Only after they observed this and “established positive identification” did they engage the enemy.

We don’t want to read too much into the report.  The Marines might have wanted to see if the insurgents departing the area would lead them to other insurgents or IED-making material.  But they might have lost them, or worse yet, stumbled into an ambush or sniper fire.  One hopes that rules of engagement didn’t prohibit their engaging of the enemy because they were “excavating” rather than “emplacing” IED-making material.

Fallujah remains a dangerous place, even after the first and second battles for Fallujah.  The Christian Science Monitor reports that the impact of Marine efforts to rebuild sometimes have the opposite effect.

While their weapons were ready, this was a mission about charity. The US Marines weren’t entering a hospital in downtown Fallujah to root out insurgents, they were going there simply to help.  But any interaction with American forces can prove deadly for Iraqis, and these marines received an uneasy welcome.
Death threats – and increasingly murder – are common against anyone seen to be cooperating with the US. And already, the presence of a Marine observation post, built adjacent to hospital grounds just days before the mission, had cut the number of patients coming to the hospital from 35 a day to just five.

U.S. forces are almost frantically attempting to pour largesse into the Anbar province, but with mixed results.

In a bid to convince the majority to side with coalition troops – as well as the fledgling local government and Iraqi Army and police units in the city – the US military has committed $200 million through more than 60 reconstruction projects.

This small civil-affairs team is on the sharp end of buying security, of finding those projects, paying the cash, and checking up on the work. The dangerous city has claimed 10 marines’ lives in a month from snipers and roadside bombs.

“Reconstruction provides a way of influencing the population, of shaping the battlespace nonkinetically, so you don’t have to put bullets down range,” says Captain Brezler, a reservist from the Bronx whose usual job is New York firefighter.

The Captain has no doubt been trained in the most recent COIN doctrine, as has the still young Marine Major interviewed by Oliver North on FNC, who said that they were employing both “kinetic and nonkinetic operations to defeat the insurgency.”  The word kinetic pertains to motion, and is closely related to the engineering word kinematics.  They mean kinetic operations to be understood as related to offensive operations to include patrols, whether the enemy is engaged or not.  Nonkinetic operations are the reconstruction projects intended to “win the hearts and minds of the people.”

Yet the casualty rate mocks the nonkinetic efforts to defeat the insurgency.  For answers, I turn to Victor Davis Hanson, who two years ago said the following prophetic words:

A year ago, we waged a brilliant three-week campaign, then mysteriously forgot the source of our success. Military audacity, lethality, unpredictability, imperviousness to cheap criticism, and iron resolve, coupled with the message of freedom, convinced neutrals to join us and enemies not yet conquered to remain in the shadows. But our failure to shoot looters, to arrest early insurrectionists like Sadr, and to subdue cities like Tikrit or Falluja only earned us contempt—and not just from those who would kill us, but from others who would have joined us as well.

The misplaced restraint of the past year is not true morality, but a sort of weird immorality that seeks to avoid ethical censure in the short term—the ever-present, 24-hour pulpit of global television that inflates a half-dozen inadvertent civilian casualties into Dresden and Hiroshima. But, in the long term, such complacency has left more moderate Iraqis to be targeted by ever more emboldened murderers. For their part, American troops have discovered that they are safer on the assault when they can fire first and kill killers, rather than simply patrol and react, hoping their newly armored Humvees and fortified flak vests will deflect projectiles.

There is certainly robust debate over COIN doctrine and whether to pursue this strategy or that one the most fervently.  In the end, the object lesson may be that the axiomatic irredicible, or presupposition upon which all stratagem rests, is that nonkinetic operations may succeed in the suppression of recurring guerrilla activity only after it has been dealt a hard blow, not as the primary offensive tactic upon which our hope rests.

  • Chris

    The attack that took down the Samarrah shrine must have originated in al Anbar. It was at that moment that the war in Iraq exploded to the level of violence and disorder we see today.

  • Xanthippas

    That all sounds like a very wordy way of saying that we need to unleash our forces in Anbar to do what they do best, which is blow things up and kill enemy fighters. However, such reasoning ignores the fact that we have dealth harsh blows to the insurgents in Fallujah-twice-and each time the insurgents have gradually returned to assert themselves there and throughout Western Iraq. We could certainly re-invade Fallujah, or Ramadi, or whichever town, all over again, but the problem we have always faced simply won’t go away; we don’t have enough soldiers to prevent the insurgents from operating essentially at will once the combat operations are over. And even if we had the forces to put in Iraq, and the political willpower to do so, it is likely too little, too late.

  • Herschel Smith

    #2, yes, you are likely correct. Where we failed in Fallujah is that we cleared, but didn’t hold. The order is to (1) clear, (2) hold and (3) rebuild. We stopped at number 1, because I believe that we (i.e., the administration) believed in the healing powers of democracy. We went in with just enough troops to topple the regime, but not enough to bring security to the population. This was the lesson that Zinni and Shinseki saw before it happened.

  • dw

    Indeed, your analysis is more realistic than that of the administration. Clear, then leave achieves nothing permanent.

    However, the basic flaw in the past Fallujah campaigns is deeper than that. The basic flaw was that we announced ahead of time that we were coming, and that anyone who wanted to live should leave. With such an engagement, one cannot hold excepting massive personnel levels. Most of the enemy left Fallujah, so as to return later.

    If the Fallujah campaign had been launched in secret, and had resulted in the death of 75% of the people in Fallujah, the enemy would by and large have been killed, and being dead would not return.

    Further, if the 75% number would have been publicized, and every part of Iraq threatened with that kind of treatment, we’d be on our way to winning. It might take several more such campaigns, but over time the people of Iraq would come to face certain death, or cooperation as their only two choices. Historically, this is the ONLY way to win a war.

    I’m not suggesting deliberate killing of civilians. Rather, deliberate killing of the enemy without regard to civilian casualties, very much including the goal of convincing the civilian population to disassociate from the enemy.


  • Denis Murphy

    Has anybody here or elsewhere discussed the effectiveness of pulling all our combat troops out of Bagdad and sending them to Anbar to conquer and occupy that province? If we make it clear that we are there until the Sunnis behave or until there are no Sunnis left out there, peace might come at last. I believe the Sunnis have had their chances to cooperate with the new reality.

    Let the militias sort things out in Bagdad and elsewhere.

    — Denis

  • Herschel Smith


    Great observation(s), and great question. I have a post coming tonight or tomorrow that addresses some of this and will give good links on this issue (e.g., Westhawk, Victor Davis Hanson). Stay tuned. I will update this comment to give the link when I publish.


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This article is filed under the category(s) Iraq,Small Wars and was published December 19th, 2006 by Herschel Smith.

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