Leaving Fallujah Better?

BY Herschel Smith
5 years, 4 months ago

Graeme Wood at The Atlantic pens a piece that questions what Fallujah will be like when the Marines leave Anbar.

A dispatch by Rod Nordland of the New York Times asks whether the violence in Fallujah — lately viewed as a model of an Anbar city pacified and handed over to the Iraqis — is really in remission. His excellent report, filed from Fallujah and from the even more restive nearby town of Karmah, where I just spent two days, leaves the question unanswered but suggests a reality darker than the version the Marines describe.

Stop there.  Let’s go take a look at the New York Times article.

Falluja was supposed to be a success story, not a cautionary tale.

After all, by last year the city, a former insurgent stronghold, was considered one of the safest places in the country. Local Sunni sheiks had driven out the insurgent group Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia and held successful elections, and American engineers were hard at work on a showcase reconstruction project: a $100 million wastewater treatment plant meant to be a model for civilian advances in Iraq.

Then a series of troubling attacks began cropping up this year. One in particular, at the end of May, seemed to drive home the possibility that things were changing for the worse. On a heavily patrolled military road between a Marine camp and the wastewater plant, a huge buried bomb tore through an armored American convoy, killing three prominent reconstruction officials and striking at hopes that the way was completely clear for peacetime projects.

We covered some of this in The Violence Belongs to Iraq Now.  But dissecting the NYT article a little further, even the initial part stumbles into problems.  Local Sunni sheiks didn’t drive anyone from Fallujah.  The author is confusing what happened in Ramadi, where a combination of tribes and Marines drove al Qaeda from there, and in Fallujah, where al Qaeda went after they were driven from Ramadi.

Tribe had little affect in Fallujah, and the notion of Muktars held much more sway.  When the 2/6 Marines deployed to Fallujah in April of 2007, the population was so afraid of al Qaeda that they would send their children out to surround Marines on patrol, waving black balloons so that al Qaeda mortars could target the Marines.  The children were at risk as much as the Marines, but this speaks volumes about the condition of Fallujah early in 2007.

Forward Operating Base Reaper was constructed, at least in part, with Marines lying on their back passing sand bags over their heads from Marine to Marine to avoid sniper fire.  The U.S. Marines drove al Qaeda from Fallujah, not the tribes.  There is no tribe in Fallujah.  So even the background of the NYT article is mistaken.  Returning to the Atlantic article:

On my first afternoon, I spoke with the base’s senior Marine, Lt. Peter Brooks, about the chagrin his men felt at having to serve as a withdrawal force, rather than a high-intensity killing force like the more fortunate Marines currently machine-gunning Taliban in Afghanistan. They spent their days working out, conducting mock exercises with scale models in the sand next to their hut, and guarding their static and rather sleepy position.

Midway through our chat, we heard small-arms fire, full automatic and not a thousand meters from where we stood. I expected a reflex dash into response mode: a quick reaction force, sets of eyes and weapons scanning the horizon for threats. In fact the response was orderly but serene. Rather than scramble into action, Iraqi police looked around unhurriedly, eventually spied a convoy of vehicles, and determined that the automatic bursts were “probably” just a wedding party. The alarm was canceled before being sounded.

By now few foreigners in Iraq have failed to register that blasting the sky with machine-gun fire is the Iraqi chivaree, and that weddings are wonderful events — symbols of peace and unleashed merry-making — at which normal rules of social decorum don’t apply. But if I were an Iraqi best man, I think I would probably have refrained from firing wildly into the air until my convoy traveled at least a few hundred meters past the station filled with ill-trained Iraqi cops and tightly coiled US Marines. The atmosphere seemed not so much one of safety or celebration but of impunity. Whatever the base’s function, it was not for community policing, and certainly not for aggressive patrols by Marines preserving the peace from carloads of young men with weapons.

Several thoughts come to mind. First, a police force that does not respond to unexplained gunfire is not a police force.

Okay.  Stop again.  The gunfire could have been anything, including shooting dogs.  A breed of wild dogs has taken to residing in Fallujah, and each block has its own pack that relies on food it can get from the area to survive.  Residents of Fallujah routinely have to defend themselves against these dogs.  These are not domesticated animals.  These are several-generation wild dog packs that have no inhibitions regarding humans.

The narrative is that the Marines leaving will cause problems for security and that the Iraqi Police are not up to the job.  True or not, the Marines must leave.  It isn’t within the Marines’ mission to remain a large, heavy land based occupation force.  Rapid deployment strike troops must return to their primary mission.  Anbar is better for having the Marines there, but even if security degrades, it will recover.  The Iraqi Police are up to the task, or shortly will be.

A more sophisticated understanding is given to us in the comments section of the Atlantic article by Jon Schroden.

I have several words of caution for anyone who reads this article:

- This piece fails (as does the NYT piece) to paint a truly comprehensive picture of the security situation in Al Anbar because it presents but a single data point. To get a truly balanced sense of security there, the author should have also traveled to Ramadi, Hadithah, and Al Qaim, at a minimum. Each of these cities is different in multiple ways, so reporting on those differences and how they translate into the varying security situations amongst the cities would have been much more enlightening and comprehensive.

- No one who has seriously studied the situation in Al Anbar or spent significant time there would hold up Fallujah as the shining example of a city that has been turned around. Ramadi is typically the example cited, and for good reasons – it truly was a hot-bed of insurgent activity that was pacified through sound counterinsurgency methods, changes in local attitudes and working with the tribes (to wit, Ramadi was once the declared capital of AQI’s “Islamic State of Iraq,” but was also where the Awakening began). Fallujah has always been trouble. Even after two full-on, line-em-up and knock-em-down clearings of the city, it was still rough-and-tumble, so in late 2007 the Marines began a district-by-district clearing of the city again, using the types of less-kinetic techniques that worked in Ramadi (this was called Operation Alljah). That worked to a large extent, and the city was better for it, but the fact remains that the people in Fallujah have always viewed themselves as a special case (in part b/c Saddam treated them that way) and as such they will always be hard to deal with. They feel that Fallujah, not Ramadi, should be the capital of Anbar, and are disgruntled because of it. Also, Fallujah is a lot “less tribal” than Ramadi, so it’s more difficult for local power-brokers to control the people there.

- As for the Karmah region, the description in this article shows a lack of understanding of the tribal dynamics there. Karmah, and its surrounding areas to the east of Fallujah, sit astride the boundary between two tribal confederations – the Dulaimi Confederation to the west (which includes almost all of the Al Anbar tribes), and the Zobai Confederation to the east (which stretches into and around Baghdad). The main tribe in Karmah belongs to the Zobai Confederation. As such, Karmah represents a “special case” when it comes to dealing with tribal alliances, because the people there don’t really fit in to the rest of Anbar and so feel they aren’t represented well in the provincial government. The main sheikh in Karmah is also a coward, who fled Anbar and would only return in 2007 after heavy lobbying by the Marines and with guaranteed security measures in place. Hence he is of little utility in helping to control the situation there.

- Finally, to the line “a police force that does not respond to unexplained gunfire is not a police force,” I would simply respond that we need to be very careful in our tendencies to apply western standards when it comes to things like quality of police, levels of security, etc. Iraq is not America. Our goal in Iraq is not to build Fallujah into a shining example of a modern city. As long as it’s reasonably peaceful and isn’t serving as a safehaven for AQI (which it isn’t), then we’ve accomplished our mission and the Marines should come home. And they are.

This comment might have been left by Dr. Jonathan Schroden of CNA, who has also penned an interesting article entitled What Went Right in Iraq.  It is an interesting read and requires our attention.

The Marines have a vested interest in the Anbar Province, having lost more than 1000 warriors to the fight.  Much blood has been spilled on Anbari soil.  But other fights and other missions beckon the Marines.  May the Anbaris find their peace and security.  We will pray that the security infrastructure is up to the task of providing it.

Prior: Operation Alljah and the Marines of the 2nd Battalion, 6th Regiment


You are currently reading "Leaving Fallujah Better?", entry #3232 on The Captain's Journal.

This article is filed under the category(s) Fallujah,Iraq and was published June 29th, 2009 by Herschel Smith.

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