Monday, October 03, 2005

Operation IRON FIST

In a previous post I pointed out that there was almost no information in the media about the details of the military assault on Talafar. It ended successfully two weeks ago. The latest US military operation in Iraq, Operation Iron Fist, is now in it's third day. Some details are available this time.
About 1,000 forces are trying to root out insurgents and enemy fighters in an area near the Syrian border, the military said. Marine aircraft dropped 500-pound bombs and fired Hellfire missiles and 30 mm rounds at suspected insurgent positions. Separately, seven civilians were wounded by a tank round. Also, U.S. forces fired a .50-caliber machine gun at a suspicious vehicle, which blew up as if loaded with explosives.
On Monday, a CNN journalist embedded with Marines in eastern Karabilah filed video showing the house-to-house fighting. About 20 Iraqi civilians fled, and the wounded included an Iraqi mother, father and their child, who were bleeding after being hit by flying pieces of concrete.
Hospital officials in the town of Qaim said 11 people were killed in US air attacks, including an ambulance driver.
I'm going to put aside my moral objections to the fact that innocent people are clearly being killed by the US military. For this post only, I'm going to swallow the "unfortunate but unavoidable collateral damage" crap for the sake of making a point. I was tempted to call this post "Anti-Insurgency Tactics for Dummies". It may descend into outright patronsing guff.

Right, let's start at the beginning. We know that the US administration thinks that names are important. Consider the Department of Homeland Security, or Operation Iraqi Freedom, or the Ministry of Truth. OK, maybe not that last one but it's only a matter of time. So Operation Iron Fist? Who thought that was a good idea? It's a PR disaster on a plate. And from the people who came up with Iraqi Freedom, no less. You'd be forgiven for thinking they ought to know better.

I think I know how it could be that the administration which produced Operation Iraqi Freedom also produced Operation Iron Fist. At first glance it doesn't make sense but I think it's actually pretty simple. These names are chosen solely for the message they send to western society. More specifically, they are chosen for the impact they will have on the voting public of the United States of America. Right now, the administration is looking weak at home and it needs to be seen to be acting tough. What could be tougher than an iron fist? No-one in the Whitehouse has bothered to ask how a name like Iron Fist will be perceived by innocent Iraqis in the target areas because Iraqis don't vote in US elections. In short, they couldn't give a stuff what Iraqis think about it. That's the only explanation I can think of which makes sense of an otherwise irrational decision.

This exposes the fundamental problem with the US (and therefore UK) strategy in Iraq. I've said it before but I'm going to say it again. In an insurgency there is only one important battle. It is the battle to win popular support. Everything else is a distraction. I you lose popular support you will lose. This isn't controversial, it's an accepted part of anti-insurgency theory (feeble boast alert: I have studied insurgency theory, and wrote my dissertation on the US strategy in Vietnam). Unfortunately, no-one seems to have explained this to the current US administration.

Here's a fictitious example to demonstrate the problem. Image a small Iraqi town called Washington. Washington has a population of around 10,000 or so. Of those 10,000, about 500 are insurgents who are hiding in various places throughout the town. If we send in an overwhelming military force to deal with these insurgents, they will probably succeed in capturing and killing most of them. But, if that military force has accidentally killed a lot of other people too, then they are likely to have alienated the other 9,500 people who live in Washington to some extent. If some of these people start to believe that US troops are brutal indiscriminate killers and that the world would be a better place without them, then we've got a real problem.

And it's important to understand that this is all about belief. It doesn't matter whether I believe that US soldiers are brutal indiscriminate killers and I'm sure the very idea would be an anathema to many people. This is entirely irrelevant. All that matters is how the US troops are perceived by ordinary Iraqis. And if you use tanks, helicopters, and other heavy military equipment in civilian areas, it's not hard to understand why the image of US troops is likely to suffer something of a setback. After such an operation, the most likely outcome is that many more people will by sympathetic to, or become an active member of, the insurgency. It's quite likely that new recruits to the insurgency will outnumber the losses they suffered in the assault.

It's not rocket science and yet somehow the Whitehouse doesn't seem to get it. Even if you put aside the wishy washy peacenik objections to these iron fisted tactics, all you're left with is a very stupid and entirely counter-productive strategy. It won't work, it never does. If anyone can provide an example of a situation where heavy handed military tactics have successfully defeated an insurgency, then please let me know.* I certainly can't think of one.

I genuinely find it impossible to understand why the US administration continues down this doomed path. All I can think is that no-one has ever explained this to them properly. Well, I'm a public spirited global citizen so I'll at least try. If I link this post to Donald Rumsfeld, there is just the tiniest chance that someone in his department might read this and have a road to Damascus moment.

OK, I accept that it's a long shot. In fact, it's probably naively optimistic wishful thinking which flies in the face of all the available evidence. For some reason I'm reminded of the coalition exit strategy.

*Just to be clear, if anyone suggests the sort of tactics Saddam used to quell the Shia uprising, then I will be forced to proceed to verbal slappage. I accept that it is sort of possible to defeat an insurgency using very extreme military tactics. I assume readers would agree that such tactics are absolutely unacceptable.

Having made a conscious decision not to blog a second interpretation of Operation Iron Fist, it's slightly irritating to discover I don't have the willpower to abide by my own decision.

Perhaps Operation Iron Fist does contain a message for ordinary Iraqis. Is itpossible to imagine that these operations are an integral part if the campaign for the referendum on the constitution? Perhaps the message is something like this:
Nice little town you've got here. It'd be a shame if something were to happen to it. Oops, one of our tanks has accidentally demolished a few houses. I hope there weren't too many people in them. Terribly sorry about that, I think the driver is slightly short sighted. Now, where were we? Ah yes, the referendum. It's an entirely free vote and we're very happy about that. In fact, we're relying on it. Y'see, after the referendum, we'll be able to see which areas voted against the constitution. It'll make it much easier for us to target insurgent hotspots. A few heavy assaults and we'll soon have them on the run, eh? OK, carry on. Remember to vote with your conscience on the 15th. We're counting on it.
Tin Foil Hattery? Maybe. I think I'll leave it at that.

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