A Curious Offensive

The major offensive begun earlier this week in Iraq is curious in a number of ways – so curious that it’s tempting to view it as a desperate move calculated to gain some semblance of progress or apparent progress in the face of the disappointing performance (or perhaps downright failure) of the "surge" strategy that was supposed to win the hearts and minds of Baghdad residents while neutralizing insurgencies from various sects, including al-Qaeda. It certainly differs from what is supposed to be our basic strategy in Iraq.

The basic idea behind the "surge," remember, was that the 30,000 additional troops were supposed to go into police/military stations in Baghdad neighborhoods, work with and train Iraqis, and undertake what was more like police work than conventional military activities. Of course it would expose U.S. soldiers to more dangerous conditions than the previous tactic of having them stay on fortified U.S. military bases at night and venture out on patrols of various kinds during the day, but it would make some neighborhoods safe, win hearts and minds to the point that ordinary Iraqis would start telling U.S. and Iraqi forces about nasty insurgents, and start to neutralize the insurgency. The idea was that in a guerrilla/insurgency/counterinsurgency conflict it was more important to cut the insurgents off from the ability to hide in plain sight among ordinary people, to reduce local sympathy and cooperation with the insurgents.

Sure, it would take more time than sending an armored column into a neighborhood to sweep out the bad guys, but reasonably disciplined insurgents tend to get out of the way of such operations before they begin, avoiding direct conflict with heavily armed government forces and living to fight another day. Neutralizing the insurgency by making neighborhoods safe and reducing the number of civilians who would sympathize or cooperate with them might take more time, but the effects would be longer-lasting. Trying to counter an insurgency with conventional military operations is like playing whack-a-mole.

So on Tuesday the U.S. began what looks like a reasonably standard conventional military offensive – 10,000 soldiers, launched under cover of darkness, supplemented by attack helicopters and incorporating armored vehicles – in Baquba, capital of Diyala province, north of Baghdad. Operation Arrowhead Ripper – the military likes to come up with mock-macho names for its attacks, but they’re running out of names that don’t cause ordinary people to scratch their heads in puzzlement – led to the killing of 22 presumed insurgents in the first few hours, but the military has been fairly mum about insurgent deaths since. An Iraqi commander said handcuffs, swords and electricity cables used for torture were found in insurgent safe houses.

A senior official speaking anonymously "because he was not authorized to speak about the operation" told the Associated Press, "we are going into the areas that have been sanctuaries of al-Qaeda and other extremists to take them on and weed them out, to help get the areas clear and to really take on al-Qaeda. Those are the areas in the belts around Baghdad, some parts in Anbar province and specifically Diyala province."

The semi-official story is that the safe-neighborhoods-in-Baghdad strategy – though even the most optimistic aren’t claiming that more than 40 percent of Baghdad has been "pacified" or that even those are permanently safe – has driven various fighters out of Baghdad and into outlying regions, most specifically Diyala province. This operation is supposed to kill as many insurgents as possible and make a wider region relatively free of fighters.

Unfortunately, a truck bomb exploded at the Khillani Shi’ite mosque in central Baghdad at almost the same moment the U.S. was launching the Diyala offensive. At least 75 people were killed (more than the number of insurgents the U.S. claimed) and at least 200 wounded. That demonstrated that the U.S. is a long way from having control in Baghdad.

At least it seems, in terms of what is being said officially and "anonymously," the U.S. military is trying to get beyond the live-to-fight-again aspect of insurgency/guerrilla warfare by cordoning off the region they’re attacking so the insurgents can’t escape and turn up elsewhere in a few days or a week. They’re doing it by trying to surround the area, and also going through neighborhoods and doing fingerprints and other biometric IDs on most residents, especially those they suspect of being insurgents. Reportedly they have about 100 local residents recruited to act as informants, though it’s bound to be difficult to know which of these can be trusted. The operation is also complicated by the fact that unlike in Fallujah, where the local residents were warned and most of them left, in this offensive local residents are still there, though they’ve been asked/warned to stay in their homes. So the likelihood of innocent civilian casualties is pretty high.

It almost always takes several days for the outcome of a military operation to be really clear – sometimes longer. First reports are likely to be incomplete at best, and are often inaccurate.

By the end of the week U.S. forces were also pushing into areas south of Baghdad, "through a Sunni insurgent haven known as Arab Jubour," again backed by attack helicopters and other aircraft that are supposed to cut off escape routes. Through Thursday 15 U.S. soldiers and Marines had been killed, while in the south-of-Baghdad campaign five suspected insurgents have been killed and 60 captured.

So what is going on? I suspect this offensive, regardless of the brave talk about really getting al-Qaeda this time, reflects profound frustration at the slow progress (or slow failure perhaps) of the safe-neighborhoods "surge" strategy, at the lack of enough troops and enough time to carry out that strategy successfully, and at the lackluster performance of Iraqi troops and police over the last four months or so. It’s unlikely that strategy was going to work anyway, but even if conditions were better it would probably take tens of thousands more troops and years rather than months to carry it out successfully. But everybody knows that while the U.S. is probably going to have significant numbers of troops in Iraq through the Bush presidency, the likelihood of such a sustained commitment is low.

So the U.S. decided to do what the U.S. military is trained to do and in fact is reasonably good at – a relatively conventional military offensive with heavy reliance on armored vehicles, aircraft and sophisticated technology. It might not be the correct or intelligent course in this kind of conflict, but it’s what the U.S. forces are trained to do and what they tend to rely on when they get frustrated.

Ivan Eland of the Independent Institute’s Center on Peace and Liberty told me the U.S. officials may well have come to believe their own propaganda that the primary enemy and disturber of the peace in Iraq is al-Qaeda and the foreign fighters, and that this kind of operation just might be able to neutralize them. It is possible that the U.S. still underestimates both the extent of Iraqi resentment of and resistance to U.S. occupation and the extent to which sectarian violence is the main source of violence and instability in today’s Iraq. U.S. commanders may be living in a fantasy world in which they believe that if they can just get rid of those foreign fighters relative peace and stability will not be far off.

The problem – well, one of them, there are many – is that a conventional military operation in relatively heavily populated neighborhoods is likely to lead to fairly heavy civilian casualties at the hands and weapons of U.S. forces, which will lead some among the families of those killed and wounded to become more sympathetic to the insurgency, or at least some faction of it. So it is more likely that instead of getting rid of those pesky foreign elements creating instability, the U.S. is sowing the seeds of more anti-American sentiment and violence in the future.

It is also unlikely that despite efforts to surround the insurgent areas and clog the roads to prevent escape that the U.S. will turn out to have prevented a significant number of insurgents from moving on to fight another day. The insurgents almost certainly had good enough intelligence that they knew the attack was coming and most moved out before it began. Still others will be able to hide in plain sight among the civilian population.

We may not have an accurate assessment for weeks, of course, but that’s a preliminary estimate.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).