October 20, 2004
Where We Stand (II)By Douglas Hanson
Part II: The Fight for the Central Region
[Editor's note: Part I, The tactical fight for Iraq, can be read here]
Democrat Senator John Kerry is attempting to make political hay out of Ambassador L. Paul Bremer's controversial statement that when he arrived in Baghdad in early May of 2003, there weren't enough troops to halt the looting and end the chaos within the Iraqi capital. Certainly, the ambassador is entitled to have his opinion on the situation as he found it on May 6, 2003.
But, as an editorial in the Wall Street Journal notes, Bremer's timing may be a little off. Such a request would go through the proper military channels to the National Command Authority, not directly to the President. In other words, the request would have gone from the V Corps/CJTF—7 commander through the Theater Commander of CENTCOM, and thence to the National Command Authority (NCA). As it turns out, no such request ever reached the NCA.
John Kerry and other critics on the left have chided the President and the SecDef for the ever—popular 'failure to plan' for a postwar Iraq scenario that would have, in 20/20 hindsight, forecast the resurrection of Saddam Hussein loyalists and the Shia thugs of Muqtada al—Sadr. Fearless prognosticators in Washington DC and the legacy media tell us now that they had all of the answers way back when; it's just that nobody listened to them.
The boys inside the beltway may have a lot of fun saying 'I told you so,' but the operational side is not run from Washington, it's conducted in the theater of war, and that is where the analysis of our current situation must focus. The President has said repeatedly that strategically we are on the offense. It would help if the military chain of command took his intent to heart. And before I go any further, let me state unequivocally, we are winning; some of us just haven't realized it yet.
In planning for both Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Commander of CENTCOM, General Tommy Franks, had discarded old operational frameworks in favor of new concepts making use of state—of—the—art warfighting technologies and the superior training of US forces. However, Franks also labored under his predecessors' 12 year old operational and intelligence constraints. It was a heavy load of baggage that by necessity, he had to take along on the trip.
A brief history of CENTCOM after Gulf War I shows a command seemingly ignoring the maneuvers of a dominant Iran, and conceding Somalia to warlords and their Iranian overseers. Terrorist attacks on places like the Air Force barracks at the Khobar Towers and the US advisors compound in Riyadh almost seemed to taunt the command that, at one time, had defeated Saddam's army in a 100 hour ground campaign. Meanwhile, some commanders of CENTCOM focused on confusing concepts such as 'engagement,' while showing disdain to the so—called 'neo—cons' in the Bush Administration, and our only true ally in the region, Israel.
Yet, clues to what these mysterious concepts espoused by Frank's predecessors actually are, can be found in General Franks' book. In reality, the institutional structuring of CENTCOM during the nineties, and the strategic retreats during the Clinton Administration, made planning and conducting a war in the Central Region an exercise in frustration, and hampered future operations to get at the heart of the problem in the Area of Responsibility (AOR). Nowhere is this flawed thinking more evident than the concept of 'engagement.'
Gen. Franks defined engagement as 'establishing a personal rapport with the region's government and military leaders.' The reason this was such a critical aspect of command in CENTCOM was for a very simple reason: the US had little or no intelligence capability on the ground. A stunning quotation from Gen. Zinni in Franks' book couldn't be any clearer on this sad situation. In response to a question about threats in the AOR, Zinni said,
'I wish I could tell you.' Tony spread his hands in resignation. 'You'll find our intelligence picture for this region is pretty sad. That's another reason engagement is so important [emphasis mine]. We need friends out there who can give us the true picture. I'd like to know a lot more about what's happening in Iraq, and with Osama bin Laden and AQ [al Qaeda]. But the fact is I do not.'
So the most powerful nation on Earth, which had already sustained terrorist attacks on its forces overseas and against its citizens at home, had only a rudimentary understanding of the threat in the most unstable AOR on the planet. The policy of engagement was supposed to substitute for this lack of intelligence. This meant being buddies with leaders who the next day might turn around and slit our throat, both literally and figuratively.
It didn't help matters that in 1996, almost all of our Human Intelligence (HUMINT) assets in Iraq suffered a good old fashioned butt—whoopin' in the CIA's aborted coup attempt staged out of Northern Iraq. The covert operation's missteps were covered in detail by the legacy media at the time, but now, the same major press outlets that routinely complain about poor operational planning and faulty intelligence for the stability phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) are strangely silent when it comes to actually investigating one of the root causes of our many gaps in information gathering. Simply put, Saddam's intelligence services had thoroughly infiltrated the CIA's operation in the mid—90s, and once Saddam's tanks overran our Kurdish allies, any chance of having the required intelligence assets on the ground disappeared *
Yet, for all of the inadequacies in our intell picture of Saddam's forces, our civilian and military intelligence agencies still managed to produce valuable information for the planning of OIF. However, there is a fundamental misunderstanding in the popular notion of what intelligence can do for the US and our forces, a misunderstanding which is exaggerated by the media, and is sometimes used by field commanders to justify not adopting proven operational techniques and tactics, regardless of an incomplete intelligence picture. Contrary to popular belief, the US does not have an unlimited cornucopia of assets from which to draw in fighting and winning our battles. If intell is 'imperfect,' (and it is), what does more of it do for us without the operational savvy to act based upon its findings? Examples include the seeming failure to trace the roots of the so—called 'insurgency' in the Sunni Triangle, and a perceived laser—like focus on the opposition within Iraq, while not understanding the significance of the external forces arrayed against the Coalition throughout the Central Region.
As the lead elements of the 3d Infantry Division (Mechanized) and the I Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF) advanced on Baghdad during OIF, it was apparent to the frontline units that the enemy was not so much tanks and BMPs, but literally busloads of Saddam Fedayeen sacrificing themselves to the tank main guns and the heavy infantry of the Coalition forces. This tactic continued to play out in Baghdad itself, as the 3d ID made its famous thunder runs to seize the capital in a bold series of brigade and task force—sized operations. As it turned out, Saddam's martyrs were performing a suicidal high—risk delay in order to allow Hussein's loyalists and regular army and Republican Guard leadership to exfiltrate from areas overrun by the Coalition, to establish a resistance movement in the Sunni Triangle.
The key factor hindering total success of the Iraqi operation was the fact that the 4th Infantry Division was not allowed by the Turks to transit their country and establish a northern front in Iraq, and seize the Sunni Triangle before Saddam and his cronies could occupy it. Yet, as the months went by, and terror attacks against the Coalition mounted, there was a seeming lack of recognition in either CJTF—7 or CENTCOM headquarters as to what exactly happened and how to deal with it. The divisions and regiments on the ground seemed to have a pretty good handle on the situation, as did some of the major press organizations, given their propensity for hiring Arab reporters to cover the situation on the ground.
Mistakes are made in war, and no operation is ever perfect, but the long period of waiting to put '2 plus 2' together, resulted in the Coalition's delay in conducting military operations to reduce the threat in the Triangle and to interdict the flow of Syrian and Iranian operatives into the country. Ambassador Bremer had always maintained that security was the number one priority in getting the new Iraq back on its feet. The units in the field understood this, too. But it's unclear if the higher command fully grasped the situation, or whether it was frozen to inaction because of an extreme case of risk aversion. This lack of synchronization was not the result of flawed planning that developed months prior to the war. Every intelligence organization has its opinion as to what will happen in the future, but success depends on what our forces actually encounter on the ground and how our leadership synthesizes that information and uses it to our advantage.
Amazingly, we finally heard about this operational setback not from a military leader, but from President Bush speaking before a military audience at the Army War College last May. In his speech, the President said,
The swift removal of Saddam Hussein's regime last spring had an unintended affect. Instead of being killed or captured on the battlefield, some of Saddam's elite guards shed their uniforms and melted into the civilian population. These elements of Saddam's repressive regime and secret police have reorganized, rearmed and adopted sophisticated terrorist tactics. They've linked up with foreign fighters and terrorists. In a few cities, extremists have tried to sow chaos and seize regional power for themselves.
This is akin to FDR announcing months after the fact that, well, Monty and Patton tried really hard in the Summer of 1944 to close the Falaise Gap and they didn't quite make it, so instead of capturing or killing 100,000 German troops, 60,000 got away to fight another day. The uniformed audience at the War College was well—disciplined; I didn't see anybody squirm or seem visibly uncomfortable about the President acknowledging a military shortcoming in an operational theater of war. In terms of 'the buck stops here' philosophy, GW outdid Truman himself.
The President in his address also clearly indicated the true nature of the enemy in Iraq. Again, it was clear at the tactical level who these thugs were and who was backing them. But we cannot determine if the impact of this intelligence gained by our forces in the field ever registered at the higher command level. It is vitally important that we distinguish between a tactic, in this case terror tactics, and the enemy who uses that tactic in battle. Otherwise our efforts in this war will come up short of a complete victory over this scourge wreaking havoc across the globe.
The notion of some mysterious and nebulous network of fanatical Muslim extremists exciting the general populace of Iraq (or any other Muslim country) to a general uprising must be critically examined, and ultimately relegated to the trash heap, or our perceptions of 'how to fight' will be clouded by myth and innuendo.
We now know that the latest battle for Najaf was fought largely with Iranian—financed mercenaries, who, it was determined, were criminals that Saddam had released from prison just before Operation Iraqi Freedom in March of 2003. The recent fighting in Sadr City is no different. Fox News, with a contribution from our favorite wire service, the AP, notes that the Mahdi 'militia' described,
Bands of fighters in civilian clothes — mostly in their teens and early 20s — wielded rocket—propelled grenades and trotted toward the clashes, children running in their wake.
A more recent piece in The Washington Times focused on the so—called 'insurgency' in the Sunni Triangle and said,
Iraqi insurgents are viewed inside the Pentagon as a "thinking enemy" made up of two elements — former members of Saddam Hussein's regime and terrorists linked to Abu Musab Zarqawi. ...More bad news: The number of "jihadists" is growing as they continue to flow into Iraq from Syria. Recently a group of Sudanese terrorists was found during fighting in Samarra. And Iran, through its Ministry of Intelligence and Security and the Quds section of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, has been funneling money and arms to insurgents. (The Washington Times reported this development in April.)
So much for a grassroots 'uprising' of an angry populace against the evil Coalition. The number of Iraqi citizens in Baghdad versus Coalition Soldiers tells the real state of affairs: a population of 5 million, with many having an AK—47 or perhaps some larger weapon, against a US garrison of 30,000 US troops. The logical conclusion is: if the people of Baghdad had wanted our soldiers gone, we'd have been toast months ago.
The use of teens to fight in Sadr City, and the gruesome atrocities that these beasts committed in Najaf, while praising the name of Allah, does not necessarily mean that they are independent religious insurgents. In wars past, similar atrocities were committed by armies of a state. A group of 10 men on the Eastern Front tied Russian prisoners in a tight circle and stuffed grenades in their belts, pulling the pins. They belonged to a conventional army raised and supported by the state; in this case the German Wehrmacht. This same nation—state trained Einsatzgruppen to administer and commit the most inhumane atrocities imaginable as part of the Final Solution, and were organized instruments of Nazi Germany.
Therefore, let's get down to cases. At the risk of offending any PC sensibilities, CENTCOM and the American people must face the facts in order to confront and defeat our enemies. The average Middle East male does not know how to train, equip, and control a fire team, much less synchronize so—called 'uprisings' scattered around the major cities of Najaf, Sadr City, and Fallujah. These anti—Coalition forces are the product of state—run military and intelligence services, without whom these street thugs would be totally at a loss.
In addition to the recent series of conventional battles that have occurred in Iraq, there have also been paramilitary operations which include urban 'guerilla' warfare, subversion and sabotage of key facilities, especially disruption of the port facilities where oil is distributed, and kidnappings and assassination.
Sound familiar? It should to our old Cold warriors. These are exactly the unconventional pre—war missions of the Former Soviet Union Spetsnaz would conduct prior to a planned conventional assault. Saddam Hussein's military commanders and the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps have learned well from the 'lesser Satan.' They are implementing part of the playbook their former Soviet military advisors taught them. Iran and Syria may not be in the final phases of preparing for an all out conventional war, but World War IV is underway already.
As recently as October 18, the press and John Kerry have resurrected their obsession with the failure of President Bush to capture or kill Osama bin Laden, but Kerry and his minions are barking up the wrong tree. Given the real nature of this conflict, Osama bin Laden, while an important leader in the Islamofascist cause, may be no more than a division commander for hire by one or more nations in the Axis of Evil. It appears John Kerry and the left would reduce our strategic offensive posture to a large—scale episode of Dragnet in order to get the quick satisfaction of nabbing the notorious bad guy, while losing sight of the larger picture. Sixty years ago, Eisenhower was not obsessed with taking Berlin and killing or capturing Hitler, but rather defeating the German Army on the field battle. We would be wise to follow suit.
There is obviously no way we can know the exact nature of current or future operations in the Central Region. While our Soldiers, Marines, and the Iraqis in the field are doing a masterful job defeating irregulars in Najaf and Fallujah, Michael Ledeen of National Review Online points to a problem that is perceived by even the most casual observer. There is an 'elephant in the room' — Iran, Syria, and elements in Saudi Arabia who are financing, arming, coordinating, and guiding those attacking us in Iraq. Securing Iraq without tackling the basis of support of the enemy in the theater is like attempting to liberate France in WW II without bombing the hell out of Germany.
We certainly don't want or need to know CENTCOM's OPLANs, but the SecDef and Gen. Abizaid have seemingly gone into a self—imposed public relations blackout, presumably to present more of an Iraqi face on combat operations in the battle zone. The US and the free world cannot afford a campaign that amounts to another massive punitive raid ala Gulf War I, especially with Iran on the verge of building nuclear weapons. The American people know that GW understands the strategic necessity of going on the offense, but they also need to know that the higher military leadership is fighting to win, and not just trying to get by in order not to lose.
* The Washington Post article of March 23, 1998 notes that as our CIA operatives were running for the hills, Kurdish rebels were frantically trying to get US close air support to stem the tide against Saddam's T—72s, but were turned down by the Clinton Administration.
Douglas Hanson is our military affairs correspondent