U.S. and Iraqi forces stormed into the Sarai neighborhood of Tall Afar this weekend, a northern Iraqi city believed to be a logistics center for insurgents in northern Iraq, only to find a ghost town. U.S. commanders claimed the rebels had fled and were defeated. The former may be true, but let’s hope U.S. military leaders haven’t deluded themselves into believing the latter.
According to the Washington Post, Col. H.R. McMaster, commander of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, pronounced the conquest: “I think what we saw today was the effect of our counterinsurgency and security operations in Tall Afar in the previous weeks. The enemy then decided to bail out. They knew they were being destroyed.” Maj. Chris Kennedy, McMaster’s executive officer, concurred with his boss’s reasoning: “The shaping operations that we conducted before crossing into Sarai are the reason why we haven’t seen the resistance we expected.” Capt. Noah Hanners, a platoon commander within the regiment also toed the party line: “That we had so little resistance shows the operation has been effective.”
Unfortunately, the only thing these commanders were trying to shape was public opinion back home. Instead of being destroyed, as Col. McMaster claimed, the insurgents apparently withdrew to other towns during the predictable U.S. warnings for civilians to evacuate Sarai and the aerial onslaught before the ground assault began. If the rebels had stuck around to slug it out in a “Texas death match” with superior U.S. forces, one would have wondered about their competence. Any capable guerrilla force knows that they will lose any toe-to-toe scrap with the most powerful military on the planet. To reduce casualties among U.S. and Iraqi forces, the U.S. military bombarded the neighborhood by air for a week and also used heavy weapons, such as tanks, to “soften” up the area before the ground attack.
But powerful, muscle-bound militaries can often lose guerrilla wars, in which politics is as important as raw military power. One of the objectives of insurgents is to induce the invader to use excessive force, thereby shifting the indigenous population’s support from the invader to the rebels. A second goal of the guerrillas is merely to keep an army in the field and launch hit-and-run tactics to convince the invading country’s populace back home that its government is incurring unacceptable casualties and doing poorly in a faraway war. In Sarai, the rebels made progress in achieving both objectives.
Even after its Vietnam debacle, the U.S. military cannot effectively conduct counterinsurgency warfare. In Vietnam, U.S. forces destroyed villages to save them. The same is happening in Iraq and Tall Afar is a prime example. U.S. aerial bombardment has severely damaged the city. The United States will provide reconstruction funds, but it will never be enough to compensate for the destruction and lives lost. Another quote by Col. McMaster indicates that U.S. forces still don’t get it: “…The No. 1 priority is being met by this operation, which is to defeat the terrorists so they can no longer prevent reconstruction from happening.” In the eyes of many Iraqi citizens, however, it is the heavy U.S. bombardment of the city, not the terrorists, that has made reconstruction necessary.
Furthermore, the “terrorists” may not be defeated. If U.S. forces restrained the use of heavy firepower, less physical damage and fewer Iraqi civilian deathsbut more U.S. casualtieswould result. Thus, a trade off exists between winning friends among the Iraqi populacekey to reducing the shelter afforded to the guerrillasand keeping the support of the American people back home. Yet to win the war, the United States must maintain the support of both the Iraqi and U.S. populations. This no-win balancing act is a major argument for great powers to avoid faraway guerilla quagmires in the first place.
Astute insurgents fade away into the surrounding population when the dominant power tries to corner themas the U.S. military was attempting in Sarai. Only inexperienced or foolish guerrillas would have stayed to fight. The goal of the rebels is to sustain a force that can fight another day on the insurgents’ termspicking off isolated pockets of U.S. and Iraqi forces and then melting away. In fact, the Iraqi guerrillas have used this tactic in other cities in Sunni areas. Once the thinly stretched Iraqi and U.S. forces leave any occupied area, as they must to put out fires in other parts of the country, the rebels return to run the place. This same phenomenon happened in Tall Afar only a year ago. According to U.S. commanders, this time Tall Afar will not fall under rebel control. We’ll see.
Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, and he spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. He is author of the books Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq, and Recarving Rushmore.
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