Saturday, August 06, 2005

Dying to Constrain the Enemy in Haditha

What can you say about the Marine casualties in Haditha? There's no shock of numbers. It wasn't like hundreds or thousands were killed. And it wasn't like Haditha had not happened before. The daily dribble of four, five, and six Americans deaths has become routine, so numbingly routine that the news from Haditha is difficult to differentiate from the news from other dusty Iraqi towns. Twenty deaths isn't that much bigger than six. Why pay extra attention to this particular dribble of bad news? The answer is that we owe it to those who died to expose the feeble nature of Bush's approach to the war in Iraq. The only thing that has been hard-hitting about the conduct of the war since the overthrow of Saddam has been the rhetoric that the administration has been directing against its opponents. The military campaign against the insurgents has been half-hearted at best. The campaign in Haditha is an excellent example of the administration's slip-shod approach to the war. In May, the military conducted a campaign in Haditha with the usual sleep sounding code name of "Operation New Market." American troops cordoned off one side of the city so that it could be "methodically searched for enemy fighters, weapons and support structures." Although the town hadn't been occupied by American forces before, American soldiers did not encounter much resistance from insurgents. Here's where the lack of commitment from the Bush administration has an impact. Instead of having an apparatus for continually attacking the insurgents in Anbar province, the American military draws troops from garrisons in towns like Fallujah for the type of operations carried out in Haditha in May. After the operation, the troops had to return to their garrisons rather than occupying Haditha or continuing to press the insurgents. Without the resources to sustain continuous pressure, the insurgents could come back to Haditha. And that's precisely what they did. So what do the armed sweeps and the clear and hold operations accomplish? Basically, the U. S. is seeking to ensure that the insurgents can't operate out in the open. Brig. Gen. Ham of the Pentagon captured the administration position succinctly in his characterization of the insurgents today: "they are dangerous and they certainly have a capability. But whether or not they have an ability to freely operate in that area, I think not." The key is the second sentence. The current American goal in Anbar is to prevent insurgents from operating "freely"--to keep them from openly controlling areas like Fallujah and using them as staging areas for attacks on American forces or centers for insurgent government. It's a stalemate strategy in which the American military has surrendered the goal of defeating the insurgents. We don't have enough troops on the ground to defeat them. Instead, we've retreated to the idea of "constraining" or "containing" them to the extent that they cannot operate "freely."The destruction of the sniper team yesterday is a good barometer of the strategic situation in Anbar. May's Operation New Market did not weaken the insurgent presence in Haditha at all. In fact, the insurgents appear to be more confident in their weapons and tactics now than they did in May. Instead of melting away, they stood and fought and wiped out a sniper team. To my knowledge, that's the first American unit of any size that's been completely destroyed in a combat situation in Iraq. It's probably not a good sign, but it's not a sign that the Iraqi version of Dien Bien Phu is on the horizon. As General Ham suggests, the American military has enough power to keep the insurgents from operating "freely. However, it doesn't seem like our military has the strength needed to accomplish anything more than that.So, that's what the 20 American soldiers died for in Haditha, the objective of constraining the insurgent's freedom of movement. And I would say that we're succeeding in that objective. But it's a Pyrrhic victory. The insurgents grow marginally stronger and Iraq becomes an almost ideal training ground for new generations of terrorist jihadis. The American invasion of Iraq was an enormous diversion from the struggle against global terrorism and Islamic global terrorists have taken advantage of the Bush administration's miscalculation to strengthen themselves in dramatic ways.


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