Along the Tracks

Monday, November 03, 2003

Anaconda Redux

The downing of a military helicopter outside Fallujah, with 16 dead Americans and another 20 injured, underscores the fact that central Iraq - the “Sunni Triangle” - remains a war zone. Bill Safire, in today’s New York Times, calls this “Gulf War III,” and also notes that two-thirds of Iraq is actually doing quite well. But that success is jeopardized by the continued bloodshed, fear and chaos occurring in the area north and west of Baghdad where Baathists still operate, joined by al Qaeda and other terror partners.

While what’s happening in the Sunni Triangle is certainly “war,” it is an asymmetrical, guerilla-and-terror-strike war which, as the coalition is presently fighting it, is completely to the advantage of the insurgents. Other than occasional “lucky strikes” by units on hunt-and-destroy missions, each battle is initiated by the terrorists. We need to recognize this is still “war” - body bags should make that abundantly clear. Even more, we need to initiate our own “battles.”

In March 2002, American and allied forces gathered in the mountains along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border near Gardez, where they had “allowed” (I think that’s fair to say) al Qaeda and Taliban holdouts to reassemble. Getting the enemy to gather in one place permitted the allies to maximize their advantages of technology and firepower. Operation Anaconda began.

Most people will recall that the battle resulted in the largest single loss of American lives during combat in the Afghanistan War: eight dead during the ambush of a helicopter insertion and follow-up rescue. And while our losses were grievous, the battle was a success, with hundreds of terrorists killed, huge caches of weaponry captured or destroyed, and remaining enemy fighters forced to flee the mountain refuges. No, we didn’t kill or capture every enemy soldier on the field - no such battle is perfect. But we did deal a sharp blow to the al Qaeda-Taliban force, and all subsequent engagements have been much smaller, Afghanistan has become relatively stable (with some exceptions, of course) and has been able to move into reconstruction relatively smoothly (setting aside debates about “warlords,” poppy farming, etc.).

Operation Anaconda came three months after “victory,” and over five months after the war began.

Right now, the war in Iraq requires its own “Operation Anaconda.”

I know President Bush declared an end to “major combat operations” in May. That was a mistake he absolutely must face, acknowledge and correct. I understand the arguments about the declaration allowing the start of reconstruction, humanitarian assistance, etc., and I’m sure the announcement was made with the best of intentions. The hard truth is the Baathist-terrorist strategy has been to take advantage of this militarily significant decision by the administration, keeping up their own “major combat operations” while the coalition tries to begin reconstruction in a war zone. Thus, we do small team searches and patrols, guard hospitals, mosques, schools and other public facilities, protect pipelines and generators and substations, and stand outside our own camps and headquarters - in each case, basically waiting to be attacked. The terrorists oblige, and oftentimes we kill or capture more of them than they of us. Still, adding in their hidden bombs and remote missile attacks, they probably “break even” on the casualty equation (particularly when counting Iraqi police, military and civilian deaths with ours, as is proper). By refusing to engage in “major combat operations,” we are eliminating the very advantages which would allow us to initiate battles we can win decisively.

Thus, the need for “Operation Iraqi Anaconda.”

How would such an initiative work? For starters, we need to bring in the heavy fighting forces and urban warfare specialists - maybe a couple of divisions. We need to mark off areas where the Baathists are abundant, and begin encircling them in tandem. This would not only form the “noose,” but also would cut off the flow of fighters, material and information between centers of resistance. Then, we begin tightening the noose.

Part of this operation would include assistance from the new Iraqi army, which would be better able to identify the enemy in a sea of non-combatants, and could join special forces during forays into Baathist strongholds, providing intelligence and a peak into the mind of the enemy: Who better to “think like an Iraqi” than an Iraqi?

Another facet of “Operation Iraqi Anaconda” would be humanitarian. A major combat operation in highly-populated areas like Baghdad, Tikrit and Fallujah would inevitably cause disruptions in electricity, water and food supplies. Assistance camps and refuges could be set up outside each noose, where people escaping the battle would be safe and cared for. These would need to be publicized within the communities (leaflets, radio, TV, etc.) to maximize their use - the more people leave the battle areas, the fewer civilian casualties. This would also provide reason for fairly intensive searches of people, and especially, vehicles leaving the combat zones, intercepting terrorists and weapons.

By now there are plenty of readers saying, “This is crazy, Paul - you can’t dislodge perhaps a million people, send heavy combat troops sweeping through cities and invite the mayhem of suicide bombers hitting search points, civilians misunderstanding orders and getting shot, families afraid to leave and suddenly caught in mid battle.” Actually, you can - and sometimes, you have to. It’s called “war,” and it’s what we face. There will be an increase in casualties - ours, our Iraqi allies and Iraqi civilians. But the choice is not between casualties and no casualties. The choice is between a steady, and potentially increasing, drip of deaths which takes a high toll on civilians particularly, or a major battle which may will cause civilian deaths but will largely eliminate the Baathists and terrorists who keep central Iraq from becoming a safe and peaceful land of opportunity for its citizens.

Not only is major combat in urban areas necessary now - it’s precisely what we were prepared to do in early April as we approached Baghdad. We started with “forays” into the city, which met minimal resistance, and suddenly, the capital fell to throngs of overjoyed Iraqis. The Baathists decided to disappear and fight another day.

That day has come. Its arrival was gradual, so much so many of our leaders do not seem to accept it really is here: The proverbial frog in a slowly heated pot of water. Sixteen dead Americans is too much of a jolt for this writer. “This is war,” we keep telling all the doubters and defeatists. The attacks of the past week should be a reminder of that fact to supporters of the Iraq invasion as well:

This is war. We had better admit it, and fight it - and win it.

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