UPI Pentagon Correspondent
Fallujah, Iraq (UPI) Sep 12, 2005
Fallujah may end up being a lesson in both how not to conduct a counter-insurgency campaign, and conversely, how to do it successfully.
And paradoxically, the real success will be when terrorists can be treated like criminals and dealt with through the judicial system, according to Col. Dave Berger, commander of Regimental Combat Team 8, responsible for Fallujah and its immediate environs.
The how-not-to-do-it part is by now military lore: don't allow insurgents to gain control of a city, and if they get it, don't let them keep it. The safe harbor gives them status, legitimacy, operational command and control and a reach well beyond the city's borders.
"We lost seven months," a senior military official told United Press International, regarding the decision in April 2004 to turn the city over to a corrupt local security force after a truncated battle to avenge the deaths of four private security contractors. It was a battle the military advised against entering into in the first place, but one that Coalition Provisional Authority chief Paul Bremer and the White House wanted, according to U.S. military and civilian officials.
The "how-to" part started seven months later, after the November 2004 battle -- Operation Al Fajr -- that cleared the city of insurgents.
In Fallujah, the U.S. military had the luxury of a free-fire zone. Civilians had been ordered to leave the city in the weeks leading up to the fight.
Everyone left was deemed fair game.
There were some 1,500 killed in the operation, almost all of them Iraqis. A few bodies have still to be cleared from the rubble, according to a U.S. officer working in the city.
What has happened since in Fallujah has been tightly controlled: families have been allowed back in slowly -- about half the population has returned so far.
As security was established, U.S. Marines have stepped back to allow Iraqis to assume the lead in commanding the streets. Some 3,500 Iraqi Army soldiers moved in. They were followed by an Iraqi Public Order Battalion of about 1,300.
And now, incrementally, the police are here. There are about 600. The force will grow to about 1,200, according Berger.
"The police reintroduction has lagged behind the army by six to 12 months," he told UPI.
Developing security forces that could be effective in Fallujah has been a challenge. They all but collapsed in April 2004 when called on to fight in the city. About half refused to fight and some 10 percent joined the other side, according to U.S. military officials.
The city police and Fallujah Brigade -- the compromise internal security force that was as much a part of the problem in the town as the insurgents were -- were dissolved in September 2004.
Since then it has been a long, slow process of assembling a local security team.
Police are the hardest to build because they are local -- unlike the Iraqi army units here who are mostly recruited elsewhere. Insurgents know where they live and how to threaten their families. They must be screened; the "vetting process" is as careful now for the police as it has been for the army.
"We're not rushed into grabbing anyone who wants to be in the police," Berger said.
Two years ago, with the Pentagon eager to make the occupation more acceptable to Iraqis, it did just that.
Police are critical to Iraqi forces beating the insurgents on their own. If the fight is left to Iraqi military or paramilitary police, the insurgents gain status as an opposition force, and have the potential to attract followers among those dissatisfied with the government.
If the insurgents are handled by the police and put through the justice system, their status shrinks to the level of a criminal -- which does not fundamentally challenge the notion of an Iraqi state.
"Developing the Iraqi army is the mantra, but to kill the insurgency, that's a law enforcement issue," Berger said. "The Iraqi army and the U.S. forces, that is an interim solution. The long term is law enforcement."
Law enforcement is more than just police: it's courts and jails.
"There we are behind. They don't have a jail or a judicial process for lawbreakers," Berger said. "Right now we're throwing them all (criminals and insurgents) in the same pot."
Berger's unit now is engaged in what is known as an "ink blot" approach to the insurgency, a classic model that has been impossible until now given the paucity of U.S. forces in the vast Anbar province.
A counter-insurgency requires having sufficient forces both to clear enemy fighters and then to hold the area to prevent insurgents from ducking the bullets and coming back. There have not been adequate U.S. forces for the holding mission, so many offensives have resulted in little real progress.
A town could be temporarily cleared but the bad guys just popped up further down the Euphrates river, or reappeared once the offensive was over.
The difference between now and then, according to Berger, is the passage of time -- which allowed Iraqi forces to develop to the point that they can perform the holding mission themselves.
Berger does not think the violence is over in Fallujah. But he is betting against the re-emergence of an organized insurgency here.
"There are (improvised explosive devices) and small arms fire every week. The difference is they haven't been able to follow it up with anything. They used to be able to put together three or four different elements to pull off some complicated events," Berger said. "But are they adaptive? Yeah."
The first step, however, "is to establish security in the populated areas," Berger said.
Maj. Gen. Steve Johnson, the forward commander of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force in charge of all of Anbar, tags the criticality of the cities to the fact that's where the voters are.
Iraq is at a point, he says, where political progress could take large bites out of the insurgency by giving fence-sitters something to support.
"Until the Sunnis get to the point they are satisfied they have a seat at the table, we'll probably keep seeing the insurgency," Johnson said.
Insurgents have an advantage in fighting governments. They don't have to win, they just have to persist.
"Historically all they've gotta do is stay in the game," said Berger. "But that assumes a steady flow of money and outside help. If you can cut off the outside forces and restrict it inside" you can beat an insurgency.
Berger is attempting that on a micro-level in the Fallujah region. Having cleared the city and reintroduced a viable Iraqi security force in town, his men now concentrate on upsetting insurgent strongholds in Fallujah's outlying areas -- spreading out like ink from the center.
If those outside forces are kept off balance, Fallujah gets a windbreak for its own stability to take root. And as more police come on line, Iraqi army forces can push out from the center, spreading the ink even farther.
That, at least, is the theory.
Fallujah's lesson may not be applicable across Anbar. Ramadi, the provincial capital and the single most dangerous place for U.S. troops now in Iraq, cannot be cleared the same way Fallujah was, according to a U.S. government official.
"The fight in Ramadi will not be solved by Marines with an M-16. There will never be another 'Fallujah' in Ramadi," the official said.
The Iraqi government will have to solve Ramadi's problems, he said. The Iraqis have taken on too much responsibility for their own country to allow the occupiers another bloody fight like Fallujah. It will have to find another way.
"'Big Mil' ended with Operation Al Fajr. It's 'Big (Politics)' in December (with the new election) and next year it will be 'Big Econ," the official said.
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