Back to the Wild West of Anbar Province

In an article titled “Insurgents Flourish in Iraq’s Wild West” , the Los Angeles Times offers a bleak assessment of the availability of Coalition and Iraqi forces in the Anbar province. While the Marines involved in Operation Matador were able to easily sweep through Western Iraq and kill and capture al Qaeda members, they have not established a long term presence and may have left the area open to re-infiltration by al Qaeda.

Yet as soon as the operation [Matador] concluded, the Marines crossed back over the Euphrates River and left no U.S. or Iraqi government presence in the region – generally considered a major mistake in counterinsurgency warfare.

“It’s classically the wrong thing to do,” said Kalev Sepp, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., who last fall was a counterinsurgency advisor to Army Gen. George W. Casey, the top U.S. general in Iraq. “Sending 1,000 men north of the Euphrates does what? Sometimes these things can be counterproductive, because you just end up shooting things up and then leaving the area.”

Military officials in Iraq and Washington said there was little reason to expect that insurgent fighters would not return to the villages.

“The right thing to do would have been to sweep the area with U.S. troops, and hold it with Iraqi troops,” said a military official and counterinsurgency expert at the Pentagon who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not an official Pentagon spokesman.

The Los Angeles Times is discussing the merits of “clear and hold” operations (forcing the enemy from a region and establishing a permanent government presence and garrison forces) over “search and destroy” operations (finding, engaging, killing or capturing the enemy without holding ground). The consensus in military and counterinsurgency circles is the clear and hold strategy is more effective in defeating an insurgency. We have seen clear and hold operations work effectively in Najaf, Baghdad, Basra and a host of other areas in Iraq (granted this does not mean 100% security, only that the enemy is not free to operate at will). Once Iraqi forces became available to police the local regions, US forces were freed to move forward to fight elsewhere.

A limiting factor in continually executing a clear and hold strategy is troop availability. The Marines used to execute Matador were pulled from local garrison duties to execute the assault. It appears there is no significant rapid reaction force available to conduct operations such as Matador.

Iraqi Security Forces are still being constituted. The Iraqi government appears to prefer local/regional security forces to patrol close to home for various cultural and political reasons. The Sunnis have just begun to embrace joining the security services after appointing a Sunni as Minister of Defense only a month ago. It will take time to arm, train and deploy these recruits, and they will need to be brought along slowly as their mission will take them into the hottest areas of Iraq.

There is a shortage of forces, and search and destroy missions are being conducted until sufficient Iraqi forces are available to secure territory. Waiting for enough forces available to execute clear and hold missions alone would cede the initiative to the insurgency. At the very least search and destroy is being used to keep the enemy off balance. The potential fatal wounding of Zarqawi would show there are indeed benefits to operating in this matter in the interim.

But it is wrong to assume the Coalition and Iraqi forces have completely ceded the western portion of the Anbar province to the insurgency. Marines of the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Regiment are currently garrisoned Qaim to police the border with Syria (this is the site of al Qaeda’s failed company-sized assault on Camp Gannon). Also, the coalition is in the process of establishing forts and other military facilities in the region as well as training Iraqi troops to enter Western Iraq.

Hoping to clamp down on the smuggling of people and weapons, the United States is paying for the rebuilding of 190 Iraqi border forts, including 58 already completed, accounting for a large portion of nearly $2 billion being spent on Iraqi camps, barracks and other military structures, according to U.S. officials involved in training the new Iraqi forces. About 140 miles of berms are also being constructed, mostly along the Syrian border.

A senior American commander familiar with the border situation said effective control of foreign-fighter infiltration was still “some months away.” But he added that border control is crucial to Iraq’s security because foreign fighters are believed to comprise a large percentage of suicide bombers. “It’s not Iraqis who are blowing themselves up,” he said.

Another item to consider is the hostility of the local tribes towards the foreign jihadis. Local tribes are not particularly fond of al Qaeda’s’ attempts to establish the laws of Shariah and the Taliban. These tribes have fought to eject al Qaeda from their homes. While the Coalition and Iraqi forces are not establishing full security in the region, al Qaeda is certainly not welcomed, either. This can cut both ways: the local tribes may become distrustful and resentful of the central Iraqi government, but the longer they are exposed to the machinations of al Qaeda, the less likely they are to support their jihad.

The criticism of troop strength in Iraq is perhaps the most cogent point made by critics of the war. But military personnel do not spring from an endless well, there are always limitations to an Army’s capabilities. As Chester articulated last fall, “The US cannot commit more troops to Iraq because it has no more troops to commit. Troops must be cycled and rotated on a manageable schedule. We have maxed that out. Any further increase in troop rotations would leave us strategically vulnerable in other theaters. 150,000 or so at a time is the best we can do.”

Nations have struggled with manpower and supply shortcomings since wars have been fought. The United States has decided to compensate for the shortcoming of troops in Iraq by relying on the establishment of the Iraqi Security Forces. While this may make the war tougher to fight, it by no means is proof the war is unwinnable or the decision to fight was wrong. And it also gives the Iraqis the opportunity and experience in fighting for their own freedom.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.


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