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Crushing Walnuts, But Losing The War?
Daily Star, Lebanon - Dec 4, 2003, By Ejaz Haider
President George W. Bush’s visit to Iraq on Thanksgiving Day last week may have been a good tactic to halt falling ratings at home. It may even boost the sagging morale of US troops. However, it is unlikely to solve America’s Iraqi problems. If anything, the secret landing in Baghdad provided a sharp contrast to Bush’s carrier landing on May 1, when he declared victory and announced a formal end to combat in Iraq.
The attacks by the Iraqi resistance might have gone down a little following the US military’s sustained operations in and around Baghdad, and north of it, but it is still too early to discount the ability of the resistance to hit back. For the first time since April, the military has employed Apache gunships, AC-130, A-10 and F-16 aircraft, as well as artillery and mortars, in the south and west of Baghdad. In essence the new tactic focuses on denying sanctuaries to resistance fighters, and sends a message that the Americans will come after them and will use all their firepower in doing so. Large areas along roads are being leveled, houses are being demolished and factories and other targets pounded and strafed.
Invoking the dictum by Viscount William Joseph Slim, Major General Charles H. Swannack, Jr., the commander of the US 82nd Airborne Division, which is responsible for the western part of the so-called Sunni triangle, says he will “use a sledgehammer to crush (the) walnut.” I cannot recall anything in the campaigns of Slim (including in Somaliland, where he was a brigadier) that approximates what Swannack and his colleagues are facing in Iraq. The closest one comes is the jungle tactic Slim tried out in Burma, where, as historian Basel Liddell Hart wrote, he created “strongholds into which the troops would withdraw, and be maintained by airborne supply, while reserves were brought up to crush the intruding Japanese between them and the strongholds.”
The tactic used by the US military is also reminiscent of the methods Israel is employing in the Occupied Territories. It remains to be seen, however, whether it will work any better for the Americans than it has for the Israelis. Indeed, Iraqi resistance fighters should be happy: the new response, while leaving them largely unscathed, will go a long way toward alienating Iraqi civilians. You don’t swat a fly with a sledgehammer, mainly because you cannot.
The problem with trying to wipe out the Iraqi opposition is that it is likely to end up generating a high level of violence, making the entire exercise politically and strategically cost-prohibitive and fruitless for the US. The Iraqi fighters have no dearth of targets. They can move from one point to another and engage targets away from their own areas before merging into the population. They are also using standoff weapons (mortars, remote-controlled devices, etc.) with increasing sophistication, which means better chances of escape after a successful strike.
But at the broader level of the American presence in Iraq, two factors stand out. One deals with the dilemma about what aspect of the problem, the political or the military, the US should tackle first. This is both a conceptual and an operational challenge. The second relates to the ability of Iraqi fighters to network.
The normal response to the political-military dilemma is to try and tackle both simultaneously, so that success in one feeds into and complements the other. But the operational difficulties of this integrated approach, for all its conceptual finesse, are evident in Iraq, and to a lesser degree in Afghanistan. Political movement can take place effectively (albeit slowly) only when the situation is not militarily desperate. In the face of stiff resistance, however, the military campaign is likely to begin to dominate what started out as an integrated political-military approach. And this can end up alienating the population to the point where the political ends are lost. Clearly, there are no easy answers here.
Bringing in the United Nations at this stage is unlikely to do the trick, either. The Iraqi resistance wants to alienate the US and can simply go after softer non-American targets to achieve that result, as they did last weekend. In fact, because of the new US tactics, the resistance can engage any target of opportunity with little difficulty. Such operations have less military than psychological value. As is obvious, the frequency and multiplicity of attacks are designed to work up the occupation forces into a rage. Getting the adversary to become more brutal and less cautious in his response is a plus for the resistance.
The second factor pertains to networking. In the run-up to the war, when the Bush administration was desperately trying to link former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to Al-Qaeda, it was lying. With the war, however, it might just have achieved that linkage. If this is indeed confirmed, the ability of the Iraqi resistance to mount attacks will enhance. Networking would allow easier movement of foreign fighters across Iraq’s borders. For Al-Qaeda, it would help widen the front and give its cells more flexibility to rely on local groups across a wide area of the Muslim and even the Western world. If violence in Tunisia, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Turkey is any indicator, this is already happening.
Given such developments, it is anybody’s guess how effective was the Bush visit to the troops in Baghdad. Indeed, by extending the American commitment to Iraq, the visit could force the president into a corner, limiting his ability to get out of the country, even after having achieved much less than was originally planned.
Ejaz Haider is news editor of the Friday Times and foreign editor of the Daily Times, both publications based in Lahore, Pakistan. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.