Experts: U.S. using wrong tactics

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Fighting in Iraq likely to stay at same level
by Stephen J. Hedges

WASHINGTON — Despite the recent killing of insurgent leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, some former military officials and experts worry that the U.S. has not learned the lessons of counterinsurgency warfare in Iraq and that, as a result, a significant improvement in the fighting may not be around the corner.

In confronting a frustratingly resilient insurgency, the U.S. is relying heavily on precision bombing, which destroys buildings and can kill civilians, generating ill will. Tactics used in house clearings have led to incidents such as an alleged massacre by Marines in the town of Haditha. Large incursions into the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi have bred dissatisfaction among ordinary Iraqis, violating a cardinal principle of counterinsurgency.

Pentagon leaders repeatedly have vowed to improve their counterinsurgency training, but only last year did the Army begin a revision of its tactics, and a new manual on the topic has not been warmly received. U.S. commanders in Iraq also have opened a counterinsurgency school in Iraq in an attempt to better confront the enemy…

     But many specialists in this type of fighting, including recently retired military officers, worry that key lessons have not been learned three years into the war. Even as the military targets al-Zarqawi’s apparent successor, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, they say killings of insurgent leaders will have a limited effect.

“It’s about the will of the American people and the trust of the Iraqi people, and situations like Haditha attack both,” said T.X. Hammes, a retired Marine colonel and Iraq veteran whose book on counterinsurgent warfare, “The Sling and the Stone,” is considered a “must-read” among younger officers in Iraq. “Fighting insurgents is about not making any more enemies.”

Despite his recent high-profile Camp David, Md., summit with his war Cabinet and select outside experts, there is little evidence that President Bush has made any changes to his strategy for Iraq.

Bush holds his ground

Indeed, during his surprise visit to Iraq on Tuesday and in a news conference upon returning to Washington on Wednesday, Bush repeated what he has said often about the U.S. military presence there.

“The policy of the United States government is to stand with this new government and help them succeed, and we will do what it takes to help them succeed,” the president said.

The good news of the killing of al-Zarqawi all but eclipsed a run of negative developments in Iraq for the U.S. In mid-May the Pentagon acknowledged that it was investigating allegations that Marines might have shot 24 Iraqi citizens in Haditha in revenge for the roadside bomb attack that killed a Marine. Marine officers, the Pentagon suggested, might have covered up the incident.

The Haditha allegations prompted allegations of other alleged civilian shootings by U.S. troops. The military dismissed one as previously investigated, but eight Marines have been detained at Camp Pendleton, Calif., pending possible charges in a second case.

Though al-Zarqawi’s demise has shifted the spotlight off Haditha, the shootings there could represent a dividing line in U.S. military operations in Iraq. Civilian deaths violate a primary rule of counterinsurgency doctrine, which emphasizes non-violent, community police actions that enhance personal security instead of endangering it.

The Haditha incident, still under Pentagon review, isn’t the only suggestion that the U.S. counterinsurgency campaign is off track. Al-Zarqawi’s bombing death aside, U.S. forces in Iraq have made frequent use of precision bombing as a means of targeting insurgents.

That tactic, while sometimes effective, can also lead to extensive civilian deaths and property damage.

A `losing’ tactic

The increased use of air strikes, said G.I. Wilson, a retired Marine colonel who recently finished a second tour in Iraq and who writes frequently on fighting insurgents, “means that you’re losing. A 500-pound bomb causes a lot of destruction.”

One of the allegations of wrongful civilian deaths leveled at the military recently involved the destruction of an Iraqi home by a C-130 gunship. The U.S. military said it investigated a nighttime raid on the village of Ishaqi, about 55 miles north of Baghdad, and found that U.S. troops used proper force. An Iraqi human-rights group alleged that 11 civilians were wrongfully killed in Ishaqi, and citizens there alleged that a building was destroyed by the C-130 to conceal dead residents.

The same troubles have vexed U.S. troops in Afghanistan, where the Taliban enemy is more remote. Last month, the Afghan government complained that a U.S. bomb struck a village where Taliban suspects had taken refuge. Sixteen civilians died in that air strike, the government said. An estimated 20 Taliban fighters were also killed in the strike.

Bush said in December that about 30,000 Iraqi citizens had died “as a result of the initial incursion and the ongoing violence.” Although some of those deaths can be attributed to al-Zarqawi’s campaign of car bombing and suicide attacks, Iraqi civilian deaths have continued in a spate of car bombings and shootings since al-Zarqawi’s death.

The reasons for the missteps by U.S. troops can be traced to an ingrained Pentagon tradition of training and fighting for conventional war, with well-plotted battle lines and an easily distinguished enemy. The U.S. force in Iraq was slow to recognize the emergence of the Iraqi insurgency in 2003 and it has been reluctant to adopt counterinsurgency tactics. Commanders trained in heavy artillery assaults bristled at the notion of exposing troops on street patrols, interacting with Iraqi citizens and gathering intelligence on likely insurgents.

Gen. George Casey, the U.S. commander in Iraq, developed a counterinsurgency school there because, as one subordinate told The Washington Post, the task was not getting done during predeployment training in the U.S. In addition, Lt. Gen. Pete Chiarelli, commanding general of the multinational force in Iraq, is credited by many with putting a heavier emphasis on counterinsurgent tactics.

Hint of drawdown

The strain on U.S. troops during three years of war and the possible political necessity of reducing the U.S. presence in Iraq before the November congressional elections may play a part in any decision to cut the number of troops. Brig. Gen. Carter Ham, deputy director for regional operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggested last week that the force might be gradually be drawn down as the end of normal seven-month and yearlong rotations are completed.

“The overall strategy, it’s important to remember, is not driven by numbers but by effect,” Ham said. “And as the Iraqis are able to exercise greater responsibility and independence, then over time we would certainly like to see the U.S. number come down.”

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Copyright © 2006, Chicago Tribune

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