Operation Steel Curtain: It really is Iraq as Vietnam (?)

For many weeks we’ve heard murmurings about a new strategy from the Bush Administration on Iraq. From Condi Rice’s testimony to the Senate to Khalilzad on Newsweek, now we see may a glimpse of that with the recent launch of “Operation Steel Curtain.” In essence, the strategy in Iraqi is moving from a “search and destroy” to a “clear, hold and rebuild” strategy.

As part of Operation Steel Curtain, 2,500 US and 1,500 Iraqi troops were deployed to the Anbar region in a bid to secure porous Syria-Iraq borders ahead of the December elections. Tribal militias were also said to be involved to support the US-Iraqi troops. The first phase appears to be to dislodge the insurgents from Husaybah (city of 30,000) and secure the city.

Instead of launching major offensives (seemingly every three months) to “break the insurgent’s back” as we all too often hear about, the new strategy is to this is to clear a region of insurgents; deny territory and resources to insurgents; and to rebuild the region to win local support. This strategy is, of course, nothing new.

Added to this, is the inclusion of tribal militias to augment and support the Iraqi government troops in the areas that are cleared.

Clear, Hold and Rebuild
Elaine M. Grossman from Inside Washington Publishers writes a length account of change in strategy. Here is a lengthy excerpt:

The Bush administration is readying a major change to its military strategy in Iraq that will aim to better protect local populations from insurgent attack, according to U.S. officials. The planned shift reflects growing White House alarm about increased violence in Iraq and a deeper recognition that ending the insurgency will depend heavily on popular Iraqi support, these sources tell Inside the Pentagon.

For the time being, U.S. forces will continue to lead battles to rid insurgents from their strongholds in Iraq. But a new aspect of the military strategy will be to use Iraqi army troops and tribal militias to patrol those areas that have been cleared of guerrilla fighters, according to U.S. officials.

“Our military folks are considering adding ‘area security’ to the set of goals that inform the military strategy for winning the war in Iraq and for transferring responsibilities to the Iraqis,” the U.S. ambassador to that nation, Zalmay Khalilzad, told ITP this week. The envoy spoke during a Nov. 1 interview in Washington, sandwiched between meetings at the Pentagon and White House.

This is the second major change the Bush team has made to the military strategy in Iraq this year. Last spring, U.S. military leaders touted their decision to make training new Iraqi security forces the highest priority, with fighting insurgents dropping to a secondary focus.

But since then, insurgent attacks have risen to a weekly average of 600 — twice the level from early last year – and U.S. casualties in the war have surpassed 2,000. Nearly 100 Americans were killed in Iraq in October, the highest monthly casualties since January.

Over the past few months, some uniformed officers have complained privately that the military strategy seemed adrift, lacking clear objectives or measurable progress. Military commanders in different sectors of Iraq have been left to improvise tactical objectives in fighting the insurgency, sources say.

The result, says one U.S. officer in the region, has been “chaos and confusion — and anything but an effective counterinsurgency strategy.”

To do that, experts in counterinsurgency warfare have been urging Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his top generals in Iraq to shift their focus away from hunting down and killing insurgents, emphasizing instead an effort to better protect the population from attacks.

There [are] also some forces that can be made from the tribes or from local areas that could be attached to the [Iraqi] military forces, that can complement or supplement or add to the existing, more formal forces,” one U.S. official tells ITP. These tribal militias may be trained as a form of national guard authorized by the Iraqi ministry of defense, the official says.

U.S. and Iraqi military leaders have already begun cultivating tribal fighters for this purpose, but with mixed results, according to some officials in the region.

“The issue is getting them to fight insurgents outside their tribal area and for us to be aware of their hidden agendas. . . . So far, the tribal engagement strategy from a military standpoint has not [done] what it was advertised [to do],” says one officer in Iraq. “The other issue is, what do you do with an armed militia after [its] purpose has been achieved? We have never been very good at demobilization.”

Iraq as Vietnam, Again (For real this time?)
In “A Better Strategy For Iraq”, David Ignatius writes of this new strategy in the context of Vietnam. Apparently, Gen. John Abizaid to Philip Zelikow of the State Department has been reading up on “A Better War”:

A Better War” was published in 1999. The author, Lewis Sorley, a former military and intelligence officer, drew on an extensive collection of documents and tape recordings from legendary Army warrior Gen. Creighton Abrams, who commanded U.S. forces in Vietnam from 1968 to 1972. The book’s contrarian argument is that after Abrams replaced Gen. William Westmoreland — and scuttled his “search and destroy” tactics in favor of a pacification strategy of “clear and hold” — the Vietnam War began to go right.

Indeed, Sorley argues that by early 1972 the United States had effectively won the war and could turn the fighting over to its South Vietnamese allies.

By Sorley’s account, it was politics back in America that turned victory into defeat, by blocking U.S. support for the Saigon government after North Vietnamese troops invaded the South en masse in 1974 and ‘75. (Empahsis Mine)

Closing Notes
I find it very curious that this is the real new strategy, and not just some media ploy that coincides with the usual pre-election offensive. “Clear and Hold” strategy is nothing new, but the U.S. has always lacked the appropriate number of troops to “hold and rebuild”. Indeed, the inability to use the “Clear and Hold” strategy has also been the biggest point regarding the lack of US manpower in Iraq.

The way it’s being portrayed, the strategy will be applied by using Iraqi troops (which has been steadily growing in numbers) along with Iraqi tribal militias. This year, the Bush Administration declared that the build-up of Iraqi forces would be a top priority. Perhaps, it is already bearing fruit.

While the US can “clear” a region, it will probably be up to the Iraqi government troops and tribal miltias to “secure and rebuild”. This will be a critical test for the Iraqi government and the supportive tribes. And indeed, its always been about Iraq standing and fighting on its own.

Alternatively, this maybe interpreted as more of a desperate effort to basically go ahead with what everyone knows we should have done, but lacked the troops for. We all hope not, but we wont know until later.

Debka take on Operation Steel Curtain and the new strategy in a similarly negative light:

the coalition’s “hold” on “cleared” locations is temporary for lack of manpower, while “building” is a vision that applies to Baghdad rather than the terrorist-infested al Anbar region. For now, the immediate objective is to curb terrorist and insurgent activity as far as possible for the December 15 general election. To this end, US military operations are focusing not only on al Qaeda sanctuaries around al Qaim but also across the border to choke off the traffic at source, their Syrian bases of departure.

All the same, although a Qaeda’s foreign fighters are under pressure, they continue to stream into western Iraq from Syria. Moreover, the deepening Iranian involvement in the Iraq war has not been publicly addressed except by the British in the south.

British commander of southern Iraq Maj. Gen Jim Dutton said Friday that insurgents are still getting weapons from the other side of the border – Iran.

Let’s wait and see.







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