Wednesday, November 10, 2004

"No more Mr. Nice guy...

I'm no military analyst, but permit me to sound a note of skepticism over the "success" of the assault on Fallujah.

Despite all the rhetoric about surgical missile strikes and the new face of warfare, overwhelmingly the key has been a US advance behind a hail of old fashioned massed artillery and mortar fire -- spotting and accuracy improved, doubtless, by modern communications, flir, radar, and other technologies. But ultimately there appears to be nothing in urban combat that's dramatically different to what was common in World War II.

The only reason that this hasn't resulted in a massive loss of civilian life is because all the civilians have been driven out by the promise that anyone who remains can expect to be slaughtered. Fallujah is now effectively a free fire zone: as one US official said, quoted in the SMH: "There is no confusion, if you're on the street, you're a bad guy. Ninety per cent of the civilian population has left."

This really isn't any different to anything the Russians did to Grozny, or the US to Hue. Offering a deal to civilians to "leave or be considered a bad guy", and then flatten the place, is hardly a sophisticated strategy; it's as old as counter-insurgency warfare itself.

And, equally, the repercussians are equally predictable. As civilians filter back, the sheer devastation will itself become a tool to recruit to the insurgency. Propogandists will exploit the inevitable casulties of those few civilians who stubbornly remain. And as the US military presence winds down the insurgents will filter back in, doubtless in smaller and more cautious numbers, but as determined as ever to fight among the ruins. If the purpose is to deny Fallujah as a safe haven, well, yes, it will indeed be denied as a safe haven so long as masses of troops occupy it. But, as is standard, the guerillas have learned to flow like water ahead of the overwhelming conventional force, to regroup elsewhere and continue their attacks. The Fallujah leadership has sensibly fled the city, leaving behind only the fanatics and cannon fodder to extract as heavy a price as possible.

Does all this have a point? I still believe it is possible to "win" in Iraq. In fact Fallujah is teaching those last few fanatics that, yes, to oppose US forces in a stand up fight is to be slaughtered.

Nonetheless it's not an overwhelming victory when half your enemy, including all the leadership, appear to have escaped. The biggest fear of one US official quoted by the New York Times recently -- that the enemy won't show himself to fight -- is starting to be realised. As to the other goal, the discovery of a "hostage slaughterhouse" in Fallujah today make the US and Iraqi forces look highly successful in shutting down insurgent ratholes -- until you realise that the insurgents have no shortage of places to hold hostages. Anywhere where US forces aren't.