Sunday, August 19, 2007

the anbar awakening

Today's Washington Post has a gripping, front page account of a recent battle near Ramadi, a largely Sunni town west of Baghdad and southwest of Tikrit. These three cities are said to be the three corners of the so-called Sunni Triangle, which also contains Fallujah and Samarra.

Ramadi has been in the news recently as the poster child of the "Anbar Awakening," or the recent anti-Al Qaeda alliance of Sunni sheiks and tribesmen in the province. Local support for largely foreign Al Qaeda-affiliated fighters has shifted toward resentment, as they came to be seen as as much of a threat as the invaders.

This shift in support was not affected by any new American strategy, but rather by AQs penchant for killing Iraqis and inciting violence. In particular, a widely publicized chlorine gas dump truck bomb in Ramadi and the second Samarra shrine bombing have galvanized local rejection of the insurgency in Anbar province.

Let's dissect A Deadly Clash at Donkey Island for its tactical details, operational lessons, and strategic implications. This story is based primarily on a single engagement, and most of the wonkery will therefore revolve around the tactical level.

Right from the first paragraph, it becomes obvious that the Humvee clearly has much room for improvement, even when fulfilling its intended role as a patrol vehicle:
Staff Sgt. Norman Stark had never seen combat. Nor did the 32-year-old soldier from Baltimore expect it, after many uneventful months in Iraq's Anbar province, as he jostled over the rough terrain of brush, fields and irrigation ditches in the lead Humvee of a routine patrol on the night of June 30.
Stark and his men exchanged few words as their
Humvees turned east, progressing with more difficulty along narrow and sometimes swampy trails as they neared the Nassar canal, looking for possible weapons smugglers using wooden boats. Just after 9:15 p.m., the heat was still sweltering, and the armor-clad soldiers were soaked with sweat.
Stark recalled that he turned and to his disbelief saw clustered behind the trucks -- only a few feet away -- at first 10, then 20, then as many as 70 heavily armed men.

"Traverse left, open fire!" he yelled instinctively to his gunner. Startled, Pfc. Sean Groves unleashed a rapid burst from his
M240 machine gun.

In the same instant, the insurgents returned a barrage of fire with AK-47 assault rifles, heavy machine guns and hand grenades.
Bullets shattered the ballistic glass on Stark's Humvee, breaking the driver's window and cracking the windshield like a spider's web. Shrapnel tore into Groves's face and hands. He dropped down inside the vehicle. Gilbertson jumped into the gunner's sling, and Groves took control of the Humvee, now limping with two flat tires on the left side. Stark tried to radio the two vehicles behind him but had lost communication.
1. The wheeled Humvee is ill-suited for Anbar's rough, open terrain. It lacks the amphibious capability necessary to traverse a canal, and tires can be shot out and will bog down easily in swampy terrain. 

2. The fact that the driver's window shattered from small arms fire, and that the soldiers were sweating, indicates that their particular Humvee was an older model, not one of the newer up-armored variants that includes armored windows and air conditioning.

3. As well as not being mobile or survivable enough, this Humvee was armed only with a top mounted 7.62mm M240 machine gun, not even a .50 cal (12.7mm). Humvees armed with .50 cals would show up later and quickly destroy the two semi trailers, something that would have been decisive at first contact. Further, the gunner was the first casualty of the engagement entirely due to the lack of protection he enjoyed sitting in his sling with no shield or armor whatsoever.

There are literally dozens of military vehicles out there that are better suited for this mission. The vehicle would need tracks for
better mobility, level II ballistic armor to resist small arms fire, and a remotely operated gun turret. The links all point to vehicles based on the venerable M113 frame. There are literally tens of thousands of these vehicles out there, cheaply modifiable, battle tested, with decades of maintenance experience and armed services integration.

For example, over 700 were found in 2004 in Kuwaiti storage, collecting dust. But because they didn't fit into the Rumsfeldian vision of light and fast forces (read: road-bound tires), the military was forbidden from employing them. Over 1,000 mothballed M113s were sent to Arizona in 2005. For target practice. As targets.

Why, when the Pentagon will lay down $300 million for a single air-to-air fighter plane that will never see a target over the skies of Iraq or Afghanistan, can't it muster a little more than the cost of up-armoring (lipstick) a worthless Humvee (pig) in order to field a vehicle that is actually suited to counter-insurgency operations in the type of theaters where they are likely to take place?

The answer is, unfortunately, maddeningly simple: upgrading existing vehicles subtracts procurement momentum, especially when the existing vehicles would overlap with the mission requirements of future procurements. In other words, the military industrial complex isn't going to let a little old war or two get in the way of its decade long, multi-billion dollar procurement visions. Revolutionary capabilities on paper are more lucrative for defense companies, the congressmen they lobby, and the retired generals they employ, than evolutionary capabilities that exist today. Lives and limbs be damned.

Don't believe me? Then why did we just buy the Iraqis half a billion dollars worth of mine resistant patrol vehicles? The answer is that they don't have a top heavy layer of brass who will get their panties in a bunch when procurements don't fit into a force transformational vision that was hatched before "global," "war," and "terror" were ever used in the same sentence.

The soldiers on patrol in Ramadi were able to hold out long enough for heavier firepower to arrive, and ended up decisively beating the insurgents. However, the encounter reveals some rather disturbing facts:
After months of planning, according to U.S. military intelligence, the well-armed and highly trained contingent of as many as 70 fighters set up a hasty camp beside a canal to make final preparations for their mission three miles to the north. It would be the first major counterattack targeting Ramadi.
Trained in a lake district north of Ramadi,
the fighters approached by a circuitous route carefully planned to bypass checkpoints, Charlton said. They rode in two semitrucks with false compartments covered with hay. The trucks were packed with suicide vests, pressure-plate bombs, grenades, machine guns and sniper rifles -- enough to wage attacks in Ramadi for months, U.S. military officers said.

Facilitators prepared the area for the fighters' arrival, stashing weapons caches to defend their camp, located among prickly brush in a Bedouin area south of Ramadi. Once there, the fighters posed as shepherds and used nomad tents. When the U.S. patrol stumbled upon them, the insurgents were within days or hours of launching their attacks and were ready, as one U.S. officer said, "to fight to the death."
While the Americans evacuated their casualties,
the insurgents bandaged themselves so they could keep fighting, said soldiers who saw them or found them the next morning.

Fighters in white tunics and running shoes moved like ghosts over the battlefield,
displaying tactics that the Americans said mirrored their own. They signaled with flashlights, bounded into position and crawled to try to evade the superior U.S. firepower.
1. Despite the grand "awakening" of the Sunni tribes in Anbar, an entire platoon of insurgents was able to infiltrate the area with impunity, after months of preparation, and were located not by diligent intelligence gathering but by dumb luck.

2. The insurgents had to have had substantial operational support from both their staging area north of Ramadi, and their operating area south thereof.

3. They are undeterred by heavy casualties, and adapt their tactics over time.

I don't even know if this even requires commentary. I couldn't say anything here that wasn't realized thirty years ago. It's a shame that, to paraphrase Larry Johnson, Vietnam was too traumatic to learn anything from.

The lesson, however, is not lost on those soldiers who were actually involved:
Spannagel, the scout leader, said the fighting revealed "a false sense of security that we'd won the battle in Ramadi."

In fact, he said, "this shows the enemy is patient. This is his land. He's got all the time in the world. . . . They're going to continue to fight in Anbar."
In the end, while we were defending Ramadi from attack, it wasn't us who expelled the attackers from the city in the first place. The Iraqis did that themselves. It seems that far from a sectarian struggle, the situation in Anbar is a fight between Iraqi nationalists who blame Al Qaeda for the deterioration of their security situation, and Iraqi nationalists who blame us for violating their sovereignty, and therefore fight alongside Al Qaeda. I am always frustrated to hear people talk about Iraq as if its inhabitants have no sense of national unity when in fact our very presence as an occupying force is the most divisive issue in the nation.

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