Heads You Win, Tails I Lose
Readers may want to read Col HR McMaster's description of the operation in Tal-Afar of September verbatim. There's too much in it to meaningfully summarize in a few short paragraphs. Several things stand out. The first is that despite the enemy's use of IEDs, snipers, mortar teams, boob-trapped buildings and the fortification of a dense urban area, Coalition forces swept through it like s..t through a goose. And this appears to be due, in part, to a creative form of battlefield shaping founded on unspecified and better sources of human and technical intelligence. Enemy delaying actions did not work. Attempts to evade and relocate did not work. Traps were sprung. Fighters trying to blend into the crowd were found. The enemy decided to defend its remaining enclaves in the city because they were out of moves.
We operated in other outlying communities and captured many more of the enemy. So now, the enemy had that option taken away from them, and they resolved then to defend this safe haven in Sarai. I had a chance to walk downtown today and found a lot of their propaganda in their abandoned fighting positions. And this propaganda was: we cannot afford to lose Tall Afar; we're going to defeat, you know, the coalition forces and Iraqi security forces here. It was exhorting their forces to defend Tall Afar at all costs. ...
These were very complex defenses in neighborhoods outside of the Sarai neighborhood, which was the center of the enemy's safe haven here. They had their command and control in a safe house in the center that was very heavily defended. Outside of that, they had defensive positions with RPG and machine gun positions. Surrounding those positions, they had homes that were rigged to be demolished by munitions as U.S. and Iraqi soldiers entered them, and then, outside of those, they had Improvised Explosive Devices, roadside bombs, implanted, buried into the roads. ...
But our forces aggressively pursued the enemy in these areas. They were able to defeat these IEDs based on the human intelligence we developed. We exploded many of them with attack helicopter fire or detonated them with our engineers. We penetrated that defense. Our tanks led with our Iraqi infantry in support. We absorbed any energy from their rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns, continued the assault into these safe havens and destroyed their leadership throughout the city. ... the most dense urban terrain you can imagine, there was a very complex defense prepared there, with, again, these roadside bombs, buildings rigged for demolition, machine gun positions, sniper positions, and mortars integrated into this. But with our intelligence, our precision fires capability, we were able to severely disrupt that defense and really collapse it all around the enemy.
We had some very heavy fighting on the 5th and 6th of September, during which we killed many of the enemy, who engaged us from their forward defensive positions. And it was at that point that the enemy shifted their approach again to essentially running away from the area. They gave the word to retreat. They did everything they could to blend in with the civilians who were evacuating from this dense urban area to protect them, and we caught them. We were integrated with the population. The people were pointing out who the enemy was. We had Iraqi army who was very good at sensing something isn't quite right when this man is walking down the street with children, and the children look very nervous. This one man in particular was a beheader who had beheaded over 20 people. And we were able to capture him as the children fled, as we came up to talk to this individual, and the children related to us this man said that they had to walk with him or he would kill them. We captured five of the enemy dressed as women, trying desperately to get out of the area. Just yesterday we captured 104 of the enemy in these outlying areas.
Yet of course it was a US defeat -- how could it be otherwise? -- because Tal-Afar is now being described in the press as a fatal step on the road to Iraqi Civil War. A catastrophe. A former British officer in Iraq, Tim Collins, writes in the Telegraph about how the political meaning of military acts are sometimes beyond the control of soldiers without someone else to provide the political aspect of the solution.
The impact on the Sunni insurgents of the victory in Tal Afar must not be underestimated. With a reported 200 militants killed and a further 300 captured, this defeat is a significant setback for the extremists. Perhaps it should not be surprising that the US forces who backed the assault, 3,500 men of the US Army's 3rd Armoured Cavalry Regiment, led by Colonel H R McMaster, were extremely conscious of the complex make-up of the -population of the area they were fighting to control. ... The extent of his success is, I believe, reflected in the high numbers of extremists accounted for, both killed and captured, despite an elaborate system of tunnels under their positions that led out to the countryside and should, theoretically, have -enabled even more to escape. It must come as a bitter pill to men such as Col McMaster to have their victory dismissed as a point scored in a sectarian contest.
Yet "the fact is that the Iraqi army that took Tal Afar is predominately Shia in composition; the force it routed, predominately Sunni" and this, Collins argues, makes Tal-Afar double-edged. The heart of the problem, he believes, is that actions are now perceived in terms defined by the insurgents and there are no moderate Sunni leaders who can provide an alternative narrative.
Civil war in Iraq is not yet inevitable, I believe, but with each new crisis its likelihood increases. The constitutional referendum on October 15, for instance, is being denounced in Sunni quarters as a charter for Shias and Kurds to divide the nation's wealth and power. ... Like the loyalists of Northern Ireland, what the Sunni moderates lack is any substantial leadership - and therefore any hope of involvement in the country's decision--making process. Let us hope a leader emerges soon, or a descent into open and unambiguous civil war is, I fear, a distinct possibility.
Of all the weapons of the insurgency, it is their ability to set the public terms of the debate that has proven the most powerful. Their model of fighting a combined media-arms campaign has created an alternative reality which Western opinion-makers unconsciously inhabit. The questions asked by a New York Times of Condoleeza Rice in a recent interview speak directly from this point of view.
Q: Can you make the case that international terror, global terror, is less of a threat now than it was four years ago?
Q: If you take a snapshot right now, is the world more dangerous than it was before?
Q: How can you look at Iraq and continue to feel that the trend lines are moving in the direction that you want to see?