Oil Spots and Maneuver
Bing West in Slate describes USMC patrols in Fallujah, a place where roles have been reversed. "Ten months ago, Fallujah exported suicide bombers on a weekly basis. Now, the terrorists try to sneak suicide bombers into the city." That doesn't mean there's no danger left. A relatively small number of enemy still remain -- "scattered cells" according to West -- but they no longer have the sting they once packed. They will start almost no firefights with American troops. They'll still try to plant IEDs in the dark of night, but half of all IEDs are spotted before they are detonated.
One reason for this American ascendancy lies in their growing experience. Marine battalion commander Lt. Col. Joseph L'Etoile in Fallujah is on his third tour of Iraq and half of his men are on their second tour. Although the troops may not know much about Iraq despite being there, "the battalion's re-enlistment goals for 2005 had already been exceeded", possibly because they have not had to the opportunity to read newspapers informing them how things are going from bad to worse.
To catch insurgents laying IEDs by night L'Etoile ordered 96-hour patrols all along the highway.
(For four straight days 24x4=96) dozens of Marines scoured the palm groves, checking farms and back roads, thinking like guerrillas about hide sites and escape routes. At night, the Marines moved to their own hide sites, sent out night patrols, got up in the morning and moved on, usually startling farmers accustomed to seeing Americans only on the roads.
Spotting one group of insurgents emplacing an 800-lb IED on the highway, a 26 man Marine patrol surrounded them then closed in. Taken by surprise the digger and his armed guard fled right into a blocking force and died in a lopsided exchange.
The Slate article goes on to describe the key aspects of keeping a town secure and expanding the zone of security -- what some have called the "oil spot" strategy. It consists in identifying all the residents with identification cards and keeping a close watch on any new faces who may enter town, a process denounced in virtually all Leftist literature as establishing "strategic hamlets".
L'Etoile next visited a registration center where military-aged males lined up to be issued the ID cards required in the city. Through these separate pieces -- patrols, check points, identification cards -- L'Etoile was putting into effect the essentials of counterinsurgency in an urban setting: First, establish a zone cleared by heavy force (this occurred in November), then cordon off the zone, patrol constantly, do not permit civilians to possess weapons, identify the residents, and arrest the remaining insurgents.
West notes the relationship between "oil spots" and wider operations designed to destroy major enemy bases and concentrations. He uses the word "cleared by heavy force" because "oil spots" can exist only in an environment free of major enemy units. The 96-hour patrols involving small units would have been impossible with large enemy formations on the loose. To have dispatched 26-man patrols in April 2004, with thousands of insurgents in Fallujah, would be tantamount to sending them to their death. After the place had been "cleared" of major enemy units the small patrols became possible.
In places where the enemy is still present in strength and small patrols unable to sneak up on them, other methods must be used. Bill Roggio describes precision strikes in Qaim, on the Syrian border, which eliminated the new al Qaeda Emir in the area just days after similar attacks had killed the old one.
The Coalition continues to conduct targeted strikes on al Qaeda in the Qaim region along the Syrian border. A safe house in the town of Al 'Ushsh, which is about two miles from Qaim, was destroyed. Abu Nasir, who according to CENTCOM was believed to be "a senior al Qaeda in Iraq foreign fighter facilitator and the alleged new al Qaeda in Iraq Emir of Karabilah" was among an estimated twenty terrorists killed in the attack. Abu Nasir's tenure as al Qaeda Emir of the Qaim region was short-lived. He follows in the footsteps of Abu Ali, who was confirmed killed during a targeted airstrike in Haditha on September 18. Command in the Qaim region, like that in the Mosul region, is becoming a difficult job to retain.
Analysts who talk about the 'unstoppable IED' should consider the problems posed to the enemy by the American precision strike, which is in its way the rival "weapon from hell". If a modified cell phone represents a detonator to a triggerman lying in wait for an American target, a regular cell phone in the hands of an Iraqi working for American intelligence is a means to rain down certain destruction on any safehouse, hideout or enemy installation. The defense against IEDs, while difficult, is a known quantity: route surveillance, snipers scanning the roads, the "96 hour" patrols of Lt. Col. Joseph L'Etoile, electronic countermeasures, vehicle armor, etc. But difficult as these are, the defense against precision strikes is far harder because it requires preventing any unvetted person from viewing your movements. Abu Nasir, the late Emir of the Qaim region, may have had twenty or more bodyguards or companions with him; but they simply perished with him because his security measures failed to prevent some person, perhaps a man in the employ of America, perhaps someone with a grudge against him, perhaps even a rival in his own organization from making a cell phone call which brought down a guided weapon on his head. (It's a little more complex than that because verification is required before the strike, and positioning coordinates established, but the principle holds). The insurgents too must maintain their oilspot, by patrols, checkpoints and identity controls -- not to prevent a man with a truckful of explosive from entering their haunts -- but to keep the man with the cellphone or miniaturized American radio in his pocket from reporting on them. Defending against an IED means interdicting a physical object of several tens of pounds; defending against a precision strike means embargoing information. It's hard to defend against a precision strike.
But the worst of it is the wastage to cadres. Those who write that body counts are a meaningless metric to apply against the insurgency ignore the fact that formations which sustain heavy casualties lose their organizational memory while those who suffer lightly retain them. Lt. Col. Joseph L'Etoile is on his third and half of his men are on their second tours of Iraq . For Abu Nasir and many of his foreign fighters, the memory of what to avoid next time has been lost on this, their last tour of Iraq.