What's different about the Tal-Afar operation is that the Iraqi government is taking the lead.
Iraq's prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, announced the start of the offensive in a statement yesterday morning. "At 2am today, acting on my orders, Iraqi forces commenced an operation to remove all remaining terrorist elements from the city of Tel Afar," he said. "These forces are operating with support from the Multinational Force."
Tal-Afar, the area in which the operation is taking place, is located just east of the Sinjar Mountains (Jabal Sinjar), a prominent ridge along the Syrian border, and southwest of the mountainous border with Turkey, placing it across a channel between Syria and Mosul. The Guardian adds that this may be a prelude to further operations.
Amid warnings from senior Iraqi government officials that assaults were also planned for the cities of Samarra and Ramadi, troops in Tal Afar battered down walls with armoured vehicles as they conducted house-to-house searches. ... At a news conference later in the day, Jaafari said that the insurgents wanted 'to isolate Tal Afar from the political process as we are preparing for the referendum on the draft constitution ... so our duty is to protect the country and spare no effort in helping all Iraqi people.'
The New York Times adds that these steps are part of an effort to control the Syrian border.
For days, American and Iraqi forces have been encircling Tal Afar, skirmishing with the guerrillas who control the city, in preparation for a final assault. That push began at 2 a.m. on Saturday when the first Iraqi brigades began moving in, Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari said. On Saturday evening, as fighting died down, Iraq's interior minister, Bayan Jabr, announced that the border with Syria had been closed in Rabia, near Tal Afar. A curfew was imposed, with all travel in and out of Rabia between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m. strictly forbidden. ...
The offensive was led by the Iraqi Army's Third Division, officials said ... After the operation is complete, the police commandos will maintain control of the city temporarily, then eventually cede authority to a new police force of 1,700 officers, including 1,000 recruited from Tal Afar, said Mr. Jabr, the interior minister.
First up the rivers, now the border. The pattern of campaigning against the insurgents began with an attempt to control the Euphrates and Tigris river lines moving northward from Baghdad. The current emphasis has been upon controlling the Syrian border, on which both the river lines are anchored. Over the last several months, US forces have laid down the logistical infrastructure for moving men and equipment rapidly into the space north of the Euphrates going eastward to the Tigris, a process described in the post Battle for the Border.
Apart from the military effect of the current operation, it sends the message to insurgents that these may be the first of the post-occupation crackdowns by the Iraqi government. Because the Iraqi government is dominated by Shi'ites and Kurds, not only for demographic reasons but because of the insurgency's policy of nonparticipation in the political process started by the US, there are fears that sectarian fighting in Iraq may degenerate into a civil war leading to the breakup of the country. Mounting Iraqi-led operations while there are still very large numbers of American forces in- country restrains sectarian elements from going on a rampage. It also has the advantage of putting the Syrians on notice that the new Iraqi government, which the Ba'athists are increasingly unlikely to recapture, is taking steps to maintain its territorial integrity. Given another year the new Iraqi government may come to regard the Syrian-supported infiltration as a cassus belli -- not necessarily, but the threat is there.
The insurgency is now in a position where it must choose between staying away from the Iraqi constitutional process, in the hopes that Syrian, Jihadi and international Leftist support will enable it to prevail against the new government; or concede its cause is lost and join the Iraqi government. Considering the physical oil deposits and seaports of Iraq are in areas the insurgency does not control, the largely Sunni insurgents face a declining power-curve relative to the Shi'ites and Kurds. Is it better to strike a deal now, while they have some leverage left or continue on with dwindling resources against increasingly powerful foes? Can the insurgency wait until the United States withdraws completely from Iraq?
(Speculation alert) Personally I am content to let events unfold and use the word consciously because we are going to see the seeds of much earlier effort begin to see fruition. The two most important strategic seeds have been the establishment of the new Iraqi government and the gradual establishment of its army. Because these efforts have happened in the background, unpunctuated by dramatic news stories they have largely been ignored. Yet from those two things sprang the fundamentals for victory. At one level lower has been the campaign against the insurgency: namely the reduction of the Tiger and Euphrates river lines, the blunting of the insurgent campaign to take over Mosul; the key to the oil resource and now finally the battle for the Syrian border. At a still lower level have been the operational improvements in US forces. New logistics bases to strike north, the deployment of unmanned aerial assets to provide better surveillance coverage, the silent electronic war against IEDs, the uparmoring of vehicles, etc. Finally, there was the unquantifiable improvement that came from increasing experience in American officers and NCOs in the Iraqi environment. The language and people were no longer so strange; the friends no longer so few.
The enemy has not been without successes, proving tactically adaptable and ruthless. Yet at heart his strategy was static: it was to inflict a low but continuous rate of casualty on US forces and broadcast that fact to the world. The enemy center of gravity was the US electorate. They attached video and camera crews to their striking units in the same way that US forces attached supporting weapons to theirs, creating the first combined media-military arms in history. Using these new type of formations they relentlessly projected the message, 'we are in charge'. And people believed them.
Those two competing strategies met each other head-on in Iraq. The US strategy was far superior in the conventional sense. The enemy strategy was arguably the more creative and daring; with a far larger "information" dimension than the American. Each approach had its strengths and weaknesses. The American approach emphasized changing reality and letting perception follow. It played to American strengths: logistics, training, advanced weapons, tactical speed. The enemy approach was to manage perception, both among its own base and in the field of public opinion, while striving to inflict as much damage as it could on US forces. Although it was America that first used the term, it was the insurgents who truly perfected the process of "shock and awe": the mind-altering application of battlefield force. But shock and awe are evanescent while dying tended to be permanent. My own guess is that the issue is no longer in the balance. While some combination of political or military blunders could still save the insurgency the fundamentals are against them.
In retrospect, the insurgency's greatest failing was its inability to create a "national united front" against United States "occupation". To the end it remained a sectarian movement; and the narrowness of this focus was probably the price of its alliance with Syrian intelligence and Al Qaeda, whose tent was never large enough to admit the Shia or the Kurds. The moment of greatest danger to OIF probably came in April of 2004, when the towns west of Baghdad -- Falluja in particular -- erupted along with Moqtada Al Sadr's Mahdi Army in the south. Then, if ever, was the time to realize a "national united front". The American decision to go on the defensive on the Sunni front by aborting the Marine assault on Falluja and turning to crush the Sadr's Shi'a threat -- objectively the main threat because the Shi'as are the majority -- may have been fortuitous. Falluja never became a national symbol of resistance; and America gained time to build up effective Iraqi forces. By the time US forces returned to Falluja in November, it had acquired an evil reputation as the locus of slaughterhouses for Sunni insurgents. And the operation was carried out against a town largely deserted by its civilians and held by an enemy too vainglorious to run, with embryonic Iraqi forces in tentative attendance. Although the balance of opinion is that the aborting the First Battle of Falluja was a mistake, historians will have an interesting time examining whether in retrospect the seeds of victory were planted then. But if the failure to create a "national united front" constituted its principal strategic mistake, it was the insurgency's reliance on terror which ultimately poisoned its bloodstream. Terror is a Frankenstein monster which can destroy its creator unless it is carefully controlled. The myriad and decentralized killers, whose decentralization was accounted a military asset by some analysts -- turned their car bombs, mortars and knives on ordinary Sunnis, Shi'as and Kurds. While attacks on the Shi'a pilgrims, for example, may have brought the insurgency momentary recognition in the Western media, no one but a fool could believe it would buy them anything but enmity among its victims. Decentralization turned out to be another term for 'no command and control'. For terror to succeed it must succeed; against an immoveable object like the US Armed Forces it gradually became a public menace and another species of crime.