Issue Date: October 04, 2004
‘Paying the price’ for pulling out
Commanders see a tough fight to retake Fallujah
By Sean D. Naylor
Times staff writer
FORT BENNING, Ga. — The recent decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Fallujah, Iraq, came in for tough criticism here and seasoned infantry commanders said the town would have to be retaken in what would be a hard fight.
“I was in Fallujah in June standing downtown, and I don’t know why we ever left,” said Col. Joe Anderson, who commanded the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault)’s 2nd Brigade, during a lessons-learned seminar at the annual Infantry Conference.
“When you own a town, keep it,” Anderson said. “If you pull out of there, you’re losing control. ... Once you pull out, and try to fight from the outside in, you’ve given up too much.”
Now, he said, “we’re paying the price.”
U.S. troops pulled out of Fallujah last spring, handing it over to an Iraqi force ostensibly working for the provisional government. But reports from the town say that insurgent forces have seized control and imposed something akin to an Islamic fundamentalist regime on the city’s population.
National elections in Iraq are scheduled to be held in January. However, it will be impossible for elections to be held in Fallujah and other Sunni Triangle cities that the United States and its allies have conceded to insurgents for now unless order can be imposed before then. Failure to do so would call the validity of the elections into question.
Moving the locals into camp
Fallujah is “obviously a really tough problem,” said Col. Kurt Fuller, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division’s 2nd Brigade. If he were in charge, Fuller said, he’d build a huge, “world-class” refugee camp in the desert outside Fallujah and then send a clear message to the city’s population that if they didn’t want to get hurt, they had to move to the camp.
“I’d give them all the opportunity in the world to move there, and then I’d go into the city hard, and anybody carrying a weapon is dead,” Fuller said to cheers and applause from the audience of several hundred officers and noncommissioned officers listening to him and Anderson speak Sept. 21.
Anderson agreed that it was important to give Fallujah’s civilians “a safe passage out.” U.S. troops would then have to fight block-by-block to reclaim the city, the same way U.S. forces took Karbala, Najaf and other cities during the initial invasion, he said.
“It’s just a damn shame we’re doing that a year later,” said Anderson, now the 101st’s chief of staff. Once U.S. forces have regained control of the town, he said, there was “no sense” leaving again until a competent local government was in place that could effectively keep order and run the city.
The two colonels made their comments during question-and-answer sessions at the end of talks each gave on lessons learned in the war in Iraq. Lt. Col. Steve Russell, commander of 1st Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment in the 4th Infantry Division, also spoke.
All three officers said the insurgents had quickly learned to avoid firefights with U.S. troops.
“Insurgents rarely attacked troops who were obviously ready to fight,” Fuller said. His men used eye contact and carried their weapons ready to fire to project a mind-set that said, “please give me a chance to shoot you,” he said.
“Invariably they bypassed us and killed the next guy who was reading a Tom Clancy novel as he rode down the street,” Fuller added.
Anderson agreed that passivity invited disaster. “If you don’t fight back when you get attacked, you’re going to keep on getting attacked,” he said.
Meanwhile, realistic combat training at the small-unit level is the key to success when firefights do occur.
“There is no substitute for squads and platoons who can execute their battle drills at the Ph.D. level,” Fuller said.
The roadside bomb, or improvised explosive device, is the insurgents’ “weapon of choice,” Russell said, because it relieves the guerrillas of having to confront Americans face to face.
“IEDs were our biggest threat, and they were the hardest to deal with,” Fuller said.
One approach to combating that threat that yielded results for Fuller’s brigade was what he called “Operation Choke Hold,” in which his troops would, without warning, set up roadblocks a kilometer apart on a stretch of busy highway and search every car caught in between.
“The message was, if you carry explosives on these roads, you will eventually get caught,” Fuller said.
The one thing all IEDs have in common is an electric blasting cap, Fuller said. Any device that could detonate these bombs by sending out a burst of electricity in advance of a convoy would be welcome, he added in comments directed to the defense industry representatives in the audience.
In the meantime, the up-armored Humvee provides good protection against IEDs, Fuller said, adding that only two of 14 soldiers lost in his brigade combat team were killed while riding in an up-armored Humvee.
On another topic, snipers and other trained marksmen were invaluable in Iraq, the officers agreed. Because the insurgents melt into crowds, “snipers and designated marksmen may be the only ones who can take a shot at the enemy without killing a lot of innocent people,” Fuller said.
In urban operations, snipers are critical to gaining control of rooftops, Anderson said, adding that he also positioned snipers overhead in UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters. Fuller singled out the .50-cal sniper rifle for praise, and mentioned that one of his snipers had used it to kill an enemy at 1,400 meters.
The M4 carbine also “did a fantastic job for us,” Fuller said. However, other weapons were less impressive. Weapons malfunctions were a constant problem with the M249 squad automatic weapon and the Mark 19 automatic grenade launcher, which each need replacing, Fuller said.
Struggling with info operations
One area that all three commanders highlighted as a vital part of the counterinsurgency campaign was information operations, essential to any effort to win the allegiance of the Iraqi population. Concerning this area, Fuller expressed frustration.
“We struggled constantly with information operations in Baghdad,” Fuller said. “The enemy is very good at making even the most righteous engagement seem like a war crime committed by infidels.”
Anderson’s brigade used a variety of weapons to wage an information campaign in Mosul, including a daily 45-minute television show that showcased what U.S. troops were doing in the city, television advertisements, a weekly press conference for the local media and a weekly radio call-in show hosted by Anderson.
Russell also advocated aggressive use of the local media to push the U.S. forces’ message, which he said was: “The enemy doesn’t represent the people and is being killed in large numbers with the people’s assistance.”
All three speakers stressed the paramount importance of human intelligence. However, there were limits to what regular troops could achieve in this area, Fuller said.
“Soldiers in BDUs aren’t going to gather much intelligence in cities,” he said.
Fuller’s frustration was exacerbated by the fact that too many higher-level intelligence “collection assets” were directed at targets that were not relevant to his fight, he said.
As a result, Fuller said, his tactical human intelligence teams and mobile interrogation teams were “overworked,” and were busier than anyone else in his brigade combat team except for the explosive ordnance disposal teams.
However, timely interrogations still were key. “About 90 percent of the good intelligence we got from prisoners was gathered within the first 30 minutes of when we captured them,” Fuller said.
One technique Anderson’s brigade used was to leave a calling card in homes that they searched. Printed on the card was a telephone number for an intelligence tip hot line the brigade manned with an interpreter 24 hours a day. The hot line received an average of 250 calls a week, Anderson said.
Because so many insurgents are Islamic extremists, penetrating the mosques was vital, the officers said.
In Mosul, the mosques were a center of enemy activity, housing planning cells and weapons, they said. Fuller sent Iraqi allies into the mosques undercover to tape record what was said. He then met with religious leaders and played the recordings to disprove their denials of urging the faithful to attack Americans.
But there were limits to how much leverage the Americans were able to bring to bear against religious leaders because officials in the provisional Iraqi government were “unwilling to face off with some of the more powerful imams,” Fuller said.
Anderson said most U.S. troops were barred from setting foot in mosques and that he was the only member of his brigade authorized to do so.
But Russell said the insurgents learned to incorporate U.S. forces’ reluctance to enter mosques — to avoid offending Muslims — into their propaganda, crafting a message that says “Allah is on our side because the Americans don’t dare to enter our mosques.”
That jibes with what my friend the security contractor told me-the 101st was the most squared way unit over there under Patraius.
I suggest he contacts the British HQ is Basra… British vehicles have equipment to detonate IED's… deveolped for use in Northern Ireland yeara ago.
This is one area where GWB has not been making me happy. This we're in, we're out, we're in, we're out B.S. is not making me happy about things. Negotiating with this guy has gained us nothing but yet another oppertunity to take the same damned city.