IN THE NEWS
According to the Pentagon, the culprit behind the deadly attack on the US military mess tent in Mosul was not a rocket or mortar, but a suicide bomber. That fact is significant, to the extent that it defines which painful dilemma we face, but not if we face a terrible dilemma. The horns of the dilemma are quite real, and quite sharp.
The most basic operational question now is, where do American commanders deploy their forces? Force protection demands that US troops patrol, wherever they are. If they are trying to establish a safe area around a base wider at all points of the compass than the effective range of Katyusha rockets or light mortars, the troops need to patrol. If they are trying to intercept anyone on foot or in a car who may be trying to deliver a suicide bomb, they need to patrol. If they are trying to keep snipers from making harassment attacks on the bases, they need to patrol.
The dilemma is the choice between from where they will patrol, into what areas. If force protection were the top priority, American commanders would redeploy outside inhabited areas, preferring open ground where they can establish a no man's land around each base. All the technical advantages the Americans enjoy—night vision, IR vision, motion sensors, cameras, highly accurate weapons with very long ranges, on-call supporting artillery and air power—would be available. Traffic into the base would be confined to a narrow corridor, where each person passing in and out could be searched in an orderly fashion.
Of course, if the Americans were to redeploy in this fashion, they might as well not be in Iraq at all. "The mission" for now is to provide Iraqis with some respite from daily mayhem while the Iraqi security forces become a viable replacement. Surrendering the cities and towns of Iraq, a highly urbanized country, would be tantamount would be just that—surrender.
Unfortunately, as long as American troops patrol the streets and alleys of Iraq, they lose their significant technical, tactical, and operational edges over the different Iraqi insurgent and terrorist groups. Night vision doesn't peek around corners or into buildings where insurgents might lay in ambush. No amount of training protects you from getting shot in the face while your squad is clearing out a minaret, and you're unlucky enough to be on point. Artillery, tanks, and air strikes are not only militarily less effective inside a city, but they're politically counterproductive when the mission is to keep a substantial number of Iraqis supportive, or just tolerant, of the US occupation. (No election will change that reality, by the way.)
But, you may ask, what about the much-touted American skill in urban warfare? Here's where a name can be somewhat misleading, particularly if you're not familiar with how the different levels of strategy interact, and the variety of strategies at each level. The US military's skill at urban warfare is, by most measures, excellent when faced with a particular kind of opponent, fighting in a particular fashion. It's not very good when faced with certain types of enemy with much different goals and techniques. That's no slight to the Army and Marines at all, it's simply the reality of training and equipping your troops for one kind of war, and not another.
Andrew Krepinevich made the same point in his excellent and, unfortunately, not very well known book, The Army and Vietnam. The first decade or two of post-Vietnam post mortems suffered from very simplistic explanations of why the world's greatest military suffered defeat at the hands of a Third World country (North Vietnam) and its guerrilla allies (the National Liberation Front). Depending on whom you asked, the American problem was stupidity, arrogance, imperialism, back-stabbing politicians, war protesters, failure to use atomic weapons, or the tide of history. While any or all of these factors might have played a role, they didn't provide much of a military analysis of the war.
Krepinevich's point was obvious, but surprisingly, previously unexplored. The US military spent decades preparing for both nuclear and conventional war against the USSR and its Eastern European allies. Not only did the services train and equip for this scenario, but it also rewarded commanders who were part of the NATO effort. Other commanders in other theaters received fewer career benefits, so the best and the brightest naturally gravitated towards preparation for stopping the Soviet juggernaut crashing through the Fulda Gap.
The American forces on the ground had some experience with "little wars." Unfortunately, the branch that had this experience, the Marines, not only had a smaller number of troops, but also lacked the Army's power to decide the Vietnam theater, operational, and tactical strategies. When the Marines had the latitude to use their experience, such as with the combined action platoon (CAP) program, they got results. (For an insider's account of the CAP program, which can tell you a lot about how US troops should be working with "local forces" in Iraq, see Bing West's The Village.)
With the Army in charge, the ground war in Vietnam was an effort to cram an entirely different war into the NATO/Warsaw Pact mold. Familiar features of the Vietnam War, such as the omnipresent helicopters, were originally developed to fight the Soviets, not the North Vietnamese, and certainly not the Viet Cong. Helicopters were supposed to be maneuvering US troops around the highly familiar European battlefield, planting them at locations like the flanks or rear of a Soviet spearhead where they could do the most harm. In Vietnam, air mobility helped move troops quickly into "hot LZs" where other troops had "made contact" with the enemy. With the assistance of helicopter gunships and aerial spotters for air and artillery strikes, US forces could effectively clear a spot on the map of enemy troops. Unfortunately, since their services were soon needed elsewhere, for a new clash with the enemy, these same highly capable troops did not effectively secure that spot from further enemy infiltrations or attack. The effort was much like trying to hold back a flood with a broom.
Sound familiar? It should, because we're engaged in much the same exercise now in Iraq. We're trying to cram the unfamiliar enemy into a familiar mold, and it's not working. US doctrine is actually making the situation worse, both militarily and politically. Not only are we losing and increasing number of soldiers each month, both killed and wounded, but we're losing the political battle for Iraq.
That's a long way of coming back around to the topic of urban warfare, but it was an important detour. When American commanders talk about urban warfare, they're referring to an operational, tactical, and technical approach to fighting conventional or irregular forces. If we were fighting the battle of Stalingrad, our urban warfare doctrine would make eminent sense. The enemy is fighting for control of important pieces of terrain. These targets—let's start with the city of Stalingrad—easily break down into objectives for each level of command. The army commander is responsible for taking the city; a divisional commander might have complete or partial responsibility for some arbitrarily-designated zone of the city; a company commander might be ordered to seize and hold a city block. The battle for Stalingrad, not surprisingly, is a story not only about the deadly struggle between men, but the distinct urban locations for which they struggled. The "tractor works" factory, the grain elevator, the sewers, Pavlov's house, the Tsaritsa Gorge, the banks of the Volga—these clearly-identifiable locations are where the battle for Stalingrad was decided.
Similar locations exist in Fallujah, Karbala, Najaf, and Sadr City. The soldiers who fought to capture and defend these locations will never forget them. However, temporarily occupying them is no more likely to break the back of the Iraqi insurgency than the "big sweep" operations in Vietnam worked against the Viet Cong.
We're not fighting the Wehrmacht, a conventional military organization for which control of Stalingrad determined the front lines of the German invasion. We're not even fighting irregular forces like the ones we faced in Mogadishu and the Balkans. Our enemy is far less interested in terrain: rather than pointlessly dying in the siege of Fallujah, many of them simply shifted their attention elsewhere, including Mosul. Not only don't they care about their own front lines (or lack thereof), they don't care about ours. The target of their attacks isn't our military capability, which could be crippled by taking a strategic town, or killing a lot of American troops. Their goal is to make a political and psychological point, simply by being able to execute horrific attacks like the one in Mosul. These attacks are aimed at both Americans and Iraqis, and they're far easier to execute than a conventional military assault.
That's what makes our current dilemma extremely painful. In the cities, towns, and villages of Iraq, the enemy can ambush us more easily. They don't need to have control of the city to attack us; they only need to infiltrate a few people to carry out a suicide bombing, mortar attack, or roadside bombing. However, we need to keep the Iraqi population safe from the same enemy—but to do so, we have to put American troops in the most dangerous spots possible, where their advantages are all diminished.
The Viet Cong often made just the same type of attacks. They executed local leaders branded as imperialist collaborators, fired rockets into marketplaces, detonated bombs in movie theaters where US troops were relaxing. While there are no triple-canopy jungles in Iraq to frustrate us, there are plenty of buildings, alleys, and rubble piles to take their place.