Back to the Iraq war with this thought-provoking article from the Economist.
When deadly force bumps into hearts and minds
Dec 29th 2004 BAGHDAD, MOSUL, RAMADI AND TAL AFAR From The Economist print edition
With elections due in a month, our “embedded” correspondent reports on how the American army is failing to persuade Iraq's sour Sunni minority to co-operate
THERE is only one traffic law in Ramadi these days: when Americans approach, Iraqis scatter. Horns blaring, brakes screaming, the midday traffic skids to the side of the road as a line of Humvee jeeps ferrying American marines rolls the wrong way up the main street. Every vehicle, that is, except one beat-up old taxi. Its elderly driver, flapping his outstretched hand, seems, amazingly, to be trying to turn the convoy back. Gun turrets swivel and lock on to him, as a hefty marine sergeant leaps into the road, levels an assault rifle at his turbanned head, and screams: “Back this bitch up, motherfucker!”
The old man should have read the bilingual notices that American soldiers tack to their rear bumpers in Iraq: “Keep 50m or deadly force will be applied”. In Ramadi, the capital of central Anbar province, where 17 suicide-bombs struck American forces during the month-long Muslim fast of Ramadan in the autumn, the marines are jumpy. Sometimes, they say, they fire on vehicles encroaching within 30 metres, sometimes they fire at 20 metres: “If anyone gets too close to us we fucking waste them,” says a bullish lieutenant. “It's kind of a shame, because it means we've killed a lot of innocent people.”
And not all of them were in cars. Since discovering that roadside bombs, known as Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), can be triggered by mobile telephones, marines say they shoot at any Iraqi they see handling a phone near a bomb-blast. Bystanders to an insurgent ambush are also liable to be killed. Sometimes, the marines say they hide near the body of a dead insurgent and kill whoever comes to collect it. According to the marine lieutenant: “It gets to a point where you can't wait to see guys with guns, so you start shooting everybody...It gets to a point where you don't mind the bad stuff you do.”
Since September 1st, when the battalion's 800 men were deployed to Ramadi, they have killed 400-500 people, according to one of their senior officers. A more precise estimate is impossible, because the marines rarely see their attackers. When fired upon, they retaliate by blitzing whichever buildings they think the fire is coming from: charred shells now line Ramadi's main streets. “Sometimes it works in the insurgents' favour,” admits Rick Sims, a chief warrant officer. “Because by the time we've shot up the neighbourhood, then the guys have torn up a few houses, they're four blocks away, and we just end up pissing off the locals.”
These brutal actions are what the marines have been trained for. They are superb fighters, among the best infantrymen of the most formidable force ever assembled. They are courteous—at least to their friends—and courageous. Long will this correspondent remember the coolness with which one teenage marine flicked away his cigarette and then the safety-catch on his rifle, as a sniper's bullet zipped overhead. Since arriving in Ramadi, some 20 marines have been killed and 160 wounded by suicide bombs and IEDs, in ambushes and by mortars. Many were on their second seven-month tour of Iraq and, after a seven-month break to retrain and refit, can expect to spend next Christmas there too. Yet their morale was high.
Neither are they, nor any of the American forces accompanied during three weeks in Iraq, short of ingenuity. In Ramadi, the marines have rewritten their training manual for urban warfare. Having been taught to seize towns methodically, block by block—a method more appropriate to Stalingrad than Baghdad—they have learned to patrol at high speed and on foot, sending snipers on to the rooftops ahead, along streets littered with bomb debris and daubed with hostile slogans: “Slow Daeth [sic]” and “America down”.
In Fallujah, 40 miles (64km) east of Ramadi, the marines who survived the fierce assault on the town in November have a sardonic acronym for the skills it taught them: FISH, or Fighting In Someone's House. FISH involves throwing a hand grenade into each room before checking it for unfriendlies, or “Muj”, short for mujahideen, as the marines call them.
America's new war toys are on impressive display. In increasingly stormy northern Iraq, a lightly-armoured troop-carrier, the Stryker, is delivering infantrymen to the battlefield in numbers and at speeds unprecedented. As the Strykers race along, their computers display constantly-updated aerial maps of the surrounding area: a digitising of warfare that has made it virtually impossible for any ally of America to fight high-intensity battles at its side. The army's logistical support, needless to add, is superb. America's 138,000 soldiers and marines in Iraq sleep in smart heated cabins and enjoy tasty food, excellent gymnasiums and internet access.
Win a war, lose a peace
Yet armies can be good at war-fighting or good at peacekeeping but rarely good at both. And when America's well-drilled and well-fed fighters attempt subtler tasks than killing people, problems arise. At peacekeeping, peace-enforcing or policing, call it what you will, they are often inept. Even the best of them seem ignorant of the people whose land they are occupying —unsurprisingly, perhaps, when practically no American fighters speak Arabic. And, typically, the marine battalion in Ramadi has only four translators. Often American troops despair of their Iraqi interlocutors, observing that they “are not like Americans”.
American marines and GIs frequently display contempt for Iraqis, civilian or official. Thus the 18-year-old Texan soldier in Mosul who, confronted by jeering schoolchildren, shot canisters of buckshot at them from his grenade-launcher. “It's not good, dude, it could be fatal, but you gotta do it,” he explained. Or the marines in Ramadi who, on a search for insurgents, kicked in the doors of houses at random, in order to scream, in English, at trembling middle-aged women within: “Where's your black mask?” and “Bitch, where's the guns?” In one of these houses was a small plastic Christmas tree, decorated with silver tinsel. “That tells us the people here are OK,” said Corporal Robert Joyce.
According to army literature, American soldiers should deliver the following message before searching a house: “We are sorry for the inconvenience, but we must search your house to make sure you are safe from anti-Iraqi forces [AIF].” In fact, many Iraqis are probably more scared of American troops than of insurgents.
Whether or not the insurgency is fuelled by American clumsiness, it has deepened and spread almost every month since the occupation began. In mid-2003, Donald Rumsfeld, America's defence secretary, felt able to dismiss the insurgents as “a few dead-enders”. Shortly after, official estimates put their number at 5,000 men, including many foreign Islamic extremists. That figure has been revised to 20,000, including perhaps 2,000 foreigners, not counting the thousands of hostile fighters American and British troops have killed; these are the crudest of estimates.
With insurgents reported to be dispensing criminal justice and levying taxes, some American officers say they run a “parallel administration”. Last month in Mosul, insurgents are reported to have beheaded three professional kidnappers and to have manned road checkpoints dressed in stolen police uniforms. In Tal Afar, farther west, insurgents imposed a 25% cut in the price of meat.
American military-intelligence officers admit their assessments are often little better than guesses. They have but a hazy idea of when and by whom the insurgency was planned, how many dedicated fighters and foreign fighters it involves, who they are, or how much support they command. The scores of terrorists who have blown themselves up in Iraq over the past year are invariably said to be foreign fanatics. But this has almost never been proved.
In bold contrast to his masters in Washington, General George W. Casey Jr, the commander-in-chief of coalition forces in Iraq, credits foreigners with a minimal role in the insurgency. Of over 2,000 men detained during the fighting in Fallujah, fewer than 30 turned out to be non-Iraqi. In Ramadi, the marines have detained a smaller number of foreigners, including a 25-year-old Briton two weeks ago, who claimed to be pursuing “peace work” but whose hands were coated with explosives. Pleased to find an enemy who understood English, marines say they queued up to taunt him; one told him he would be gang-raped in Abu Ghraib.
Peering into the dark
It is impossible to measure the insurgents' power with much accuracy. Official American reports are absurdly sunny, prone to focus on deliveries of footballs to Baghdad's slums rather than attacks on army patrols. American figures for reconstruction projects are often exaggerated. A huge hitch is that diplomats and non-Iraqi journalists can travel freely hardly anywhere in Iraq outside the Kurdish north for fear of being kidnapped and killed.
On January 30th, Iraqis are supposed to take a grand stride towards unfettered self-rule when they elect a transitional parliament that in turn will endorse a new government. Its legitimacy will depend to a large degree on the overall turnout and the geographical spread of the voting. In the predominantly Sunni Arab areas, which are overwhelmingly where the insurgency has taken root (and where this report is focused), most potential voters seem unlikely—out of conviction or fear—to go to the polls. (The Sunnis make up about a fifth of Iraqis; the Kurds, who are decidedly keen to vote, are similar in number, while Shia Muslims, who are eager to rule the roost after centuries under Sunni control, comprise about 60%.)
According to official American reports, the insurgency is relatively concentrated: 14 out of Iraq's 18 provinces are said to see fewer than four attacks on coalition forces per month. But this includes several potentially volatile Shia provinces, like Dhi Qar and Maysan, parts of which are run by the still-armed Mahdi Army militiamen loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia cleric who made mayhem between April and August. Only four provinces—Baghdad, Anbar, Salah ad Din and Ninewa—see many more attacks. But as they include the capital city, the third-biggest city (Mosul) and the homeland of most of the country's Sunnis, they are no small problem: the equivalent in the United States might be an insurgency raging in those states that voted Democrat in November, and sporadic lawlessness in many of the rest.
More happily, since the carnage in Fallujah—now deserted and substantially demolished, though still violent—insurgents no longer control any town outright. The Americans estimate that around 1,600 of the enemy were killed in the battle to retake the town; several times that many are thought to have fled, mostly to Baghdad and the northern parts of Babil province.
It is unclear how much this really set back the insurgents. The many spectacular rebel attacks since the recapture of Fallujah show that the Americans have not, as their officials claim, “broken the back of the insurgency”. But it has at least inconvenienced their enemy. Among the treasures found in the town were 400 caches of arms and an ice-cream van kitted out as a mobile car-bomb workshop. In the last three weeks of November, when the battle began, the incidence of car bombs across Iraq dipped from 44 a week, to 33, then 22.
In Ramadi, as in many troubled places, the assault on Fallujah was marked by a sudden spike in violence, followed by a relative lull. After a bloody September and October—when the marines faced up to nine IEDs a day and fought street battles with, they reckon, scores of insurgents at a time, and when most of Ramadi's inhabitants fled—the past month has yielded roughly one IED every few days, and a handful of serious ambushes.
This may be because night-time temperatures have fallen to freezing, or because Ramadi's marines were reinforced by an army battalion. But it may also reflect a shift in the insurgency's character.
Midway through the past year—in July, in Ramadi—the insurgents began increasingly to seek softer targets, especially Iraqi security forces, Iraqis working for coalition forces, American supply convoys and the oil infrastructure. In November, one in four American supply convoys was ambushed. Three months ago, American officials overseeing reconstruction in Mosul were lobbied by 30 Iraqi contractors in an average day; now, they struggle to find even one brave enough to accept their dollars. A low helicopter flight over the Kirkuk oilfield, Iraq's second-biggest, presented a scene from the Book of Revelation: each of seven oil wells was marked by a tower of orange flame, meeting in a canopy of dense black smoke.
Starker still is the cost in lives. In the first nine months of 2004, 721 Iraqi security forces (ISF) were killed, according to figures compiled by the Brookings Institution, a Washington think-tank; in October, the figure was 779. The surge of violence in Mosul at the start of the Fallujah campaign has not abated; the city's police are the main victims. On November 10th and 11th, rebels devastated almost all the city's police stations, after the 4,000-strong police force had fled. Around 200 dead policemen and ISF members, usually beheaded, have since been dumped about the city. Its American contingent is also under unprecedented attack. On December 21st, at lunchtime, 18 Americans were killed by a suicide bomber in an army mess-tent in Mosul.
Barely six months ago, Mosul was one of the most tranquil spots in Iraq. Now it is one of the most violent, and least policed. It may be no coincidence that, until last January, around 20,000 American troops were billeted in and around the city and led by a most dynamic commander. With troops urgently required elsewhere, they were replaced by 8,500 soldiers, around 700 of whom were diverted to Fallujah and Baghdad.
Forget hearts and minds, for now
Thus harried, American commanders have abandoned the pretence of winning the love of Iraqis ahead of the scheduled vote. “Our broad intent is to keep pressure on the insurgents as we head into elections,” says General Casey. “This is not about winning hearts and minds; we're not going to do that here in Iraq. It's about giving Iraqis the opportunity to govern themselves.”
That could be possible if Iraqis would only accept the opportunity America is offering—which is not the case in Ramadi, for example. Though the city has more than 4,000 police, they refuse to work alongside American forces. According to the marines, the police's sole act of co-operation is to collect wounded insurgents from their base. For most of the past four months, Anbar has had no provincial administration, since the governor resigned after his children were kidnapped. Elsewhere, America's forces are incapable of giving Iraqis the security they crave because, quite simply, there aren't enough of them.
Consider western Ninewa, a vast desert area dotted with fiercely xenophobic towns and ending in over 200 miles of unfenced border with Syria. America has 800 soldiers there. Yet they are barely able to subjugate the town of Tal Afar, outside which they are based. In September, American forces fought a battle (in style, a prelude to the retaking of Fallujah) to wrest it back from insurgent control after Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian fanatic, was reported to be preaching in the town's mosques. Over 80 civilians were killed in the crossfire and 200 buildings flattened. In November, insurgents blew up the town's police stations. The local police chief and his bodyguards are the only police still working; he changes his disguise several times a day.
Little surprise that the Americans had not visited the nearby smugglers' town of Baij in force for three months, until they rode there one recent night in a convoy of 1,000 troops, with Apache attack helicopters flying overhead. The target was three houses in the town centre which signal intelligence had linked to Mr Zarqawi's group. The Americans had no further intelligence to support their mission except that provided by an informant from the local Ayzidi tribe, America's main ally in the area. This source claimed there was a wounded Yemeni rebel in the town. “I think it should be a great operation,” said Colonel Robert Brown, beforehand. “I think a lot of folks from Fallujah have gone there and we need to go there.”
There was no one in the three targeted houses bar women and children. Baij's police station had been blown up and its police had fled. The town's English-speaking former mayor, Abdullah Fahad, was frank about the town's allegiances. “There are terrorists here, not from Syria, not from Mosul, but from Baij. Some are Baathists and some are Islamists and before they hated each other but now they work together, and they tell people that if they don't work with them they will kill them.”
Mr Fahad, who claimed to have survived several assassination attempts and whose son had been kidnapped, refused to help the Americans on the grounds that he would be murdered if he did. When the American commander offered to protect him, he replied: “Thank you, but you are not always here. This is the first time I have ever seen you.” Whereupon the American troops labelled Mr Fahad a “bad guy”, and debated whether to detain him.
Instead, they detained 70 men from districts identified by their informant as “bad”. In near-freezing conditions, they sat hooded and bound in their pyjamas. They shivered uncontrollably. One wetted himself in fear. Most had been detained at random; several had been held because they had a Kalashnikov rifle, which is legal. The evidence against one man was some anti-American literature, a meat cleaver and a tin whistle. American intelligence officers moved through the ranks of detainees, raising their hoods to take mugshots: “One, two, three, jihaaad!” A middle-tier officer commented on the mission: “When we do this,” he said, “we lose.”
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