2003 August 18 Monday
Will Terrorists Going To Fight In Iraq Help Or Hurt US War Against Terrorism?

The New York Times reports that terrorists are passing over the border into Iraq daily to fight US occupying forces.

"Iraq is the nexus where many issues are coming together Islam versus democracy, the West versus the axis of evil, Arab nationalism versus some different types of political culture," said Barham Saleh, the prime minister of this Kurdish-controlled part of northern Iraq. "If the Americans succeed here, this will be a monumental blow to everything the terrorists stand for."

Recent intelligence suggests the militants are well organized. One returning group of fighters from the militant Ansar al-Islam organization captured in the Kurdish region two weeks ago consisted of five Iraqis, a Palestinian and a Tunisian.

This brings to mind a recent column by Arnold Kling comparing the World War II Battle Of The Atlantic with the war against terorists entitled Sink The Terrorists.

American navy leaders resisted the convoy system. They preferred a "search and destroy" approach, which would enable the navy to act independently of merchant ships. However, this proved inefficient, because submarines were difficult to find.

With convoys, on the other hand, the U-Boats would reveal their presence when they attacked. At that point, destroyers and other escorts could swing into action.

President Bush's reaction to terrorist attacks in Iraq ("Bring 'em on") is reminiscent of the convoy theory. We would prefer the terrorists to be active where we have the properly-armed, well-trained forces to fight them.

Well, can the US fight terrorists in Iraq any more effectively than if, say, those same terrorists are moving around in other Arab countries running operations to attack sites that have many Westerners? If the terrorists currently travelling to Iraq to be Jihadists fighting against US forces were not faced with the prospect of US soldiers in Iraq to ambush would those same people take the battle to some other place or would they just stay home dreaming of attacking the US?

The answers to these and similar questions are far from clear. But it seems reasonable to think that it is a lot easier for, say, a Jordanian or Egyptian extremist hot head to get himself to Iraq than to get himself to, say New York City or Washington DC. Once in Iraq it is also a lot easier for such an extremist to hook up with sympathizers for the simple reason that there are far more co-religionists around who are more likely to agree with him that America is evil and needs to be fought. The areas where the radicals will attack US forces in Iraq are not battlefields. Iraq is not the mid-Atlantic with nothing but ships and submarines battling it out with all present clearly on one side or the other. So the Battle of the Atlantic is not a tight fit in terms of historical analogy for what is going on in Iraq. Still, Kling's argument has some merit. But lets look first at some of the points against his argument. Here's a summary list of reasons why the presence of US forces in Iraq will increase the amount of opportunities the Islamists have to attack US forces:

  • Iraq is close to other countries that have many Islamic radicals in their populaces.
  • Sunni Muslims are a substantial portion of the population in Iraq. Some of them are radicals.
  • Iraq is fairly disorderly and no longer has an effective internal intelligence operation.
  • Saddam's loyalists will gladly use the Muslim radicals as tools against the US forces.
  • US forces are in Iraq and out in public in densely populated areas.
  • US forces are reluctant to aggressively respond to attacks in densely populated areas.
  • Since the populated areas have regular civilian populaces routinely out in large numbers US forces can not lay down defensive perimeters where the opposition might want to set booby traps. The US forces can't just watch for a rare occasional human movement and monitor it for suspicious activity. The density of the civilian populace is a form of camouflage for the movement of hostile forces dressed as civilians.

All of these factors argue against a net benefit for the US of US forces fighting Islamists in Iraq. Another problem is that the US press is likely to go negative (much of it already has) about the prospects of US occupation forces getting the upper hand against the groups currently conducting attacks against the occupation. Whereas in WWII the US and Britain were clearly resolved that they had no choice but to fight on no matter how grim things got by contrast substantial portions of the US elites and populace doubt the necessity of a prolonged fight in Iraq.

However, there is a potential upside for the US should the insurgency campaign in Iraq last for years:

  • If the US is able to gradually get the upper hand, infiltrate resistance groups, and kill a lot of Islamists it will shake the faith of at least some of the Islamists that they are gaining ground.
  • The organized resistance, to the extent that the Baathist leaders can keep on feeding in foreign fighters, will leave trails of evidence that leads back to the leaders. There are many Baathists who the US would not have arrested and jailed or killed if those Baathists just gave up when Saddam's regime fell. Many of them could cause problems by corrupting and blackmailing Iraqi members of the new government. But by supporting continued fighting those Baathists put themselves at risk of considerable jail time or death. So the US might be able to better reduce Baathist influence if the insurgency continues for a longer period of time.
  • The presence of foreign Sunni fighters operating from the Sunni areas of Iraq may strengthen the feeling of common cause with the US in the minds of many Iraqi Shiites. Keep in mind that the Shiites are the majority and their views are therefore incredibly important.
  • Iraq is serving as a useful laboratory for the US military to try out new tactics and equipment for fighting terrorism and urban insurgencies. The US military's learning curve and development of equipment may be greatly accelerated by what is going on in Iraq. The development of superior systems for information collection (e.g. automated surveillance cameras) and analysis could make a big difference.

It is not clear which side will benefit from continued fighting in Iraq. If you see any factors I've left out that weigh on one side or the other then add them to the comments.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2003 August 18 05:37 PM  Terrorists Western Response

James Jones said at August 19, 2003 1:18 PM:

Good analysis. I favor the strategy of fighting the Islamic militants and Arab fascists in the Middle East rather than in our homeland or the homelands of our allies. However, my support for that strategy is based on our ability and willingness to effectively execute the strategy. If we can't or won't, then we need to try something else.

Here are a few additional points for your consideration:

1) The attacks on Coalition forces with large explosive devices are usually made when few Iraqis are in the immediate vicinity, unless those Iraqis are considered to be suppporters of the Coalition. The anti-Coalition forces don't want to be blamed for attacks that kill a lot of potential supporters.

2) Based on the above, a "Q-ship strategy" for our convoys would be useful. Send convoys full of disguised combat troops or reinforced with hidden heavy weapons through the supply routes. This will increase the risk to Iraqi guerrillas when they attempt to ambush convoys.

3) Combine the enhanced electronic surveillance you described with scouts and sniper teams. Guerrilla groups normally recon a potential target area before they assemble for an attack. They also normally occupy an ambush position hours, or at least some fraction of an hour, before an attack on a convoy. Similarly, the remotely detonated bombs have to be emplaced before the target arrives. This means that many of the guerrillas could be identified and killed by snipers while they were preparing to attack our convoys.

4) Similar tactics should be useful in protecting infrastructure targets from sabotage and looting.

Col. David Hackworth used tactics like this in Vietnam to inflict 100:1 kill rates on the Vietcong. (See his autobiography, About Face). Unfortunately, they were never applied on a large scale in the Vietnam conflict. It would be an interesting twist if Hackworth-style tactics proved as effective against Islamic militants and Baath Party renegades.

John Moore (Useful Fools) said at August 19, 2003 7:17 PM:

I think there may be three other benefits...

1) It may distract many of the young jihadis in the area, reducing the pool of potential new terrorists to be sent to America. If Jihad is next door, why go through a bunch of training and learning and then go to a hostile country? Obviously this doesn't apply to all potential terrorists, but it may have some impact.

2) It may reveal the hand of Iran and Syria in terrorism in a manner that is helpful to the US in international diplomacy, opening the way for action against those regimes. After all, Iran is a huge threat, due to their nuclear and missile program. If they get their terrorist hands caught in the Iraq cookie jar, that may be of benefit to us.

3) Attacks on third party targets, like the UN, may also help the US in its international diplomacy, although it may also scare off countries that otherwise might send troops to help.

Also, so far the attacks are at a very low level. The casualty rate is nothing compared to Vietnam, which the US was able to sustain for several years before homeland opposition grew too high - and today we don't have a draft to fuel the the anti-war movement.

All in all, the Iraq situation is fraught with risk. But the world situation, with regard to terrorism and nuclear weapons, is vastly more dangerous.

With regard to Hackworth... use his tactics, but never listen to him on strategy. I have never seen a guy more competent to be a Colonel and less competent to be a General!

James Jones said at August 20, 2003 10:04 AM:

My big concern with the execution of our current strategy in Iraq is that we don't seem to be willing to commit the resources necessary to be really effective.

Military manpower concern: The Coalition forces appear to be stretched very thinly. News reports indicate that many Iraqi villages don't see American or British patrols for days at a time. The Iraqi borders are only lightly patrolled. Infrastructure is attacked or looted on a daily basis because we don't have enough forces to secure it.

It is very difficult to develop any solid relationships with local Iraqis if your people aren't present on a continuous basis. That makes it more difficult to obtain reliable human intelligence. The lack of manpower also makes it more difficult to implement the continuous surveillance that Randall advocates. Remote sensing devices are very useful, but they have to be emplaced, monitored, and maintained. You also have to have sniper teams or ready reaction forces in the vicinity so they can engage the guerrillas/Jihadis when they are detected. We can turn Iraq into a death magnet for Islamic militants, but this strategy will only work if we have the force structure in place to do the job.

Civilian manpower concern: Infrastructure assessment and repair/upgrade is moving very slowly. I saw a news report yesterday that the main Baghdad power plant only has two working generators out of four and that one of those two is often down for makeshift repairs. Despite the lack of reliable electric power in Baghdad, the US assessment teams had only just completed its assessment of the power plant. GE contractors will not begin repair and upgrade work on the two working generators until October and will not replace the two non-working generators until January, 2004. Either the civilian administrators don't understand how important it is to get the electrical power problems fixed in Baghdad or they just don't have enough people to do the assessment and repair work. I suspect it's the latter.

Money concern: This is the 800-pound gorrilla in the room that the Bush Administration does not want to talk about. The manpower and logistics constraints are really money constraints. I have no idea "how much is enough," but the answer looks like MORE.

Sidebar on Hackworth:

You're correct that he would have been a disaster as an architect of national strategy. The man seriously advocated unilateral nuclear disarmament in the 1980s.

On the other hand, he would have been a superb combat commander at brigade level and division level. He was also a great trainer. In many ways, David Hackworth was George Patton without the upper class background, formal education, and deep study of military history.

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