Fallujah and Benghazi — A Tale of Two Cities

 Bayard & Holmes

~ Jay Holmes

In a previous article, Intelligence Perspective on Benghazi, we looked at events in Benghazi that resulted from a minimalist approach to military security and response. However, Benghazi was not the first time in recent history when political fantasies held dear in the White House led to misjudging the character of our enemies and the nature of the military conflict.

 

Battle of Fallujah Image by US Marine Corps, public domain.

Battle of Fallujah
Image by US Marine Corps, public domain.

 

In March of 2003, the US invaded Iraq.

At least that’s how the mainstream media recorded it. In truth, the invasion started eight months earlier when the CIA and the US Joint Special Operations Command began operating in Iraq with several important goals. These goals included identifying Iraqi leaders who might be willing to turn against Saddam Hussein, organizing the Kurds against the growing Islamic radical groups in Kurdish areas, and locating Iraqi chemical warfare assets.

These goals were met economically and with low cost in American and Kurdish lives. Before the main invasion, the Kurdish rebels, with the help of a few dozen Americans, were able to locate and destroy an Ansar al-Islam terrorist base where Saddam was manufacturing Ricin chemical weapons near Sargat in the Kurdish area of northern Iraq.

On the morning of March 20, 2003, a coalition led by the US and the UK launched the main invasion known as the Iraq War.

The stated purpose was to overthrow Saddam Hussein’s government. This invasion proceeded remarkably well in spite of Turkey’s last minute reversal on its agreement to allow the US 4th Infantry Division to enter Iraq via Turkey.

On April 9, Baghdad fell to advancing Coalition forces. The Coalition’s speedy advance against a vastly numerically superior army was partly due to its superior leadership, troops, and air support, and partly due to the rapidly deteriorated morale of the Iraqi troops.

After defeating the Iraqi military and deposing Saddam Hussein, the Coalition faced the question of how best to manage the post-Saddam Iraq.

It remains unclear what, if anything, political leaders in the US and the UK envisioned for that task. What transpired was an attempt at minimal political forcefulness while waiting for something like “government” to occur in Iraq. It didn’t occur.

While the Coalition was happy to turn over the governing of Iraq to the Iraqis as quickly as possible, the Iraqis, mired in their age-old tribal and religious conflicts, were largely unwilling or unable to perform a reasonable imitation of a functioning government. Twelve years later, they are still struggling with that same basic challenge.

On April 23, 2003, in response to intelligence indicating an increasing presence of armed Islamic militant insurgents in the area, the US coalition sent 700 troops from the US 82nd Airborne Division to take up positions in the city of Fallujah.

The Coalition’s chief concern in this operation was avoiding Iraqi casualties and property damage, and the paratroopers operated under heavy limitations. As events unfolded in Fallujah in the following months, the concern for avoiding Iraqi casualties and property damage remained paramount in the minds of the Coalition’s civilian leadership.

The 82nd Airborne has proven its remarkable skills in warfare over the decades. Those skills do not include avoiding enemy bloodshed and property damage. In fact, not surprisingly, bloodshed and property damage are the primary skill sets of most of the world’s military units, including the 82nd Airborne.

I can’t help but wonder why the coalition didn’t send something other than combat units to Fallujah since they were apparently hoping for something other than combat to occur? Note to US politicians: If you want war, send the US military. If you want something else, don’t send the US military.

It quickly became apparent to anyone observing the unfolding drama in Fallujah that many in the Coalition’s civilian leadership were reverting to the Viet Nam era concept, or rather gross misconception, of “non-violent warfare.”

Apparently, some folks in London and D.C. thought they could magically will away a growing insurgent and terrorist presence in Fallujah. No one in our government has yet explained to me precisely what sort of magic was expected to occur, but whatever spells were cast, they did not have the desired effect.

Predictably, on June 28, 2003, while sitting in Fallujah and doing their best to “look friendly,” US troops attracted gunfire during a protest and returned fire.

That’s what paratroopers do when they are fired on. They fire back. Seventeen Iraqis were killed, and 70 more were wounded. The paratroopers exercised restraint and didn’t kill the other 200 protestors. The 82nd Airborne was replaced by troops from the 101st Airborne and 3rd armored cavalry. In the aftermath, Fallujah became a rallying point for the anti-Coalition insurgents and their terrorist pals.

On June 30, an explosion occurred in Fallujah in a mosque occupied by a radical religious leader, Sheik Laith Kalil, and some of his bomb makers. The locals claimed the US had attacked an innocent mosque, but the explosion was self-inflicted by the bomb makers.

While the US forces in Fallujah continued to pursue their policy of “friendliness” as they waited for the new Iraqi “government” to take control of Fallujah, Islamic terrorists reinforced the city. On February 12, 2004, some of these Islamic terrorists, in conjunction with “friendly” Iraqi forces, attacked a US military convoy in Fallujah that included the US Theater Commander General John Abizaid. General Abizaid survived unscathed.

On February 23, 2004, the insurgents escalated their activity by attacking three Iraqi police stations and the mayor’s office.

In March, 2004, US politicians decided the best way to improve the situation in Fallujah was to withdraw troops. On March 31, insurgents attacked a US civilian convoy. They murdered four contractors from the Blackwater security firm. News agencies treated the US public to images of their burned bodies hanging from a bridge.

The public response to the news footage caused politicians to reassess their “love and peace” military tactics in Fallujah. Against the advice of the Marine commanders on the ground, the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force was ordered to take Fallujah.

On April 5, 2004, the outnumbered Marines entered the city in an attempt to ferret out approximately two dozen terrorists groups. Unfortunately, the US civilian leadership in Iraq and in Washington still stubbornly clung to its theory that warfare could best be waged by not hurting anyone. US leaders denied Marines most of the air support and artillery they requested on the grounds that too many civilians would be killed, and too much property damage would occur.

As the April operations in Fallujah commenced, an insurgent army led by Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadar felt confident enough to start his own uprising. Al-Sadar ordered his followers to ambush Coalition forces in various locations around Anbar province.

The US military had had many opportunities to kill or capture the insurgent Muqtada al-Sadar, but was ordered to leave him alone in keeping with the US strategy of avoiding the use of force as much as possible in Iraq. While the Marines chased terrorists around Fallujah, our “friends” in the “new” Iraqi security forces swapped sides and helped the insurgents.

As Iraqi casualties in Fallujah mounted, the Iraqi coalition government demanded that the US operation there be stopped. The US government bowed to the Iraqi Governing Council and ordered the Marines to withdraw to the perimeter of the city. The insurgents took that opportunity to resupply and reinforce while conducting hit-and-run raids against the now static Marines.

On May 1, 2004, the US optimistically decided to turn over the security of Fallujah to a newly formed and US equipped Iraqi Fallujah Brigade.

The Brigade’s only accomplishment was to surrender its weapons to the insurgents when it deserted in September of 2004. At that point, the US had suffered 27 dead, and the Iraqis had lost approximately 400 insurgents and terrorists, and approximately 250 non-terrorist civilians.

By October of 2004, the interim government in Baghdad that had bemoaned the “illegal and immoral” US operations in Fallujah the previous spring was begging Coalition forces to “clean up Fallujah.”

In November, the Coalition sent a much larger force to Fallujah than they had in April. It included 10,000 American troops, 800 British troops, and 200 Iraqi troops of dubious quality and reliability.By that time, the insurgents numbered approximately 4,000 fighters, most of whom were from Syria, Saudi Arabia, Chechnya, the Philippines, Kuwait, and Palestine. They had used the six month absence of Coalition forces to reinforce their positions and to plant thousands of booby traps around the city.

As the US Marines took positions outside of Fallujah on November 7, about 90% of the civilians in Fallujah evacuated the city. Many of the terrorist leaders, including Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, escaped with them.

On November 8, while British forces patrolled the surrounding area, the US Marines began attacking the city.

Bloody fighting took place until December 23, costing the lives of 95 Americans and wounding 540 more. Four soldiers from the UK died, and ten were wounded. Iraqi soldiers counted eight dead and 43 wounded, along with approximately 800 Iraqi civilian deaths. The terrorists lost from 1500-2000 fighters, and around 1500 more were captured.

Then, the war took an amazing turn. The Bush Administration ordered the US military to release almost all of the captured insurgents and allow them to leave with their weapons.

To me, this was a watershed moment in the Iraqi war. It seemed insane to lose so many US and Coalition troops to simply let the cornered terrorists walk away. And with their weapons. At the time, the Iraqi Governing Council was pressuring the US and the UK to let the terrorists leave with their weapons in exchange for a promise of good behavior. This dovetailed well with the US and UK mindset of a “nice war,” and the US and the UK yielded.

We’ll never know how many more Americans, allies, and Iraqi civilians later died because 1,500 captured terrorists were allowed to go home armed to fight another day. To terrorists in Iraq and around the world who were following the events in Fallujah, it had to be a humorous and inspiring sight. To me and to other Americans, it was heart breaking and infuriating.

In my estimation, Fallujah unfolded as it did and Iraq became an enormously expensive problem because the US and the UK, though willing to pay the price in blood and treasure to defeat Saddam Hussein, declined to run the country we conquered long enough for it to actually become a nation. In my opinion, the US Bush Administration and the UK government led by Tony Blair allowed themselves to pursue a fantasy of Nice War. Because of our leadership’s pathological insistence on pretending the Iraqis were actually cooperating with us, we continue to pay a high price in blood and treasure.

 

US Consulate in Benghazi , burning on 9/11/12. Image by Voice of America.

US Consulate in Benghazi , burning on 9/11/12.
Image by Voice of America.

 

When we compare the events in Fallujah in 2004 with the September 2012 events in Benghazi, we see many similarities born from the Nice War concept.

In both cases, the US administrations allowed their political and sociological philosophies to cloud their judgment. In both cases, our presidents thought that force used could be minimized. But in both cases, to the detriment of the US forces on the ground, they underestimated what level of force was needed. We now know that in Benghazi, as in Fallujah, both presidents had sufficient information with which to make better decisions.

The dissimilarities are equally apparent.

In Fallujah, the journalists were present in large numbers and were willing to report what they saw, though at times they were unable to understand what they were seeing. In Benghazi, the events occurred out of sight of the US media. In Fallujah, the Bush administration dealt frankly with the press. In Benghazi, the Obama administration lied to the press and to the American people and was caught, but for the most part, the press has been willing to ignore that.

It would be of great benefit to our national security if our current and future administrations learn from the mistakes in Fallujah and Benghazi. When politicians are unable or unwilling to look beyond their own political fantasies when making foreign policy and military decisions, more American lives and resources are tragically squandered. How willing and how well the Obama administration will learn the lessons from these two cities and embrace the realities of foreign relations remains to be seen.

Iraq — Ten Years Later

By Intelligence Operative Jay Holmes

Ten years ago this week, a US led coalition invaded Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein. While it is still a bit too soon to see the long term prospects for the post-Saddam Iraq, we have enough hindsight to make reasonable judgments about the overall effects of the Coalition conquest.

Previously, on August 2, 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait and conquered it within two days. Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein then declared Kuwait a province of Iraq and began a barrage of verbal threats against Saudi Arabia. The Iraqi army was then within short striking distance of Saudi oil fields. That mattered to the West for humanitarian reasons and because Kuwait and Saudi Arabia were, and still are, exporting oil to Western nations. Which reason mattered most depends on which Westerner or non-Westerner you ask.

On January 18, 1991, US-led Coalition aircraft and ships began an intense and very effective attack on Iraqi military assets. On February 24, the Coalition attacked Iraqi forces in Iraq and Kuwait for the purpose of liberating Kuwait and destroying the Iraqi elite Republican Guard divisions. By February 27, the surviving Iraqi forces in Kuwait retreated, and by the next day, all Iraqi forces near Saudi Arabia had been destroyed or had retreated north. The Coalition ordered a cease-fire.

The Coalition offered Saddam Hussein a truce based on his willingness to destroy all Scud missiles and to allow unhindered weapons and site inspections by the US and/or by inspectors from Coalition nations. Saddam quickly agreed to the terms. However, once the majority of Coalition forces were gone from the region, Saddam stopped cooperating with UN and Western inspection teams. Neither the UN nor the US could verify what WMDs remained in Iraq.

Saddam Hussein Playing Card public domain

On March 20, 2003, a US-led coalition invaded Iraq with the stated intent of removing Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein from power. A significant part of the US and British justification for that invasion centered on Iraq’s failure to comply with the terms of the 1991 truce. Given that Saddam Hussein’s military had already used nerve gas against Iran during the Iran-Iraq War and against its own Kurdish citizens, the US and some Western allies took the WMD threat very seriously.

When the US Coalition forces invaded Iraq, the US used its air supremacy, its superior mobility, and its superior training and leadership to defeat the numerically superior Iraqi military. The 300,000 strong Coalition made fast progress against the 375,000 demoralized Iraqi military, and on May 1, 2003, US President George Bush announced that combat operations in Iraq were over.

While the war against the Iraqi military was, indeed, successfully concluded, the difficult process of occupying Iraq had only started. “Peace” in Iraq would cost the US and its Coalition allies—the UK principle among them—far more in lives and treasure than the war did.

Most participants and observers on both sides of the conflict were confident that a US-backed coalition would defeat the Iraqi military. However, coalition military and political leaders had three critical questions on their minds:

  1. What will it cost us in lives to destroy the Iraqi military and Saddam’s regime?
  2. What will it cost Iraq in civilian casualties and oil production?
  3. What will it cost Coalition members in both domestic and international political capital?

Leaders in Washington, D.C. and London knew the answer to the third question would be determined by the answers to the first two.

According to a variety of US polls, on the morning of the invasion, over 70% of the US population approved the action. A general anger over the 9/11 terrorist attacks, in which Islamic jihadis murdered approximately 3,000 innocent civilians in the US, fueled that approval. Some of the approval was also fueled by the belief that Iraq still possessed WMDs, intermediate range missiles, sarin gas, and extended range SCUD missiles.

The few adventurous folks who targeted Iraqi chemical weapons facilities on the ground with the assistance of Kurdish allies probably won’t say anything except that they were on vacation some place else that month. The Iraqi war veterans who now suffer from symptoms caused by chemical exposure in the Iraqi tunnels and bunkers usually don’t say much either, and if they did, who would listen?

It was never a question that Iraq had WMDs. As mentioned above, Saddam Hussein’s military had already used nerve gas against Iran during the Iran-Iraq War and against its own Kurdish citizens. That is undisputed fact. Three conditions of the of the 1991 truce, as well as a UN mandate, were that Saddam get rid of the WMDs he had, that he not stockpile any more, and that he prove he was in compliance. However, Iraq routinely blocked UN inspection teams sent to verify that he was abiding by the terms of the treaty. This obstruction created the doubt that Iraq had disposed of its WMDs and ceased its WMD programs.

While blocking these inspections, Saddam continued to finance “secret” WMD programs in Iraq with illegally diverted “oil for food” funds that were administered by corrupt UN leaders. Saddam’s scientists and administrators, in their turn, stole most of the diverted money while sending false reports up the food chain to indicate a level of progress in their WMD research and production that did not exist. However, this façade was enough to convince Saddam that his scientists were succeeding in developing WMDs, including nuclear weapons. Intelligence agencies outside of the Iraq were seeing some of the same overblown progress reports to Saddam, and this created a confusing picture. In addition to those reports, a variety of other anti-Saddam parties, both inside of and outside of Iraq, were doing their best to tell the West whatever it needed to hear in order to get the West to depose Saddam.

Saddam staunchly denied possession of WMDs to the West and to the UN. Simultaneously, he waged an information war against Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Syria, posturing and puffing up his WMD capabilities. He wanted to scare them. He succeeded.

Saddam gambled. He and most of the other oil-producing Islamic nations pressured the West to stay out of Iraq. Saddam thought that petroleum bargaining chip, combined with the threat that his modified extended range missiles could reach as far as Paris, would keep the US from “pulling the trigger” and launching an attack on Iraq. He was wrong and that bad bet cost him a trip to the gallows and the lives of his two sons.

During the Iraqi War, Coalition forces quickly found the banned Scud Missiles but found little remaining WMD equipment. The few sarin gas artillery shells and the nerve gas manufacturing equipment that were discovered did nothing to overcome most of the public’s perception that “there were never any WMDs in Iraq.”

While Saddam and his regime were easy to dispose of, creating something like a “government” in Iraq to replace the old Baathist regime was far more difficult. The US would pay dearly for the occupation process. In fact, “process” might be the wrong term. Much of the US/UK strategy for the occupation seems to have been based on wishful thinking and a strategy of “spend and pray.”

In a live broadcast interview on April 23, 2003, USAID administrator Andrew Nastios said the rebuilding of Iraq could be accomplished for no more than $1.7 billion dollars in total. He missed by a bit. Before the end of 2003, the cost of the Iraqi occupation had increased to about $1 billion per week. By 2007, the costs had escalated to $2 billion per week.

Visitors to Iraq today would likely wonder precisely where that $2 billion a week went. While the variety of contractors, both US and foreign, will reassure us that every penny was well spent, not being one of those contractor folks, I am a bit less satisfied with the results of the expenditures. If you are a family member or loved one of the nearly 4,500 US troops or 312 British troops who were killed, you might be too busy remembering that fallen soldier to wonder about the money. If you are a family member of one of the 90,000 injured Coalition soldiers, then you might simply be too busy wondering about your own expenses to think about Iraq. But even if the money doesn’t matter to you, and the dead and injured are not directly related to you, it’s still worth wondering why we achieved so little at such a high cost in lives and treasure.

Unfortunately, we are not likely to permanently avoid war in the future. For one thing, as we reach the tenth anniversary of the “Shock and Awe” show, we remain involved in Afghanistan where we are burning more cash and lives to prop up an unlovable hoodlum in the person of Muhammad Karzai. For another, the White House has just stepped up its rhetoric against Iran. So while the Iraq War is over for us, questions about how we managed it remain critical.

Even at the time of the Iraq invasion, my greatest concern was that we were likely to invest heavily in lives and money without demanding anything from whatever group that we would prop up as an Iraqi government. My fears have been realized. How could I have imagined such a thing, you ask? Easily, Viet Nam should have taught us all better. Apparently, it didn’t.

While we spent generously and the Coalition troops fought effectively and efficiently, we have demanded very little from the Iraqi leadership to whom we relinquished control. While the various concerns of the many different Iraqi Peoples deserved consideration, we allowed the Iraqis to muddle along and call the shots while we paid the bills. That was nothing short of insane.

How insane? About a trillion dollars and 4,500 lives insane from the US point of view. The view from the Iraqi side of the equation is much worse. The Iraqi government, the Coalition, and the UN have no idea how many Iraqis were murdered during the chaos that plagued the US occupation. The estimates range from 110,000 to 600,000. The 600,000 figure seems wildly high to me, but 200,000 seems possible. The vast majority of those Iraqi civilians were murdered by Iraqi insurgents and foreign jihadis rather than by Coalition forces. Nonetheless, that’s still a level of human loss that should not be ignored.

If we weren’t willing to take charge during the occupation, then we simply should have shot Saddam when US Army Special Forces troops ferreted him out of his fox hole and then gone home. If we weren’t willing to be seen as being in charge in Iraq while providing some stability for a representative government to form, then we should not have stayed for more than the year that it took to destroy Saddam’s forces and hunt down his key Baathists pals.

In all major theories of war, including the various theories of guerrilla warfare and terror operations, one of the leading critical principles is “the principle of the objective.” Without a clear and viable objective in mind, one cannot achieve anything meaningful in a war.

In my opinion, and I won’t claim that it’s a humble one because I’m an opinionated old SOB and I know it, we failed to identify and pursue a clear objective in Iraq. We succeeded within the year in our original objective of removing the threat against ourselves and our allies by removing Saddam. Those who love to say Saddam never posed a threat to the US have ignored history and must not be paying for the petroleum they consume. But having achieved that objective, we stayed in Iraq while presumably hoping that someone in Baghdad would generously provide us with a plausible objective while we waited for democracy to break out. When we left in 2011, we were still waiting for that democracy. We’re still waiting now, but at least we no longer spend $2 billion a week for the privilege.

To be fair, what exists in Iraq today is probably, from the Western perspective, slightly less horrible than the Saddam regime. From the perspective of most Iraqis, life under the tyrant Maliki is far better than life under the tyrant Saddam Hussein. The Sunni backed kingdom of Saudi Arabia might not agree. The Iranians are thrilled to have a Shia in charge in Iraq, but they are learning that not all Shia believe Iran needs to be the one Islamic Caliphate.

And now we can add a couple of new factors to the Iraqi equation. Turkey has decided that those “disgusting subhuman” Kurds in Iraq have oil and are therefore lovely folks. Turkey finds itself talking to the Iraqi government in Baghdad less and less, and holding hands with the Kurds more and more. But let’s not forget another important neighbor of Iraq. Syria is in turmoil, and the violence is increasing. Iraq’s Maliki regime is supporting Iran’s ally Assad in Syria.

The US, NATO, and Turkey are in no hurry to start an air campaign against Assad. Iran backs some anti-Assad fighters as a hedge against the Syrian dictator. However, Iran needs Assad to stay in power and remain a major concern to the West for as long as possible. If the West is busy being concerned with Syria’s recent attacks against Lebanon and Turkey, it is less likely to invest the considerable military assets and massive political capital required for a meaningful military strike against Iran. Iran is free to pursue its nuclear dreams.

Interestingly, Iran turned down its patented “death to America” rhetoric this week and seems willing to talk. How much of that shift is a response to the economic pain of UN and US sanctions, and how much is a strategy to buy time to assemble a nuclear weapon, is tough to guess at this point. If you happen to live in Israel, you can’t be enjoying this card game at all.

Not everyone will agree on whether the 2003 Iraq invasion should have occurred at all. Many who agreed at the time have changed their minds. What most of us can easily agree on is that the White House and Congress mismanaged the occupation. If we are to learn anything, and if the sacrificed Coalition soldiers and Iraqi civilians matter at all, then we are obligated to examine the Iraq occupation dispassionately and apolitically so that we can do our best to avoid such hideously expensive mistakes in the future.