"Success" in Fallujah?

Is the U.S. winning in Fallujah? How can we tell?

| Fri Nov. 12, 2004 1:00 AM PST

On Thursday, as the military entered what it called "Phase Two" of the battle in Fallujah, U.S. commanders were careful to stress that they were far from victory in Iraq. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Richard Myers, warned Americans: "If anybody thinks that Fallujah is going to be the end of the insurgency in Iraq, that was never the objective, never our intention, and even never our hope." Marine Capt. John Griffin sounded a similarly cautious note: "Claiming the city is secure doesn't mean that all the resistance is gone, it just means that we have secured the area and have control."

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By all accounts, their caution was well-advised. Even as the military could boast that it had taken half the city and killed over 600 insurgents, larger strategic setbacks were making themselves known. Reports were coming in that most of the key foreign fighters—including public terrorist #1 Abu Musab Zarqawi—had fled the city. Insurgents were opening up a second front in Mosul, and attacks were mounting in Baghdad, Tikrit, Karbala, Baquba, Baiji, Haz, and elsewhere. Az-Zaman reported that hundreds of Sunni Arabs in Tikrit and Huwaijah took to the streets to protest the incursion into Fallujah.

On the political front, the only major Sunni party that had been committed to the electoral process, the Iraqi Islamic Party, is now threatening to sit out the January elections. A Sunni boycott of the elections would deprive the elected National Assembly of much-needed legitimacy, and risk throwing the country into sectarian war. Already, Shiite leaders are tacitly condoning this Fallujah assault—in stark contrast to the April incursion—perhaps counting on larger gains in the elected government should the Sunnis be disenfranchised.

The question, then, is how the U.S. will know whether it is winning this conflict, in both the short and the long term. The Financial Times today asked military experts to opine on the chances of success in Fallujah. A consensus emerges that the U.S. should be able to take the city: The Marines, after all, have been conducting urban war games since the late 1990s and they're extremely well-trained for this sort of scenario. Holding the city, however, is another matter—and the track record here is bleak. The last insurgent stronghold that was retaken by the U.S., Samarra, is now slipping back into chaos. One British military official says, "[T]he jury is still out on whether Samarra was a success." Peter Khalil, formerly of the CPA, notes that "[m]ilitary forces, by their very nature, are not trained specifically to hold cities like that." A more high profile and effective counter-insurgency strategy would likely require more troops, experts say. But no troops are on the way, and Iraqi troops have not yet shown themselves up for the task.

As for the question of "What comes after Fallujah?", several recent reports have indicated that foreign fighters may be moving to Mosul, a major city in northern Iraq that has been steadily deteriorating over the past few weeks. Mosul's population is six times that of Fallujah, and it is already a source of ethnic tension. As with Kirkuk, many Kurds were driven out of the city during the 1990s, replaced by an influx of strongly pro-Saddam Sunnis. The Kurds would love to take Mosul, and its oil fields, back—the U.S. had to force Kurdish peshmerga troops out of the city in the early days of the war. There are also large numbers of Turkomen, Christians, Armenians, Shiiites, and Yezidis living in the city. If there's any place where the insurgents could provoke serious ethnic violence, Mosul is it. Meanwhile, a former Republican National Guard commander has been bragging that the "resistance" controls over 16 cities in Iraq, as well as some key suburbs of Baghdad. If this is true—a big "if"—Fallujah could be only the start of a wider war.

U.S. commanders are hoping it won't come to that. The new Pentagon strategy for Iraq counts on a win in Fallujah to act as a "tipping point" that isolates the foreign fighters and lure disgruntled Sunni fighter back into the political process. As one senior official involved in drafting the Pentagon's new Iraq strategy told the Washington Post: "The aim is to drive a wedge between the Sunni Arab rejectionists and the incorrigibles. Many in the rejectionist group feel disenfranchised and are being intimidated. They need to be relieved of that yoke and engaged, while the extremists need to be isolated, captured or killed."

But for this strategy to work, the U.S. will need far better intelligence on the insurgency itself. The track record here is also bleak. On Monday, Michael Schuer, the former chief of the C.I.A.'s Osama bin Laden unit, noted that "we still don't know how big [al Qaeda] is. We still, today, don't know the order of battle of Al Qaeda." The same goes for U.S. intelligence on the Iraqi insurgency—estimates on its strength vary widely, as do reports on the murky role that foreign terrorists like Abu Musab Zarqawi play in the movement. (No one has even been able to figure out how many legs Zarqawi has.) Without better intelligence, no one can know what the metrics for military success really are.

That leaves elections as the great hope for Iraq. On the positive side, preparations for January elections are going better than expected. Voter registration is proceeding on schedule, and the European Union has recently pledged increased financial and logistical assistance for the elections. UN officials are now expressing cautious optimism that the elections will proceed as planned.

Yet Iraq's political future lays very much in doubt, now that major Sunni political parties are threatening to boycott the election. As Sunnis steer away from the political process, Shiite Iraqis, who make up 60 percent of the population, are looking to consolidate their own electoral gains. Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the pre-eminent Shiite cleric in Iraq, is organizing a unified party list that should garner most of the Shia vote. What will be important is whether or not the Shiites, who make up 60 percent of the population, will benefit from high voter turnout and win more than 75 percent of the seats in the Assembly. If so, the Shiites in the elected National Assembly would be able to modify the nation's constitution at will, as sociology professor Andrew Arato has noted in his study of the constitutional process.

All of the Shiite parties support a strong centralized government and plan to institute Islamic law as the law of the land. They may differ on details—Sistani, for instance, thinks the religious clergy should stay out of politics, while Moqtada al-Sadr envisions an Iran-style theocracy—but they agree on the big picture, and will likely come up with a unified vision for the future of Iraq. But heavy-handed Shiite domination could incite the Sunnis to continue their insurgency; even worse, it could drive Kurdish leaders in the North to demand independence, and take it by force if they need to. While civil war is no certainty, its probability increases by the day.

It will be difficult to tell what comes of Fallujah. The U.S. and the Iraqi interim government will need to hold and rebuild the city, a process that could take months. It will be more difficult still to determine whether the insurgency has actually been quelled—there have been temporary lulls in violence in the past, and the Pentagon has often mistakenly believed that it had vanquished the insurgents. Thereafter, the U.S. will need to draw the Sunnis back into the political process—the same Sunnis who have had their homes bombed, cities leveled, and families displaced. Thus far, there have been virtually no signs of long-term success, and hence we have no way of knowing for sure what the future of Iraq will look like.

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