The Magazine

Two, Three, Many Fallujas

From the December 6, 2004 issue: The allies are uprooting insurgents throughout Iraq.

Dec 6, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 12 • By MACKUBIN THOMAS OWENS
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THE TAKEDOWN of terrorists in Falluja seems to have gone well. The terrorists, as expected, fought hard and mostly to the death, but U.S. and Iraqi casualties remain lower than the history of urban warfare would have led us to expect. Success in Falluja can be attributed to two factors: a well-conceived plan and the outstanding execution of that plan by Marines and soldiers on the ground.

But the second-guessing has already begun. Critics are asking what the operation in Falluja really accomplished. They note that the insurgents' leaders appear to have escaped and that violence has erupted elsewhere in northern Iraq. Media accounts also routinely describe the fighting outside Falluja as a "rebel counteroffensive" that surprised the U.S. military, implying that the reduction of Falluja merely created more insurgents.

But the view conveyed by these headlines is myopic. An equivalent headline in June 1944 would have read: "Massive U.S. Casualties on Omaha Beach; Hitler's Reich Remains Intact, Defiant." Such stories fail to place Falluja, Mosul, Tal Afar, and other cities in northern Iraq in context. The fact is that Falluja is part of a campaign, a series of coordinated events--movements, battles, and supporting operations--designed to achieve strategic or operational objectives within a military theater. Falluja is just one battle, albeit an extremely important one, in a comprehensive campaign to stabilize the Sunni Triangle.

The key to a successful campaign is the proper sequencing of events. That sequencing depends on circumstances, which are always changing. A campaign begins with a plan, of course, but no plan can be locked in concrete. It was Helmuth von Moltke, chief of the Prussian general staff during the wars of German unification, who observed that "no plan of operation extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force. Only the layman thinks that he can see in the course of the campaign the consequent execution of the original idea with all the details thought out in advance and adhered to until the very end."

The commander, wrote Moltke, must keep his objective in mind, "undisturbed by the vicissitudes of events....But the path on which he hopes to reach it can never be firmly established in advance. Throughout the campaign he must make a series of decisions on the basis of situations that cannot be foreseen. The successive acts of war are thus not premeditated designs, but on the contrary are spontaneous acts guided by military measures. Everything depends on penetrating the uncertainty of veiled situations to evaluate the facts, to clarify the unknown, to make decisions rapidly, and then to carry them out with strength and constancy."

In other words, able commanders choose between alternative courses of action depending on the circumstances. If my fleet has been driven from the western Pacific and I want to be in position to bring sustained force against the Japanese home islands, what steps do I have to take? If I want to defeat Germany and I am now at Normandy, what is the best course of action? If my goal is to create the military and political conditions for a more liberal Iraq, what sequence of events leads to this outcome?

When they controlled Falluja, the rebels were able to sustain a high rate of attack against the Iraqi government and coalition forces. Falluja gave them infrastructure--human and physical--and provided the security needed to maintain a large terrorist network. As one military analyst, writing for the Belmont Club blog, has remarked, in the absence of sanctuary, large terrorist organizations cannot survive. Without sanctuary, terrorist networks are reduced to "small, clandestine hunted bands."

Thus, the key to success in the Sunni Triangle is the destruction of the enemy infrastructure. The discoveries by American troops of car-bomb factories and vast stockpiles of arms and explosives indicate that Falluja was the keystone of this infrastructure. It is true that many rebels, including the ringleader, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, escaped from Falluja. It is also true that violence has erupted in Mosul, Ramadi, and other cities of this area. But without a secure base in Falluja, the effectiveness of Zarqawi's operation is likely to decline.