By Intelligence Operative Jay Holmes*
In our 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.
Fallujah on November 10, 2004, image by US Marine Corps
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. Nine 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, 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 continued to pay a high price in blood and treasure until our final withdrawal from Iraq in December of 2011.
US Consulate in Benghazi on September 11, 2012, 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.
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*‘Jay Holmes’, is an intelligence veteran of the Cold War and remains an anonymous member of the intelligence community. His writing partner, Piper Bayard, is the public face of their partnership.
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