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Wherein I do a little thinking out loud about the tactical and strategic situation in Iraq lately.

My main point is that both the Sunni insurgents and the Mahdi Army seem to be in a study mode.  In the case of the Sunnis, it seems to me they, to whatever degree a pronoun referencing a single group is appropriate, are studying for a major operation against a US outpost.  The Mahdi Army seems to be waiting to see what will develop in Baghdad as Teh Surge™ deploys.  I suspect the Mahdi Army has gone to ground and will remain out of sight until Teh Surge™ is declared a success or recognized as a failure.  That is what guerilla warfare doctrine would have them do, as well as their mission as the protectors of the civilian population in Sadr City.

My comments below the fold focus on recent actions by Sunni insurgents and I think a possible historical parallel for what is happening is the Battle of Ia Drang Valley in Vietnam in November, 1965.

Some salient facts most of you already know:

Seven helicopters shot down since 20 January (see NYTimes article of 18 February, mostly by Sunnis.  Today's "hard landing" by a Blackhawk apparently makes the number of helicopters shot down actually eight now (I started this diary two days ago...)

Two days ago, presumed Sunni insurgents undertook an organized attack on a US combat outpost in Tarmiya (see NYTimes article from yesterday and also the front page diary by MissLaura from two days ago.

Finally, Teh Surge™ involves placing platoon and company sized units in isolated outposts throughout parts of Baghdad, a strategy that is already being used to a degree in other cities.  (See excellent NYTimes articles by CJ Chivers about a Marine company stationed at an Iraqi police station over the last couple months...that company of Marines is in the process of rotating back to Camp Lejeune now.)

The increase in successful attacks on helicopters is the result of a concerted effort by the insurgents, according to recently captured documents discussed in the first NYTimes article above.  The tactics appear to be placing heavy machine guns and/or shoulder fired missiles along commonly traveled helicopter routes so as to ambush helicopters.  The NYTimes article has a link to the video released by the insurgents of the downing of the Marine CH-46.  The fact that they had a cameraman on sight and filming as the helicopter approached the ambush pretty much says it all.  The weapons were stationed elsewhere but fairly close to the cameraman, who was in place to film the attack.  In other words, they expected the helicopter to be there and had weapons crews and a propaganda crew pre-positioned.

The attack on the outpost killed two US soldiers and wonded 17.  Apparently it involved three separate car bombing attacks in succession and also a firefight with small arms fire.  The article linked above mentioned four helicopters arriving to evacuate wounded, but more troubling is the article quoted by MissLaura, which describes the helicoptes as hovering over the outpost during the evacuation of the wounded.  Regardless, the attack was substantial enough to bring in numerous helicopters.

It strikes me that the two events, targeting of helicopters and an unusual assault on an outpost that resulted in localized helicopter traffic. may not be unrelated.  It seems possible that the Sunni insurgents may be in a study mode in preparation for a major assault on a US outpost.  If assaults like that this week can be expected to bring in numerous helicopters, then the weapons teams that have been targeting US helicopters from pre-positioned locations along common routes could be used in the equivalent of a combined arms operation for the insurgents.

A parallel could be the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley in South Vietnam in November, 1965.  Throughout the early 60s, the Vietnamese Communists were trying to perform a delicate balancing act of promotiong the revolution in the rural areas of the south, which was going quite well, without provoking the US into committing combat forces.  The Communists feared the technological, forepower, and supply advantages that the US could bring to bear.  Ultimately, the US would begin to deploy in 1965 and among the early units to deplyoy was the 1st Air Cav, whcih began arriving in July, 1965.  The theory of helicopter air mobility of infantry had not been used yet in combat and the Communists did not have any doctrine for how (or if) to fight against helicopter air mobile forces.  During the fall of 1965, the Communists basically lured the US into a more or less set piece battle in the Ia Drang Valley to learn about what tactics the air mobile units would use and how to counter them.

In terms of the casualties, the battle was a major defeat for the Communists, as were most or all battles according to the metric of body counts.  But the Vietnamese Communists did not expect any single battle to be decisive, at least not until Tet in 1968, and after that not again until the conventional offensives of 1972 and 1975.  From the Communists perspective, Ia Drang was a chance to study US tactics to understand how to fight against an enemy with superior firepower and total air superiorority.  The cost of the study session was more than 800 killed and close to twice that wounded (and over 200 US killed and over 200 wounded), which was close to the entire force committed.  The costs seem terrible from the perspective of the US approach to warfare, at least since the Korean War, but the Communists understood that they were fighting a war against occupiers that they had begun in 1940 against the Japanese and had continued against the French (and US) after World War II.

In the NYTimes article about the helicopter downings, a US officer comments that

“We are engaged with a thinking enemy,” he added. “This enemy understands based on the reporting and everything else that we are in the process of executing the prime minister’s new plan for the security of Baghdad. And they understand the strategic implications of shooting down an aircraft.”

This is no doubt true.  Which makes me wonder if the coordination in the attack on the outpost in Tarmiya is not related to the increased targeting of US helicopters.  Was the assault in Tarmiya a small-scale Ia Drang in which the "thinking enemy" was seeking to understand how the US would respond and what role helicopters would play?  It is easy, and dangerous, to think of the insurgency as completely decentralized and unorganized, but that is not realistic.  A guerilla movement cannot fight the US military to a virtual stand still for four years without competent organization and command and control.  Those elements are what lead to adaptability and planning, such as that involved in the assault in Tarmiya.  The next step in that adaptability is to combine the ground assault with the only other effective military asset the insurgents have, their burgeoning anti-aircraft capability.

I predict that US forces will by faced by the unfortunate results of this process of adaptation and growth sooner than later.

Originally posted to DLup on Wed Feb 21, 2007 at 06:59 PM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  The trend lines for defeat (9+ / 0-)

    I agree with the ominous signs noted in your post. All the military trends in Iraq are negative for the US occupation:

    • Our helicopter flight hours have increased by roughly 40% in each of the last two years, because the roads are getting too dangerous.
    • Helicopter downings are up several-fold since the start of the year, and advanced anti-aircraft missiles are in country.
    • Pressure-fuzed and motion-detector IEDs, in addition to EFP charges are increasing the toll of highway ambushes.
    • Sniper attacks are increasing, with no practical defense available.
    • Saudi money is starting to proide the insurgents with the best available small arms on the international weapons black market, including 50 caliber sniper rifles and current-generation Soviet anti-aircraft missiles.

    The bottom line is that US occupation forces have little room for improving their survivability, while the insurgents have the means and motivation for considerably improving their weaponry, tactics, and effectiveness. This is a losing game for the US, and the longer we play it, the more lives and money we will lose.

    We are producing an increasing number of useful goods and services for increasingly useless people. -- Ivan Illich

    by ANKOSS on Wed Feb 21, 2007 at 07:15:40 PM PST

    •  given all that (5+ / 0-)

      and the obvious fatigue of our troops & equipment, don't you think there are some sober minds amongst the Joint Chiefs of Staff who are prudent and powerful enough to overrule (or at least forestall) ANY offensive action against Iran? That's my take on it, they are in serious danger of losing this war by the metrics this Administration has established, ie unified gov't, democratic, rights for women & minorities, compliant towards US interests, non-belligerence towards Israel, etc. You have to take them at their word, that consequences of their not prevailing would be unimaginably bad(for them). For that reason, doubling down again by going into Iran would just be poor strategy, doctrinally speaking. Too risky for too little reward. Without Rumsfeld, I don't think Cheney can bully the generals. I bet THEY'VE studied Vietnam and realize the dangerous self-delusion that comes from blowing a lot of shit up.

      •  Boy, I hope so. n/t (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Clem Yeobright, kraant
      •  How can generals overrule (0+ / 0-)

        Bush?  He just fires generals who disagree with him and finds others who will go along.  Right now he's got an Admiral in charge of the planning for an attack on Iran.

        •  Not overrule, foot drag (0+ / 0-)

          Remember when Clinton wanted to hit OBL but the Joint Chiefs were worried about a failure similar to Carter's rescue mission attempt in Iran?  That fubar made the Army look very incompetent.  So, when Clinton wanted to launch a risky operation, the generals in effect said, "Yes Sir!  But...." but we haven't properly trained for the mission, we need more time.... but the weapons we want to use haven't been declared operational... but we need to do a few things first to get everything in place....  The delays dragged things out until OBL had moved to an unknown location, and the mission was scrapped.

          I think the Army, at least, will do the same thing regarding Iran.  They know it's suicidal to launch a ground attack on a country with three times as many people as Iraq.

          "There is nothing more frightening than active ignorance." Goethe

          by LouisMartin on Fri Feb 23, 2007 at 11:05:01 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

  •  Excellent diary! (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Boston Boomer, Shiborg, kraant, sldulin

    I have watched the events of the last week with the same dread you express.

    Petraeus is locating his forces with first consideration being geographical coordinates, followed distantly by fields of fire, intermesh with civilian population, supportability ...

    We are giving the Iraqis a large number of targets from among which they can choose the one offering the best opportunity to pursue their goals. We have 'rules of engagement' and 'standard operating procedures', and these constitute weak points that 'an intelligent enemy' will exploit. Bushco will be hung by the petard of its own contempt for the enemy, I fear.

    You kids behave or I'm turning this universe around RIGHT NOW! - god

    by Clem Yeobright on Wed Feb 21, 2007 at 07:16:56 PM PST

    •  Thanks for connecting the dots. (0+ / 0-)

      I don't know anything about military strategy, but I have been expecting a massacre of American troops.  

      The downing of so many helicopters in such a short period of time is really ominous, and one of those helicopters had a number of top brass on it.  Clearing the attacks are carefully planned an organized.

      When the inevitable massacre comes, I suppose Bush will whip out his speech about how the Iranians did it.

  •  Good Work (6+ / 0-)

    However, in Vietnam the North understood that they had to press us in the field, and to force high KIA and MIA rates.  Their losses were not important in their calculus.  Plus, they had a pretty open supply line.

    In Iraq, one major difference I see is that there are various groups (Shia, Sunni, etc) fighting us and each other.

    I've come to believe that the Iraq insurgents are more interested in maintaining low intensity warfare than the large scale ops we dealt with in Vietnam.  I also think the Iraqi insurgents do not want to escalate the war with higher American casualty rates, to include more helicopter downings.  They may sense that this will encourage more American counter-escalation (which is what the current 'surge' is).

    The false GOP claims that the war in Iraq is matter of wills seems to rest on the assumption that the insurgents will, at some point, quit.  And go back to being 'gentleman' farmers or something.  That if we only hold together awhile longer, we'll wear them down.

    The opposite is true, as evidenced by the low intensity warfare in Iraq.  I know Bush and probably a lot of American generals, are itching for an Ia Drang battle.  Where we can do to the Iraq insurgents what the NVA did to us in Nam; use it as a lab to gauge how they fight.  Low intensity means never knowing what the other side is up to.

    Imagine if those Stingers from Afghanistan start showing up in Iraq and shooting down American copters at will.  What do we think the Crazied Bush would do to counter that?  Invade Iran?  Your guess is as good as mine.  REmember, LBJ kept wanting to invade Cambodia and Laos for nearly the same reason.

  •  Ia Drang was the battle chronicled in (8+ / 0-)

    "We Were Soldiers Once - and young" - Joe Galloway wrote it.... recommended

    Was made into a decent movie with Mel Gibson.  At the end you see the Vietnamese commander saying to a subordinate (after the US forces have flown out) - "The tragedy is that they think they have won this battle."

    The US has yet to "get it" - We SHOULD be viewing OTHER nationalities as simply following the American model (set forth in our own revolution against Britain) is seeking self rule WITHOUT outside interference.  Instead the US somehow believes it has the right to impose its version of what government is "right" for others.  When they don't do as we would like we call them communists or terrorists or whatever....

    Individual rights and the right of a population to decide its own form of government are now a foreign concept to Americans.

  •  How is this diary not on the Recommended List? (5+ / 0-)

    Good work, DLup! Pearls before ... busy distracted people ...

    You kids behave or I'm turning this universe around RIGHT NOW! - god

    by Clem Yeobright on Wed Feb 21, 2007 at 07:40:29 PM PST

  •  Very interesting (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Clem Yeobright, jimreyn, kraant

    H.L. Mencken: "A nation of sheep begets a government of wolves"

    by igneous on Wed Feb 21, 2007 at 08:37:04 PM PST

  •  numeric picture (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Clem Yeobright, kraant, sldulin

    Iraq is different numerically from Vietnam.  There are much fewer insurgents, they are much less organized, and compared to Viet Cong, they have negligible foreign support.

    US manpower is much smaller, and reserves are next to none.

    Another difference is that South Vietnamese government and military were much more effective and trustworthy that Iraqi counterparts (which says more about Iraq than Vietnam).  There was Communist side, and anti-Communist side, and the Vietnamese allies were anti-Communist, whatever other failings they may had.  There is nothing as crisp in the current conflict.  We are allied with some Shia militants, hostile to other Shia militants, and very hostile to their common friends in Iran and Lebanon.  This is not a marriage of convenience, this is a meeting of strangers who do not understand each other's language.

    Strategically, our position in Iraq is so weak that it is a major reason why the situation is not much worse.  All-out attack on our forces is not in the interest of insurgents or al-Mahdi types because we are insufficiently affecting status quo of the civil war.  If we are forced out, Shia can deal much more ruthlessly against Sunni -- and the underdogs within their own ranks.  Moreover, we can wreck a lot of havoc before we are forced out.

    By the way of contrast, the interests of Vietnamese Communists were clear: get rid of us, then of the South Vietnamese government.  No ifs and buts.

    But if the equation changes, our forces can be overwhelmed.  If helicopters start falling down on daily basis, out small outpost will be overrun on regular basis, our bases can be shelled or hit by rocket on every single night, logistic lines may start to fray, and with that happening in all Arab Iraq, we will be bleeding copiously and pointlessly.

  •  Piotr, let's see. (4+ / 0-)

    Four years. They have increased their activity. The IED's are more deadly, they have been getting closer to blowing up The Green Zone, and they are getting increasingly accurate at shooting down helicopters.  
    We're already bleeding and we will continue to bleed until we bring our soldiers home. This war isn't going away or getting any better.

  •  Uh oh. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Here come the ten-foot-tall bad guys again, beatin'up on the dumb, non adaptable GIs.

    So much there is I do not need.

    by valion on Wed Feb 21, 2007 at 10:53:46 PM PST

    •  nah. It's not the... (6+ / 0-)

      dumb, non-adaptable GIs. You know very well there is no such thing.

      It's the dumb, non-adaptable CinC.  Give it a rest.

      How we spend our days, of course, is how we spend our lives. - Annie Dillard
      Visit me at exme arden

      by exmearden on Thu Feb 22, 2007 at 12:25:59 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  It's not ten foot tall bad guys, (0+ / 0-)

      it's that they have a simpler, easier task to perform.  The insurgents need only maintain pressure on larger base (nightly mortar attacks), interdict the occupiers supply lines (IEDs mostly) and antagonize the occupiers into alienating the local population.

      The occupiers lack the forces to achieve control of a very large population.  It's not about adaptability, it's the fact that it's an impossible task for 150,000 occupiers to control 18,000,000 civilians while attempting to defeat somewhere around 60,000 insurgents who look exactly like the civilians.

      "There is nothing more frightening than active ignorance." Goethe

      by LouisMartin on Fri Feb 23, 2007 at 11:19:39 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  guerilla warfare (0+ / 0-)

        Guerilla warfare, which the insurgents in Iraq are doing, is a very nasty kind of warfare for us to fight.  Even if these Iraqi insurgents’ motives are less clear cut, it doesn’t take all that much of a command structure to successfully strike at and harass the occupying forces.  Their strategy is simple, and all they need is to determine which tactics get the best "bang for the buck", so to speak.  With their fluid and possibly ad-hoc command structures, the guerilla forces can quickly adapt their tactics, and they can easily melt back into the general population to rest and regroup.  Our forces, with their top-down structure, long supply lines, and high visibility are not only sitting targets, but take longer to rethink their tactics and redeploy.  Our army could well be further handicapped if the Secretary of War and the C-in-C have been successful at replacing top level commanders with ideologues who are unable to independantly think, evaluate, and act to meet actual on-the-ground situations.

        The history of guerilla warfare (Viet Nam, the Spanish Peninsular campaign, the Boer War, etc.) shows that only a large army, and one that is bloody-mindedly determined to win at all costs, regardless of civilian damage (i.e. we had to destroy the village in order to save it), can be successful against it. Every knowledgeable military leader dreads having to fight one.  It is extremely deplorable that our C-in-C and previous Sec. of War failed so completely at considering all the "what ifs" when planning for this war.  

        Recognizing guerilla warfare for what it is does not mean that by doing so one has somehow labeled the conventional infantryman as "stupid".  Furthermore, by reducing the argument to this level prevents a discussion about the reality of the situation and how best to deal with it.  Regardless of the smarts that each individual infantrymen has, they can only do whatever they're commanded to do, and carry out orders as best they can.  (Indeed, they can be quite ingenious at doing this.)  It is stupidity at the top levels that cannot be overcome, no matter how brave or smart the infantrymen are.  

        I don’t know what the best possible solution to the dilemma of the Iraq War is, nor can I possibly know the full picture of what is actually going on in Iraq.  However, I sure as hell have no confidence that THIS administration could ever figure a way out.  They seem to have blundered into this situation by blind accident, and it’s impossible to conceive that this collection of blockheads and boobs that makeup this administration could stumble upon a way out. That is, even if they wanted t

        •  Well now, (0+ / 0-)

          as the CO of a Combat Engineer Company in Vietnam in 1970-71 I agree with your entire argument, though I do wonder how you came to the conclusion that I somehow "labeled the conventional infantryman as "stupid".  I don't believe that, nor have I ever done so.

          However, labeling all our troops in Iraq as "brave and noble heroes" which it seems happens continuously, is also not accurate.  I suggest that the overwhelming majority of the occupying forces haven't the foggiest idea of the culture, motivations or ideology of the insurgents and have no interest in finding out and ingenuity is not the antidote.  That doesn't make them stupid, but it does cause them to commit stupifying errors.  And the higher levels command structure can't be blamed for all of them.

          And I do believe that I know the best possible solution to the dilemma of the Iraq Occupation, but that wasn't the reason I responded to your comment, so let's hold that exchange for another time.

          "There is nothing more frightening than active ignorance." Goethe

          by LouisMartin on Sun Feb 25, 2007 at 02:02:19 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

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