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.