IRAQ: Fallujah not Stalingrad, but Vietnam?
The long-expected offensive to take Fallujah is underway. Approximately 10,000 American Marines, soldiers and Iraqis, supported by British forces, have surrounded Fallujah and its escape routes. Air and artillery strikes have ‘softened’ up the insurgents. What happens next as the attack unfolds is uncertain. The insurgents simply cannot overcome the huge military advantage US and British forces possess. However, guerrilla warfare and suicide tactics can make the battle very bloody.
But this is not a Stalingrad, where Hitler`s Wehrmacht was halted and then destroyed by the Soviets during World War II. The military outcome in Fallujah will have no lasting strategic importance even if all the insurgents are killed, captured or routed in short order. Success in Iraq rests not on military force of arms but on political, economic, social, psychological and religious factors. A better analogy is with Vietnam.
The North Vietnamese won not a single battle in that war. They were overpowered and slaughtered by American firepower. Yet, they won the war. Along with the Viet Cong in the south, a long battle of attrition was waged, first through guerrilla tactics that relied on stealth, surprise, literally millions of ‘booby traps’ and ambush. Then in early 1968, the north turned to conventional warfare and launched the Tet offensive.
The North Vietnamese captured Hue City in the northernmost quarter of South Vietnam. The marines had to retake it – a situation similar but not identical to the fight for Fallujah. The marines did just that. The fighting was bloody, slow and there were many civilian casualties. After taking heavy losses, the marines changed tactics. The tactics worked and marine casualties dropped.
Fallujah, west of Baghdad in the so-called Sunni triangle, had a population of about 300,000. Estimates suggest that perhaps 80 percent have fled or moved to safer areas. The number of insurgents is unknown. Some figures range as high as 10,000. A more prudent estimate is 2,000 to 3,000. And there is a chance that many have escaped to fight another day.
How might the battle unfold, and what are the advantages and weaknesses of the two sides? First, our forces have had months to reconnoiter and map the city. Using the most advanced systems – from unmanned drones, surveillance aircraft with every imaginable available sensor to satellites – so-called `situational awareness` of the battlefield must be good. Yes, the insurgents know the city and its hiding places. However, that advantage is partly countered by the wealth of intelligence that has been collected and evaluated.
Second, the insurgents cannot stand up to US and UK weapons. However, it must be assumed that thousands of mines and booby traps have been buried and planted and that there will be a few if not many suicide bombers and other resistance to make the incursion bloody.
Third, US, British and Iraqi forces will not be only sensitive to avoiding ‘collateral’ damage and minimizing civilian casualties. That will be written into the operational orders and rules of engagement. Of course, there will be situations where we shoot first. However, extreme care to avoid casualties is a political reality and necessity.
Fourth, this battle will have intensive media coverage, especially in the Arab and Muslim world. The images of American and British soldiers flashed across the Arab world will be grim reminders of the continuing conflict between Israel and Palestine. To many viewers, no matter how scrupulously casualties are avoided, there will be little distinction between American and Israeli forces in terms of who is repressing and killing Arabs and Muslims. It is inevitable that even more ill-will against the United States will be generated.
At the end of the day, taking Fallujah could turn out to be relatively easy. It is also possible that the fierce battle for Baghdad that was expected but did not occur during last year`s short war will be fought here. Regardless, in the reach of time, aside from the casualties avoided or inflicted, the future of Iraq will not be determined by what happens in Fallujah. Broader political, social, economic and religious factors ultimately will cause Iraq to be free, divided or in chaos. This is not Stalingrad. Let us hope it is not Vietnam.
Harlan Ullman is senior advisor for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC, and a frequent television commentator. His latest book, just out, is Finishing Business: Ten Steps to Defeat Global Terror.