A bitter truth must be faced: The slaughter and televised mutilation of four U.S. contractors in Fallujah was a defeat for the new Iraq and a massive propaganda victory for the Sunni insurgents.
Yes, it’s true that the incident might not have been a propaganda victory, indeed might not have happened at all (at least the corpse-defiling part) without the collaboration of the media, in particular organizations like the Associated Press, which apparently has close contacts with the insurgents and seems not to mind being used as a tool of the insurgency. But that doesn’t matter.
An indelible impression has been created that Iraq is going up in flames, that anti-American fury is so intense as to provoke the Iraqi street into savage atrocity, that Coalition forces are losing control.
You can say all you want that Fallujah does not represent Iraq as a whole. Or, that despite the intensifying efforts of the insurgents in the run-up to June’s handover of sovereignty (and despite the destabilizing rotation of U.S. forces in and out of the country), that Coalition forces and Iraqi security forces have successfully established and maintained order in the great majority of the country’s governorates. Or, that conditions in Fallujah do not even reflect the situation in the Sunni Triangle, let alone the rest of the country.
That is all true.
Just as it’s true that the crowd that so enthusiastically burned and hacked at the bodies of the four American contractors last Wednesday was a small one, perhaps 100-strong.
But any calm words to this effect are overwhelmed by the impression created by the pictures of dismembered blackened bodies surrounded by cheering Sunni tribesmen. And the power of those initial images has been intensified by the widely reported failure of U.S. forces to reappear in Fallujah in the days after the atrocity.
The Marines seem to have been preparing to retake the city in the bloody days leading up to the ambush and its gruesome aftermath. This was a task made necessary by the bizarre and costly U.S. decision–made when the 82d Airborne Division was still in charge of the area–to entrust the security of Fallujah to the Iraqi police.
Of all the cities in Iraq, Fallujah should have been the very last one handed over to local security forces. That it was a disastrous mistake for U.S. forces to essentially abandon the epicenter of Sunni restiveness should have been obvious immediately after the 82d Airborne (whose ill-starred rule over Fallujah began badly with the gunning down of demonstrators on April 28 last year) pulled back to garrisons on the outskirts and the main police station was promptly stormed by insurgents anxious to free their fellow tribesmen.
Now about 1,200 Marines and 600 Iraqi Civil Defense troops are engaged in the retaking of Fallujah, which is likely to be a bloody undertaking. And other U.S. forces are suppressing the opportunistic violent “demonstrations” (i.e. attacks) in other parts of Iraq by Muqtadr al Sadr’s supposedly banned, but never disarmed, Al Mahdi militia.
It is clear that the pulling of U.S. troops out of key Iraqi cities either in order to minimize “provocation,” or in deference to “force protection” doctrines that became army orthodoxy in the 1990s (when casualty avoidance came to seem at least as important as any existing mission), has been a mistake and must cease.
Anything that smacks of fear and weakness–and to Iraq’s civilians as well as Iraq’s insurgents, the American withdrawal to fortified garrisons outside the country’s cities screams just that–must be avoided.
In Afghanistan, CENTCOM is finally taking troops out of heavily fortified bases and sending them to stay in local villages. The immediate risks are greater, but by moving among the people these soldiers stand a better chance of winning hearts and minds, and getting intelligence that could forestall major guerilla attacks. Also, they don’t look to the tribesmen like cowards who are only willing to walk the streets when in force and backed up by tanks and helicopter gunships.
The opposite process has taken place in Iraq, though many American officers who have served or are currently serving there believe that it is worth taking the same calculated risks as units posted to Afghanistan.
Certainly it is vital to calibrate U.S. tactics according to the psychology of the insurgents and the people they move among, and with a constant awareness of the propaganda war in Iraq and at home. This should include going to soft caps and frequent foot patrols in quieter areas–thereby demonstrating confidence, and immediately stamping down hard and in force on districts where Coalition personnel have been attacked–thereby demonstrating resolve and usable military might. Such measures will at least make it possible to regain the propaganda ground lost in Fallujah.
–Jonathan Foreman is a writer for the New York Post who was embedded with U.S. troops last year during the liberation of Iraq.