Ramadan is again upon us: The Islamic holy month of fasting begins on Friday, October 15. We should all hope that U.S. forces in Iraq don’t make the same mistake with regard to it this year that they did last.
Last year, in a demonstration that half-informed “cultural sensitivity” is worse than none at all, U.S. commanders decided that it would be a nice idea for U.S. forces to maintain a lower profile and stay off the streets during the holiday.
What followed was mayhem. Terrorist bombs went off all over the country, killing scores, including several senior Kurdish officials. (At the same time, there were bloody terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia.) And when U.S. troops had to reestablish control during the next month, there was a major spike in casualties, which itself led to the panicked decision in Washington to set June 1 as the deadline for the handover of sovereignty.
Ramadan is not the equivalent of Christmas. Though it is theoretically a time in which Muslims are enjoined to be peaceful, recent history shows that Islamist violence around the world tends to get much worse during Ramadan: More bombs than usual go off in Kashmir, Israel, Pakistan, and other spots troubled by fundamentalist militancy.
This is not exactly a secret. And it is something that the U.S. Army’s senior planners really ought to have known last year but apparently did not. (Even though last October 7 the Los Angeles Times carried an interview with an Iraqi insurgent commander who announced that terrorist operations would increase “because it is an especially propitious time to die, and for us death is martyrdom.”) As so often in the war on terror, U.S. officials did not deign to discuss Ramadan with allied officials–from Israel, India, Britain, etc.–who might have had more experience in such matters. Nor did they adequately consult the Iraqis they were supposed to be protecting.
Yes, it is true that tempers run high in Muslim countries during Ramadan. But our keeping a low profile essentially meant abandoning the initiative to the enemy at a time when their terror would be particularly effective–and the Iraqi people particularly vulnerable.
Both during and after the period of formal occupation, the U.S. military command in Iraq has announced that it would lower its profile. But when it has done so the results have been disastrous. Look at what happened when U.S. forces began to withdraw to larger bases outside the big cities, and decreased its patrolling (despite the unavailability of suitably trained and armed indigenous forces) at the end of 2003, and then again in July of this year when efforts were again made to shrink the U.S. military profile.
In practice this meant ceding Iraq’s meanest streets to the teenage bullies of the al Sadr militia and the former soldiers of the Baathist insurgency. As everyone now knows, this eventually resulted in the loss of whole cities that had once been under Coalition control.
The intent may genuinely have been to be less “provocative.” But this was based on a dangerous perceptual error. There is actually no reason to believe that Iraq’s violence is in any significant way the result of “provocative” activity–or, to use the phrase beloved of the BBC and CNN, by “Iraqi anger” at the Coalition military presence.
Yes, the contrary is what the enemy claims in its propaganda, and what some silly media folk believe. But our military planners should not be under the illusion that if Coalition forces mitigate the “anger” of Iraqis by keeping to heavily fortified bases there will be fewer suicide bombs and IED attacks. Sunni and Shiite religious extremists, former Saddam special forces, and al Qaeda terrorists don’t require provocation to drive them to violence against Americans or Iraqi civilians. And there is abundant evidence that Iraqi citizens have been much more concerned with the absence of U.S. or other effective troops in the streets than with their presence. However many friends a low profile might win us, the resulting disorder probably loses many more.
Unfortunately, “profile lowering” is one of those bad ideas with many fathers. It fits in all too well with the obsessive “force protection” mentality of some senior U.S. officers, a mentality that has irritated so many younger officers as well as allied commanders since American forces began engaging in policing and peacekeeping work in the Balkans in the mid-1990s.
And there have almost certainly been pressures from Washington to lower the U.S. military profile to keep casualties down at politically sensitive times. Officers then serving in Iraq privately admitted to me that the reason U.S. military casualties–though not civilian ones–temporarily dropped after the November 2003 spike was because of diminished patrolling.
Unfortunately, while fewer patrols means an initial drop in casualties, it also dries up intelligence flow, demoralizes the Coalition’s friends, and encourages the insurgents. And all of these things mean that a bigger bill must be paid in the end.
It is hard to win wars–including counter-insurgency and antiterrorism wars–by withdrawing or by surrendering key places and routes to enemy control. This Ramadan, Coalition forces must show that they have learned from experience, and be prepared for a redoubled enemy offensive.
–Jonathan Foreman was embedded with U.S. troops last year during the liberation of Iraq.