November 15, 2004 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

More Flexibility After Fallujah

Because of superior U.S. firepower, training and command-and-control capabilities, a victory by American forces in Fallujah should surprise no one. But the victory won't be as simple or as successful as it could have been if the soldiers and marines fighting there had been allowed to follow their doctrine.


According to U.S. Army Field Manual 3-0 Operations, the principles of war include "surprise" or "taking actions for which an enemy is unprepared." The Iraqi-American assault on Fallujah ranks as one of the worst-kept secrets in military history. Public discussions of the details, timing and objectives of the attack went on for weeks.


As a result, coalition forces will sooner find winning Powerball tickets on the streets of Fallujah than they will insurgent leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the shadowy Jordanian who has transformed his troops into a viable force. Coalition forces are no more likely to find any other significant leaders of the movement, either.


What they have found, thanks to the pre-attack publicity, is a city rigged stem to stern with explosives, an enemy well entrenched and prepared for urban, house-to-house fighting and a hostile, restive populace. Our military commanders don't need these extra obstacles. What they do need is more operational freedom to carry out attacks on the insurgents where and when they aren't expected, and when there is some hope of capturing or killing key leaders.


Even though the enemy has been expecting the attack for weeks, the American and Iraqi forces did achieve some tactical surprise. They opened with an assault on a hospital on the western edge of the city, and they've made their major thrusts at night.


But even these maneuvers weren't enough to prevent unusually heavy casualties among American and friendly Iraqi troops from the entrenched enemy. Buildings and infrastructure suffered more damage than necessary because Americans were forced to conduct heavy bombing raids to soften the insurgents' defenses before and during the attack. The fact that insurgents have rigged explosives to mosques and other important buildings add to the general demolition of the city.


The only bright side is that while all the leaders have long departed, so have most of the citizens, minimizing civilian casualties in the densely populated city.


In fairness, this would've been a tough secret to keep. Fallujah became the obvious place for a standoff as it gained status as a haven for insurgents. Military planners did their work, but interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi tried to avoid the attack and its destruction of a major Iraqi city by convincing the insurgents to turn over foreign terrorists and persuading the Sunnis to support the interim government. But wars are fought to achieve political objectives, and military convenience will not and should not override those objectives.


Generals cannot ignore politicians, but they can persuade politicians to give them as much flexibility as possible. The prime minister's declaration of a state of emergency does allow imposition of curfews, restriction on movement and suspension of some civil liberties, even though those conditions were imposed de facto by the fighting in the area.

Still, the state of emergency shows there is, thankfully, an end to Allawi's patience, that he will negotiate where possible and act otherwise where not. The protracted negotiations before the assault on Fallujah did enable Allawi to demonstrate he is sympathetic to Sunni concerns and did allow Americans ample time to plan an assault that would wreak minimal havoc on the city and its civilian residents.

But, because of the lack of surprise, the leadership of the insurgency remains intact. The leaders have moved on and begun diversionary attacks in at least six cities, including Samarra, from which they supposedly were cleansed last month.

Allawi should do through negotiation what he can. War, as always, should be the last option. But when war becomes the only option, he and others in the Iraqi government need to see that our troops have a chance at that element of surprise -- before the leaders of the enemy can escape.

Dana Dillon is a senior policy analyst in the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Dana Robert Dillon Senior Policy Analyst
Asian Studies Center

Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire