TCS Daily

Fallujah Flip-Flops?

By Michael Rosen - December 22, 2004 12:00 AM

If a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, then, one month after our crucial victory in Fallujah, both the Bush Administration and its harshest critics should be counted among history's greatest geniuses. The rationales for and criticisms of our performance in Iraq have flipped and flopped depending on circumstances. So who's right?

Back in mid-2003, with the U.S. facing a surprisingly strong insurgency in Iraq led by die-hard Baathists and Islamists, President Bush and his military commanders began to articulate an interesting defense of our engagement in Iraq: we're battling terrorists there so that we don't have to fight them here. In other words, the Iraqi invasion drew so much attention in the Islamic world, and our troops and civilian advisers there presented such inviting targets, that the malignant energies of our terrorist enemies became concentrated thousands of miles from our shores.

This defense traces its genesis, perhaps accidentally, to Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, commander of American ground forces in Iraq in July, 2003. Sanchez observed that our presence in Iraq served as a "terrorist magnet," an attractive target of opportunity for the Islamists. Rush Limbaugh reportedly enthused that the "Jihad All-Star Team" were all in one place. And President Bush himself stated that "Our military is confronting terrorists in Iraq and our people will not have to confront terrorist violence in New York or St. Louis or Los Angeles." The message was clear and simple: we've got the terrorists right where we want 'em, i.e. far away and densely packed into one country (Iraq), one region (the Sunni Triangle), and even one city (Fallujah).

But detractors ridiculed this rationale. Maureen Dowd boasted sardonically that "We've brought the fight to their turf, they're swarming into Iraq and blowing up our troops and other Westerners every day, and that's just where we want to be." During this year's presidential campaign, John Kerry repeatedly derided the "terrorist magnet" mantra as dangerous. William Lind of the Center for Cultural Conservatism and a fierce right-wing opponent of the war asserted that "Iraq was not a place that welcomed terrorists when old Saddam was in power...Now, however...Mesopotamia is acting as a magnet to Islamic non-state fighters of every stripe. We opened Iraq's door to all our worst enemies." In other words, according to the critics, worldwide terror had been a weak, diffuse force until our invasion of Iraq galvanized and centralized it.

Perhaps the most concentrated, dangerous spot in the world, according to everyone, was Fallujah, an indisputable hotbed of terrorist activity. How surprising, then, that the tables would turn after the U.S. retook the city, liquidated its torture-chambers, and killed over 1,000 terrorists. The president gushed that "the Baathist insurgents have lost one of their main bases of operation." Others noted that the terrorist infrastructure was disrupted.

But critics pointed out that terror mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi had escaped, along with many of his acolytes, and that battles raged outside of Fallujah. The administration, many commentators argued, had transformed a terror magnet into a centrifuge, dangerously scattering the murderous menace across the landscape.

So, again, which side is right? Which terror-fighting paradigm -- concentrated and exposed, or scattered and diffuse -- offers greater advantages to our forces?

To unlock this intractable puzzle, I sought the counsel of Eliot Cohen, arguably the premier American scholar of military strategy. Cohen, a professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University, first pointed me to two seminal articles on guerilla warfare: one by an author who died fighting against insurgents, the other by a writer who lived fighting with them.

The first, Bernard Fall, was a preeminent student of the French and American Indochinese adventures until his death in 1967 in Hue, Vietnam. Fall, a vocal critic of both the French and American counterinsurgency (CI) approaches, published a landmark study of the topic in the Naval War College Review in 1965. He observed that when insurgents attempt to confront an army in a "straightforward military operation," they inevitably fail; that the only successful military counterinsurgency strategy requires "gridding" or slowly moving inward from the periphery of a rebel-dominated area; and that ultimately a political solution is indispensable (Fall also identified the etymology of the term "guerrilla" as Spanish for "small war," thus rendering the common phrase "guerrilla war" a tautology).

The second author, T.E. Lawrence, contributed his "Science of Guerrilla Warfare" to the Fourteenth Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica in 1929. There, Lawrence of Arabia recounts his experience masterminding the 1916-18 Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Turks and offers pointers for insurgent success. Guerrillas prevail, said Lawrence, when acting as "a vapour, blowing where they listed" and "never giving the enemy's soldier a target." But most importantly, "rebellion must have an unassailable base, something guarded not merely from attack, but from the fear of it." This base can take physical form or assume "the minds of men converted to its creed." In short, a safely implanted guerrilla force, capable of launching forceful, furtive strikes against a flat-footed enemy, will achieve "inevitable success."

Cohen echoes these lessons, asserting that "conventional forces would always prefer that the insurgents concentrate so they can be fought conventionally." American policy, wittingly or not, coaxed the jihadists into self-segregation in Fallujah where they could be confronted decisively. But when I asked Cohen if we were correct to oust the concentrated force from Fallujah, he said that we were "much better off. Insurgencies need base areas or sanctuaries, places to train, plan, rest, indoctrinate, etc. Part of good CI strategy is smashing those."

In other words, by "smashing" the terrorists' safe haven, we have clearly done them a great disservice. The highlights include between 1,200 and 1,600 enemy dead, 653 roadside bombs detected and destroyed, 11 bomb-making factories found, and thousands of mines, grenades, mortar rounds, and automatic rifles confiscated. Zarqawi reportedly berated Sunni religious leaders for their perfidy and warned supporters that "Once they have finished with Fallujah, they will head toward you."

However, Cohen cautions that our campaign "will be a long, long story" and that we must "keep the pressure on" the enemy while not motivating others to join them. Indeed, Fall's warning that political progress must accompany battlefield victories rings true today; the U.S. must do everything in its power to ensure a relatively peaceful democratic transition that incorporates the Sunni minority and pulls the rug out from under the jihadists by denying them a figurative base in the "minds of men" sympathetic to their cause.

Nevertheless, Fallujah should be viewed as a great success precisely because our Marines and GIs at once confronted, destroyed, and dispersed a concentration of insurgents. It surely was helpful to have Fallujah magnetically draw the terrorists into its precincts, and even more helpful to have American forces rout them in large numbers -- and put the rest on the run.

Michael M. Rosen, a TCS contributor, taught in Harvard's Government Department from 2001-2003.


TCS Daily Archives