Two, Three, Many Fallujahs

Mackubin T. Owens

December 1, 2004

The takedown of terrorists in Fallujah seems to have gone well. The terrorists, as expected, fought hard and mostly to the death, but U.S. and Iraqi casualties remain lower than the history of urban warfare would have led us to expect. Success in Fallujah can be attributed to two factors: a well-conceived plan and the outstanding execution of that plan by Marines and soldiers on the ground.

But the second-guessing has already begun. Critics are asking what the operation in Fallujah really accomplished. They note that the insurgents’ leaders appear to have escaped and that violence has erupted elsewhere in northern Iraq. Media accounts also routinely describe the fighting outside Fallujah as a "rebel counteroffensive" that surprised the U.S. military, implying that the reduction of Fallujah merely created more insurgents.

But the view conveyed by these headlines is myopic. An equivalent headline in June 1944 would have read: "Massive U.S. Casualties on Omaha Beach; Hitler’s Reich Remains Intact, Defiant." Such stories fail to place Fallujah, Mosul, Tal Afar, and other cities in northern Iraq in context. The fact is that Fallujah is part of a campaign, a series of coordinated events—movements, battles, and supporting operations—designed to achieve strategic or operational objectives within a military theater. Fallujah is just one battle, albeit an extremely important one, in a comprehensive campaign to stabilize the Sunni Triangle.

The key to a successful campaign is the proper sequencing of events. That sequencing depends on circumstances, which are always changing. A campaign begins with a plan, of course, but no plan can be locked in concrete. It was Helmuth von Moltke, chief of the Prussian general staff during the wars of German unification, who observed that "no plan of operation extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force. Only the layman thinks that he can see in the course of the campaign the consequent execution of the original idea with all the details thought out in advance and adhered to until the very end."

The commander, wrote Moltke, must keep his objective in mind, "undisturbed by the vicissitudes of events….But the path on which he hopes to reach it can never be firmly established in advance. Throughout the campaign he must make a series of decisions on the basis of situations that cannot be foreseen. The successive acts of war are thus not premeditated designs, but on the contrary are spontaneous acts guided by military measures. Everything depends on penetrating the uncertainty of veiled situations to evaluate the facts, to clarify the unknown, to make decisions rapidly, and then to carry them out with strength and constancy."

In other words, able commanders choose between alternative courses of action depending on the circumstances. If my fleet has been driven from the western Pacific and I want to be in position to bring sustained force against the Japanese home islands, what steps do I have to take? If I want to defeat Germany and I am now at Normandy, what is the best course of action? If my goal is to create the military and political conditions for a more liberal Iraq, what sequence of events leads to this outcome?

When they controlled Fallujah, the rebels were able to sustain a high rate of attack against the Iraqi government and coalition forces. Fallujah gave them infrastructure—human and physical—and provided the security needed to maintain a large terrorist network. As one military analyst, writing for the Belmont Club blog, has remarked, in the absence of sanctuary, large terrorist organizations cannot survive. Without sanctuary, terrorist networks are reduced to "small, clandestine hunted bands."

Thus, the key to success in the Sunni Triangle is the destruction of the enemy infrastructure. The discoveries by American troops of car-bomb factories and vast stockpiles of arms and explosives indicate that Fallujah was the keystone of this infrastructure. It is true that many rebels, including the ringleader, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, escaped from Fallujah. It is also true that violence has erupted in Mosul, Ramadi, and other cities of this area. But without a secure base in Fallujah, the effectiveness of Zarqawi’s operation is likely to decline.

Here’s what a senior U.S. diplomat recently told the Seattle Times: "There will be horrific events outside Fallujah… I would never tell you that violence in Sunni areas won’t get worse when you open up a battle." That period, he added, is not expected to last long. "You will have a shortish period when everybody will say the whole country’s falling apart but they [the insurgents] will not be able to maintain that tempo." In other words, the rebels can attack on a broad front for a while, but they will not be able to keep it up for long. What is going on in the Sunni Triangle is not so much a "rebel counteroffensive" as it is the last desperate gasp of a group running out of time and space.

The coalition must now go after the rest of the rebel infrastructure, which consists of a series of towns that coincide with two infiltration routes: The first runs from the Syrian border to the Euphrates, and then on to Baghdad and Fallujah; the second, from Iran and Kurdistan along the Tigris.

All wars hinge on logistics. No force, conventional or guerrilla, can continue to fight if it is not resupplied. Storming Fallujah was absolutely essential to the destruction of the rebel logistics infrastructure. The city was the terminus of what the Belmont Club calls "the conveyor belt of destruction that flow[s] from the Syrian border toward Baghdad." Just as the capture of Caen and St. Lô by the Allies in 1944 was a necessary prelude to the breakout from the bocage and the use of Cherbourg and Le Havre to support the drive across France, so the takedown of Fallujah is necessary to the security of Baghdad.

The rebels can expect no respite. American, British, and Iraqi forces will maintain a high operational tempo to prevent them from regrouping in the cities along their lines of communications and supply. If logistics are the sinews of war, we can expect that the next steps in the campaign will involve further interdiction of the rebels’ lines of communication, perhaps at both ends of the Syria-Euphrates line: in Ramadi, closer to Baghdad; and in Arah and Qusabayah, near the Syrian border.

There will almost certainly be more heavy fighting in the near future. But it will be necessary to achieve the overall goal of the campaign. And if we are to achieve our political goal in Iraq, this campaign must succeed.

Mackubin Thomas Owens is an associate dean of academics and professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. He led a Marine rifle platoon in Vietnam in 1968-69.