Delenda Est Fallujah: Insurgents Must Be Crushed

Mackubin T. Owens

May 1, 2004

From my perspective, the decision to lift the siege of Fallujah was a grave mistake. The negotiations are being sold as a way of achieving peace while sparing the lives of innocent civilians in the city; but it sends the wrong message to both our enemies and our friends. It teaches them that the United States rewards violence and terrorism and confirms the Arab belief that the Americans are soft. I hope I am wrong, but I’m afraid the decision to pull back from the city will not end well for the United States or our Iraqi allies.

The reason is simple: The fighters in Fallujah do not seek peace. They want to drive the Americans out of Iraq. They are like venomous snakes: They will kill us or our Iraqi allies if we do not kill them first. There is no negotiating with them. They see such negotiations as a sign of weakness; indeed, the fact that the powerful United States is negotiating with them permits the insurgents to claim that they have prevailed over the most powerful military in the world.

In retrospect, the refusal of the Turks to permit the 4th Infantry Division to launch a “northern front” may turn out to be one of the most momentous decisions of the war—not because the unit was necessary to topple Saddam, but because an armor unit smashing through the Sunni Triangle while the conventional war was still underway would likely have convinced the population of the region that they had been defeated.

But beyond the vagaries of war that prevented an attack from Turkey by the 4th ID, the new “American way of war” that was on display in Iraq has created significant unintended consequences that require us to re-evaluate its effectiveness. A “humane” approach to war—one that stresses precision and minimizing collateral damage—may lead a population spared the horrors of war to believe that they haven’t been defeated. And the fact is that a war ends when the defeated say it is over, not when the victors do.

This is a real dilemma for U.S. war planners. On one hand, we are justly proud of the fact that we have gone out of our way to wage war in a way designed to avoid the deaths of civilians. On the other, those same civilians may conclude that the cost of continued resistance is low. I believe that this is the case with the people of Fallujah. Unlike the Germans and Japanese in 1945, they may not believe that they were defeated. “If we can just hold on,” they may be thinking, “the Americans will go away and we can return to Sunni business as usual.”

The Fallujah rats’ nest should have been cleared out much earlier. It must be, eventually, if there is to be any hope of long-term Coalition success in Iraq. By not doing it now, we are likely to increase the cost—not only to the Marines who will have to retake real estate they were forced to give up, but also to the very civilians the negotiations seek to spare.

Urban warfare is difficult under any circumstances. It becomes more deadly when the defenders are permitted the time and leisure to prepare. The initial Marine offensive was successful in knocking the insurgents off balance and keeping them on the run. The cease-fire agreement, which now has been extended, gives the insurgents breathing space.

The distinction between combatant and noncombatant is important if war is to be waged in a humane manner. But what happens when our adversaries take advantage of our respect for this distinction? Military necessity and the law of war permit attacks on populated areas if they are used for military purposes. We should, of course, give the civilian population the opportunity to leave; if they choose to stay, they become, in effect, combatants. If the insurgents do not permit them to leave, those insurgents bear the moral responsibility for non-combatant deaths. In any event, the longer we wait, the higher the cost is bound to be.

If the Americans do not handle Fallujah, the impact will extend beyond the Sunni Triangle. It will send a message to the Shia that Sunni intransigence is being rewarded, and will strengthen the position of the troublemaker Moqtada al-Sadr, who may conclude that he and his Mahdi army have nothing to fear from the American “paper tigers.”

The war in Iraq is not yet won. It may still be lost, and, indeed, will be if Fallujah is not purged of insurgents. I hope I’m wrong, but this may be the decisive moment in our Iraq enterprise. During the Punic Wars between Carthage and the Roman Republic, Cato the Elder used to end his orations in the Senate with “delenda est Carthago” (Carthage must be destroyed). It may seem hard-hearted, but the same sentiment applies to Fallujah.

Mackubin Thomas Owens, an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center, is an associate dean of academics and professor of strategy and force planning at the Naval War College in Newport, RI. He led a Marine infantry platoon in Vietnam in 1968-1969.