Behind the Casualties

Mackubin T. Owens

August 1, 2005

The recent spike in U.S. casualties in Iraq, although tragic, needs to be placed in strategic context. As usual, the press has not done so, focusing on the loss of life without any apparent effort to understand what the fighting that led to these casualties means.

But the answer is there for anyone who wishes to probe beneath the surface. In fact, the intense fighting indicates that Coalition forces have stepped up their campaign in Al Anbar province to destroy the insurgency by depriving it of its base in the Sunni Triangle and its “rat lines”—the infiltration routes that run from the Syrian border into the heart of Iraq.

One rat line follows the Euphrates River corridor—running from Syria to Husayba on the Syrian border and then through Qaim, Rawa, Haditha, Asad, Hit and Fallujah to Baghdad. The other follows the course of the Tigris—from the north through Mosul-Tel Afar to Tikrit and on to Baghdad.

The main difference between this operation, dubbed Operation Quick Strike, and Operations Matador and New Market earlier this year is that the ongoing action is substantially larger in both scope and magnitude, enabling the Coalition to apply force simultaneously against a number of insurgent strongholds.

The previous operations, although successful up to a point, nonetheless couldn’t prevent the insurgents from abandoning one town and moving to another not threatened by allied forces. According to one U.S. officer, Operation Quick Strike has substantially hindered the movement of insurgents on both sides of the river.

Brig. Gen. Carter Ham, commander of the multinational brigade conducting the operation, explained the strategic context of Operation Quick Strike during a briefing at the Pentagon on Wednesday:

Multinational Force West is conducting a number of operations in a number of those towns simultaneously, in an effort to deny the enemy freedom of movement, to deny them safe haven… Previously [the insurgents] may have had an opportunity to move. For example, if there was pressure in Hadithah, they could perhaps move someplace else.

Well, now, because of the simultaneity of operations that Multinational Force West is conducting, they don’t have that freedom of movement, and I think that’s one of the contributing causes to [the increased] number of direct contacts that are occurring.

Ham also pointed out that the additional forces that made it possible to conduct simultaneous operations of this magnitude were Iraqi security forces. Ham explained that Iraqi forces were not directly involved in the Hadithah operation—but were in Rawah, the next town to the northwest. This is good news. It indicates that Iraqis are making progress in developing a competent army.

Of course, we mourn the loss of these Marines, as we do the loss of all service members fighting in this war. But the recent uptick in casualties indicates not so much that the enemy is becoming more aggressive, but that we are. Casualties always increase when one side goes on the offensive. The fact that we are applying force simultaneously means that the enemy has no place to run and must stand and fight.

As in Fallujah, this means more Coalition casualties, but it also means that the insurgents are being killed and captured away from Baghdad. This buys more time for the Iraqis to draft their constitution.

I am not a fan of comparing the Iraq war to Vietnam, but I think there is one comparison that may work, at least at the operational level of war. After Gen. Creighton Abrams replaced Gen. William Westmoreland as commander of U.S. troops in Vietnam, he adopted a “spoiling” strategy, designed to disrupt the offensive timetables of the North Vietnamese Army and buy more time for Vietnamization—the policy of building South Vietnam’s army up to the point where it could handle most defense jobs on its own.

Abrams’ aggressive strategy led to heavy fighting—as exemplified by two major actions in South Vietnam’s Ashau Valley during the first half of 1969: the 9th Marine Regiment’s Operation Dewey Canyon and the 101st Airborne Division’s epic battle for “Hamburger Hill.” But such operations bought time for South Vietnam.

The battle for “Hamburger Hill” was loudly denounced by members of Congress, including a very vocal Sen. Edward Kennedy, who—like today’s Iraq-war critics (including an older-but-little-wiser Sen. Kennedy)—failed to understand the strategic objectives shaping campaigns and operations. We can only hope that, unlike Sen. Kennedy and his ilk in 1975, the current Congress does not use U.S. casualties as an excuse for pulling the rug out from under an ally.

Mackubin Thomas Owens, an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center, is professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, RI. He led a Marine rifle platoon in Vietnam in 1968-69.