The Battle for Baghdad

History suggests we are surging the wrong troops, holding the wrong ground, following the wrong strategy and fighting the wrong way in Iraq.

In January 1957, Gen. Jacques Massu, commander of the French 10th Parachute Division, marched his elite paratroopers into the capital of Algeria. Insurgents had taken their three-year-old war to the streets of Algiers. They had unleashed a wave of bombings and assassinations aimed at driving the European population and the government's security forces out of the country, leaving Algerians to govern themselves. Algiers was in the grip of terror; the city's police forces overwhelmed by guerrilla attacks. Massu's paratroopers were to destroy the bomb network and clean out the nest of guerrillas ensconced in the city's densely packed Arab quarter, the Casbah. So began the Battle of Algiers, later memorialized by Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo's 1965 film of the same name.

As Alistair Horne described in his magisterial account of the war, A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962 (Viking, 1978), the battle-hardened French commanders, the legendary "para-colonels," veterans of the last-gasp Battle of Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam, "operated from the beginning with a swift ruthlessness that was to characterize the whole battle."

The French cordoned off entire neighborhoods, including the troublesome Casbah, established checkpoints at all exits and began combing house to house for bomb makers. Mass roundups and arrests followed; the French carried out targeted assassinations and a well-publicized torture campaign that sullied the entire effort. French intelligence built a detailed picture of the bomber networks, which then were dismantled one by one, until the last insurgents were cornered and killed. By September, the battle was over, the insurgency in the city at least temporarily eliminated.

In Iraq, the Battle of Baghdad is running into its fourth inconclusive year. On April 7, 2003, armored columns from the Army's 3rd Infantry Division blasted their way into downtown Baghdad. Two days later, video footage of Saddam Hussein's statue being hauled down by an American tank was beamed around the world, intended to symbolize Baghdad's fall. But the American military never conquered the city. Today, Americans control little more there than they did in those heady days of 2003: the airport, the Green Zone and a handful of bases that dot the city. These tiny fortresses are surrounded by millions of Iraqis still subjected to daily bombings, torture and assassination. While heavily armed Americans traverse the city every day, "once the patrol rolls down the street, it returns to the insurgents," says a U.S. officer.

The Army's 3rd Infantry Division is returning for a third try in the past four years at taking Baghdad. The division spent 2005 fighting there. Now, its soldiers are part of the surge of 21,500 American troops being dispatched to join some 15,000 already in the embattled city. This latest iteration of the Battle of Baghdad is viewed as President George W. Bush's last-gasp effort to salvage the Iraq debacle and extricate the American military from an unpopular war.

By throwing more troops into Baghdad, Bush has gone against the advice of his former leading commanders in Iraq. It was only in November that outgoing Central Command chief Army Gen. John P. Abizaid told a Senate panel the infusion of more American troops wouldn't have long-term impact in Iraq. In fact, Abizaid, along with Iraq commander Army Gen. George W. Casey, has spent much of the past two years trying to get the American military out of the city. Abizaid and Casey had conceded that the American military was unlikely to wrest control from the insurgents there, a protracted job better handled by Iraq's own security forces, they thought. Many American commanders view their presence as part of the problem. American troops on the streets of Baghdad, kicking in doors, crashing into Iraqi cars with their armored vehicles and shooting innocent Iraqi civilians, are the face of foreign occupation that fuels the insurgency.

From the war's very first days, the American military has tried to avoid being sucked into the sprawling city, home to nearly 6 million Iraqis.

Daunted at the prospect of bloody urban fighting, U.S. commanders planned to avoid a direct assault on Baghdad in 2003. Instead, American soldiers were to encircle the city, prevent anybody from going in or out, and make way for Special Forces and CIA paramilitary troops to infiltrate the Shiite slums of Sadr City and foment a popular uprising to bring down Saddam's government. Planners assembled a force large enough to cordon off the city, but not nearly large enough to control it. Armed bands of Shiites, once envisioned as potential foot soldiers in an insurrection against Saddam, now operate as death squads throughout Baghdad, part of a genocidal campaign against Iraq's Sunni population.

President Bush has committed the American military to a decisive campaign on terrain that could not be less favorable to a conventional army fighting shadowy insurgents and armed militias. The city's urban canyons and compact neighborhoods provide an ideal battleground for guerrilla fighters to nullify Americans' overwhelming firepower through sniper attacks and roadside bombs. Baghdad's sympathetic civilians provide insurgents ready concealment. The insurgents have no reason to fight Americans toe to toe; roadside bombs provide a nearly risk-free way to inflict casualties even when American troops remain inside their vehicles' steel-plated armor.

"The Battle of Baghdad will determine the future of Iraq," America's ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, declared last summer in a Wall Street Journal editorial kicking off the military's previous Baghdad surge, Operation Forward Together. Despite the additional troops in Baghdad's streets, violence in the city soared to its highest levels since 2003. The operation failed. When announcing his new plan in January, Bush ascribed the failure to a shortage of troops needed both to clear Baghdad's neighborhoods of insurgents and to hold them once cleared. Bush said his new plan will work because more troops are being dispatched to the city and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has promised Iraq' security forces will make a better showing this time.

Lessons of Algiers

The French Army won the Battle of Algiers because they had advantages the Americans lack. The urban bomber networks were concentrated in a single neighborhood, the Casbah. French paratroopers were able to cordon off and squeeze the Casbah. The insurgent bombing network was small, numbering in the dozens. Baghdad is at least 20 times the size of Algiers' Casbah. Instead of the Casbah's 100,000 people, Baghdad is home to almost 60 times as many Iraqis. And while nobody has been able to put a firm number on how many insurgents are active in the city, an Army intelligence officer recently said they number in the thousands, operating in small cells spread throughout Baghdad.

The new strategy suffers from a fundamental misreading of Iraq's insurgency and of guerrilla warfare in general. A "clear, hold and build" strategy, originally designed to combat a rural insurgency and focused on small hamlets, is not really applicable to a sprawling city of 6 million inhabitants.

Certainly, when American combat troops surge into Baghdad, the level of violence will drop; it does wherever the American beat cop appears. But the strategy assumes the insurgency is defeated once American and Iraqi troops hold cleared neighborhoods. Not so, insurgents don't need to hold ground. Following the second battle for Fallujah in November 2004, and an extensive debate on jihadi Web sites, Iraq's insurgent groups agreed they would never try to hold any other cities. In response to the clear, hold and build strategy, they announced one of their own: "recoil, redeploy and spoil." They put it into practice in Tal Afar, a city of about 200,000 people in northern Iraq, in mid-2005, says Peter Harling, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based research organization. When the Americans arrived in Tal Afar in force, insurgents simply slipped out of the city. Harling says they have developed specific tactics for their new strategy, such methods for leaving a city using civilian cover and ways to attack a cordon from outside.

The insurgents don't have to hold terrain, but American and Iraqi security forces must. American troops are forced to hold tiny, isolated bits of ground, such as Haifa Street in downtown Baghdad, the scene of recent firefights between Iraqi security forces and insurgents. Holding the airport road, a six-mile stretch of highway through central Baghdad, also is considered a "strategic priority," requiring the constant dedication of American combat units.

Bush and his advisers have declared Baghdad the enemy's center of gravity. It is not. Baghdad is but a battleground, an area rich with insurgent targets, be they American patrols or innocent Iraqi civilians, an area to demonstrate with every bombing and assassination the weakness of Iraq's government and its inability to deliver basics such as security or electricity. Army Lt. Col. Ross Brown, who commanded an armored cavalry unit that fought south of Baghdad, explained it in a December 2005 interview at his base in southern Baghdad. "Here you have the battle zone," he said, pointing to Baghdad on a map hanging on his office wall. Then he swept his hand across North Babil, a rural area south of Baghdad, "and down here, you have the insurgents' support zone, that's where they cache their weapons, that's where they meet, that's where they train and then they do their attacks up here, and then they come back down [to NorthBabil]."

More Troops, More Targets

It is an axiom of counterinsurgency that successful insurgencies require a sanctuary, a safe haven where fighters can escape pursuit, replenish weapons stocks, train new fighters and plan attacks. In Vietnam, the Viet Cong took refuge in neighboring Cambodia, Laos and North Vietnam; in Afghanistan, the Taliban flow easily from their sanctuaries in the lawless tribal lands of western Pakistan across a largely unguarded border to carry out attacks. In Iraq, the Sunni insurgency has North Babil, a latticework of canals, farmland and small villages spreading southward from Baghdad in the Euphrates River Valley. The area is more commonly called the Triangle of Death, and it has become a black hole in America's counterinsurgency war in Iraq.

Before 2003, North Babil was the heart of Saddam's military industrial complex and many of the area's residents worked at military factories. The area is heavily Sunni Arab, and is still dominated by large Sunni tribes, such as the Jabouris, who have long controlled much of the Euphrates River Valley. The area's rural farmland is a favorite launching point for insurgents who regularly shoot rockets and mortar shells into Baghdad's crowded neighborhoods and the Green Zone. It is also the path smugglers use to move money, people and weapons into Baghdad from western Iraq. They come down the Euphrates River Valley, swing south to avoid large American bases surrounding the airport west of the city and stash munitions in fields and farmhouses in North Babil until they're ready to infiltrate them into the city via southern suburban neighborhoods, such as Dora, which over the past three years has seen the highest level of insurgent attacks of any part of Baghdad. As American troops pour into Baghdad, the insurgents will withdraw to their sanctuaries and spread violence and chaos elsewhere.

The French won the Battle of Algiers because they had excellent intelligence gathered by the deplorable practice of torture and by a tactic worthy of imitation: sending turncoat insurgents to spy on their former comrades. Intelligence is the lifeblood of counterinsurgency. Only Iraqis can move freely in Iraq without generating suspicion and scrutiny. More specifically, only Sunnis can move freely among the Sunni population of Baghdad. They can enter cafés and mosques, where insurgent cells typically meet. Most important, they can positively identify suspected insurgents for whom Americans might have only a name.

Asked to sum up the latest U.S. plan for Baghdad, a military intelligence officer wrote in an e-mail: "more troops = more targets = more casualties." It's worth considering whether a surge in Iraqi intelligence operatives might not make more sense.

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