Saturday, October 16, 2004
THE LESSONS OF NAJAF
"The idea in war is to crush your enemy. If you're in a fight with a fly, use a baseball bat."
--former Colonel Douglas Macgregor, on the Najaf action
Much of the military reporting from Iraq suffers from the same politicization affecting nearly all writing from that country. People tend to be invested in either the success or failure of the American effort there (most often the latter), and it’s often difficult to get an objective look at operations there. Especially when there are no embedded reporters at an action, we only get a vague idea of what’s happening until long afterwards: So it was with Najaf.
During the battles in Najaf, much of the reportage was out of the “Iraq descends further into chaos” boilerplate with only faraway glances at the actual fighting: “US warplanes screeched overhead as a fire raged in the historic city centre and thick black smoke spewed into the sky…The deafening thud of heavy artillery fire could be heard from the direction of the city's vast cemetery…Suspected U.S. AC-130 gunships have pounded positions held by Sh'ite militiamen…large orange multiple flashes have lit the night sky….” And so on. The few conclusions drawn at the time were pessimistic in the extreme, and insurgent propaganda (Scott Baldauf of the Christian Science Monitor informed us that “Many, if not most, of the casualties are civilians”) was taken at face value.
In fact, Najaf—as we saw only in retrospect—was an immensely important strategic victory for the Coalition. A failure in Najaf likely would have lost the entire country. The terrorist havens of the Sunni triangle are a mess, and will remain a mess for a long time, but they don’t and can’t change the equation: In a country where Sunnis are only a fifth of the population, Sunni insurgents have an overwhelming demographic disadvantage. Even if every foreign soldier left Iraq tomorrow, the inevitable civil war would still leave the Sunni insurgents as dead as an eventual American/Iraqi assault would. But Najaf was the key to the stability of the majority Shia areas, and in the triage of insurgencies it had to come first.
The tactical implications of the assault on Najaf are just as interesting as the strategic. A few days after the end of hostilities, a story by Karl Vick of the Washington Post detailed the current state of the art in American urban combat doctrine:
The damage to Najaf is the consequence of an urban setting for battle, a woefully overmatched enemy and an American military doctrine that unites terrifying firepower with almost zero tolerance for casualties in its own ranks. "If we take fire from it, we destroy the whole building," an Army commander said Thursday, after he ordered junior officers in his headquarters to do just that, once they received clearance, against a structure the Mahdi Army militia, the enemy here, was using as a firebase.
What is new here is the devastating impact of combined arms fire in urban environments. The combined Army/Marine attack used 155mm howitzers, hovering Apache gunships, Abrams and Bradley armor, and on-call fighter-bomber support. The result was a kind of brute-force urban combat not like any seen before.
Urban assaults have tended to fit into one of two scenarios: Either bloody house-to-house meatgrinder combat of the Stalingrad variety, or total destruction from a distance, as with the Russian assault on Grozny in 1995 or the Syrian annihilation of the rebel city of Hama in 1982. But in Najaf…
…there was little house-to-house fighting, officers said. Maj. Scott Jackson, the 2nd Battalion's executive officer, described U.S. forces advancing using a kind of citified version of the island-hopping strategy used in World War II in the Pacific, attacking the militia at its strong points and establishing strong points of its own, then dominating the surrounding terrain. Tanks were very useful. One strong point was tall buildings, which offered platforms for scores of American snipers. Precision fire was a must, given the bar imposed on firing heavy guns toward the [Imam Ali] shrine.
Soldiers from the 2nd Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment; the 1st Battalion, 5th Cavalry Regiment, as well as a battalion landing team from the 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment participated in the fighting, according to a later report in Stars and Stripes. 1-5 Cav and BLT 1/4 moved from the north toward Najaf’s Medina —the Imam Ali mosque area, and the epicenter of the Mahdi army’s defensive setup — 2-7 Cavalry came from the south and east through the old city of Najaf.
"Our original plan...was aimed at seizing areas from which we could dominate portions of the city," said a 2-7 Cav operations officer. Even the anti-American Guardian couldn’t help but admire the operation:
The US forces used three main weapons: armoured vehicles in the streets, demolishing suspected al-Mahdi positions; Apache helicopter gunships with jets in support; and snipers. The snipers established themselves around the edge of the old city. Their aim was to shut down the flow of food and ammunition into the shrine and to limit the Mahdi fighters' movement in the town. They did it with devastating ruthlessness.
Though a minority of the American forces in the operation were Marines, they took the majority of casualties: seven dead, compared to only three soldiers who died, an imbalance credited to one thing, according to the New York Times. “Commanders and front-line soldiers say that the Army's tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles reduced American casualties while demoralizing the insurgents, who could not stop the heavy armor.” And, in a few weeks in August, the entire book on urban warfare was rewritten.
Simulating a tactical urban battle like Najaf would be challenging because of the rapidly-changing physical battlefield. Where entire city blocks can disappear in a few minutes under withering combined-arms fire, it would be best to have a modular component to the map or terrain.
And victory conditions, because of the overwhelming firepower superiority of the American side, would get very odd. You might have to do it on some kind of a body-count or kill-ratio basis, because there isn’t any other measurable way that the insurgents can win.