As goes Fallujah, so goes Anbar Province; as goes Anbar, so goes Iraq. Fallujah has long been a Sunni Wahabi tribal hotbed and vital commercial crossroad. Islamic fundamentalism was brought to Fallujah hundreds of years ago via an ancient trade route, linking societies in the Arabian Peninsula with the people of Iraq. This austere, blue-collar city on the banks of the Euphrates River has been regarded as a notorious home of malcontents: even Saddam had problems controlling Fallujah’s religious zealots.
American forces easily deposed Saddam’s regime in 2003, but the fight never ended in Fallujah. The first Americans to arrive were immediately besieged and forced to hunker down in fortified outposts. The situation in Fallujah was a harbinger of events to come throughout Iraq. As in Baghdad, the enemy in Fallujah proved time and time again that America was not prepared to fight a counter-insurgent war. The United States Army simply was not trained or equipped to deal with anarchy and insurrection. A metamorphosis of mission would be needed to overcome the rising insurgency.
The American military had been restructured in the mid-80s. The Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986 had changed our military structure forever. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs was given operational authority over the service chiefs. He also became the principal military advisor to the President, National Security Council and Secretary of Defense. The intent was to bring all of the military services closer together and to create a “joint” force that could train, communicate and fight as one. The intent was not to homogenize our fighting forces, but to enable them to work together, bringing all the tools in the toolbox to any given campaign. However, while a modicum of jointness was achieved during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, for the most part the Army and Marine Corps operated independently for the first year of the war.
But in March 2004 the 1st Marine Division relieved the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division in Iraq’s western province. The Marines’ mindset was better suited to deal with third-world chaos. Years earlier they had developed the concept of the “three-block war.” The Marine Corps, in its struggle to redefine its mission after Goldwater/Nichols, worked to position itself as America’s 911 force. Marine Expeditionary Units were designed to remain afloat near potential hotspots, to be the first in. Over the years the Marines had responded to America’s security needs in Lebanon, Haiti, Grenada, Kuwait, Somalia and myriad potential hotspots. As the U.S. Military’s SWAT team, the Marines became proficient at maintaining order in third-world nations, including dealing with civilians in lawless lands. So in 2003-2004 the leadership in the Pentagon realized that the Marines were best suited to handle the chaotic situation in al Anbar Province. Therefore, after less than a year’s respite, Major General James Mattis and his 1st Marine Division returned to Iraq.
No sooner had the Marines arrived than four Blackwater security guards were attacked and brutally beaten, burned, bludgeoned and dragged through the streets of Fallujah. According to the account in Bing West’s No True Glory, the Marine commanders wanted to quietly hunt down the perpetrators of the gruesome killings. However, President Bush and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld—with visions of the 1993 “Blackhawk Down” incident in Mogadishu, Somalia—were infuriated. America’s senior leadership insisted that the Marines attack to clear the entire city. So on April 4, 2004, the Marines attacked—into an insurgent hornets’ nest. After only five days, President Bush ordered a unilateral suspension of offensive operations. Al Qaeda had won the first round of the battle for Fallujah.
How? Al Qaeda had goaded American forces into a fight; then expertly manipulated the world news media, igniting a worldwide diplomatic firestorm. Inaccurate stories and staged photos abounded of so-called Marine atrocities, convincing the world that U.S. Marines were indiscriminately killing women and children. The enemy’s propaganda was so effective that the fledgling Iraqi government insisted that the operation be suspended; the U.S.’ closest allies, the British, also demanded an immediate cessation of offensive activities.
So the Marines were ordered to stop their advance into the city and hold their positions. Even after the Marines halted, the insurgents continued to probe their lines, hoping to kill Americans and elicit another violent response. They continued to build roadblocks and prepare for the next round of fighting.
All the while, the Marines and the Iraqi Governing Council attempted to negotiate an end to the violence. By April 19, 2004, the U.S.-led coalition had reached an agreement with Fallujah’s community leaders. In an attempt to reestablish some sort of stability, the Marines agreed to patrol the city alongside Iraqi security forces. At first the city streets were calm, but violence erupted in less than twenty-four hours. Frustrated by the forced restraint, the Marines withdrew and turned over responsibility for security inside Fallujah to the newly-established “Fallujah Brigade.” This ended the first siege of Iraq’s “Wild West” stronghold.
The Fallujah Brigade had been armed and trained in the hope that its members could take back their own city. It remains debatable whether the Fallujah Brigade ever really intended to deal with the violent element within the city; its officer corps and ranks were heavily populated with former members of Saddam’s Republican Guard. Regardless of their intent, they never became an effective security force, and the Brigade disintegrated. Soon control of the city fell back into the hands of the insurgents.
While tragic, the Fallujah Brigade’s failure to maintain security was a necessary evolutionary step in the history of that war-torn city. The United States had attempted to back away and let the Iraqis bring peace and stability to their own city. The Fallujah Brigade’s failure emphasized the need for further American action and galvanized support for that action in the Iraqi national government.
But otherwise there could not have been a worse outcome to the first battle for Fallujah. The mightiest military in the world had seemingly been defeated by a ragtag band of criminal thugs; Al Qaeda proclaimed its victory over the infidel. The Marines had been unable to quickly penetrate the insurgents’ maze of roadblocks and IED-laced streets. They didn’t have the heavy assets they needed to punch through those fortifications without flattening the city with bombs and artillery.
Additionally, the Marines dashed their chances of winning the hearts and minds of the people; Al Qaeda won that battle, too. The insurgents used their victory in Fallujah to recruit fresh fighters from the local inhabitants and to attract jihadists from all over the world. The call went out: “Come to Fallujah, kill Americans, and defeat the Zionists.” The city was left isolated, with nearly 100% unemployment. All of Fallujah’s military-aged men had nothing better to do than fight the Americans who had brought chaos and destruction to their city.
By the end of April, the Marines had withdrawn to the edge of the city. General Mattis’ only hope was to contain the burgeoning insurgency within the city limits. Fallujah once again became a base of operations and a safe haven for the enemy, and an American no-man’s-land. General Mattis was continually restrained throughout the summer of 2004, as the Coalition leadership tried to get the Iraqis to help solve the problem. Given the opportunity, Mattis would have moved to clear Fallujah, but it was not meant to be. The job of defeating the enemy in Fallujah would fall to the 1st Marine Division’s next commanding general. Major General Richard F. Natonski, a longtime advocate of joint operations, assumed command in August of 2004, and planning was started for the largest joint operation of the war: Operation Phantom Fury.
The Marines had learned much since their arrival in March. They would not be turned back a second time.
Ask your local bookstore manager if they will be carrying New Dawn.
General Charles Krulak, the 31st Commandant of the Marine Corps from July 1, 1995 to June 30, 1999, defined the Marines’ mission as being able to fight a “three-block war.” This included simultaneous all-out combat operations on one block, clearing operations on the next block, and humanitarian operations on the third block.
Bing West, No True Glory.Read the full post and comments »