Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The "patrol base" attack

The suicide-bomb attack this week that killed nine American soldiers in Iraq has understandably received a lot of attention in the news:Al-Qa'ida group behind US deaths in Iraq by Patrick Cockburn Independent 04/25/07. What hasn't been clear in a lot of the reporting is that they were struck in a "patrol base" which is an essential part of the Petraeus strategy for the McCain escalation currently under way. As a point of historical reference, at the height of American fighting in Vietnam, American KIAs (killed in actions) were running at about 10 per day. Cockburn reports:
The US military said that only one truck had exploded yesterday at a patrol base of the 82nd Airborne Division in the much-fought over province of Diyala, north-east of Baghdad. The death of the paratroopers brings to 85 the number of US soldiers killed in Iraq so far this month. This is higher than the total in each of the previous three months.

Residents in the Ameen area south of the provincial capital, Baquba, said the base attacked was in an old primary school called Sheikh Abdul Qadir al-Qailani. In a sophisticated attack, gunmen opened fire on US snipers on the roof of the school. Then one suicide truck bomb blasted a gap in the concrete wall protecting the base through which a second truck was able to pass before blowing up and causing the school building to collapse. (my emphasis)
The current strategy calls for establishing these small "patrol bases" staffed by American troops in neighborhoods throughout Baghdad and other target areas; the one sucessfully attack this week was in Diyala province, as Cockburn reports. Previously, American troops had been concentrated in larger and heavily-defended bases, emerging for individual patrols and then returning to base. The "patrol bases" are supposed to let the Americans get more familiar with the neighborhoods and developed better intelligence on insurgent operations.

In counterinsurgency theory, this getting closer to the people is a necessary step, though it will be likely to produce higher US casualties, including KIAs, in the short run. Cockburn writes:
But the US strategy since the start of the "surge" in Baghdad on 14 February has been to make greater use of US troops and give less priority to training Iraqi forces. This is likely to lead to an increase in US casualties that are often a function of the number of patrols being made. ...

The most effective method of attack against US and British forces has been the roadside bomb, to which neither has found an effective answer. No less than 1,310 US military fatalities have been caused by bombs in or beside roads. While the suicide bombers have hitherto not concentrated on US forces, possibly because they are too well defended, the more aggressive use of US forces is likely to make them more of a target.
But there are a couple of problems with this. At least a couple. One is that most American troops don't speak Arabic. And they are foreigners in Iraq. The Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) are too unreliable for the Americans to trust them enough to make the joint counterinsurgency operations effective. Plus, there aren't nearly enough of them, and the ones that are there are more loyal to sectarian militias than to the Iraqi government. And the military is apparently giving up for the time being on hoping for American training of the ISF providing any immediate relief.

The PBS Newshour on Tuesday featured Judy Woodruff interviewing Phil Carter, who has served in Iraq as an Army captain and writes on intelligence issues, and neocon ideologue Frederick Kagan, who is considered one of the intellectual godfathers of the McCain escalation, aka, The Surge:
Iraq's Diyala Province One of Deadliest for Troops 04/24/07. Carter explained how the current strategy is affecting Diyala province, where he has served:
JUDY WOODRUFF: Captain [Carter], yesterday's suicide attack on the 82nd Airborne, it was a third brigade. We know nine paratroopers killed, 20 injured. Since November, we're told 56 U.S. service members have been killed in Diyala. Why do we see the violence spiking there?

PHILLIP CARTER: Well, it looks like this is the unintended consequence of the surge. That is, you squeeze the bad guys out of Baghdad, and they pop like a water balloon up into the Diyala province, which borders Baghdad.

There's also a sense that we drew down, as Professor Kagan says, too many of our forces in this province. And so as we were squeezing in Baghdad, we were squeezing the insurgents and the militias into an area where there was not a sufficient U.S. presence.

And the third problem in Diyala is that the provincial government and the security forces are both ineffective and corrupt, and they are far more beholden to their own agendas than to any mission or security in the province.
Kagan, being the ideologue that he is, kept trying to stress the al-Qaida role in Diyala:
FREDERICK KAGAN: Well, they're going to a variety of difference places. And they've been moving around. And we've been following, as al-Qaida has been trying to establish new bases. They've been trying to do this in Salahadeen, as well.

But Diyala offers a prospect for them, because it is a mixed area, and al-Qaida's methodology in Diyala has been to attack the Shia, drive them away, and then attack the Sunni to terrorize them. That's been sort of their trademark out there, and they've been hoping that that would work for them. Diyala is a province that offers that prospect.
Carter smoothly called Kagan on it, and also talked more about how the current approach is likely to mean higher US KIA counts:
JUDY WOODRUFF: Captain Carter, again, the worst attack on the 82nd Airborne, they were saying today, in almost 40 years. Is there something that makes them particularly vulnerable in this location?

PHILLIP CARTER: There is, but first it's important to note a couple of things. First is that Diyala has long been home to Baath party elements and others. It was a favorite sort of retreat area for Iraqis in Saddam Hussein's government. So there's a fertile area for Sunni insurgents to go up there.

The second is that Colonel Sutherland's brigade has really adopted a muscular approach to counterinsurgency up there. And since when we left, it appears that they have almost resumed major combat operations. It's possible that there is a spiral effect between the way that the U.S. is acting and the way that the insurgents are acting, in the absence of reconstruction effort.

On your question, yes, this is a deadly attack. And it's because of the new way that the U.S. is postured. No longer is the U.S. simply occupying these massive super bases outside the city, but they're now pushing out into smaller outposts throughout the cities, the kind of things that might resemble a community policing substation in a housing area. We're talking small bases, with small-sized units, and they're much more vulnerable than the large bases outside of town. (my emphasis)
Kagan agreed about the higher risk of casualties involved:
So it is sort of Counterinsurgency 101, as Captain Carter described, that you really do have to get out among the population in order to make any of this work. You accept a certain degree of greater risk, especially initially, by doing that. But over the long term, the hope is that the risk goes down because you get a lot more intelligence from the people when you're doing more than just sort of driving through neighborhoods, where nobody knows you and doesn't expect you to stay there.
The Pentagon will be tempted to pull back from this "patrol base" arrangement to emphasize "force protection", i.e., minimizing American casualties. Which is likely to interfere with whatever good the current counterinsurgency approach might produce. But given the incredible difficulties in their way, that's probably just as well. Why lose people in a counterinsurgency approach that is hopeless for other reasons anyway?

Of course, the obvious follow-on question is, why lose people in a counterinsurgency war that cannot be won by Americans at any remotely acceptable cost, if at all?

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