If your media diet for the last two weeks consisted exclusively of watching network news shows and reading the front pages of the major newspapers, you might have missed the fact that America is still at war. Although nearly every poll places Iraq at the top of voters’ minds, and nearly every presidential candidate makes references to Iraq on the campaign trail, the war no longer dominates the daily headlines or the American consciousness.
Recent dispatches from Iraq should change that. Over the last week, seven U.S. combat battalions (roughly 10 percent of the total American combat force in Iraq) have poured into a 100-square-mile area northeast of Baghdad to root out al-Qaida in Mesopotamia cells. There have been many similar offensives over the last five years, but this one may be different. It may also serve as a harbinger of things to come. It represents the first post-surge offensive by the U.S. military—an attempt to clear an area without there being a sizable number of troops available to occupy it afterward. Reports of the assault also illustrate continuing problems with the Iraqi army—a force so untrustworthy that U.S. commanders refused to tell them about the operation until the eleventh hour. And this particular offensive may reveal some of the limits of our counterinsurgency tactics—although they worked in arid, Sunni-dominated Anbar, they may not be effective in rugged, lush, mixed-Sunni/Shiite/Kurdish Diyala.
Commanders call this area of Diyala province the “breadbasket.” The Diyala River flows down from the Hamrin mountain range, giving rise to verdant farms, palm groves, and riverine areas that bear little resemblance to more arid areas in the south and west of Iraq. Small towns dot the countryside, ranging from as few as 50 residents to as many as 100,000 in the main town of Muqdadiyah. To the north and east, the Diyala river valley gives way to rugged mountains dominated by Iraqi Kurds. The rocky terrain, small towns, and dense vegetation offer countless ways and places for insurgents to evade detection.
The human terrain in this part of the Diyala province also creates challenges for U.S. commanders. Historically, the Diyala river valley served as a resort area for Saddam Hussein’s government. Today’s insurgency, and to a lesser extent, al-Qaida in Mesopotamia, relies on those roots for sustenance and support. Journalists in Diyala report extensive foreknowledge about the offensive among civilians, who use such low-tech (but highly effective) methods as counting helicopters to gauge U.S. military activity.
Diyala is also an ethnically mixed province where Sunnis and Shiites often live together in the same town, though some towns are dominated by one sect. It also has a sizable Kurdish population—with its own ambitions—in the north and east. Shiites lead the provincial government and many of the Iraqi army and police units in Diyala, although many Sunni leaders also serve in the army and police. This frustrates efforts to build bridges over the sectarian divide, and demobilize sectarian militias, because many Sunnis perceive a continuing need to ally themselves with al-Qaida in Mesopotamia or the Sunni insurgency so that the community is capable of opposing the Shiite-dominated Iraqi security forces. And for their part, Shiites perceive the same need, too. To succeed in Diyala, commanders will need to manage a much more complicated set of relationships than in homogenous Anbar province. To some extent, Diyala may be even tougher to secure than Baghdad, because its size makes it impossible to build walls to protect the population or put a soldier on every street corner, and the population hasn’t gone through the same rounds of ethnic cleansing and homogenization that have occurred in Baghdad.
All this partly explains the size of the offensive. It’s an attempt to impose security on these warring insurgent cells and sectarian militias by brute force in a very hard-to-secure part of the country. By way of comparison, in April 2004, a task force of three Marine battalions assaulted the city of Fallujah after the brutal killing of four U.S. contractors there. In November 2004, the Marines launched their second assault on Fallujah with six battalions of combat troops and an arsenal of airpower and artillery. Now, in the Diyala breadbasket, U.S. forces are sending seven battalions plus various special forces units and a comparable amount of firepower. This for an area of Iraq previously occupied by only one battalion of about 500 troops—or sometimes fewer—during the last three years.
One truism about the surge has been that where we deploy sufficient numbers of U.S. troops, we prevail. There is no doubt that this quantity of U.S. troops will clear this small area of insurgents and al-Qaida fighters. The only question for the near term is whether our troops will kill, capture, or merely push those fighters out of the breadbasket. This has been the pattern for U.S. military operations since 2003, and yet the insurgency continues. The more important question is whether the U.S. military—and its partners in the Iraqi army and police—can secure the area for the long term, and do so with fewer and fewer U.S. troops as the surge ends.
Unfortunately, on this score, the record looks more mixed. American commanders in Iraq still do not trust their Iraqi counterparts in the army and police enough to tell them about significant offensives before they begin—lest they leak word of the planned maneuvers to the insurgents, as apparently happened last June, when a large campaign to retake Baqubah found the city largely deserted by al-Qaida fighters. Further, news reports from Iraq indicate that the offensive is being planned, executed, and led by American forces with little reliance on Iraqi troops. That does not speak well of Iraqi forces’ competence, nor bode well for their ability to secure the Diyala breadbasket after U.S. troops complete the offensive.
And secure it they must, for the clock is running down on the American occupation of Iraq. In comments to reporters last week, Gen. David Petraeus spoke of an “Iraqi surge,” referring to an uptick in recruiting and training for army and police units that would provide the security presence Iraq needs after U.S. troops depart. “It is very important to remember that our surge is dwarfed by the Iraqi surge that is taking place,” said Petraeus, adding that “the official Iraqi security force has increased by something like 110,000 or so in the past year—during which [time] our surge was 30,000.” Although these Iraqi units will inherit a security situation substantially better than that of one year ago, they will also have to contend with the tough challenges posed by places like Diyala, to say nothing of Kirkuk and Mosul. Ready or not, these Iraqi troops will write the final chapter of the Iraq war with their performance. Meanwhile, our seven battalions in the Diyala river valley soldier on.