Precision of Base Attack Worries Military Experts
Precision of Base Attack Worries Military Experts (Thomas Ricks, WaPo, A01)
The major difference between the latest attack and the earlier incidents is that it was an attack on a U.S. base, rather than on troops in transit in vulnerable aircraft. That difference appears to reflect both the persistence of the insurgency and its growing sophistication, as experts noted that it seemed to be based on precise intelligence. Most disturbingly, some officers who have served in Iraq worried that the Mosul attack could mark the beginning of a period of even more intense violence preceding the Iraqi elections scheduled for Jan. 30.
“On the strategic level, we were expecting an horrendous month leading up to the Iraqi elections, and that has begun,” retired Army Col. Michael E. Hess said.
Jeffrey White, a former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst of Middle Eastern military affairs, said he is especially worried that the insurgents’ next move will be an actual penetration by fighters into a base. “The real danger here is that they will mount a sophisticated effort to penetrate or assault one of our camps or bases with a ground element,” he said.
If anti-American violence does hit a new level, pressure is likely to increase on the Bush administration to either boost the U.S. military presence in Iraq or find a fast way to get out. The adequacy of current troop numbers is one of the questions provoked by yesterday’s action, said Charles McComas, a veteran Special Forces soldier who served in Afghanistan before retiring. “Do we have the right forces and enough of them to do the offensive patrolling to reduce the chances of this happening again?” he asked. A private-sector security expert who recently left Baghdad after more than a year there agreed, noting that the United States originally put an entire division in the Mosul area, the 101st Airborne, but replaced it earlier this year with a force about half that size, only to see insurgent attacks increase. “We have replaced a division with a brigade and think we can offer the same amount of security,” he said, insisting on anonymity because his opinions are so at odds with the official U.S. government view.
The attack also indicates that the insurgency is growing more sophisticated with the passage of time. One of the basic principles of waging a counterinsurgency is that it requires patience. “Twenty-one months” — the length of the occupation so far — “is not a long time to tame the tribal warfare expected there,” said retired Marine Lt. Col. Rick Raftery, an intelligence specialist who operated in northern Iraq in 1991. “My guess is that this will take 10 years.”
Another principle, less noted but painfully clear yesterday, is that insurgents also tend to sharpen their tactics as time goes by. Over the past 20 months, enemy fighters have learned a lot about how the U.S. military operates and where its vulnerabilities lie. “The longer you are anywhere, the more difficult it becomes,” said Hess, who served in northern Iraq in 1991 and in Bosnia in 1996. “They have changed their tactics a lot in the year-plus.”
Several experts noted that insurgents appear to have acted on accurate intelligence. Kalev Sepp, a former Special Forces counterinsurgency expert who recently returned from Iraq, noted that the attack “was carried out in daylight against the largest facility on the base, at exactly the time when the largest number of soldiers would be present.” “This combination of evidence indicates a good probability that the attack was well-planned and professionally executed,” Sepp said.
The “more troops” refrain sounds good, although it’s not entirely clear how that would have prevented this incident–even if the troops existed from which to draw. More troops garrisoned in a compound simply make it a more target rich environment. The way to prevent mortar attacks is to take out the mortars, which involves raids into enemy positons and/or blowing up said positions with air or artillery strikes. Given the nature of the mission, I don’t think the political will exists to take such aggressive measures. Further, they may well doom the mission. This paradox is what insurgents and terrorists count on.