Whack-a-Mole in Falluja

14 November 2004

Whack-a-Mole in Falluja

By Gwynne Dyer

“We’re going to raise the Iraqi flag over Falluja and give it back to the Fallujans,” Major-General Richard Natonski told the First Marine Division at the start of the battle for the western Iraqi city. After six days of one-sided fighting (38 American soldiers killed, and about 1,200 Iraqi resistance fighters), what’s left of the city has indeed been captured, but most Fallujans left weeks ago. So did most of the resistance fighters who were making it their base.

An estimated 30-50,000 of the city’s 300,000 people did stay, not realising how devastating US firepower would be in the final assault. Many of them are now dead or injured, though we will never know how many because the US forces refuse to count the civilians killed in their operations and forbid Iraqi official organisations to do so either. But nothing has been accomplished.

Even as Falluja was being reduced to ruins, rebels were seizing the centre of Mosul, Iraq’s third-largest city, and a third of the US blocking force around Falluja had to be sent north to deal with it. Car-bombs blew up in Baghdad, mortar rounds landed in the Green Zone, and there was heavy fighting in the town of Yusufiyah south of the capital. It’s like the fairground game of Whack-a-Mole: bash down one mole and up pops another elsewhere. And the US has just not got enough troops in Iraq to whack all the centres of the resistance at once.

This was the main issue from the start for the US Army, which was deeply opposed to the invasion plan that Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld foisted on the professional soldiers. As Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki (forced into retirement by Rumsfeld) told a Senate committee in February of last year, a force “on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers” would be needed to control Iraq after the war.

Rumsfeld retorted publicly that Shinseki’s figure was “far from the mark,” and his neo-conservative ally, Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, said: “It’s hard to conceive that it would take more forces to provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq than it would take to conduct the war itself….” But that’s exactly what the professional soldiers did foresee.

Anybody could have invaded Iraq. With a little help on sealift and air support, Belgium could have done it. The Iraqi army was comprehensively smashed in the 1991 Gulf war, and due to UN sanctions it had neither repaired its losses nor acquired any new weapons for twelve years. Only the toadies in the upper ranks of Western intelligence services managed to persuade themselves that Iraq had functioning “weapons of mass destruction;” working-level analysts overwhelmingly doubted it. The problem wasn’t the war; it was the occupation.

“All of us in the Army felt…that the defeat of the Iraqi military would be a relatively straightforward operation of fairly limited duration, but that the securing of the peace and security of a country of 25 million people spread out over an enormous geographic area would be a tremendous challenge that would take a lot of people, a lot of labour, to be done right,” said Thomas White, Secretary of the Army in 2001-03, in the Public Broadcasting Syystem’s recent “Frontline” documentary “Rumsfeld’s War.”

If there had been 300,000 US troops in Iraq when the war ended, the orgy of looting, the collapse of public order and public services, and all the consequent crime and privation that alienated the Iraqi public might have been averted. The US armed forces could have come up with that many soldiers for a year — and if order had been maintained in Iraq and elections had been held there a year ago, it would all have been over by now. But on Rumsfeld’s insistence, there were only 138,000 US troops in Iraq.

Why did he insist on that? Because proving that he could successfully invade foreign countries on short notice with relatively small forces, and without demanding major sacrifices from the US public, was key to making President Bush’s new strategic doctrine of “preemptive war” credible. It was also essential to the neo-conservatives’ dream of a lasting “Pax Americana” (which could easily involve an Iraq-sized war every couple of years). So the generals were told to shut up and follow orders.

It’s too late to fix Iraq by pumping more US troop numbers in now. The resistance has grown so widespread that it would take half a million American soldiers to win at this game of Whack-a-Mole and install an Iraqi government that would last long enough for the US to walk away from the country without humiliation. Such numbers simply aren’t available without bringing back the draft, and even the present troop level in Iraq cannot be maintained for more than another year without drastic new measures.

In any case, these might-have-beens are irrelevant since the Bush administration never intended to withdraw fully from Iraq (those fourteen “enduring bases”), and twice rejected serious proposals for early elections, in late April, 2003 and again last February, because it could not control the outcome. The security situation is now far worse, and even deputy prime minister Barham Salih of the US-appointed interim government admits that the promised January elections may have to be postponed.

As Don Rumsfeld used to say sarcastically at his press conferences back when he was sure that he was right and the media and the professional soldiers were all wrong: “All together now: ‘quagmire’.”


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 7. (“An estimated…accomplished”; and “All of us…War”)