Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Fallujah Revisited

The oepration to deny Fallujah to insurgent forces as a refuge, staging ground and planning hub was, to say the least controversial. While it is extremely important not to permit insurgent forces the development of safe havens and no-go areas for security forces, the methods involved raised many eyebrows and not merely within the journalistic community. The generally sparse flow of information from the city since the operation, the general perception that a substantial chunk of the insurgent force slipped the net and the issue of internal displacement coupled with questions over whether or not sufficent preparations were made for housing the displaced population has not been encouraging. To put the displacement into some sort of perspective, Sir Robert Thompson's proposed Strategic Hamlet programme in Vietnam involved estimates by the BRIAM that it would involve the displacement of roughly 100,000 South Vietnamese (to pre-prepared villages with amenities ready to go). The US Army rejected this on the basis that it was too substantial an upheaval - though ironically by the end of the Vietnam War, US Army free-fire methods had resulted in the displacement of ten time that number. In Fallujah, in a single operation the Coalition internally displaced a quarter of the number of people internally displaced during the entire Vietnam War.

However, the bottom line is that we really don't know one way or another how effective the operation has been (though the statistics in terms of attacks seem to suggest it hasn't resulted in a significant trend inour favour) and what the endgame is going to be. This Michael Fumento article at NRO gives a positive take, which presumably benefits from the fact that Fumento has actually spent time on the ground.

Unfortunately, a hell of a lot of it sounds like stuff we've heard far too often in the past:

I also saw thriving markets, stores selling candy and ice cream, and scores of children delighted to see Americans. I did more waving than the beauty queen in the 4th of July parade and the kids squealed with delight when I took their picture.

That's great, it really is. And here's hoping it's representative of a trend. But unfortunately it could have been written - has been written by various different people - at any time since May 2003. I recall reading almost the exact same words with regard to Baghdad at various times during the first 6 months of the Phase IV operations. Assurances that there are vibrant bazaars and children who like having their photos taken are no longer credible measures of progress unfortunately.

Fumento also documents rebuilding of utilities and facilities in Fallujah. Again, this is a story we have heard before; schools, electricity supply, hospitals etc etc etc. In principle it's great and it's exactly the sort of thing that should be happening. Unfortunately, again, these stories tend to run parallel to empirical evidence, in the form of official statistics, that show utilities provision either flatlining or in some cases slumping badly, even below pre-war levels. Maybe Fallujah will now go on to buck the trend, maybe not. Probably worth keeping an eye out for how this progresses over the next few months.

On the other hand the recognition that "hearts and minds" must be a key plank in the COIN strategy and the fact that the Marines are actually staying the hell put once they've cleared their assigned areas (as opposed to in the case of Operation Matador and its ilk, which seem worryingly like old-school Search and Destroy missions) are both positive signs. Also of note (though not mentioned in the Fumento article) is the fact that the authorities have apparently been undertaking a comprehensive, technology-aided census and registry of the Fallujah's inhabitants as they are re-admitted to the city. This is a very good move (I say very good, in reality it's merely an avoidance of the operation being a complete waste of time, but the fact that it's happening shows that somebody among the higher-ups has the right idea) and the only thing to say really is that it should have happened earlier and been more widely applied.

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