View Full Version : New Enemy May Require New Tactics

10-28-03, 12:39 PM
New Enemy May Require New Tactics
Non-Iraqis Now a Concern For U.S. Military Planners
By Vernon Loeb
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 28, 2003; Page A14

BAGHDAD, Oct. 27 -- Having focused its combat operations for months on a stubborn Baathist resistance, the U.S. military said Monday that it could be up against a new and more elusive foreign adversary after a wave of suicide car bombings rocked Baghdad.

As recently as Sunday night, Army Brig. Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the commander of the 1st Armored Division responsible for security in Baghdad, said he and his staff had "not seen any indication of foreign fighters" in the Iraqi capital.

That assessment changed dramatically Monday morning after coordinated attacks struck three police stations and the headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross within 45 minutes, and Iraqi police shot and captured a man believed to be a Syrian national attempting a suicide bombing at yet another police station an hour later.

"What Gen. Dempsey was saying was that we had not seen an attack that we could directly attribute to foreign fighters," Brig. Gen. Mark Hertling, his deputy, said at a news conference after the attacks. "We have seen those today."

Hertling said the military did not think there was any link between Sunday's rocket attack on the al-Rashid Hotel, believed to have been carried out by Baathist elements loyal to former President Saddam Hussein, and the car bombings. He cited the captured Syrian and other "intelligence indicators" as evidence that the attacks had most likely been perpetrated by foreigners.

But other U.S. commanders in Iraq appeared skeptical that foreign fighters posed much of a threat right now. "We have not seen a large influx of foreign fighters thus far," said Maj. Gen. Raymond Odierno, the commander of the 4th Infantry Division, which covers much of the Sunni Triangle north and west of Baghdad.

For many inside and outside the military, the car bombings, coming on the first day of Ramadan, brought to mind the 1968 Tet Offensive during the Vietnam War, which marked the lunar new year. "Like Tet 1968 in Vietnam, it is a religious holiday that is being used to show us the extent of the strength of the bad guys," said retired Air Force Col. Sam Gardiner, an expert in strategy who has taught at the National War College. "Seems to me this is the first time we have seen a strategy emerge from the bad guys."

But others noted that the scale of attacks was far smaller than the attacks by Viet Cong and North Vietnamese, which amounted to a general offensive against Saigon and 36 of 44 provincial capitals that lasted weeks. More than 66,000 soldiers, 3,895 of them Americans, and about 14,000 Vietnamese civilians were killed in the offensive.

Whether the car bombings will have a similar psychological effect to the Tet offensive in the United States remains to be seen. But the military could find itself facing two difficult adversaries whose defeat will require different tactics, including intelligence capabilities that have never been the military's strong suit.

While military commanders here have increasingly focused on gathering tactical intelligence from Iraqis to generate targeted raids on former Hussein loyalists living in their midst, different intelligence networks would have to be built to go after foreign terrorists. Retired Army Col. W. Patrick Lang, former head of Middle Eastern Affairs at the Defense Intelligence Agency, said that since Vietnam, the Army has "almost determinedly ignored" human intelligence capabilities focused on particular regions of the world, "probably because they do not want to be 'tempted' into that kind of involvement again."

"It was too painful," Lang said. "As a result, we do not have senior officers who really understand what they are dealing with. Their ignorance leaves holes in our security arrangements through which one can literally drive trucks."

Before Monday's bombings, military commanders had expressed confidence that they were winning a war of attrition against Baathist loyalists, whose ability to replenish their ranks is a question for U.S. intelligence.

"There's a couple of schools of thought on whether there is a replenishment of fighters and where the source of that replenishment may be," Dempsey said.

Foreign fighters, on the other hand, could conceivably draw from a well of Islamic fundamentalists and recruit foot soldiers from many countries, although one defense official in Iraq said the best intelligence estimates are that the number of foreign fighters in Iraq is still small.

Whether that number will grow, and whether links will form between foreign fighters and former Hussein loyalists is uncertain. But Sunday's highly symbolic attack on the al-Rashid, the official residence of the U.S.-led occupation authority, and Monday's car bombings illustrate how differing methods can feed off each other to considerable effect.

Indeed, the military's quest to win Iraqi hearts and minds -- which Dempsey said is the key to victory -- would only be made more difficult by the presence of organized foreign fighters in Baghdad targeting Iraqis, since Iraqis at least partially blame the Americans for the presence of such fighters in their country.

The most important tool for countering both threats, the defense official said, is Iraqi empowerment.

But retired Marine Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper, a Persian Gulf War commander, said the challenge confronting military commanders goes far beyond intelligence networks and tactics aimed at thwarting terrorist attacks.

"As has often been noted, U.S. forces fought and won a long series of battles and engagements in Vietnam -- in the military sense -- but lost the war," Van Riper said. "The real question today is whether the administration can articulate what its overall strategy is in Iraq, and if it can -- which I seriously doubt -- does the military have a campaign plan to carry out that strategy? Too many are focused on the tactics and not the needed strategic and operational plans."

Staff writer Thomas E. Ricks in Washington contributed to this report.

2003 The Washington Post Company