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Fallujah’s empty promise

The titanic, climactic, decisive battle of Fallujah proved somewhat disappointing for the U.S. military, and for good reason. Like smart guerrillas throughout history, the insurgents decided against turning the town into their al-Alamo. Brave New World.
A U.S. Army photo shows buildings and debris burning in Fallujah on Tuesday.
A U.S. Army photo shows buildings and debris burning in Fallujah on Tuesday.Staff Sgt. Michael Nasworth / AP

As battles go, Fallujah has been a big disappointment to the U.S. military, which had wanted to draw the Iraqi insurgents into a cataclysmic mistake: a “fair” fight. Not that any officer relished the prospect of a Stalingrad- or Hue-like street-to-street, house-to-house blood-letting. But the alternative has even less to recommend it: a continuing series of roadside bombings and mortar and grenade ambushes that bleed American forces and frustrate efforts to secure Iraq ahead of January’s elections.

Unfortunately, from a military standpoint, the latter, less attractive option is the reality, and the choice was never the U.S. military’s to make. Iraq’s insurgents, with weeks to react as U.S. forces gathered and postured about what was about to happen in Fallujah, decided against turning it into al-Alamo. They saw the folly of taking on the Americans on their own terms, and they did what intelligent, determined guerrilla movements have always done in the face of overwhelming force: They faded away and lived to fight and kill and maim another day.

For those who accepted the notion, propagated by the Pentagon in the week leading up to the attack, that many thousands of Iraqi insurgents had dug in to defend their vital base in Fallujah, news that only light resistance greeted the U.S. and Iraqi government forces may be perplexing.

“In military terms, Fallujah is not going to be much of a plus at all,” says Bernard Trainor, a retired three-star Marine Corps general. “The downside is that we’ve knocked the hell out of this city, and the only insurgents we really got were the nut-cases and zealots the smart ones left behind — the guys who really want to die for Allah.”

Fire with fire
And Godspeed to them, you might well say. But if all of this sounds anticlimactic and slightly dismal, don’t despair. For the attack on Fallujah, while not decisive militarily, could mark a political turning point in Iraq. For the first time since the interim Iraqi government of Ayad Allawi took power, the interim Iraqi leader showed that he was willing to deal with the insurgents on their own terms: with raw power and violence.

“Fallujah became symbolic on both sides that things were out of control over there,” says Trainor. “In the bigger picture, we [Americans] are incidental over there in that this is a struggle between Iraqis over what Iraq will be when we leave. The solution is not going to be a military one, it has to be some kind of political deal that is uniquely Arab. But that deal also has to be backed up with power and force, and Fallujah being taken down now demonstrates to all concerned that Allawi will not shrink from that course of action.”

Seizing the initiative
The military is fond of old saws, and one that has come back into style this year is this one: “In guerrilla war, if you’re not winning, you’re losing.” From that standpoint, some officers are relieved to see the U.S.-backed Iraqi government attempting to seize the initiative.

Prior to the assault on Fallujah, many officers felt that “losing by not winning” fairly well summed up the situation in Iraq. The “metrics” soldiers like to provide their political bosses to attest to progress on the ground were nowhere to be found, or at least not in a form that would paint a positive picture. U.S. casualties continue at a pace that is making U.S. commanders uneasy: about two per day (61 in October).

Reconstruction aid has been held up by security problems and bureaucracy, and much of it has been re-channeled into a desperate effort to speed up the training of Iraq’s new army and paramilitary forces ahead of the election. Assassinations of Iraqi officials and the wholesale slaughter of police recruits and trainees appeared to be keeping many Iraqis on the fence. And the day-to-day drumbeat of bombings and ambushes appeared to give the insurgents the initiative.

Whether success in Fallujah — even a limited success like turning it into a ghost town — will be enough to bring the “silent majority” in Iraq off the fences is a major question. Military analysts suggest that similar pushes into other Sunni cities — Ramadi, Samarra and Hit — as well as the much larger, ethnically mixed city of Mosul may also be necessary. In the meanwhile, there is a real danger that the insurgents who slipped out of Fallujah ahead of the attack may slip right back again when things calm down.

Betting on voting
Another question is which side of the fence that silent majority will come down on when they do decide to jump in.

“The big question is the elections — they are the key,” says David Phillips, who served through most of the first term of this Bush administration as a senior adviser on Iraq matters before stepping down in September. “Can you make elections go forward in Fallujah and elsewhere by rolling over the city? I don’t think so. You can’t bring people to the polls at gunpoint.”

For Allawi, though, the die has been cast. His own fate is now inexorably tied to the decision to attack in Fallujah, as demonstrated with tragic clarity by the kidnapping and threat to behead several members of his family this week. His government’s feelers over the past few weeks toward an accommodation with the insurgents were rebuffed by their representatives and in any case would have been vetoed by the United States. Allawi’s strategy is the iron fist, and now he has to use it or lose it.

Defusing the disenfranchisement bomb
For Iraqis, hope now lies more than ever in the ability of the coming elections to empower leaders who can somehow cut the kind of deal that hives away the Iraqi nationalists from the insurgent camp. That would leave the anti-American zealots and “foreign fighters” isolated and exposed.

That’s why it is so important that the United States do everything possible between now and then to ensure that voting takes place in as many parts of the Sunni Triangle as possible. For if the vote brings to the polls only the Kurds and Iraq’s largest ethnic group, the Shiites, it could leave Sunnis completely disenfranchised, too. That is a prescription for many more years of American troops in harm’s way. After all, Kurd or Shiite, Sunni or American, when you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose.

As a battle, Fallujah has been a disappointment to the U.S. military, who wanted to draw the rebels into a cataclysmic mistake: a fair fight. Unfortunately, that’s not likely any time soon, and that will severely blunt the value of the American victory.

Michael Moran's Brave New World column, on hiatus since late September, resumes today and once again will appear weekly on