By Syed Ata Hasnain
With complete air superiority, US technical support and advice, reasonably advanced weaponry and now, a supposedly well trained Iraqi Army, why is it taking so long for Fallujah to be reduced and captured? There are grandiose plans ahead for the capture of Mosul, the largest city in the hands of the ISIS (Daesh), but that’s after Fallujah. A competent and experienced military mind will tell you the stark truth; cities, especially large ones with big population bases, are force multipliers for the defender in hybrid conflicts. Even in conventional warfare, armies avoid and bypass cities in efforts to reach objectives which are entrenched in deeper geographies. However, in hybrid conflicts where objectives are not in geographical sequence or progression, the case is different. In the light of the operations for the capture of Fallujah, public understanding on fighting for the capture of cities is important.
Cities have an inherent advantage for the defender, perhaps much more than linear obstacles. The outskirts and suburbs offer excellent means to project a ‘false front’ forcing the attacker to commence main operations prematurely and exhaust his resources without even reaching the core. Built up areas in sparsely populated suburbs are less dense and suitable for emplacement of anti-tank weapons, both missiles and rockets, as they get fairly good domination and ranges. Approaching the peripheral defences is, therefore, difficult without artillery and air support. Both these resources are restricted if the defender chooses to prevent the move of civil population or uses it as a human shield. The approaches are mined to prevent the attacker closing within the periphery. Curtains of deadly, coordinated machine gun fire keep the attacking infantry at bay. The Iraqi Infantry isn’t exactly the type to go in for suicide assaults to get a foothold across the periphery. To neutralise these islands of resistance at the periphery, the ideal weapon platform in today’s parlance is the armoured attack helicopter. It can acquire the targets by visual and electronic means, approach in low profile, and employ top attack mode against both – pillboxes atop buildings and armed vehicles, which provide flexibility to the defender. With night fighting capability, attack helicopters are even more effective.
A foothold across the peripheral defences, if gained, has to be defended against inevitable counter attacks.
To delay this, attacking forces will always choose multiple points of contact. The defender still remains at an advantage because he is on the interior lines of communication; that means his response to situations through employment of reserves is always far quicker. The attacker, on the other hand, has lesser flexibility and would inevitably take longer to exploit a breakthrough.
The Iraqi Army would have an edge in information operations notwithstanding Daesh’s high expertise in the information field. The latter actually lies in the domain of propaganda and psychological warfare and not so much in tactical and operational intelligence. ‘Tac & Op Int’ is gained by satellite reconnaissance, electronic warfare intercepts and human intelligence. However, the presence of civil population is a major restrictive factor. In such situations, civilians have no orientation to support any side. They go along with the side which will ensure them the best security.
The battle inside the city can sometimes move faster than anticipated. The intelligent use of armoured vehicles and helicopter-borne squads (of five to six men) can rapidly open arteries through thick built up areas. Even though lurking small anti-tank teams equipped with rocket launchers can be very effective, from videos and photos of Fallujah, it is evident that main streets are broad and an approach by armour will be easier. Accompanying infantry has to be proficient at engaging such teams, neutralising them or pushing them back. Daesh and most militant non-state groups are also adept at the employment of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) which can have a devastating effect on the morale of the attacker. The destruction of the leading tank of the Indian Army by a 100 kg barrel based IED during the Jaffna march in 1987 significantly dampened the energy of subsequent operations. Therefore, teams of combat engineers with counter IED equipment have to be in close support of the infantry and armour.
Street battles are not inevitable right up to the core of the city. Once resistance starts cracking and most defenders realise that the city is invested by the attacker, escape will be difficult. There will be a fine moment when the irregulars will attempt to doff the uniform, if any, and merge with the civilians.
The Iraqi Army’s intent must be to neutralise or capture as many Daesh fighters as possible and prevent their escape. This will reduce Daesh capability in the defence of other cities. The ability of Daesh to stick and fight appears extremely high so far. The Iraqi Army, too, has taken a high number of casualties. The Shia militias are obviously playing a role as well, but not much is known about the Sunni tribal fighters. In the ultimate push towards the defeat of Daesh, it is important to wean away the Sunni tribal fighters. However, the tinderbox kind of relationship between the sectarian groups prevents any such guarantee. Prime Minister Haider Abadi, who is a Shia and has played a more salutary role than his predecessor in the handling of sectarian sensitivities, should be ensuring that the Sunni fighters are given due recognition. Eventually, the future of the military situation in Iraq lies in the unity of the Iraqi Army and the multiple militias.
The last word in all such operations must remain reserved for the innocent and hapless civilians who have suffered and will continue to suffer. With the kind of environment created by Daesh, there are minimal volunteers to undertake humanitarian missions. The Iraqi Government must pay attention to the humanitarian aspects of its population which has, for far too long, been a ping pong between stakeholders.
Lt. Gen Syed Ata Hasnain is one of India’s most decorated Generals who is now a reputed military and strategic analyst. A strategic thought leader, columnist, TV panelist and speaker.