The long-awaited U.S.-Iraqi military assault on what is generally called the “rebel-held” city of Fallujah has begun. Despite some early problems — facing more booby traps with explosives than expected — there is little reason not to expect the U.S. military to be able to defeat most of the overt insurgent activity and over time gain something like effective control of the city for the interim Iraqi government.
The dilemma regarding Fallujah, however, becomes apparent when you remember the admonition of the 19th-century Prussian theorist of war, Karl von Clausewitz, that war is politics undertaken with different means.
The short-term military objective of any assault is to kill people and break things — to achieve dominance on the ground. But will that serve the political purposes of the interim Iraqi government and U.S. occupying forces?
There is a case to be made that a concerted assault on Fallujah is politically indispensable, even though there are bound to be civilian casualties. Interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi and the United States want to hold credible elections in January, but are aware that portions of the country, most notably Fallujah, are under the control of insurgents who could disrupt the election in such areas.
The United States pulled back from an all-out assault on Fallujah in April, and since then, according to most reports, the rebels — mostly Sunni Muslims who fear not only the loss of power they enjoyed under Saddam Hussein’s regime, but that they would be a minority, even an oppressed minority, if Iraq’s majority Shias predominate in democratic elections — have consolidated their control.
That control must be broken, say some, for the interim government to have enough credibility to manage an election.
Such an assertion is plausible. But there are dangers in trying to resolve the problem through a military assault that will be carried out predominantly by U.S. forces.
For starters, it is unclear exactly what the military objectives are. Will the attack be considered a success only if Jordanian-born terrorist leader Abu Musab Zarqawi is killed or captured? Is the objective to neutralize the insurgency; how will we know it has been successful? Will we view the attack as a success if the number of rebel attacks in other parts of the country subsides?
Beyond such questions are more long-term political concerns. Will the attack on Fallujah, where the rebels may be more prepared to inflict damage than they were in April, with unintended civilian casualties, break the back of resistance to U.S. occupation or inspire more resistance?
Will the rebels melt back into the general population, as they have several times before, only to re-emerge stronger than before?
The fact that a flurry of mortar attacks and car bombings Saturday killed more than 30 people in Sammara — a city U.S. and Iraqi forces had supposedly reclaimed last month in an operation viewed as a model for how to subdue Fallujah — suggests that U.S. gains could prove temporary.
All Americans hope our military forces succeed in Fallujah with as few casualties as possible. But questions remain as to whether the political authorities have defined success correctly and mapped out a way to achieve it.