The transformation of the U.S. military is all but completed. Nothing marks the change more than a comparison of the 2004 battles for Fallujah in central Iraq and the 2010 campaign for Marja in the Helmand Valley of southern Afghanistan. In both cases, insurgents initially had total control over these cities. In the case of Fallujah the effort to control the town led to its eventual destruction. So far, Marja is looking like an exemplary case of how to conduct urban operations in the context of a counterinsurgency campaign.
By early 2004, the U.S. military had essentially lost control of Fallujah. There was the infamous murder and mutilation of four Blackwater employees in March. An initial effort by Marine Corps forces to retake the town ended in a truce that basically returned control to the insurgents. Finally, in November of that year, a combined U.S. Marine/Army-British-Iraqi task force with Abrams tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles, LAV IIIs and even the first Stryker wheeled combat vehicles — as well as massive air and artillery support — fought its way into Fallujah, seizing the town after nine days of heavy fighting. Bing West’s masterful book, No True Glory: A Frontline Account of the Battle of Fallujah, describes what was the most intense urban combat experienced by the U.S. military since the battle of Hue some 35 years earlier. This battle cost the U.S. military 476 casualties, including 51 dead.
Fallujah casts a shadow over urban operations in Afghanistan. Coalition commander, General Stanley McChrystal was quoted as saying “We don’t want Falluja. Falluja is not the model.” So far, the battle for Marja, Operation Moshtarak in military parlance, appears to be a model of restraint and the calculated application of force. Four days into the battle and Coalition forces, including elements from the U.K., Canada, Denmark and Estonia as well as U.S. Marines, have suffered three killed in action.
One of the most striking changes is in the way the military is now able to work with the local population. The decision to telegraph the intention to conduct an offensive in the area was part of a deliberate information operation intended both to reduce the risk to civilians and, hopefully, cause the Taliban fighters to flee. In Marja, tribal elders are actively assisting the Coalition forces. According to one report, the local shura assigned 10 Afghans to assist American and Afghan military units.
There are new, very controversial rules of engagement. Much of Falluja was leveled in the effort to retake the town; this time the use of air strikes and indirect fires has been restricted. It is striking how much attention U.S. commanders give even a single incident of collateral damage. General McChrystal personally came to apologize for the accidental deaths of some nine civilians from a U.S. missile strike in the town.
It is also clear that the U.S. military is now equipped for this new kind of warfare. The combination of the proliferation of specialized armored vehicles such as MRAPs and Strykers, the very liberal use of unmanned aerial systems such as the Predator/Reaper, Scan Eagle and Raven, air support from Harrier jets, AH-1Cobra gunships, CH-53s and V-22 Ospreys and much improved tactical communications has allowed U.S. and Coalition units to conduct a deliberate campaign of three dimensional warfare and to identify, isolate and neutralize Taliban positions. At the same time, heavy platforms are still required for urban operations. The Marines have used the 70 ton Assault Breacher Vehicle to break through roadblocks. Overall, the U.S. military now has a vastly expanded array of tools with which to address the many different facets of irregular warfare.
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