Improvised Explosive Devices, Slate, and Belmont Club
The “Oil Spot” Theory of Counterinsurgency
What is sometimes called the “oil spot” theory of counterinsurgency has been applied to Fallujah: Clear and hold one spot, then expand to another. In Malaya, there were 20 soldiers and policemen per 1,000 civilians. In Fallujah, portions of two American and three Iraqi battalions occupy the city, providing a security ratio in line with the Malayan experience.
Fallujah was the bastion and the symbol of the Sunni-based insurgency and the sanctuary of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and like-minded terrorists. In November, they were crushed in the fiercest house-to-house fighting since the Vietnam War battle for Hue City in 1968. In November, Marine squads engaged in more fights inside houses than have all the SWAT police teams in the United States in the past decade. Since November, the two U.S. battalions in Fallujah have shifted from high-intensity fighting, for which the American force was trained and equipped, to the tedious, messy conditions that confront an army occupying a restive, hostile population. IEDs account for about 70 percent of American casualties. The insurgents have learned to avoid direct firefights. This is frustrating for soldiers and Marines trained to close in on and destroy the enemy.
Most American combat units are deployed to truculent Sunni cities, where they encounter IEDs, glares, or blank stares. In the Shiite south and the Kurdish north, where the population was oppressed by Saddam, they are not needed militarily. So, American soldiers receive neither the gratitude of those liberated by the overthrow of Saddam nor the satisfaction of mission accomplishment that comes from engaging and defeating an enemy force in conventional warfare.
American battalions like L’Etoile’s have demonstrated the experience, adaptability, and determination to drive the insurgency down to the level currently seen in Fallujah, while maintaining morale. This is a testament to the leadership from corporal to colonel and to the singular spirit of the American infantryman.
Belmont Club comments on Oil Spots and Maneuver
Analysts who talk about the ‘unstoppable IED’ should consider the problems posed to the enemy by the American precision strike, which is in its way the rival “weapon from hell”. If a modified cell phone represents a detonator to a triggerman lying in wait for an American target, a regular cell phone in the hands of an Iraqi working for American intelligence is a means to rain down certain destruction on any safehouse, hideout or enemy installation. The defense against IEDs, while difficult, is a known quantity: route surveillance, snipers scanning the roads, the “96 hour” patrols of Lt. Col. Joseph L’Etoile, electronic countermeasures, vehicle armor, etc. But difficult as these are, the defense against precision strikes is far harder because it requires preventing any unvetted person from viewing your movements. Abu Nasir, the late Emir of the Qaim region, may have had twenty or more bodyguards or companions with him; but they simply perished with him because his security measures failed to prevent some person, perhaps a man in the employ of America, perhaps someone with a grudge against him, perhaps even a rival in his own organization from making a cell phone call which brought down a guided weapon on his head. (It’s a little more complex than that because verification is required before the strike, and positioning coordinates established, but the principle holds). The insurgents too must maintain their oilspot, by patrols, checkpoints and identity controls — not to prevent a man with a truckful of explosive from entering their haunts — but to keep the man with the cellphone or miniaturized American radio in his pocket from reporting on them. Defending against an IED means interdicting a physical object of several tens of pounds; defending against a precision strike means embargoing information. It’s hard to defend against a precision strike.
But the worst of it is the wastage to cadres. Those who write that body counts are a meaningless metric to apply against the insurgency ignore the fact that formations which sustain heavy casualties lose their organizational memory while those who suffer lightly retain them. Lt. Col. Joseph L’Etoile is on his third and half of his men are on their second tours of Iraq . For Abu Nasir and many of his foreign fighters, the memory of what to avoid next time has been lost on this, their last tour of Iraq.
On a lighter vein, Iowahawk has a guest commentary. . .