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Urban Warfare in Fallujah Poses Difficulties

November 9, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: More on Fallujah and the special demands of urban warfare now, from retired Marine Corps Col. Randy Gangle, executive director of the center for emerging threats and opportunities at the Marine Corps combat development command, and retired Army Col. Douglas Macgregor, who led a unit during the first Gulf War.

He’s a military historian and the author of “Transformation under Fire: The Revolutionizing of How America Fights.”

Col. Macgregor, first, has it turned out to be the big battle of Fallujah everybody was expecting?

COL. DOUGLAS MACGREGOR (Ret.): No, I’m afraid not. We didn’t have tactical or operational surprise. We were caught in a situation that forced us to very slowly, deliberately build up.

We telegraphed what we were going to do. There were no surprises. The enemy knew when we were coming, where we were coming.

As a result, it looks as though the large numbers of enemy that we had hoped to trap and destroy inside Fallujah simply aren’t there. What number is there is unclear.

And today Gen. Metz said perhaps 2000, but I suspect that number will be revised downward.

JIM LEHRER: Two thousand out of an expected many more thousand, right?

COL. DOUGLAS MACGREGOR (Ret.): Oh, absolutely. Some estimates were five thousand to ten thousand.

JIM LEHRER: Militants who were going to still be there armed and were going to resist.

COL. DOUGLAS MACGREGOR (Ret.): Absolutely.

JIM LEHRER: Yeah. Col. Gangle, what would you add to that, in terms of the overview, what this battle has turned out to be like?

COL. RANDY GANGLE (Ret.): I take a little bit different perspective on it. I think we did achieve tactical surprise.

If you watched the earlier movements, what they did was they moved forces into the southern part of the city, which was where we had attacked from the last go-around in Fallujah 1, if I could call it that. And then we –

JIM LEHRER: That’s the one, just for reference purposes, where the Marines went in and then didn’t go all the way in. They were ordered to fall back; that’s Fallujah 1.

COL. RANDY GANGLE (Ret.): That’s correct. Fallujah 1.

JIM LEHRER: All right.

COL. RANDY GANGLE (Ret.): And that time we came in from the southeast corner. If you looked at a map of Fallujah, you’d see kind of an open area in the southern and southeastern corner of the city.

But we made moves in that direction. They already – you know – had seen us do it that way once.

We came back this time, positioned forces to the South, and then all of a sudden we moved forces in from the northeast and the northwest corridors or areas from the North, and came into the city from that direction.

I think from having oriented our attack that way from the South the last time, they were kind of thinking we’d come that way again.

We gave them some hints that we were going to come that way. Then we hit them from behind and I think we caught them a little bit off balance.

JIM LEHRER: Just from a tactical standpoint you think it’s successful. Col. Macgregor, were you surprised to see those women and children running there from that Marine unit, or the side of the Marine unit, to think that there would still be folks like that still in that place after all of this?

COL. DOUGLAS MACGREGOR (Ret.): No, not really. We knew there would be some civilians left. The vast majority had left.

And we took as many precautions as we could. We did everything possible to try and persuade people to leave.

But, there will always be people who stay. And, fortunately, at least to this point in time, we don’t think there have been very many civilian casualties.

JIM LEHRER: Now the 2,000 or so of the fighters who are still there, what defines them?

Are they essentially suicide fighters, they’re going to go down… they’re going to be killed? Is that what this is all about for them?

COL. RANDY GANGLE (Ret.): I suspect that that’s the case for many of them. You know, what I have been able to discern is that we have a core of leadership in there who are probably Fallujians by birth and where they’ve grown up.

And then there’s been these foreign fighters that have moved into the country. Many of them have had no training or no experience at all. They’re coming in there as a Jihad thing to them. They’re going to die for Allah and to defend the cause of Islam.

And, frankly, I think they’re just cannon fodder. And I don’t see any organization or any synergy. I think it’s what I would call Chechen-type practices, the type the Chechens used against the Russians in Grozny, small groups out there just with orders to go out and kill Americans where they find them.

JIM LEHRER: But the whole point of this, Col. Macgregor, was to get the leadership, al-Zarqawi and all those folks, and clearly we’re not going to, right?

COL. DOUGLAS MACGREGOR (Ret.): Well, no. But, we have to keep something in mind: Again, this was a unique set of circumstances.

We had to be methodical because we had plenty of time. We couldn’t act very suddenly or swiftly.

The larger tactic of, first of all, isolating the area, striking in, killing or capturing the people that are the problem on the inside, then backing out and filling the vacuum with local military or police elements, that’s a good tactic.

The problem is that in counter-insurgency warfare, that doesn’t work very well when the enemy knows that you’re coming.

You really need to strike from a position of surprise. And we didn’t do that. We couldn’t do that. Hopefully in the future we’ll use mobile armored reserves, air mobile infantry attack helicopters, sweep into an area where we know they’re located and attack them when they don’t expect it.

JIM LEHRER: Does this mean, Colonel, we’re going to have to fight these people somewhere else?

COL. RANDY GANGLE (Ret.): I suspect that we’re going to have to fight others somewhere else.

In fact, I’ll be quite blunt: I’m surprised that we haven’t seen some major activity in other areas such as Ramadi up to this point.

JIM LEHRER: Ramadi is fairly close to Fallujah.

COL. RANDY GANGLE (Ret.): It is.

JIM LEHRER: It’s also under the control of the same group of militants, right?

COL. RANDY GANGLE (Ret.): There are militants in Ramadi, in fact, from many perspectives, Ramadi is a far more important area because it is the capital of Anbar Province, which is the area in which the Sunni Triangle is mostly located.

So from a political perspective, Ramadi is far more important.

I think Fallujah just has that appeal to it because, you know, the insurgents had “defeated us” the last time around and controlled it; it was defying government control.

JIM LEHRER: So let’s assume everything continues the way it’s going now.

And the Gen. Metz is right, there is going to be some severe urban fighting in the next few days and things are going to be over.

And then what have we got? What have we won?

COL. DOUGLAS MACGREGOR (Ret.): Well, that’s the critical question. There are a couple things that we should look for right now.

Gen. Metz went out of his way repeatedly to praise the Iraqi troops that are working with us. I don’t know really what that means.

I’m sure that there is evidence there is some improvement, but we also have had reports of desertions and unreliability repeatedly.

This could be a good moment for the Iraqi forces, especially if we do have units that perform well that have now become cohesive.

If they’re successful, this could be the beginning of something that could, in fact, impose better conditions on Fallujah once we pull out.

And the real test will be what happens when we leave. There is another aspect of this thing we don’t know much about yet, and that is this issue of collateral damage, not so much civilians being injured, but doing a lot of damage to Fallujah itself.

We fired a great deal of artillery. We’ve lost lots of air strikes. I think we’re going to discover that some of that was counterproductive.

JIM LEHRER: In what way?

COL. DOUGLAS MACGREGOR (Ret.): Well, first of all, it’s much tougher to seize a building or control a building that is destroyed than it is to take one that’s intact.

And urban warfare tends on the whole to be a direct-fire proposition. Lots of artillery and direct fire, not indirect fire, tanks, armored fighting vehicles…

JIM LEHRER: Direct fire meaning that you’re shooting right at somebody.

COL. DOUGLAS MACGREGOR (Ret.): Exactly.

JIM LEHRER: And you see them -

COL. DOUGLAS MACGREGOR (Ret.): You line up and blow down the building if it becomes necessary. The problem with a lot of artillery and air power is despite the fact that we’re very precise with air power these days it’s still extremely destructive.

You end up creating obstacles and sometimes you make it easier for your enemy to defend the place.

JIM LEHRER: They hide behind the rubble of the building or hide in it.

COL. DOUGLAS MACGREGOR (Ret.): Absolutely. So it will be interesting to see what we learn from this in terms of that aspect of collateral damage.

JIM LEHRER: Col. Gangle, anybody who heard just the term that I used in the News Summary a moment ago about “house to house,” that puts anybody who has been in this kind of situation makes the back of their head change a little bit… explain what that is like for the soldier or the Marine on the ground to go house to house in what’s called “tough urban fighting.”

COL. RANDY GANGLE (Ret.): I think the first thing… I’d like to comment on something Doug said about all this rumbling.

Part of the problem with Fallujah is that most of the buildings there are constructed out of poured concrete and are anywhere from twenty to thirty-five inches thick; rifle rounds don’t go through that.

We have to use artillery and aviation in order to take out targets inside those buildings.

Now, directly to your question: What a lot of people don’t realize is that you think house to house and you think it’s once you get inside the building is the tough part. That’s really kind of the easy part.

The real danger areas are the open areas between the buildings where somebody is hiding in a building across the street. They’ve got weapons, and they’ve got this nice clear ground that you have to cross over before you can get into the building that you want to attack.

That’s the real danger. Seventy percent of the casualties take place outside the buildings in these open areas in clear fields of fire, as we call it.

What Marines and soldiers are having to do is move from one covered position to another across that open ground, you know, kind of sucking it up, racing across, and then once they get across, then they get to their next danger area, which is now I have to go into a room.

I think somebody is in there. He probably has a weapon and he’s probably got it pointed right at that doorway where he knows I’m coming through.

And I’ve got to be able to get in there and take him out before he takes me out. That’s what makes it so difficult.

JIM LEHRER: Is there any new technology, Col. Macgregor, that helps these troops know what’s behind that door?

COL. DOUGLAS MACGREGOR (Ret.): Yes, I hope we’re using or I assume we’re using thermal scan technology in some cases.

There are many different things that we have available today that we haven’t had in the past that help us detect human beings inside of buildings. It’s not a perfect answer.

And this is the problem with urban warfare that you started with. No matter how good your technology is, the opportunity to be surprised on the tactical level is pretty substantial.

That’s why armor was used to lead this assault, and I think very intelligently, because armored protection, automatic cannon, overwhelming firepower from armored platforms that are extremely difficult to defeat or destroy or stop is key to success in urban environments.

That’s not really a new phenomenon, by the way. Over the last 60 years, we’ve seen lots of that. But for some reason we forgot it.

And what we’re seeing now is a team emerge where you have got the armor; you’ve got the artillery. You’ve got engineers. You’ve got light infantry.

This is much more complex, but you need those advantages because no matter how good you are, no matter how good the technology, is whether or not you have intercepts on who may be in the building, you are still going to be surprised when you drive around the corner and find out that someone is there ready to attack you that you did not know about.

JIM LEHRER: And that’s the individual rifleman who has to deal with that?

COL. DOUGLAS MACGREGOR (Ret.): That’s correct.

JIM LEHRER: So when you heard the report today that this operation began on Sunday, the report today is that ten American Marines and soldiers have been killed, two Iraqi soldiers have been killed.

What does that tell you about the intensity of what’s going on, anything?

COL. RANDY GANGLE (Ret.): Actually, I find the casualty figures to be quite low. I think there is a couple reasons for that.

First is our forces are much better trained for urban combat than they were even two years ago. There has been much more extensive training taking place.

If you go back and look at historical casualty rates from World War II up to Vietnam in cities, you’ll find the casualty rates start off at about 30 percent and then they taper down as units learn how to conduct urban warfare.

JIM LEHRER: But the assumption of most urban warfare is you’re going to lose 30 percent of your troops, right?

COL. RANDY GANGLE (Ret.): You know, that statistic has been thrown around, but again, after a while, after the survivors learn how to do it, the casualty rate starts to go down, and they teach the newcomers how to do it.

What we’re seeing I think today is we’ve learned before we go in what we’re supposed to do, so the casualty rates are lower.

The second thing is we’re not up against a near-peer competitor, somebody that’s out there with all the heavy weapons we have.

The third thing, frankly, the Iraqis continue to be inept on the battlefield.

JIM LEHRER: How do you feel about the casualty rate?

COL. RANDY GANGLE (Ret.): I think that’s true, but we’ve encountered far fewer enemies than we expected. If we had encountered five thousand or ten thousand, I’m sure we would have more casualties at this point.

They don’t seem to have done much to really prepare themselves, not on the scale, for instance, of what we’ve seen in Najaf or Sadr City or in Baghdad when we first went in there.

And I think we’ve used lots of armor intelligently in the lead. And that’s the right thing to do. That will minimize your casualties. Armored forces historically do not take heavy casualties.

And if you’re struck in an armored fighting field, the crew usually survives to mount up in another one.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with Col. Gangle that we’ve gotten better at it? At urban warfare.

COL. DOUGLAS MACGREGOR (Ret.): I don’t know. I can’t evaluate it because this is the first major operation of its kind that we’ve launched in a long time. I’m sure we’ve learned a lot from it.

But I think we have to do two things. First of all, keep in mind what Col. Gangle said is correct: The Arabs haven’t turned out to be very good to begin with, never have been, quite frankly, at these kinds of things.

But, secondly, we didn’t end up facing quite as many enemy as we anticipated to begin with and we used a lot of armor.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. Gentlemen, thank you both very much.