Unconventional Combat

  • By Williamson Murray and Robert Scales, Jr.
  • Posted 05.04.04
  • NOVA

In this excerpt from their book The Iraq War: A Military History, Williamson Murray and Major General Robert H. Scales, Jr. argue that winning the war will require tools that are low-tech and manpower intensive. 

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The attack on a house in Mosul that killed Saddam Hussein's sons Qusay and Uday was emblematic of a new phase in the Iraq War. Enlarge Photo credit: Courtesy of the Department of Defense

face-to-face combat

The tip came late Monday evening on July 21, 2003. The young sergeant, an intelligence specialist with the 101st Airborne Division, had spent the day interviewing a string of Iraqis. They had filtered into his command post with bits and pieces of information, most of little consequence. This particular Iraqi, however, seemed different and triggered the sergeant's training and instincts. As the Iraqi's eyes flicked nervously about the room, he whispered that he knew where Saddam's sons were hiding—in plain sight at a distant cousin's house right in the middle of Mosul. The sergeant believed him.His report set in motion an assault on the building the next day. A company's worth of soldiers surrounded the dwelling at 10 a.m. An Iraqi interpreter, using a bullhorn, ordered the inhabitants to come out. After ten minutes and no response, a small team from Task Force 20, part of the army's elite counterterrorist organization, knocked and entered cautiously. They searched the first floor and found it empty. As they inched up to the second floor, a fusillade of AK-47 fire erupted, and three soldiers fell wounded.

The commander on the scene was Brigadier General Frank Helmick. Like his boss, Major General David Petraeus, commander of the 101st, he was a lean, athletic infantryman, famous even within the airborne community for his stamina as a runner. On Helmick's orders, the soldiers surrounding the building initiated a "shoot-pause-enter" operation. They sought to escalate the level of violence directed at the inhabitants of the second floor until they either surrendered or died. Helmick began with small arms, followed by Mark 19 automatic grenade launcher and machine gun fire. The fusillade was directed into the structure with great precision to avoid hurting Iraqi citizens huddling for cover next door.

An explosive strike followed in the form of AT-4 antitank rockets, along with machine gun and rocket fire from Kiowa helicopters. At noon, another attempt to enter was met with a return volley. The air force offered the finality of a few JDAMs [Joint Direct Attack Munitions], but Helmick refused, preferring to capture the brothers alive if possible. Instead, he ordered ten TOW [Tube-launched Optically-tracked Wire-guided missile] antitank missiles to be fired into the structure. When the noise of that attack subsided, only one Iraqi remained alive to return fire, and he was dispatched with ease. Qusay, Uday, a bodyguard, and Qusay's son were taken from the building, dead.

Dueling civilizations

The assault in Mosul is emblematic of a new phase in the Iraq War. The first was conventional: the superiority of American weapons created a killing machine that the Iraqis could never match. But the ghost of Carl von Clausewitz, the 19th-century Prussian military strategist, returned after the fall of Baghdad to teach a timeless lesson: no matter how unmatched opponents may be, wars are always two-sided affairs. The object is to break the will of the other side by striking at his vital center of gravity. Saddam's center was his ruling elite, the Baathist regime that was built ideologically and physically around the unholy trinity of Saddam and his two sons. After the fall of Baghdad, that center was shaken to its foundations, but it did not completely collapse.

Machines alone will never be decisive in this new phase of the Iraq War.

Watching the retreat from Mogadishu in 1994, Saddam believed that the American center of gravity was dead soldiers. Spontaneously and with seemingly little direction, the Baathists who survived the Coalition's drive on Baghdad adapted. Failing to win the conventional war, they began an unconventional war focused on dueling civilizations. If they could kill enough Americans in the name of religion and culture, then perhaps they could regain the support of the Iraqi people and others in the Islamic world, and the Americans would become discouraged by the human cost and withdraw.

Technology is useful in unconventional warfare, as the events in Mosul make clear. But machines alone will never be decisive in this new phase of the Iraq War. This will be a struggle for the allegiance of the Iraqi people, who must choose among three conflicting sides: the first represented by the promise of freedom and democracy imposed by an occupying infidel, the second by a return to the tyranny and terror of the old regime, and the third by Islamic fundamentalists.

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While sophisticated devices like the Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle have proved their worth in both Iraq and Afghanistan, low-tech tools and special operations are most effective in this new phase of the war. Enlarge Photo credit: © Northrop Grumman

The tools most useful in the new war are low-tech and manpower-intensive. Instead of JSTARS [Joint Surveillance and Target Radar Systems], JDAMs, ATACMS [Army Tactical Missile Systems], and Global Hawk [an unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV], the American command will employ night raids, ambushes, roving patrols mounted and dismounted, as well as reconstruction, civic action, and medical teams. The enemy will be located not by satellites and UAVs but by patient intelligence work, back-alley payoffs, information collected from captured documents, and threats of one-way vacations to Cuba.

The new Centcom commander, General John Abizaid, must match the enemy's ability to adapt with adaptations of his own. Small units trained for urban offensive tactics like those used to kill Saddam's sons are replacing the armored fighting formations of the conventional phase. The hunt no longer focuses on the remnants of the old regime's leadership but on the fedayeen's middle management—the violent, fanatical believers.

Success in this new war will not be gauged by how many Republican Guard tanks are destroyed but by the less tangible and quantifiable measurement of people's acceptance of a new Iraqi leadership. Attitudes will be influenced less by demonstrations of fighting strength than by the emotional security that comes from safe streets, employment, electricity, and fresh water. In a sense, this phase reminds us all that the nature of war is immutable. Technology may alter how wars are fought, but it will never change the fact that wars are conducted by human beings for political ends.

This feature originally appeared on the site for the NOVA program Battle Plan Under Fire.

Williamson Murray is a military historian and a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Defense Analysis Robert H. Scales, Jr., is a retired major general and former commandant of the Army War College.

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