March 13, 2010


White House Weighs Talks With Taliban After Afghan Successes (HELENE COOPER and MARK LANDLER, March 12, 2010, NY Times)

“It is now more a question of ‘when’ than a question of ‘if,’ ” the administration official said, when asked about the idea of reconciliation talks with senior Taliban officials.

Another official, who like the senior administration official spoke on condition of anonymity because internal administration discussions were still at an early stage, said, “There’s been a lot of energy applied to the reconciliation issue in the last few weeks.”

But both officials added that, for now, there are no plans for reaching out soon to high-ranking Taliban leaders. That effort, they said, is likely to wait until after the United States takes on Taliban insurgents in Kandahar in what is expected to be the next major military offensive in Afghanistan.

The operation in Kandahar, the spiritual heart of the Taliban, is expected to be far more difficult than the recent offensive in Marja.

“Urban warfare is a lot more complicated than when you’re going into a hamlet like Marja,” said Brian Katulis, a national security expert at the Center for American Progress. “The real test is Kandahar.”

Or not, How to Take Baghdad (DARYL G. PRESS, 3/26/03, NY Times)
Urban assaults are hardest in cities with many tall buildings — the taller the structures, the more places for snipers to hide. Tanks, which provide essential fire-support in urban areas, cannot shoot high targets because their main gun barrels do not elevate enough. However, Baghdad has few buildings that rise above three stories.

Narrow streets make some cities more difficult to assault. Simply disabling the lead and rear vehicles of a convoy can trap the entire column, setting it up for an ambush. When a Russian armored column got caught in the narrow streets of Grozny in 1994, 122 of 146 armored vehicles were destroyed. The Americans had similar problems in Mogadishu; roadblocks in the tight streets hampered the movement of American convoys, delaying the rescue of United States forces. The old city in Baghdad does have narrow roads, but most of the city, especially the parts around many of Mr. Hussein's compounds, is crisscrossed with wide boulevards that would be harder to block.

In addition, coalition ground forces will benefit from superior equipment. It is true that urban terrain erases some of the coalition's technological advantages — for example, because buildings interrupt lines of sight, there aren't many long-range shots for United States forces to take using highly accurate sensors and weapons. But the technological playing field will be anything but level. Night vision goggles and night scopes are widely distributed among American and British infantry; some Iraqi troops have night vision equipment, but most will be blind in the dark.

Coalition forces have other material advantages: American and British infantry will use sophisticated wall-breaching explosives to enter some buildings without using doors and windows. By breaking through walls from one building to the next, they'll be able to surprise the enemy and stay out of the street. Finally, attack planes, helicopters and tanks will be used in close coordination with coalition infantry to destroy difficult defensive positions.

There are other ways in which an urban assault against Baghdad would play to Iraqi military weaknesses and coalition strengths. In urban fighting, small combat units are often isolated; for example, infantry squads fighting within a building often cannot communicate well with other friendly forces. Urban combat therefore requires junior officers to take initiative and to solve tactical problems on their own.

While the United States and Britain encourage junior officers to think on their feet, the Iraqi military trains its officers simply to execute orders. Independent problem-solving is not encouraged. The result is that Iraq's army is better suited for well-scripted maneuvers (like the invasion of Kuwait) than for the chaos and confusion of city fighting. This helps to explain Iraq's poor performance defending Basra in the Iran-Iraq war.

Recent history suggests that well-equipped armies, especially if their soldiers are taught to exercise initiative, can seize urban areas at surprisingly low cost. In 1967, Israeli soldiers defeated the approximately 6,000 Jordanian troops who held East Jerusalem; 200 Israelis were killed. The following year, American marines fought roughly 4,000 North Vietnamese soldiers south of the Perfume River as part of the battle to retake the city of Hue; 38 marines died in the fighting. And in 1989 the United States Army fought against approximately 5,000 Panamanian Defense Forces for control of Panama City; 23 Americans were killed in action.

The fatality ratios are especially revealing. In Jerusalem the Israelis lost three men for every 100 Jordanians deployed to defend the city; in Hue the ratio was one marine for every 100 enemy soldiers killed, wounded, captured or driven away. In Panama the fatality ratio was half that suffered by the marines at Hue.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 13, 2010 10:21 AM
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