Before Al Qaeda elements seized the city of Fallujah, Iraq, on Jan. 1, they had stayed mostly in the shadows. Coming into the open will make them easier to handle, some experts say.
As violence escalates in the western Iraq province of Anbar – the site of one-third of all US troop deaths during America’s war there – some US military officials are arguing that perhaps Al Qaeda's return to the region offers a valuable opportunity for US-trained fighters to take on the terrorist group.
This is the counter-narrative emerging from analysts who say that Al Qaeda’s decision to take the battle to the streets of western Iraq represents what could turn out to be a damaging strategic blunder for the organization.
“Al Qaeda made a big mistake in coming out of the shadows,” says retired Col. Douglas Ollivant, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and former director for Iraq at the National Security Council during both the Bush and Obama administrations.
Assessments like these are emerging in sharp contrast to the admonitions of Republican lawmakers including Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who warn in a joint statement that the region is now a “vacuum ... filled by America’s enemies” and “a threat to US national security interests.”
Senator McCain, for his part, suggested that President Obama send retired Gen. David Petraeus, the former commander of US forces in Iraq, back to the country.
A number of analysts take issue with the dire assessment. “I think this ‘Fallujah has fallen’ stuff – that it’s the equivalent of watching the helicopters go off the embassy in Vietnam – is overstated,” Dr. Ollivant says.
The current violence has flushed out Al Qaeda fighters, which could offer a chance for the Iraqi government to act decisively against them, he adds.
For some time, the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki “hasn’t been able to find” Al Qaeda operatives, who for the past couple of years have been behaving more like spies in the region.
Now, “Al Qaeda has been kind enough to come out of the shadows and present themselves as a target,” Ollivant says. “They’ve stopped being spies and started being soldiers. Spies are hard to deal with. Soldiers are easy for other soldiers to deal with.”
As a result, the current fighting is “a real opportunity for the Iraqi government.”
The question is how the government will handle it. There is a danger that Iraqi security forces, under the direction of the Shiite-led government, could use indiscriminate violence and further alienate the region’s majority Sunni population. “Never underestimate the ability of any government to screw up an opportunity,” Ollivant says.
Mr. Maliki announced Sunday that he was searching for a way “to end the presence of those militants without any bloodshed, because the people of Fallujah have suffered a lot.”
Mindful of the concerns of the citizens of Fallujah that the Iraqi military could turn the city into a battleground, Maliki told residents that they themselves, under the direction of Sunni tribal leaders, must find a way to take the city back from Al Qaeda insurgents, who overran it Jan. 1.
In the meantime, the Iraqi Army has encircled Fallujah, which is 45 miles west of Baghdad.
If Iraqi security forces pressure Al Qaeda militants from one side, while the Free Syrian Army “is pushing them out of Syria on the other side,” Ollivant says, “This could change the dynamic.”
“If” remains the operative word. The Iraqi security forces – trained by US troops at a price in the neighborhood of $25 billion – are also saying that they need more weapons to continue to do battle against insurgents who would like to replace the Shiite-led government with an Islamic caliphate.
To this end, the White House stepped up the shipment of 100 more Hellfire missiles, as well as nearly a dozen surveillance drones.
At the same time, some US military officials are taking issue with the notion that Fallujah is strategically important at all.
“It is not now, and, sadly, it was not then. And stupid me, I only just got it,” Lt. Col. Robert Bateman, an infantry officer, wrote in a blog posting in Esquire last week. “All it took was the morons of Al Qaeda to let me see how dumb I was back when I was in Iraq in 2005.”
There are only a couple of ways in and out of Fallujah, which has a population of some 210,000 people and is set squarely in the desert. That in turn “pretty much dooms the Al Qaeda idiots who ‘took’ the city ... to a fairly rapid death. And we don’t have to lift a finger this time,” Lieutenant Colonel Bateman writes, predicting that Iraqi paramilitary units will link up with Sunni local leaders “to utterly crush the Al Qaeda elements there.”
When that happens “there will be a shudder of violence, and perhaps a few dozen of the local boys who ‘went astray’ will take a sudden vacation to visit relatives out of town, and voila, the city is back under normal government control again,” Bateman predicts.
Still, the violence has disturbed US troops who served there and have wondered aloud on Facebook and in blog posts whether their fighting amounted to anything.
During a question-and-answer session at Camp Pendleton, Calif., last week, Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus was asked by one Marine whether he expected other areas that Marines have fought to secure, such as Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan, will ultimately be retaken by insurgent fighters as well.
“You know, I can’t even imagine how it feels to be a Marine who fought in Fallujah and to watch what’s happened,” Mr. Mabus told troops. “It is tragic beyond belief that the government of Iraq could not sustain what Marines paid in blood to get.”