from jenin to baghdad,

  1. 5,748 Posts.
    Mar. 18, 2003
    From Jenin to Baghdad,

    As American forces prepare to enter Iraq, US military planners would be wise to learn the lessons of the past, including the very recent past: the battle of Jenin.

    Most Americans are vaguely familiar with the details. In the spring of 2002, Israeli forces entered the densely-populated Jenin refugee camp as part of a wider anti-terrorist operation. A fierce battle ensued and even before the smoke cleared Palestinians accused Israel of massacring civilians, a claim UN investigators ultimately dismissed.

    Nonetheless, the damage to Israel's image was done, 23 Israeli soldiers had been killed alongside 52 Palestinians (at least 38 were combatants, according the UN, and Israelis believe that all but seven were), and millions of dollars in property damage had been inflicted on the refugee camp.

    Ironically, it was Israel's reluctance to enter Jenin in full force and its commitment to protecting Palestinian lives and property, even at increased risk to its own soldiers, that resulted in more Israeli deaths and much more destruction in the camp than would have been necessary otherwise.

    Human disaster in warfare is nothing new, but urban warfare is worse, particularly for civilians caught in the crossfire and, as was made clear in the World War II battles of Stalingrad, Aachen and Saint-Lo, to name just a few, they are a nightmare for advancing armies.

    Urban theaters necessitate intense fighting at close range, neutralize attacking forces' greater numbers and technological superiority, and the presence of civilians makes targeting enemy combatants, or even finding them, very difficult.

    This is why political scientist Michael Desch called urban battles "the great equalizer."

    Analysts predict that the coming war in Iraq will not be fought in sterile deserts but rather in heavily-populated cities like Baghdad. If American forces are to be successful in their fight against Iraq, they have to learn the lessons of the past.

    All war may be hell, but city battles are that much worse: Defending troops not only possess greater familiarity with the terrain, but often have had ample time to plant mines, position snipers and set up ambushes.

    The advancing army has to rely on ground troops, supported by tanks and armored personnel carriers, while the defending army traditionally prevents substantial air or artillery support by "hugging" the advancing troops: engaging them at close range so that any air or artillery support risks hitting the advancing army's own soldiers, that is, even if the attacking force doesn't limit its fire supply because of civilian presence in the area.

    If so, as most likely will be the case in Iraq, the task becomes even more complicated.

    Cities' electrical grids and "urban canyons" render most combat communications systems worthless; short-wave radios and cell phones will work, but army radios may be jammed.

    Each soldier has to maintain an extra level of awareness: Snipers and other attackers can engage them not only from the front, back or side, but may be hiding on the upper floors or roofs of buildings filled with civilians, or in sewers below.

    Meanwhile, identifying enemy combatants from non-combatants is difficult. Smoke and fire make targeting that much harder; every soldier knows that each shot might hit a civilian and any mortar shell might destroy someone's home.

    IN JENIN, Israeli military strategists knew that the battleground was heavily boobytrapped and that its houses were hiding snipers and providing cover for enemy fighters.

    Initial battle plans called for using combat bulldozers to clear the area, which would have taken care of the dangers to a great extent, but would also have destroyed private property and possibly imperiled civilians who hadn't heeded calls to leave the area.

    Nonetheless, Israelis refrained from operating bulldozers and tanks in Jenin to try to prevent extensive destruction. It was only after 13 Israeli soldiers were killed in a single ambush that the Israelis changed tactics and put bulldozers into massive use. However, since the battle was already under way, their use was much less precise and more ruinous.

    If a battle action is justified after you lose precious lives, then it is justified from the beginning, and is probably the wisest course.
    In a rush to avoid collateral damage and bad publicity, the Israelis held off using the most effective means until the 13 soldiers were killed.

    Had the IDF gone in, full force, from the beginning, as initially planned, the fight might have ended more quickly and there likely would have been fewer casualties on both sides.

    Instead, they paid in lives, and caused more destruction.

    In Baghdad, American forces will likely face a similar moral dilemma. In keeping with the habits of dictatorial regimes, Iraq has no compunctions about using civilians for shelter and cover. They are equally likely to use civilians as provocations: to shoot from behind civilians and wait for American troops to return fire, then showboat the corpses and damage for the press and decry "American aggression."

    Saddam might even resort to shooting his own citizens and blaming it on American forces.
    As much as possible, American army officials must try to encourage civilian populations to clear out of areas where there is fighting. Prior to the battle in Jenin several hundred Palestinian fighters were hiding among the camp's 15,000 residents.

    Many residents responded to initial calls to evacuate the camp: Some left voluntarily, others under military escort. During the main battle only 1,500 civilians stayed in the camp, leaving it relatively open for the attacking Israelis.

    Once the battle begins in Baghdad, targeting, shelling, and D9 bulldozers can help encourage stalwarts to clear out or, at the least, stay out of sight.

    American soldiers would also be well-served by staying out of sight. Both recent Marine Corps studies and Israeli experience show that most casualties in urban fighting are suffered while soldiers are moving in the streets.

    Israelis themselves applied this lesson when they took the casba in Nablus about the same time as the battle in Jenin. Rather than expose themselves in the streets, soldiers cut holes in the walls between houses and moved through them.

    Additionally, Israeli snipers positioned themselves in tall buildings to prevent Palestinian fighters from operating in the streets while the Israeli forces operated in ways specifically designed to confound their enemies' expectations.

    One Palestinian fighter told Amnesty International that "the Israelis were everywhere, behind, on the sides, on the right and on the left. How can you fight that way?"

    ONE MAJOR attribute of the Israeli advance was its unpredictability, according to Col. Aviv Kochavi, commander of the paratrooper brigade that took the casba. Using the technique known as "swarming," where many small units move without obvious logic, they infiltrated and attacked from the inside out, in zigzag patterns, and otherwise unexpected movements.

    New American combat doctrines, which call these sorts of tactics "nonlinear warfare," will try to take advantage of urban chaos.

    The success of these new tactics is dependent largely on intelligence gathering. Not only do ground troops need to know the city map well, they need to know who lives in it, who has interests and where, who is a follower of whom, and who has it in for whom.

    Troops need to target battle command and communication centers, the hubs that permit the enemy to fight, and break the fighting will and spirit of the other side.

    To gather the information necessary, American forces need translators fluent in Arabic and in all the dialects spoken in the combat theater. (For any successful psychological operations, they also need cultural translators: the now-legendary attempt to intimidate American soldiers in the first Gulf War by warning them that, back home, their wives and girlfriends were being seduced by Bart Simpson was, suffice to say, less than effective.)

    Enemy troops, along with civilians, need to know that prisoners will be treated fairly and that American forces do not have any intention of destroying their homes or killing their families, contrary to Iraqi propaganda. Needless to say, psy-ops will succeed only if American actions are consistent with these claims.

    Avoiding unnecessary collateral damage is not only moral, but tactically savvy. Americans should go in with every means necessary to complete the mission in accordance with the rules of engagement. They should not wait until soldiers start dying before unleashing the complete arsenal.

    Decisiveness does not mean being brutish without limits. If Americans want to enable Iraqis to not stand with Saddam, they must avoid giving them more reasons to do so.

    In the words of the late Russian general Alexander Lebed, nothing makes a more determined fighter than a man who goes to work in the morning and returns in the evening to find his neighborhood destroyed and his family killed.

    Ultimately, American troops must hope for the best, but plan for the worst. After all, city combat was hell, is hell, and probably will continue to be hell for the foreseeable future.

    The job of American military planners is to get it over as quickly as they can.

    The writer is a student of military history. His research on Jenin will appear in the forthcoming issue of Azure.

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