Admiration of the Nation
The Marine Corps assumed responsibility for Iraq's Anbar Province in early March 2004 from the Army's 82nd Airborne Division, which a local sheik described as "fast to shoot, fast to arrest, and slow to apologize." As a member of an Army brigade then working for the 82nd in Anbar, I find an uncomfortable amount of truth in that description. The Marines arrived with the intention of treating the province with a lighter touch. Gen. James Mattis updated the First Marine Division's motto—"No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy"—by adding the phrase "First, Do No Harm."
But when insurgents desecrated the corpses of four Blackwater contractors in Fallujah, Anbar's second city, on March 31, 2004, the Marines were ordered to punish the city. The house-to-house fighting that followed was a tactical success but a strategic nightmare. It convinced Iraqis—both Shiite and Sunni—that Americans were their enemies. (Our supply lines were cut in Anbar, and my own unit went on light rations.) The provisional Iraqi government rebelled, the British threatened to leave the coalition of the willing, and the Marines were stood down, ultimately surrendering Fallujah back to the insurgents.
In November, the Marines tried again, this time with a plan that separated the insurgents from the population and included effective information operations, communicating with the Iraqi people and our allies, to hold the coalition together. Such techniques are essential in counterinsurgency campaigns. Although the Marines succeeded in clearing Fallujah of insurgents in the hardest urban fighting since 1968's Tet Offensive in Vietnam, there weren't enough troops in Iraq to take advantage of the gains and pacify the whole country—nor was there a widespread understanding of how to practice counterinsurgency successfully. Al Qaeda in Iraq, by now a full partner with the Sunni insurgency, worked to incite civil war between Iraq's Sunnis and Shiite. By the summer of 2006, al Qaeda had achieved that goal, and the senior Marine intelligence officer in Anbar reported that the U.S. had lost control of the province and had no chance of regaining it.
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