What did the U.S. military offensive against Shiite militias in Sadr City in April 2008 and the Israeli offensive against Hamas in Gaza last December have in common? A lot, apparently, and both operations are being held up by their respective militaries as models for a new way of battling irregular fighters in urban strongholds.
Central Command chief Gen. David Petraeus likes to put up a PowerPoint slide in public briefings detailing the forces, intelligence and surveillance assets involved in the Sadr city battles as representative of a new way of fighting. “This is the answer,” Petraeus said at a conference this summer, “this is how we fight, when we can, with all of the assets that we have.”
In spring 2008, Shiite militias were lobbing rockets and mortars into Baghdad’s Green Zone, American bases and Sunni neighborhoods. The American offensive that shut them down included a high-low mix of special operations and regular troops on the ground conducting targeted raids by infantry and heavy armor teams and aggressive sniping, supported by a fantastic array of electronic eyes overhead, and a network of spies and informants in the shadows. “We’re taking those lessons from Iraq and trying to apply them in Afghanistan,” Petraeus said.
RAND analyst and historian David Johnson, who has spent the past two years examining Israeli military training and operational adaptation, says leaders in the Israeli Defense Forces are pointing to “Operation Cast Lead,” that targeted Hamas in Gaza, as the new way to battle irregular enemies. That war was fought in a very similar approach as the Sadr City operation.
Surprise Israeli precision air strikes took out hundreds of Hamas leaders and other high value targets in the operation’s early hours. These had been gathered in a “target bank” over many months by the Israelis. Then IDF ground forces, mostly heavy armor, rolled into Gaza. Aerial drones, attack helicopters and fighter jets were assigned directly to the maneuver brigades, Johnson said, a key element that ensured close coordination and a very short sensor-to-shooter cycle. This was critical as Hamas fighters presented fleeting targets as they used civilians for cover and bounded between buildings.
Johnson provided a quote from IDF Maj. Gen. Ido Nehushstan: “Our pilots, air crews and UAV operators worked directly with ground commanders from the very early planning stages – each one in his own sector, to the point they knew one another. They recognized each other’s voices over the network and could smell each other’s sweat… Full partnership with the ground forces – from a moral and physical perspective – which required well-planned, well rehearsed, truly joint operations.”
Both the Sadr City and Gaza operations showed the importance of distributed operations, what the IDF calls “diffused warfare,” where small units fight independently over a large area. Higher headquarters largely stay out of the way, providing brigades and battalions all of the supporting intelligence, surveillance and indirect fire assets they need.
Both operations provided important lessons on the critical importance of heavy ground forces that can probe streets and alleyways and stir up irregular fighters hidden in urban strongpoints, Johnson said. Once they move, the fighters become visible presenting a targetable signature. Absent robust ground incursions, they can remain hidden from probing electronic eyes overhead.
An important takeaway from both battles is that they were fought in a bandwidth rich environment, said Johnson, a luxury that might not exist in many future military operations. For the Israelis in Gaza, ensuring adequate network bandwidth for command and control wasn’t a problem as their territory surrounds the narrow strip. Similarly, the U.S. was able to concentrate available resources in Sadr City because of the robust communications architecture built up there over the years.
Both Sadr City and Gaza provide useful models for taking down irregular opponents in urban concentrations. Replicating those operations on the stark, rural and mountainous battlefields of Afghanistan will be a much greater challenge.