Tuesday, April 24, 2007

The Wall.

The decision to build security walls around some Baghdad districts is getting a lot of attention in the local and world media. It’s creating many questions and even more rumors. Here are thoughts, just as protests may be making both Iraqi and American officials reconsider the plan, according to some press reports.

First and foremost, I don’t know why “The Wall” is becoming such an issue now. Work to construct similar walls started weeks ago in the Amiriya and Ghazaliyah districts. The “news” went utterly unnoticed then.

But that’s not what matters. What does matter is effectiveness versus side-effects. Neither should be neglected.

Yesterday leaflets were distributed in the streets of Adhamiya (or Azamiya, English doesn’t have the exact sound anyway). The leaflets — printed and distributed by persons unknown — called on residents to protest the building of the wall. Knowing that the only organized entity capable of such quick response to events in Adhamiya are either the insurgents or al-Qaeda strongly indicates that they were behind the planned protest. More important still is that it indicates they see the wall as a threat to their movement and ability to carry out their actions.

From a tactical point of view these walls can be very useful in reducing the levels of violence in targeted areas. Militants will have to stay in their home areas to avoid passing through the controlled gates. This reduces their ability to transport weapons and munitions for storage or operations in other districts. Failing that they will have to relocate to a district where it would be easier for them to operate. In either case the capacity of the militants to sustain their current level of operations would be impaired.

Having walls and barriers that seal off an area also means that troops don’t have to worry watching the numerous routes that connect Baghdad’s interlacing districts that militants use to maneuver around security operations. By extension it means that unit commanders would have a higher percentage of their troops free to conduct real missions against the militants. This makes the “clear and hold” strategy much easier to implement and sustain.

The wall strategy is pretty much like trying to control or protect a small crowd of, say, 50 people. If they are milling about in the street you’ll probably need a dozen cops to control the situation. But if you move the small crowd to a hall with one door one cop can stand at the door and control the movement in and out of the hall, while two cops can sort out the good guys from the bad guys. The remaining nine cops can move on to take care of other situations at other locations.

On the other hand one of the risks that needs to be taken into consideration when adopting this tactic of gated communities is that the main gate could itself become a target for spectacular suicide attacks. In the case of Adhamiya, (population estimated at 500,000 +) or other districts with large populations, the gates are likely to see a lot of traffic every day. There will be inevitably long waiting lines. That alone could attract suicide bombers or mortar barrages.

There are definitely downsides that come from surrounding communities with walls, mostly psychological and social. It’s sad to watch the capital of your country become the only city in the world that resembles a compartmentalized fortress where you need tall concrete walls to slightly improve the margin of safety.

But this is war and we can’t afford living in denial of the seriousness of threats. Emotions must not be allowed to disrupt taking practical steps that can save lives.

So while I understand where PM Maliki is coming from in his opposition to the wall I have to disagree with him. The other thing I don’t like about Maliki’s move is that he broke the promise he made when he announced the security plan: he said he would not allow political interference in the work of the military. So his opposition to this particular plan is purely political in nature with disregard to the facts on the ground, and an obvious result of pressure from some politicians around him.

However from his tone I suspect that he will eventually change his mind and deal practically with the issue.

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