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Iraq Update: Offensive Near Syrian Border, Measuring Success

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

As the US military conducts an offensive in northwest Iraq, the troops face the tricky question of when they've accomplished their mission.

Lieutenant General JAMES T. CONWAY (US Marines): The mission is to eliminate insurgents and foreign fighters in this region that's known for its smuggling and as a recent location for foreign fighters and insurgents.

INSKEEP: Marine Lieutenant General James T. Conway was describing what the military calls Operation Matador. It's the latest effort to round up insurgents believed to be slipping across the border from Syria. Chicago Tribune reporter James Janega is embedded with the troops and described the Marines' tactics earlier this week.

Mr. JAMES JANEGA (Chicago Tribune): In an area about nine miles across from the Syrian border inland along the Euphrates River, they think there may be as many as 200 to 300 insurgents spread throughout several villages. They got about a thousand Marines up here and blocked off the Syrian border, then crossed the Euphrates River and--while air assets fly overhead, trying to see if anybody runs away.

INSKEEP: We played that description of the operation for Jeffrey White. He's a former chief of Middle East intelligence for the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency.

Mr. JEFFREY WHITE (Former Chief of Middle East Intelligence, Defense Intelligence Agency, Pentagon): It does not look like we have really precise information on locations, houses, streets or whatever for at least some of the people we're pursuing out there. So we're out there trying to drive them out of cover, engage them and destroy them or capture them.

INSKEEP: How effective can you be in driving people out of scattered villages and wide-open countryside like that?

Mr. WHITE: This is a, you know, very difficult issue for us. Some of this is pushing Jell-O around. Some of them appear willing to engage us and die in the fighting. These are probably the foreign jihadis or Iraqi jihadis. Others are probably just getting out of the way, going home to their parents' house and going back under tribal cover.

INSKEEP: I want to read a quote from another embedded reporter who's with the troops in northwest Iraq. Ellen Knickmeyer of The Washington Post writes: "The insurgents appeared to have plenty of warning that the Marines were coming. By the time one particular squad crossed north of the Euphrates, whole villages consisted of little more than abandoned houses with fresh tire tracks leading into pastures. Men of fighting age had disappeared," she writes.

Mr. WHITE: This is a pattern we see all over Iraq. It's very hard to achieve tactical surprise. They have a good knowledge of what they do. They study us. They know when we move; they know how we move. If we're operating with Iraqi security forces, those security forces in many cases are penetrated or the members simply go home and tell their relatives what's going on or what's coming up, and word gets around.

INSKEEP: Their intelligence is better than US military intelligence?

Mr. WHITE: I wouldn't say it's better. It's different. Their intelligence is the intelligence of owning the neighborhood, and when somebody comes in that's distinctly different and operates differently, they note it.

INSKEEP: Now in their public statements, US military officials had been offering what we could call body counts. They've said 75 insurgents were killed here, a hundred here. How reliable can those body counts be?

Mr. WHITE: I think they're only a very rough approximation. I mean, I don't think we've found or counted a hundred bodies. Casualties occur in buildings that are destroyed. We don't bother to go in and, you know, dismantle the building or go through the wreckage to find bodies. So units that are engaging say, `Well, we think we killed six,' `We think we killed 10.' And I don't think the military is putting huge stress on that.

INSKEEP: So in an operation like this, how do you measure success?

Mr. WHITE: You have to take a long-term view. Body counts are not very useful overall because the insurgents by now have demonstrated the capacity to replace their losses. Really, to me, the most important thing is who controls the ground. And one of the surprising things about this story, the Operation Matador story, is that, according to our own people, we had not been in these areas for over a year, which means that people could just simply operate out there and do what they want and dig into these towns, take control of these towns. So it's who owns the ground, and not just while we're standing on it, but when we leave.

INSKEEP: Looking beyond this one operation, what indicators do you look at to measure whether the United States is making progress or not making so much progress?

Mr. WHITE: I think you have to divide the country into three pieces, basically. How are we doing in the areas controlled by the Kurds? And we're doing very well there. How are we doing in Shia-dominated areas? We're doing at least OK in those areas. The big issue is what's happening in Sunni areas. And there, it's really a fight for the Sunni mind. You know, which future Iraq are the Sunnis going to go for: transformed Iraq or some kind of restoration of the old system or something like the system?

INSKEEP: Will a military operation like the one we've been reporting on this week affect what you see as that essential question of the way the Sunnis go?

Mr. WHITE: Not very much. It may be important for other reasons, in the sense of disrupting the flow of insurgent logistics coming in from Syria and so on, of--help breaking up some cells. But in the struggle for the Sunni mind, this is not a big deal.

INSKEEP: Jeffrey White is a former chief of Middle East intelligence at the Defense Intelligence Agency. Thanks for coming by.

Mr. WHITE: Thank you.

INSKEEP: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.