At noon on 21 December, multiple rounds exploded in the dining hall of a US Army base near Mosul, Iraq. The source of the attack is still unclear. The most likely candidates are mortars or rockets, but the reporting of multiple rounds striking the dining hall suggest an accuracy and cluster of impacts that would most likely be the result of a mortar attack. The Pentagon has reported 22 killed and over 60 injured in the attack. This attack is highly significant for two reasons.
1. This is the first major success by insurgents to attack the soft center of US bases with indirect fire. Since the first American bases were established in Afghanistan and Iraq, they have been subjected to regular mortar and rocket attacks. The vast majority of these have been wildly inaccurate and ineffective. Prior to deployments to Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan and Tallil Air Base, Iraq, I briefed units to expect infrequent mortar or rocket attacks, but that these attackers had demonstrated their inability "to hit the broad side of a barn", and that they posed little risk. But this latest attack demonstrates a new level of proficiency on a number of fronts.
Accuracy: The majority of previous mortar and rocket attacks were "accurate" if they landed within the perimeter of the base, with an average CEP (circular error probability) of over a quarter of a mile. This attack demonstrated a CEP of 50' or so -- quite respectable.
Targeting: The timing of the attack -- 12 noon -- suggests that the impact in the dining hall was intentional. Not only does this suggest that the accuracy of the attack was not a fluke, but it also demonstrates that insurgents have sufficient intelligence about the internal layout of the base to know the location of the dining hall, and that they have the insight to select such an effective target, both militarily and psychologically. Which brings me to the next reason why this attack was so significant: psychology
2. The psychological impact of this attack will have the most lasting effects. Previously, despite the theoretical threat while inside a US base, soldiers could relax both mentally and physically while inside the walls of the larger, better fortified bases. Now, with the effectiveness of this latest attack, there is no psychological safe haven for US forces. Especially if insurgents can continue this type of successful attack, it will sharply undercut the psychological well-being of US forces. The Pentagon is already reporting that 17% of returning forces demonstrate symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (which is startling, because onset normally takes months or longer). This type of psychological trauma will have a two-fold impact: Forces in Iraq will be more likely to act in a rash, irrational and reactionary manner. That means that the type of incidents that inflame the situation (prison abuse, civilian casualties, etc.) will become more frequent. Secondly, this lead to an increased spike in extremist and militia-type activity within the US in the coming years.
Following the first Gulf War, returning soldiers dealing with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and "Gulf War Syndrome" (probably a result of aerosolized depleted-uranium, which will also be worse after this conflict) became a ready-made recruiting pool for extremist, anti-government and far-right militia groups. The Oklahoma City bombing was a direct result of this process, as well as the general spike in militia activity in the mid 1990's. All indicators suggest that the US will experience the same type of aftermath to this latest conflict. This time, however, with longer deployments, more personnel involved, more casualties, longer-term depleted-uranium exposure and--as this latest attack underscores--more psychological trauma, the symptoms promise to be far worse.
Many unanswered questions remain. Over the next few weeks, look for the following: will insurgents be able to continue this type of successful indirect-fire attack? Will the US counter-battery radars and response forces succeed in dealing with the attackers? Will the US take the logical countermeasures (as I recommended to the commander of the US base at Doha International Airport in 2003) of distributing dining hall facilities and other large congregations of personnel? Will the US military be foreced to change their fundamental operational methodology of lighting raids from highly secure compounds??