By: MAJ Brent Lindeman
This article is about the counterinsurgency experiences of two United States Special Forces Soldiers, William and Robert, and their operational detachments, which fought in al Anbar during the period from February 2004 to April 2007. It is a condensed version of several chapters of a thesis I wrote four years ago while attending the Naval Postgraduate School.1 A lot of other people have written about the American counterinsurgency experience in al Anbar: academics, journalists, Soldiers, and Marines in monographs, theses, articles, and books. These accounts devote considerable attention to the Awakening, an event that has taken on mythical proportions, a lot like the Surge. I think readers will notice that the stories recounted in the following pages offer a distinctly different flavor.
Well versed in American history and conversant in Arabic, William has perfected the art of selling himself as "just a dumb hillbilly." He is anything but. When William returned to Iraq in 2004 for Operation Iraqi Freedom II (OIF II), he was beginning his 14th consecutive year in the 5th Special Forces Group and had already chalked up four previous combat missions—to the Gulf (in the first Gulf War), Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq in 2003. All told, William had over seven years' time on the ground in the Middle East, Southwest Asia, and Africa.
William's first mission on his return to Iraq in 2004 was not counterinsurgency. It was to identify and exploit opportunities to split al Qaeda elements from nationalist strands of the insurgency or, as it was called, the resistance. Early on, the 5th Special Forces Group headquarters had theorized that this should be possible in Sunni-dominated al Anbar. The thinking was that by exposing and encouraging such a rift, irreconcilables could be unmasked and targeted. Second Battalion, 5th Special Forces Group tasked William and his Operational Detachment–Alpha, ODA 555, to look for and exploit just such opportunities. Or, as William described it, his ODA was "looking for guys to gun up against al Qaeda in Iraq." What is important to note is the vagueness of ODA 555's initial mission. The command acknowledged that it did not have a complete enough picture of the situation on the ground.
ODA 555 operated from al Asad Airbase. Al Asad was centrally located in the ODA's area of operations (AO), which extended along the Euphrates River Valley (ERV) for approximately 150 miles, from Rawah southeast to the Highway 10/12 split near Mohammedi, and included vast swaths of desert on either side of the river corridor. Third Armored Cavalry Regiment (3rd ACR) was initially responsible for the battlespace that encompassed 555's AO when the team arrived in January 2004; Marine Regimental Combat Team (RCT) 7 replaced 3rd ACR in February.
American commanders in Anbar initially worked through police forces and city councils. However, few American units had vetted the local police and city councils in the immediate aftermath of the invasion. Instead, police and council members were assumed to be legitimate. In other words, Americans assumed that armed men wearing blue shirts were police just because they were armed men wearing blue shirts.
William and ODA 555 were skeptical. As William put it:
We [the coalition] just completely changed out a whole government! Who's to say who's a good cop, or who's a bad cop? We did not know what or who was considered legitimate by the people in Anbar at that point, although we made an assumption that the tribes were still a legitimate source of power that held influence. Saddam, after all, had had to manage the tribes, not police forces and city councils.
William knew, based on experience in the Middle East and a basic understanding of tribalism in Anbar, that legitimacy emanated from power and prestige, not titles and uniforms. Therefore, in his assessment, power and prestige lay with the tribes.3 William also assumed that he would be competing with al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and other insurgent groups for the support of the tribes and their inherent ability to self-mobilize. The ODA's plan was thus simple: identify the most powerful tribe in the AO and co-opt it. How exactly co-option would be executed would depend on what the ODA could learn, how relationships developed, and what the situation permitted or suggested.
ODA 555 soon discovered that a significant population of the Albu Nimr tribe resided in its AO. The Albu Nimr are one of the largest tribes of the Dulami Tribal Confederation dominating al Anbar. William also discovered that one of the informants that ODA 555 inherited from the previous ODA was a member of the Albu Nimr. William nicknamed this informant Nubs.
Nubs was from the poor Shamal clan. By profession a fisherman, Nubs supplemented his income during Saddam's reign by smuggling. According to Nubs and others who knew him, he had survived numerous regime attempts to arrest or kill him. According to one story, Nubs had mailed the hand of a would-be assassin back to the authorities. True or not, Nubs was exactly the type of individual William wanted to "gun up." Nubs was competent, wily, and resourceful. He became William's way into the Nimr.
Working with the direct support of the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force (CJSOTF) and General James Mattis, William used Nubs to help create a provisional company of Shamal-Albu Nimr tribesmen from the town of Tal Aswad in the al Phurat area, Hit district.4 Over time this Nimr unit successfully conducted operations for the Marines in Rawah and other places. Most significantly, the provisional Nimr company ensured that Route Uranium was cleared of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), allowing Marine reinforcements to flow from al Asad to Fallujah in support of Operation Vigilant Resolve (the First Battle of Fallujah) unimpeded.
William solidified his rapport with the Nimr provisionals by conducting small civil affairs projects in Tal Aswad. These projects were never about winning hearts and minds. William knew that the ODA's infusion of money and power into the Tal Aswad community would attract the attention of influential sheikhs, since Tal Aswad was a poor Shamal community consisting of farmers and fishermen. He understood that, because patronage was key to how sheikhs maintained power and influence over their tribal constituents, these sheikhs would not tolerate the residents of Tal Aswad prospering independently; this would undermine their authority. Thus, William wasn't at all surprised when Sheikh Reshad, the paramount sheikh of the Albu Nimr, called him and asked for an introductory meeting. William responded by inviting Sheikh Reshad to meet him at al Asad Airbase. In doing so, not only did William succeed in maneuvering Sheikh Reshad into making the initial approach—meeting William on William's terms—but also into coming to a meeting on William's ground. William thereby began their relationship from a position of dominance.
In hindsight, William's approach may seem strikingly commonsensical, almost as if he did not think it through. Yet, William continuously assessed and reassessed the ODA's plan. Worth noting is that this was well in advance of the Awakening and the development of the Sons of Iraq.
Listen, we didn't start out to conduct counterinsurgency. We [ODA 555] started out trying to find a way to get good guys to kill bad guys. That meant that we could not waste our time looking for bad guys; we needed to find the good guys first. Find the good guys, help them secure their lives and prosper, and they will find the bad guys for you because they want to protect what they have.
There are different ways to go about this. We did it by organizing a provisional unit based on tribal and geographic cohesion. That way, once guys committed to the unit, they had a stake in protecting each other and their town. We also didn't assume that we had the right guys. We constantly looked for indicators that either confirmed or denied that what we were doing was working. Threats and attacks against the Nimr were a very good sign that we were being successful. The key event occurred in May 2004, when someone threw a bomb over the wall into Sheikh Reshad's compound. That not only was an indicator that our efforts were a threat to AQI, it also pushed Sheikh Reshad further in line with the coalition.
We also listened to the Nimr's concerns. Their primary concern was safeguarding their families and property. They wanted to do it themselves. In that respect, it was no different from colonial militias in our country before the Revolutionary War. They were not interested in serving in any other area in Anbar or chasing bad guys if it meant leaving their homes unguarded. We reached a compromise with them where one-third of the provisional company would conduct offensive operations for me as long as we left the other two-thirds to guard the home front. Our wasta went up by finding a way to work within their concerns.5 In counterinsurgency, you have to give in to the reasonable demands of the population, if you can, if you want to get their support.
The Marines, on the other hand, didn't take this approach. The Marines were technically correct in their approach, but intuitively wrong. The first thing is that they [Marines] never worked with the right people while I was there. I will use Hit district as an example. 2–7 Marines focused their engagement efforts on the city council and police, who were controlled, influenced, and/or manipulated by the insurgents. There were plenty of indicators. One was that the police would call the Marines up within 30 minutes usually, after a mortar attack on Camp Hit where 2–7 was based, and say they knew who was responsible. But the police never, ever caught who was responsible. How's that? The police were just providing throwaway names to appease the Marines.
The city council members were also not the right people to be dealing with. They were under insurgent control and were not the most powerful entity in the district to begin with. The Nimr were. I remember some representatives from 2–7 Marines telling me about a Hit city council meeting they attended. This meeting occurred two days after Sheikh Reshad's family compound in Zuwayyah was bombed. The Marines said that Sheikh Reshad strode in like he owned the place and told them [the council] that if any Nimr were hurt, he would level the city. The Marines said that some of those council members shook in their boots. This event told me two things. One, Sheikh Reshad knew that the council had extremist or AQI ties. They were someone's puppets, through whom he was sending a message. If not, he wouldn't have chosen to direct his threat towards them. Two, being told of the visceral reaction of many of the council members, I knew they feared organized tribal retaliation by the Nimr. These two observations proved to me that I had chosen to back the right player. That being said, 2–7 Marines continued trying to work through the police and city council.6
The Iraqi Civil Defense Corps (ICDC) were also a mess. The reason was, again, they were not the right people, and they were not properly employed. The name Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, or even the later name, Iraqi National Guard, suggests a local militia, which it was not. The ICDC recruits were not vetted through the tribes. Neither were the police or the city council. The tribal structures were the only ones available that could do three things we needed: 1) vet recruits; 2) provide leverage to keep recruits in line; and 3) provide community leaders who could be held accountable for the actions of the recruits. The other major factor in the ICDC's failure was that ICDC units were not employed in safeguarding their own tribal and community areas.
For example, ICDC recruits from Hit were used in Haditha. This action also had a number of negative consequences. ICDC members had no incentive to safeguard someone else's hometown. Employing the ICDC outside of their communities also negated the tribe as a mechanism for maintaining accountability. It was thought that employing ICDC elsewhere would limit corruption and graft. The truth was this action encouraged extortion and pilfering. We removed the Iraqis' own system of social accountability by employing tribesmen in tribal areas other than their own. There was also another fundamental flaw in employing Anbaris, who are tribesmen, in other tribesmen's areas. The local populace does not consider them legitimate. Think of the Texas Rangers. They were Texans, working in Texas. The Rangers didn't hire men from Oklahoma, and they didn't try to enforce the law outside of Texas. What is so hard to understand?
It's funny, the Marines said that the ICDC were disbanded because they failed to meet expectations. Everyone blames the Iraqis. No one pays attention to the fact that the Marines were responsible for running the program, training and advising the ICDC. The Marines failed because they made mistakes in how they recruited and employed the ICDC.
Figuring It Out
William spent an extraordinary amount of time just trying to understand exactly how AQI and other extremist elements were functioning within ODA 555's AO; he complained that almost every S2 (intelligence officer) he met with, or heard brief, only described the enemy's actions.7 An S2, for example, might brief that the enemy was planting IEDs in a particular area or that the enemy was using violence and coercion to influence the population but never include speculations as to why that might be or for what purpose it was being done.
No S2 that William remembers ever presented a concept of what al Qaeda's or the insurgents' goals were, how they were trying to achieve those goals, and what resources they needed to achieve them. This meant that conventional operations were mis-focused and, sometimes, operations simply had nothing to do with the enemy situation at all. William likened it to boxing. A boxer has to know what his opponent is doing before he can counter it. A good boxer does not keep trying to block the jab while right crosses are pounding him.
William summarized this by recounting a briefing he sat in on with 2–7 Marines:
I sat in on one brief in which the S2 said that the enemy was using violence and coercion to influence the population. The S3 [operations officer] then got up and explained how the unit was going to conduct a patrol in order to hand out soccer balls and demonstrate a presence. What part of the S2's brief did he miss? How is handing out soccer balls going to defeat coercion? It can't. At no time did anyone provide an explicit plan for how to defeat the enemy.
In contrast, William very consciously avoided conducting operations simply for the sake of conducting operations. He avoided the operations–intelligence trap that many operational detachments and units fell into, when units conducted direct action operations to capture or kill insurgents. In theory, these operations were said to produce more intelligence that would lead to more operations, and so on, in a perpetual cycle. But this cycle can become a trap when not coordinated to support a greater end state. Instead of focusing on individuals, William concentrated on defining what it was that AQI was trying to achieve in ODA 555's AO, and how it was trying to achieve it. Once he figured that out, the ODA then sought to counter AQI's efforts.
William and the team's assistant operations sergeant developed a model, depicted in Figure 3, to illustrate how AQI and other anti-coalition groups were operating in Anbar. First, AQI attempted to dominate or co-opt the tribes. Second, AQI used these groups to get civic leaders and civic institutions to support their operations and to misdirect coalition forces.
For instance, the model reveals how AQI and others used Iraqi Police (IPs) in a counterintelligence role to impede coalition progress. William and ODA 555 found three types of individuals in an IP force: active insurgents, passive supporters who simply ignored insurgent activity, and honest policemen.
The active insurgents in the police force collected valuable intelligence by observing and coordinating with coalition forces. These insurgent policemen conducted counterintelligence by providing disinformation to the coalition, to the population, and to honest cops with the aim of subverting coalition stabilization efforts. The active insurgents also used unwitting, honest policemen to misdirect police efforts in support of insurgent activity.
As William's model suggests, insurgents sought to control the coalition's use of its preferred connective nodes—chiefly the police and city councils—in order to destroy coalition efforts to gain the local population's support and trust. The insurgents could thereby completely control the tempo of the fight in Anbar, and effectively parry coalition efforts to contain it. As amorphous as the insurgency was, it had few difficulties shaping coalition perceptions and affecting coalition forces' reactions to events.8
By refusing to work with the IPs or the Hit city council, and by conducting tribal engagement, William disrupted AQI's ability to control the tempo of the fight in al Phurat and Hit district. Even though William started small, with just one Nimr tribesman from Tal Aswad, his influence grew. The ODA developed excellent relations with Sheikhs Reshad, Bizea, and Faisal (governor of Anbar), and others, while simultaneously developing a loyal following among the many members of the general Nimr tribe.
The ODA conducted other deliberate operations in support of William's main effort with the Nimr and to disrupt AQI. It created events, either to shape the battlefield, or just to see what would happen in order to test assumptions and improve its understanding of how the enemy was operating and influencing the locals.
While William did not consider Hit or other surrounding areas ripe for fruitful tribal engagement during his OIF II tour, he also did not ignore them. Because ODA 555 still had to react to intelligence leads on known insurgents and requests from "higher," William always tried to ensure that he conducted operations in ways that helped shape the battlefield toward facilitating accomplishment of his overall mission. He cleverly developed and executed concepts to influence insurgent decision cycles and insurgents' perceptions. William largely did this by mirroring their tactics.
ODA 555 conducted some operations in ways that masked its identity as the sponsor. These operations suggested to local insurgents that there were other, unknown Iraqis living around them in their communities who supported coalition objectives. When combined with overt operational displays by the Nimr provisional company, these operations heightened insurgents' fears that the coalition and tribe were cooperating. ODA 555 also choreographed the dissemination of disinformation through informants to amplify the perception that Iraqis were rejecting AQI and the resistance.
These operations effectively created doubt and uncertainty among the insurgents, and introduced something far more threatening to them than coalition forces: They planted the idea that there were local Iraqis, whom the insurgents didn't know and couldn't identify or control, who were targeting AQI and elements of the local resistance. One of the by-products of this fear among the insurgents was an increase in reports to ODA 555 of intra-Iraqi violence—some between competing insurgent factions and some from local Iraqis defending themselves against AQI.
Sadly, despite ODA 555's best efforts, its OIF II tour did not end as expected. After the Transfer of Authority on 30 June 2004, ODA 555 lost its ability (authority, really) to continue to pay the Nimr provisional company. Consequently, the Nimr were to be absorbed into the 503rd ICDC Battalion at Camp Hit. William knew the Nimr would reject this because the 503rd was corrupt; it had also been penetrated. The Nimr realized that they would be forfeiting their tribal security net if they were integrated as Nimr individuals into extant platoons. ODA 555 protested the disbanding of the provisional unit, but to no avail.
While William and his men had developed close enough bonds with the Nimr that they were beyond Nimr reproach, the disbandment of the provisionals unquestionably affected the Nimrs' view of the coalition and the Shi'adominated Interim Iraqi Government. It also cost the coalition rapport with a pro-coalition tribal community. Worse, the withdrawal of Special Forces from Anbar in the fall of 2004 cemented a sense of abandonment among the Tal Aswad Nimr.
The Interim: Putting It All Together
While William's original mission had been to exploit fissures in the insurgency in order to encourage Iraqis to reject AQI, he had, in effect, conducted counterinsurgency.
William himself acknowledges that he did not mentally make the paradigmatic shift to counterinsurgency until after the end of his OIF II tour. But all this really means is that he did not step back to analyze his approach at the time, so as to give it a label. It was only when he realized the magnitude of the loss of the Nimr provisional unit that he began reassessing what his team had done. Once home, William's battalion commander asked him to activate and train a new ODA. Because William sincerely believed the key to defeating AQI and managing the national resistance lay in al Anbar, despite its relegation to an economy-of-force effort, he desperately wanted to return there. He wanted to take his new ODA with him. That ODA included me.
In the course of activating ODA 545 (in August 2004), William and I had many long discussions. He described how he was drawing from his experiences in Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq to develop a tribal engagement–based counterinsurgency strategy should 545 go back to Anbar. William explained his approach using three simple models.
William borrowed the framework for his first model directly from U.S. Army doctrine. The Army utilizes the term Battlefield Operating Systems (BOS) to refer to the physical means by which a force executes its concept of operations. The Army classifies these physical means into seven operating systems: intelligence, maneuver, fire support, air defense, mobility/countermobility/ survivability, combat service support (CSS), and command and control.9 The U.S. Army uses these seven systems to target the enemy's operations. William simply applied the BOS overlay to insurgent forces to identify what was targetable within their systems.
Table 1 (right) depicts what William determined to be AQI's operating systems in Anbar and what he deemed targetable. The figure shows that William regarded AQI's CSS as the only BOS worth targeting, one that could decisively lead to AQI's defeat in Anbar. The term combat service support refers to all of the essential activities necessary to sustain AQI and the insurgency.10 In Iraq, CSS came from the population in one of two ways, either freely or via coercion and intimidation.
Classic counterinsurgency theory maintains that isolating insurgents from the population is necessary to defeat the insurgency. William came to the same conclusion, but from an enemy-centric perspective. He was interested in how to defeat the enemy. The remaining six systems could be targeted, but disrupting them would not be sufficient to inflict lasting damage on AQI or the insurgency.
William used his second model to explain to others how to target the population. William says he borrowed this from something a State Department staffer told him years earlier. According to this model, Arab identity begins with the immediate family and then proceeds along the following trajectory: family, clan, tribe, Muslims-like-me, Muslims-not-like-me, national identity.
William used this model to point out that the most effective way to target Anbaris non-kinetically was through tribal engagement. Anbaris' identities begin with the family and tribe. That is why Anbaris often attach an adjectival form of their tribal name to their given name: to inform others about their familial lineage and tribe. From William's point of view, because family and tribe were so central to Anbaris' identities, tribal engagement would continue to be the most viable means by which to influence local populations in Anbar.
Based on his prior experiences in Somalia and Afghanistan, William determined that there were three conditions al Qaeda needed if it was to succeed in establishing an Islamic state:
1. A predominantly Muslim population
2. Social chaos (breakdown of normal societal structures)
3. Economic failure or near failure
When these conditions persist, they create a climate that so wears down the populace that people will accept whatever form of government prevails, even a Taliban-like Islamic government, so long as it brings some form of stability. For traditional societal structures to break down to the point that AQI's influence prevails requires war or some other catastrophic event.
To avoid this scenario, William considered it critical that Iraq not devolve into civil war. That meant reinforcing existing tribal structures, which was also necessary to prevent AQI from undermining them for its own purposes. Otherwise, AQI could hijack local tribal structures to serve as mobilizing structures to support its goals, while undermining or destroying those structures it couldn't hijack. From William's perspective, AQI was doing both. For example, AQI used Kharbouli tribal structures to mobilize in al Qaim, but in Ramadi AQI assassinated senior sheikhs of the Albu Fahd in order to undermine tribal leaders and make the tribe more pliant.
According to William's models, if coalition forces could out-compete AQI to obtain the support of tribal structures, that would force AQI to rely on violent coercion and repression to force tribal acquiescence. As William put it, "You want AQ to become like a cancer and start attacking the body [the population, its own base of support, or CSS]." Basically, for William, AQI-inspired violence against the tribes implied three things. First, it indicated that coalition and government forces' actions were threatening AQI. Second, it indicated that the population's goals were divergent from AQI's. And third, it signaled an opportunity to align tribal needs with coalition goals by helping those tribes secure themselves.
The Model City Approach
William took his ideas and synthesized them into what he termed the "model city" approach, a variant of the famous inkblot or oil-slick approach to counterinsurgency. The basic premise is to gain access to a village or town by creating jobs, establishing a local security force, and using selective humanitarian or civil affairs projects to improve residents' quality of life. Once success is achieved in one location, that locality then serves as a model for surrounding tribal populations who can improve their own security and economic prospects by mimicking the model city and joining broader stabilization efforts. At the same time, any tribal leader who refuses to cooperate is denied economic and security benefits until he or his constituents choose to align themselves with the coalition and the host nation government on the side of stability.11
With this approach, it becomes possible to empower local leaders and enhance their credibility in the eyes of their communities. This, in turn, provides leverage as their expanding status becomes ever more tied to support of coalition objectives. In order to sustain this over the long term, coalition forces must gradually tie support for local leaders back to the local, regional, or national government. Sometimes, however, local leaders can be indirectly pressured into aligning themselves with pro-government forces.
William cites the western tribes as an example. Tribal leaders do not possess sovereign powers. They are largely "big men," relying on prestige to influence their constituents.12 In William's words:
Picture a sheikh as if he is sitting atop a pyramid. If the base of the pyramid moves, and the sheikh wants to remain on top, then he has to move with it. This is a natural democratic aspect of the tribes that not all people understand.
Because William did understand this, he spent a great deal of time developing relationships and influence among the general Nimr population. This was his way of using them to manipulate the sheikhs.
One benefit of William's model city approach is that it requires very few resources. In fact, gross overspending on civil affairs projects or any welfare-like assistance immediately undermines the entire effort. The key is to start small, spending little and under-promising on simple projects but over-performing in their completion. If the situation isn't too far gone, William's model city approach can also succeed with limited manpower. However, if the environment is as violent as al Qaim was in 2005, then external forces are needed to create and maintain stability until the local population is capable of doing this themselves. In areas where the violence is somewhat manageable, then even as small an element as an ODA can create security from within, working with the local inhabitants. Tal Aswad represents a prime example.
William and I were eager for ODA 545 to get to Anbar in June 2005 for our OIF III rotation, which would be my first as a team leader. We first had to spend two months in Baghdad, however, waiting for the CJSOTF (composed of a 5th Group headquarters) to coordinate with Multi-National Corps–Iraq (MNC-I) and II Marine Expeditionary Force (II MEF) to re-introduce Special Forces into Anbar.
While waiting to get to al Anbar, I scoured intelligence reports and other documents for current information about the situation there. I was intrigued by reporting that indicated that nationalist groups such as Mohammed's Army and the 1920th Revolutionary Brigade were fighting with AQI and other jihadist Salafist organizations. This information substantiated what William discovered during his OIF II mission. In our view, the 1920th Revolutionary Brigade represented an entity that could be redirected against irreconcilable groups like AQI. William also met some Nimr soldiers from Tal Aswad serving in Baghdad. They told us that they would soon desert because AQI threatened to harm their family members back home as payback for their having joined the army. This information further fueled our desire to leverage local fissures.
When ODA 545 finally made it to Anbar in August, we chose to establish our teamhouse at Camp Hit due to its proximity to al Phurat. Ideally, we would have established a teamhouse in al Phurat, but we did not know how receptive the Nimr would be to our presence, given William's absence and Sheikh Reshad's death. Marines mistakenly killed Sheikh Reshad while he was fleeing a kidnapping attempt in early 2005. Because we did not know exactly where we stood with the Nimr, and because we knew that if we had simply driven straight to Zuwayyah to meet with the sheikhs they would have presented us with a long list of grievances, William instead engineered a way to bring the sheikhs to us, working with the battlespace owners, 3–25 Marines. 3–25 Marines, a Marine Reserve Battalion from Ohio, were responsible for the ERV from Hit to Haditha.
During a combat patrol shortly after we arrived in Hit, 3–25 Marines detained several members of the Burgess family.13 Members of the al Gaaoud family, including the late Sheikh Reshad's brother, Sheikh Anis, came to Camp Hit to inquire about their cousins, the Burgesses. In an effort to re-cement cordial relations with the Nimr, William protested the Burgesses' detainment on the al Gaaouds' behalf. He worked this out in advance with 3–25 so that the 3–25 operations officer would appear publicly to relent, but not without loudly protesting first. By securing the Burgesses' release, William was able to reestablish himself as an important advocate for the Nimr and a person of influence.
Hit district was much more violent in August 2005 than it had been during OIF II. When we arrived, there were no police. The 503rd ICDC/ING had disintegrated earlier that year, and several of 3–25's combat patrols suffered suicide vehicle born improvised explosive devices (SVBIED) attacks prior to our arrival.14 The ODA received grim reports from multiple informants that the entire situation in al Anbar was rapidly deteriorating. AQI blew up the Telecom cell tower servicing Hit district and the surrounding areas in the latter part of August, and the Albu Nimr reported an increase in threats, night letters, and attacks against Nimr tribesmen.15 The majority of the Albu Nimr tribe in the Hit district lived on the northeastern side of the Euphrates where there was no permanent coalition presence. It appeared that AQI was conducting shaping operations to isolate the Nimr side of the river.
On the morning of 4 September 2005, AQI conducted a multi-pronged SVBIED attack against a Marine firm base in Hit.16 AQI also simultaneously detonated an SVBIED on the Hit bridge, the only trafficable bridge over the Euphrates between Ramadi and Haditha. The SVBIED rendered the bridge impassable to vehicle traffic and effectively isolated the only pro-coalition tribal communities in the area, all of whom resided on the far side of the Euphrates from the Marine bases. Effectively, the Nimr were now on their own. The Nimr tribe's last line of defense was a loosely organized home guard militia that patrolled the tribal area looking for outsiders.
The Hit bridge remained closed to vehicular traffic for three months, and for three months coalition forces were absent from the Nimr tribal areas on the far side of the river. During this time, ODA 545 drove down through Ramadi where we could cross the Euphrates and drive back up the river to al Phurat. We lived in the desert for a week at a time, traveling across the jazeera between Thar Thar Lake and the Euphrates River to avoid IEDs and ambushes and to maximize the range of our weapons.17 We "ghosted" out of the jazeera at different times and along different vectors to visit villages and towns along the river and maintain relations with the Nimr tribe. Each time we did so, we traveled with elements of the IA battalion also stationed at Camp Hit.
We also conducted numerous combat patrols north along the river to maintain some sort of presence. Communities outside of the Nimr tribal area in al Phurat were mostly small and tribally heterogeneous. The people in these communities lacked a significant tribal security net that could protect them and, as a result, they were very cautious when the ODA patrolled through. A school principal from Dulab finally admitted to us that the coalition would never receive any cooperation without providing constant security to the villages. The people, he said, would support the insurgents because the insurgents were there constantly, whereas coalition and Iraqi security forces only patrolled through occasionally.
William modified his model city approach based on this information and other observations. We concluded that the most important thing we could do was to establish a solid base of support among the Albu Nimr in al Phurat. Al Phurat was the largest, most powerful homogeneous tribal area between Ramadi and Haditha, and if we made it our base of support, we would prevent AQI from using it for the same purposes. After securing al Phurat, we planned to methodically spread our tentacles through the smaller, tribal communities surrounding Hit, thereby choking the area off before finally securing it with indigenous support.
Typical western counterinsurgency practice often starts with the urban centers and spreads outward. The situation in Hit district dictated the opposite. Hit became an alternate safe haven for insurgents fleeing Fallujah in November 2004, though it had actually been a sanctuary long before that.18 Hit's tribally heterogeneous population made the city vulnerable to incursions by AQI. Outsiders could hide in Hit much more easily than they could in the rural tribal areas. Consequently, if we had begun our counterinsurgency effort in Hit, we would have been pitting our weaknesses against the enemy's strengths. The enemy had the informational advantage, was hidden among the population, and had the strength of position. An under-resourced counterinsurgency effort in Hit would have resulted in coalition casualties, civilian casualties, and collateral damage that would only have contributed to AQI's information operations (IO) since, as William noted, every coalition or Iraqi Security Force (ISF) casualty was an IO victory for the enemy.
William's plan to circumvent Hit and work through the tribes redounded to our credit. Once we were in the area, it was clear that starting the model city/ inkblot approach with Tal Aswad—not Hit—was the only way to proceed. The model city approach let us control the tempo, use the desert to avoid casualties and collateral damage, target the enemy's CSS, and gain the informational advantage. Perhaps not surprisingly, our biggest obstacle turned out to be not AQI, but the fact that the bridge remained closed for three months and the coalition persisted in neglecting the only tribal communities that were somewhat pro-coalition.
The Albu Nimr Desert Protectors
In October 2005, shortly after the Desert Protector (DP) program was initiated in al Qaim with the Albu Mahal, MNC-I and the Iraqi Ministry of Defense decided to stand up an Albu Nimr cohort in al Phurat. ODA 545 was tasked through command channels to support this initiative and recruit 200 Desert Protectors from the tribe. 2–114 Field Artillery of the Mississippi National Guard, the Hit battlespace owners at the time, were tasked to support the recruitment as well.19 But the situation near Hit differed considerably from the situation in al Qaim. Unlike the Mahal, the Albu Nimr were not suffering a perceived existential threat from AQI. The Nimr were also very cognizant of the implosion of the Iraqi National Guard and IPs along the upper Euphrates River Valley. In the fall of 2004, insurgents had overrun the IP station in Haditha, and many of the IPs who surrendered were taken out and murdered on the town's soccer field.20 The Nimr did not trust the coalition, and often cited this incident as proof that working with coalition and government forces didn't pay.
What made matters worse was that the coalition and the Iraqi government, on the one hand, would not reopen the Hit bridge or station troops on the Albu Nimr side of the river. On the other hand, the government and the coalition wanted the Nimr to trust the state with their menfolk and send them off for training. But what did they offer in return? William and I were caught in the middle. We wanted to recruit a tribal force and use it as a means to build confidence between the Nimr and the government, but were essentially being told to do so with no quid pro quo from the government or the coalition. Kasam, Sheikh Reshad's 20-something-year-old son and heir, trusted us. But even he was reluctant to commit to the Desert Protectors.
It took some deft cajoling before ODA 545 eventually received Kasam's support, along with 200 recruits. The original MNC-I plan called for rotary-wing aircraft from the Marine Air Wing at al Asad to transport the recruits to Camp Fallujah for training.21 RCT 2 tasked 2–114 FA to establish the landing zones and provide security for both the landing zones and the recruits. As 2–114 waited for the helicopters to arrive, it received word that the Marine Air Wing would not send aircraft until the following day, due to scheduled maintenance. That night, insurgents operating on the far banks of the Euphrates mortared several Nimr villages. In response, the Nimr decided that they could not afford to lose 200 able-bodied fighting men to 30 days of basic training in Fallujah. In the end, they provided 30 men while the remainder returned to defend their villages. Unfortunately, the Marines and MNC-I viewed this as evidence that the sheikhs were unable to rally support for tribal units and that the people were unwilling to follow their sheikhs.
Keeping It Together
In the wake of such setbacks, it amazes me that the people of al Phurat remained friendly to our ODA. This was largely due to William's efforts and his legacy. He had established a remarkable reputation as a friend of the Nimr, a man of his word, and a warrior. William's reputation further grew during our three trying months of living in the desert, out of trucks, which he insisted we do to maintain relations with the tribe. This act of commitment was vital to countering the Nimr's growing sense of despair regarding the coalition.
By September 2005, it appeared to the Nimr that the coalition was losing. The Nimr were well aware of the situation in al Qaim where their Mahal cousins were being pummeled. They knew about the murder and intimidation of the IPs and ICDC/ING along the ERV. And they had more than a passing familiarity with the growing levels of violence elsewhere in the province. Between the disbandment of the Nimr provisional company at the end of OIF II, the coalition's inability to reopen the Hit bridge, the lack of coalition presence, and growing unemployment, events seemed to belie whatever positive spin the coalition tried to put on its efforts.
But then, in November, the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) temporarily reinforced RCT 2. RCT 2 tasked the MEU to secure Hit in preparation for the December 2005 parliamentary elections and to repair and reopen the Hit bridge to coalition vehicle traffic. The 13th MEU, following our recommendation, sent some of its forces around through Ramadi and back up the river to clear the far side, instead of repairing and punching directly across the bridge.22 On 2 December, we led these clearing forces in, but did so by guiding them around the Nimr areas so that they could begin clearing operations in the town of Hai al Bekr (the local name for the town directly opposite Hit across the Euphrates). The 13th MEU, fresh from al Qaim where fighting had been house to house in some areas, took no chances. AQI had booby trapped some houses near al Qaim with IEDs and dug fighting positions into others. The MEU ordered residents to vacate their homes and to leave their doors open to facilitate the Marines' clearing efforts. Marines escorted citizens to holding areas until the town was cleared.
William convinced Sheikh Kasam that it was only thanks to the ODA's influence that the Marines finally reopened the bridge. We also told Sheikh Kasam the truth—that it was the ODA that determined that the MEU's clearing operations would begin in Hai al Bekr, and that only his tribe's friendly relations with us had spared the Nimr the inconvenience of being turned out of their homes. We designed the operation this way to deepen the trust between the ODA and the Nimr, as well as to communicate to the surrounding communities that it was best to work with us and the coalition, and through their Desert Protectors.
The 30 Nimr DPs returned from their training in Fallujah a week before the 13th MEU's operation to clear Hai al Bekr and reopen the bridge. All of the DPs knew William from his OIF II rotation; he had instant rapport with them, and it didn't take long for the rest of the ODA to want to train and advise the DPs.
William and I made every effort to use our influence to tie the Nimr to the national government in as many ways as possible. As William noted, the more we could do to align the Nimr with the government, the more fruitful our counterinsurgency efforts would be. In this regard, we spent our last two months in Iraq pursuing three different lines of approach.
First, we began soliciting Sheikh Kasam, Kasam's influential family members, and other tribal leaders to support the December 2005 elections. Fortunately, the Sunni community, aware that boycotting the January 2005 elections had been a grave misstep, and encouraged by the Association of Muslim Scholars and by Sunni nationalists, were enthusiastic to vote. Also, with the bridge open and the 22nd MEU providing security, the residents of Hit district felt much more secure going to the polls.23 Sheikh Kasam's cousin, Hasan, arranged a convoy of approximately 20 vans at William's behest to ferry rural Nimr voters to the Hit bridge so that they could walk across and vote. ODA 545 and the DPs provided security at the loading point in al Phurat and escorted numerous convoys carrying approximately 1,500 voters to Hit.
Second, we attempted to capitalize on the popular goodwill that surged in the wake of the Nimr–DP connection, the enhanced security environment established by the MEUs, and Sunni participation in the 15 December elections. The DPs were our information operations. They let it be known that they helped the ODA guide the 13th MEU around—instead of through—their home villages, which built instant credibility for the DP program and highlighted the benefits of working with the coalition and the Iraqi government.
It was our intent that the Nimr community see the DPs acting unilaterally— which they did. For instance, the night before the elections, the DPs engaged in a firefight with insurgents trying to make their way across the river from Mohammedi into al Phurat. In the eyes of the local Nimr, the Desert Protectors lived up to their name. Together, all of this resulted in an outpouring of public support. In the weeks following the election, hundreds of young Nimr men clamoring to be DPs besieged the ODA whenever we went to al Phurat.24
William negotiated intensely with Sheikh Kasam, his uncle Sheikh Anis, Sheikh Bizea, and others to find ways to channel the post-election goodwill. For instance, the Nimr and other tribes wanted to form an Army division consisting solely of Sunnis (and preferably of Anbaris) to operate in al Anbar. Sheikhs Kasam and Bizea reported to us that they, and a coalition of other sheikhs, approached the Iraqi government through Saadoun al-Dulaimi (spelled Sadun Dulaymi in William Knarr's article), the Minister of Defense, on this matter. We all recognized, however, that the government would probably not be able to address local desires in a sufficiently timely manner. Consequently, we requested a mobile recruiting team, the same kind of team the Ministry of Defense had dispatched to al Phurat to recruit the Desert Protectors. This time, however, no mobile recruiting team arrived. Worse, the sheikhs' prediction that it was too dangerous for Nimr from al Phurat to travel to recruitment centers in Ramadi proved true when nine Nimr were killed on 5 January 2006 during IP recruitment at the glass factory in Ramadi.25
End of the Tour
William predicted that, given our election success, we would see increased threats, violence, and intimidation inspired by AQI and directed towards Iraqis working with us. One of the DPs who lived on the outer edges of Tal Aswad along a tribal border area quit because unknown insurgents, coming from outside the tribal area, threatened his family. Several night letters listing names of some of the DPs surfaced in Tal Aswad. Despite these threats, and despite being unpaid for the months of December and January, the DPs continued to work. Apparently arrangements for paying the DPs were undermined from within the Ministry of Defense, or simply broke down thanks to ineptness and inefficiency.
Both the Nimr and the Mahal DP programs in al Qaim routinely suffered from pay problems. Even so, in both locations, most DPs continued to serve with distinction. We did what we could, within our means, to help support our DPs. The DPs, in turn, never publicly let on that they were not being paid. Several of the DPs approached William and explained that they had unanimously decided to not reveal the problem or other frustrations because they would have been ridiculed for working with coalition forces. The DPs also indicated that their actions were guided by wanting to preserve the unit. They were proud to be Desert Protectors.26
William was the first to notice and comment on another trend that we believed signaled success in our efforts to undermine AQI. Increased community support from the Nimr, and increased cooperation with the Gaaouds' leaders during the months of December 2005 and January 2006, corresponded with increased negative reporting about certain individuals working with us. We had no doubt that some of the identified individuals had direct links to segments of the resistance, and possibly indirect links to AQI through past associations, but that was the very reason we worked with them. Other individuals were simply our patrons among the Nimr who were indispensable to our tribal engagement activities. Our association with all of these individuals was by design. The spikes in negative reporting against some of them seemed to indicate that AQI was waging a counterintelligence effort aimed at derailing our tribal engagement activities.
The enemy was well aware of coalition forces' practice of using informants. It is naïve to think that by late 2005 coalition information-gathering networks were intact and had not been compromised. Whether accusations were legitimate or not, we were often forced to redirect time and energy to protect some of our people from coalition targeting in response to the reports against them. We had to do this both to protect our sources of information and, even more important, to preserve our relationship with the tribe. Though these events created headaches, they were, in accordance with William's assessment, indicators that we had successfully targeted AQI's CSS system and disrupted its operations.
The last positive thing to come out of our deployment was the sanctioning of the Zuwayyah police department. We made a determined effort to get an unpaid police force that the Nimr maintained in Zuwayyah sanctioned by the government. There were multiple reasons we sought to do this. First was the simple fact that police, because of their relations with the locals, were the most appropriate force for conducting counterinsurgency, as opposed to the army. Second was to provide jobs. The police were an economical way to tie a segment of the Nimr to the local, regional, and national governments. Third, a tribally homogenous police force, if carefully developed, would be resistant to insurgent intimidation and infiltration. At the time, we strongly believed that any attempt to recruit police in Hit, or any other location in Hit district, would fail. Lastly, a local police force would have legitimacy in the eyes of local communities, whereas the predominantly Shi'a Iraqi Army battalion in Hit did not.
The Civilian Police Assistance Training Team (CPATT) was a subordinate command of the Multi-National Security Transition Command–Iraq (MNSTC-I). CPATT was responsible for the development of civil police forces within Iraq, and we learned that the CPATT was going to open two new police departments in al Anbar. These would be the only departments outside of the coalition's heavy concentrations of forces in Ramadi and al Qaim. My team's warrant officer, Chief Pitt, formed a valuable relationship with the regional International Police Liaison Officers' (IPLO) office in al Asad. The IPLOs were policemen contracted by the U.S. State Department to work with CPATT. Chief Pitt identified the IPLO administrator responsible for assessing prospective locations for the two new police departments and invited him to our teamhouse. We escorted the officer to Zuwayyah to observe ongoing security efforts and to meet some of the sheikhs. Our efforts resulted in al Zuwayyah being nominated as one of the two new departments in al Anbar. This was good news because it ensured that the coalition forces, along with the ODA replacing us (ODA 182), would have to commit time and resources to Zuwayyah, al Phurat, and the Nimr, thus locking them into furthering William's model city concept and diverting them from wasting all their resources on pursuing a losing strategy in Hit.
Robert had 12 consecutive years serving in 2nd Battalion, 5th Special Forces Group, when he replaced William, who retired shortly after OIF III. Robert had not only visited every country within CENTCOM's area of responsibility, but spoke excellent Arabic and had an unusually good sense of the Iraqi people.28 In fact, ODA 545 members often joked that he could "out-Iraqi" an Iraqi. He most likely acquired this ability during his previous three tours. Robert had spent much of OIF II and III conducting intelligence-gathering activities, which required him to live and work with a small group of trusted Iraqis. Both the battalion commander and the battalion operations officer, the same two individuals who had such high confidence in William, specifically picked Robert to be William's replacement as the team sergeant of ODA 545.
First impressions could suggest that Robert was William's diametric opposite. William has a direct, in-your-face quality about him, whereas Robert is much more subtle. William taught the young guys on the team by example; Robert's approach was more Socratic. William was brusque, confrontational, and always shot straight to the heart of an issue. He could instantly assess a situation, discard all irrelevant information, and then define the problem and its solution in simple, irrefutable terms. Like William, Robert had a "third eye" that enabled him to mentally strip away the nonessentials and effectively solve problems, but their approaches with people were considerably different. Rather than present people with an irrefutable answer, Robert would instead lead them in conversations, manipulating their own arguments and logic to help them arrive at conclusions he had already formed. In short, Robert was a master of "mental jujitsu."
ODA 545 returned to Hit in August 2006 for our OIF IV rotation. Much to our relief, we found that ODA 182 and the current battlespace owners—an Army battalion, 1–36 Infantry—had continued to work with the al Zuwayyah police.29 When we left Iraq in January 2006, we had only a promise that CPATT would commit resources and IPLOs to open the Zuwayyah IP station. CPATT had not only fulfilled that promise, sanctioning the Zuwayyah IPs and providing the authorization and resources to activate the station, but ODA 182 took ownership of the fledgling force and acted as the Police Transition Team (PTT) until an official PTT arrived to take 182's place. This coincided with our arrival.
PTTs were the police version of Military Transition Teams, or MiTTs. MiTTs consisted of 12–15 soldiers or Marines assigned to advise Iraqi Army units. PTTs did the same, but with the police. One difference was that PTTs usually worked with civilian counterparts. These civilians were law enforcement professionals from the United States working under contract for the State Department's IPLO program. They provided necessary real-world expertise about how to develop and run functioning police departments. Unfortunately, the relationship between MiTTs, PTTs, the Iraqi security units, and conventional forces was convoluted and bears explaining.
1–36 was the battlespace owner for Hit district. This meant that 1–36 was responsible for managing all aspects of the war within that battlespace. Units such as ODAs 182 and 545, or Marine Force Recon, who were outside entities, were required to coordinate their activities in the battlespace with 1–36. This arrangement existed to harmonize units' activities, synergize efforts, and prevent fratricide. 1–36 was also responsible for supporting and partnering with Iraqi security forces operating within its AO, whether these were Iraqi Army (IA) or Iraqi Police—which is where it gets interesting. The MiTTs and PTTs belonged to separate chains of command within MNSTC-I, which is who they reported to and took orders from. The MiTTs and PTTs were responsible for coordinating their activities with 1–36, however, because 1–36 was responsible for the Iraqi security forces as their coalition partners.
ODA 182 did well getting the al Phurat IPs started, but it was 1–36 that aggressively expanded the IP program. 1–36 opened an IP station in Tal Aswad, another in Hai al Bekr, and a third in Kubaysa. 1–36 followed William's tribal model for recruitment, using the Albu Nimr, and established stations in coalition-friendly tribal areas.30 Kubaysa was the weird exception. Kubaysa is a small town that sits alone in the desert, about 20 kilometers west of Hit. It was long considered an insurgent haven but, unlike Hit, it wasn't very violent. William and I intentionally neglected Kubaysa during OIF III because the people weren't very friendly and we did not have adequate contacts through whom to facilitate building a meaningful relationship. The IPs in Kubaysa were far less reliable than the Nimr IPs, but 1–36, like William, wanted to do everything possible to isolate Hit.
The situation in Hit was grim. Parts of what had once been a small teeming city along the Euphrates were devastated. The following passage, taken from a letter by Captain Robert Secher, a Marine advisor to the IA, paints the picture:
Hit is a lawless town with most of the fight in the north (the insurgents control/influence the southern part)… . As we convoyed at high speeds thru the town (speed is the best defense against IEDs) you could clearly see the look on [sic] the eyes of the people: sick and tired. First, a generation of Saddam, now insurgents and occupiers. Everyone makes promises and no one keeps them.31
Captain Secher was killed by a sniper on 8 October 2006, while patrolling in Hit.
Route Mavericks was the main thoroughfare from the highway, known as Route Bronze, through the northern part of the city and across the Hit Bridge to Hai al Bekr village. Route Mavericks was anchored on one end at Traffic Circle 1 (where it intersected Highway 12, a.k.a. Route Bronze) by a permanent, company-size combat outpost, Firm Base 1. Mavericks was anchored on the other end, at the bridgehead, by a small combat outpost, COP 3, whose job it was to protect the approach to and from the bridge. The road itself, once made of asphalt, was ground to dust by tracked vehicles and was constantly flooded, creating sewage-filled goo sometimes three feet deep. Insurgents repeatedly opened or blew up water mains to keep the street flooded in order to conceal IEDs and landmines.
When we arrived in August 2006, convoys moving down Mavericks had to be escorted by armor because of the ever-present threat of attack or IEDs. Armor provided not only firepower to deter any attacks but also thermal imaging devices useful in detecting IEDs. All of the buildings and shops along Route Mavericks and the riverfront near COP 3 were abandoned, most of them damaged by fighting, and some destroyed. These areas had once comprised the main commercial center of the city. As William knew it would, Hit represented an insufficient counterinsurgency effort that ended in violence, destruction, and death, all reinforcing an image of strength for the insurgency and weakness for the coalition. To be fair, 1–36 did not create the situation so much as inherit it. Five different units had been responsible for the Hit area of operations in just the six months prior to 1–36's arrival.
However, things were bad not only in Hit. The situation appeared bleak all across al Anbar. The MEF G-2 released a now-famous intelligence report the month we arrived that declared the province lost to the insurgency. The personnel we encountered at RCT 7 headquarters in al Asad and at 1–36 headquarters at Camp Hit did not necessarily echo or share this assessment. But it was evident to us by their demeanors that the situation in the AO wasn't good, and that they were tired.
Like William, Robert had spent many nights before the tour mulling over the situation we would likely face in Hit. William had shared all of his thoughts and theories with Robert, and Robert conducted his own extensive preparation, studying reports about the individuals and personalities we would be dealing with and strategizing how best to counter the insurgents' efforts in Hit.
This road had been paved prior to our OIF IV tour. It was reduced to mud and rubble by the constant passage of coalition tracked vehicles and exploding IEDs. Sometimes the insurgents were patient enough to slowly drag land mines into place utilizing string or twine in order to avoid being identified.
Robert used William's concept of targeting AQI's combat service support. "Thirdparty neutral" was the term he used to describe segments of the population that were not ideologically committed to the insurgency. Third-party neutrals consisted of tribal elites and common people alike who remained guarded and were fence sitters waiting to commit to the winning side—and who made their choices based on who seemed most able to ensure their survival.
The following diagram (Figure 7) is my attempt to graphically depict Robert's thoughts and ideas at the time. Robert used this diagram to brief our battalion commander about our concept for counterinsurgency in July 2006, prior to our August deployment.
Robert explained the diagram this way:
Our bottom line is to influence the third-party neutral, the fence sitters. We believe, based on experience and conversations with Iraqis during the last tour, that the third-party neutral makes up the majority of the population, even in Anbar. We have to somehow mobilize these people to support our goals.
Notice the bullet at the bottom center of the slide. It begins with the phrase, "…the destruction in a given area of the insurgent forces and their political organization…" Destruction isn't necessarily kinetic; it is by any means possible. Some insurgents will have to be killed, but most others have to be brought to the table. We have to redirect their energies towards something useful for us. A lot of these guys have legitimate grievances that we need to let them air out. If we do this and sway the third-party neutral, then we can isolate the irreconcilables. The Iraqis will do it for us.
The first row depicts the assets available to us. We have indigenous assets such as the different security forces and our informants. The diamond in the center represents an office that doesn't yet exist. It doesn't really have a real name yet. OBC stands for "Office of Bitches and Complaints." This is an idea we have, to provide an opportunity for the reconcilables to address their grievances.
In an ideal world, we get them to use litigation to pursue their goals as a peaceful process of contesting the government. But Iraq isn't there yet. Instead, we want to open a local office where people can formally declare their grievances and engage in an open dialogue. Realistically, this will start with us, the ODA, spending hours at a time sitting in the diwaniya [meeting house] hearing out the sheikhs and other mouthpieces for the insurgency. But eventually, we'd like to formalize the process. The remaining third of the row depicts the assets available to us through the coalition.
The second row depicts our ways or methods of engaging the population. Simple and straightforward. We want to maximize use of all available ways. The tribes named below are the tribes that we initially plan on engaging, but, of course, as opportunities arise we will branch out to other tribes.
The third row depicts our physical target environment, the towns and villages where these tribes predominantly live.
The bottom row requires explanation. Gaining the support of the population, isolating insurgents, and killing the really bad ones isn't going to unfold in a neat, linear way. It's going to occur at different times in different places. Some populations, like the Nimr, will be an easier sell than other populations. These four circles represent some abstract goals that we seek to achieve that are both a part of the process and indicators that we are succeeding.
Gray Ghost refers to John Mosby.32 Mosby did his best to accord himself with honor. He built a tremendous reputation in the [U.S.] South, and when Union soldiers came looking for Mosby, he and his men just blended in among the people. No one turned them in. People respected him, but they also feared him because he was a man of action, a characteristic inseparable from his sense of honor.
How does this translate to us? We will be like the Gray Ghost. We will treat people fairly and honestly. We want Iraqis everywhere, even in the most virulent anti-coalition communities, to know us, and to say, "You know what, I hate Americans, but those guys have always been fair and honest with us." We want friendly communities to openly support us, and we want fence sitters to come to our side. However, it must be clear to all that we are men of action. We will resort to violence and kill people when the situation calls for it. We are dangerous.
Fort Apache.33 There may be places where we need to force the insurgents' hand. We do this by establishing a security presence. We do it ourselves, in partnership with ISF, or through tribal surrogates, but we emplace ourselves where it disrupts the insurgents. They now have to factor us into their calculations. No matter how bad it gets, if we do this, we have to stick it out. We stay, we win. If we leave, the insurgents win.
Samurai. We'll do this through ISF, the tribes, or both. The bottom line: We want Iraqis to start helping themselves and taking the fight to AQI and other irreconcilables on their own. We are going to make our own samurai who do this.
Waterloo. We want to create conditions and shape the battlefield so that we cannot be defeated. We want to bring the reconcilables to our side and isolate the remainder of the insurgency so it can be defeated.34
Probably the most important thing that Robert did, or did not do, was to not reject William's ideas. Robert recognized the validity of William's ideas, especially William's model city approach. Robert also recognized that in spite of the "badness" all around al Phurat and Hai al Bekr, all the "goodness" in those areas could be attributed to consistency of effort over several years.
Robert's concepts weren't new, nor did they change anything. Instead, they reflected his way of relating to the situation and continuing the general scheme that William had outlined in 2004: We would continue utilizing tribal engagement to create secure and stable communities that could be expanded over time, thereby squeezing out the insurgents.
Robert's own assessment:
Some commanders are so caught up in what they are doing that they cannot see the situation for what it is. They rely on whatever they've been trained. They forget what makes them a human being and how they do everything else in their life. They don't think problems through.
AQI thought the Sunni population was ripe for exploiting against the Americans. They took them for granted and began violating or disregarding tribal and social norms and traditions, like influencing the young people against the sheikhs.
AQI didn't believe creating chaos would bring the people to them, but creating chaos for the Americans, by hitting the Americans, they were bringing the people to them.
Robert is fond of reminding people that in the Army's five-paragraph operations order, "situation" precedes "mission." In Robert's view, too many units determined a course of action, or mission statement, without fully grasping or understanding their situation or the operational environment, and, worse still, continued to execute the mission statement with complete disregard for the situation.
Robert did not presume that he or anyone on ODA 545 fully understood the situation in Hit district even though the team had operated there just six months prior, with many team members on their third and fourth tours in Iraq. Under Robert's guidance, we therefore spent the first month reorienting. We drove all over the AO. Robert wanted to see every part of it and meet with and get a sense of the locals in each area. Robert and I spent hours reacquainting ourselves with the Nimr; talking to and getting advice from 1–36's commander, operations officer, and staff; and observing 1–36's activities. When we weren't doing this, Robert and I dug through past reporting and made our team do the same.
Our honest appraisal of the situation was that the insurgents were winning in Hit. Coalition forces maintained a base of support in the Nimr tribal area of al Phurat, but everywhere else things were bad. 1–36 ended its tour with 24 soldiers killed in action and a great many more wounded, not counting ISF or civilian casualties.35 1–36 was losing M1A1 Abrams and M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicles to huge IEDs. Civilians who cooperated with or provided information to coalition forces were killed. The sniper threat was so dangerous that after Captain Secher was killed, 1–36 and the IA stopped conducting cordon and searches in daylight.
When an insurgent sniper killed an American, an ISF member, or any Iraqi cooperating with the Americans, reporting often attributed it to insurgents' intimidation efforts or random violence directed against coalition and Iraqi forces. Robert's assessment was that the insurgency had reached a point where insurgents were committing violent acts against the coalition not by design, but simply because they were cocky. He was infuriated that 1–36 continued to engage Hit's civic leaders. It was obvious to him that the insurgency owned Hit's civic leaders. He questioned, why, after years of making no progress in Hit, coalition forces thought they should keep working with the same civic leaders. In Robert's estimation, coalition forces were empowering the very people who had already been fighting them far too long.
Robert's most direct criticism of 1–36 was that the commander did not divide the insurgents into those who were reconcilable and those who were irreconcilable. The 1–36 commander's failure to do so led him to continue talking with entities who were reportedly, and in some cases known to be, irreconcilables like Sheikh Yassin who was consistently alleged to have Salafist ties to Ansar al-Sunna.36 As Robert said, "You can't be friends with everyone; that's not how you win counterinsurgency."
In our experience, coalition commanders were too unwilling to cast unfavorable characters aside, to treat irreconcilables as obstacles, or to bypass hard-core insurgent communities. We would run into this reluctance when we tried to cut the insurgent-controlled Hit city council out of the picture. Robert called people with such inflexible attitudes "Ameri-can'ts"; in Robertspeak, there was nothing worse than being an Ameri-can't. In August 2006, the insurgency was definitely stronger than the counterinsurgency in Hit. The enemy owned the city and the city council. The enemy owned the roads. Insurgents took away the coalition's freedom of maneuver in town through the use of snipers and IEDs. And, thanks to IEDs, the enemy also took away the coalition's freedom of maneuver on all the major lines of communication. The police were not being properly funded and resourced by the Iraqi government. And the IA battalion in Hit was vastly under-strength.
I will tell Robert's story within the framework of these three lines of operation, but it is necessary to bear in mind that the tour unfolded in a non-linear, sometimes circular manner as we navigated towards our end state. So, what was our end state? Truth be told, William had always had a mental picture of something exactly like the Awakening happening. I can say this because I, along with everyone else on his teams, listened to him describe this during the latter half of 2004 and through all of 2005. It didn't take much for William to transmit this same vision to Robert. For almost two years, we all thought in Awakening-like terms. We had come to believe in this even before we deployed for OIF III, after hearing William constantly preach it. It was this belief that helped us stay the course during OIF III. We put out of our minds the idea that we were in Iraq to chalk up statistics: raids conducted, enemy killed or captured, and so forth. Our goal was to facilitate a tribal awakening against the violent jihadists. If we didn't fully accomplish this on that trip, then so be it. We would come back and try again, picking up where we left off.
Getting into Their Decision Cycle
Get into their decision cycles by finding places where you can make contact and engage, whether it's kinetic or not kinetic, then maneuver from there. You don't know exactly where you are going to maneuver to, but you know towards what. Keep doing this to maintain forward motion and stay ahead of the enemy. Disrupt them. Don't develop such a grand plan that you constrain yourself. Free flow. Be like water. Maintain contact constantly and stay in their decision cycle. Make them react.37
Robert already possessed his own version of William's vision. One can see it outlined in Robert's operational concepts, which we articulated when briefing our concept for the deployment. There were persons present at the briefing who thought we were being overly optimistic. But what they failed to understand was that we weren't being optimistic. Rather, based on our accumulated experiences on the ground we recognized what was possible in al Anbar. Ironically, our conviction—that the situation in Anbar was recoverable—put us in good stead with RCT 7's leaders when we met them for the first time. The RCT 7 chain of command was tired of hearing bad news and pessimistic assessments.38
Very early on, Robert decided that William had initiated an appropriate course of action in bypassing Hit. Frustrated that coalition forces continued to engage the Hit city council and Sheikh Yassin, the local religious figure with known ties to the violent jihadist group Ansar al-Sunna, we decided to cut the Hit city council out of the picture by no longer empowering them.39 We also decided that Hasan, Sheikh Kasam's cousin, should be mayor. He was not only close to us, but was intelligent, had the right political, business, and other connections, and also had the Nimr behind him. Hasan was not eager to fill this role, however. Robert thus found himself spending countless hours with him and with his father Anis, talking, listening, and applying his mental jujitsu to shape their thoughts. Over time, both Hasan and Anis came to accept that Hasan was the best choice for mayor. Over time, too, Robert developed a close enough personal relationship with Hasan that Hasan probably would have honored Robert's request no matter what.
Once we had selected a mayor, we then had to find a legitimate way to put him in position. Our worry wasn't that he would be rejected by the Iraqis, but that coalition forces would not accept his appointment. Over so many tours, no one bothered to question the legitimacy of those professing to be mayors or city council members and, in any event, it was virtually impossible to ascertain who had been what before the invasion. Yet, when we floated our idea of making Hasan mayor to coalition forces, they scoffed. What we next did exemplified how we operated throughout our deployment. When we met an obstacle, we went around it. If there was something that we could not directly effect, we effected it through the Iraqis.
We made Hasan mayor by convening a council of sheikhs who were friendly to us and by encouraging them to establish a new mayor and city council, one that we could work with. And they did. Twenty-seven sheikhs and muktars nominated Hasan to be mayor and signed a declaration confirming their decision. Coalition forces, particularly RCT 7 and 1–36, were slow to accept this change of representation, as we suspected they would be. However, after we persistently referred to Hasan as mayor at every opportunity and in every community engagement with coalition forces, and after pushing him to begin coordinating with the provincial government in Ramadi, coalition forces accepted Hasan as mayor.
Zahid, a Nimr from the Shamal clan, had been hired as the district police chief during ODA 182's tenure. Zahid was to become a vital, yet problematic figure for us. Zahid hated the al Gaaouds. He claimed he hated them for their illicit relations with al Qaeda and other insurgents, but this was most likely exaggerated. We were told by older members of the tribe that the Shamal clan had once been a principal Nimr family, more important even than the Gaaouds, but that fortunes had changed and the Gaaouds supplanted them. Apparently this happened at least a century ago. But whatever the reason for Zahid's enmity toward the Gaaouds, it constituted both his greatest weakness and his greatest strength. His desire to undermine the Gaaouds, combined with his desire to avenge the death of his eldest son at the hands of AQI, gave him the necessary willpower and fortitude to be a proactive police chief. The intra-tribal rivalry this in turn spurred was difficult to manage at times, especially since Hasan was an al Gaaoud. It wasn't our design to have the two most powerful offices in Hit split between bickering clans, but we worked with what we had. Ironically, the overall situation ended up lending the ODA more leverage over both clans than it would have had otherwise.
Current doctrine, as per FM 3-24, recommends that forces be used to secure an area, facilitating the "clear, hold, build" approach, and that deterrent patrols be utilized to keep the enemy off balance, disrupt enemy attempts to dislodge counterinsurgent forces, and reassure the population.40 "Clear, hold, and build" and subsequent deterrent patrols were not options available to us. We did not own battlespace or forces. It did not seem likely that coalition forces would be able to conduct adequate "clear, hold, and build" operations in Hit given the lack of resources and troops available, coupled with established commitments to protect infrastructure, the IPs, and such. We instead guided our operations around these constraints, maintaining the model city approach.
To continue to build situational awareness and to begin pressuring insurgents who were hiding and operating in rural areas, we began conducting combat patrols with the IA Scouts (formerly the DPs). Conventional forces often patrolled the roads, but we patrolled by dismounting, which enabled us to prowl around, talk with locals, and thoroughly investigate areas. Our patrols served several purposes. One was to initiate Robert's Gray Ghost concept. We consistently strove to project the image that we were good, decent people, although a bit mischievous; we were not scared of anything; and we wanted to underscore that we believed in people. We also sought to emphasize our solidarity with the DPs. We integrated them into our guntruck crews and all aspects of our patrols. The intent was to plant seeds in people's minds that would make them more amenable to us as we strove to shift the balance with the insurgents.
Another calculated aspect of our patrols was to demonstrate strength. Our early patrols led to several direct-fire engagements and attempted IED strikes. The combined ODA/DP force aggressively counterattacked or pursued our attackers and, in each instance, the insurgents fled, often abandoning vehicles to escape across the Euphrates by boat or skiff. On these occasions, we conducted battlefield recovery, taking weapons and ammunition left behind, and giving them to the police. Cars and other materials we destroyed.
As these patrols continued, we also visited Colonel Sha'ban of the al Obeidi tribe, who was the police chief in Baghdadi. We wanted to establish a relationship with Sha'ban because he and his police embodied our Fort Apache concept, and because we hoped eventually to harmonize his efforts with ours in Hit. Colonel Sha'ban and his police did not control Baghdadi. They lived in a stronghold of their own making at a military housing complex that formerly served the al Asad Airbase under Saddam Hussein. Insurgents nevertheless feared Colonel Sha'ban's influence and targeted his police and their families for kidnapping or murder whenever they left the compound. Thus, it only made sense for us to address Sha'ban's immediate needs.
At the time, insurgent bandits were operating illegal checkpoints on Route Bronze between Hit and Baghdadi. The insurgents shook people down, stole goods and money, and also killed known coalition sympathizers—such as family members of Sha'ban's IPs. Coalition forces never could catch the insurgents at their checkpoints because the insurgents established effective early warning nets. They would depart the area as soon as coalition vehicles were reported coming down the highway. We told Sha'ban that we could do something about this. We also conducted a three-day medical civic action program for Sha'ban's community and ad hoc training for his IPs.
Sha'ban sent four of his most street-savvy IPs back to Hit to stay with us for a week. During this time ODA 545, Sha'ban's IPs, and the Desert Protectors conducted numerous combat patrols in civilian vehicles to penetrate the insurgents' early warning net. The IPs and DPs shot up several checkpoints this way. That stopped the insurgents for a period, but we had to be careful because we couldn't keep replicating our Trojan horse tactic.
Sha'ban's IPs were some of the most situationally aware Iraqis we worked with. We took them on several other patrols. On one night patrol, one of our vehicles broke down. While we were repairing it, two men rode up on motorcycles with their headlights off, unaware we were there. Sha'ban's IPs immediately identified them as insurgents on the Marines' target list. Sha'ban continued to help us throughout the tour.
We likewise partnered with 1–36 and General Zahid to conduct larger clearing operations. Understandably, clearing operations have negative connotations in the COIN lexicon because they are associated with attrition-based strategies, but we found them useful when incorporated with our model city approach. Communities that both actively supported reinstatement of the IPs and suppressed violence were exempt. Clearing operations conducted at night, coupled with our daytime combat patrols, afforded the insurgents little rest. The effort that insurgents had to expend on early warning and continual relocation was effort that they could not devote to targeting coalition forces, ISF, or friendly populations. What we didn't do was what Robert called "Cop Rock." We didn't raid for the sake of amassing statistics of enemy killed or captured, and materials destroyed.
It's about navigating people. Most guys forget that and ignore the human aspects that influence the plan. They try to concretely execute planning concepts regardless of what the will of the people involved is. You have to change their will or adjust to it.
We treated each area and the people in it differently, yet consistently. We were always considerate, spoke Arabic, and were thorough without being culturally invasive, even when using coercive methods. We did everything in conjunction with local Iraqis. Robert stayed consistent throughout the entire tour. He adhered to a specific set of talking points and made sure the team abided by them as well. He always told people that the situation in al Anbar was going to get better. Robert's intent was to plant mental seeds so that once conditions did improve, continued improvement would become a self-fulfilling prophecy as people turned out to assist the coalition and ISF.
The only group Robert condemned was AQI. He did not condemn the resistance, but he did oppose its use of violence. In keeping with the idea of an Office of Bitches and Complaints, Robert publicized our willingness to talk with members of the resistance at any time to hear their grievances, as well as forgive anyone willing to denounce continued participation in insurgent activity, so long as they did so in the presence of their local sheikh or imam. Even if we couldn't prove it, we knew that many of the sheikhs and police we talked to were direct or indirect conduits to national resistance groups like the 1920th Revolutionary Brigade. Robert crafted the following talking points not only to sway third-party neutral segments toward our side but to engage the resistance:
- The situation will improve.
- AQI is out to destroy your way of life.
- More can be gained from political participation than violent contention.
- The insurgency against the Iraqi government is strengthening Iran's influence in Iraq.
- We are willing to sit down with any representatives of the resistance and hear them out.
- Acts of insurgent violence are criminal acts against the Iraqi people.
In time, several older tribal sheikhs and imams began to vent to us. They lamented the social wreckage that AQI was inflicting on traditional tribal society in Anbar. The older sheikhs voiced concern that they had lost control over the younger men in their tribes, especially the young 20-somethings and teenagers. Sheikh Anis, for instance, told us that AQI manipulated young men by framing insurgent life as romantic and heroic and saying jihad would give meaning to their young lives. Robert instantly saw what was happening. Young men, dismayed by the lack of opportunity in their lives and, at a more basic level, needing to feel like men, were drawn in by AQI's overtures. AQI was able to fulfill certain psychological and physical needs in ways the sheikhs could not, and thus was unraveling traditional social structures and replacing traditional figures of influence: sheikhs, imams, and parents. Robert recognized, however, that AQI was over-playing its hand, and this provided us with an opportunity. Robert used the sheikhs' frustration over the erosion of their authority to build solidarity with them, and we used AQI's own framing devices to build internal support for the IPs with the sheikhs' consent and partnership.
There was choreography to Robert's deep discussions with tribal sheikhs and other local elites. Robert described this by using a tarot card analogy. He would lay out the general situation, then walk his audience through what would happen if nothing changed. After doing that, he would next lay out the second and third order effects and potential outcomes that would result from the positive actions and changes that could be undertaken by the person he was talking to. His approach combined war-gaming, counseling, listening, and honest dialogue. The dialogue always evolved into a two-way discussion of potential issues, complaints, and solutions. In describing his method, Robert said, "It came down to a discussion of the future as we saw it together. I got them to troubleshoot solutions with me."
A significant turning point occurred for us around 10–12 October 2006.41 We struggled to integrate the Nimr DPs into the local IA battalion as its scout platoon. Petty jealousies, the DPs' unique relationship with the ODA, and the DPs' own intransigence created animosity between the DPs and the IA battalion commander. The situation required our constant attention. The IA battalion commander, eager to demonstrate his authority over the DPs, instigated confrontations through unfair treatment of them. The DPs, in response, behaved flippantly and threatened to desert.
At this time, the Marine MiTT responsible for advising the IA battalion held a battalion formation to rehearse a memorial service for Captain Secher, the MiTT member who was killed on 9 October. This formation was struck by three incoming mortar rounds, which killed five Iraqis, wounded 34, and wounded one of the Marine advisors.42 We heard the explosions of the incoming rounds from our compound adjacent to the Iraqi camp. Being mortared at Camp Hit was a regular occurrence, and we didn't think anything of it until two wounded DPs came staggering into our compound. ODA members immediately jumped in trucks and rushed to the impact site in the Iraqi camp to begin treating the wounded. The remaining ODA members went to 1–36's battalion aid station where we knew the wounded would be triaged for medevac. Some of the wounded were screaming, and other DPs who were not wounded wandered around looking for their comrades. All of the members of ODA 545 could speak at least passable Arabic. We helped the battalion surgeon and medics by interpreting, by comforting some of the more seriously wounded, and by calming the unwounded.43
The attack happened just as night was falling. Of the 28 Nimr DPs in the scout platoon, two were killed and six wounded. Robert and I were quick to take control of the two dead Nimrs, so we could deliver them to their families for burial. Early the next morning, Robert, the ODA, and I escorted the bodies of the fallen Nimr to Tal Aswad, so that their families could bury them before sundown in keeping with Islamic tradition. The surviving Nimr DPs remained outraged by the attack. They were upset not over the losses per se, but over the useless nature of them. Even illiterate farmers and fishermen recognized the stupidity of holding a large troop formation in a camp that was regularly targeted by mortar and rocket fire.
We knew word about the casualties would spread quickly, which is one reason Robert and I decided to leave the bodies at the Tal Aswad police station and ask the police chief, Chief Ghanim, to contact the families and escort them to the station to receive their dead. Family and friends quickly descended on the police station, openly grieving and railing at coalition and Iraqi forces because of the senseless nature of the deaths. There was no point in our trying to allay their grief. We had brought the surviving DPs with us. We released them on leave and made ready to leave Tal Aswad.
Before departing, we traveled to Sheikh Anis's to pay our respects and personally tell him what had happened before he heard a distorted version. We expressed our sympathies for the families and acknowledged that we understood their frustrations. Most important, we asked for his advice about how to handle the situation. Sheikh Anis, in a very grandfatherly manner, counseled us. Then, as we prepared to leave, he took me by the arm and whispered, "Do not worry. You will soon receive the help that you need."
One of our goals all along had been to form a Hit district SWAT using the DPs. We had repeatedly requested that RCT 7 work to get the DPs released from the Iraqi Army to serve as the foundation for SWAT. We cited the persistent poor treatment of the DPs by the IA battalion commander, explaining that he had alienated the DPs to the point that they would never be fully integrated into the predominantly Shi'a battalion. Our requests were continually denied. After the mortar attack, however, it was clear that the DPs would desert if something wasn't done. We then tried to get the DPs who did quit the army hired into the local IPs. Some went to work as security for the al Gaaouds.
In the weeks that followed the attack, we spent more and more time in non-kinetic engagement. Robert dedicated hours to listening to and talking with sheikhs, with General Zahid, and with others. We often invited General Zahid, Hasan, and members of their inner circle to stay the night at our teamhouse. The ODA members spent the evenings entertaining and conversing with our guests, always guided by Robert's talking points. Robert also developed specific talking points for ODA members when we wanted to influence our guests in a particular direction. Robert had the endurance for marathon talking sessions that far surpassed what anyone else on the team was capable of, and would talk long into the night with our guests, without the aid of an interpreter.44
Words nevertheless are meaningless without action. We thus sought to live General Mattis's dictum: "No worse enemy, no better friend." In terms of non-kinetic engagement with the sheikhs, with friendly populations, and with third-party neutrals, we, in Robert's words, "… slowly delivered on everything like a girl dating a guy, and wanting to ensure the relationship ends in marriage, not just a one-night stand—slowly." In other words, we did not promise or quickly deliver on large civil affairs contracts or other significant projects because we did not want to reduce our leverage.45 But we also demonstrated the tribes approached us. Sheikhs from Ramadi to Haditha began to request audiences with us, and Robert used these contacts to actualize his Waterloo concept—with the goal of facilitating cooperation among the tribes against AQI and, in the process, siphoning off the reconcilable segments of the resistance.
We heard about the Awakening in its early days, as it coalesced under the banner of Sawar al Anbar (SAA). We followed events in Ramadi through reporting but also learned much from our Iraqi friends. In late summer and early fall 2006, the coalition believed the Awakening was a localized event in Ramadi. We assumed otherwise after noticing indicators that General Zahid was connected to Thawar al Anbar (TAA), the militant action arm of the SAA, Sheikh Sattar's Awakening movement. Robert handled this development in much the same way he did when trying to reach out to the 1920th Revolutionary Brigade via certain sheikhs and other intermediaries. No Iraqi, save one contact, ever openly acknowledged that he had ties to the resistance. Conversations always tap-danced around the issue with insinuations like, "I know that you know that I know …" Nonetheless, our prodding did result in an invitation to meet with Sattar at his compound in Ramadi, an invitation brought to us by Zahid.
Here is a bit more background about how our non-kinetic engagement bore this fruit: By December 2005 we had good rapport with several Nimr sheikhs from Barwanna, the Obeidi in Baghdadi, the Albu Soda from Abu Tiban and Ramadi, the Mahal, the Albu Risha, and a smattering of other tribes. Sheikh Kasam hosted periodic councils at his compound in Zuwayyah where we effected both the OBC and Waterloo concepts. Leadership from RCT 7 (later RCT 2) and the MEF attended several councils. These meetings were especially important to us because we provided the sheikhs with talking points beforehand so that they could engage the Marine leadership in order to further our counterinsurgency concepts.46 Several sheikhs, including Sattar on one occasion, asked us for advice in dealing with coalition forces. Robert and Chief Pitt skillfully used these opportunities, combined with assessments sent via our daily situation reports, to influence all sides toward common goals.
For example, Sheikh Bizea was one of a number of older sheikhs who had sought refuge in Jordan after the invasion. He and his sons, Talal and Jalal, along with other expatriate sheikhs and businessmen, maintained an on-again, off-again dialogue with the coalition. Robert believed that Bizea and other expatriate sheikhs were maneuvering to stay relevant. Prior to the Awakening, this group maintained power and influence from across the border and profited from the war by playing all sides: the coalition, the resistance, and AQI. Coalition forces helped jeopardize this situation when the Coalition Provisional Authority rejected overtures from Bizea and his son Talal in 2004 to create tribal security forces.47 The Awakening, which was an emergent grassroots movement, threatened to marginalize expatriate sheikhs like Bizea as the balance of power and influence started to shift to the sheikhs who had remained in Iraq, and who now began aligning with the coalition.
The complexity of all of these relationships was amazing. Sheikh Bizea provided long-distance counsel to Sheikh Kasam, who was a relative, but at the same time Bizea sent an envoy to court General Zahid, whose hatred of Kasam was no secret. Sheikh Sattar initially communicated with Zahid that we would respond swiftly and decisively when engaged, and would just as quickly come to the defense of our Iraqi allies. In time, both the Shamal and Gaaoud acted as gateways through which we expanded our tribal engagement. In some cases we reached out; in others through the SAA, but then established a direct link to Sheikh Kasam in accordance with tribal conventions, and assuaged Kasam's concerns about Zahid by promising to manage Zahid via SAA channels. The web of interactions and duplicity went on and on. What they signified was that even amidst the fight for survival against AQI, there was intense inter- and intra-tribal maneuvering, all aimed at control of resources, coalition support, contracts, IPs, etc.
Unlike many other Americans who would have simply picked a side, Robert worked all of them equally. He recognized the value of acting as a central node among competing entities. For instance, an astute Army Civil Affairs major working for 545's AOB realized that his team could enjoin the Albu Sadi near Baghdadi to support coalition goals if their paramount sheikh, Sheikh Rad, so directed them. Unfortunately, Rad was incarcerated at Camp Bucca for allegedly participating in the killing of a Nimr man, although he most likely was the victim of an intra-tribal power play and had been set up. The AOB recommended his release, which the Marines also supported.
Even though we were able to substantiate that the charges were very likely false, we still had to make sure that the Nimr would be okay with Rad's release. We also needed to make sure Sheikh Rad wouldn't become hostile due to the fact that he had spent approximately two years in confinement for a crime he didn't commit. To accomplish both, we decided to take control of Rad upon his release and sequester him for three days with tribal allies, who would follow a prearranged repatriation program designed to bring Rad up to date on the status of the Awakening and secure his—and hence his tribe's— support. We initially approached Sheikh Sattar with our repatriation idea, then told Sheikhs Anis and Kasam that we were going to work through Sattar to avoid conflict with the Nimr. Anis and Kasam responded by promising reconciliation between the tribes. They then requested the opportunity to repatriate Sheikh Rad themselves, which we happily agreed to.
As mentioned earlier, we were also training and advising the DPs as IA Scouts and still sought to create a SWAT. With our goal of creating a local, legitimate band of samurai to go after AQI, and with 1–36 wanting the IPs to have a direct action capability, the ODA and 1–36 collaborated to create a SWAT for the district IPs. This proved harder to execute than conceptualize. The phenomenal expansion of the Hit district IPs meant that 1–36 and the Marine PTT assigned to the IPs could not adequately equip the IPs they were already overseeing, let alone provide the necessary tactical gear to outfit the SWAT. Consequently, Robert and Chief Pitt solicited support from Hasan al Gaaoud and the Gaaoud family, who helped purchase and donate uniforms, plate carriers, AK-47 chest rigs, and other items.48 In so doing, the clan publically signaled not only their support for local, legitimate security forces, but also their opposition to AQI.
We put our newly formed SWAT through a mini-selection and an intensive 30-day training regimen beginning in October 2006. By December, we had two SWAT platoons capable of conducting autonomous operations. On one of their first forays, the SWAT uncovered an impressive arms cache that included two SA-14 man-portable surface-to-air missiles. The SWAT routinely mobilized and conducted autonomous patrols or raids based on walk-in informants, such as capturing a Yemeni foreign fighter transiting the desert routes that lay between the Euphrates and Thar Thar Lake. Not to be outdone, the Tal Aswad IPs responded by mounting their own aggressive patrols. Led by Chief Ghanim, the Tal Aswad IPs captured several insurgents and foreign fighters along these routes and drove others off in running gunfights.
The SWAT's success inspired emulation and jealousy within the rank-and-file IPs. General Zahid, for instance, constantly tried to undermine the SWAT because we would not allow SWAT to become his dedicated praetorian guard. We conditioned the SWAT to serve the people and not cater to Zahid's nepotistic wishes. Unfortunately, this would later come back to bite us.
By December 2006, Robert had realized all of his concepts to some degree. The OBC existed, not formally but in concept, as we routinely held councils with sheikhs and other elites. The Hit SWAT were our samurai, and there was evidence that TAA was beginning to actively target AQI in the Hit area, which also fulfilled our samurai concept.49 The Fort Apache model existed in the communities that aligned with us, including Barwanna, Baghdadi, Hai al Bekr, al Phurat, and Abu Tiban.50 The Gray Ghost concept was manifest in these communities and in areas in between, while the Waterloo plan also was beginning to materialize. Several individuals who began to attend our councils in Zuwayyah I recognized as having previously been on our target list, and we knew that every time we spoke with certain individuals our message would be carried to nationalist resistance groups like Mohammed's Army, the 1920th Revolutionary Brigade, certain Ba'athist entities, and others.
We also saw signs that the fruits of Robert's endeavors were negatively affecting the enemy. AQI tried to disrupt our tribal alliances and target our tribal allies. For instance, Robert, Hasan, and I were targeted with an IED after leaving a Hit city council meeting; there was an attempted SVBIED strike on the Zuwayyah police station; a suicide bomber dressed in a burka attacked the IPs at the Hit bridge; and the IPs and their families were targeted for murder or kidnapping if they departed our base areas. Additionally, we had indications that we, along with the emergent Awakening movement, were swaying third-party neutrals. The Albu Soda and other tribes living in Abu Tiban established an unofficial tribal police force to protect their community, but respecting the legitimacy of the Hit district IPs, coordinated their actions with General Zahid. Perhaps most telling, tribal leaders from areas outside of Hit district came to us at various points to seek advice on how to achieve the same level of collaboration with coalition forces that we had in Hit district.
We were transparent to the people: "Here is what we believe is good and bad. We believe in your way of life." We always made it clear that we worked with people; they did not work for us. We never built resentment, and we never made threats that we couldn't keep. Despite our progress among the tribes, Hit itself continued to be a cesspool of insurgent activity. The only Iraqi civilian medical facility in the area was the Hit hospital, which lay deep in one of the insurgent-controlled neighborhoods. Coalition forces routinely came under fire in that area. Pro-coalition civilians could not even contemplate going to the hospital. As a result, several people from the pro-coalition communities on the northeast side of the Euphrates died for want of medical care. This lack of access to good medical care began to weigh heavily on the minds of some of the IPs. In response, we worked with a Civil Affairs team to initiate the building of a clinic in al Phurat. Although the clinic was not finished before our tour was completed, the psychological effect of responding to the immediate needs of our tribal allies was extremely positive.
We bypassed doing anything ourselves in Hit for reasons previously described, and because we did not want to be drawn into making Hit a battlefield, which is something that the insurgents sought. However, starting in November 2006, we began making routine excursions into the city at night with the SWAT. Sometimes we did so based on targeted intelligence. Most of our informants had made their final break with the insurgency and had come over to our side. Through them, we knew where the families of some of the hard-core insurgents lived. We treated these locations, along with their safe houses, like fishing holes, visiting them to put more pressure on the enemy. We also prowled around to prevent the emplacement of IEDs; we reported or cut the wires on IEDs that we found. On one occasion, the night before a planned 1–36 daylight operation, we discovered an IED factory with devices ready to go.
General Zahid also began sending nightly IP patrols through Hit. The purpose of these patrols, besides making it more difficult for the enemy to rest, was to boost the confidence of the IPs and enhance their sense that they had control over the situation, and over the enemy. All of this was critical preparation for an eventual showdown and the "reconquest" of Hit.
Robert envisioned an operation in which the IPs, supported by coalition forces, would sweep through Hit, drive out AQI, and reclaim permanent control of the city. He had planted the idea in Hasan's and Zahid's minds very early in our tour and routinely revisited the subject, sometimes subtly, other times more directly. Robert played upon Zahid's narcissism, manipulating his desire to be a revered public figure, equal to the sheikhs in stature and respect. Hasan, because of his loyalty—or maybe his pragmatism, we will never truly know—was easier to work with.
The issue of when conditions would permit a successful reconquest was a topic of intense debate in the ODA. By November, we had developed sufficient contacts with access to the 1920th Revolutionary Brigade and even some other fringe elements that we thought we could ensure a successful operation. Without these contacts, the enemy owned the information, and without these contacts we wouldn't be able to get the population in Hit to turn on additional spigots of information for us.
The first break came in November when Zahid asked us to secure the release of a man named Ma'mun, who worked for Zahid as an informant and had been detained by coalition forces. We obtained Ma'mun's release, and when he subsequently had a falling out with Zahid, he began providing information directly to us. Ma'mun came from an established family in Hit and was a "former" member of the 1920th Revolutionary Brigade. The second break came when Ma'mun introduced us to an imam whom we called Abu Abdullah. Abu Abdullah had extensive knowledge of the insurgency between Hit and Baghdadi. He had operated a rural mosque where insurgents routinely met to plan, pray, or hide. He had abandoned his caretaking duties at the mosque because both coalition forces and the insurgents were after him. Each side suspected him of working for the other. He finally came to us. The Gaaouds provided Abu Abdullah with sanctuary, and he served as our gobetween with Ma'mun. This led to an even deeper rift with Zahid, but it could not be helped.51
The last break came when Robert met with a man named Ibrahim Medani. Medani was an influential sheikh who resided in what is called the Teacher's District of Hit. Robert met Medani in December, while the ODA and SWAT were supporting a major 1–36 daylight operation along Cherry Street in Hit. We split the ODA into three cells, and each cell teamed up with a SWAT element to patrol into the city and cover the flanks of the main 1–36 effort. Since Robert was patrolling through Medani's neighborhood, he decided to drop in on him. As Robert remembered:
Sheikh Medani was always portrayed as a sickly old man by the 1–36 Cdr, but when I met him he was a vibrant, wise, and interestingly intelligent older gentleman. His tribal area was the Teacher's District, nearly a third of the town. It had a large number of personnel involved in JTJ [Jamaaat al-Tawhid Waal-Jihad, the predecessor to AQI], and that is why they had no problems conducting attacks on Iraqis down by the hospital. It was interesting that no big players resided in the area of town by the hospital, but all of the carnage occurred there. The main thing with Medani was that innocent people were getting hurt, and it was mainly the Americans doing the hurting after being shot [at]. He was the main venue for reconciliation prior to Shurta Nasir. Medani cooperated by keeping his word and pushing for a 1920th ceasefire; he leveled the playing field for us. He was all grins when I visited him later, during Shurta Nasir.
Medani admitted that Robert impressed him by casually sitting with him and conversing in Arabic despite having an interpreter present. Medani told Robert that he had never met another American like him and wished they had met sooner. Up until this point, because we previously had only vague information about him, Medani hadn't really figured into our planning. Robert realized how influential Medani was at this impromptu meeting and took the time to pull him in and obtain his cooperation.
We finally agreed that by December 2006 conditions would be sufficient to retake the city, but the decision to do so was ultimately determined by forces beyond our control. 1–36 had suffered a long, hard tour in Hit, with many casualties. It had built a 700-man district police force and opened four additional police stations, expanding far beyond the al Phurat police force in Zuwayyah. 1–36's final major operation was to establish a permanent police station in Hit near Traffic Circle 2, in the vicinity of the market and astride Route Mavericks. We would have liked to convince 1–36 to reconquer Hit with us, but we could sense that 1–36's commander was unwilling. Given the circumstances of 1–36's tour and the unit's imminent redeployment, this was perfectly understandable. We began thinking about how to convince the incoming unit, 2–7 Infantry, to support our plan.52
Task Force 2–7 assumed control of the battlespace from 1–36 in January 2007. We decided to try the same indirect approach with them that had served us so well throughout our tour. Because of Sheikh Sattar's growing stature and the incipient Awakening, coalition forces were enamored with the idea of the Sunnis rising up against AQI. We took advantage of this fixation. We coached Hasan and Zahid to present a unified plan to the 2–7 commander for reclaiming Hit, but it took considerable time and effort to bring these two together to make a coordinated pitch.
Robert, Chief Pitt, and I sat with 2–7's commander, Ma'mun, Hasan, and Zahid in Zahid's office at the district IP station, while Hasan and Zahid presented "their" idea. Zahid, due to his extreme self-regard or maybe his unshakeable confidence, told the 2–7 commander that he could rid Hit of all "terrorists" in a two-day operation, but required coalition support for logistics and to cordon off the city. The 2–7 commander looked to us for confirmation of Zahid's ability to carry this out. We affirmed that he could, but suggested four days might be better. The resulting operation was named Shurta Nasir (Police Victory).
Two popular, abbreviated accounts of Operation Shurta Nasir are provided in Figures 8 and 9 on the following pages. One is the official MNC-I press release, and the other is taken from Wikipedia. These accounts, while never complete or entirely accurate, nonetheless provide a sense of the scale of support that coalition forces provided the IPs. In short order, 2–7 developed a plan to completely isolate Hit by cordoning it off, but 2–7's most impressive action by far lay in the realm of logistical support. 2–7 built and pre-staged logistical packages and assets so that as soon as the IPs had secured template locations for the establishment of additional IP stations, fortification and reinforcement of these sites could begin.
Aside from the significant logistical challenges, the most difficult part of the operation proved to be maintaining solidarity among the key Iraqi players. Unbeknownst to most observers, General Zahid almost derailed the entire operation. The day before the operation was to begin, Zahid decided to arrest Ma'mun for no valid reason but because Ma'mun had somewhat outshone Zahid during the planning for Operation Shurta Nasir. Ma'mun was our resident "insider" and provided crucial advice about how best to execute the operation without alienating Hit's citizens. But Ma'mun had also made the "mistake" of developing a closer relationship with Hasan than with Zahid.
More than anything, Zahid wanted to be thought of as the conquering hero, and in his typical dramatic fashion threatened to not participate. The whole point of the operation was to support an Iraqi-led, Iraqi-executed plan with minimal numbers of Americans in the background, and with the ODA and the PTT advising the IPs. While it would have been possible to continue without Zahid, to do so would have undermined our efforts to reinforce and utilize the Iraqi chain of command. Robert worked hard to keep Zahid on board. He invited Zahid to stay at the teamhouse and then stayed up all night talking Zahid in circles until Zahid convinced himself to be the "better man" and set aside his differences with Hasan for the good of the community.
Task Force 2–7 began sealing off Hit on 15 February 2007. On the morning of 16 February, General Zahid, the IPs, IP SWAT, the ODA, and the PTT were to commence the main effort. The operation was supposed to unfold in the following sequence: first, 2–7 would isolate the city, controlling all entry and exit points. Next, the SWAT would seize the main mosque in Hai al Bekr and the Green Mosque in Hit (located in the market 200 meters from the bridge). Zahid would then begin broadcasting instructions from both mosques. He was to declare a 72-hour curfew, instruct all civilians to remain in their homes, and announce that any vehicles seen moving on the streets would be considered hostile.53 After that, the SWAT would begin targeted raids in Hit and clear neighborhoods considered insurgent sanctuaries. Robert and an ODA cell would accompany the SWAT.54 Robert was also going to use this opportunity to meet with key tribal and religious figures in the city, visiting them in their homes.
Chief Pitt led one ODA cell, with some SWAT and IPs, and patrolled into Hit to establish a forward command post near the city center. This provided direct over-watch along Cherry Street and Hit's southernmost neighborhood. Cherry Street had been Hit's most dangerous street and the southern neighborhood was an insurgent sanctuary. It was on Cherry Street and the approaches to this neighborhood that 1–36 had suffered the most catastrophic IED strikes. The plan was to put a police station midway along Cherry Street and another in the middle of the southern neighborhood.
As this was unfolding, I was supposed to take General Zahid and a large force of IPs to patrol the area between Hit and Mohammedi. This area consisted of palm groves, quarries, junkyards, and chicken farms that were commonly used by all manner of criminals and insurgents. We knew that, despite pained efforts to maintain operational security, the insurgents in Hit would have sensed "something" going on and fled to these areas. Lastly, after the SWAT had cleared and secured the proposed IP station sites, Robert would call in the PTTs, who would arrive with IPs, logistical packages, and assets to begin building the IP stations. We gave ourselves four days to conclude the entire operation and begin restoring a controlled normalcy to the city.57
That was the plan.
Here is what happened: General Zahid was hours late marshaling his IPs, and then seemed to stall.58 We suffered the delay as long as we could but finally launched the SWAT to seize the mosques and begin announcing the curfew. This inspired several aggressive younger officers who worked for Zahid. They rounded up IPs, manned IP pick-up trucks, and drove straight to all of the insurgent-affiliated mosques in Hit. They cleared the mosques and began announcing the curfew. Robert, his cell, and the SWAT seized the building on Cherry Street that was to become the Cherry Street IP station and turned it over to the IPs. After that, Robert and his gang spent 96 hours clearing and raiding throughout the entire city, acting on information provided by Ma'mun and citizens who began to come forward.
Robert cleared the whole city without a shot being fired. It seemed evident that Medani had made good on his word, but we believed that Zahid also had something to do with the lack of insurgent resistance.
The 2–7 PTT commander (a young engineer captain and someone who excelled at working with Iraqis) and I, as patiently as we could, worked on assembling enough IPs to perform our tasks.59 Zahid still stalled. It was apparent that he did not want to conduct his patrol outside of Hit. So instead, I redirected him to seize the IP station in the southern neighborhood, along with the hospital. I could have "played hardball" and forced Zahid to help us conduct the patrol between Hit and Mohammedi, but then I wouldn't have had confidence in him if we made contact with the enemy. It would have been me, two other members of 545, a Civil Affairs team, and a host of IPs whom we knew but had not trained. Zahid had handpicked many of these IPs for their loyalty to him.
Robert and I have since discussed these events at length, and we strongly believe that Zahid cut a deal that allowed him to take the city unopposed so that he could play the part of conquering hero, while the insurgents were allowed to avoid capture or death. This would explain why he was so cocksure about being able to clear the city in two days. Worth noting is that in a city that for months had been the nucleus of insurgent activity and violence—where 1–36 lost Abrams tanks and Bradley Fighting Vehicles to IEDs and foot patrols usually ended in firefights—we took the city without a single shot being fired. Then there were Zahid's stalling tactics, which prevented him from having to patrol insurgent havens south of town.
We didn't believe that Zahid's motives were nefarious so much as they were designed to protect his image. He had taken to carrying an ax handle and dispensing tough rhetoric, a caricature of Sheriff Buford Pusser as portrayed in the semi-biographic movie Walking Tall. Why risk spoiling his image by potentially getting his nose bloodied in a fight with insurgents? Besides, even Zahid understood that the tide in Anbar was turning, and that by letting the insurgents run away he could still win. Of course, it could also be that he was able to win without fighting because with his connections to TAA he constituted a credible threat in the insurgents' eyes. Maybe he used this to his advantage to give the insurgents a way out, again because so long as they ran and he stayed, he won.
William had always said, "If we stay and they [insurgents] go, we win." Robert and I repeated that again during planning to remind ourselves not to become too fixated on statistics.60
After Operation Shurta Nasir, the coalition and ISF controlled Hit. We had three IP stations in town, checkpoints at key locations, a permanent outpost at the hospital, and permanent checkpoints controlling the major roads into Hit. We left the minor roads permanently blocked. General David Petraeus visited several weeks after the operation and he, 2–7's commander, Zahid, and Hasan strolled down Cherry Street—something that was inconceivable just a month prior. In a final bit of irony, Zahid and Hasan used an ODA tactic on General Petraeus. They were supposed to be present at the Cherry Street IP station awaiting him and the 2–7 commander, but on the one and only occasion Zahid and Hasan willingly worked together, they slipped out and went for a walk. They deliberately returned late, after General Petraeus' arrival, so that he would have to stand to greet them.
So What? Thoughts and Reflections
As I mentioned in the introduction, a lot of people have written about al Anbar and the Awakening. Some writers dissect the Awakening and the events there by taking an academic approach and applying concepts like social movement theory to better understand how the Awakening really happened. Others, through proximity to events and via interviews and research, have simply tried to capture the story because it seems so fantastic. Yet others have tried, and are trying still, to chronicle events so as to contribute to the popular narrative that the United States Marines and Army turned the tide through a culturally attuned counterinsurgency campaign.
Putting this article together gave me time to pause and reflect on my experiences and what I wrote, especially in light of the accumulated literature about al Anbar and the Awakening. It also prompted me to reach out to several individuals who lived the story with William and Robert, to see if their perspectives had changed over time.
Collectively, we agree: Successful COIN is the story of individuals—Dale Alford in al Qaim; Shaban in Baghdadi; William and Robert in Hit; Sean McFarland, Travis Patroquin, and Sheikh Sattar in Ramadi. At the same time, most of the written record is written clean, devoid of the inherently messy details. Anyone who has lived COIN knows, however, that counterinsurgency is never neat, never clean, and there is a lot of discovery and learning along the way, no matter how culturally attuned or well-read on counterinsurgency theory, local history, and so forth one may be.
A second conclusion my former teammates and I would offer, made clearer with the passage of time, has to do with the interrelatedness of events and the need to understand that everything is context-specific. The previous article in this issue of CTX, "Al-Sahawa: An Awakening in Al Qaim," illustrates both sides of this observation. The Awakening movements in al Qaim, Baghdadi, Hit, and Ramadi were not independent events, and yet the ways the Awakening manifested itself in these locations differed a great deal. Regarding differences, the devil is in the details and nothing, absolutely nothing, takes place the same way in different places. Across al Anbar, for instance, the recruitment and development of the Desert Protectors and police was done very differently in al Qaim, Haditha, Hit, and Ramadi. Unfortunately, some opportunities were lost because leaders and staff expected efforts in other locations to move as well and as fast as they had in al Qaim.
Our third conclusion is that most people look at the similarities between situations and do not spend enough time considering the differences. The corollary to this is that most people take note of successes and look at what went right versus what went wrong. For instance, how many books and articles, inspired by John Nagl's Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam,61 led people to try to poach successful methods from previous conflicts based on perceived similarities? How much institutional time and effort went into establishing lessons learned as the correct tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) to apply, as if one can apply counterinsurgency solutions irrespective of local conditions? Or, how is it that so many people thought that the Anbar Awakening was replicable in Afghanistan simply based on the fact that the population in Afghanistan is also Muslim and tribal?
Our fourth conclusion is that we Americans didn't win the COIN fight. Too many give us—Americans—way too much credit for pacifying Anbar, when, at the root of the Awakening, the Sunni of al Anbar changed their minds and changed sides. On reflection, a number of us on both William's and Robert's ODAs find that talking about the population as if it is the center of gravity, along with statements like "If you've secured the population, you've won the war," are misguided. Population-centric COIN fundamentally assumes that the population already supports our side and that insurgents, corruption, and government incompetence are the only things standing in the way of our success. But, if population-centric COIN theories really worked, if the population was certain to side with us once we proved able to separate them from the insurgents and introduce competent government, then there should be fewer problems in at least some parts of Afghanistan. Right? After all, Alford, McMaster, MacFarland, Petraeus, and others who seemingly mastered counterinsurgency in Iraq also served in Afghanistan. They carried their lessons learned and TTPs to that theater. But, to what end?
Finally, looking back, my former teammates would say that the large collective "we"—Special Forces, Marines, the U.S. Army, and other Americans in al Anbar—were more lucky than good, and the sooner everyone realizes that, the better. Despite the fact that those who served with William and Robert knew something like the Awakening was possible from the earliest days of the war, despite our familiarity with the tribes, and despite our optimism even during the darkest days of the war, we still recognize that serendipity accounted for a lot. At the same time, the entire time we were there, we continually tried to think through the problem, and strove to create and shape opportunities in order to make the most out of whatever opportunities were handed to us.
Fortune favors not only the brave and the bold, but the prepared as well. Of course, there are times and places where the people are never going to come to your side and fortune is never going to give you a chance. But then, we would say, you have to be smart enough and sufficiently humble to recognize when that is the case, too.
About the Author(s): MAJ Brent Lindeman is a company commander with U.S. Army 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne).
1. Brent Lindeman, "Better Lucky than Good: A Theory of Unconventional Minds and the Power of ‘Who'" (master's thesis, Naval Postgraduate School, 2009), http://edocs.nps.edu/npspubs/scholarly/theses/2009/Dec/09Dec_Lindeman.pdf
2. William is a pseudonym. All quotes in this section, "William's War," are his, unless otherwise cited, and come from an interview conducted by the author in Ft. Campbell, Kentucky, 5 July 2009. The names of the Iraqis described in the article were also changed to protect their anonymity.
3. Power is defined here as the ability to compel people to follow, and prestige as the ability to impel people to follow.
4. General Mattis was the 1st Marine Division Commander and responsible for operations in Anbar under the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force commanded by Lieutenant General Conway. William's company headquarters, led by MAJ Adam Such (the AOB), worked closely with General Mattis and his staff. Iraqis have local names for small geographic areas that often encompass several towns or villages. Al Phurat was one such area. It consisted of the villages of Jubayl, Zuwayyah, Tal Aswad, and the areas between.
5. Wasta: an Arabic word whose meaning is an amalgamation of the terms influence, clout, and prestige.
6. William and members of ODA 5 spoke with Sheikh Reshad's nephew who was in attendance at the city council meeting. His version of events matched the story related to William by the Marines.
7. S2: An intelligence officer and the corresponding intelligence section of a commander's staff.
8. Grant T. Hammond, The Mind of War: John Boyd and American Security (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 2001), 147.
9. The term Battlefield Operating Systems has been formally replaced by the term Elements of Combat Power, of which there are eight: leadership, information, movement and maneuver, intelligence, fires, sustainment, command and control, and protection. Headquarters, Department of the Army, Field Manual 3-0: Operations (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Army, February 2008).
10. Headquarters, Department of the Army, Field Manual 101–5–1: Operational Terms and Graphics (Washington D.C.: Department of the Army, 1997), 1–31.
11. Thomas R. Searle, "Tribal Engagement in Anbar Province: The Critical Role of Special Operations Forces," Joint Forces Quarterly 50, 3rd quarter (2008): 64–5.
12. Big men is a term borrowed from anthropology to describe leaders who rely on prestige rather than power to lead.
13. The Burgess family resided in Jubayl, a town that lay in al Phurat and our AO.
14. Carter Malkasian, "Evidence from al Anbar," Joint Forces Quarterly 46, 3rd Quarter (2007): 123.
15. Night letters are death threats, so called because they are found in the morning after having been left or tacked up on someone's door, or often the door of the local mosque, during the night.
16. Firm base: the Marine term for a permanent company-sized operating base.
17. Jazeera was the local name, in Arabic, given to the desert area lying between Thar Thar Lake and the Euphrates River.
18. Malkasian, "Evidence from al Anbar," 123.
19. 2–114, which was subordinated to RCT 2, was responsible for the AO that included Hit at that time. The Hit area of operations was a revolving door for coalition units. Between August 2005 and January 2006, there were five units responsible for the Hit AO: 3–25 Marines, 3–6 Marines, 2–114 FA, 13th MEU, and 22nd MEU.
20. Michael R. Gordon, "Wary Iraqis are Recruited as Policemen," The New York Times, 24 July 2006. Although I did not personally interview anyone who had witnessed the incident firsthand, I heard the story in various places during a tour in 2005 along the Euphrates River Valley between Ramadi and Haditha. All these accounts were essentially identical. Gordon reports that the policemen were shot. In every account that I heard of the incident, it was said that at least some of the policemen were beheaded.
21. The Nimr tribesmen were from isolated villages along the Euphrates between Hit and Ramadi. The safest and most expedient option was to consolidate them in the desert near the al Gaaoud family compound in the town of Zuwayyah.
22. ODA 545 believed that the quarter-mile stretch of road leading from the eastern side of the bridge to the main road that paralleled the Euphrates was seeded with IEDs. The 13th MEU, based on the ODA's recommendation, cleared this section of road using a rocket projected explosive line charge called a Mine Clearing Line Charge (MICLIC). The MICLIC charges set off 16 secondary explosions from IEDs, which destroyed much of the road and adjoining sections of palm grove. The damage was unavoidable, given that the MCLIC was the safest way to clear a road on which insurgents had had three uninterrupted months to prepare an IED belt for the day coalition forces did start to repair the Hit Bridge.
23. The 22nd MEU replaced the 13th MEU.
24. Sadly, the Desert Protector program was prematurely terminated, and we had little to offer them.
25. Dick Couch, The Sheriff of Ramadi: Navy Seals and the Winning of al-Anbar (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2008), 71.
26. Both the Nimr Provisional Company and the Desert Protectors succeeded because they filled a primal need common to men all over the world. The units gave their members a positive sense of self-worth and something to be proud of.
27. Robert is a pseudonym. All quotes contained in this chapter are his unless specifically cited otherwise, and come from an interview conducted by the author in Clarksville, Tennessee, 20 August 2009, with a follow-up interview conducted via email on 3 November 2009.
28. CENTCOM: Central Command, the geographic U.S. combatant command with responsibility for the Middle East and Southwest Asia.
29. ODA 182 relieved us at the conclusion of our OIF III deployment. TF 1–36 was 1st Battalion, 36th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division. TF 1–36 replaced 22th MEU in February 2005; RCT 7, having replaced RCT 2, was TF 1–36's operational headquarters.
30. This was uncoordinated, a natural result of ODA 545's efforts to get the Zuwayyah IPs sanctioned before rotating back to the United States at the end of its OIF III tour.
32. John Mosby was a U.S. Confederate cavalry officer who commanded the 43rd Battalion, 1st Virginia Cavalry, known as Mosby's Raiders, in the American Civil War (1861–65).
33. Fort Apache, in what is now the U.S. state of Arizona, was established in the 1870s as a U.S. Army outpost in the heart of the Apache Indian homeland. Its purpose was to bring the Apache people, who resisted encroachment by white settlers, under control.
34. Robert admitted Waterloo is not a perfect analogy, but the intended correlation was that if we could use amnesty and reconciliation to bring insurgents to our side, it would put an end to AQI, just as the Battle of Waterloo (18 June 1815) put an end to Napoleon's reign.
36. Sheikh Yassin wasn't a tribal sheikh, but a religious leader residing in Hit. We considered Sheikh Yassin to be irreconcilable. We likewise considered Salafist jihadist groups such as Ansar al-Sunna to be irreconcilable.
37. This quote and all the subsequent italicized quotes that begin subsections are Robert's words.
38. RCT 7, commanded by Colonel Blake Crowe, was responsible for al Anbar north and west of Ramadi when we returned for OIF IV.
39. Ansar al-Sunna, a Salafist group, was on our list of irreconcilables.
40. Headquarters, Department of the Army, Field Manual 3–24: Counterinsurgency (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Army, 1997), A–5.
41. The dates are approximate. It occurred a day to a few days after Captain Secher was killed.
42. Robert remembers evacuating 53 people; 34 of the wounded required extended hospitalization for their wounds and were not returned to duty after treatment.
43. We had developed a list of 600 key Arabic words that every detachment member had to learn. We conducted all of our FID training without using interpreters, were able to intermix Iraqis into our truck crews, and conducted combat operations without interpreters if they were not available. We did this deliberately, because once a unit became reliant on interpreters, the host nation forces would turn to the interpreter for guidance because he was the communicator. We always wanted the Iraqis to turn to us first in any situation; thus we implemented intensive language training on our ODA.
44. We frequently had to invite Zahid to stay. Because of his initial willingness to fight AQI and because of his stature among the Shamal, who comprised the bulk of the police, Zahid was an important figure. However, his erratic behavior, narcissism, and contempt for the Gaaouds required continual management so that he didn't instigate intra-tribal conflict or make irresponsible decisions regarding the IPs just to serve his personal purposes.
45. This worked well for us until we were undercut by RCT 2's Civil Affairs element, which offered large civil-affairs contracts to Sheikh Kasam, mostly as a method to buy cooperation. We, in contrast, built relationships, then very carefully used projects as subtle leverage in an escalating game of quid pro quo, just as William had done in OIF II. We also used dentcaps (dental civic action programs), humanitarian assistance, and medical assistance as tools for building our relationships with the tribes.
46. In several instances, when we wanted to influence coalition forces in certain directions, we translated talking points into Arabic and had the sheikhs rehearse.
47. Bing West, The Strongest Tribe (New York: Random House, 2008), 24.
48. The items were purchased through business associates in Baghdad.
49. As noted, the Tal Aswad and Baghdadi IPs became more aggressive as well.
50. We did not work in Barwanna; the Marines and our sister ODA (ODA 542) did. The Barwanna Nimr sheikhs first approached us, seeking to establish a relationship and emulate the coalition– tribal collaboration in our AO. We met with them routinely at our councils but handed them off to ODA 542 to work with directly.
51. Reflecting back on Sheikh Anis's statement, "You will soon receive the help that you need," it appeared to Robert and me that the Nimr, and also the Gaaouds, were facilitating the personal connections that later made our culminating operation, Shurta Nasir, possible.
52. 2–7 Infantry: 2nd Battalion, 7th Infantry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division.
53. Zahid took seriously the threat of SVBIEDs; he also concurred with us that previous sniper attacks had most likely been executed from a car.
54. ODA 545 was trained to operate in independent three-man cells depending on mission requirements.
55. Multi-National Corps–Iraq, press release, "Iraqi Police Conduct Operation Shurta Nasir to clear Hit of Insurgents," 22 February 2007: http://www.blackanthem.com/News/Allies_20/Iraqi_Police_Conduct_Operation_Shurta_Nasir_to_clear_Hit_ of_Insurgents4580.shtml
56. "Hit During the War," Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/ wiki/H%I4%SBt_during_the_Iraq_War. See the comment in paragraph two where the contributor states, "Before the operation the Hit Police were overrun while trying to establish new [sic] police station in the city"—neither I nor any of the persons I interviewed know what this comment refers to. Insurgents did conduct a coordinated attack on the IP station at Traffic Circle 2 shortly after it was established, but the attack was beaten back. There were no other sustained attempts to attack that IP station during ODA 545's OIF IV tour.
57. Another challenging aspect of the operation was to keep the IPs working for four straight days. Something so simple actually caused great consternation among many of the IPs. There were no such issues with the SWAT.
58. The IPs were predominantly Nimr, and all came from the Tal Aswad, Zuwayyah, Hai al Bekr, and Hit stations. The Kubaysa IPs did not want to participate and, at any rate, were less capable and certainly less reliable. The PTT and Zahid had carefully worked out how many IPs would be left behind to man the IP stations in Tal Aswad, Zuwayyah, and Hai al Bekr and patrol their jurisdictions.
59. There were two PTTs, one of Marines from CPATT, and the other consisting of Soldiers from 2–7, led by this young captain.
60. The personnel of RCT 2, which had replaced RCT 7, were openly disappointed with how few detainees came from the operation. They were further frustrated that several detainees, whom informants identified as known insurgents, could not be processed for lack of evidence. On a separate note, "we stay, they run," must be reinforced with an aggressive IO campaign. The public has to understand what had to happen so victory could be complete.
61. John Nagl, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).