On August 15, several hours after night fell over Baghdad, an air assault squadron of the 3rd Infantry Division launched the first attack of Operation Marne Husky. A dozen darkened transport and attack helicopters took off and headed south along the Tigris River, carrying a full company of infantry–about 120 young riflemen with night goggles and weapons loaded. Their objective was a hamlet several dozen miles away. At about 11 P.M., the force landed and rapidly surrounded several small structures. The occupants were taken by surprise. Five suspected insurgents were captured. By 4 A.M., the entire team was airborne again.
Every night since then similar scenes have unfolded at dozens of locations in and around Baghdad–all part of a larger operation named Phantom Strike. The attacks involve units of all sizes and configurations, coming in by air and land. In some cases, the units get out quickly. In others, they pitch tents for an extended stay. The idea is to keep the enemy–al Qaeda and its affiliates–on the defense and constantly guessing, thereby turning formerly “safe” insurgent areas into areas of prohibitive risk for them.
Time and space
The impetus for Phantom Strike was, in a way, born in Washington, where Congress created a series of benchmarks for progress in Iraq by mid-September, at which point an “interim report” is required from Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander. The legislation inadvertently (perhaps “negligently” is a better word) created a “Tet” opportunity for al Qaeda here. If it can dominate headlines with spectacular mass-casualty
suicide attacks in the days and weeks leading up to the report, the political climate in Washington might turn irretrievably against the military effort, thereby snatching a victory for the terrorists that they have failed to win on the ground. (Just as the Viet Cong’s Tet offensive in 1968, while a military debacle for them, convinced U.S. media and political elites that that war was lost.) With this in mind, operational planners earlier this year began laying out a strategy to disrupt al Qaeda’s ability to carry out the expected attacks.
Learning from past mistakes, commanders of the “surge” forces now take territory only if they can hold it. But for certain elements of Phantom Strike, they are making an exception to that rule. Divisional commands across Iraq have been instructed to cash in their accumulated intel and attack insurgents where they are most likely to be hiding–whether it makes sense to hold the territory or not. In planning rooms across the central third of Iraq, commanders looked at their target wish-lists–places where they had taken fire in the past, or tracked possible insurgents, or gotten credible tips from the population–and chose the most enticing ones.
The Joint Campaign Plan, a document that operationalizes the surge in accordance with Petraeus’s counterinsurgency strategy, calls for coalition forces to give the government of Iraq “the time and space that it needs to succeed,” according to military officers. The practical emphasis has been on “space.” By pushing coalition forces out from their bases and into neighborhoods across Baghdad and other major urban centers in Iraq, commanders have sought to establish “area security” through “clear, control, and retain” operations. Key to retaining these areas is the participation of Iraqi Security Forces and other nonmilitary Iraqi government support.
The success enjoyed in places like Anbar province has come because security forces convinced people that they were there to stay. Those populations have shown their appreciation by joining the fight against al Qaeda in their neighborhoods, joining the police, and establishing neighborhood watch systems. Purely disruptive raids in which neither control nor retention is sought have thus fallen somewhat into disfavor.
But there is one good reason not to abandon them altogether. Disruption is a way to seize and maintain the initiative. Disruptive attacks keep the enemy off-balance, guessing as to your next move. That makes him concentrate on defense, and put off his own attacks. It’s like a boxer keeping his opponent on the ropes with a flurry of jabs until the right moment for a knock-out blow.
Operation Marne Husky is just such a disruptive operation. Most of General Rick Lynch’s 3rd Infantry forces are committed to massive “clear control and retain” (CCR) operations in his area. He was therefore somewhat short of troops to contribute to Phantom Strike activities. But he wasn’t short on targets. His operations have produced a steady stream of al Qaeda and other insurgents fleeing further south for safety, mostly to an area on the Tigris known as the Samarrah jungle. Flushed from their safe havens, and tracked by intel, the insurgents were now vulnerable–in some cases, sitting ducks. Once the Phantom Strike guidance gave Lynch the order to attack, all he needed was a little ingenuity to come up with the right assets.
Infantry Division headquarters has a combat air brigade with more than a hundred helicopters. Marshalling other support services, and mustering a company of crack infantry freed up by the dramatically reduced tempo of operations in Anbar, Lynch put together an ad hoc unit for targeted strike operations, rather like a special forces contingent. In the first week of operations, this small force killed seven fighters and detained 64 suspects including 14 high-value targets, clearing nearly 120 structures in the process.
Such results are an early return on investment for the doctrines developed by Petraeus. The Counterinsurgency Field Manual, formulated under his command and released last December, chews through a lot of theory to arrive at one basic practical tenet: “Intelligence drives operations.” The counterinsurgency manual specifies that being able to distinguish between insurgents and civilians is the key to victory.
The only way to do that is to provide protection for the population, enfranchise them, and enlist their help in identifying the insurgents. This creates a virtuous circle–security operations produce good intel which produces better security operations and in turn better intel. The CCR operations in and around Baghdad have produced a trove of actionable intelligence on al Qaeda–its movements, its senior leaders, and the sources and locations of its weapons, explosives, and bomb-making equipment. Phantom Strike has capitalized on that intel, further reducing al Qaeda’s capacity to attack, which has improved security and increases the population’s confidence in the Coalition and in the Iraqi Security Forces.
Of course, al Qaeda has not taken all of this lying down. All the good news coming out of Iraq recently is even more depressing for al Qaeda than it is for Harry Reid, if that is possible, and al Qaeda could smell that something like Phantom Strike might be coming. It had to pull off a spectacular attack–and it did. On August 14, four near-simultaneous car bombs destroyed whole rows of mud-brick houses in a pair of small farming villages in Yazidi, killing on the order of 400 Iraqis, and wounding many more–a horrifying toll even for today’s Iraq.
But the site of the terror attack–in the far northwest of Iraq, 75 miles west of Mosul beyond the upper Tigris–was very interesting.
Lay of the land
To understand why, it is necessary to know something of the human geography of Iraq. Baghdad sits at the confluence of the Tigris River and its main tributary, the Diyala; these both flow from the north. The Euphrates River travels across Iraq from west to east, curving sharply south in the southwest suburbs of Baghdad. From there, the Euphrates and the Tigris converge gently, finally issuing, far to the south, into the Persian Gulf. Because Iraq’s populated areas hug its great rivers, the human geography of the country lies along five corridors all connected to a central hub–Baghdad.
Outside those fertile corridors lies a scorching, lifeless desert–in many places no further than three miles from the nearest river. Because the desert has no water, it favors the army that can most easily maneuver over long distances with its own water. The Americans are thus masters of the desert in Iraq.
The insurgents, by contrast, don’t do so well there. Even when they disguise themselves as Bedouins, their patterns of congregation and movement are easily detected by the scores of unmanned aerial vehicles constantly on the prowl overhead. And they can’t move around readily, because the desert is largely impassable and in any case totally exposed, its few roads easily monitored. This means both the insurgency and the counter-insurgency center on Iraq’s five river corridors.
Of these, the one where al Qaeda has suffered its clearest and most humiliating defeat is along the western Euphrates–the corridor stretching from Baghdad to Falluja, Ramadi, Haditha, and on to Al Qaim near the Syrian border. Not too long ago the heart of the Sunni insurgency, the entire corridor has fallen to coalition forces. Insurgents are finding that they can’t get past the outer checkpoints far enough to approach any of the main cities, and even crossing from one side of the Euphrates to the other has become extremely difficult. Indeed the situation in Anbar has advanced to the point where the Marine Expeditionary Force has hit all of its major “intel targets” and had virtually none to nominate for the Phantom Strike campaign.
Moving counterclockwise, the corridors formed by the southern Euphrates and Tigris rivers, and the irrigated land between them, are mainly Iraq’s Shiite heartland. But this twin corridor is dominated at its northern end by a belt of Sunni settlements, running along the outer perimeter of southern Baghdad. Saddam Hussein contrived this as a defense-in-depth of his precious capital. In this Baghdad belt, Lynch’s division has been conducting a series of enormous CCR operations. Insurgents are fleeing south, but will soon start running into the Shiite wall, where (after years–indeed decades–of abusing the Shiites) they are likely to suffer a fate far worse than getting captured by coalition forces.
The next river corridor to the north is the Diyala valley, which leads from Baghdad to Baquba, Muqtadiya, and Mansuriyah, finally hitting the Kurdish region where the terrain becomes mountainous. Starting in mid-June with Operation Arrowhead Ripper, which focused on Baquba, this area has seen the heaviest fighting in Iraq since the start of the surge last February. It is also the site of the most complex and interesting of the Phantom Strike operations–Lightning Hammer–which focuses on the upper Diyala River valley from Baquba to the Kurdish region.
These four corridors, which only a year ago were wide open to the insurgents, have become increasingly nettlesome and dangerous for them since the start of the surge. The large areas shown on intel maps as “safe” for the insurgents only last year have been whittled down to small pockets here and there. Al Qaeda and its affiliates are increasingly desperate for safe havens from which to operate and lines of communication they can rely on.
Increasingly the insurgents’ only option is the fifth corridor, the northern Tigris River valley stretching from Baghdad to Samarrah, Tikrit, and Mosul in the far north. This is why the location of al Qaeda’s August 16 attack, 75 miles west of Mosul, was so telling. The car-bombs were likely assembled near Mosul because of the increased risk of trying to assemble them anywhere else in Iraq. And they were “delivered” locally because al Qaeda probably decided that the long journey down the Tikrit-Samarrah-Baghdad highway was too dangerous.
Al Qaeda understands how to manipulate western media well enough to know that they don’t always need to attack in Baghdad. Indeed, the bombing dominated the headlines in the United States in the dramatic opening days of Operation Phantom Strike. But because of where it occurred, it told the coalition’s planners that they have been effective, too.
Hammer and anvil
No current fighting shows the ingenuity of U.S. planners better than the Lightning Hammer operations in the Diyala River valley. The focus of Lightning Hammer at the moment is an elegant and dramatic attack on the suspected havens of the al Qaeda elements that were forced north out of Baquba earlier this summer.
The attack unfolded in two phases, the first of which was the rapid concentration of forces at several different points along the upper Diyala River valley. Two air assault squadrons, one from the the 25th Infantry Division out of Kirkuk, and another of the 82nd Airborne out of Tikrit, took off for the western side of the valley. Consisting of several dozen helicopters and some 240 soldiers, the two squadrons converged on five locations among the maze of canals and broken farmland that runs along the western edge of the valley. Their purpose was to establish a screen to block the most likely escape routes for the insurgents who were about to be flushed out of the valley.
Meanwhile, snatching helicopters from other units in the area, another air assault squadron was attached to a battalion of the armor-heavy 1st Cavalry Division at Forward Operating Base Normandy, in the northern Diyala River valley. The entire force then headed south out of the FOB, some 300 soldiers in a column of tanks, Bradley fighting vehicles, Humvees and helicopters. They pushed through Moqdadiyah and plunged towards the valley.
Simultaneously, another battalion of the 1st Cav pushed northeast from Baquba in a small operation dubbed Pericles (also part of Lightning Hammer and Phantom Strike) meant to attack specific intel targets within one of the few remaining pockets of safety for insurgents in the area. The operation had the secondary effect of putting a full battalion of heavy infantry in the field at the bottom of the Diyala River valley just above Baquba, to act as an anvil for the coming operation.
The two battalions wasted no time in launching the second phase of the battle, moving towards each other from opposite ends of the valley, in a simultaneous, massive, and rapid CCR operation. In six days, the two battalions flooded 28 specific targets–including whole villages–in a fast-moving combination of ground and air assaults.
Many al Qaeda fighters appear to have had just enough warning to make good their escape. But in so doing, they were forced to abandon their new “operations center” north of Baghdad–a command post, medical clinic, scores of rockets and mortars, dozens of IEDs, and even their personal weapons.
The prospects for these fighters are not good. The north and south end of the valleys are blocked, as is the valley’s western border. The eastern escape from the valley is open for them, but that leads them into a bowl of farmland that is regularly scoured by patrols from FOB Caldwell, and is ringed to the northeast by the Kurdish “wall,” to the south by the Shiite “wall,” and to the southwest by coalition forces operating in strength between Baghdad and Baquba. Their only solution is to travel without their weapons and explosives–the things that make them dangerous.
Meanwhile, not beset by the force limitations that constrain General Lynch south of Baghdad, General Benjamin Mixon’s Multi-National Division-North has orchestrated the Lightning Hammer attack as a CCR on the pattern developed by the Marines in Anbar. Close behind the American units came units of the Iraqi Security Forces, aiming to stay, and behind them, government officials and technical advisers meant to levee the population into the organized neighborhood watch programs that have proven fatal to al Qaeda in Anbar. Planners told me that the coalition forces were greeted warmly, and locals pledged to help, as the Sunni tribes have in Anbar.
The way forward
Al Qaeda in Iraq had many initial advantages–including a message that, though false, was superficially appealing. But they never achieved national scope. They have never looked to anyone like they could actually govern a country. They never gained the open support of any foreign army. And now, after giving the people of Iraq a taste of their brutal sadism–after executing children for playing with American-donated soccer balls, after chopping the fingers off young men for smoking, after murdering entire families in front of the youngest son, so he would live to tell the tale–Al Qaeda in Iraq is more widely hated than feared.
In the words of one soft-spoken coalition planner in Baghdad, “We are demolishing them.” After four long years, the coalition has finally grasped the keys to victory. Al Qaeda has begun to lose the staging areas it needs for attacks in Baghdad. Just staying alive and avoiding capture is becoming a full-time occupation for them. As security envelops Baghdad, and calm spreads along the river corridors that extend out from the capital to the furthest reaches of the country, what is already clear to many people here in Iraq will become increasingly impossible for the rest of the world to ignore.
Because they have finally learned how to protect the people of Iraq–and help them to protect themselves–the United States and its allies are winning this war.