There has been much debate in the past on the lack of an effective strategy to fight the insurgency in Iraq. In the September/October edition of Foreign Affairs, Andrew Krepinevich argues that to win, the U.S. must fight using an “oil spot” strategy, which is one of securing major cities, and working your way to the outlying areas, slowing gaining control of the region and establishing law and order. Two days ago, Pamela Hess reported that the oil spot strategy (or “ink blot” in her article) is working effectively in Fallujah. Yesterday, Col. H. R. McMaster, the commander of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, reports the oil spot strategy is being executed in Tal Afar.
The 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment has been stationed in the Tal Afar region since this spring. Col. McMaster provides an instructive overview of the past and current operations. The effort to retake Tal Afar actually began May 1, when U.S. and Iraqi units reentered the city. Col. McMaster describes the ensuing deadly game of chess that ensued as Coalition and insurgent forces reacted to changes in each other’s tactics. Each attempt by the insurgency to engage Coalition forces in open combat ended in the defeat of the attacking insurgent force. This drove the insurgency underground, and made them fight using subterfuge. Local intelligence was key to the success in countering the harassment fire, and explains the remarkably low casualties of U.S. forces while conducting over four months of continuous operations in an urban environment.
[U.S. and Iraqi units] began to conduct aggressive offensive operations and reconnaissance operations in the city. The enemy noticed that we’re challenging this support base, a base that they desperately wanted to hold onto, so they began to attack our forces in large numbers. And we had stand-up conventional fights against the enemy in this dense urban terrain, where up to 200 of the enemy were attacking our troopers as they conducted operations in this urban area.
The result of those operations were that Iraqi Security Forces and armed forces killed large numbers of the enemy in those engagements, 30 to 40 of the enemy at a time. So the enemy realized this tactic isn’t working, so they went back into harassment attacks — IEDs, roadside bombs, mortar attacks, sniper attacks against our forces, and attempted to do sort of hit-and-run operations against us.
But our troopers were very aggressive in maintaining contact with the enemy. We have an air/ground team here, so our aerial scouts were able to maintain contact with the enemy as they tried to move into the interior of the city. So we pursued them very effectively.
And we were able to gain access to intelligence here by a very good relationship with the people, who recognized this enemy for who they are and were very forthcoming with human intelligence. In one raid in the beginning of June, for example, we were able to capture 26 targeted individuals, some of the worst people here in Tall Afar, within a 30-minute period. And the enemy began to realize this isn’t working either, they can’t hide in plain sight anymore.
So what the enemy did in response — and this was part of this continuous interaction we’ve had with them since our arrival in this area — is they intensified their campaign of intimidation over the people. They conducted more sniper attacks against innocent civilians, more mortar attacks.
And in response, we targeted their mortar teams. We killed four of their mortar teams and captured two. We killed about 12 of their sniper teams. And we relentlessly pursued the enemy until the enemy realized that a lot of our power was building now toward Tall Afar because we wanted — as we were figuring this enemy out, we were preparing for operations to destroy their safe haven in a particular neighborhood of the city.
As the insurgents began to flee the city and move to the surrounding towns, the Coalition wisely chased them and worked to establish order in these towns to deny the enemy further safe havens. By doing this, the Coalition maintained the initiative and placed further pressure on the insurgents and their ratline from Syria. Roadblocks and checkpoints were established on roads leading to Tal Afar. The towns of Rabiah, Sinjar, and Bi’aj sit astride border crossing points; denying the enemy access to these towns was crucial to securing Tal Afar.
So as the specter of coalition operations became apparent to the enemy, as we isolated the city, as we improved the effectiveness of our traffic control points to limit their movement, as we continued to pursue the enemy, the enemy responded by sending their fighters, many of them, into the outlying communities to hide in the outlying communities until the operation was over.
But what we did is we conducted effective operations in the outlying areas. Simultaneous with our operations in Tall Afar, we were establishing a permanent security capability along the Syrian border in Rabiya, south of Sinjar Mountain and the town of Sinjar. We took over the town of Bosh (phonetic) from the insurgents and established — reestablished the police force and the Iraqi army there. We went to the town of Afgani (phonetic) about 12 kilometers north of here. We captured, just out of that one town, one small town of Afgani (phonetic), about 116 of the enemy in three separate operations.
One operation — that was the most effective — was an Iraqi army exclusive operation, and then that we established two Iraqi companies and recruited police. The police are done training and now there’s a permanent security presence there. The enemy is denied that area. We operated in other outlying communities and captured many more of the enemy. So now, the enemy had that option taken away from them, and they resolved then to defend this safe haven in Sarai.
In a way, the oil spot strategy was used in reverse. The Coalition secured the outlying areas while conducting operations in the interior. Different situations call for different tactics, and U.S. commanders are demonstrating proficiency in adjusting their tactics and strategy to meet the needs of the situation at hand.
The rest of Col. McMaster’s briefing covers the involvement and cooperation of the Iraqi Army – which is significant and should not be overlooked, and the final assault on Tal Afar. His account matches the story told here at The Long War Journal, with the exception that he reports significant defenses and fortifications were encountered in and around the Sarai neighborhood. Yesterday I incorrectly stated the enemy was not investing time or efforts to build fortifications in Tal Afar. That the U.S. military was able to overcome the defenses described by Col. McMaster speaks well of their proficiency in urban warfare. The enemy is not the only fighting force honing their skills in Iraq.
The fight is not over, the enemy is still being chased in Tal Afar. And the operation has only begun. Providing for security and reconstruction will be an effort equal to if not greater than that of clearing the city of insurgents.
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