After Action Report: Oil Spots and Tal Afar

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.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.


  • Rookie says:

    Guess what? MSM and al quaeda were desperate about not having good news (for them) coming from Iraq…. they worked together several weeks and now … KABOOM, quagmire in Baghdad, “we witness several concentrated attacks” – this was SkyNews…
    So they managed again to kill hundreds of civilians, and MSM is drooling all over. Now they can ignore safely the huge developments from Western Iraq.

  • Dawn Patrol

    Welcome to the Dawn Patrol, our daily roundup of information on the War on Terror and other topics – from the MilBlogs, other blogs, and the mainstream media. If you’re a blogger, you can join the conversation. If you link…

  • Lorenzo says:

    One day I will visit Baghdad to visit my best friend at his home there. We worked together in Dallas building the finest furniture and dreamed one day of creating our art. I am now an artist working in sculpture and painting and hope Samir is already home and doing the same.
    Thanks to George W. Bush and the volunteer forces of the Coalition, freedom is at hand for Iraq and Afghanistan. A job well done in my eyes!! Down with terror

  • leaddog2 says:

    Hopefully, NEVER! We have to go on to eliminate the Mullahs in Iran (and probably the Wahhabi Mullahs in Saudi Arabia) or the next time we are hit, New York will cease to exist.
    As a Brooklyn resident, which do you prefer?

  • Patrick says:

    I disagree that we will invade Iran or Saudi Arabia for various reasons,but it is a stroke of strategic genius to have a strong US Army force smack dab in the heart of the enemy territory for continginces. Such as SA,Iran or Syria if necessary and them just being there pouts pressure on them compared to just making statements.
    I’m not sure the Iraqis will allow it though long term.

  • Soldier's Dad says:

    It would be a reasonable expectation that another 6 months will be required to get US Forces out of the day to day patrolling and policing business.(Al Anbar will be longer)
    There are basically two types of military operations going on in Iraq. Disrupting operations and “cleansing” operations.
    Cleansing operations are only occuring at this point when there are enough Iraqi police and Army to take over “post cleaning” security.
    If one looks at Baghdad as a harbinger, roughly 1/3rd is Iraqi patrolled and policed with a US Quick Reaction Force, another 1/3rd can be described as “joint patrolling”, and another 1/3rd can be fairly described as primarily US patrolling.
    The “insurgent” murder rate in Iraq is actually pretty close to the Detroit murder rate .(34/100,000 population). The Iraqi security force death rate peaked in July and is currently running 40% below its peak.
    IMHO, todays mass casualty events are not a result of “Revenge for TalAfar”, excluding mass casualty events of more than 25 deaths for August, the insurgent murder rate was 20% below the detroit murder rate, the September murder rate was running 40% below the detroit murder rate.

  • remember says:

    Soldiers Dad:
    Members of the press inconsistently go the Baghdad morgue and pick up on the number of shooting deaths per month that for the most part are not reported in the headlines.
    These are in the hundreds, sometimes well over five hundred. They include intimidation killings by terorists, revenge killings by Shia, criminality etc. Basically large parts of the city do live in terror. Families are afraid to let daughters out alone because of the kidnappings. A large proportion of doctors have quit because of them, many professionals have fled the country.
    Focus only on the terrorists severely underestimates the disorder that marks much of the country. Only a handful of reporters including conservative Steven Vincent mention the several hundred murders carried out per month by Shiite militias. This type of reign of terror is common in many areas of the south.
    Because these forces rarely attack us directly and don’t do much bombing this source of terorism and tyranny isn’t much mentioned by the MSM. However as is the common phrase “the war in Iraq is over and Iran won.”

  • My preoccupation with Katrina

    has kept me from noting the wonderful analysis Bill Roggio has been providing on the military operation in Tal Afar. If you are not checking his site each day, shame on you….

  • Justin Capone says:

    Zarqawi declares ‘all out war’ on Iraqi Shiites
    The Al-Qaeda frontman in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, declared “all-out war” against the Shiites in Iraq, in an audiotape attributed to him and posted on the Internet Wednesday.
    Zarqawi, who has a 25 million dollar US price on his head, also urged Sunni Arabs to wake from their slumber, telling them “the war to exterminate Sunnis will never end.”
    Iraq’s most wanted man also challenged Iraqi leaders to leave the highly fortified “Green Zone” in Baghdad where the seat of goverment is located, to challenge the mujahedeen or holy warriors.
    Earlier, militants loyal to the Jordanian-born Zarqawi claimed they had carried out a wave of suicide bombings in Baghdad to avenge an offensive by US and Iraqi government troops on the northern rebel town of Tal Afar.
    The bombings claimed almost 130 lives, making it the bloodiest day of insurgent attacks in the Iraqi capital since the US-led war of March 2003.

  • Soldier's Dad says:

    Iraq has 27 times the population of Detroit. Detroit averages 1 murder/day. Outside of Detroit, the murders in Detroit don’t make the national news or world news. Detroit is a violent city. Sending in 100,000 Canadian soldiers will not change that.
    Iraq surely has substantial dysfunction, the best that a Foreign Army is going to be able to do is “Keep the lid on” while the Iraqi government and security forces get their act together.

  • Mirco says:

    I’m sure that the Iraq’s government and people want keep a sizeable US force in Iraq for the foreseeable future.
    This will prevent them to buy more weapons (tank, artillery, airplane, etc.) to protect themselves from their neighbours, and let them to spend the oil money in social security, keeping the iraqi people happy.
    The only thing useful is that the US forces stay quiet in some bases out of sight from the common people. Near villages and the provinces will love to have US servicemen spending their money there.

  • Soldier's Dad says:

    A TalAfar neighborhood map
    The pentagon has already announced plans to reduce to 4 Quick Reaction Force Bases. The Question is to “when”, already 25 bases have been closed or turned over to Iraqi security forces.

  • hamidreza says:

    Now, tell this o’l hippy peacenick, when we can bring the troops home?
    George Orwell: “A pacifist is another name for a supporter of fascism.”
    Kurt in Brooklyn, – Liberal democracy is not something created from a vacuum. Neither does it grow on trees. It is something you will have to earn and continuously protect.

  • hamidreza says:

    The numbers you are pulling out of the hat are suspect. Do you care for a citation?
    Neither (more reliable), or (ideological and less reliable) back up your assertions.
    Yes, there is a significant amount of Shiite Islamist terrorism going on, especially by Sadr. Guess why “their daughters are kidnapped”? Because they refuse to wear the veil and submit as an object to be owned by the Islamist goons.
    Can you provide a reliable link to morgue counts, and lets not engage in conjectures of “hundreds and five hundreds”. If what you say is statistically signifcant, then surely someone would be tallying and reporting morgue counts, and their breakdown into criminality or terrorism.
    So do you have a solution to this problem – remember? Or you wish just to tear things down so you can simply get back at the US, at Iraqi’s cost? How would you address criminality and Shiite terrorism, short of installing a Taliban like or Khomeini like Islamist regime that chops hands off and stones adulteresses? I have a feeling you have no solution.

  • Soldier's Dad says:
    MNF-NW briefing
    Highlights –
    Al Queda foreign fighers average 15-17 years old and poorly trained.
    Mortar attacks in Ninewa have gone from 300 a month to 6 a month
    80% of AlQueda in Ninewa province now decimated.
    6-8 Months before Iraqi forces ready to take primary lead in Ninewa, already primary lead in portions

  • hamidreza says:

    Col. Brown on Mosul
    And then we have the population, I think is the most significant change I’ve seen over the last 11 months, from a population clearly on the fence, not sure — they want freedom, but they weren’t really sure what freedom was, and they were clearly intimidated, to a population that clearly understands they want freedom; they are absolutely sick and tired of the terrorists, the brutal acts against innocent civilians, and they want a brighter future for their children. And we’ve got a lot of statistics to back that up. Like when we first got here in October, there was — no hotline existed. We opened a hotline; we got about 40 calls a month prior to January. The last six months, we’re up to 400 calls a month. Every day the citizens are stopping us on the street telling us where a potential suspicious individual is who may be a terrorist, and telling us where they tried to plant IEDs and those type of devices. So the population is clearly very confident.

  • Robert M says:

    This morning both the local papers, the 24 cable networks and the all others barraged the American public w/ coverage of the multiple suicide bombers in Baghdad. Most commented about al-Queda’s fatwah on Shites and that the bombings were a response to the pressure being put upon them in the border areas(Tal Afar, et al). We know this result was predictable because the reporters by choice or military policy(Michael Yon and mil bloggerscan not be the only exception) are no longer embedded in military units. Why is this? I am looking for policy answers along the lines of: Is the embed program closed(Is this not rather short sighted when you are trying to explain your policies and their results (please no responses that the MSM is Liberal Fox News is not; GE owns NBC and the people whom run it are conservatives). Is it open and no reporters are taking advantage of it?

  • Kerry says:

    Have the Iraqi security forces ever killed 30-40 at a time prior to Tal Afar? That certainly must give those Iraqi soldiers a huge morale and confidence boost. An estimate of the numbers of other Iraqi forces with similar successes and surges of confidence might give a snapshot of how may Iraqis, in raw numbers, are so boosted. And some sense of to which organizations/outfits they belong might give other snapshots. Yes, no, maybe…?

  • Bill Roggio says:

    You want to get out while we are currently fighting al Qaeda in Iraq. This is what is wrong with your desire to withdraw. Do you expect us to cede the battlefield to al Qaeda and hand them a victory they cannot obtain without our departure?
    The problem is you do not recognize or fail to understand that Iraq is indeed the main from in the War on Terror. al Qaeda is committing a large part of their resources in Iraq to prevent the establishment of democracy in the heart of their lands. They fear this most of all, as Zarqawi, bin Laden and Zawahiri have openly stated.
    We are killing them en masse, and should continue to do so. We are working to establish a government that will fight terrorism, and should continue to do so.

  • GJ says:

    Bill, some people are just simple minded. They cannot realize ‘strategic thinking’. After Afghanistan the most logical step Was Iraq. This ‘War on Terrorism’ isn’t Just about bin Laden. It’s about fighting a ‘Crusade of Islam’. All one has to do is read the writings of those of the Muslim Brotherhood and you can see what we’re up against. This won’t be some quick operation to root out Those who attacked us alone. If we Don’t continue there will be some time in the future when we all will be bowing down to Allah.


Islamic state



Al shabaab

Boko Haram