By Wesley Morgan, who is currently embedded in Iraq. Wes writes for The Daily Princetonian and was invited to embed in Iraq by Gen. David Petraeus. Continue following Wes Morgan through Haifa Street with the Lt. Col. Jeffrey Peterson’s 1-14 Cavalry as he observes US soldiers, interpreters, and Iraqi Army jundis.
In the morning (Wednesday, August 8), I geared up before first light. We were supposed to roll back to the forward operating base around 0600, but there was a delay: The cameras positioned on the perimeter of the outpost showed very few pilgrims. Apparently the holiday hadn’t really started yet – the marchers last night had been Shia from southern Iraq who had arrived early. “Nobody knows when this damn holiday actually starts,” Peterson told me in frustration – the terps, apparently both Sunnis, had no idea either.
There was further confusion over a vehicle curfew that was supposed to coincide with the holiday; the Iraqi Army’s jundis were enforcing it already, but the Maliki government had declared that it would begin in the evening. In the meantime, I sat around and talked with some of the soldiers from Peterson’s security squad over Cocoa Puffs.
Finally, the colonel appeared again and gave the order to mount up. We threw on our armor, walked beyond the sandbags and concrete Jersey barriers to the Strykers, piled in, and were on our way. Because of the delay, we didn’t have time to do another foot patrol, so the three Strykers just did a driving tour of the area of operations, with the colonel pointing out different areas and explaining their demographics to me, and returned to the FOB, just in time for a scheduled meeting with three officers from the Taji Counterinsurgency Academy.
A visit from the Counterinsurgency Academy
The Counterinsurgency Academy is a small institution whose mission is to help prepare arriving commanders to take over their areas without going through too disastrous of a transition period. The staff is made up of the best captains, majors, and colonels around, the ones who are most “switched on” to counterinsurgency doctrine and tasks; some are American while others are British and Australian.
The little delegation that had arrived at Union III as part of a mission to brief the unit replacing 1-14, 4-2 Cav, was made up of a Capt. Bryant from the US First Army, a Lt. Col. Horvath from Special Forces and MNF-I, and a Capt. Trenfield from the Australian Army. For a good two hours, they discussed the area of operations with Peterson and his officers. Peterson conveyed a few main points to them besides the basic tactical picture that he thought the next unit needed to be apprised of before arriving.
First, “There does not seem to be a strategic answer to what to do about the Jaish a-Mahdi except to partner with them, which is exactly what happens when we partner with the Iraqi Police.” Second, “It will take 90 days before they fully understand the area and have gained the trust of the population, so in the meantime they absolutely must exercise tactical patience and limit their raids.” Third, “Soft cordon and knock operations invariably provide better results than hard cordon and searches.”
Peterson also told the academy officers the names of a couple of books that he said commanders should be required to read before taking over a Shiite area of operations (the main ones were Col. T. X. Hammes’ The Sling and the Stone, about the new generation of insurgencies, and The Closed Circle, about the mafia, which the colonel said had helped him understand the Mahdi Army’s operations).
To me, the most significant part of the discussion was the squadron officers’ severe criticism of the COP strategy: 1-14 is in many ways the ultimate Army counterinsurgency unit, and to hear how frustrated they were by the requirements of the COP was fascinating. At its core, it seemed like a struggle over force protection: Classical counterinsurgency doctrine calls for outposts that are lightly protected and in the midst of the population to gain the people’s trust, but even in 1-14’s area, US commanders simply are not comfortable putting their soldiers at that kind of risk and have heavily bulked up the defenses of their COPs, including Remagen.
I couldn’t help but think that even with this squadron, the American need for force protection and low casualties had developed into mission creep away from the basic tenets of the combat outpost strategy. I don’t know if there’s an answer to that, and the Counterinsurgency Academy officers didn’t seem to know either. Finally, and more than a bit discouragingly, Peterson closed the discussion of his unit’s extremely successful operations with this observation: “In some ways our operations are buying time, but I’m not sure what we’re buying time for.” In my view, that’s a spot-on analysis not just of Haifa Street but of the war: Our huge 20-brigade force is buying time in terms of security, but with Mahdi Army influence greater than ever and the Maliki government’s apparently stagnant, what is it buying time for?
Back on Haifa Street
Around midday, I accompanied the colonel on another patrol to the same area as the night before. This time the goal was to show the area to a British major general, the MNF-I officer in charge of reconciliation with former insurgent groups, and a brigadier general from MND-B; so from FOB Union III we drove first to FOB Prosperity, a huge Saddam-era palace that was now the headquarters of 2nd BCT, 1st Cav, the brigade that controls 1-14, to pick the generals and their security details up. We waited around at Prosperity for half an hour or so for the general to show up, and during the delay I got to talk to Peterson’s soldiers some more. They seemed to like me by now, which I found a little surprising – after all, they were cav troopers with a year or more of combat experience, and I was an Ivy League writer-cadet, callsign Harry Potter, who was younger than any of them. (One favorite topic of discussion was Monopoly, which the squad played every night, with a twist in the rules – in their version of the game, every player could, once during the game, detonate a VBIED, or car bomb, destroying all the hotels on whatever property they had landed on.)
This time, to fit everyone, we needed four Strykers, but other than that the mission started out the same as the previous night. Once we got on the ground, though, things became different fast. There were two intelligence updates out about the Seventh Imam march, a) that al Qaeda might have plans to poison the water being distributed to the pilgrims, and b) that the tents serving refreshments were potentially the targets of suicide bombers wearing explosive vests.
At Prosperity, Peterson had briefed the squad not to drink any water that was offered to us and, more importantly, to stay away from the refreshments tents and be on the lookout for men with the characteristics of a suicide bomber (immaculately clean robes, unusual bulk, being clean-shaven, looking high, etc.), but as soon as we hit the ground both generals gravitated immediately toward the refreshment tents, brushing off the security troops’ objections.
“Take note, young Jedi,” one sergeant said to me as the colonel and generals and their staffs crowded into a tent full of black-clad Shia and Iraqi commandos in bizarre camouflage, “this is what we call a complete cluster—-.” Had there been just one sniper in a nearby building, let alone the suicide bomber intel had warned about, the generals’ entourage would have been a mouth-watering target, especially since the clustered officers stayed locked in conversation with the same group of Iraqis for a good 20 minutes.
Luckily nothing untoward happened, and to the soldiers’ relief, we finally started walking again to the south, a huge, dense gaggle of American, British, and Iraqi officers and the riflemen protecting them. When the Strykers finally arrived and the visitors climbed back aboard, the 1-14 soldiers’ relief was palpable. “Well,” Peterson said over the intercom once we were all back aboard, “that didn’t go quite as expected.”
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