For my last embed, I went back to the unit I’d visited with Gen. Petraeus: Col. Jon Lehr’s 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, based at Camp Taji, north of Baghdad. After waiting around at the landing zone for a couple of hours, the sergeant coordinating the flights finally barked out that the First Team Express — the Black Hawk shuttle that circulates to the various Forward Operating Bases of the 1st Cavalry Division — was arriving, and as a pair of birds descended onto the tarmac the other passengers and I filed out to board them.
Two soldiers, three female KBR workers, and I climbed into one helicopter, and a moment later came the familiar feeling of liftoff as the wheels left the ground. I had a good seat on this ride: the rear left one, which doesn’t have too much wind (in the rear right, for some reason, the rotorwash is so strong that it squashes your glasses back across your face and can easily take your helmet off if it’s not buckled) and from which you can see ahead along the flight path. I love night flights, and from this seat it was even better – all I could see out the door, all the way to the horizon, was the twinkling white lights of Baghdad, so beautiful and at odds with the scorching, chaotic reality down below, and the lines of little orange lights that marked the perimeters of US bases. One strange but comforting thing about Black Hawks is that when they’re blacked out and flying at night, you can hear the roar of their rotors, obviously, but you genuinely cannot see them from the ground; they appear suddenly out of complete blackness, making night flights basically safe from insurgent fire. Fifteen or 20 minutes later the birds landed at Taji.
The area of operations
A public affairs officer named Maj. Garcia picked me up at the airfield and drove me over to the headquarters of 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team. This Forward Operating Base was nothing like Union III or Prosperity, the little camps on the northern edge of the International Zone. Camp Taji is massive, probably a similar area to the Victory-Liberty complex, but unlike Victory the troops are spread out into a few smaller camps within the wire, called “brigade footprints.” A former Iraqi Air Force base, Taji is home to three combat brigades, including two of the five surge brigades, and an aviation brigade: 1st Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry, which is responsible for the area immediately northwest of Baghdad from Taji down to Abu Ghraib; 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne, responsible for Adhamiya and parts of Sadr City; 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, responsible for the area northeast of Taji; and 1st Air Cavalry Brigade, the combat aviation brigade responsible for providing air support to units in Baghdad. Except for 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, all of those units fall under Maj. Gen. Fil’s 1st Cavalry Division, or Multinational Division Baghdad; 4th Stryker Brigade Combat Team, although based with them, is part of Maj. Gen. Mixon’s 25th Infantry Division, or Multinational Division North.
Before showing me to my tent, Maj. Garcia gave me a quick brief on the area of operations that I was going to visit — I’d gotten a thorough briefing on the whole brigade’s area of operations when I visited with Gen. Petraeus, but this one focused on the 4-9 Infantry, the battalion I was going to roll out with. Just to revisit the brigade level, though: Col. Lehr’s brigade is based at Taji and has responsibility for an area that bridges the gap between the inner Baghdad Belts and the outer part around Baquba. Within the brigade area of operations, the three battalions each have their own area of operations: one for the 4-9 Infantry, one for the 2-1 Cavalry, and one for the 2-12 Field Artillery. Lt. Col. John Drago’s 2-12, which trained as a field artillery battalion but is now filling a Humvee-mounted infantry role, has the southern portion of the brigade’s sector, around the volatile Shiite town of Husseiniya, just north of the Shaab-Adhamiya part of Baghdad; throughout the battalion’s area, which is overwhelmingly Shiite, rolling back the pervasive influence of the Mahdi Army is the main problem.
Lt. Col. Marshal Dougherty controls the second, eastern area of operations with his reconnaissance squadron, the 2-1 Cavalry; al Qaeda remnants either fleeing from Baqubah to the south or trying to reinfiltrate northward into it are the issue there. Like the 1-14 Cavalry on Haifa Street, an identical Stryker reconnaissance unit, the 2-1 is a small unit, with just three 90-man troops organic to it. In counterinsurgency operations, this lack of manpower can be a major problem, and requires creative solutions. While the 1-14 traded a cavalry troop for an infantry company with a sister battalion to increase the number of dismounted soldiers, the 2-1 has taken an innovative approach.
The squadron area of operations is large, so to build relationships with the population the troopers need to really be out in the field in multiple locations — but with just three troops, the manpower to permanently garrison multiple combat outposts or joint security stations simply isn’t there. The squadron’s solution has been, as a brigade officer explained it to me, a modified version of the Combined Action Program that the Marines used with great success in Vietnam. Each of the three troops goes out into the field, leases a house in or near a village to use as a COP/JSS, lives there for a few weeks to build a relationship with the village leadership, and then moves on to another village before eventually rotating back.
For security in these vulnerable rural outposts, which really gets at the heart of counterinsurgency doctrine, the 2-1 relies on two things: the support of Apache attack helicopters flying out of Forward Operating Base Warhorse and Camp Taji, and the restrictive nature of the terrain, which has many irrigation canals and dense vegetation that significantly slow the movement of insurgents through the area of operations. By all accounts, the 2-1 is running an extremely successful and original operation.
Finally, Lt. Col. Bill Prior’s 4-9 Infantry is responsible for a swathe of rural Sunni territory running from Taji up north toward Balad. Lt. Col. Prior has by far the most difficult task, for a couple of reasons. First, he has only two Stryker infantry companies, Alpha and Charlie; Bravo is up at Forward Operating Base Warhorse, north of Baqubah, acting as a quick reaction force for Operation Lightning Hammer. Second, the 4-9’s area of operations has really never been patrolled in strength at any point in the war, meaning that parts of it are hardcore Indian country — almost completely controlled by al Qaeda and other Wahhabi insurgents.
Countering this simultaneously throughout the battalion area of operations would require much more than two companies, so the 4-9 has been focusing its efforts on the southern half of the area of operations. When one patrol did venture into the northern half, Maj. Garcia told me, “The people looked at them like they were aliens – they honestly had not laid eyes on US troops in probably years, if ever.” Eventually that northern area of the 4-9’s area of operations will have to be cleaned out in an operation of battalion-plus scale, perhaps an extension of the Arrowhead Ripper-Lightning Hammer offensive that has been pushing al Qaeda north, away from Baqubah
For now, though, the 4-9 is focusing heavily on the town of Tarmiya and the smaller, satellite town of Mushada. Tarmiya has long been an al Qaeda stronghold and a frequent hunting ground of our special operations forces troops, and the twin offensives in Diyala — Arrowhead Ripper in Baqubah and Lightning Hammer in the valley to the north — have pushed more al Qaeda elements, probably including mid-level and senior leadership, into the area. “Tarmiya’s like a mini-Mogadishu,” one officer told me: “Al Qaeda has the run of the place. They just live there, in the houses, armed to the teeth; they don’t really have any incentive to attack us unless we attack them, because the last thing they want is an assault.”
Mushada has been in a similar situation, although not quite as bad, and in both places there is frequent skirmishing between al Qaeda and the patrols that the 4-9 runs out of its pair of JSSs, resulting in a slow but steady stream of casualties for both sides (Tarmiya, one sergeant told me, has a coordinated medevac system for wounded fighters, with prearranged pickup points where casualties are picked up by al Qaeda Red Crescent ambulances or bongo trucks). In one incident last week, Charlie Company of the 4-9, which runs the Tarmiya JSS, took fire from a mosque on the edge of town; in the resulting firefight a soldier was killed and an Apache was eventually called in to take out the al Qaeda fighting position with a Hellfire missile. In the Mushada area, down the road from Tarmiya in Alpha Company’s area, armed fighters aren’t as much of a problem as IEDs are. MSR Tampa, the country’s main north-south highway, runs right through the place, so the stretches of road entering and exiting Mushada are actually the two most heavily bombed roads in all of Iraq. That’s where I was going.
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