Touring with Gen. Petraeus

After the battlefield circulation briefing, Attorney General Gonzales quizzed Gen. Petraeus for awhile on what the Justice Department could be doing to help the war effort, and then the general, his staff, and I armored up, went back to the Black Hawks, and took off and suddenly as we’d appeared for the briefing. On the helicopter, I sat across from Sadi Othman, Petraeus’ towering interpreter and “cultural advisor,” who it turns out is friends with Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih and had heard about me beforehand (he didn’t say what exactly he’d heard). The birds flew north across the villages and arid farmland northwest of Baghdad, and touched down on the tarmac of Camp Taji, a huge Forward Operating Base that is the headquarters for three brigades: 1st BCT, 1st Cavalry northwest of the city; 2nd BCT, 82nd Airborne in Adhamiya; and 4th SBCT, 2nd ID east of Taji and west of Baqubah the Stryker brigade we would be visiting.

Inside a building next to the landing zone, the general’s first order of business was lunch with a group of soldiers from 4-9 Infantry, one of the brigade’s battalions, which I was allowed to sit in on. The battalion leadership, including some company commanders – one of whom had been wounded and was about to go home for surgery – and first sergeants, and after giving them a brief rundown of the situation in Iraq from his perspective, Petraeus went around the table and asked each of them for the most important lesson they’d learned since arriving in Iraq and what their plans were for their next assignment. As they answered, the general listened and then gave feedback; when one captain said that his main lesson learned was that “the counterinsurgency tactics everyone talks about really do work,” he seemed gratified, and talked for a while about the mix of kinetic and non-kinetic tactics.

“A lot of people think of me as Mr. Non-Kinetic,” Petraeus said, “and that’s not true. When force is necessary you are absolutely right to use it. We go into Sadr City and take down irreconcilables with force, and when you see a guy laying an IED, you are not just justified but correct in taking him out. We are not going to kill our way out of this thing, but, that said, there are irreconcilables who need to be killed or taken in.”

As for their post-deployment plans, all three first sergeants said they were waiting on the upcoming sergeant majors list for possible promotion, while the captains had a variety of different answers: one hoped to go straight to another combat unit, but others, with a little trepidation, said that they were hoping to go to grad school or to teach ROTC at their alma mater. Petraeus did not blink and he did not try to talk them out of the noncombat assignments, as they were clearly expecting he would. Instead, he talked about how critical he’d found his time at Princeton, had me pipe up about the value of experienced leaders as ROTC instructors (I do wish we had a captain or two), and reassured them that “It’s okay to take a knee for a couple years after you’ve done two deployments. Which isn’t to say that grad school or ROTC aren’t hard assignments – you’ll be working, and I’ll tell you, there were times at Princeton when I thought, why on earth am I putting myself through this when I could have gone to the Ranger Regiment?” That got a couple of laughs.

Next up was a briefing on the area of operations by Col. Jon Lehr, the commander of 4th SBCT, 2nd ID, and his staff officers. Again, it was for background only, but there were other media at this one. The brigade deployed from Fort Lewis to Iraq in April with four maneuver battalions: 2-1 Cavalry, and 4-9, 2-23, and 1-38 Infantry (also a field artillery battalion, the 2-12). Upon arrival in Iraq, 2-23 and 1-38 were peeled off and sent into east Rashid, in Baghdad, as reinforcements, while 2-1 and 4-9, along with the brigade headquarters, went to Camp Taji, the main Forward Operating Base north of Baghdad, and were put under the operational control of Maj. Gen. Mixon and MND-North. During Operation Arrowhead Ripper, 2-1 Cavalry (a unit identical to 1-14, who I was with on Haifa Street) supported the Stryker units clearing Baqubah ith an air assault and blocking positions, but is now back in its main sector.

The area of operations, Col. Lehr explained, is split into three parts: the west bank of the Tigris around Tarmiyah, under 4-9, the east bank out to Bani Saad, under 2-1, and a southern sector bordering Baghdad around Husseiniyah, under 2-12 Field Artillery (2-1 and 4-9 are Stryker units but 2-12 is not). Since 4th SBCT is one the “surge” brigades, its AO was never patrolled in any kind of strength before, allowing al Qaeda to settle in pretty thoroughly in some villages. In oversimplified form, the situation in the area of operation is this: 2-1 deals with the southern edges of the Baqubah roblem, including both Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias; 4-9 is in a Sunni area that has been infested by al Qaeda since Operation Fardh al-Qanun this past winter and spring, and to which many al Qaeda fighters and leaders fled from Baqubah and 2-12 has a mostly Shiite area, particularly on the east bank and in the town of Husseiniyah, a town that was recently a flashpoint of Mahdi Army resistance to US and Iraqi troops.

Throughout, Petraeus asked the briefing officers questions and tried to explain how their operations fit into the greater Multinational Forces Iraq context. During the buildup to Arrowhead Ripper and Phantom Thunder, Tarmiyah was a major site of activity for our special operations forces as they worked on rolling up al Qaeda leadership, and my impression was that SOF were still active there; the briefing bore that out.

The entire brigade sector, but particularly 4-9’s area, is pretty rough, with tons of IEDs and even firefights between US and enemy forces – 4th SBCT is the first unit to be equipped with the newest model of the Stryker, which has a turret-mounted 105mm gun (the caliber of a small howitzer), and Col. Lehr said, to my surprise and Petraeus’ apparent satisfaction, that they’d actually used it several times, once bringing one in to shoot a patrol out of a firefight. “That’s fine,” the general told him, “this is a pretty rough AO [Area of Operation], and my impression is that you’re mostly still in that first stage, actually clearing the enemy out.” There are Iranian-made explosively formed penetrators in the area as well, in both Sunni and Shiite hands; the brigade intelligence officer brought a defused one out to be passed around. Particularly since it’s a brigade that isn’t well covered in the news and a newly established AO whose borders and demographics I wasn’t clear on, the briefing was both interesting and extremely useful.

After the brigade briefing, Gen. Petraeus stepped into the hall to give his coins to a group of exceptional soldiers from the unit. Getting a commander’s coin, especially a general’s coin, is quite an honor, but different and less formal than, say, medals and commendations; some soldiers try to collect as many coins as they can over the course of their careers. I’ve heard that the coin tradition was started by the Lafayette Escadrille, the squadron of Ivy League volunteers who flew for the French during World War I, but I suspect it has roots farther back than that – to get the coin, the commander passes it from your hand to his during a handshake, and I know that in the 1700s the British Army used a coin-inside-of-a-handshake move as a recruiting tactic. I don’t honestly know. Probably twenty soldiers were lined up, standing at attention in two rows, to shake Petraeus’ hand and receive his coin after the reading of a citation, with another forty or fifty gathered around to watch and applaud.

Joint security station: 2-12 Field Artillery

As soon as the ceremony was over and all the soldiers had their coins, the entire party moved quickly back to the tarmac and onto the helicopters for the ride to the first of two joint security stations, or JSSs, that Petraeus would be visiting today. This one was located in the south of the brigade’s AO, not far from the Shiite town of Husseiniyah, and belonged to the 2-12 Field Artillery, which, like many artillery units in Iraq, is effectively serving as a provisional Humvee-borne infantry unit. The JSS idea complements the combat outpost, or COP, idea: the main difference is supposed to be that JSSs are larger-scale and, most importantly, house both US and Iraqi troops. In reality, JSSs, COPs, and patrol bases sometimes blend out in the field based on the requirements of the specific area. In Arab Jabour, where Iraqi forces had minimal offensive capabilities, it seemed that patrol bases fit the bill perfectly; while on Haifa Street, a small, densely populated AO located very close to the squadron’s headquarters on the Forward Operating Base and an unknown proportion of the local Iraqi forces were loyal to the Mahdi Army, a JSS simply would not have worked and even the COP seemed less than ideal. Out in 4th SBCT, 2nd ID’s sector, though, I got the sense that the JSSs were working very well indeed: The AO is large enough that smaller bases are absolutely necessary for serious patrolling and that there are suitably secure sites to use, and the Iraqi Police capability is good enough that housing them with Stryker soldiers at the company and even platoon levels is practical.

Before actually landing at the JSS, we viewed the surrounding area – 2-12’s battalion AO – from above, with Col. Lehr and 2-12’s commander, Lt. Col. John Drago, acting as aerial tour guides, answering Petraeus’ questions about demographics, patrol frequency, and everything else. From the air, with Apache attack helicopters providing overwatch, we could see wide, open terrain, with villages here and there, a large power station, two respectably sized towns, including Husseiniyah, and roads crisscrossing the countryside with Humvees and local traffic moving along them. One large compound was clearly the JSS – it was rigged with radio antennae and surrounded by Humvees and other military vehicles, including a few Strykers that the colonel had brought out from Taji.

In the courtyard of the JSS, where probably a platoon’s worth of soldiers were milling around, Petraeus stopped me and said, “When you write about what you’ve seen here, do not try to paint a rosy picture, and when you write about me, you need to convey that I have an extremely cautious outlook about the situation. I am cautious about it, not just optimistic or pessimistic.”

After handing down that bit of guidance, Petraeus was escorted into the main building of the JSS by a couple of US soldiers and Iraqi jundis. Inside, Drago and the Iraqi Army commander gave Petraeus a tour of the compound and a rundown of their current and upcoming operations; Sadi Othman was on hand to translate. While the general moved through the station, asking questions of different officers, a crowd of US and Iraqi soldiers gathered in the hallway, fascinated by the four-star visit.

Eventually Petraeus appeared again in the JSS courtyard, where 20 or so 2-12 soldiers had assembled in two rows – another coin ceremony like the one at Taji. Afterward, he called for all the media to gather around him for a question-and-answer session. The network news reporter dominated, asking elaborate questions with obvious answers that were clearly geared for the camera, and although the general didn’t seem to mind, he made sure that the two print reporters present were able to ask questions as well. In his answers, which seemed pretty candid to me, Petraeus recapped in a general way the points he’d made to the attorney general earlier in the day, but with a particular emphasis on 4th SBCT’s AO that was clearly informed by the brigade and battalion briefings. “In this particular area,” he said, “we’re dealing not only with the sectarian issue but with the aftermath of a long period of very little US presence, as much as two years. And it’s a crucial area; the sectarian fault lines of the whole country run through it.” When Col. Boylan signaled that time was up, everyone armored up in under a minute and exited the courtyard just as the two Black Hawks returned overhead and descended onto the road.

Joint security station: 4-9 Infantry

With the Apaches circling overhead like big black wasps (Kiowas are more like mosquitoes), the Black Hawks pushed north into 4-9 Infantry’s AO, with Col. Lehr still playing the role of aerial tour guide. Eventually the bird banked around toward a wide, semipaved road where two Strykers were parked, turret guns out – MSR Tampa, our rough landing zone. As the helicopter touched down, the crew chief pushed the side doors open and everyone piled out and, as soon as the bird had lifted off again and I could move without fear of the rotors, ran over to the two Strykers in the road. Used to Strykers by now, I climbed in with Col. Lehr and a couple of others and crawled to the front of the vehicle; Petraeus took the right-rear hatch (my spot in 1-14’s Strykers) with one of the M240 machine guns. It was a quick ride, and a few minutes later the ramp lowered and we jumped out at the perimeter of another building compound that served as a JSS, maybe a farm at some previous point. This station near Tarmiyah, which housed an infantry platoon from 4-9 and some number of Iraqi Police (the Iraqi Army didn’t have a good unit out in this area), was much more rugged than the last. Inside, soldiers and policemen crowded around, all in full armor and gear, as we climbed the staircase to the roof.

My first thought up there was that it looked like a movie set from “Saving Private Ryan” or “Apocalypse Now” – the parapet and corner bunkers, stacked high with sandbags, bristled with weaponry, from Mk-19 automatic grenade launchers and gigantic .50 caliber machine guns to M240s and M4s. An enormous .50 caliber sniper rifle leaned against one sandbagged wall, and the roof itself was littered with 5.56mm, 7.62mm, and .50 cal casings, the latter longer and wider than a finger. At all four watch posts, infantrymen manned the machine guns, vigilantly looking out over the countryside. I asked one soldier if they’d actually had to use all this weaponry to fend off enemy attacks; he said yes.

Petraeus, meanwhile, walked the perimeter of the roof with Col. Lehr in tow, talking to soldiers and looking out from each firing point. At one point he stopped and asked a soldier to show him the little eyepiece attached to his helmet – the eyepiece provided a visual display of satellite imagery with icons showing the exact, GPS-provided locations of US personnel. This futuristic system, which runs out of a tiny computer attached to the armor like a CamelBak, is called Land Warrior, and 4-9 is the first battalion in the Army to be equipped with it. From what I’d read, I was skeptical about Land Warrior – it seemed to me that any computerized system so complex would not last long when issued to every soldier out in the field. But the 4-9 soldiers, who are in one of the toughest areas of Iraq, said that it was working quite well, with fewer and fewer maintenance issues as the tour progressed. I’ll be interested to hear the battalion’s assessment at the end of the deployment, a little less than a year from now (they arrived in Iraq in April), but it sounded promising.

Back inside the main building (where it felt less like you were standing inside of a hairdryer), Petraeus talked to some of the Iraqi Police officers and then moved into the courtyard to give out coins to another row of soldiers. One sergeant, when he saw the general coming, hurriedly moved a very loud puppy back inside so it wouldn’t get in the way; after the coins had been passed out, we returned to the Strykers at the JSS entryway, climbed in, and rode back to the stretch of road that served as a landing zone. On the way, Col. Lehr gave me some good insights into how his units have adapted in theater: how 4-9 is using Land Warrior, how the artillery battalion is adapting to patrols, what it’s like to have two battalions detached, and most interestingly, how one company of 4-9 is developing some very novel air-ground coordination tactics to improve reaction time against insurgents – really fascinating stuff. As we dismounted the Strykers, the two Black Hawks appeared and descended onto the road.

Back to the IZ

On the flight back from Col. Lehr’s AO, Gen. Petraeus invited me to come back to the command group’s office at the embassy, much to the confusion of the warrant officer in charge of his security and transport. From the IZ landing zone, we drove to the embassy in a couple of SUVs; then the whole party, with Petraeus at the head as usual, moved on to the Multinational Forces Iraq offices. The general and his command group have a suite of offices adjoining Ambassador Ryan Crocker’s, to facilitate cooperation between the military and State Department sides of the operation. The whole “brain trust,” as the Washington Post calls the upper tier of the command group – or the “designated thinkers,” as Petraeus calls them – have desks in the military portion of the office suite (although most of them, like Petraeus, actually live and have their primary offices at Cap Victory): Col. Pete Mansoor, Col. Bill Rapp, Col. Mike Meese, the aide-de-camp Maj. Everett Spain, and others.

My final event of the day before leaving the embassy was unexpected – Gen. Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker were briefing a delegation of three Congressmen, and they permitted me, along with a few journalists (including Brian Bennett of Time magazine, Princeton class of 2000) and aides, to sit in. One of the three representatives, Texas Democrat Ralph Hill, appeared absolutely ancient, and mostly remained quiet except to tell Petraeus that he considered him “the hope of two nations, America and Iraq,” to which the general gave his stock response: “It’s a heavy rucksack, but I’ve got 160,000 troops to help me carry it.” Another, Washington Democrat Brian Bird, stunned me with his knowledge of the situation in Iraq, reasonable perspective on the surge and Iraqi political process, and above all his suggestions for Petraeus’ September visit to DC and how he could make sure that the American people understand the message of his report. Finally, Ambassador Crocker closed the discussion with an incredibly detailed analysis of Iraqi parliamentary politics and the motives and intentions of Maliki. We don’t hear as much about him as about Petraeus (although they seem to get along, and do PT together), but Crocker deserves the same amount of respect; together, the general and the ambassador seem, for the first time in this war, to have both the military and the political sides well in hand and closely integrated.

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6 Comments

  • Del Simmons says:

    Wes, although I know you probably won’t get a chance to read this anytime soon, I just had to thank you for the wonderful work you’re doing. An extremely informative and interesting dispatch, as usual. Please keep up the great work!

  • Eric W, Texas says:

    This may be the first set of articles that I’ve read that links together the various aspects of the war from the very top to the very bottom, whereas most writers only have the opportunity to write only about the brigade, battalion, or other levels of the war at one time. This report is definitely a gem: Excellent work Wes!

  • anand says:

    Wes, your post was very comprehensive, detailed and informative. Thanks.
    Can you share anything about the quality of IA you encountered or heard about without violating OPSEC? Since you were in Taji, is there anything you can share about 4th and 9th IAD, after clearing it with the right channels? I understand that you probably cannot talk much about ongoing ops that they are involved in, as well as many specific metrics about performance.

  • Soldier's Dad says:

    Wes,
    You’re getting like 16 credits from Princeton for this right??? or a Masters Degree from the Columbia J-School? Goood stuff.

  • David M says:

    Trackbacked by The Thunder Run – Web Reconnaissance for 08/20/2007
    A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention, updated throughout the day…so check back often.

  • AMac says:

    Here is an 8/24/07 essay by “Neo-Neocon” commenting on the Seattle Times Op-Ed that the above-mentioned Rep. Brian Baird (not Bird)(D-WA) wrote on his return to the U.S. Wes Morgan, your positive perceptions of Baird seem to be shared by others.

Iraq

Islamic state

Syria

Aqap

Al shabaab

Boko Haram

Isis