By Lt. Col. John Valledor, Commander, 2nd Bn., 14th Inf. Reg't., 2nd BCT
A bright March moon provides near-perfect ambient light for the scout platoon about to launch on the waterborne raid of a lifetime. Each is crouched in low silhouette, embarked into four black rubber Zodiac boats on the eastern bank of Iraq’s Euphrates River.
For more than 45 minutes, the infantrymen of 2nd Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division wait in ghostly silence for the go-ahead call to commence their covert infiltration of Owesat Village on the far bank. All are fully aware that compromising their vulnerable position will make them easy prey for attacks by insurgents known to inhabit the village.
The impoverished tribal village sits on the opposite bank of the Euphrates, literally in the shadow of the large partially-constructed Russian Thermal Power Plant. Until recently, this power plant served as a sanctuary and rest stop for Al Qaeda terrorists funneling foreign fighters and material – a waypoint before the trip through the rat-lines into the heart of Iraq. There they will launch merciless attacks against the unsuspecting to gain headlines that fuel the division of American support for the war.
In late October, Soldiers of Task Force 2-14 forcefully expelled the former Abu Musab Al Zarqawi-inspired Sunni jihadists who represented the terrorist group Mujahidin Shura Council in a bold nighttime raid. Coalition forces then converted the large abandoned plant into a forward patrol base for a combined force of two U.S. and Iraqi army rifle companies. Since then, local insurgents sought refuge across the river, knowing that the combined Iraqi and U.S. forces living in the plant would be hard-put to cross its bridgeless banks, separated by 250 yards of deep, swift and muddy water.
Radical Islamists operating from across this seemingly impassable river obstacle continued their slow, grinding campaign of attrition warfare, aimed at wearing down coalition and Iraqi security forces, through incessant use of improvised explosive devices, IEDs, and sporadic mortar and Katyusha rocket attacks.
Alpha Company, living within the plant’s massive, concrete and rebar wire-lined infrastructure, has been dealing with these daily attacks, carefully expanding their local network of informants, waiting patiently for their moment to strike back.
The Zodiac boats, standing only inches above the river’s surface and straining with Soldiers laden with weapons and body armor, began their long trip upstream powered by quiet outboard motors. Fifty minutes into the journey, the platoon sergeant shut off the boat’s engines, silently drifting the shadowy serial of watercraft downstream to the clandestine landing area. From there, they began their combat foot patrol into the thick, knee-deep, muddy fields underneath date palm groves lining the riverbank as a screening force for Alpha Company, staging back at the plant.
The U.S. and Iraqi force of over 60 Soldiers await their comrades’ subsequent air assault into the heart of Owesat Village.
Hours later, two U.S. Army Blackhawk helicopters from a 1st Cavalry Division assault aviation battalion broke the nighttime silence and began a series of landings and take-offs from a pre-marked pick-up zone within the immense power plant compound.
They inserted the coalition forces and the mission-tailored combat enablers into two separate landing zones in Owesat Village.
Meanwhile, directly overhead, in the moonlit night, a joint force of Apache attack helicopters, U.S. Air Force fighter jets and unmanned aircraft systems provided the young company commander leading this combined raid with responsive thermal-vision-enabled, precision joint fires and early warning.
Landing in the middle of the night, the company commander began his targeted house-by-house search of over 30 Iraqi homes suspected of being bed-down sites for radical Islamists. Within each home, his night-vision-equipped Soldiers and partnered Iraqi Army Soldiers – jundis - gathered 50 suspected military-aged Iraqi males startled out of their slumber and moved them to a tactical holding area. They spent the next 26 hours systematically searching each house for Al Qaeda and other insurgent contraband and questioning the suspects for information of military value.
By midday, this force uncovered three hidden insurgent weapons caches containing an assortment of Soviet-era weapons, including Kalashnikov rifles and machine guns, rocket propelled grenade launchers, hand grenades, ammunition and IED components.
Tactical questioning by embedded interrogators and interpreters—terps - led the Soldiers and jundis to an inconspicuous auto garage containing several vehicles in various states of disassembly.
The vehicles’ altered registration denoted their intended purpose to the Iraqi jundis searching them. These altered vehicles, stolen from innocent Iraqis, revealed an insurgent-owned IED factory, part of a long-established terror assembly line connecting this farmstead as a waypoint in the Fallujah terror corridor. It is in Fallujah where final assembly occurs, converting the vehicles into third-world cruise missiles that are passed off to foreign fighters for deadly suicide attacks in Baghdad’s crowded markets.
Night returned to envelope Owesat Village as Alpha Company’s Soldiers began their concealed withdrawal back to their base in the plant. This time, a pair of Blackhawk helicopters lifted the scout screening force on the outskirts of the village into the air and back to the plant. Simultaneously, the company’s foot Soldiers shuttled with detainees in tow across the Euphrates on the same Zodiacs for a quicker return to base. Although similar means are used to withdraw the force, reversing the sequence of extraction served to confuse local insurgents suspected of closely scrutinizing the entire operation for coalition patterns.
What makes this operation stand out from the rest is that it was completely conceived from the bottom up. The lead planner was a young company commander in his mid-twenties on his second combat tour in Iraq. Unique is the fact that he assumed command of the rifle company while in theater, without having previously completed the Infantry Captain’s Career Course. Normally, company grade captains must complete their branch-specific education as part of their formal military progression.
Alpha Company learned that winning against the insurgents in Iraq’s ungoverned tribal lands requires patience, perseverance and skillful adaptation. In this case, the commander meticulously built a network of trusted local informants, each providing vital pieces of human intelligence, enabling the development of a complex information mosaic detailing the hierarchy of local direct action terror cells.
As he analyzed the patterns set by local insurgents as well as those set by his own unit, he realized that the enemy would recognize that a sizable coalition force could not mount a river crossing operation without telegraphing their intentions to local lookouts, compromising any chance of surprise. The commander chose a combined riverine and air assault operation expecting the enemy to react to one of the two methods of insertion but not both simultaneously. Local Sunni insurgents had not seen this innovative coalition attack method used previously and thus had not learned to counter it. The commander was able to employ a combination of conventional tactics in an unconventional manner to defeat an equally adaptive opponent.
Our Soldiers face a cunning and ruthless enemy that is constantly changing its tactics in order to survive. We, in turn, must assume a mindset of continual innovation if we are to win against this dynamic insurgency. Every company grade officer leading Soldiers in Iraq must adapt or die in this merciless environment. This war is truly all about survival of the fittest.
This exceptional operation consisted of difficult moving parts including two waterborne operations and night air assaults. In the months leading up to this deployment, this battalion never trained on either of these two intricate collective tasks. Again, the fact that this unique operation was completed in combat, at night, partnered with indigenous forces, and along Iraq’s complex and extensive network of waterways, canals, and irrigation ditches speaks volumes to the agility and versatility of our Soldiers as well as the extreme competency of their combat-tested junior leaders.
Success in Iraq’s counterinsurgency fight demands innovation and adaptation at the lowest level possible, by the very Soldiers involved in day-in and day-out contact with the insurgents. The sobering reality is that Iraq’s military component of the grand counterinsurgency strategy will be won or lost at company level by America’s new “greatest generation.”
Sunday, April 22, 2007
By Lt. Col. John Valledor, Commander, 2nd Bn., 14th Inf. Reg't., 2nd BCT