Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Maintaining An Uneasy Equilibrium In A Domain of Mistrust

Lt. Col. John Valledor, Commander, 2nd Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment

OWESAT VILLAGE, IRAQ – The world eagerly awaits General David Petraeus’ testimony before Congress this fall that will spell the way ahead for U.S. military involvement in Iraq. At stake is the future of Iraq – balancing delicately on a fulcrum of, among other things, trust.
No single issue in Iraq can be boiled down to absolute black or white. Often, resolution involves vague shades of gray. Such is the case when it comes to securing the Iraqi populace from years of exhausting insurgent attacks. The 2nd Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division has been tackling this complex issue for nearly a year, and has seen stark shifts in strategy with varying degrees of effectiveness.
Nothing has proven to be more promising, albeit controversial, than the recent bands of concerned Iraqi citizenry taking up arms against al-Qaeda within Southwest Baghdad’s ungoverned tribal lands. When it comes to bringing stability in Iraq, can coalition and Iraqi security forces, along with the government of Iraq and the Iraqi populace place their trust on disparate groups of reconcilable Sunni nationalist tribesmen?
For months, we have been aggressively fighting al-Qaeda extremists along Baghdad’s southern belt with relative success. Our counterinsurgency campaign followed a year-long effort by Soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division’s 2nd Brigade Combat Team. They truly were the first, in early 2006, to pioneer the now widely-accepted concept of forward-basing.
Previously, strategy was geared toward commuting to work from forward operating bases, or FOBs in military jargon. Their brutal fight into the Mesopotamian plain resulted in a firmly-rooted hub-and-spoke network of patrol bases midway into the canal laced farmlands of the Euphrates River Valley.
Our Soldiers pushed the line of coalition bases all the way to the banks of the Euphrates, eliminating it as a safe haven for al-Qaeda-inspired Sunni extremists.
In the adjacent province of al-Anbar, early rumors evolved into full-on stories of an “awakening” amongst a bold council of Sunni sheikhs bent on collectively defeating al-Qaeda and forcibly removing them from Iraq.
Over time, experience engaging the populace with patrols on foot led to incremental successes. Our company commanders mastered the art of building trusted source networks, which allowed us to fine tune intelligence-driven targeting that eventually put a dent in the insurgency. But as good as they became, they still could not break through the invisible wall - having first-hand knowledge of how to really know terrorists from civilians.
Last spring, we began to receive repeated reports of attacks along our western boundary between unseen tribal elements. The attacks were taking place along a narrow network of roads which connect Radwaniyah to a village known as Zaidon, on the outskirts of Abu Ghraib. Whenever we pushed forces into the Zaidon-Radwaniyah corridor, villagers told us of intense fighting between al-Qaeda forces and an equally intimidating force, the 1920s Revolutionary Brigade. Formed in 2003, the 1920s Brigade is a homegrown group of Sunni nationalists that reject the democratically-elected government of Iraq and actively employ violence to remove coalition forces from Iraq.
This group often joined forces with al-Qaeda in attacks against coalition forces and gained notoriety for high-profile kidnappings of foreign nationals.
The groups split apart when reports emerged of infighting involving al-Qaeda kidnappings and murders of 1920s Revolutionary Brigade leaders. Given that these Sunni groups were busy fighting each other and not our forces, we decided to monitor their activities rather than interfere - the axiom that ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ was adopted in this area.
It was during this period of infighting that our sister battalion, the 1st Squadron, 89th Cavalry Regiment was approached by representatives of the 1920s Brigade.
A 1-89 patrol was approached by members seeking assistance in their fight against al-Qaeda. The initial reaction, of course, was wariness.
In June, however, almost overnight, a breakthrough occurred. Leaders of the 1920s Revolutionary Brigade continued their attempts to talk to coalition forces, including leaders of Task Force 1-89. What followed was a unique partnership, in which local tribesmen, principally from the Zobai tribe, guided a squadron- level attack into al-Qaeda-infested areas and identified known safe houses, buried improvised explosive devices and suicide-car-bomb factories. The men of the 1920s Brigade even surrounded highly sought-after terror leaders.
The leaders of 1-89 reciprocated, offering small cash rewards for the continued turn over of improvised explosive devises and information leading to the capture of other insurgent cell leaders, a policy applied to any Iraqi offering useful tips.
Within two weeks, an area known as extremely lethal became fully pacified. Once remnants of al-Qaeda were forcefully removed, the tribesmen established a series of crude roadside checkpoints to prevent their return.
Task Force 1-89 worked with the bands of concerned citizens to create a simple force-protection marking system to prevent other coalition forces - including attack aircraft - from firing on them.
More importantly, once the nearby villages were free of al-Qaeda, the ranks of active citizens grew exponentially. Soon the banded residents were not just securing their tribal villages; they gained courage and organic resources, and began to spread their assault against terrorists further to the south and east, deep into the Euphrates River valley.
Their courage in confronting al-Qaeda, while promising not to attack coalition forces, established a wary trust which has been borne out.
Our introduction to this group of concerned citizens – by now far beyond just 1920s Revolutionary Brigades - came by way of a meeting between 2-14, 1-89, and the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment who operate in Fallujah and Abu Ghraib.
The Marines had been working with the citizens for several months, given their geographic proximity to the al-Anbar province’s “awakening.”
Iraq’s tribes do not fit neatly within the confines of politically drawn boundaries, and their expanding effort to rid their villages of al-Qaeda to the edge of the Euphrates overlaps the military boundaries with Task Force 1-89 and 2/7 Marines.
The group’s leader, who I will refer to as Abu Adnan, is a surprisingly unimposing figure. The deeply tanned Sunni in his early 40s is frosted with a mane of grey hair, and maintains a semi-permanent grin. Naturally charismatic, it is easy to see how this figure commands both respect and loyalty. Despite being a leader of an irregular tribal force of concerned local citizens - numbering somewhere in the range of several hundred to a thousand - he chooses to dress like your average Iraqi tribesman. The normality of his appearance is only broken by a circle of shadowy advisors and heavily-armed bodyguards.
Pragmatic in his views of Iraq’s state of affairs, as well as our ability to provide direct support to him, Adnan rejects labels, declaring himself a simple revolutionary seeking to represent the security needs of his fellow tribesmen residing in and around the village of Zaidon.
As he warms up, he reveals fragments of his secretive past. Adnan fondly reminisces of the grand old days of Saddam’s Baath party, and hints at a short-lived 13- year career as a senior-level sergeant in the Iraqi Army and service in the Iran-Iraq war. Most impressive is his memory and geographical awareness; he carries an intricate hand-drawn map of his group’s area of operations, complete with roads, canals and pinpointed locations of al-Qaeda safe houses.
Around him are a handful of armed civilian-attired lieutenants who execute and enforce his orders by a rudimentary network of radios and cell phones. These are the subordinates who maintain daily contact with our Army leaders and a network of concerned-citizen checkpoints.
Eventually, the small talk tapers off to the meeting’s focus - efforts to hunt down and kill al-Qaeda operatives in the areas we share.
Adnan quickly describes his plan of attack on his “pirate’s” map. As I follow along on my topographic map, I nod in agreement; the plan is simple, but tactically sound. All he asks in return is support, consistent with our articulated rules of engagement, in chasing down al-Qaeda insurgents that evade the clutches of his fighters.
We conclude by sharing cell phone numbers between his lieutenants and our interpreter. I leave the strange meeting almost doubting the military capabilities of this Sunni organization – and their well-meaning intentions.
But the days following are nothing short of earth-shattering. The level of attacks against our Soldiers dropped from an average of 16 a day to one. Our company commander’s human intelligence sources began reporting widespread elimination of known terror leaders. IED attacks, the biggest killer of Soldiers in Iraq, stopped cold. The incessant mortar attacks against our partnered Iraqi Army soldiers also stopped.
Patrol leaders began seeing armed local tribesmen with their heads wrapped in red and white checkered scarf’s known as Yashmags and colored friend or foe markings peacefully turning over IED munitions and components to them. At first, the thought of Iraqis dressed like terrorists handing over IEDs was unfathomable – but it seems to be working.
Unspoken was our suspicion that these citizens are so good at finding the elusive IEDs because they plant them; such is the gray world we operate in here.
In a matter of just two short weeks, the concerned local citizens made a tremendous impact, with more progress against al-Qaeda in our part of Iraq than the highly-touted high-tech weapons and sensors brought to bear by the coalition. Moreover, the actions of these citizens inspire other groups around the 2nd BCT’s operational environment to join their ranks, like pools of mercury rolling into one mass. The former 1920s Revolutionary Brigade promptly joined forces with those of Jaish al-Islami Al-Iraq, the Islamic Army of Iraq, yet another Iraqi nationalist extremist group.
The possibilities are frightening, but we must capitalize on the opportunity presented by this initiative. We are employing the latest biometrics technologies to enroll these concerned citizens into a common coalition biographical database. Citizens voluntarily have their picture taken, biographical data cataloged, and their retinas and all 10 fingers scanned. Sharing this database of concerned local citizens with the government of Iraq allows for subsequent vetting and enrollment into the Iraqi Police force or Army. Either way, this biometric enrollment system represents our best effort to date at establishing a census of the local military-aged male population.
Also, our leaders, in partnership with the leaders of the concerned citizen groups, have established a weapons registry database which ties each weapon to a specific person manning checkpoints in and around their villages.
These efforts, although time-consuming, ensure that the group purges known criminals from their ranks and safeguards against future infiltration by rogue al-Qaeda members. We have enrolled over 3,000 of these concerned local citizens into the biometric database and are working through Iraq’s Ministry of the Interior to enable formal follow-on police training and subsequent posting in the very same neighborhoods they voluntarily safeguard.
Everyone - even the concerned citizens – knows that as an informal Sunni militia, outside the government’s rule of law, is unacceptable. Our access to the government of Iraq and technology facilitates the progression from an informal nationalist militia group to a formal, legitimate Iraqi security force. Surprisingly, this is a goal of many of the group leaders – to become legitimate soldiers and police officers once again. In fact, many are emerging as former Iraqi Army leaders disbanded in the months following the invasion.
The other, and larger, challenge is gaining acceptance by Iraqi Army forces we are partnered with. In their eyes, these groups are nothing more than current and former terrorists banded into a homogeneous Sunni militia. Iraqi Army forces in the 2nd BCT’s area are predominantly Shia, and the appearance of a buildup of Sunni militias makes them justifiably nervous. They know - as we do - that some of these citizens have in the past attacked both U.S. and Iraqi security forces. Their actions are outside the rule of law, regardless of their success against al-Qaeda, and the Iraqi soldiers—Junud, are to kill or apprehend members on sight, in accordance with Iraqi Army orders. The fact that we are tacitly supporting these groups leads them to question our allegiance.
But given the tribal and sectarian violence prevalent in the area and distrust between the formal and informal security forces, our options are limited. We must capitalize on the success of this grassroots local citizens’ phenomenon and their zeal to crush al-Qaeda while simultaneously reassuring our Iraqi Army partners that we will prevent any clashes between these legitimate and informal security forces. We must buy time for the Iraqi government to digest the full impact of this ever-widening “awakening”. Soldiers must track both Iraqi Army and concerned citizens’ actions more closely than ever and forcibly position themselves as a buffer force, if need be, to avert a disaster. Cultivating trust amongst all of these groups with different ways to achieve the same end is more important than ever. Maintaining the uneasy balance of trust between disparate grassroots groups of citizens claiming to guard the populace, both within and without the rule of law is no easy task. Again, the task – in its infinite shades of gray, falls to the U.S. Soldier operating in Iraq.

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