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The Ghosts of Anbar, Part II of IV

COIN operations are characterized by rapid changes in tactical and operational environments. The presence of the local populace within which insurgents may disappear creates a high degree of ambiguity. Adaptable leaders observe the rapidly changing situation, identify its key characteristics, ascertain what has to be done in consultation with subordinates, and determine the best method to accomplish the mission.

From “Counterinsurgency/FM 3-24/MCWP 3-33.5

Never forgotten: Haddimiyah, Anbar Province, Iraq

Over the past several years, while working into a strategic fatigue, our military has made an amazing transformation in how it conducts this war. Gone, for instance, are heavy-handed tactics, replaced by multi-dimensional counterinsurgency strategy rolled out simultaneously with targeted kinetic battles, like those recently with the 3/2 Stryker Brigade Combat Team in Baqubah.

Arrowhead Ripper was merely the latest experience that underlines the Army’s rapidly-growing expertise. Yet the Marines have adapted faster and seem poised to win the war in their battle space. In fact, it’s been Army officers who have told me repeatedly over the past several years that nobody is successfully morphing to meet this war faster than the Marines. Of course, Army officers who compliment Marines always say, “But that didn’t come from me.”


Many people know the old adage about restaurant kitchens: to know if the kitchen is clean, check the bathroom. The same holds true for Soldiers, only it calls for checking windows. If you are going on a combat mission and Soldiers have not cleaned all their windows to a sparkle (during times when it is possible to do so), do not go with them. Soldiers with dirty windows are not watching for tiny wires in the road, nor are they scanning rooftops. They are talking about women, football, and the car they will buy when they get home. I will not go into combat with Soldiers with dirty windows.

I also look at the state of their weapons and ammunition. Does the machine gunner have lubricant? Before going out with them, does someone tell me what to do if there is any drama? Or do they just drag me into combat like a sack of potatoes? It’s usually very simple. A platoon sergeant will say, “Sir, you stay next to me and do what I tell you, we’ll probably get you back alive.” Most combat Soldiers fall into the “ready, prepared and alert” category.

On the command level, there are other indicators. In counterinsurgency, as our Vietnam veterans will vouch, press has both strategic and tactical influence. Commanders who are afraid of the press or who cannot handle it cannot win this fight. They are often the same people who alienate Iraqis. I remember one captain who had allowed his men to ransack an Iraqi home, much later shouting in my face while his lip quivered with anger, “You are a piece of shit!” He could not handle having press around, and resented the very air they breathed, and he made sure they knew it. Of course anyone whose idea of winning is to bully Iraqis would not want media around. I watched him for months as a study in how not to do certain things. Tactically, he was competent and knew how to win the gun battles, but he was incompetent and inadequate for counterinsurgency.

Dealing with the press is just a reality, like the weather. We would never put a commander in the field who refused to make plans for fighting in the cold or heat. Although it’s just a reality, cold weather, for example, could destroy a unit overnight if they had not prepared for it. As with the weather, the press also influences the enemy. Cold weather freezes everyone’s toes; bad press stalls progress. In either instance, he who is better-suited and more adaptable has a supreme advantage. There was a time when many of our enemies in Iraq were beating us in the press, both their press and ours, but now that is changing.

When I consider a unit, the first indicator I check is their glass (if they are using vehicles with glass). At command level, the leading indicator for me is media relations. These reliable indicators can be seen without going onto a battlefield.

In May, I headed out to Fallujah and requested to speak with Colonel Richard Simcock II, the Marine Corps Commanding Officer, Regimental Combat Team 6, whose responsibility included Fallujah. I landed by helicopter in Fallujah, and within the hour, the Marine Public Affairs with RCT 6 had me set up in a secure trailer with a live internet connection. They even had AA and AAA batteries sitting on a table. I had been trying for weeks to get some of those batteries, but never told anyone. They just anticipated the need. The PAO said I could have anything in the room. There were books and magazines. There was even a little refrigerator stocked with water and snacks. I was astounded. Within an hour of arrival, they had set me up for success. Sometimes I spend days just to get an internet connection, or trying to get a memo to get into a dining facility. Days of lost time, wasted for nothing, and forever.

Colonel Richard Simcock II [photograph: 1st Lt. Barry L Edwards]


I requested to talk with COL Simcock. The commander made extra time and met with me not once, but twice, saying he was available anytime. COL Simcock was so blunt that he was not fit for television. Just the kind of talk that was needed. Plain talk. Realistic talk about war and how his Marines were doing.

But talk is just talk unless you go onto the battlefield and see with your own eyes what is happening. Are we really winning, or are we really losing? There is no middle ground. The clock is ticking.

The Marines allowed me to go out with a training team.

Sniper-shield next to MiTT 8’s abode.

In mid-May, 2007, days before I arrived, the Iraqi Army and Police had conducted a “Combined Medical Exercise” in the village of Falahat, wherein Iraqi doctors saw about 200 villagers. About two days after that, the Iraqi Police opened a police station at the Falahat train station. That was just about the same time I was driving out to stay with a small team of Marines who were assigned as “MiTT 8” (Military Training Team 8). MiTTs are familiar territory for me; this is a vintage Special Forces concept used the world ’round.

Marines and Soldiers are far outnumbered by Iraqi forces in many areas around Iraq. Many people have protested this, saying the teams could be kidnapped or killed. This is true. But this is war, and it’s a chance we need to take. In fact, some Soldiers had just been kidnapped and were missing in action in another province. (They had been taken in combat, not as part of a MiTT.)

The men of MiTT 8 are living along with their Iraqi protégées in filthy shipping containers on a highway. Several months ago they were attacked by a car bomb. But at about 0900, while I was traveling to their location with Marines in a Humvee (with sparkling glass) some Falahat villagers went to the new police station to report the presence of a culprit they knew to emplace bombs on the road.

It happened that quickly.

Within mere days of opening the station, people spoke up. The Iraqi Police (some of whom freely admitted to having been recent insurgents) called the tip into the Iraqi Army who were living with the Marines of MiTT 8. The Iraqi Army in turn told Marine Captain Koury, whose Command Operations Center is conjoined with the Iraqi Army unit there. Finally, CPT Koury told Staff Sergeant Rakene Lee to take care of the developing situation.

The Humvee pulled up to the small MiTT 8 compound, where we met SSG Rakene Lee who was dressed for combat, and who was to take the Humvees and lead the mission to the suspected bomb site. The Iraqi Army was already blocking the road.

My first indication that anything was up was a radio call about a possible IED, then our Humvee stopped. SSG Lee looked at me in the backseat and asked who I was. “A writer,” I answered. Lee got in and we drove toward the suspected bomb.

BMWs make excellent sniper platforms. The enemy will cut a small hole in the door or trunk, and while we are stopped at, say, a suspected IED, the sniper will kill one of us and the car is gone within seconds.
We stopped short of the location of the suspected bomb. It was believed to be where two others had previously been placed. SSG Rakene Lee got out of the Humvee and I followed, though apparently he hadn’t expected me to get out. He didn’t order me back in. In the following series of photographs, the man without a rifle is the Iraqi interpreter “George,” while the other two are Iraqi Army soldiers.
Iraq has plenty of infrastructure. The savagery of the war masks the fact that Iraq does have a national identity.

While we approached the suspected area of the bomb, cars continued to approach from the overpass. Any car could be a sniper platform or car bomb, and of course the enemy is plenty smart and knows that now is a good time to rain mortars and rockets, which are impressive when they explode nearby.

“Iraqi Police” arrive. The ultimate “don’t-ask-don’t-tell,” but some police will readily admit they were formerly insurgents, and so it does look odd to see them piling out of Humvees.

As it happens, these “police” had come from the same station that warned us about the bomb. This is one face of the political solutions we hear about in the news. The ones that are supposedly not happening. Here in Anbar, it’s working.

1-102. Counterinsurgents remain alert for signs of divisions within an insurgent movement. A series of successes by counterinsurgents or errors by insurgent leaders can cause some insurgents to question their cause or challenge their leaders. In addition, relations within an insurgency do not remain harmonious when factions form to vie for power. Rifts between insurgent leaders, if identified, can be exploited. Offering amnesty or a seemingly generous compromise can also cause divisions within an insurgency and present opportunities to split or weaken it.

From “Counterinsurgency/FM 3-24/MCWP 3-33.5”

Some of these men will admit they were insurgents who switched sides because they realized that they are more likely to get what they want with a stable government. Al Qaeda promised them everything under the baking sun, yet al Qaeda killed people who smoked—and Iraqis like to smoke. They killed people who had satellite dishes or televisions, but al Qaeda would be drinking and with prostitutes. Iraqis have told me some interesting anecdotes about the religious technicalities of prostitution. They are not supposed to have sex out of wedlock, so they marry the prostitute (and the house of ill-repute has the proper religious authority present to make the marriage), and then they divorce the prostitute after completing their business. Another rumor in the area is that al Qaeda tried to force shepherds to make their female sheep wear underwear. This is one I have heard all over Iraq.

And so, former insurgents showed up in Humvees, outnumbered us, and now were helping us find the bomb and bombers. A very strange world indeed.

Before reaching the suspected bomb site, SSG Lee, “George” the interpreter, and some Iraqi soldiers spotted shepherds far across the field. Shepherds can be used as lookouts or trigger men.

They chased down the shepherds, who did not run. SSG Lee made sure the shepherds were treated well and respectfully, but he did detain them. Meanwhile, Iraqis caught the actual suspected bomber elsewhere, and brought him to the Marines. While all this was unfolding, we headed back up to the road to search for the bomb.
The Culvert: marks from a recent explosion can be seen on the wall just behind Marine SSG Lee entering the dark.

The enemy can plant huge bombs in the culverts, such as the one that blew up Superman. The entrances to the culvert were easy for the enemy to reach unobserved, and mines, bombs or other boobytraps could have been easily planted. SSG Lee could have ordered one of the Iraqis to clear the culvert, and I’m sure that an Iraqi would have done so. Many are very courageous. But SSG Lee was mentoring these men, and without hesitation, he entered the culvert himself to check it out. This was my introduction to MiTT 8.

There could be mines, glass or fishhooks. It didn’t matter.
SSG Rakene Lee set out to clear the tunnel under 4 lanes of highway.

People at home want to know what our Soldiers and Marines are doing in Iraq, and the only way to tell their story is to follow them. So deep inside the culvert, crawling on all fours, using my camera as a walking chalk (it’s pretty tough), I crawled behind SSG Lee who was using his rifle as a walking chalk. The day was hot. The body armor made it hotter.

I said, “I only met you for the first time like twenty minutes ago. What’s your name, Staff Sergeant?”
“Staff Sergeant Lee, Sir,” he answered while crawling forward.
“United States Marine Corps,” I said.
“Semper Fi,” he answered, and kept clearing the tunnel.

End of Part Two


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