Olmsted was determined to make a difference in Iraq. "The sooner the Iraqi government doesn't need U.S. support to provide security for its people, the sooner we will probably be asked to leave."
The electronic beep of my wristwatch announces the arrival of 0500 with insistent false cheer. Most unpleasant after five hours of sleep. I sit up, grope for the watch, realize I'll never find it in the dark, and endure thirty seconds of beeping before it silences itself. My feet find my flip-flops and I rise, walking to the door to turn on the light in my room and grab my shaving gear. Down the hall to the bathroom. Wash, lather, shave. My cheeks are nice and smooth for today's operation; I doubt the enemy will care, but it's important to look professional.
I grab my towel, soap and shampoo and walk outside to the showers. Our new showers are nice, but you have to go to a separate trailer to enjoy them. This morning, however, it's beautiful out, warm enough to be comfortable, but cool enough to feel good as I walk to the shower. The water we use is still the same bacteria-laden soup, until and unless we can convince the Army to bring KBR in to provide us with clean water. Still, we've shaved and bathed in it for a month, and no diseases yet, so we count our blessings.
I enjoy the feeling of being clean as I return to my room. It won't last long; before we roll I'll be sweaty and dusty. But right now I feel good. I pull on my uniform and grab a package of cereal and a box of milk. I could go to the DFAC (dining facility), but that would require driving across post to the U.S. part of the base. Far easier to enjoy a bowl of cereal. While I eat I check my email to see if there are any new SIGACTs (significant activities) in our area of operations. The enemy has been quiet lately. That won't last; sometimes they just need time to restock.
I heft my helmet and body armor and carry them to our vehicle, tossing the body armor on the bumper and the helmet on my seat. It's still two hours before we have to roll, and I'm not donning the body armor until we're ready to leave the wire. Next is my assault pack, a small backpack with things you hope you won't need: spare batteries, night vision, overnight gear, and so on. I toss it in the 'trunk,' the rear compartment of our HMMWV. My M4 goes next to my seat. I cleaned it last night, making sure the action is clear of sand and grit. Today would be a particularly bad day for a jam.
The other guys are up now as well. Many of them like to shower the night before, but I like to shower in the morning to help wake me up. And an hour alone can help me get my mind ready for the day. The crew-served weapons come out of the arms room and into the turrets. We pull our handheld radios off the charger and doublecheck to ensure we can tallk to each other. When you're on the ground, it's important you can communicate with the guys on the trucks. Truck radios are programmed and checked to ensure we can talk to each other, the Special Forces, and our higher headquarters. Nobody wants to need an air weapons team only to discover their radio doesn't work.
By 0730 we're ready. All vehicles have been checked, the equipment is all on board, and the guys have what they need. We run through the mission plan to ensure everyone understands the plan. SFC Beaver runs through the potential threats. If the enemy knows we're coming, there will be IEDs strewn in our path. They may also have fake checkpoints up today. A few questions are asked, then we mount up. At five 'til we roll out of our compound to meet up with the Special Forces.
Their compound is busy, as they're doing much the same as we are. I run in to chat with the team commander. No air weapons team today; we're on our own. If we get contact, we may be able to get an AWT, but we'll have nothing on station when we move. That means that if the jaws of the trap don't close just right, the enemy will probably get away. Great.
Once they're ready, we roll as a group. It's a thirty-minute ride to the IA compound. Hazy today; we can't see the Zagros Mountains as we approach the Iranian border. Once we're in the Iraqi compound, the team commander and I go to chat with the IA commander. His plan hasn't improved any. He has no plan to control fires as we approach from different directions. When we point out the danger of fratricide, he assures us that his men are experienced. The SF and I agree to control our own fires nonetheless. We'll stay back as the IA hits the target; unless they need heavy weapons support, we're not going to be down among them. This is both for our force protection and so the Iraqis can learn to do things on their own. Granted, we provide a substantial net, but one step at a time.
At ten my team rolls to an IA outpost. We're going to come in from one side, the SF and other Iraqis from the opposite side, and another IA force from the flank, which will cut off all escape routes if we all arrive at the same time.
When I arrive to speak with the IA commander at the outpost, I learn he has no idea what he's doing. In an attempt to keep the enemy from finding anything out, the IA company commander told his lieutenant only to be ready to move today. So I spend thirty minutes explaining the plan to the lieutenant while Mac conducts pre-combat inspections (PCIs) with the Iraqi NCOs. The Iraqis offer me lunch, so we dine on potatoes, rice, and bread for a few minutes while waiting for word the SF group has rolled. They're late, but we finally get word they're moving. They'll call when it's our turn to roll, as we're much closer to the objective.
I chat with some IA soldiers while we wait. I offend an NCO by reminding him to make sure his guys don't have their fingers on the trigger. He informs me that his soldiers are professionals. Five minutes later I tap him on the arm and point to one of his soldiers standing next to him, his finger on his trigger. I'm told that's ok, because he doesn't have a round in the chamber. Somehow I don't feel any better.
Finally we get the word to roll. Mac and I run to our trucks. The team reports REDCON-1: ready to roll. It takes the Iraqis a little longer to load up, but within 5-10 minutes we're rolling out the gate towards the objective.
Over the Iraqi radio come the call two civilian vehicles are fleeing the objective. The initial report is that they're moving our way. I put out a plan to block the road if they get past the Iraqis. The lead IA vehicle takes off like a scalded rabbit are we're hard-pressed to keep up. They blow through the village we're supposed to hit and keep rolling. It turns out the civilians went the other way. We hit the target too early; the other teams are not on site, and the escape routes are wide open. After ten minutes the IA stops next to a flipped car; they claim to have shot it as it was escaping, though the passengers all escaped and the bullet holes are in the front windshield.
We dismount to exploit the site. The other cars got away. As we're gathering items from the wrecked car, the SF shows up. We agree to meet on the objective. After a few more minutes we remount and roll back to the target village. There almost certainly won't be anything there; if there was anything left after the leaders escaped, it must have been removed after we blew through. We set on the south side and the IA heads into town to see what they can find. Mac and I move up to observe.
The shots come in a flurry, perhaps 8-10 in the first volley. More shots follow up the initial volley. Mac and I move behind the HMMWV. I turn back towards the other vehicles; we're not arrayed well to engage the village, so I want to move my HMMWV around to set a broad base of fire. Before I can move them, our terp shouts at me "It's OK." I turn to face him. It's the IA. They're not shooting at anything. They're just shooting. They're professionals.
The IA round up maybe a dozen military-aged males and an older gentleman. One soldier pops a civilian in the back of the head. I grab the IA lieutenant and he agrees to speak with the soldier, who claims the civilian attempted to flee. There's nothing incriminating on the men or in the village; a dry hole. Doc comes up to check the Iraqi civilian; he doesn't appear to have any permanent damage, but we give him something to disinfect some small abrasions and Motrin for the headache he's got to have.
The SF are north of us, so we mount up and join them. They've done better than we did: they found an IED factory. They're preparing to blow it when we arrive, and they don't need help. I grab the IA lieutenant and try to get through to him that his soldiers need to fire only when they see a threat. I don't get anywhere; the lieutenant proudly informed me he has 'done something' today, referring to the rolled civilian vehicle. Not much of a trophy. I'm glad they came out and went after the enemy, but I'd prefer to save jubiliation for when we actually capture or kill them.
The IED factory goes up with a rather large boom. That's at least one less threat for us to deal with. I wave farewell to the Iraqis as we turn to head back to our FOB. They're still excited over their accomplishments today. All I can do is shake my head and hope that this will at least encourage them to go out and operate against the enemy more often.
The ride back is quiet. At least the enemy wasn't able to put out any surprises for us. That suggests we may have surprised them. If the IA had timed the operation a little better, we probably could have rolled up some bad guys. Instead we return to the FOB empty-handed.
Time for the paperwork.Posted by Andrew Olmsted at 02:55 AM | Comments (9)
Last week we headed north for three days to see our primary battalion, by which I mean the one we're supposed to work with on paper. They're stretched over several thousand square kilometers, and they have a company in Baquba, so they could use some assistance. Unfortunately, most of what they need we can't provide: more people to cover their battle space.
Fortunately, our battalion is quite eager to keep the enemy from settling in. They are actively patrolling their AO as best they can, and they want to conduct operations to go after the enemy when they find them. They can't do it as well as they would like because of their limited numbers, but from what we've seen they are causing the enemy some headaches.
We know this because the enemy seems to be trying to go after them. We stopped at an outpost on our way up to the FOB. The guys there are concerned the enemy is going to attack them, so we worked out a plan to bring in air support on short notice if the enemy is foolish enough to come after them. The enemy would have to mass a pretty big force to come after them, so if they do so, we could get lucky and really put a hurting on them. If we can get the air quickly enough, of course. The frustration of COIN is that the enemy has a lot of control over where and when engagements take place.
While we were up at our unit's FOB we visited a local town and spoke with the mayor. One interesting thing about being in the Army: it opens a lot of doors over here. That's generally so they can ask you for things. The mayor asked me, among other things, if I could give him $50,000 for some projects in his town. Needless to say I didn't have a spare $50k floating around, so I suspect the mayor wasn't pleased with me, but I did pass his requests on to the civil-military office. The Army has an entire group of people who do nothing but try to address civilian concerns. They do a lot of good, but there are some many things Iraq needs, it's hard for them to be as many places as they're needed.
Following that meeting we rolled into another town only to be stopped by some Iraqi Police, who informed us that there was an IED on the far side of a wall abutting the road. We continued along the opposite side of the road without ill effect and met with one of our IA units stationed in the town, collecting a list of their issues and concerns and chiding them because they had not followed up on requests for certain things they had promised to do based on our last visit. As is too often the case in our own Army, they assumed that since they had sent the request, their job was done. Teaching them otherwise will, I suspect, be a long-term project.
Our trip back home brought us down to within almost a mile of the Iranian border, although sadly I forgot to take any pictures. Not that they would mean much out of context...some photos of mountains that are in Iran, but are otherwise undistinguished. Upon our return, things started to get interesting, but that story can wait for my next installment.Posted by Andrew Olmsted at 12:03 AM
As I've noted in the past, we are now responsible for two Iraqi Army battalions: the one we were originally sent here to train, and a second battalion whose MiTT is currently in away helping with units elsewhere. The U.S. unit we work with is more concerned with the second battalion, because they work with them regularly, so they want us to spend more time trying to fix their problems. While that's understandable, we want to spend time with the battalion we're officially assigned to precisely because they are out on their own and have little other Coalition support. So we have to walk a thin line to help both units in order to keep everyone happy.
So Sunday morning we rolled to a nearby town where, we were told, the second battalion maintains its TAC, or forward headquarters. Upon arriving, we found a small garrison and not a single officer. We spoke with the senior NCO on the scene and he gave us a tour of the TAC, such as it was. That was useful, but without the unit's officers there wasn't much for us to work with, so we headed to the nearest company base to see if we could find anyone there.
We had more luck there, finding the company commander, so I chatted with him while my NCOIC spoke with the company first sergeant. As with all such discussions, we were both treated to a litany of problems they wanted fixed, all of which we duly noted before moving on to some of the issues we wanted them to address. I don't expect we made too big an impression with them immediately, but when we roll out there next week, we'll see if they at least made a few changes based on what we talked about.
When we returned to our FOB I headed down to the battalion HQ to see if anyone was there. It turned out the battalion XO was there, but he was sleeping. Iraqis nap in the afternoon, an understandable pastime given the intense heat of Iraq, but frustrating to us Americans who are used to working during the day. (Iraqis work much later into the evening than we do, which leads to really messed up sleep schedules for us US guys.) So we came back after he was done napping. He impressed me at once by noting that he had observed some of the same problems I had seen. We agree to set up a meeting with his commanders later that week to talk about those issues.
The next day we were on the road to another city, this one the home of one company of our battalion. We want to convince them to work with the ODA (Special Forces team) that lives at our FOB, so we spent several hours chatting about that, as well as (of course) the problems his company has and the help they'd like. Still, they also talked about wanting to take the offensive against the AIF in their AO, which is more than I've heard from any other Iraqi unit, so that was refreshing.
Tuesday morning I spent three hours with our other battalion talking with the XO and his commanders about what they need from us and what issues they are having. Most of the issues are well above their ability to fix, so I tried to keep their focus on the problems they can solve, like standards for their soldiers. It is rare for us to see an Iraqi soldier actually wearing both his body armor and his Kevlar helmet, for example, and that's the kind of thing good leaders can solve if they work at it. The open question, of course, is whether or not we can convince the Iraqis of this.
I'll discuss our longer trip in my next entry, as I have another task I need to perform at the moment.Posted by Andrew Olmsted at 10:37 AM | Comments (3)
The trip back from Anaconda was about what you would expect, long and boring but wary. There were a lot more Iraqis on the road, as it seems a lot of the locals are shopping on Thursdays to judge what we saw in the town marketplaces we passed by en route. That is a good thing, but at the same time it meant there were a lot of people we needed to keep an eye on as we drove. The vast majority pose absolutely no threat to us, but that is what makes COIN a challenge: separating the fish from the water, to borrow from Mao. We made it back just fine, however.
Once there we learned that our battalion managed to roll a vehicle and damage it beyond their ability to recover. The Coalition forces in the area are going to have to help them bring it in for repairs, and to do that we had to go out and survey the site. So this morning we picked up one of our Coalition partner unit's mechanics and rolled out to see what we might be able to do. I'm no mechanic, but fortunately the NCO we brought is very experienced and was able to assess the situation and determine precisely what was needed to recover the vehicle.
Now we have a day and a half to recover our equipment and ourselves before rolling out again. We are responsible for trying to train two Iraqi battalions spread over several hundred kilometers, so next week we're going to be on the road all week trying to build our relationships with both battalions. It promises to be a challenge, but it should also be quite interesting and maybe even fun as we get a chance to really start making our mark on this part of Iraq.Posted by Andrew Olmsted at 02:55 AM
As those who follow the war know well, there are a wide variety of insurgent groups in Iraq. There are former regime loyalists trying to return to the days of Saddam, such as the New Baath Party. There are Sunni groups trying to get the Sunnis back in control of Iraq, like the 1920 Revolutionary Brigade. There are foreign extremists like Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia aka Al Qaeda in Iraq. There are Shia groups looking to keep the Shia on top like the Mahdi Army (JAM) and Shia groups who want to bring Iraq into Iran's orbit like the Badr Brigades. And that barely scratches the surface of the alphabet soup of groups trying to push Iraq in their favored direction. When we analyze their actions, we try to be as precise as possible in determining who is responsible for what, because defeating each group will require unique tactics tailored to their strengths and weaknesses.
But sometimes you don't know immediately who is responsible for a particular event. In the case of the five murdered truck drivers I saw last week, I can be reasonably certain that their killers were Sunni because of the geography, and I do suspect that they were AQI, but I cannot prove that. Therefore it seemed (and seems) prudent to use the more general term, AIF, to describe the killers.
Gary questioned my use of the term, in addition to its general nature which I believe I have explained above, because he wanted to know what Iraq there is for them to oppose. The answer to me seems pretty clear: the duly elected government of Iraq (GoI). While that government is far from perfect, it has been formed through a series of elections, including the construction of a national constitution. Arguments that it is not properly representative of all Iraqis only seem to go so far in my view, as there are plenty of Americans who would argue that the current U.S. government does not represent them, either. Representative government is, by its nature, as flawed as any other human institution. For all its flaws, the Iraqi government as it is currently constituted does offer a means for all Iraqis to at least influence the process peacefully if they choose to do so, and the constitution includes an amendment procedure to improve the government over time. As many problems as it has, it seems to me that it is the best descriptor of 'Iraq' available.
Others are free to disagree, of course. Certainly I think most of us would love to hear some better way for Iraqis to come together than the fractious methods employed by the government as it is now constituted. But until then, I fail to see a better method for trying to bring the Iraqi people together as a nation.Posted by Andrew Olmsted at 10:43 AM | Comments (5)
We rolled out of our FOB Friday morning. We stopped to check in on one of the units we are temporarily responsible for while most of the MiTTs are in Baquoba. We didn't stay long, as most of the battalion staff was not around, but we at least learned where their HQ is and got a chance to start building our relationships with the unit.
We stopped again at another FOB to pick up some paperwork, drop off some passengers, and grab some lunch. There are always people trying to get between FOBs for various reasons, and there are no regular flights or convoys in Iraq, so when units are moving around they often take on passengers to help each other out. So we had four personnel who needed a ride, one of whom knew the layout of the FOB we were stopping at, which was a big help, as it was our first visit. We also needed some logistics memos signed by our superiors, so we had emailed the documents ahead so they would be signed and waiting for us when we arrived.
One thing we're learning about Iraq is that it takes a lot longer to get anywhere than you would think looking at the map. When we planned our trip, we guessed it might take us two hours to get to Anaconda. Instead we rolled into the LSA some six hours after leaving our FOB. Even taking out the time we spent with our battalion and at the other FOB, that was a very long trip. Due to the threat of IEDs we travel pretty slowly, because that gives us the best chance of spotting IEDs, wires, or triggermen before they can hit us. It's a good technique, but it does mean that travel outside the wire takes far longer than you would expect, and it gets pretty tiring between the heat and the constant searching for a threat that may never appear.
We're at Anaconda to get all of our gear serviced. Vehicles, weapons, and ancillary gear gets torn up pretty badly between the heat, the dust, and the roads of Iraq. Without regular maintenance, we'd have equipment breaking down on us, and having a vehicle go down while we're outside the wire could be hazardous to our health. So before we start rolling regularly, and that's going to be what we'll have to do, I wanted to make sure everything was in good shape. The down side is that we're just about all stuck out here at Anaconda with very little to do but wait for the maintenance personnel to fix our gear, so we're likely to be here for close to a week before we can get back to work.Posted by Andrew Olmsted at 10:42 AM
Yesterday morning we hopped on the HMMWVs and rolled down to the U.S. part of the base to link up with the mortar platoon. Their area of responsibility is one of the hotter parts of our sector, and while our battalion doesn't work there, with all the other MiTTs in Baquoba for the foreseeable future, it falls on my team to try and help that battalion as well. Since the mortars know the area and were heading there anyhow, we rolled with them to increase our force protection and to make sure we could find our way. It turned out to be a good thing we went with them, as one of our HMMWVs went down as we pulled in, so we ended up leaving them behind.
The trip to the patrol base was the usual mix of boredom and excitement. It's boring, because the road all looks the same and you see mostly the same things over and over, but that boredom is leavened with the knowledge you could roll up on an IED at any moment, so you get a little frisson of danger every time you roll over a pothole or culvert. It keeps you awake...mostly.
The patrol base was a joint U.S./IA base, so it's pretty well built-up with a solid outer wall and reasonably good security. We spent a little time there meeting with the commander and a few of his men, picking some of them up to come on the patrols with us. From there we rolled into a village to see if we could convince anyone to give us some good intelligence on the Sunni insurgent groups who are attempting to seize control of the area. We spoke with three different families, spending perhaps an hour all told in the village. Iraqis are, as a rule, remarkably friendly, so while I suspect many of them were not thrilled that we were there asking questions, in each home we were invited in, asked to sit, offered water and otherwise entertained as we asked our questions. The tricky part, of course, is seeing past the surface friendliness to try and find people who are willing to offer up information.
That's a tough job, in no small part because these people are risking their lives just by talking to us. Some insurgent groups will kill families if they suspect they are giving up information, and they aren't sticklers for due process. So if we ever are able to find sources, we're going to have to work very hard to protect them, and until then we have our work cut out for us convincing anyone that they should help us. No matter how little they may like the insurgents, the fact is that the insurgents currently have the upper hand in that area and it's hard to ask people to risk their lives when we cannot even guarantee we'll be able to force the insurgents out. There are a lot of brave people in Iraq; when I think about some of the 'problems' I face, it makes me feel pretty silly next to the risks they run.
With the patrols complete and our uniforms soaked through with sweat, we returned to the FOB and spent the afternoon recovering our equipment from the mission and preparing for other upcoming missions.
Today I rolled out to a JSWG: a joint security working group meeting. That's a meeting of local leaders and Coalition and Iraqi security personnel to discuss the security situation for a local community. We do several of them every week, and since the IA have most of the responsibility for security in the area, I plan to attend as many of the meetings as I can in order to increase my situational awareness. It's critical that I understand the security issues in the local area if I'm to help the IA try to resolve them, so I'm going to be spending a lot of time on the road. Fortunately, since other units are going to these meetings as well, I don't have to put the whole team on the road to get the job done.
The meeting itself was quite interesting. Some of the local leaders are corrupt, and a few are working with smugglers; a lot of traffic from Iran passes through our area of operations. But without evidence good enough to convince an Iraqi judge we can't bring them in, so we end up having to work closely with these guys even as we know they're working against us. It's a strange war. But we gained some valuable information about the security concerns this community had, and the meetings should help us resolve some internal conflicts in the Iraqi Army as well.
Hard to believe we've been here a month already. By the time I understand everything here, I'll probably be due to rotate home.Posted by Andrew Olmsted at 09:44 AM | Comments (4)