Three Marks on the Horizon

False advertising is afoot. I write these words from Indonesia, soaking wet, having just returned from photographing rice paddies in a pouring rain, wearing a Florida Gators shirt. That means there is a green alligator on my chest. While supporting my team, my shirt perpetuates the myth that alligators are green, when in fact they are black when wet, gray when dry.The mantra that “there is no political progress in Iraq” is rapidly becoming the “surge” equivalent of a green alligator: when enough people repeat something that sounds plausible, but also happens to be false, it becomes accepted as fact. The more often it is repeated—and the larger the number of people repeating it—the harder it is to convince anyone of the truth: alligators are not green, and Iraqis are making plenty of political progress.

There may be little progress on political goals crafted in America, to meet American concerns, by politicians who have a cushion of 200 years of democracy. Washington might as well be on the moon. Iraqis don’t respond well to rules imposed from outside their acknowledged authorities, though I have many times seen Iraqi Police and Army of all ranks responding very well to American Marines and soldiers who they have come to respect, and in many cases actually admire and try to emulate. Our military has increasing moral authority in Iraq, but the same cannot be said for our government at home. In fact, it’s in moral deficit because many Iraqis are increasingly frightened we will abandon them to genocide. The Iraqis I speak with couldn’t care less what is said from Washington but large numbers of them pay close attention to what some Marine Gunny says, or what American battalion commanders all over Iraq say. Some of our commanders could probably run for local offices in Iraq, and win. To say there has been no political progress in Iraq in 2007 is patently absurd, completely wrong and dangerously dismissive of the significant changes and improvements happening all across Iraq. Whether or not Americans are seeing it on the nightly news or reading it in their local papers, Iraqis are actively writing their children’s history.

When I wrote the op-ed piece, “I Have Seen the Horror,” published August 3rd in the New York Daily News, I cited three areas that had experienced dramatic change in 2007—change that convinces me the “surge” is working:

1. Iraqis are uniting across sectarian lines to drive al Qaeda in all its disguises out of Iraq, and they are empowered by the success they are having, each one creating a ripple effect of active citizenship.

2. The Iraqi Army is much more capable now than they were in 2005. They are not ready to go it alone, but if we keep working, that day will come soon.

3. General Petraeus is running the show. Petraeus may well prove to be to counterinsurgency warfare what Patton was to tank battles with Rommel, or what Churchill was to the Nazis.

I based my appraisal not on the common wisdom about Iraq, but on what I had seen firsthand and had been writing about in the recent series of dispatches about the days following the launch of Operation Arrowhead Ripper in Baqubah. These contain many concrete examples of the kinds of change referenced in the first and third of mile-markers. For example, the constructive engagement of former insurgent groups like the 1920s Revolution Brigade in the push to drive al Qaeda from its “caliphate” in Baqubah was the focal point of Feasting on a Moveable Beast: Al Qaeda on the Run. Likewise, Second Chances addressed the critical change in military leadership and its impact on the ground situation.

In the interests of balance, I offer this dispatch about an Iraqi Army mission I observed earlier this year and Mosul as concrete evidence of the dramatic improvement in Iraqi Security Forces that I have seen firsthand.

So much war, so many missions, but never enough time to publish dispatches covering more than a small fraction of it. These photos were from a mission with 2-7 Cavalry, earlier this year, which launched from Mosul. It would have made an interesting story at the time, but it might have even more value in retrospect.

I spent a month at the beginning of 2007 back in Mosul; the city where I’d previously spent about half of 2005 embedded with the Deuce Four. I noticed immediately that the Iraqi Police and Army in Mosul were remarkably more capable in 2007 than they were in 2005. The Iraqi Army and Police had been rapidly improving toward the end of 2005. As noted in the opening paragraphs of Battle for Mosul, Part IV, a dispatch focusing on the Iraqi Security Forces in Mosul, the year 2005 had not begun with much promise for the Iraqi Police, who made world news in the weeks before Iraq’s first national election.

They fled. It was all over the news. When the bullets flew, they fled. Leaving stations, abandoning posts, forgetting duties, hundreds of police fled. When the police response to gunfire was to simply run away, the city fell into lawlessness. Pundits rushed to the airwaves, proclaiming the city’s future hopeless.
. . .
Fortune favors the bold and with the onslaught of insurgent refugees, Mosul’s white chickens were in for an abrupt shift in theirs. The city became a headquarters for kidnappers and beheading squads whose video calling cards became a gruesome striptease on the nightly news. The growing influence of the increasingly brash insurgents and foreign fighters wasn’t lost on the locals, who paid a high price for resistance. More than two hundred Mosulite bodies—many headless—were tossed out in the streets.
. . .
The insurgents and criminals brushed aside the entire Mosul police force with what amounted to a loud bark and a stiff backhand. When they attacked two stations, 4-West and 6-West, killing about half a dozen officers in each, the police on duty frantically radioed that hundreds of insurgents were storming the stations.

When the Americans arrived within the hour, they estimated the attacking force consisted of only twenty to thirty enemy fighters at each station. It was not a long or particularly hard battle to recover the stations, but what made the news lead that day was the Mosul police abandoning their stations.

To an enemy in need of assets, a press that is increasingly disengaged is like an empty car with keys in the ignition—begging to be stolen. How the keys came to be left in the car, and how the inevitable theft managed to go unreported are questions for a different dispatch. To really understand the dynamics of the Battle for Mosul, it suffices to say the enemy started with a media advantage that they continue to exploit even now.

The “smoke” between these helicopters is actually a soldier walking. I was flat on the ground to shoot the photo, and with the low light and shutter speed, anything that moved would be blurry or even nearly invisible in the photo.

The violence in Mosul has a different flavor than other Iraqi cities. In other places, we see ups and downs, even sine wave-like peaks and troughs. Some media has reported that Mosul is improving, and it has in many regards, most clearly in how the Iraqi Police and Army now do most of the fighting. But that progress plays out against a backdrop of steady violence, demonstrating perhaps the limits of any single factor serving as a reliable indicator of progress.

Our combat leaders don’t try to hide this. I’ve seen zero spin come from COL Twitty, the Brigade Commander, or LTC Eric Welsh, the 2-7 CAV commander. In fact, it was our own military leadership that stressed to me that Mosul was not healed. Improving, yes. Healed, no.

We have drawn down our own forces in Mosul from a high of about 20,000 back in 2003, to perhaps 600 fighters today in a city of nearly 2 million. But the fight is still on. We lost six U.S. soldiers during my first week with them this year, yet 2-7 CAV kept pushing out the wire, often with their battalion commander, LTC Eric Welsh, leading the way.

Four Blackhawks landed and turned off their engines FOB Marez. They would take us on the mission, but the Iraqi Army and some of our guys were streaming out to the villages via ground, and so while we waited for them to get into place, the sun began to rise. (The orange glow on the rocks is caused by the landing zone lights.)

To give the fullest possible context, back in early 2005, down in Baqubah, I literally would take cover when I saw Iraqi Police or Army. They were shooting at us all the time and it was purely out of incompetence. The Iraqi Army in Baqubah has improved dramatically since then, although the Iraqi Police there have a longer road to travel before the same can be said about them.

While the violence in Mosul is serious enough to impede the full restoration of most of the basic city services, it has not slowed the progress of the Iraqi Police and Army toward a high level of self-sufficiency. High enough to make Mosul an unsafe place for terrorists to live. Because the violence continued, clearly some terrorists had moved out into surrounding villages, and were commuting to work in Mosul.

The Iraqi and American commanders wanted to swoop out and surround three of the villages this morning, to look for bad guys. In fact, the Iraqis planned their own mission. I recall LTC Eric Welsh telling his subordinate commanders not to interfere with the Iraqi commanders. Welsh wanted the Iraqis to make their own mistakes and improve by doing.

The mission we were about to do would have been impossible in early 2005. Impossible because the Iraqi Army would have been incapable of doing their part and probably would have done something very bad, like show up two hours late and without gas in their trucks. They would have been like the Keystone Kops, only shooting each other on accident. It would have been impossible even late in 2005, because they lacked the equipment and seasoned manpower to pull it off, although by late 2005 they were doing missions and raids independently.

We waited and waited.

The Iraqis got into place, along with some of our guys who came by ground, and we got the green light and took off.

We inserted and our guys immediately started blocking roads.

They put us near a cemetery but the soldiers stayed clear.

A Kiowa gave support. Some of the bravest soldiers in Iraq are in those little helicopters, and they do get shot down, but unless and until that happens, they will practically fly through windows to get to the bad guys.

Iraqi and American forces move to ground positions.

LTC Eric Welsh observing one of the target villages from high ground.

The Iraqi Army went “soft” into the villages. They searched houses but were respectful, to avoid turning a pro-Iraq village into one with terrorist sympathies. Terrorists can set up in some of these places, but that does not always mean the people are sympathizers. In many of the Iraqi villages, the war is very distant even though it might be only 30 miles away.

These people were living out in the boondocks. There are many villages in Iraq where Americans never have set foot, and where most villagers have never seen a real-life American soldier. The new Iraqi Army is making first impressions, too. This Iraq unit was cognizant of that, and behaved like pros.

So that was it. The kind of mission I like: accomplished with no drama and no shooting.

This of course turned into a celebratory photo session. Iraqi soldiers are in love with cameras.

They never stop with the cameras, and many now have their own, so there are pictures of people taking pictures.

They see my Canon Mark II and practically beg to get their photos taken. Then, often without even asking to see the photo, they say, “Dankyou” and walk away. It’s happened hundreds of times. Sometimes they ask for copies (as if I carry a printer), but most times, they just stop, ask to have their photo taken, and walk away with a “Dankyou.”

Iraqis love those cigarettes.

The mood was relaxed and amiable, and I wanted to tell this commander that his grandmother makes nice gloves, but he had a gun so I kept quiet.

He thought I was photographing him, but I was going for the gloves.

The Iraqis were running this part of the operation. Our guys had become supporting characters. Along for the ride. They didn’t need us on that mission.

“Dankyou.” More and more Iraqi Police and soldiers ask me to publish their photos. Months later, in Anbar, a soldier from Sadr City told me to publish his photos because he wants the terrorists to see he is not afraid. Back in 2005, many wore ski masks so they couldn’t be identified (and kidnapped, killed, drilled, beheaded, and have their cadavers stuffed with bombs).

We expected a possible firefight, and although nothing happened, our guys kept a watch on us from above.

Just in case.

Our guys handed out fliers with names and photos of terrorists. The kids were hilarious, showing off the papers as if they were baseball cards.

Soccer time.

Scenes of village life.

“Mistah! Mistah! Piktcha piktcha!”

General Noradeen seated with the rifle. I first wrote about him in 2005, when he was a colonel in charge of an Iraqi unit in Mosul. Noradeen is a fierce fighter who never misses a chance to get his face in the news. Like many Iraqi commanders, he seems to fully understand the importance of getting his message across in the news; I’ve seen him actually take a television crew with him.

Back during 2005, Noradeen had been good friends with LTC Erik Kurilla, and now here in the village, when Noradeen asked how Kurilla was doing he was pleased to learn that Kurilla had fully recovered, and was back in command and in combat.

In Battle for Mosul, Part IV, I’d written about the bond of respect and friendship between these two leaders who shared and lived a belief in leading from the front:

We were delivering a sheep to an Iraqi Army commander named Colonel Noradeen. Noradeen’s unit has about 700 men—about the same size as Deuce Four —and those soldiers are mostly Kurdish. Noradeen’s reputation with the Americans is as enviable as Eid’s. Major Mark Beiger was there, and soon there was a sheep sniffing around untethered in Noradeen’s office. Noradeen and everyone chuckled at the “It’s only for eating” joke that had become Kurilla’s trademark with the ISF leadership.

Colonel Noradeen wanted to put his office in the middle of Yarmook Traffic Circle, which might ring familiar to folks who have read my previous dispatches: it might well be the most dangerous traffic circle in the universe. On my first mission in Mosul, we lost two American soldiers and an interpreter just nearby after a man rammed his explosives-filled car into a B Company Stryker.

Sandbags cover the window of Noradeen’s office. During one meeting, we took sniper fire, but it didn’t make much difference—we were inside. Another day when I was not there, some mortars landed just outside Noradeen’s office and heavily damaged some American Humvees. Those types of attacks are not show-stoppers, but giant truck bombs can flatten a building and kill the entire unit. Noradeen’s current office was safe from giant bombs, but he wanted to move his office to Yarmook traffic circle—where shootouts and car bombs are guaranteed. Designing the outpost to withstand multiple simultaneous car bombs or giant truck bombs would require some thinking. When one of the American officers had asked Colonel Noradeen, “Why do you want an office at Yarmook Traffic Circle?” he answered simply, “If I build it there, they will come to me.”
Full stop.

That hung in the air.

One second.

Two seconds.

Kurilla said under his breath to one of his own officers, “That’s why I love this guy.”

The village chief asked Noradeen (and I got the translation) why we came in with so many soldiers. He could see Iraqi and American vehicles parked surrounding the village, and there were the jets and helicopters. Noradeen said we didn’t know if there was going to be a fight.

Noradeen’s cell phone is always ringing. The impressive performance of the Iraqi Security Forces in this critical region has largely happened due to good quality leadership.

The Blackhawks returned and flew us back to Mosul.

On the helicopter, I had to chuckle when I saw the soldier’s name tag. And I thought, LTC Welsh is right: it is better to let the Iraqis do it than to do it for them.

With the Police and Army improving in Mosul, we have very little presence there. This is not to suggest our soldiers are sitting back on base. I spent a month with them and they are more than holding their own. I remember when I left, talking with the excellent battalion commander who loves to fight, LTC Eric Welsh. I stepped a little beyond my boundaries as a writer, and said to Eric, “Sir, don’t lose Mosul. You are the only one here. No matter what, don’t lose this city.” “No chance,” he said.

I was out of bounds with that comment to Welsh, and I could see he had his hands full. They lost six soldiers the first week I was with them, but their resolve only increased. Excellent battalion. Their Command Sergeant Major, James Pippin, was shot just before Memorial Day. He and his soldiers were in a large ambush near Yarmook Traffic Circle. When the ambush kicked off, Pippin ordered his driver to head straight into the heart of the attack where there were enemy machine guns, rockets and so forth.

Pippin ran out and shot one enemy. The guy had an RPG aimed at the Humvee, but the Humvee came right at him, Pippin jumped out. Pippin told me it was a lucky shot, but he hit the man in the face. A big firefight ensued, and Pippin got some bullet holes, but made his people keep fighting that day until they broke the ambush. This kind of stuff freaks out the enemy: our guys didn’t get them with jets or fancy machines from a distance, but just rushed into them and outfought them. Despite an enemy with perfect surprise, our guys still killed four of them and CSM Pippin was the only American casualty. Countless acts like these around Iraq are a large part of what has given our guys moral authority with Iraqi Police and Army. Before the war, the Iraqis clearly questioned the courage of our fighters. They no longer question the courage of our fighters, or the abilities of our military leaders.

Large numbers of Iraqis detested us after the prisoner abuse stories, and some over-the-top attacks on Fallujah, for example. But through time, somehow the American military has managed to establish a moral authority in Iraq. It’s not the only authority, but the military has serious and increasing moral clout. In the beginning, our influence flowed from guns, or dropped from the wings of jets. Later it was the money. Today, the clout still is partially from the gun, and definitely the money is key, but there is an intangible and growing moral clout and it flows from an increasing respect among Iraqis for our military. Washington has no moral clout in Iraq. Washington looks like a circus act. The authority is coming from our military. The importance of this fact would be difficult to overstate.

 

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