Last week, the New York Times heralded the beginning of a major offensive against al-Qaeda in the Diyala River Valley by declaring that Coalition efforts at secrecy had failed, and that many insurgents had escaped days before the operation began.
I’m here in the Diyala River Valley participating in the very operation the Times describes, and I have a very different perspective.
As a bit of background, I’m a mobilized reservist (in my civilian life, I’m a senior counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund and regularly contribute to NRO’s “Phi Beta Cons” blog) supporting 2nd (Sabre) Squadron, 3d Armored Cavalry Regiment, one of the Army’s most storied units. I serve as the squadron’s judge advocate (lawyer), and I’ve been pushed forward as part of “Operation Raider Harvest.”
In my new job, I’m beginning to understand a reality of reporting from Iraq. The media is not generally getting its facts wrong (although no one is infallible); its emphasis, however, is different from ours. Reporters here often exhibit amazing courage (I recently met a Los Angeles Times reporter that has been in Iraq almost continually since the initial invasion, and has been embedded with combat units more times than she can count) and typically have a real commitment to the truth. It is simply not inaccurate to report a glass as half-empty if the glass is half-empty. But it is just as accurate to report the glass as half full. In this case, the glass is more than half full.
It may be true that some insurgents were alerted to our presence before the operation began. Even if no one “leaked,” it is difficult to conceal the movement of large numbers of helicopters and armored vehicles. It may be true that some (or “many”) insurgents fled before we arrived. Yet these facts do not render a counter-insurgency operation unsuccessful.
We are long past the point of believing that any set piece battle will be decisive in this war. Instead, we are in the middle of a long process known as “clear and hold.” Success is not defined by the number of insurgents killed (though it is always nice to hurt the enemy) but by the number of cities, towns, and villages rendered steadily more secure, more “normal.”
The surge has succeeded not simply because we’ve put more boots on the ground; it has succeeded in large part because it has coincided with more capable Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and the explosive growth of local “Awakening Councils” — citizen groups who provide their own security after al-Qaeda has been driven out.
Before the surge, before the improvement in the Iraqi Army and Police, and before the growth of Awakening Councils, it constituted far more of a setback if significant numbers of insurgents escaped the “net.” Once we cleared, we didn’t have enough forces to hold, and insurgents were able to filter right back into the communities they just left. Now, even if they escape, they have much more difficulty coming back — the vacuum is being filled by Iraqis and their local elected leaders protected by the ISF — solving Iraqi problems with Iraqis.
At the end of this operation, the Diyala River Valley will have been largely cleared of al-Qaeda. ISF will be in place to hold the area and secure the gains we’ve made, and those insurgents who left will have one less safe haven. As al-Qaeda’s safe havens dwindle, so do its numbers and influence. It’s tough to recruit and train while on the run.
All of this sounds deceptively simple, but the reality is hard, brutal, and frequently confused. Our Squadron Commander, Lieutenant Colonel Paul Calvert, and his two troop commanders, Captain Torre Mallard and Captain Robert Green, orchestrate a complex and multi-faceted fight that can feature tank main gun fire one moment and tea with a local sheik the next. The challenge of defending a population from insurgents when those insurgents live within the population is immense.
Bright young staff officers like our Squadron S-2, Captain Steve Beckner and our Fire Support Officer, Captain John Romito, do everything from decide exactly where the enemy should be targeted for deadly force, to how to “target” our information operations to stand up local leaders and counter al-Qaeda propaganda.
And it takes NCOs like Fox Troop’s First Sergeant Zeneido Gonzalez and young soldiers like SPC William Patterson (on his third deployment to Iraq) to make those midnight road marches, walk those foot patrols, and make the immediate life and death decisions that are the difference between victory and tragedy. The outcome of any given mission is not foreordained, nor is the outcome of a counter-insurgency campaign.
But in the Diyala River Valley on this cold (yes, cold) January day, I can tell you that while the New York Times may report that some insurgents escaped, some did not. While everyone may not have been taken by surprise, some were. And I can say this with certainty: Sabre Squadron is sitting on ground that al-Qaeda no longer owns. And, finally, when Sabre departs, Iraqi Security Forces will remain to defend their own communities from the terrorist threat. The progress is slow and often quite painful (a neighboring unit just lost six soldiers in a booby-trapped house). But it is progress.
– David French is a captain in the United States Army Reserve and is currently deployed to Diyala Province, Iraq. This is his first deployment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.