Politics & Policy

The Badlands of Al Anbar

Cutting the ratlines and quashing the insurgency in Western Iraq.

Insurgencies are not put down in a fortnight. But considering the successes in the recent counter-insurgency sweep in Iraq’s Al Anbar Province, one fact becomes obvious to anyone with so much as a sliver of an understanding of ground combat operations: Eliminating the insurgency in Iraq is best left to those who best know how to do it.

Not the White House: Americans learned the hard way in both Vietnam and the Iranian desert that the Oval Office should never call the tactical shots once forces are committed to action. President Bush understands this, and thus–to all of our benefit–does not micromanage his commanders in the field.

Certainlynot the House and Senate: Many on Capitol Hill seem more concerned about scoring points with their stateside constituencies than they are the Marines and soldiers who must battle the enemy on the ground. And make no mistake, the ground along the Euphrates River valley and up along the Syrian border has been the stage of an ongoing series of running gun-battles between insurgents and coalition troops for months.

Therein lies the obvious: The troops on the ground, taking the fight to the enemy, are the ones who best know how to quash the insurgency. They are doing so systematically. The proof is in the results of their work (whether opponents of the war want to believe it or not), and the vast majority of those troops express no intention of abandoning that country with work to be done.


Much of the most recent “work” is within the realm of Operation Steel Curtain, launched Nov. 5 against a string of villages and townships along the Iraqi-Syrian frontier. Steel Curtain is a subordinate operation to the larger, ongoing Operation Hunter, which began in July when U.S. and Iraqi forces began sweeping the Euphrates River valley with the dual-goal of cutting the insurgent ratlines from Syria and establishing a permanent Iraqi military presence in the Al Qaim region.

Success has been achieved in both cutting the lines and bolstering the presence. Additionally, nearly 40 weapons caches have been discovered and destroyed in just over two weeks, and civilian residents of the region are now leaving displacement (refugee) camps and returning to their homes.

But what makes Steel Curtain different from previous actions is that an increasing number of al Qaeda senior leaders are being captured or killed (a sign that the number of insurgent junior leaders and foot soldiers is decreasing), more outlaw towns and villages are being liberated (thanks to human-source intelligence from residents disgusted by what the insurgents are doing to their country), and a greater number of Iraqi soldiers are taking the lead in both scouting operations and offensive actions.

The biggest problem remains the porous borders.


“The Syrian border is full of active smuggler routes that have been in use for centuries,” says Lt. Col. Bryan P. McCoy, who commanded 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines in the Al Anbar Province during the invasion phase as well as the spring 2004 Fallujah operations. “During Saddam’s era, they were used by black marketeers and Bedouin nomads. Now they are used by the insurgents.”

McCoy, who currently serves as operations officer for the Marine Corps Training and Education Command, tells National Review Online, the smuggling routes are connected by a network of way-stations covering a vast region: Some border stretches are rural and isolated. Others are developed and populated.

Of course, such an environment is conducive to the infiltration of foreign fighters and weapons, as well as the exfiltration of terrorists, regrouping guerrilla units, weapons merchants, and, yes, any type of weapon or weapons system Saddam Hussein might have wanted out of Iraq in 2003.

The question is not so much how to shut down the border crossings–there are simply too many–but how best to interdict the border crossers.

“The issue becomes persistent surveillance and a persistent presence over a very large area,” McCoy says. “Meanwhile, you have to have a presence in the towns and cities, which–due to the dense and dissected nature of that terrain–requires a lot of people.”

It’s a simple question of numbers, he adds: “You’re either in one place or you’re in the other. The insurgents and the smugglers know where you are, and where you are not.

And they use that information to their advantage.”

Nevertheless, Steel Curtain has freed the towns of Husaybah, Karabilah, and–as I write this–Coalition forces are rooting out the insurgents in Ubaydi. And with more Iraqi infantry companies coming online, a permanent security presence is being established in the region. “We have taken out a significant chunk of the al Qaeda leadership in these areas,” Capt. Patrick Kerr, a spokesman for the 2nd Marine Division in Ramadi, tells NRO. “We believe these operations out west and the frequent disruption operations we are conducting throughout the province–such as in Ramadi and Fallujah–have severely impacted the insurgents’ ability to fight.”


The insurgents operating in the Euphrates River corridor are a mixed bag. Though reports vary from think tank to agency to commanders on the ground, most agree that many of the guerrilla leaders are al Qaeda Sunnis, whom U.S. forces officially refer to as al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). The AQI guerrillas are led by Jordanian-born terrorist Abu Musab Al Zarqawi. Others are al Qaeda or AQI-sympathizing foreigners from various points throughout the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. Some are Hezbollah. Some Hamas. Some are Chechen, considered by many Marines and soldiers to be the toughest fighters in the insurgency. Many bad guys are simply poorly trained locals who have been whipped into a frenzy by older, more seasoned terrorists. Unfortunately, most of the young locals wind up as suicide bombers or as opium-pumped members of “sacrifice squads.”

Insurgent tactics run the gamut from Banzai-like suicide charges launched by the small “sacrifice squads” screaming “Allahu Akbar!” as they attack Marine riflemen–suicide indeed–to wiring houses and other buildings with bombs, taking families hostage (specifically using women and children as human shields), kidnapping children to force parents into compliance, and detonating bombs in civilian crowds.

In all cases, weapons are plentiful: Assault rifles, light machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), mortars, and the biggest casualty producer of them all, the improvised explosive device (IED). The bad guys also have laptop computers, portable GPS receivers, cell and satellite phones, but almost no night-vision equipment.

Further east, toward Baghdad, the insurgency is similar in terms of weapons and tactics–as evidenced by Friday’s horrific mosque bombings and Saturday’s attack on a funeral procession–but has its roots stretching north into Iran.


Despite the dangers encountered in operations like Steel Curtain, U.S. and Iraqi forces are also enjoying what they see as desperate, even “comical,” incidents on the part of AQI-insurgents, whom the Marines have dubbed “the mighty jihadi warriors.”

In more than one instance–and to the delight of American and Iraqi troops–insurgents have been caught attempting to flee the battlefield dressed as women: Considered a particularly disgraceful act among Iraqis.

“They’ve proven to be cowards,” says Kerr. “We found a number of them skulking among a flock of sheep trying to escape in Ubaydi, and there have been several instances of insurgents dressing up as women trying to escape.”

In one instance, Iraqi soldiers discovered three foreign fighters dressed as women trying to enter an Iraqi displacement camp. “The Iraqi soldiers wound up killing them after the insurgents revealed their identity and tried to engage the Iraqi soldiers with AK-47s hidden under their dresses,” says Kerr.


Currently, the Iraqi security forces are comprised of more than 200,000 Iraqi soldiers and paramilitary policemen. Of that number, some 15,000 Iraqi soldiers are operating in Al Anbar, and approximately 1,000 of those soldiers have been fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with 2,500 U.S. Marines, sailors, and soldiers in Steel Curtain. That’s 10-times the 100 Iraqi soldiers who participated in Operation Spear, also in Al Anbar, in June.

Many of the current numbers have been recruited locally where insurgents are now losing both face and ground. And many of the new recruits are serving in specially trained Scout Platoons (also known as “Desert Protectors”), hearkening back to the 19th-century American plains Indians who served as scouts with U.S. Army cavalry units. Like the Native American scouts in the Wild West, Iraqi scouts in Al Anbar are prized by U.S. forces for their courage, navigational skills, ability to relate with tribal leaders, and an understanding of local customs and dialects.

According to Kerr, the scouts and Iraqi infantry have had a huge impact on the success of Steel Curtain. “They have been the biggest difference between this operation and past operations in the area,” he says. “They see things that U.S. forces just do not see. They recognize those who do not belong, and they are every bit as committed to eliminating the insurgency as their coalition counterparts.”

Steel Curtain is the first operation in which Iraqi Scout Platoons have been deployed.

A surge in recruiting numbers in untamed regions like the Al Anbar Province is not the only measure of progress American commanders are seeing within the Iraqi military. Iraqi units are performing well operationally, and Iraqi soldiers are now almost always the vanguard units kicking down the doors on any given mission. Still there are challenges for U.S. forces standing up the Iraqi units.


“My biggest frustration is that they still operate under a centralized decision-making process,” U.S. Army Col. Michael Cloy, a Fort Jackson, S.C.-based brigade commander and the senior military advisor for the 2nd Iraqi Army (Light) Infantry Division in Mosul, tells NRO. “Many of their subordinate leaders, even at division level, are tentative in their decision making for that reason. They will always look up for permission as opposed to operating on initiative. That’s due to the fact that they’ve been beaten down for years. If anybody was seen as displaying initiative in the past, they were usually done away with.”

Cloy says he and his officers are effectively coaching the Iraqi military officers on the various particulars of leadership–especially when poor examples of decision-making are witnessed–but with a gentle hand.

“We will pull the officer off to the side, but we have to be careful,” says Cloy. “In this culture of shame and honor, you do not want to embarrass anybody. Sometimes we have to step back and repair the relationship.”

Iraqis are learning to fight for themselves, and they’re proving their worth as combat soldiers daily in operations like Steel Curtain. But the learning process is “slow and deliberate,” says Cloy. “These things take time.”


Of course many–who, again, don’t understand the complexities of ground combat–rail against President Bush for not conceding “defeat” and withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq. But how could we responsibly withdraw from a fight–that terrorists and terror-sponsoring nations fear we will win–when we have the enemy on the ropes? Why should we shut down operations in Al Anbar and elsewhere in Iraq when we continue to glean solid intelligence from captured foreign fighters in that country about terrorist activities, worldwide? Why should we abandon a new nation and its people who we’ve made promises to, and they’ve responded in kind with their own enormous sacrifices and courageous votes? And why should we abandon a growing and remarkably developed military force that we’ve stood up from scratch in less than three years?

And despite what the cut-and-run crowd would have us believe, American troops on the ground are not deceptively recruited pawns in some unfortunate military adventure. U.S. soldiers and Marines in Al Anbar and elsewhere in Iraq know exactly what they are doing, and why. They also see the fruits of their labors, which, to their consternation, are rarely reported.

Speaking before a group of U.S. airmen in South Korea, Saturday, President Bush said, “There are some who say that the sacrifice is too great, and they urged us to set a date for withdrawal before we have completed our mission. Those who are in the fight know better.”

Indeed, says Capt. Kerr, “We have the initiative and we intend to keep driving hard against these guys [insurgents]. Our goal is to stay on the offensive and capitalize on the considerable momentum we have.”

A former U.S. Marine infantry leader and paratrooper, W. Thomas Smith Jr. writes about military issues and has covered conflict in the Balkans and on the West Bank. He is the author of four books, and his articles appear in a variety of publications.

A former U.S. Marine infantry leader, W. Thomas Smith Jr. writes about military issues. He has covered war in the Balkans, on the West Bank, in Iraq, and in Lebanon. ...


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