Diyala Province, Iraq — The news from here — even when accurately reported — so often obscures more than it reveals. By now we all know what a counterinsurgency is not: It is not a conflict that can be measured in ground taken, armies defeated, and generals surrendering. You can’t watch progress on a map, and the great moments are few and far between.
Instead, Americans at home are left with discrete reports of individual events and with endless reports about numbers, some of them depressing, some of them encouraging, but all of them isolated from context or narrative. 51 civilians killed in Baghdad market bombing. Eleven militants killed in raid on safe house. American casualties rise. American casualties fall. While trends do exist, those trends represent perhaps the driest, least compelling way of describing what is increasingly undeniable reality: we have a plan, and it is working.
In my corner of Iraq — eastern Diyala Province — my unit, 2d Squadron (“Sabre”), 3d Armored Cavalry Regiment doesn’t merely react to events — acting as a glorified whack-a-mole hammer desperately seeking to hit elusive insurgents as they pop up here, there, and everywhere — instead, led by LTC Paul T. Calvert, we act according to a cohesive, coherent pattern. We go into areas not merely to kill or capture insurgents but to actually replace insurgents with functioning Iraqi Security Forces and functioning Iraqi civilian governments. (We are fortunate to share our “battle space” with Iraqi officials and units who are courageous, aggressive, and making a real difference for their citizens.) At the same time, we present the population with a constant, clear alternative: the legitimate Iraqi government and its coalition allies provide security, economic opportunity, and the chance at peace. Al-Qaeda offers nothing but death, poverty, and despair.
Few events show these alternatives and these patterns of conduct better than the events of early May in Balad Ruz, Iraq, a small city located close to our forward operating base. In the early evening of May 1, a female suicide bomber faking a pregnancy walked into a crowded market and blew herself up. As rescuers rushed to aid the victims, a second suicide bomber self-detonated. When the dust cleared, at least 35 Iraqi civilians lay dead or dying and 65 were wounded, many gravely.
Despite the fact that Sabre Squadron was in the final stages of planning and executing a major operation, we acted. Mobilizing medics, doctors, and even cooks, we raced to the scene to care for the wounded and to help the Iraqi Police bring order to a chaotic situation. What al-Qaeda damaged, we worked desperately to mend, evacuating young children to receive the best care we could give.
But even as we brought immediate aid to Balad Ruz, we also launched an operation that could bring more long term relief to that city than anything else we do in Iraq. In the largest combined air assault in Iraq’s northern area of operations, Sabre’s Grim Troop took off with one entire Battalion of Iraqi Army soldiers and touched down in a long held al-Qaeda safe haven — the very spot from which al-Qaeda had been launching attacks against the citizens of Balad Ruz. Simultaneously, our Fox Troop conducted a dismounted ground infiltration with an Iraqi Army Battalion while our Howitzer Battery supported with indirect fires. Thus began Operation Sabre Tempest.
In the first few hours, the operation (which featured the unusual sight of tankers and cavalry scouts flying into battle) paid immediate dividends. With Iraqi units taking the lead, Sabre Troopers and IA units detained more than 40 insurgents, including individuals suspected of involvement in suicide bombing and other terrorist acts.
But rather than strike the insurgents and leave, we stayed. For more than seven weeks now, our Troopers have lived in the villages. We have conducted civil/military assessments in long-neglected towns, hired more than 200 Iraqi men to guard their homes and communities, established an Iraqi-police presence, and have built trust and confidence every day. When we do leave, we will leave behind a functioning government where before there was torture, death, and destruction.
All this brings us back full circle to the lack of narrative in news reporting. Googling “Balad Ruz” in Google News leads to reports of the suicide bombing (erroneously reported as occurring during a wedding party), reports of a mortar attack that killed two people, and one small positive story about a few IEDs we found and detonated. That’s it. No narrative. No context. No sense that an entire al-Qaeda safe haven has been restored to Iraqi government control and certainly no sense that there are now American Soldiers and Iraqi Security Forces living, working, and building a community on ground where insurgents freely roamed.
I do not, however, want to add just one more rant to the seemingly endless pile of complaints against mainstream-media coverage of the war. Iraq is a difficult place to understand and an extraordinarily dangerous place to cover. Journalists risk their lives every day they are “outside the wire” in Iraqi communities, and I’m in awe of the courage and commitment of many of the reporters I’ve met.
It’s an old cliché that it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness, but it truly is incumbent upon our own soldiers to tell (as much as we can) the stories that no one else can tell. We owe that to the guys who are nowhere near a computer and nowhere near a reporter — to the guys living every day in 120 degree heat, braving bombs, bullets, and bugs to bring hope and security to the dusty and ancient villages of Diyala Province.
– David French is a Senior Counsel at the Alliance Defense Fund and a Captain in the United States Army Reserve. This is his first deployment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.