Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Quote of the day

"Strategic level babysitting."
- COL Dave Funk, Commander, 3-2 SBCT

It's late, well when you have to be awake at 5 am it's late, so I don't want to stay up explaining this statement by our brigade commander other than to say it is an excellent description of what 1-14 CAV was doing in N.E. Diyala. He wasn't disparaging our mission in any way, it was a bit of a compliment and now I have a term that really explains what our mission was.

Saturday, September 25, 2010


There's an interesting article in last month's Wired magazine about improvised explosive devices in Iraq and Afghanistan and the military's attempt to defeat them. I'm behind in my magazine reading, along with everything else, which is why I'm only now getting around to reading it/blogging on it.
What really caught my attention was a sub article where the evolution of IEDs was discussed, specifically the nasty explosively formed penetrator (EFP).
EFPs are a copper canister filled with explosives and capped with an inversely shaped conical top. When detonated the copper top creates a copper slug or several copper slugs that can punch through armored vehicles. Here's some pictures:

They are detonated either by command wire, cell phone (or other electronic device, or best of all...IR heat signature. I wouldn't exactly call anything detonated by an IR device "improvised", but they don't ask my opinion. Due to the way the copper top has to be pressed and the often sophisticated way these devices are detonated the organization using EFPs has to be fairly well funded and supplied. It is that reason that EFPs are entirely a Shia insurgency weapon in Iraq. The Jaysh al Mahdi (as well as its offshoots) are the only organization known to build and use EFPs effectively. I'm sure there are a couple of cases where Sunni organizations have managed to get ahold of and use EFPs and there are a few known groups that attempted to make their own EFPs, but those are the exception and the weapons remain a problem for those units unlucky enough to have to deal with large Shia populations.

1-14 CAV, with all the problems we had in N.E. Diyala, did not have a Shia/JAM problem. So no EFPs. However, the rest of Diyala had a significant Shia population which meant driving from FOB Cobra to the brigade headquarters at FOB Warhorse, or the logistics hub of Joint Base Balad, meant driving through several EFP hotspots. Whenever I visited FOB Warhorse I would joke with the folks on brigade staff or the military intelligence company about the amount of EFP hotspots I drove through just to visit them. Gallows humor.

EFPs would cause some problems this past deployment. The brigade field artillery battalion, 1-37 FA lost a soldier to an EFP. 1-14 even had a run-in with one on a movement from Balad back to Cobra. 1-23 IN spent the last half of the deployment focused on one town to defeat the issue and 2-3 IN spent their last couple of months essentially watching roads to prevent emplacement of EFPs.

The myriad of ways insurgents have devised to initiate these devices is what fascinates me. They started with just a wire or an electronic device; once we countered the electronic devices with jamming equipment IR sensors that detected the heat of the engine were used; heat decoys, at first just improvised such as toasters hung at the end of vehicles, were designed to defeat the IR sensors; next step, adjust the sensor and device so the EFP explodes on the vehicle after the heat decoy sets it off; American solution, adjustable poles for the heat decoys.

The adjustable heat decoys, known as Rhino mounts, didn't always work as insurgents would sometimes get lucky. Many EFP builders just went back to command wire initiated devices which, while dangerous for the guy pushing the button because he is more likely to get caught, cannot be defeated by technological countermeasures. However, a newer, sneakier way has been developed to set off the device. According to Wired, some EFPs are now being detonated by the signals set off by the electronic countermeasure devices on our vehicles. Genius.

Monday, September 20, 2010

From the "Well This Can't Be Good" files...

Something horrible happened in Tajikistan on Sunday. Horrible for those involved anyway. 40 Tajik soldiers were killed in an ambush initiated by Islamist fighters in the Rasht Valley of Tajikistan. The soldiers were part of a 75-man convoy searching for members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan who escaped from prison back in August.

I've included a map for those readers who have no idea where Tajikistan is. Oh frak, what's that country just to the south??!!

What does an entire platoon of soldiers being wiped out have to do with anything you ask? Well, first off, AN ENTIRE PLATOON WAS KILLED. 40 of a 75 man convoy was eliminated by some escaped prisoners. I'm no math wiz but I believe that's more than 50%. Also, apparently no enemy fighters were killed. This wasn't some pathetic band of rabblerousers, this must have been a well equiped and trained force. Tajikistan's Defence Ministry is claiming the group that conducted the attack includes foreign fighters from such lovely locales as Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Chechnya.

Alright, so what?

This is essentially an indicator that the war in Afghanistan is spilling over into adjacent countries, and not just the obvious one of Pakistan. Tajikistan isn't exactly stable and neither is its neighbor to the north, Kyrgyzstan. Since the organization causing all this trouble calls itself the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan it is highly likely they have some plans for Uzbekistan as well.

Seriously, so what?

It comes down to expansion of the conflict. While the Taliban and other Al Qaida linked organizations keep NATO busy in Afghanistan, other Al Qaida linked organizations, such as the Uzbek fellows, are free to expand the conflict and attempt to overthrow regimes in other areas. The former Soviet republics aren't that crucial...except all three are "allies" of the United States and provide airbases in which we resupply Afghanistan. They also provide havens in which organizations can recruit and train with no Western troops to stop them and only mediocre local security forces to harrass them, such as the case of our unlucky 75 Tajiks. I'm not going to go into why Pakistan is important other than to say it rhymns with "nuclear weapons".

In other news, France has deployed 100 anti-terrorism specialists to Niger after 7 people, including 5 French nationals were kidnapped in an uranium mining area by...wait for it...wait for it...an Al Qaida linked organization. By linked I mean they use Al Qaida in the damn name, Al Qaida in the Islamic Mahgreb. While we were wasting our time in Iraq dealing with the describtivly and accurately named Al Qaida in the Land of the Two Rivers (we just shortened it to Al Qaida in Iraq because we Americans are busy people and can't be bothered to write that all out, AQI looks better than AQLTR anyway) AQIM was been busy causing trouble in north central Africa. And while other Al Qaidas such as the above named AQI as well as Al Qaida in the Arabic Peninsula have been all but eliminated (Saudi Arabia and Yemen appear to have done something worthwhile for a change), AQIM has faced no opposition other than Mali. Mali? Seriously? Do I need to include another map?

Some of you may be saying "uh, the map doesn't help much."

In the last bit of news, things are still blowing up in Somalia. And by things I mean people. Shahab, another Al Qaida linked organization but one with more originality, has been ramping things up over the past year and keeping the African Union troops occupying the country (and by country I mean Mogidishu) more than a bit busy. Shahab has even started bringing the fight to Puntland, the self governing and somewhat stable and normal northern Somalia.

Why bring up all this misery? To highlight that while that we are currently drawing down troops in Iraq and will likely be out by the end of next year as well as potentially leaving Afghanistan in a couple of years, there are still plently of locations that may require military force to remove threats. In the next 2-3 years I can potentially see deployments to Mali, Mauritania, Niger, or Somalia. Can't forget those stans either. I do not believe I will ever have the luxury of seeing a peacetime Army.

Friday, September 17, 2010


I just finished reading Bing West's The Village; literally, I finished it, played a quick game of flight control, and then sat down to type this out. The book is the true story of a squad of Marines during the Vietnam War who were assigned as a CAP (combined action program). They partnered up with a group of Popular Forces (local security force) to help protect a series of villages that held about 6,000 people. The Marines lived with the local security forces, ate with them, spent time in the villages during the day, and conducted ambushes agains the local Viet Cong at night. 7 of the Marines would lose their lives but after 2 years the area was completely secure. The use of the CAP was, in my opinion, an outstanding technique for counterinsurgency and throughout reading the book I wondered if a similar program, done properly, could have been used in Iraq.

A CAP program may not have worked in the larger cities of Iraq like Baghdad, Mosul, and Basra, but I believe in many of the less populated areas where village areas are more common it would have worked. In my squadron's area of operations area I can think of 3, possibly 4, village areas where this idea could have potentially worked wonders had we implemented it. Finding NCOs and soldiers willing to live amongst the Iraqis and away from "the flagpole" would likely not be difficult as it would give these soldiers a great opportunity to prove themselves without all the garrison rules that come with being on a large base. There would be a cost, of course. 12-15 soldiers on their own with reinforcements several minutes or an hour away, would be too much of a high payoff target for insurgents to not attempt to attack. In 2006-2007 combat outposts and patrol bases were being attacked regularly. Several squads likely would have been lost throughout Iraq. The cost would be worth it because as long as CAPs were replaced the population would see the American and Iraqi soldiers standing up to the insurgents and fighting for the protection of the locals. Information and intelligence gathered would increase as would hostility towards the insurgency. Without a regular army to back them up, such as in Vietnam, the insurgency would have withered away much quicker than it has.

However, CAPs were not established and by the time 1-14 came back to Iraq we were not even allowed to establish combat outposts as we of course were in the beginning stages of a drawdown. The checkpoints we were eventually forced to man would have made COPs or even patrol bases impossible to maintain due to manpower limitations. There was some talk of keeping the occasion platoon at an Iraqi Army company headquarters, which could have been effective, but no commander made the decision to do it, even after the squadron commander mentioned this as a possibility. If we could have established 3 combat outposts and created 4 combined platoons...while I'm at it I should wish for a pony.

Tom Ricks links to an article from Army Magazine discussing another form of partnership that 4th BDE, 25th infantry conducted in Afghanistan. 4-25 conducted "embedded partnership" and established a combined tactical operations center with their Afghan Army partners. This enabled better communication and more comprehensive planning.

1-14 did a similar thing in Diyala. While it wasn't a completely combined TOC, we did at least have liason officers from the Iraqi Army brigade, the Peshmerga brigade, and the local police in the TOC. Only the IA LNO had a radio so communication between the police LNO and the Pesh LNO to their respective HQs was done through cell phone. Officers from the Iraqi Army would come to the TOC to discuss issues, the operations officers from all 3 sides could have planning meetings, and my partner came over frequently to see the UAV feed and recommend areas to overwatch. I had concerns about security since we were essentially showing our hand, or at least a good portion of it, to individuals whose loyalty was sometimes in question. My warrant officer still twitches in anger at some of the security violations we had to pretend we didn't see and several of my soldiers joked of inviting both AQI and JRTN to send LNOs to the TOC.

One last article to leave you with. This one has nothing to do with partnerships but instead the increasing gap that has been formed between the military and the average American we are sworn to protect. The country has been at war for nearly 10 years now but because of the all volunteer force only a very tiny portion of citizens has been to Iraq or Afghanistan, often 2, 3, or 4 times. Those of us who chose this find we sometimes have little in common with the average person who only does a 9-5. This blurb really stuck out for me:

It's even becoming more difficult for soldier and civilian to converse. Army
Capt. Stefan Hutnik, a company commander in Afghanistan, recalls being home from
a combat tour and being told by his wife, as they were headed out to a family
dinner, please don't talk about the Army or the war.
"But,'' he said sadly, "I don't have anything else to talk about.''

How many times have I been there before? Sitting in a room, desperately wanting to tell my story, but knowing nobody gives a damn.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Stoopid legal rules getting in the way of a good capture

Prior to this last deployment the squadron had been educated and trained on one of the many elements of Iraq war that had changed since the last time we had all been there. Arrest warrants were now absolutely necessary if we or the Iraqi security forces were to detain anyone legally. Gone were the days of 2006-2007 where individuals could just be rounded up for suspicion by elements on the ground and sent off to some detention facility. Evidence had to be obtained and witnesses found and everything brought before a judge. The judge would then sign off on a warrant and the individual could then be detained. All detainees would be held by either the police or the army, no longer were Americans holding people, unless it was signed off by a competant Iraqi authority.

Our first taste of dealing with warrants came at the National Training Center during our rotation. Some of our targets already had warrants, others we needed to obtain them. A couple of the troop commanders did not quite understand the process and and became confused since if a guy is on the top ten list then clearly we needed to kill/capture him even if he doesn't have a warrant. Soldiers were frustrated. Commanders were frustrated. I was frustrated. Compounding my frustration was that somehow I ended up expected to be the resident expert on warrants and the process of acquiring them, despite no legal or law enforcement training or experience. In the end we learned how to play the game and had quite a bit of success at the NTC.

Iraq, of course, would be a lot more complicated and if I had any hair I likely would have torn it out by the end of the deployment from dealing with the whole warrant issue. Before we deployed I did attempt some research into the process and find out the best way to get warrants issued. I learned that units often conducted "judge shopping", much like police and prosecutors due in the States, if Law and Order has taught anything. Judge shopping in Iraq is essentially finding a judge in your Area of Operations that would be more likely to issue a warrant, usually with limited evidence, than other judges in the area. Sometimes this was as simple as finding a Shia judge when your target was Sunni but also worked if the judge's tribe was in active competition with your target's tribe. Nievely I told myself that I would not judge shop nor would I allow my unit to judge shop. Warrants would be issued and targets acquired based on the evidence and some hard work.

Fast forward a couple of months to the first week of 1-14 CAV controlling our battlespace. 5-1 CAV had handed off a decent top ten list with what appeared to be pretty good evidence packets. Most of the high value targets had warrants already but there were a few that were lacking. One such target happened to be the brother of a sheikh. Not just any sheikh, but the 2nd most influential sheikh in the AO. The target was reported to be a leader of, or the very least funding, one of the local cells belonging to Jaysh Rijal al-Tariq Naqshabandi (JRTN). Since it was our first week in charge we wanted to show that we were going to be aggressive and take the fight to the enemy, so a mission was drawn up with the input of one of the special forces teams in the area and the Iraqi Army. It was decided that we conduct an operation to capture this brother of a sheikh (who, by the way, also happened to be a sheikh) as well as a couple of other smaller fish. It was decided that even though this target did not have a warrant, there would likely be enough evidence found on the scene that a detention warrant could then be issued and the capture kept legal.

The mission was conducted and the target captured as well as what appeared to be dozens of fake gensia (ID) cards plus some good intelligence gathered at some of the other objectives. Our target was being held by the Iraqi Army and I figured sucess was had; 1 week down, 1 target down.

About a day after the operation the special forces intel sergeant informed me that he had talked to the Iraqi Army brigade intelligence officer and was told that our target would be released the next day due to lack of evidence. I rushed over to the intelligence officer's office to find out what was going on and found several "sheikhy" looking individuals in the room. MAJ Mustafa led me into another room where he informed me that our target was being released and there was no evidence. Our target apparently helped locals with legal matters and government paperwork and that was why he had all the gensia cards. I was angry and assumed that the folks in MAJ Mustafa's office were bribing him in order to secure his release, but there was honestly nothing more I could do as no witnesses had come forward to testify against our target.

This was a frustrating experience but an experience that my section learned from. From then on operations were only conducted against targets that had warrants and troop commanders learned to work with their Iraqi counterparts to obtain those warrants before an operation. The information gathered from the other objectives eventually led to the detainment of another high value target months later. However, I believe our relationship with the influential sheikh was damaged by our detaining his brother. It was reported that they did not get along and may even have hated eachother, but some shame must have been brought to the family and tribe by our actions. It would take several months, a change of troop commanders, and involvement in non-lethal projects that would eventually open this sheikh back to us.

We never quite figured out the warrant process and there were many statements of "I wish this were 2007", but we had our successes, and a few more failures. A troop, in the southern and eastern sections of the AO, would quickly learn that their Iraqi Army counterparts were not going to be of much use in obtaining warrants and so worked closely with the Iraq police and the special forces. B troop relied heavily on the Iraqi Army and warrants already issued, but rarely pursued witnesses or other means to work warrants. C troop worked closely with all their partners to determine who the security forces in the central portion of the AO were targeting and assisted in the gathering of evidence that would be used by their partners to obtain warrants and detain targets.

I may have come close to dissussing some things I should not disscuss but I believe my little blog is once again under the radar and so I should be safe from brigade retribution...for now.

On a final note, are there any topics or incidents that you the reader would like to know about from 1-14's little adventure? If so, hit me up in the comments section or on Facebook.