Thursday, March 31, 2011

Big booms continue in Iraq

My intention was to write this post yesterday but I was dragged out to see Sucker Punch so I didn't get around to it, and I've been in Casualty Assitance/Casualty Notification training the past couple of days so I am not sitting in an office bored out of my mind and able to blog at work.

Anyway, on Tuesday in Iraq there was an attack against the Salah al Din provincial council meeting which left at least 53 dead. The attack started with a grenade attack against a checkpoint outside the government building and the proceeded with gunmen charging into the building. Suicide bombers detonated inside and the gunmen then killed as many people as they could. Most people appear to be blaming Al Qaida in Iraq for the attack although the group has yet to take responsibility...and this attack seems to be extremely coordinated for that organization.

I have very little knowledge of the tribal, political, or insurgent dynamics of Salah al Din province having been only in that area to go to LSA Anaconda outside of Balad in 2004 and again in 2010 so I'm not exactly the best person to comment on this attack, but hell, like I've said before, it's my blog and that's what I'm here for. If I had to guess, I would say that AQI is most likely responsible for this attack, but they had to have had help. Planning would have taken weeks if not months and somebody would likely have passed off information to either US forces (who are stretched very thin these days) or to Iraqi security forces. My thoughts are that either the individuals who pulled this off had help from a local tribe or government/security forces protecting Tikrit. I wouldn't even rule out JRTN in this attack although they do not usually use suicide bombers (and by "do not usually" I mean "never") and I would expect this attack from then more closer to when US forces are leaving.

Attacks of this nature are going to occur again in Iraq. This article in Foreign Affairs discusses the issue. Unfortunately the link is too a premium article meaning you have to be a subscriber to read the entire thing (boo). It is essentially about how the US needs to be very careful of not pulling out of Iraq too quickly because Iraq is a very new democracy and violence is very likely to occur from those groups and individuals who perceive that they are disenfranchised or that the government is ignoring them. AQI will get the blame, but there are other factors that need to be considered. Emma Sky, a civilian aide/advisor for both generals Petraeus and Odierno, wrote the article so she knows what she is talking about.

I had the honor of actually meeting and briefing Ms. Sky twice in Iraq. Actually I was briefing General Odierno but that's hardly the point. My respect for Ms. Sky is enormous and I was giddy as a little school girl when I met her.

I heart you...

Monday, March 28, 2011

The game is afoot...

Intelligence reporting, at least according to the Asia Times, has indicated that a certain high profile individual has been moving around the Afghanistan/Pakistan border meeting with key Al Qaida leaders. That high profile individual would be none other than Osama Bin Laden, and his movements have apparently startled intelligence agencies who haven't seen much out of Bin Laden in over two years.

But what the hell is he up to? According to the article, intelligence analysts have a few guesses...which is all we intelligence analysts can really do at the end of the day, guess:

1) Since he is believed to have met with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the founder and leader of Hezb-e-Islami Afghanistan (HIA) a political party and militant organization, it's possible that Al Qaida and HIA are discussing and planning a joint operation for Afghanistan. Taking advantage of a decreasing number of coalition forces over the next few years this operation would be to win the Afghan war in favor of the Taliban.

2) Internal conflicts are causing a rift in the Taliban and Al Qaida ranks forcing Bin Laden to deal with those issues personally.

3) Al Qaida plans on somehow taking advantage of the current revolutions sweeping the Middle East in order to once again get in the global spotlight.

I am no means an Al Qaida or Afghanistan/Pakistan expert but I'm hoping the situation means number 2; number 1 is the most likely; and I fear number 3 the most.

The reporting reminds me a bit of a similar situation 1-14 CAV faced in our last deployment (because I can find similarities to any world event and 1-14's last deployment). The task-force-that-shall-not-be-named-because-I-could-wind-up-in-jail-for-disclosing-too-much occasionally received information that the head of Al Qaida in Iraq, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, traveled to our little corner of Iraq every once in awhile, the town of Jalula to be more specific.

Why al-Masri was coming to Jalula was a mystery and the task force was not exactly forthcoming in their information and only gave us enough so that we could do our jobs in assisting them. All I knew was that it was believed he had come to Jalula a couple of times in the past and then on a final trip in March (or it may have been February, it all bleeds together) when we actually rolled out with the task force in an attempt to capture him...dry hole obviously.

The squadron commander would sporadically ping me for the reason for al-Masri's reported travel to Jalula. Having no sources or other intelligence collection on al-Masri I could only speculate; al-Masri was a big fish in a quickly dwindling school of fish and I was focused on baracudas in our metaphorical ocean...task force could deal with al-Masri and any attempt to collect would have likely tipped our hand that we knew he was coming into the area.

There could be any number of reasons for al-Masri being in Jalula, the squadron commander's favorite was that al-Masri may have had a girlfriend in the town, a likely scenario. My theory was that it was a way for al-Masri to discuss future operations, hand out funds, and deal with internal divisions in an environment that found AQI cells and networks increasingly cut off from each other due to security measures and capture of leadership.

In the end, al-Masri would be killed in April and the reasoning for his Jalula visits would be buried with him and the secrecy obsessiveness of the special forces.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Company level intelligence in the COIN fight

After nearly 4 months here at FT Huachuca I finally have a job. I still don't have a permanent office or desk to work at, but at least I have a job. While I always had a job title, Training Division XO does sound very important (it's not), my boss had never given me any tasks primarily due to the lack of work space as well as there not being much to assign me with.

That changed a couple of days ago when our little corner of FT Huachuca was given the task of managing the Army's CoIST MTTs, which my boss then decided I would be more than able to do.

So what does all of that mean? Well, an MTT is a mobile training team. An MTT travels to various military posts and provides training to the units on whatever training they have requested. It's a method used when a lot of people need to be trained on something and everybody can't all travel to one location to get the training.

A CoIST is a company intelligence support team, basically a company level intelligence (S2) section. Back in 2005 or 2006 the Army realized that nearly all of the information and intelligence gathered in Iraq and Afghanistan was being done down at the company level, unlike in a conventional fight where intelligence usually comes from higher at the corps or division level and then filtered down. Company commanders were being overwhelmed with information and didn't have the resources to process it all; battalion S2's (intelligence sections...what I was in charge of in my last two deployments) were also overwhelmed with all this information from the companies. Company commanders were irritated that most intelligence products disseminated to them from battalion level usually just gave them back the information they had sent higher, with perhaps some analysis to go with it. Companies needed their own intel sections.

Thus, the CoIST was born...but not resourced. Company commanders were told to establish intel sections but weren't given any intelligence soldiers, the personnel had to come from their own elements. An infantry company with between 120-150 soldiers can probably afford to do this. Grab some smart soldiers and a few guys who are too injured to regularly go out on patrol and make them your CoIST. Cavalry troops and field artillery batteries who often have less than 100 soldiers (1-14's troops while deployed usually had between 78-82 soldiers) were hard pressed to allocate soldiers for the CoIST mission without severely degrading their ability to complete daily missions. On top of the personnel issue, these soldiers were not intelligence soldiers, they were infantry, armor, field artillery, etc; they had no training, experience, or idea of what to do.

MTTs were put together from government contractors in order to train non-MI soldiers on how to do basic MI tasks. By 2008/2009 the Army was pushing hard for CoISTs. Some commanders heeded the advice on what these CoISTs could do for them and other commanders ignored it. 5-1 CAV, the unit 1-14 replaced in Iraq did not have CoISTs because the squadron commander did not believe in the idea. My squadron at least made an attempt at the concept, but with fewer soldiers than an infantry battalion, it was a challenge.

1-14's CoISTs consisted of 1-3 soldiers depending on the troop and the commander. Each troop used the HUMINT soldiers as their CoISTs since those soldiers were the closest thing the troop commander had to intelligence analysts. The fire support officer was occassionally augmented the CoIST officer in charge (OIC) as an extra duty. A troop primarily just used their senior HUMINT NCO in conjunction with the troop commander to develop their information; the FSO was brought in to help with the non lethal responsibilities. B troop, blessed with two HUMINT NCOs and a talented FSO were the most successful of our COISTs. They fused information taken from patrol reports, HUMINT reports, SIGINT reports, and intel from higher to not only develop a cohesive picture of the JRTN network in our operating environment, but diseminate it up to higher headquarters as well, giving not only the troop the JRTN picture but also squadron as well as brigade. C troop faced the difficulty of a commander who did not feel the need to have a CoIST, he believed he could manage all the information himself. The FSO did all the non lethal work and the HUMINT NCO helped with link diagrams, but other than the HUMINT reports very little was sent higher so squadron and brigade were left in the dark for the most part. This became problematic when the commander became the S3 (operations officer) and expected me to provide analysis on personalities and areas that he had information on, but had never shared or disseminated in any HUMINT or patrol report. The troop commander that replaced him wasn't much better and began witholding information out of spite. Luckily the HUMINT NCO and I were on fairly good terms and I maintained some level of situational awareness on C troop's operating environment.

So anyway, I am now the manager of 61 contractors who travel around the country to teach and develop CoISTs to active, National Guard, and Reserve Army units. I'm looking forward to this mission because of all the programs my division was responsible for, the CoIST mission was the one in which I felt I would be best suited to give my input on. Now if I can only get some permanent office space...

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Command philosphy spiral: Part II

Take a look at this article from The News Tribune out of Tacoma, WA. I love the TNT because they cover FT Lewis fairly often and the Stryker brigades regularly. The News Tribune has also sent several reporters over to Iraq and Afghanistan and I really respect their reporting.

The linked article is about a 500 page report that was written following an investigation into 5-2 SBCT (now 2-2 SBCT) and that brigade's actions in Afghanistan in 09-10, specifically the actions of a squad of soldiers who blatantly killed civilians and took human body parts as war trophies. I wrote about this situation here and I placed most of the blame on the brigade commander, COL Harry Tunnell.

The report is not being released by the Army yet (shocking), but was given to defense attorneys representing the soldiers currently being court martialed. One of the defense witnesses, Stjepan Mestrovic a Texas A&M sociology professor, who saw the report discussed the results of the investigation in the article.

A few quotes jumped out at me:
"The brigade was dysfunctional."

"Mestrovic said the brigade nearly failed to gain approval to go to
Afghanistan after it completed its pre-deployment training in Fort Irwin, Calif.
He said Tunnell’s aggressive style created an environment that enabled the
misconduct that allegedly occurred under his command."

"Mestrovic said the review of the Stryker brigade concluded that the
strategy of former brigade commander Col. Harry Tunnell was fundamentally at
odds with the one articulated by the war’s top commander at the time, Gen.
Stanley McChrystal."

COL Tunnell's leadership style and over-aggressiveness led to the incidents involving soldiers at the platoon level. That's exactly what I said back in October. I was also not surprised to learn from this article that the alleged "ringleader" of the killings, SSG Calvin Gibbs, served as part of COL Tunnell's security detail (PSD) before he joined the platoon involved in the incident.

What I would like to know is, why did GEN McChrystal allow COL Tunnell to remain in command when it likely was apparent that 5-2 wasn't in line with GEN McChrystal's strategy and was doing its own thing? Or hell, why wasn't COL Tunnell relieved prior to the deployment when 5-2 failed, or nearly failed, its NTC rotation (something I didn't think was even possible)?

After 3-2 SBCT's NTC rotation prior to our 09-10 Iraq trip I removed two NCO's from my section who made it obvious that they could not perform to my expectations or at the capacity 1-14 CAV needed them to. One of the NCO's was an extremely intelligent individual but would not have been able to handle the leadership requirements that would have been placed on him while deployed. The other NCO was just a shitbag.

Both NCO's were placed in other units in the brigade where, in case number one, be better supervised and not have the pressure of being the lone intel NCO on a combat outpost due to our split operations; or in case number two, not fuck anything up that wasn't vital to the mission. Looking back, moving those two NCO's was one of the best decisions I have ever made and in return I received an outstanding NCO and and outstanding soldier who both did great things during the deployment.

If a captain in a battalion level intelligence section has the willingness to remove underperforming or mismatched personnel, then a general in charge of a theater of operations better have that willingness as well.

Monday, March 21, 2011

When have a few cruise missiles stopped anything?

There isn't much catching my interest in the insurgency world and I'm not quite ready to dive back into stories of previous deployments so I will continue with my thoughts on current events in the Middle East.

Score 1 for the dictators. The king of Bahrain and his security forces have removed the peaceful protesters (with some help from his Saudi and Emirate buddies) as well as destroyed the memorial arch in Pearl Square that was a rallying point for demonstrators. King Hamad has even gone so far as to blame the protests on Iranian meddling. Yeah, because all oppressed Shia are merely puppets of the Ayatollah. As much as I think the Shia should start an insurgency/civil war in Bahrain, the country is practically a textbook example of the perfect situation for a counterinsurgent (small island, dispersed towns, desert). Yes Kyle, I do learn something from the books I steal from you.

How much longer will Yemen's President Saleh hold out? You know your days are numbered when even your own tribe won't back you up. Generals switching sides and joining the anti-government demonstrators doesn't help your case either. I have a feeling Yemen will be a mess for quite some time.

And then there is Libya. So a no-fly zone has been established, whoopity doo. That no-fly zone is only going to delay the forces crushing the rebellion. Don't get me wrong, I want Gadhafi gone, I just don't think destroying Libya's anti-air radar, command and control sites, and combat aircraft are going to do much in the way of helping the rebellion in the long run. Only boots on the ground will stop Gadhafi, and the US is a little busy right now with two other major operations...and I don't see anyone else attempting an invasion and occupation of Libya.

We're going to come out looking like suckers when Benghazi finally falls.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Shia/Sunni conflict in one region, Shia/Sunni cooperation in another...both bad

So much for peaceful protests. The monarchy in Bahrain has asked for assistance from Saudi Arabia to protect government facilities and the Saudis have obliged, sending mechanized troops to the tiny island nation. The UAE has also sent 500 police to assist the Bahrainian government.

It appears that the Saudis may fear a Shia uprising against the Sunni monarchy...that could potentially spred to Riyadh.

In other news, General Petraeus has confirmed that rocket shipment intercepted in Afghanistan was from Iran and was meant for the Taliban/Al Qaida. He claims that he's not too concerned about the weapons and that any assistance from Iran comes in "measured amounts". Iran is essentially just trying to give us a bit of a bloody nose and keep us occupied, much like they did in Iraq.

How long until EFPs start going off in Kabul?

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Something to think about

News out of Libya is not looking good for the rebel forces. Forces loyal to Gadhafi may or my not have taken the strategic town of Ras Lanuf and are definately pounding the rebels. At this point it appears to me that the only way Gadhafi will be removed from power is by a civil war, a conflict that will likely last for some time.

The Arab League has voted to back the idea of a no-fly zone and will attempt to sway the UN towards authorizing the action. However, the United States and NATO appear to be rather hesitate to carry out a no-fly zone, likely because it will be perceived as the West once again involving itself in Arab affairs.

There is another reason why Western nations should be cautious in assisting the rebels in eastern Libya. Andrew Exum, over at Abu Muqawama brings up the interesting report written by the Harmony Project at West Point. He links to the actual report on his blog which I won't bother to do, but it is a fairly good read. The report is an analysis of some captured Islamic State of Iraq documents discovered near Sinjar (west of Mosul near the Syrian border) in October 2007. The documents are essentially a record of foreign fighters coming into Iraq to fight for ISI and includes in many cases town and country of origin as well as the reason for coming to Iraq.

Not surprising, a majority of the fighters were from Saudi Arabia but a good number were from Libya, northeastern Libya to be precise. In fact, of the fighers documented, 18.8% were from Libya, second only to Saudi and Libya contributed more fighters per capita than any other nation. The most common cities of origin were Darnah and Beghazi...both along the eastern Libyan coast and both are current rebel strongholds. 85% of the Libyan foreign fighters noted that they came to Iraq to be suicide bombers.

Of historical note, Darnah and Beghazi were the scene of an uprising in the mid 1990's organized by the Islamic fundamentalist organization Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) that has ties to Al Qaida.

I of course am no fan of the Gadhafi regime and would love to see him swinging from a lampost in the near future. I also do not believe the current rebellion was started by any fundamentalist group but was a reaction by average Libyans to the protests sweeping the Middle East and North Africa. However, the West, and the United States in particular, should be vary cautious in assisting a group of people who appear to be more than willing to travel to another country in order to kill Americans.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The NTR, AQI, ISI, SoI, and more awesome acronyms

I'm pretty sure I've discussed the tribal dynamics of NE Diyala several times before but a recent incident motivated me to write about the issue some more. The incident in question was an IED attack targeting a tribal sheikh in the Nidah Tribal Region.

The Nidah Tribal Region is a barren wasteland near the border of Iran. It is dotted with small villages and the sole economy of the area is goat herding and smuggling. The Niddawi tribe make up a majority of the people and this tribe was favored by Saddam who moved them to the border area and put them in charge of defending the border from Iran as well as pushing the Kurds out of the region.

Of course, when the Saddam regime was removed the cash benefits of being a favored tribe dried up as did much of the smuggling opportunities as US forces did their best to disrupt smuggling along the border that was aiding the insurgency.

Al Qaida in Iraq and its offshoot, the Islamic State of Iraq, moved in and used the Niddawi tribe to smuggle weapons from the border as well as the tribesmen to increase the ranks of the organizations. Many suicide bombers in both Diyala and Baghdad came from the Nidah Tribal Region.

Complicating the situation, the paramount sheikh (the guy in charge of the tribe) passed away in 2005 and three sheikhs were in competition for the paramount role. One sheikh, Haithem Hom (the one targeted for assassination in the above link), apparently sided with AQI which led to his detainment. Another sheikh attempted to stop AQI and set up a Sons of Iraq program in the NTR (Sons of Iraq were the "anti AQI" neighborhood watch established in 2007). Unfortunately, US forces wouldn't help pay for the NTR SoI's and the sheikh quickly ran out of money. He turned to the Kurds who assisted financially but turning to the Kurds made this sheikh rather unpopular among many of his Sunni Arab tribesmen. The third sheikh had some support to be paramount, but never enough to be a serious contender.

Hathem Hom was released from prison some time in late 2006 and much of the violence we had in the NTR we attributed to competition for paramount and the lack of leadership in the area, especially after the primary insurgent leader in the NTR was detained in January.

Haithem was named paramount sheikh of the Niddawi a couple of months ago and I suspect this attack was some kind of intimidation or retaliatory attack, likely conducted by those loyal to one of the other two sheikhs. It's also possible that Haithem has been working with the local security forces to remove what remains of AQI/ISI and this attack was meant to intimidate Haithem back into the AQI fold, or it was a potential pre-emptive attack to keep Haithem from working with the security forces.

Somehow I doubt that Haithem Hom has turned over a new leaf so my money is on intimidation by another sheikh.