Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Working with our "Special" friends: Part II

Alright, so my last post discussed a few of 1-14 Cav's, and my, more colorful interactions in Iraq with the organization known as Task Force which was primarily made up of Rangers and civilian intel analysts. I realize that it came off a bit bitter, but when you have most of your toilet paper used up in a matter of hours you'd be bitter too. I wasn't exaggerating about the lack of information sharing either. Multiple times they asked for information from us and I was expected to provide it to them (if I didn't they would go to my squadron commander, basically tattle on me) but if I asked something of them I would rarely get a reply...or it would go to the operations officer who then failed to share it with me (so we had our own info flow problem in the squadron as well).

Anyway, enough about that...what about our green beret fellows?

They were better...on occasion. The team down at FOB Caldwell was awesome and we had a great working relationship with them. Their intel guy would pop in to discuss targets and the enemy situation and myself or one of my section members would swing by their team house from time to time to do the same. A few high value targets and persons of interest were detained because of this relationship. When the team rotated out we kept up our working relationship with the new team but unfortunately that only lasted a couple of months before the team was forced to move out of the area because Caldwell was shut down.

Working with the team on COP Cobra was a little more...interesting. I rarely saw their intel guy and he kept his cards close to his chest. Their commander was a very common site in our headquarters, though, and he would often have sit down chats with the squadron commander and stop into my office to talk and share. Several of our missions were conducted with the assistance of the SF team on Cobra.

It was when that team left and a new one came in that the situation got a little weird, and I'll admit part of it was my fault. Their new intel guy came around a lot and even participated in the joint Iraq/Kurd intel meetings that I hosted which was great. However, the team didn't get out much and they practically stopped conducting missions. Not entirely their fault as by this time the Combined Security Area© had been established meaning that all US forces had to conduct missions with both Iraqi and Kurd partners in the CSA. Fine for us, we brought in a Kurdish platoon and lived on the same base with an Iraqi army brigade HQ. Not so fine for the SF team who only had an Iraqi commando company to work with (there was a Kurdish "Swat" team in the Khanaqin area but no way in hell were the Iraqis going to allow those guys to come anywhere near the CSA). This led to my concern the new team seemed to be taking their sources' information hook, line, and sinker without taking the info with the standard grain of salt. The team couldn't really leave the base to go confirm information on the ground.

I should explain. Human intelligence, or HUMINT for short, is the process of gaining information from human informants...like a police snitch. The source can be as informal as a random civilian telling you something in the marketplace to a vetted, known personality, who is a member of an insurgent cell but is feeding you info. Part of my job as the intelligence officer was to weed through all the reports we would get and determine which were legit and which were bullshit...not always easy.

One evening in February the SF commander came to our headquarters and stated they had a source claiming that some of our high value targets were meeting in a village in the Tibij tribal area (Tibij being a dusty wasteland across the river from us where the hostile Kurwi tribe lived). The source was using a sub source so it took us several hours to determine which village and which building the meeting was occuring in. We also had to grab our Iraqi friends to plan with them (the Kurds were easy, tell them we're going to capture Arabs and they'll follow you like a platoon of puppies).

Pictured: our Kurdish Peshmerga platoon! I kid, I kid.

It was pretty late by the time we got rolling (I use "we" because I somehow got roped into going) and by this time the un-named HVTs became named HVTs. This should have been a red light for me since a source like this suddenly giving very actionable intelligence with named individuals almost never happens, but we preceeded anyway because, hey, you've got to at least take a shot on goal to get a score.

The troop (plus Iraqis and Kurds) hit the target house sometime after 2 am...but it was the wrong house. Hell, it was the wrong damn village. This set off more red lights for me since the source couldn't even get us to the right village, but of course we pressed on. It was determined the correct village and house wasn't that far away so we got our shit straight and hit that house...
...and found pretty much nothing.

Well, I shouldn't say nothing. There was the family plus 3 teenagers visiting from Salah al Din province. Of note there were a lot of video tapes "hidden" in a closet and some computer equipment set up with a wireless network, which was very odd for this part of Iraq. Of particular note one of the videos was labeled in Arabic "Beheading" or "Torture" or something along those lines.

...which was pretty much nothing. Turns out they were Egyptian movies. Oh well.

So what the hell happened?

The way I figure it, and the squadron commander generally agreed with my figuring, was that someone saw these teenagers arrive at the house and freaked because they were strangers. Strangers are generally bad in that part of Iraq and in some crazy game of telephone 3 teenagers visiting from Salah al Din became 3 insurgents, which got to the SF source who turned that into 3 HVTs, and after some pressure just gave us 3 names of guys he knew we were going after.

You can see why I had a lack of trust in the SF sources. Hell, I had a lack of trust in most of my squadron's sources as well. It was after 6 am before I got to bed thanks to lack of vetting by the SF team.

There was a bit of silver lining, though. We would eventually learn that the owner of the house we raided was a minor sheikh. A sheikh who believed he had a a djinn inside of him who helped him heal people. A djinn is essentially a genie that can be good, evil, or neutral...and this sheikh had one inhabiting his body. The teenagers from Salah al Din were likely visiting to be healed by the djinn. The sheikh immediately became a person of interest to us because we had some information that one of our targets was chronically ill. So where would an insurgent who is ill and lives in an area with little to no medical care? A sheikh with a healing djinn of course! Or that was the logic of the operations officer, but I was willing to go along with because it was a better lead than anything else my section had at the time. Looking back it seems a little ridiculous, but that's Iraq for ya.

But the bigger question, did it work? Did we capture any of targets by monitoring the majic sheikh man with spirits inside him? Of course not. Not going to be that easy.

Next post...I burn the bridge with the SF team and then piss on the ashes.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Working with our "Special" friends

During the '09-'10 deployment, 1-14 Cav and myself had an interesting relationship with the different special operations units that operated in and around our area of operations. It was occasionally amicable and occasionally it was strained, and the relationship often depended on the personalities of the SOF members and how friendly I was feeling.

There were two types of SOF units that we worked with. The first was the standard spec ops guys you think of when you think Army special operations, the green beret type guys. FOB Caldwell and COP Cobra each had a special forces team. The Caldwell team operated in the Nidah Tribal Region, Balad Ruz, and Mandali...our southern portion essentially. The Cobra team operated in our northern portion, As Sadiya, Jalula, and Qara Tapa for the most part.

The second SOF unit was made up of Rangers and who had the mission of targeting key Sunni insurgent leadership, primarily Ayyub al-Masri and his little gang of merry pirates. "Task Force" as they were known would pop in every couple of weeks with only a few hours warning (if you were lucky) and snag someone in their sleep. That someone or someones had possible links to some insurgent big shot but who rarely seemed to have any role in the insurgent cells operating in 1-14's corner of Iraq. It was this unit, Task Force who would give me a few of the biggest headaches.

My first experience with Task Force was just after my arrival to Caldwell. TF had flown into Jalula to conduct a mission but accidently startled some of the local security forces who promptly began firing on the TF guys. The local security (the Julula Emergency Reaction Force) had a touchy relationship with US forces and had asked to be notified of any US operations in and around Jalula so they would not "accidently" fire on them. Because the TF operation was super double probation secret, no one had notified the Jalula ERF so naturally they assumed the guys dropping out of helicopters with modern military equipment were insurgents (it was night so maybe the ERF was just confused). TF opened up on the ERF with snipers and an AC-130 gunship...managing to wound only 3 ERF members. TF completed the mission and the Jalula ERF, police, and government officials banned US forces from entering Jalula because of the incident.

A week and a few meetings later and US forces were allowed back into Jalula with the promise of informing the Iraqi Army and ERF of any operation that would be occuring in the city. This actually did work out as the Iraqis understood the nature of these missions and as longs as they got an hour or so heads up everything was fine.

A few months after 1-14 took over for 5-1 Cav there was another incident involving Task Force. TF was conducted a mission in As Sadiyah, a town just south of COP Cobra. We had been warned ahead of time as had the Iraqi Army. However, problems began almost as soon as the team hit the ground. As TF approached the target house on foot they began taking fire from one of the roof tops...not the target house. One soldier was wounded and the interpreter began shouting that they were US forces...which only caused the gunfire to increase. An MH-6 "Little Bird" was called in to fire missiles at the house. The target house was eventually raided but the target was gone. The missiles from the Little Bird started a fire that burned several more structures.

The mayor of As Sadiyah was pissed, as were the people of that neighborhood who were primarily Kurds. But when you fire on US forces, hell is going to come down on you. The official story from the Iraqis was that the US had fired first, on bodyguards protecting the home of some government official. The video TF had of the incident showed otherwise.

A few days after the incident the TF commander flew in with some of his intel analysts and showed us the video and we briefed them on our picture of the enemy situation in our area. TF believed that the bodyguards were actually part of an early warning for their target, which made sense to us. I had virtually no info on their target and they promised to do a better job of sharing information...which never happened.

The face to face meeting worked out enough that whenever a new team came in (they were on much shorter deployment schedules than we were) we would have a sit down and give them our perspective on our situation. This open dialogue allowed for some gained trust on both sides and enabled 1-14 to participate on a couple of missions with TF...but no information sharing like I mentioned.

The first dual mission was shortly after the As Sadiyah fiasco and targeted the same individual. If I recall correctly it was another successful capture.

The second mission involving 1-14 generally just annoyed the crap out of me. TF received intel that al-Masri would be in Jalula and so flew in a team to capture him. This meant that for about 2 days we had to play host to a group of Rangers who had the opinion that everything that wasn't nailed down they could take. The first morning I walked into my office to find it full of Rangers milling about. When I tried to get by one of them to get to my computer the Ranger asked me what I was doing there. I of course explained to him that this was my S2 office and that I had work to do. Sitting down I looked at my NCO who sat across from me and he just gave me an exacerbated look.

We had several rolls of toilet paper in the office since the bathroom regularly ran out at inconvenient times and you could never be sure when it would be restocked. After a few hours the toilet paper was gone and when I asked about it I was told the Task Force guys "borrowed it". So much for that. By the end of the day all our snacks were gone too. Eventually I found one of the leaders for the team and tried to get some intel from him on their mission after explaining who I was. This got me nowhere so I resigned myself to going about my daily routine and telling myself that if they did capture al-Masri I could at least say I was there, if not directly involved.

Al-Masri was not captured in Jalula of course. He would be killed in April outside of Tikrit.

Task Force missions came and went, mostly without any further drama. The final dual TF/1-14 mission would come after a suicide carbombing targeting 1-14 in June. After the attack my section and I pieced together who was involved and eventually were able to determine one of the key players in not only the attack but possibly the "godfather" of AQI in our area. Division just happened to have a warrant on the guy but we were hesitant to conduct a mission to capture him because we would have to conduct the mission with both Iraqi Army and Peshmerga and word would most likely reach our target...so we called TF. They were receptive to the mission and a couple nights after gaining the warrant we captured our target.

I'm still bitter about the toilet paper though.

This post became longer than I expected so tomorrow (or the next day, or maybe the day after that) I'll discuss my relationship with our green beret partners.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

No, I haven't abandoned this blog yet!

I need to apologize for the lack of posts recently. I promise you that I am not ignoring this blog and I will do my best to not regress to the horrible blogger I was while I was deployed in '09-'10. My attention has been focused on clearing FT Huachuca and preparing to leave the Army so my energy to update has been limited.

By the end of this weekend I will have a new post, hopefully of some interesting or amusing event that I can recall from one of my deployments.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012


I usually refrain from bringing politics into this blog but I'm breaking habit.

Just say no to internet censorship.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Marines doing it better: Part II

Back in April I posted a blog about a squad of Marines and their patrol tactics. I was very impressed by not only the techniques the Marines were utilizing but also their restraint in dealing with an apparently hostile population.

Today, Tom Ricks included in his blog a story of a Marine in Afghanistan and how they integrated a couple of reporters who were looking to get a story on the Marine's use of FETs (female engagement teams). Once again I was impressed by the Marines who took the time to sit down with the reporters and learn what the reporters hoped to accomplish and then placed them with different squads throughout their stay. The Marines ensured that the reporters saw what they wanted to see and the reporters made sure to stay within the ground rules that the Marines established.

I'm not saying that the Marines are far superior than the other services, all I'm saying is that in this particular situation the Marines did an excellent job in media interaction and getting their story out. My last unit, 1-14 Cav did essentially the same thing when we had media arrive and other than my cultural landmine, some stupid comments by stupid lieutenants, and a misquote by our squadron XO, we had excellent dealings with the media.

One other element of the article caught my attention and that was the Marine's description of a particular IED infested area dominated by the Taliban and what the Marine's did to improve the situation. They put a patrol base right next to the main village and the marketplace...where the people are. The population grew to trust the Marines and the Afghan Army soldiers because they were living essentially where they were living and could protect them. Civilians pointed out IEDs and passed on information on any Taliban infiltrating into the area. That's how you defeat an insurgency.

Very similar to what we did in 1-23 IN as part of Operation Arrowhead Ripper in 2007. After securing the western half of Baqubah with the help of the Iraqi Army and 5-20 IN (5-20 occasionally does things right) my battalion was ordered to establish two combat outposts in the city. We could have placed the COPs in the areas with the most historic enemy activity (the main road that went north to south through the city and then cut east across the river) but that wouldn't have made a lot of sense. Enemy attacks were highest on that road because that's where American activity was highest. It was the primary route between the brigade headquarters at FOB Warhorse and a base in the eastern part of the city, FOB Gabe. A single combined armor/mech infantry company was the only American forces in western Baqubah before my battalion arrived and all they could really do with their lack of manpower was hold that road open, so that is where they were attacked.

So we built COPs away from the main road in two neighborhoods where it was assessed the enemy actually "lived", as opposed to where they were "working". The buildings we occupied were both abandoned houses of significant size. A sizable portion of the population had fled prior to our operation (both civilians and insurgents) and so there were plenty of homes to choose from. Neighbors told us one of the homes we took over was owned by one of the insurgent leaders who had fled the city so score 1 for us.

Going off topic because I can...as I was walking through this house with the S3 (operations officer) and some engineers I noticed a spoon on the floor. I picked it up and as I looked at it another soldier and I said at the same time, "there is no spoon." Good times. In another room there was a teddy bear on a shelf. A quick reminder that these men we were hunting and who were doing their best to kill us also had families. War sucks.

Back on topic...the owners (or possibly renters, I can't recall) of the other home we took over eventually returned. Iraqis in general are pretty tolerating of difficult situations and according to the company commander understood that this building could no longer be their home. They accepted a significant financial compensation for the home (which as I mentioned earlier they may not even have owned) as well as our apologies.

Establishing those COPs worked out tremendously and enemy activity was curtailed. There were still problems and attacks of course and we would eventually lose 4 soldiers and an interpreter to a booby trapped house. However, because we had 2 companies living with the population we began to gain the trust of the population. People came to us with concerns as well as information; the Iraqi Army saw we were willing to endure the same hardships they endured; and the Iraqi police gained locations in which to recruit and train new members.

War still sucks, though.

Monday, January 9, 2012

And I thought cadets were dumb...

Officers do a lot of dumb things, at least from the perspective of the soldier...and the perspective of other officers on occasion. We make up stupid rules, demand stupid projects and products, and are often seen as assigning busy work. 2nd lieutenants are so notorious for doing dumb things that when they are given an opportunity to lead a platoon the lieutenant is assigned a sergeant first class as a platoon sergeant to help keep an eye on the young officer and hopefully mitigate some of the dumb things the lieutenant will likely do.

I have done dumb things in my career. I did dumb things as a 2nd lieutenant (stealing the company commander's HMMWV comes to mind). I did dumb things as a 1st lieutenant (overslept the morning commander's update during a field exercise). I've done numerous dumb things as a captain (agreeing to PCS to Huachuca being one of them). I'm sure that if I were staying in I would do dumb things as a major.

Most of the time I had an NCO, warrant officer, or understanding boss to help smooth over any problems I caused by my mistakes, sweep those mistakes under the carpet, or just ignore them completely and move on. Most officers are like me and have had somebody to clean up the mess they left and are capable of learning from those mistakes. Of course there are a few officers who created so massive a mess that nobody was going to be able to help them out; flagrant disobeying of orders or committing adultery (and getting caught!) in the supply yard come to mind.

So what is the dumbest thing I've ever done as an Army officer?

It wasn't stealing the HMMWV, I only received a slight scolding for that. It wasn't even as a lieutenant.

It was as a captain, and it was something I should have known better than to do.

The event took place in June of 2007 prior to my battalion's (1-23 IN) move from Baghdad to Baqubah to help 5-20 IN (one of our sister battalions) and 3rd brigade, 1st Cavalry Division retake that city from entrenched insurgent forces. I had gone up to FOB Warhorse with the lead element (what is known as the torch movement) to help establish the headquarters and initial intelligence collection prior to the start of Operation Arrowhead Ripper.

Jon Stewart sums up what we were all thinking...

One evening the FOB was hit by indirect fire (if I remember correctly it was actually the last time the FOB would be hit with mortars while we were there). I happened to be standing in line at the phone center waiting to call my parents like the good son that I am. The mortars hit far from where I was at the time so I was not concerned and didn't even bother to find a bunker...I would have lost my place in line anyway.

After making my phone call I walked back to battalion to find out that one of the mortars had hit directly behind the headquarters building. The mortar had gone into a dirt berm that surrounded the building on two sides and left a nice 60mm mortar sized hole. We had no idea if the mortar had gone off inside the berm or if the round was still intact. EOD had been called but for whatever reason they would not be able to swing by until the morning. This is when I swung into action and did a very dumb thing.

I stuck my hand down the damn hole.

I can't even tell you what I was thinking at the time. I probably was just curious to see if the round was still there. Even if it was, was I going to pull out a live round and show it to everyone?

At this point the staff sergeant behind me (a good distance behind me) mentioned that sticking my hand down the mortar hole might not be the best idea.

I ignored him and pulled a pen from my sleeve. The mortar was probably just further down the berm. I stuck my arm and the pen down as far as I could reach searching for the lost mortar.

There was a private standing next to the staff sergeant who finally decided to speak up. "Sir, that's probably really not a good idea."

That's when it struck me. A private is telling me this is a bad idea. Privates are full of bad ideas and constantly carry them out. If a private is telling me I shouldn't be doing this, then I really really really shouldn't be doing this.

And that's the story of the dumbest thing I've ever done in the Army. Could have blown my hand off. Most likely wouldn't even have gotten a Purple Heart for it either...they don't award stupid. I believe the real lesson here isn't "don't put your hand in mortar holes", it's "don't deploy soldiers longer than 12 months they start doing really stupid things".

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

A Deployed New Years Eve

2009/2010 was the only New Year that I found myself in Iraq. 2004/2005 I had re-deployed for and 2006/2007 I was lucky enough to spend on leave.

The day was like any other in Iraq and that part of the deployment is pretty much a blur for me since 1-14 was still split between two bases and the staff was working 3 different projects at this time....the combined checkpoints, upcoming elections, and a massive targeting mission to remove as many of the threats from the battlespace as we could before elections. To say I was stressed would be an understatement.

There was also that irritating mortar team that had suddenly vanished but who I was convinced would be back.

By 11:00 pm I had ditched work and gone back to my room. There was only so many PowerPoint slides and emails I could stare at and according to my notes I had to partake in a mission analysis meeting at 9 am (I think it was a briefing to the squadron commander about the checkpoint planning). Looking at my notes there was also a briefing to the US Forces-Iraq commander, GEN Odierno, that was going to occur on January 2nd. We had a lot going on.

I was in a pretty deep sleep when I woke up to an explosion. A very, very close explosion. To say my mind clicked on immediately would be a complete lie but I at least managed to look at my watch...11:59 pm. My first thoughts were, "this is a really strange time for that mortar team to be hitting us."

Our friendly neighborhood mortar team had hit us 4 times at this point. Twice in October and twice in November, all between 6-8 pm...ish.

A second explosion followed by a "Woooooooooooooooo!!!!!!!!!!!!" rattled me into a slighly more awake state.

"Who the fuck 'woooo's' at being mortared?" Was the only thought I could muster.

A third exposion, a second "woo", and another look at my watch it finally dawned on me...the Special Forces team was setting off explosives for New Years. Their compound was right next to ours so whatever they were lighting off sounded and felt like incoming mortars. I rolled over and fell back asleep to the thought, "fucking Green Berets."

The lesson learned: always stay up for major holidays.