21 June 2007

Operation Phantom Thunder

In the last two days the MNF-I forces and Iraqi Army, Iraqi Security, Provincial Militias and recently turned insurgent groups have started a major offensive against remaining insurgent and terrorist groups: al Qaeda, Mahdi Army and remaining Ba'athists.

This is a large, Nationwide offensive, that will consist of two main areas of engagement, plus a host of Iraqi Police and smaller operations going on simultaneously against the insurgents. Those insurgents who have been turning have been doing so for multiple reasons. In Anbar province, it is to establish the traditional tribal order and finally end the killings being done by al Qaeda which has been endangering the tribal structure there. This is known as the Anbar Awakening movement, which is pan-tribal in characteristic and seeking to establish political capability inside the Province and move towards secular government there. As Anbar Awakening is tribal in nature, the tribes themselves have moved to take the lead in neighboring provinces as al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) has fled from there.

This has made Diyala Province the new hotbed in Iraq, and AQI has been working to establish itself there, principly in the city of Baqubah. They have been joined by the pre-surge work done in Baghdad that has started to move the Mahdi Army (JAM) out of safe districts there and have further started to hit traditional escape routes of JAM thus forcing them north and east of Baghdad. This comes as a good portion of Iraq is now under full Iraqi control with other areas seeing Iraqis in the lead, and only a few areas not fully integrated and still under MNF-I responsibility. The following graphic shows that:

Image Courtesy: Defenselink

The longitudinal security section of Iraq from last year has now been laterally extended, with the southern and northern provinces becoming relatively quiet areas under full Iraqi control. This now cuts off eash East-West and North-South supply lines for the insurgents, and allows for their exterior supply lines to be better examined. Part of the build-up to The Surge was to get that done and start to drive insurgents, AQI, JAM and Ba'athists, back along their lines of supply.

We have a few very reliable sources in the field reporting now, and foremost of those is Michael Yon, who has kept quiet as he shuttled from Anbar to UK units and has now been waiting for The Surge to properly begin. That reporting began with Be Not Afraid, and the salient features of the operation in Baqubah were the first to get started:

This campaign is actually a series of carefully orchestrated battalion- and brigade-sized battles. Collectively, it is probably the largest battle since “major hostilities” ended more than four years ago. Even the media here on the ground do not seem to have sensed its scale.
From this, would build later reporting, but the setting of the scene in Baqubah is key. He later goes on to move through the history of the fighting and how it has gone well and not so well, until he arrives at the present time:
In the short time since Petraeus took charge here, Anbar Province—“Anbar the Impossible”—seems to have made a remarkable turnaround. I just spent about a month out there and saw no combat. I have never gone that long in Iraq without seeing combat. Clearly, some areas of Anbar remain dangerous—there is fighting in Fallujah today—but there is also something in Anbar today that hasn’t been seen in recent memory: possibilities. There are also larger realities lurking up on the Turkish borders, but the reality today is that the patient called Iraq will die and become a home for Al Qaeda if we leave now.

But now the AQ cancer is spreading into Diyala Province, straight along the Diyala River into Baghdad and other places. “Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia” (AQM) apparently now a subgroup of ISI (the Islamic State of Iraq), has staked Baquba as the capital of their Caliphate. Whatever the nom de jour of their nom de guerre, Baquba has been claimed for their capital. I was in Diyala again this year, where there is a serious state of Civil War, making Baquba an unpopular destination for writers or reporters. (A writer was killed in the area about a month ago, in fact.) News coming from the city and surrounds most often would say things like, “near Baghdad,” or “Northeast of Baghdad,” and so many people have never even heard of Baquba.

Baquba has been an important city in this fight for several years, and for various reasons. It’s critical to keep in mind that AQM and others had the specific goal of starting a civil war, and this was plainly clear by early 2005. When the Golden Dome was obliterated in Samarra in 2006, and blood gushed into the streets, the politically inconvenient truth about the malignant potency of Al Qaeda was undeniable. In a perverse anniversary commemorated earlier this month, the two lone minarets left standing in Samarra after the 2006 bombing, were unceremoniously flattened in attacks that resulted in reprisals nearby in Babil Province and as far removed as Basra.
Yes, al Qaeda strikes again to try, once more, and ignite civil war, but it finds tough going of it. I do demur on Mr. Yon's view of this having been a civil war as it fits no definition of it in a military sense - there has been no substantive attempt to set up rival government, stand up new authority to govern, and no one has donned opposition uniforms to stand up and be counted as part of a Nation. Without those you do not get civil war, but 'ethnic cleansing' and, sometimes, genocide. The innocents are slaughtered to try and bring greater war and strife, but with terrorism the slaughter becomes an end in and of itself until chaos is all that is left. Would that any that the MNF and Iraqis have been fighting, and now the Provinces and tribes, had any honor at ALL to declare themselves a foe and show themselves to be capable of protecting innocents and standing up for their new form of government.

We have not gotten that, just brutal terrorism.

Mr. Yon's second dispatch is Operation Arrowhead Ripper Day One, and, like all his work, a compelling and moving account of the day's activity:
Michael Gordon is a NYT reporter who is in the battle. Gordon will be an important resource. The commanders take a break from fighting each day to have meetings with each other, and Iraqi officers, and he comes off the battlefield with one of the commanders to the briefings. I saw Gordon today, his shirt stained white from sweat. Gordon and I were at a commander briefing when one of the battalion commanders, LTC Smiley, talked about how his soldiers shot some terrorists today (June 20); on different occasions today, women and children came out and “gave aid” to the wounded terrorists. My guess is that the number of civilian casualties is not high. Gordon has been running with other soldiers, so it will be important to hear his accounts. From what I’ve read so far, Gordon has been very accurate and on target.

By the end of the first day (June 19), about 30 enemy had been killed, 1 U.S. killed and 5 WIA. At least two soldiers were heat casualties, including one who was with my group.
With that Mr. Yon now vouches for Mr. Gordon's reporting for the NYT, and thusly have a second reliable source for the happenings there. Just priior to this Bill Roggio has been coordinating reports from the field and giving added depth to them, so that a proper scope can start to be shed upon the entire set of operations. He starts with a piece on the OPSTEMPO increase on 18 JUN 2007, and the flavor of that is this operation going against *all* insurgent groups no matter who they are or who supplies them. Later that day he reports on UK units taking the field to go after Iranian Qods force 'Secret Cells', which are their re-inforced Badr units now operating under direct control of Iran. As these would be working in concert with JAM and serving as INTEL and re-supply coordination groups, they are critical to take down as the JAM gets engaged. Further on 18 JUN 2007 Mr. Roggio would report on the Battle of the Belts in and around Baghdad.

From that reporting comes 2,000 Kurdish Provincial Peshmerga joining with the 10,000 or so MNF-I troops in Diyala. Mr. Roggio continues on with this, backstopping Mr. Yon's reporting from Baqubah with a 19 JUN 2007 post on Operation Arrowhead Ripper. In that IA, IP, MNF-I and the recently turned 1920 Brigades are acting together to start going after Baqubah, but also to go after lines of supply and communication for AQI. On 20 JUN 2007 Mr. Roggio continues with the review of forces, citing at least 7,500 IA forces and up to four times as much in Diyala, but with that first bulk moving on Baqubah. This is a combined arms assault modeled on the Tal Afar assault, that was highly successful in clearing out neighborhoods and keeping things generally quiet thereafter. At a rough guess, approximately 50,000 IA/IP/ISF/Peshmerga and MNF-I forces are taking part in this, along with an unknown number of 1920 Brigade members acting as scouts and neighborhood liaisons.

Finally on 21 JUN 2007 comes word of Operation Phantom Thunder which is a highly coordinated operation incorporating Arrowhead Ripper and Marne into a multi-force operation within Iraq. From that we get a link to US Cavalry ON Point and their description of the operation:
The plan involves three major operations, but only two are, in military parlance, “kinetic.” The largest, Operation Arrowhead Ripper, is an assault on the city of Baqouba, which is located north of Baghdad in Diyala Province. According to Associated Press reporters, American and Iraqi troops have sealed access to the city and are not letting anyone come or go.

Simultaneously, the 3rd Infantry Division—dubbed “Task Force Marne” in recognition of their historic role in the pivotal 1918 battle at the end of World War I—is blocking the routes south from Baquoba into Baghdad. “We want to keep the bad guys from getting into the city,” LtCol Garver said.

The smallest, or least kinetic, is the continued operation in Anbar. A battalion of Marines, the 13th MEU, was recently “surged” north of Fallujah and Karmah. There is little activity in Anbar, however, beyond the normal routine of patrolling with Iraqi soldiers and policemen.

According to 1stLt Shawn Mercer, a public affairs officer with Marines in Anbar, extra forces are “positioned along the belts between Baghdad, Fallujah, Ramadi and the cities along the Euphrates to kill or capture terrorists trying to move into those population centers.” Mercer also said that he did not expect to see major spikes in combat in western Iraq. “We’re past that,” he said.

Located 50 miles northeast of Baghdad along the Diyala River, Baqouba has, in recent months, become a refuge for Al-Qaeda terrorists. Over the fall and winter of 2006 and into the spring of ’07, Al-Qaeda militants were forced out of safe havens in Anbar by Iraqi tribal leaders who rebelled against their tyranny and pledged their support to American forces.

From the Syrian border to Fallujah, Al-Qaeda has sustained one defeat after another in western Iraq. Since their goal is to continue attacking Baghdad, relocating to Baqouba as an operational base appears to have been their only option.

It’s this option that Coalition forces are hoping to deny Al-Qaeda, and that’s what Operation Phantom Thunder is all about. According to LtCol Garver, the extra manpower from the surge is making a big difference.

“No time was wasted from getting all the promised troops until we pushed off," LtCol Garver said. “The Coalition now has the ability to conduct simultaneous joint missions anyplace we want. We are hitting them, and we are killing and capturing them.”
This operation, thus, extends far out into Anbar to interdict supplies and serve as a No-Go area for AQI and JAM. The ability to get trustworthy local forces in Anbar has proven key to finally shifting the fight from a defensive mode and back to an offensive one. With the initial investment of troops and growing IA/ISF/IP capability and size, added flexibility to operations make The Surge possible. The 21 JUN 2007 report backfills smaller operations that have been going on against JAM and AQI elsewhere.

It must be pointed out that in Baqubah there is no *surrender* expected from AQI and that the area where it has been active has been surrounded. With forces watching to the West, South and North, only Eastward exits are left and those head straight to Iran. Any flight by AQI along those routes will be indications that it expects some survival there. And with Peshmerga activity on the periphery, as well as IA/IP and IA/SF work to the southeast, those supply lines to Iran are also being cut. This will leave smaller towns in Diyala as the next set of operations once Baqubah has gone well, and the work to the south of Baghdad is now aimed at finally cutting off and ending the 'triangle of death'.

That has been the Arrowhead lodged in Iraq.

Now it gets ripped out by the shaft in Baqubah.


American Libertarian said...

Wow. Fantastic analysis.


Brian H said...

The AQ should be reminded how dishonorable it is to be captured, and then freely offered "Death Before Dishonor"!!

Agree with you about the "civil war" label, for a simpler reason: Civil War is INTERNAL, between national forces. Subtract the Syrians, Iranians, Saudis, and other foreign locals from the scene, and I doubt there would be much action left. The Sadrists vs the Ba'athists for a while, maybe, but that hardly qualifies.

A Jacksonian said...

American Libertarian - My thanks!

Seat of the pants, late at night analysis that I just needed to get down so I could get a handle the extent of operations. Baqubah gets the treatment that I expected it to get and just about on the schedule I put down last year. The 2005-6 Riverine campaign gave enough time to let those advances 'settle in' and for the tribes to finally learn by first hand experience who values them. It sure as hell hasn't been AQI or JAM, that's for sure...

The oil deal and provinicial elections are necessary to cement those gains as once the provinces have real money there will then be dynamic tension between them and the National Government. That is called: Federalism.

Wish we could remember that in the US.

A Jacksonian said...

brianfh - My thanks to you!

I would like AQI to choose death before dishonor, but they have chosen dishonor first. Bombing schoolyards, attacking women and going after the poor and *not* being brave enough to fight now make them out for what they are.

JAM is the Second Foreign Legion of Iran. And funding for AQI via Syria has been evident since mid-2005 for the Riverine Campaign to have gone up the supply lines of the insurgents to Syria. While the number of Ba'athist holdovers has been relatively few, those that they have intimidated for 30 years and more going all the way back to the coup that brought them to power before Saddam, have added to those numbers. Sunnis fled because of that association, no loss there, or from the intimidation, which is a great loss. Anbar should now see a return environment of the intimidated with those left behind looking for turncoats.

The insurgency has been a high equipment cost and low manpower affair since the Riverine Campaign, as seen by previous analysis I did in response to Mr. Robison. We must understand that the basic concept of 'business overhead' is *also* applied to terrorist organizations, and going after the mid-tier members has hurt it immensely in Iraq and even brought in skilled outsiders at much, much higher cost to AQI and even JAM.

You are quite correct, and deeply so, that Iraq has become a proxy war between AQI and JAM against MNF and, more pertinently, the Iraqi People. It was only after the Iraqi National Government got stood up could one even *begin* to talk about the Iraqi People as a people. The main article I did on that was Building the mosaic of Iraq. Since the end of the Ottoman Empire and British rule via Mandate there, there has been little chance of the actual people inside Iraq to share anything, save suffering. One does not build a Nation on that, which is why this operation could not take place in 2003-4: there was no people of Iraq, just a large number of tribes, cities, factions, petty tyrants and warlords, thugs, thieves, and lots of terrorists ALL abusing the people of Iraq.

Now, in their tens of thousands on the battlefield, the people of Iraq have voice. And their words are loud and clear: get these bastards out of OUR NATION.

And as they look to Iran there is one quiet addition: Or Else.

Not the view of Saddam to take territory, but of a people not to be interfered with.

I like that. I hope they ask us to leave when they are good and ready to defend themselves... or ask us to help put an end to those seeking Empire from next door. Either works for me, their choice, unless Iran does something abysmally stupid.

Thank you, both, for dropping by!