By Steven Pressfield | Published: August 10, 2009
I’d like to thank Captain Thomas Daly for writing this guest post. He lived the experiences that so many of us have read about.
Captain Daly joined the Marine Corps in 2004. During his
military career, he has held a multitude of billets ranging from Forward Observer to Intelligence Cell Leader. His unique perception of the battlefield has been shaped while operating with units of the United States Army, Navy SEALs, ANGLICO (Air, Naval Gunfire Liaison Company), Iraqi Army and Police Units, and anti-Al Qaeda guerrillas. In July of 2008, Captain Daly transitioned from the Marine Corps to the Inactive Ready Reserves. He currently works for ITT Industries as a project manager. He is also the author of the forthcoming book Rage Company (Wiley, Spring 2010).
On the night of January 26, 2007, I laid in a dark, muddy irrigation canal on the eastern outskirts of Anbar’s capital: Ramadi. Next to me was a former Saddam General, who was also a leader within the tribal movement that later would become known as the “Anbar Awakening.” Together, we watched a squad of Marines storm into a house that the general and his fellow tribesmen insisted was a legal court of the Islamic State of Iraq. Once the Marines gained entry, the tribesmen and I followed. As I approached the rectangular, one-level home and adjoining car port, the general muttered behind me, “Ali Siyagah’s car!” Siyagah, a mid-level al Qaeda cleric and former direct-action cell leader, was the target. His car was parked in the driveway.
I ran up the front stairs and through the main doorway. I was greeted
by the standard Iraqi living room—no furniture, just blankets strewn about, and a television in a far corner—and the calm and defiant faces of the eight military-aged males sitting on the floor. Within seconds, horror overcame the men, as the general and his men entered the room.
The ski-mask-clad tribesmen with us spouted off the names of the men seated on the floor. Ali Siyagah was not present, but his personal driver, two bodyguards and an al Qaeda propagandist were in the group. To me, the group appeared to be normal civilians. The tribesmen quickly explained that the remaining four were exactly that—locals forced into the insurgents’ service. We separated the innocent in a different room while we detained the others, then we prepared to move to the next target. The alliance between Sunni nationalists and America was about to dismantle al Qaeda. In four months the kinetic fight that had plagued Ramadi for three years would be over.
The impact of the uprising of Sunni tribes against al Qaeda was the catalyst that ended insurgent violence not only within Ramadi, but also much of Iraq. However, this fact was not a coincidence. It was the end result of a series of actions and events, which can shed light on the actions required for America to succeed in Afghanistan.
May of 2006, the fully operational 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division (1/1 AD), took over responsibility for the city of Ramadi. This is important because they replaced a collection of Pennsylvania National Guard units that were responsible for the southern and western sectors of the city. The Guardsmen had not exerted control over these sectors, in turn affording the insurgents safe havens to assault the adjacent units of the 1-506th and 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines. The soldiers of 1/1 AD quickly reversed this by moving into the safe havens and establishing a string of Combat Outposts that put their tanks in the heart of Ramadi. Fighting throughout the summer was intense, and over a dozen Bradley Fighting Vehicles and M1 tanks were catastrophically destroyed.
As the insurgents fought 1/1 AD, they also faced internal battles. December 30, 2005, a couple of months before 1/1 AD arrived, representatives of Abu Musab al Zarqawi’s and the nationalist 1920s Revolutionary Brigade’s, met at a downtown mosque in Ramadi. Zarqawi wanted all of the different insurgent groups to fall under his proposed Mujahadeen Shura Council, which he envisioned would govern the Islamic State of Iraq. Not everyone in 1920s agreed with Zarqawi’s heavy-handed tactics against Shia Iraqis.
Like a lot of events in Iraq at the time, the meeting ended in a firefight as some elements of 1920s held out. The conflict between the two opposing camps continued through the summer, around the time 1/1 AD arrived. The weaker hold outs turned to America for assistance. We obliged, helping them establish a couple of tribal police stations between the Marine garrison at Hurricane Point and the Government Center.
Al Qaeda quickly responded by focusing deadly attacks on the group, but they also made a critical mistake. They kidnapped and murdered the sheik of the tribe and hid his body, preventing a proper burial. The event became a major tool for the nationalists to exploit via propaganda. One sheik, Abdul Sattar Buzaigh al-Rishawi, even recorded television commercials blasting al Qaeda for their actions.
By Fall of 2006, the fight for Ramadi’s hearts and minds climaxed. Sheik Sattar declared an “Awakening” of Anbar’s tribes against al Qaeda in September. At the time, Sheik Sattar was not very powerful. The call to awaken went mostly on deaf ears.
October 18, the Mujahadeen Shura Council responded by declaring Ramadi the capital of the Islamic State of Iraq, and held a parade 800 meters from Anbar’s actual seat of government. Yet, the pressure began to pile on the extremists.
1/1 AD continued it’s offensive: new Combat Outposts were seized, an influx of 2,200 Marines from the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit flooded into Anbar; including my company, which arrived in Ramadi in early November. Sheik Sattar formed separate military and political organizations to first combat al Qaeda and also reach out to the other tribes of the Euphrates River Valley as well as the Iraqi Government.
The balance of power left al Qaeda’s hands in late November. Until then, Sheik Sattar only was capable of rallying the western side of Ramadi against the extremists, while American troops, myself included, contested the city’s center. Al Qaeda continued to control the urban east and rural areas beyond (Mila’ab, Sofia, Juwayba). However, this dynamic changed when an al Qaeda mortar team trying to use the usual farmland in northeastern Sofia to fire at Americans was turned back by a group of armed locals. The leader of this very small tribe (Shiek Jassim of the Albu Soda) was tired of our artillery counter-fire destroying his fields because of the mortar team. His tribesmen didn’t kill the insurgents, they simply said, “go away; use a different field.”
Again, al Qaeda made a serious mistake, completely disregarding the locals’ concerns. They launched an all-out assault against the Albu Soda tribe, forcing Jassim to call the United States for help. We responded in the midst of the attack, supplying Jassim with arms and ammunition that allowed him to repulse the enemy. Apache gunships followed up the action by destroying insurgent vehicles as they fled.
The attack on Jassim unified the small tribes of Sofia east to the Sijariah crossing, cutting off al Qaeda’s urban headquarters in the Mila’ab from its historic command and control network in Juwayba. At the end of January, the final push for control of Ramadi began. Coalition troops simultaneously attacked the Mila’ab and Juwayba. Days after the push into Juwayba, twenty-five Iraqi tribesmen offered assistance to the Marines. The first two paragraphs of this article describe part of the first mission we executed together. A month later, Juwayba would literally revolt against the extremists after the brutal murder of another innocent Iraqi.
So how does this apply to Afghanistan? How does Iraq’s tribal movement relate to Afghanistan? Is such an awakening even possible in Afghanistan?
The Pashtun tribes in Afghanistan are much more fractured and loosely aligned than the tribes in Iraq. Their territory traverses rugged, sometimes impassable terrain, unlike Iraq’s flat desert. Another difference? The Taliban is not al Qaeda. For almost a decade the Taliban provided for Afghanistan as a functioning government. It is a home-grown movement, led, in most part, by Afghans. The Taliban’s weaknesses and strengths are different than al Qaeda’s in Iraq. In fact, the Taliban’s knowledge of the local districts’ socio-political landscape makes it a more potent adversary. However, warfare is an art, not a science. There is always opportunity to change reality on the ground.
This begins with more combat boots, because step one is showing up. The awakening in Iraq spread in large part because it coincided with the “Surge.” As the support of Sunni tribes grew so did the reach of American troops. This combination of the coalition’s conventional tactics, supported by a Sunni nationalist guerrilla campaign, accomplished what the United States could not do by itself: defeat al Qaeda.
Step two is to truly understand the Taliban. As historic Taliban safe havens get a new combat outpost manned by Afghan and American troops, commanders on the ground must realize who they are facing. A concerted effort to encourage moderate Taliban commanders to our side has to take place. Not everyone in the Taliban agrees with suicide bombings, and as combat outposts move into villages, so will IEDs, mortar attacks, and devastating firefights. By living amongst the populace, local citizens will see the nature of the Taliban’s tactics. Some will probably experience them first hand. Such a burden will force the differences between Taliban leadership to come to a breaking point.
The goal in counter-insurgency is always to divide the insurgents’ voice. Their weakness lies in their inability to agree. Look at Afghanistan after the Soviets left; no one wielded control. The same is true of today’s Taliban. Who is it that leads them? Mullah Omar? Bin Laden? Or was it Baitullah Mehsud, who was reported killed in a Predator UAV strike last week? As we experienced in Iraq, different insurgents will give you different answers. Our goal must be to exploit this weakness and there is evidence it exists.
Take Baitullah Mehsud for example. A day after reports about his death started circulating, sources began stating that his two probable successors (Hakimullah and Wailur Rehman) were at each others throats over control of the Mehsud clan, and that one or possibly both were killed in an ensuing gun battle. Signs of internal struggles within the Taliban were apparent earlier this summer, when Baitullah Mehsud’s agents killed Qari Zainuddin, one of Mehsud’s chief rivals.
This is the sort of situation we need to exacerbate and it must be done at the local level: the company commander level. The biggest signal of America’s failure in this regard is the fact that a standard infantry company in the U.S. Army and Marine Corps continues to operate without a dedicated intelligence cell. This is unacceptable on a battlefield where an infantry company is often times responsible for an entire community. How can we claim that intelligence is truly driving operations?
We also must intensify our highly effective UAV Predator Drone attacks; especially in areas such as Baluchistan, where Taliban fighters can openly flee the Marines currently executing Operation Khanjari due to a non-existent Pakistani troop presence. In essence, the pressure cannot relent. As we experienced in Ramadi, the more we applied, the worse al Qaeda’s decisions became over time. This isn’t to say that al Qaeda wasn’t always so brutal, it’s just that we never followed step one.
Prior to the summer of 2006, after significant events in Ramadi took place, coalition troops would return to their large bases outside the city, allowing al Qaeda’s network of propagandists to shape events for the locals. By living across the street or two blocks over, we will mitigate their lies. When the Taliban take over a local’s house to fire at a combat outpost, the people will ask the Taliban why this happened. They will wonder why they are supporting a brutal militia instead of the Karzai government and foreigners who offer medical care, new schools, cash for damaged property and a future more than opium, a burqa or a beard. Like Iraq, the majority of Pashtun Afghans don’t want an extremist version of Islam to govern their lives.
If we hope to recreate the tribal movement of Iraq in Afghanistan, we cannot expect the extremist views of the Taliban to create a division we can support, such as the division between al Qaeda insurgents and nationalist insurgents in Ramadi. We must look for opportunities ourselves. And, this will only be accomplished if we truly begin to understand the enemy at the local level.
Our infantrymen at the tip of the spear cannot simply hunt for Taliban fighters, they must also develop an understanding of the enemy’s beliefs, personality and, more fundamentally, why they are fighting us. Once we begin to attain this knowledge and develop a relationship with the Afghan tribes, which lasts longer than one mission, we may very well find that the Pashtun tribes are not as committed to the Taliban as we think.