SALMAN PAK, IRAQ – The region to the south and east of Baghdad, home to the Tigris River Valley, to the former terrorist training center (and resort town) of Salman Pak, and to the long-since defunct Iraqi nuclear reactor, has seen little of the coalition since the initial invasion of 2003. One of several areas through which the military quickly passed, killing off Saddam’s army while on the move, and then abandoned entirely, the region – strategically important due to the makeup of its inhabitants (Shi’a farmers and former Sunni aristocrats) and of its terrain (the Tigris snakes through the region, and the fields there, though they appear to be made of nothing but powdery dust, are among the most fertile in central Iraq) – has long since become home to rivaling factions of various insurgent and sectarian groups. From al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) to Muqtada al Sadr’s ‘Mahdi Army’ (the Jaisch al Mahdi, or ‘JAM’), insurgents in the area have now spent months and years fighting amongst themselves and against each other, all while terrorizing a civilian population which was cowed into submission and which had all but given up on ever achieving something better.
This was the situation facing the 3rd Brigade of Georgia’s 3rd Infantry Division when it arrived in Iraq this spring. The third of the five ‘Surge’ Brigades, 3-3 Infantry (known as “Sledgehammer”) was asked to accomplish a great deal in a brief period of time, from hunting down AQI, JAM, and others in the area, to “interdict[ing] accelerants” (be they terrorists or materiel) before they can reach Baghdad, as well as, among even more tasks, building rapport with the civilian community and bolstering the Iraqi National Police (NP).
Though undermanned for the scope of their mission and the amount of territory they have to cover, 3-3 has made an immediate and notable impact, and many effects of their presence there are already clear. AQI, JAM, and their ilk have been forced not only to rethink their strategy in an area that was once theirs for the taking, but to do so on the fly, as coalition-mounted offensive operations have targeted them from the air and from the ground in places they once thought to be secure.
The presence of coalition forces in the area has lifted the spirits of some of the villagers and tribesmen in the area, as well, who had once all but given up on the prospects of a better life. Barely three weeks ago, the first tribal leaders in the southern part of the region contacted a 3-3 unit (Baker Company 1-15, from 3-3’s 1st Battalion) – and met with its commander, a Captain and prior enlisted Ranger named Rich Thompson – about establishing their own ‘Concerned Citizens’ brigade. (Concerned Citizens, an attempt to sanction the process which led to last year’s amazing turnaround in Anbar Province, is a formal program allowing individual tribes, with coalition blessing, to take up arms and defend themselves against terrorists who would threaten them).
Further, the ‘Surge’ Brigade, just by being there, has made possible events and benefits which were not available in the absence of a US presence. A prime example of this is medical care. Only days ago, coalition forces held a free medical clinic – one of several staged in the area – in the small village of Wuerdiya (just north of Salman Pak), which had recently been attacked by JAM terrorists. However, those who attended were not limited to victims of insurgent attack; rather, people with everyday ailments like strep throat, high blood pressure, and asthma came and received care and much needed prescription drugs – something they had not had access to at all before the ‘Surge’ Brigade’s arrival. To top off the event, soccer balls, school bags, and replica Iraqi soccer uniforms were given to the children who came for care – and both they and their parents left very happy with the coalition, at least for that day.
As has been the case throughout the conflict in Iraq, the enemy has, of course, adapted to the coalition’s increased (or, in this case, new) presence and tactics, mostly by avoiding direct confrontation with them when at all possible, instead choosing to target soldiers with IEDs and snipers, while saving their more aggressive attacks for softer targets like the Iraqi National Police (NP) and surrounding civilian populations.
“It’s very clear that they want nothing to do with us directly,” said Captain Thompson of Baker Co. 1-15. Lieutenant Colonel Jack Marr, 3-3’s 1st Battalion Commander, concurred, observing that “They will go out of their way to avoid targeting us with their big operations, and to focus them on the NPs or another target they perceive to be weaker.”
An absence of terrorist activity is not – and cannot be – a requirement for the outcome in Iraq (or in the larger War on Terror) to be considered something other than a failure. While the coalition’s smart, flexible, adaptive, and extremely brutal enemies in Iraq will persist in putting up a fight for as long as their individual cells have members, the continuation of any level of resistance by those who have dedicated their lives (and deaths) to such should not be the sole factor considered when evaluating the effectiveness of the ‘Surge,’ as well as of General Petraeus’s counterinsurgency strategy. Contrary to what the nightly news seems to suggest, there is more to Iraq, and to the coalition’s efforts there, than an endless cycle of violence and bloodshed. When evaluating the US’s performance in this conflict, it is vital not only to recognize this fact, but to take those other events and factors into full account – lest an observer with only a partial knowledge of the facts cast an erroneous judgment on the whole.
“People ask me, ‘Is the surge working?’,” Colonel Wayne Grigsby, commander of 3 ID’s 3rd Brigade, said to me. And I say, ‘How can it not be?’
We’re in these areas that no soldiers have been for months and years. Seven of our eight companies are living out in sector [at coalition outposts], among the people that they are working with. Our soldiers are conducting operations and patrols in their sectors daily. We’ve got al Qaeda…, JAM…, and JAI (Jaisch al Islam) discombobulated, and we’re showing the people there – people who might not have seen an American soldier in years – a sustained presence, catching bad guys, building checkpoints, providing medical care, and making life safer and better for them.
“Again, I say, ‘How can it not be working?’”
Jeff Emanuel, a special operations veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, is currently embedded with the US military on the front lines in Iraq. More of his on-the-ground reporting, which is 100% funded by reader donations, can be seen at JeffEmanuel.com.