THE ARMY is going through a period of introspection regarding its counterinsurgency (COIN) practices and their effectiveness in Iraq and Afghanistan.1 Opinions vary on this topic, but I doubt three years ago anyone could have predicted the current situation in which we find ourselves. Hence, the time is right for a critical conversation.
My task force-2d Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment, 82d Airborne Division-recently returned from its second short-notice deployment to Iraq in less than a year and a half. We served in Baghdad and Mosul from December 2004 to April 2005 and in Tal Afar from September 2005 to January 2006. Fate put us at the center of the insurgency in northern Iraq both times.
Originally deployed to secure the dangerous Airport Road in Baghdad, we were ordered to Mosul with no notice after the 22 December 2004 Mosul dining-facility bombing. We found ourselves in significant battles with the enemy immediately on arriving in Mosul. Iraqi security Forces (ISF), chiefly the police force, had collapsed after synchronized insurgent attacks on police stations on 10 November, and the security situation was so serious that several battalions, including my own, were sent to reinforce Multi-National Force, Northwest (MNF-NW).
Attached to the 25th Infantry Division's (25th ID's) Stryker Brigade Combat Team (SBCT), we battled our foe throughout the month of January, ultimately prevailing and setting the conditions in our zone for the first-ever free national elections in Iraq, on 30 January 2005. Through aggressive combat operations and with the help of useful information from locals, we defeated insurgent cells and secured the streets, thereby averting a potential strategic defeat. (As late as December 2004, political leaders were seriously contemplating not holding elections in Mosul.)2
Four and a half months after redeploying from Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF II), we were sent back to Iraq and attached to the 3d Armored Cavalry Regiment (ACR) to help liberate and stabilize the insurgent safe haven of Tal Afar, in Ninevah province. Tal Afar has been the focus of considerable media coverage over the past year.3 In early 2005, while coalition forces in the north focused on defeating the insurgency in Mosul, enemy fighters took control of the dense urban terrain of Tal Afar, a city just 40 miles from the Syrian border and a staging base for terrorist training and safe passage throughout Iraq. By spring 2005, Islamic extremists led primarily by former regime elements had established a tight grip on the city. They took over schools and mosques and intimidated, kidnapped, or murdered those cooperating with the coalition or Iraqi Government. With unfettered freedom of movement, the insurgents created a sanctuary for the ideological indoctrination of uneducated, unemployed teenage youths and a training base from which to launch attacks on coalition and Iraqi forces. All of this inflamed sectarian tensions, stimulating widespread violence and chaos.
Coalition forces sent in the 3d ACR to conduct Operation Restoring Rights (ORR). After shaping operations and a final assault, the city was liberated. Our battalion task force moved into the violent Sarai neighborhood and transitioned to stability operations within 72 hours. What set this operation apart from earlier ones in Tal Afar and other areas across Iraq was the highly developed and well-resourced phase IV (post-assault/stability) dimension of the campaign plan. My paratroopers were committed to living and operating in the same neighborhoods we liberated.
As ORR unfolded, U.S. forces worked closely with the ISF throughout the 3d ACR sector obtaining actionable intelligence from the local population to defeat insurgent cells; enabling secure, widely participated-in elections; and in general helping northwestern Iraq enjoy a more stable life. Although by U.S. standards Mosul and Tal Afar remain dangerous places to live, conditions are emerging which favor lasting peace throughout Ninevah province. …