March 16, 2006

The Grand Tale of Tal Afar

Hatched by Sachi

I am sure readers must remember this thank you letter from Tal Afar Mayor Najim Abdullah Abid al-Jibouri to the commanders and men of the 3d Armored Cavalry Regiment, who, with the 1st Brigade, 3d Division of the Iraqi Army, finally liberated Tal Afar. The letter was widely reported in blogsphere back in February.

Last Sunday,(March 12, 2006, the CBS show 60 minutes featured the current situation in Tal Afar. Much to my surprise, the report by Lara Logan was amazingly balanced.

You should be able to view the video from here (click the "60 Minutes" link in the left sidebar, then click on the link titled "Al Qaeda's Town"); but when I tried, it stopped in the middle. It's RealPlayer: "abandon all hope, ye who enter here."

The quick take: the retaking of Tal Afar is a model for how we will fight such wars in the future... and a great vindication of the vision of President George W. Bush, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and the other architects of small-footprint warfare.

Tal Afar is located at the Syrian border, in the Ninewa province (sometimes called Nineva). It had been used for years as a conduit for terrorists entering Iraq from Syria. Back in 2004, U.S. troops kicked out the terrorists; but like in Fallujah, there were not enough American toops to hold the town; and the Iraqi troops back then proved unreliable. Inevitably then, when we left Tal Afar, the terrorists came roaring back -- literally with a vengence. The town was overrun by Musab Zarqawi's group al-Qaeda-in-Iraq, who began a spree of revenge killing, torture, and brutal, thuggish rule.

Sharia law as enforced (on the citizens; the terrorists seemed to have special dispensation). And 200,000 citizens of Tal Afer were held hostage. Mayor Najim describes the situation in his letter:

Our city was the main base of operations for Abu Mousab Al Zarqawi. The city was completely held hostage in the hands of his henchmen. Our schools, governmental services, businesses and offices were closed.

Our streets were silent, and no one dared to walk them. Our people were barricaded in their homes out of fear; death awaited them around every corner. Terrorists occupied and controlled the only hospital in the city.

Their savagery reached such a level that they stuffed the corpses of children with explosives and tossed them into the streets in order to kill grieving parents attempting to retrieve the bodies of their young.

After a year of training and building up the Iraqi Army, so that we would have a force that could actually hold a city like Tal Afar (or Fallujah) after we liberate it, we decided in September, 2005, that we were ready at last to recapture the town.

Col. H.R. McMaster is commander of the 3rd Armored Cavalry and Multinational Force-Northwest; he now also serves as one of the military's top advisers on fighting the Iraqi insurgency. He described to 60 minutes what the 3d Cav found when they entered Tal Afar.

Masked gunmen led by al Qaeda roamed the streets of Tal Afar at will, publicly executing and kidnapping people. Col. McMaster told 60 Minutes some of the terrorists were foreign fighters, but many were Iraqis from the area. Pictures of their attacks were circulated in videos like one in which you can hear them chanting a call to jihad.

"They had schools for snipers. They had kidnapping and murder classes that were attended by people on the best techniques," says McMaster.

The terrorists they encountered were far more sophisiticated than anyone imagined. Aside from foreign fighters, there were many former soldiers and officers from Saddam's army, men with actual combat experience and training. The enemy organized well, both for combat and extreme brutality:

The colonel says he was surprised to learn the enemy in Tal Afar was so organized. "You had this blending of former military expertise and organizational ability with, with a radical Islamic ideology, and it was fertile ground here."

On September 3, 2005, the fight began. After three days of heavy ground fighting and air strikes, the fire was ceased for two days in order to let citizens escape. But then, three more days of delay were ordered by the Iraqi goverment, allegedly because they were concerned about civilian casualties. However, the recent exposure of "several ranking Defense Ministry officials" as allied with al-Qaeda -- either for money or ideology -- certainly suggests other explanations.

Regardless, this extra respite allowed many of the terrorists to escape as well. Michael Ware, Baghdad bureau chief for Time Magazine, who was embedded with the 3d Cav, explains what happened:

"The al Qaeda presence in Tal Afar was surrounded. And the attack was primed. And then it was stopped dead in its tracks. And so, as the troops I was with battled throughout the day and into the night with al Qaeda fighters so close you could throw a stone and hit them, when we woke up the next morning -- poof -- they were gone!" says Ware....

When the troops finally entered the Sarai section of Tal Afar on the ninth day of the battle, they used tanks to blast holes through buildings so the soldiers could move forward without being exposed.

But after waiting so long, Michael Ware says the momentum was gone; and — so it seemed — was the enemy.

"Where an entire al Qaeda society had existed, the troops that I was with found one body," Ware recalls.

To prove they were not defeated, al Qaeda unleashed 12 suicide bombers in a day of bloodshed in Baghdad. They publicly called it revenge for the loss of Tal Afar, where the U.S. Army calculated enemy dead at 151. Eight Iraqi soldiers and one American were also killed. But Col. McMaster told 60 Minutes that using numbers to measure victory is a mistake.

"Body counts are completely irrelevant. I mean, what is relevant is, 'Is the population secure so that political development, economic development can proceed?'" he explains.

But what happened after the battle is more important: American troops began training the local police, recruiting both Shia and Sunni, and reopened schools and markets. Their success at winning the hearts and minds of the Tal Afar citizens is obvious from the 60 Minutes segment video.

American soldiers like Capt. Jesse Sellars have taken on added responsibilities. On regular patrols through the city, he is part politician and part policeman.

These days, he walks the streets like the pied piper, with crowds of Iraqi children chanting his name. They're the same streets he fought for just a few months ago.

I was struck by the children chanting Capt. Sellars first name like a cerebrity: "Jesse! Jesse!" This raises an important question: Is it actually legal for CBS to show footage favorable to President Bush, Republicans, or the U.S. military? Isn't there something in the Constitution against it?

The segment ends on an upbeat note:

"If anybody tries to operate in Tal Afar, they're gonna be detected and …" the colonel replied.

"But is that a yes, colonel? Are they trying to come back?" Logan asked.

"Oh yes. Of course the enemy is trying to come back. In an insurgency, there’s not going to be a big decisive battle and then the white flags come out and it’s over, OK," says Col. McMaster. "But what we have here is as close to that as you really can get."

The terrorists will come again; it's the Middle East, and they always come. They will slither back into Tal Afar and Fallujah and the Anbar province.

But this time, when they come, they will face Iraqi troops defending the town, province, and country. Training-up the Iraqi Army has succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of any of the Democrats -- or Republicans -- in Congress; but the actual boots on the ground, the generals, the service secretaries and Donald Rumsfeld, and of course George W. Bush himself always knew it would turn the tide in the end.

The sentiments of the citizens of Tal Afar toward the American soldiers are summed up in the Mayor's letter. Let's let Mayor Najim have the last word:

God bless this brave Regiment; God bless the families who dedicated these brave men and women.

From the bottom of our hearts we thank the families. They have given us something we will never forget.

To the families of those who have given their holy blood for our land, we all bow to you in reverence and to the souls of your loved ones. Their sacrifice was not in vain. They are not dead, but alive, and their souls hovering around us every second of every minute. They will never be forgotten for giving their precious lives. They have sacrificed that which is most valuable. We see them in the smile of every child, and in every flower growing in this land.

Let America, their families, and the world be proud of their sacrifice for humanity and life.

Finally, no matter how much I write or speak about this brave Regiment, I haven’t the words to describe the courage of its officers and soldiers. I pray to God to grant happiness and health to these legendary heroes and their brave families.

Hatched by Sachi on this day, March 16, 2006, at the time of 4:29 PM

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» The Success of Tal Afar is a Model for All of Iraq from In the Bullpen
Yesterday, 60 Minutes did a segment (see that segment HERE) on the military effort to retake Tal Afar, Iraq.  President Bush is calling the operation in Tal Afar as a model for how Iraqis can retake towns from Al Qaida.  The story of Tal Afar is quit... [Read More]

Tracked on March 20, 2006 2:40 PM


The following hissed in response by: AcademicElephant

Wait, I thought David Brooks told us this morning that Rumsfeld was an ignorant failure for the small-footprint plan. It was in the New York Times, no less. So how can you say such things as "great vindication"?

But in all seriousness, I think that what's going on with Operation Swarmer in terms of it being a more-than-half Iraqi operation based on Iraqi intelligence really supports what you're saying here.

The above hissed in response by: AcademicElephant [TypeKey Profile Page] at March 16, 2006 5:49 PM

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