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New Offensive Appears to Target Insurgent Strongholds

March 16, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: For more now on the military operation in Samarra, we go to retired Army Special Forces Col. Kalev Sepp, an assistant professor at the Naval Postgraduate School. He’s also traveled frequently to Iraq as a consultant to the U.S. Military And former Marine Capt. Bing West. He was an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration. He was in Iraq with the Marines during the 2003 invasion and then again in 2004 during the battle of Fallujah. He has written two books about those events.

First of all, Colonel Sepp, to follow up on what Ed Wong was telling Ray just now, an air assault — it means taking troops to certain places on helicopters. It isn’t bombing raids and strafing and that sort of thing, correct?

COL. KALEV SEPP, (Ret.), Army Special Forces: Correct.

It’s a major operation probably intended to take advantage of the surprise that a sudden movement by helicopter would give the American troops.

JIM LEHRER: But the use of very few fixed-wing aircraft and what we would normally call a bombing raid or anything similar top that.

COL. KALEV SEPP, (Ret.), Army Special Forces: That’s what I understand, and that means that probably the insurgents that they’re hunting aren’t in strongholds, but in hideouts. And that kind of application of fire power isn’t necessary.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Now, Captain West, how do you read the military purpose here, based on what you know is going on over there on the ground? What do they want to get done here?

CAPT. BING WEST (USMC): Well, I think, first, they’re sending a very strong signal that the group that may have attacked the mosque in Samarra, that they’d kicked off what some say was a tiny bit of a civil war in Baghdad, or maybe a little bit more than a tiny bit of a civil war, they want to go after those people.

And they’re not in Samarra. They appear to be in a series of villages outside.

So they want to disrupt them.

And I think that the reason they were using helicopters is not just because the 101st Airborne happens to have them, but also, as Kalev said, the element of surprise, to see if they couldn’t seize some of these guys before they can get on the highways and get away.

Because it’s been, to use a colloquial term, a game of whack-a-mole, that it, we don’t have enough troops on the ground in Anbar Province — it’s a huge area — and in the other province north of Baghdad, so that when we begin to move toward one place, the insurgents get in their cars, on the highways, and move out, and move somewhere else.

And by using the helicopters this time, I think they were trying to surround them before they could get in their cars and get out of there.

JIM LEHRER: And you think, colonel, that they were also trying to send — you agree with the captain here, they were trying to send a message as well as do something specific on the ground?

COL. KALEV SEPP, (Ret.), Army Special Forces: I think Bing’s exactly right. And I would add something else, in regard to the employment of the Iraqi troops. This is a very large contingent of Iraqi forces. American training has concentrated initially on individual tactical training of Iraqi soldiers to rebuild the Iraqi army.

But as they’ve formed into larger units, battalions and brigades, and even division, an operation like this will give the commanders and staff very valuable experience in managing large operations — not using the helicopters, which I would guess is probably solely the purview of the Americans, but in managing large numbers of forces on the ground in a complex operation like this.

JIM LEHRER: According to the reports we have — and I mentioned it in the news summary, it’s kind of an equal breakdown — 700-800 Americans, 700-800 Iraqi forces.

So that fits what you’re saying, right? This is an exercise — or a training exercise for the Iraqi forces as well as these other things. Right?

COL. KALEV SEPP, (Ret.), Army Special Forces: Very serious live-fire training exercise. But it’s exactly right. It builds experience in the commanders, in the staffs in managing these kind of operations and gives the — gives junior officers and soldiers confidence that they can conduct these kind of operations successfully on their own.

JIM LEHRER: Now Bing West, you know from — because you were there on Fallujah and there have been other exercises, other attacks, where U.S. forces — in the case of Fallujah it was the Marines went in there. And then they pulled back, and the insurgents came back.

CAPT. BING WEST (USMC): Correct.

JIM LEHRER: And is that likely to happen this time? Is there anything that you know that would suggest they’re going to do it differently this time, this particular time?

CAPT. BING WEST (USMC): Well, this particular time, I doubt if they’re going to stay in those villages. But there are only 13 key Sunni cities, and that’s a relatively small number. And when you look at what General Casey is doing over all — he went into Fallujah, he occupied it. It’s occupied.

He went into Tal Afar up north…

JIM LEHRER: That’s now.

CAPT. BING WEST (USMC): That’s now.

JIM LEHRER: He went in there twice first, and didn’t do that.

CAPT. BING WEST (USMC): That was a — the first time was a disaster. But that was a policy level disaster. That was decisions way up the chain of command that were in error.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

CAPT. BING WEST (USMC): And they had to go back in in November and reverse that error.

And the second battle of Fallujah in November of ’04, people now point to and say, “That was the breaking point in terms of the Sunni insurgency.” They said, “We’re not going to fight the Americans toe-to-toe, because the Marines didn’t back off the second time at all.”

And now, they’re getting — the Sunnis as — their leaders are now recognizing they have to get involved with the government of Iraq instead of just saying nihilism toward it.

JIM LEHRER: What happens then? We go in — let’s say this is successful, then they pull out of the villages, aren’t they going to come back and do the same thing all over again?

CAPT. BING WEST (USMC): If you — technically speaking, in Iraq there are approximately 13 major highways that lead to these major cities. And if you — it’s not giving away anything to say if you’re an insurgent you can see that this noose is gradually tightening and tightening.

As Kalev indicated, as we’re able to bring up more of these Iraqi battalions, competent battalions, because they’ve now been working with the Americans, then more of these cities can be occupied sequentially, which squeezes the insurgents bit by bit.

But the big issue here is going to be are those Iraqi battalions Shiite battalions? As Mr. Wong was just indicating, the irony is the Sunnis are now more miffed at the Shias than they are at the Americans — are they going to be more of a mixture? And we don’t know that yet.

JIM LEHRER: Colonel, how do you see the situation for — let’s assume — they say this operation is going to last — could last several days, and then somebody is going to declare it over. And then what does that mean in terms of occupying — the same thing I’ve just been talking to the captain about. How do you see that issue?

COL. KALEV SEPP, (Ret.), Army Special Forces: Bing has a terrific feel for Anbar and Sulamaniyah and the Nineveh provinces.

This would depend on the size of the villages, which haven’t been described, if it’s two or three structures or if there are actually major settlements.

But the multinational forces in Iraq learned this lesson already a year ago that the rationale of moving forces from town to town supposedly to disrupt enemy activity but then abandoning those towns to the enemy was completely counterproductive. The terrorists and insurgents would return.

Anybody that had, had anything to do with the Americans was simply murdered. And the lesson to the populace was support the terrorists and stay away from the Americans.

They’re smarter than that now, and it’s — this has been evidenced even at the State Department level with Dr. Condoleezza Rice’s strategy of clear, hold and build.

JIM LEHRER: So you would expect then these three villages to remain occupied by Iraqi, if not U.S. troops?

COL. KALEV SEPP, (Ret.), Army Special Forces: The Iraqis now have — the Iraqi security forces now have some very competent mobile force units, variously the special police commando battalions and Iraqi intervention force units that would reasonably stay behind and ensure that there’s no backwash of insurgents into those villages.

JIM LEHRER: Bing West, help us — and I’ll come back to the colonel on this issue, too — help the nonmilitary people to give us some guidance on how we should read the results and whether or not this has been successful?

What are the measurements for deciding whether or not this was a successful enterprise?

CAPT. BING WEST (USMC): As one raid, I can’t — I don’t think any reasonable person could give you a measure on one raid.

Overall, the real measure to watch over time is a very simple one: When do you see, say, a small group — let’s say four Iraqi policemen or four Iraqi soldiers walking through a suk in a major city — Fallujah, Mosul, Tal Afar, any of the large ones. And just consider that in any city in the United States, four policemen would walk anywhere they want.

And when we get to the point — when you see that happening in the cities, you know — in Iraq, you know that we’ve turned a huge corner. We’re not there yet.

The interesting thing, though, is we have advanced to the point, as Kalev has indicated, that as long as the Americans are somewhere near, the Iraqi forces are much more willing to go out but a lot of that’s because big brother is still right behind them.

And we haven’t seen the day come yet when they’re out there without us being very close to them. But we may get there, but we haven’t seen it yet.

JIM LEHRER: Colonel, how would you — what would you set out as a way to judge the success of this particular operation?

COL. KALEV SEPP, (Ret.), Army Special Forces: I really can’t improve on what Bing just said except to add one thing, though.

That for some time, some American presence is probably — is going to be required aside Iraqi military units. Some of that will have to do simply with technical issues that relate to staff work and leadership development.

But there’s also the issue of monitoring and restraining these units to make sure that there’s no malign influence that falls over either police units or military units, be it from imams or other — or criminal organizations or other outside influence.

JIM LEHRER: In other words, that Shia military abuse Sunnis just because they’re Sunnis, and to keep that from happening as well?

COL. KALEV SEPP, (Ret.), Army Special Forces: It is for human rights protection.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

But the bottom line here is the test should not be, well, if there’s a report that so many insurgents were captured or so many insurgents were killed, that’s not the way to judge the success of this particular mission? Is that what you’re saying?

COL. KALEV SEPP, (Ret.), Army Special Forces: I think we learned from Vietnam that body counts is not a viable metric of success.

JIM LEHRER: All right.

Colonel, captain, thank you both very much.