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Iraq’s Diyala Province One of Deadliest for Troops

April 24, 2007 at 6:10 PM EDT
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Diyala has become one of the deadliest provinces in Iraq for U.S. troops. It is home to about 1.4 million people and is mostly a mix of Sunni and Shiites.

The capital, Baquba, is about 35 miles northeast of Baghdad. And it was near there that the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was killed by U.S. forces last June.

Since November, 56 U.S. servicemembers have been killed in Diyala. Iraqis have not escaped the violence, either. On Monday, a car bomb killed seven Iraqi policeman and wounded 13.

The Washington Post reported today that the military is sending some 2,000 additional U.S. troops to Diyala to battle the insurgency. The military declined to give out the total number of U.S. troops serving in the province.

For more on the violence and the situation in Diyala, we’re joined by Frederick Kagan, a military historian, former West Point professor, and now resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank. He visited Diyala province earlier this month.

And former Army Captain Phillip Carter, he was an operations officer for a task force that advised Iraqi police in Baquba from October 2005 to September 2006.

Phillip Carter, to you first. You spent a year there. Describe Diyala province to us. What does it look like? Who are the people who live there?

FORMER CAPT. PHILLIP CARTER, U.S. Army: Judy, we thought of Diyala as Little Iraq. It’s a microcosm of the country, which has a mix of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds in the north and the east.

The geography of the province is diverse. It stretches from the fertile farmlands outside of Baghdad to the deserts along the Iranian border all the way up into mountains in Kurdistan.

And it is a volatile province. It has a little bit of the problems of Baghdad. It touches on the Sunni triangle. And it also has many of the lines of communication leading from Iran into Baghdad, and so it is home to a number of the intrigues that involve Iran and Kurdistan, as well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Fred Kagan, what would you add to that? How is it different, Diyala, from the rest of Iraq?

FREDERICK KAGAN, American Enterprise Institute: Well, the mix that you have there, I think the captain is absolutely right. It is a Little Iraq. And you have Kurdish infiltration in the north. You have a majority Sunni province. You also have provincial government and security forces that are dominated by Shia, because the Sunnis sat out the local elections. And so you have some tensions there.

And because we have had relatively few forces in Diyala throughout 2006, there’s a significant al-Qaida presence in Diyala, which has been causing a lot of problems. And then you’ve had a flow into Diyala of Sunnis who were displaced in Baghdad over the course of 2006, as well. So it’s a very, very rough area, probably one of the toughest in Iraq right now.

Unintended consequence of the surge

Former Captain Philip Carter
U.S. Army
it looks like this is the unintended consequence of the surge. That is, you squeeze the bad guys out of Baghdad, and they pop like a water balloon up into the Diyala province, which borders Baghdad.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Captain Cook, yesterday's suicide attack on the 82nd Airborne, it was a third brigade. We know nine paratroopers killed, 20 injured. Since November, we're told 56 U.S. service members have been killed in Diyala. Why do we see the violence spiking there?

PHILLIP CARTER: Well, it looks like this is the unintended consequence of the surge. That is, you squeeze the bad guys out of Baghdad, and they pop like a water balloon up into the Diyala province, which borders Baghdad.

There's also a sense that we drew down, as Professor Kagan says, too many of our forces in this province. And so as we were squeezing in Baghdad, we were squeezing the insurgents and the militias into an area where there was not a sufficient U.S. presence.

And the third problem in Diyala is that the provincial government and the security forces are both ineffective and corrupt, and they are far more beholden to their own agendas than to any mission or security in the province.

JUDY WOODRUFF: My apologies. I said Captain Cook. Of course, it's Captain Phillip Carter.

Fred Kagan, do you see it that way, that this is an unintended consequence in part of the surge?

FREDERICK KAGAN: In part, but I also think we need to keep in mind that Colonel Sutherland, and the force of the 1st Cav, and now the 82nd that are up there have been launching their own offensives against al-Qaida for weeks now. And they've been rooting al-Qaida out of their bases.

And what you're seeing, in part, is a significant al-Qaida counterattack against our own attack, where they're trying to reestablish themselves, reestablish a footing.

The other thing that you're seeing going on is that al-Qaida have been fleeing from al-Anbar province, where they've alienated the Sunni population by their attacks against Sunni leaders and atrocities against the Sunni people. And some of them have also been flowing up into Diyala, as well.

So I think there's a lot of things going on, and it's not just about squeezing water out of the water balloon in Baghdad. And, of course, the key thing is that we're following them, and we're reinforcing the units in Diyala to continue to try to keep the pressure on them.

Al-Qaida looking for new base

Frederick Kagan
American Enterprise Institute
Diyala offers a prospect for them, because it is a mixed area, and al-Qaida's methodology in Diyala has been to attack the Shia, drive them away, and then attack the Sunni to terrorize them. That's been sort of their trademark out there

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why are they going to Diyala rather than someplace else?

FREDERICK KAGAN: Well, they're going to a variety of difference places. And they've been moving around. And we've been following, as al-Qaida has been trying to establish new bases. They've been trying to do this in Salahadeen, as well.

But Diyala offers a prospect for them, because it is a mixed area, and al-Qaida's methodology in Diyala has been to attack the Shia, drive them away, and then attack the Sunni to terrorize them. That's been sort of their trademark out there, and they've been hoping that that would work for them. Diyala is a province that offers that prospect.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Captain Carter, again, the worst attack on the 82nd Airborne, they were saying today, in almost 40 years. Is there something that makes them particularly vulnerable in this location?

PHILLIP CARTER: There is, but first it's important to note a couple of things. First is that Diyala has long been home to Baath party elements and others. It was a favorite sort of retreat area for Iraqis in Saddam Hussein's government. So there's a fertile area for Sunni insurgents to go up there.

The second is that Colonel Sutherland's brigade has really adopted a muscular approach to counterinsurgency up there. And since when we left, it appears that they have almost resumed major combat operations. It's possible that there is a spiral effect between the way that the U.S. is acting and the way that the insurgents are acting, in the absence of reconstruction effort.

On your question, yes, this is a deadly attack. And it's because of the new way that the U.S. is postured. No longer is the U.S. simply occupying these massive super bases outside the city, but they're now pushing out into smaller outposts throughout the cities, the kind of things that might resemble a community policing substation in a housing area. We're talking small bases, with small-sized units, and they're much more vulnerable than the large bases outside of town.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do they have an alternative? Could they be doing it another way?

PHILLIP CARTER: I don't think so. You know, counterinsurgency is a contact sport. It's the kind of thing that requires engagement. And you get so much intelligence and so much cultural and situational awareness by being in a city. My team lived in downtown Baquba, and I don't think we could replace that experience if we lived outside of the city.

Interacting with the population

Frederick Kagan
American Enterprise Institute
Over the long term, the hope is that the risk goes down because you get a lot more intelligence from the people when you're doing more than just sort of driving through neighborhoods, where nobody knows you and doesn't expect you to stay there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Fred Kagan, you were just there. What are these bases that we've just heard Captain Carter describe? What do they look like compared to the other bases you took a look at?

FREDERICK KAGAN: Well, these are more rudimentary bases. They are bases that are surrounded by the population, and they're not bases where we have control of everything that's all around there. And so they allow our soldiers to work more closely with the Iraqis. And there are Iraqis on these bases, also. And they allow our soldiers to interact with the local population better.

So it is sort of Counterinsurgency 101, as Captain Carter described, that you really do have to get out among the population in order to make any of this work. You accept a certain degree of greater risk, especially initially, by doing that. But over the long term, the hope is that the risk goes down because you get a lot more intelligence from the people when you're doing more than just sort of driving through neighborhoods, where nobody knows you and doesn't expect you to stay there.

And we're actually seeing that. And just recently, we've had a number of local people come up to American forces in Diyala and tip them off that there were significant caches of weapons and so forth, which we then picked up.

So the effort is working, in the sense that we're working with the locals and we're getting a lot more intelligence, which is going to make us more effective in the long term. But it does place our forces out where the enemy can get at them.

On the other hand, as Captain Carter said, this is a contact sport, and that's the name of the game.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Phillip Carter, did you see that when you were there? You were there up until late last year. Did you see Iraqis providing more intelligence because they didn't like what they saw al-Qaida doing?

PHILLIP CARTER: It was a mix of that and also of their own self-interest. You know, the Iraqis who worked with us did so because of a very complex series of factors, but we did get a fair amount of intelligence by being in the city.

The thing is to look at these bases and imagine them from the enemy's perspective. You now have this essentially occupying army that's pushing deeper into your city. You recognize that the clock is running out and that, if you can increase the casualty toll, you may be able to reduce that game clock that General Petraeus is playing with in Baghdad. You may be able to affect the political calculus of domestic politics in Washington.

And so I think the insurgents and the militias are very savvy about this, and they see these bases as an opportunity. If they can attack U.S. forces where they're more vulnerable and they can have an outsized impact on our politics, then, in their minds, they win.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We're going to have to leave it there. Captain Phillip Carter, Frederick Kagan, thank you both. Appreciate it.

PHILLIP CARTER: Thank you, Judy.