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interviews: marine col. john toolan

Some Highlights From This Interview

Your arrival in Iraq on the second tour there -- you're going in with what expectations and with what mission?

Well, our expectations were pretty high that we would be successful using our stability operations that we had trained towards, for example, reconstruction efforts. And a lot of it had to do [with the fact] that we had just come out of the southern region south of Baghdad, Hillah, Diwaniyah, Karbala and Najaf, and we had had tremendous success. Governments were blossoming; money was being spent in reconstruction efforts. So the perception that we had was, this works; we can actually get there. We can work with the locals and then just take that and just transform it out west [in Al Anbar]. ...

We were actually able to pacify it relatively quickly, and we did it by being aggressive with the reconnaissance and identifying insurgent safe havens, but at the same time put a lot of effort into the Iraqi security forces and the police. And I think we made some success. So all of those things led us to believe that our techniques and our procedures were pretty effective and we could use them in Al Anbar.

And you characterized that as one of winning the hearts and minds as opposed to suppressing any kinds of insurgency?

Well, certainly hearts and minds is a tough term, particularly after having done a tour there. We've come to the realization that winning hearts and minds shouldn't necessarily be the objective. What should be the objective is just earning the trust of the people that we're there to help, and we'll be there until stability is established.

And there have been some statements, probably not necessarily through the TV, that a couple Marines would say, "This hearts-and-minds business is in some cases one shot to the heart and two to the mind," to get the point across.

photo of toolan

Marine Col. John Toolan had just assumed military command of the area that included Fallujah when four private security contractors employed by Blackwater were ambushed and murdered in the city. Here he explains how the incident dramatically changed the Marines' plan to counter the insurgency, as they were forced to shift from a patient approach to an aggressive military response. "I didn't hesitate to go into the city and confront the issues," he tells FRONTLINE, "but I did believe that over time we probably could have established a relationship with the local government that did not require us to destroy a lot of the infrastructure of the city, and eventually over time … build an agreement where stability would reign in Fallujah and Al Anbar." He also describes how the motivations of the military and the contractors can clash in a dangerous environment. "We have a tendency to want to be a little bit more sure about operating in an environment," he says. "Whereas I think some of the contractors are motivated by the financial remuneration and the fact that they probably want to get someplace from point A to point B quickly, their tendency [is] to have a little more risk. So yes, we're at odds. But we can work it out." This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on April 4, 2005.

Yeah. Well, it's a tough situation. So you get there. What do you find as opposed to what you thought you'd find?

We had earned a good relationship with the 82nd Airborne. We had come out in January, gone through a little bit of a turnover, gone through the intel[ligence] link analysis of who the good guys and bad guys were. And everything led us to believe that they had a good handle on the situation. They had arrested some key people in the city who were instigators of the problems.

They had a government established, and Fallujah was the centerpiece, but of course there [were] 10 other cities all around it that they were responsible for. So things looked good. When you looked at the amount of money that they had invested or contracted to invest in the cities, it was in the millions of dollars.

So we went in there with the expectation that we were just going to follow through on what 82nd had already established, maybe be a little bit more present outside of the operating bases. We were going to go in with what we called civil Combined Action Platoons [CAP], or Combined Action Program, which involved platoons that operated inside the cities and stayed there, so they would see more of us. The locals would see more of us.

The 82nd had pretty much withdrawn from patrolling the city?

The 82nd operated from their forward-operating base and then went and conducted patrols, raids, a variety of different operations, and then came back in. Our attempt was to get out there and stay out there, which we thought would work faster at gaining the trust of the people.

When did you begin to think that things were not going to be so easy?

I sent one of the battalion commanders from 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines, Lt. Col. [Gregg] Olson, up to Fallujah early in March, as soon as we arrived in Kuwait. And while I got the rest of the regiment together in Kuwait, I sent him up.

We had developed a pretty detailed plan on how we were going to address the problem. And by those contractors being killed, that really forced us to put that aside and to opt for the more direct approach.

And from the moment he got up there, he went out on all of the patrols with the 82nd Airborne. Went into Fallujah, went into surrounding cities, and every time pretty much there was either an IED [improvised explosive device] or there was some type of ambush.

So there were indicators beginning early that things seemed to be changing, even for 82nd. I don't believe they stepped up the number of patrols any more than they originally had. It's just that some of our folks that were going on them [were] reporting back that these incidents were occurring.

So pretty quickly we realized that this probably wasn't going to be real easy. And, in fact, it gave me some ideas about maybe holding back on the Combined Action Program for a little bit -- let's see what the situation looks like before we invest and put these guys inside the cities.

Every time the guys went out, they would get fired on.

Almost every time. I arrived around March 22 or so, and this was 10 days before we were going to take control of the area -- transfer of authority, they call it.

And when I arrived we went into Fallujah, and on our way into Fallujah we were ambushed. Rockets, RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades], small arms. They threw the whole thing at us. So we fought our way through, which is basically just to push our way through. We really didn't stop and address the ambush, which we started doing more of later on.

But then we went in, but we were going into a meeting, a city council meeting. So when we got in there, we were there for about 20 minutes, and the security team outside was attacked -- rockets, mortars. I had about five casualties at that point that I had to medevac out.

So that meeting did not go very well, obviously. And that was my first experience. And now we had 10 days to take control. While this is going on, 82nd just has the plan depicted. They were going to start withdrawing back to Kuwait as my forces were moving up into the country. So gradually we took more and more control of the patrolling, and we started going out more and more, particularly after those ambushes, because we said: "This is not right. We need to go out and find out what's going on. We need to address the situation."

About three days later, one of my patrols was inside the city of Fallujah and again ambushed from the same spot. We still didn't have transfer of authority yet, but we made the decision to conduct what we call the knock and talk -- go down to buildings, find out where this is coming from. That turned into a firefight which lasted about 36 hours in Fallujah.

This is late March?

This is late March. Again, still the division and the regiment did not have full authority for operations. I was still working with the brigade commander from 82nd, who ran a great organization.

So at that point we then negotiated with the local government. They agreed: "Please leave our city. We will take things under our authority and try to resolve this problem." We agreed. We withdrew back.

And the city government failed to really bring any stability or security to that area. In fact, the very next day was the day that the four contractors from Blackwater were killed. And of course we'd already been in the city once. We weren't really going to tolerate that kind of behavior by insurgents. We addressed it. They obviously had no control. Blackwater guys were killed, and then within 24 hours we were given the word that we need to go back and into the city.

How did you get the news that the four contractors had been killed?

Well, we knew it from our sources inside the city. We had indications that somebody had bypassed one of our checkpoints. We established a checkpoint in the cloverleaf, which is the entrance to the city there, and so we had indications that somebody had gone into the city. We were very concerned about anybody going in there, because as I stated before we went into the city the last time, we had one person killed from an IED, so we were restricting who was going inside the city.

And this was the convoy [in which] Blackwater was escorting the three trucks?

Blackwater bypassed the checkpoint and went right into the city on their own. Ignored any instructions and just went into the city.

They passed you. How can they do that? I mean, you've got checkpoints; you stop people.

There are other entrances into the city that they used.

So they just went around the checkpoint?

They did. I am not aware of any convoy that they were escorting. I'm aware of their own vehicles and the four contractors. I don't believe there was a convoy.

From what I understand -- and I'm speculating here, but from what I understand, they were conducting a reconnaissance to determine a better route out to Ramadi, because by us restricting access through the city they had to go around. And it was a longer route, and I think they knew that. And they were trying to find a way to get through the city quicker.

Now, were you aware that they had spent the night at one of the bases there in Camp Fallujah?

No, I was not.

You get the news from your checkpoint that people have gone in, but when did you get the news that there was real trouble? And where were you? Do you remember the moment?

I don't remember the exact moment, but the crowd had gotten frenzied up and did their thing without us knowing about it. It was some point in time after that event that we knew that that was happening.

Unfortunately, we did not have the level of presence inside the city. There was no active patrolling, as I explained. Pretty much every time we went into the city there was some type of gunfight, so we were not aware of the instance when the contractors were killed.

So some time elapsed during which they were attacked, and their vehicles and their bodies were burned, and they were hung from the bridge before you even knew what was going on?

Yes.

And was there any kind of setup for them to have any kind of communication with the U.S. military, the Marines or anybody else?

As a matter of fact, we had established a pretty intricate communications systems for anybody moving from Baghdad west through Al Anbar province. There were several frequencies that were unencrypted, so easy to get on, that let the units that had the responsibility for those areas know who was coming there so that if they ran into an ambush or any kind of problems they could contact us.

It's pretty effective, as well as we had air cover that we could call at a moment's notice. But unfortunately many of the contractors -- and this is a problem -- but when you have independent contractors operating in a military environment, many of the contractors operated without knowledge of the system or just didn't take the time to ask the proper questions.

If they had asked the proper questions, we would have certainly incorporated them into our security plan, but they did not. And that's why I'm surprised to hear that they even stayed at Camp Fallujah, because my headquarters was there, and it would have been very easy to coordinate.

This is a problem, that there are no rules of coordination. And the fact is that you've got a very volatile situation, and you're just throwing bait, essentially, into a shark tank to have people go into Fallujah at the time. That seems like an enormous problem for you as a commander.

There are rules of coordination, and we expressly lay them out to anybody and everybody that wants to operate in our area. We established up a joint coordination center which incorporated not only the locals but also civilian contractors, so any questions or problems that they had could easily be worked through us.

But they have to come to you to ask the questions.

But they have to come to us. And it's clear to them when they're in Baghdad in the Green Zone and they spread out from there, they have the points of contact. They should know who to talk to. But the contractors didn't do that. And there are many other contractors that didn't do it.

And it is a problem. I have to be honest: There's a great source of frustration. Oil tankers would move through the area that hadn't been coordinated with us, and there would be an ambush, and they would attack an oil tanker. And my nightmare is just seeing an oil tanker on fire in my area on a major highway, which just gives the enemy a major information campaign victory, because look what they've done; they have burned another fuel truck. It's very frustrating.

However, when we did coordinate, and we eventually got some good relationships with the oil tankers moving up, we were able to protect them, and they didn't gain that kind of victory. But it requires very close coordination.

So when you get the bad news that these guys have actually been dragged through the streets and two of them hung from a bridge, what goes through your mind?

First of all, I need to get these bodies, and I need to quickly do something about that. So we established a liaison with the city governor, the mayor there, almost immediately, and the police chief, demanding, first of all, that they identify who the individuals were.

We actually had about five or six demands that we laid onto the local government, keeping in mind that we had just made an agreement with these guys that, "All right, if you want to take on the responsibility for security in your city, then you need to start doing something about it. Otherwise we will."

So we gave them another opportunity. "OK, you just had a major problem right in the middle of your city. Where was the police? Where was the Iraqi National Guard? How did you allow this to happen?"

And while we were trying to get those answers, we also demanded the bodies be returned back to us, and the people who were identified, their names be brought to us. And there was actually the photographs that were taken of the Blackwater security guys being hung, and those photographs had to be returned back to us as well.

It took about six to 10 hours for the bodies to be brought back, but they understood the seriousness of it. And certainly in an Arab culture, the idea that somebody's killed, mutilating a body is -- it was [an] egregious, egregious thing to do. And so they acted fairly quickly. …

These pictures have to be very powerful. And you know from the TV there that they're already going out on CNN.

Unfortunately it was going out on CNN, but it was going out on CNN through Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, which, you know, that's something that we had to contend with the entire time we were there, getting access to that information. We knew that this was a key component of the insurgent strategy: Get the pictures out, make it look like they're winning.

We determined that the center of gravity, meaning the operational center of gravity for the insurgency, was just the fact that they believed that they could cause us to reduce our will and draw out of the country. It was clear.

And that push, starting in March through probably October/November timeframe, that push was a deliberate push to see what was the boiling point, the tipping point for the American public, and those photographs -- although it generated a passionate plea by the American public and by my leaders, political leaders, to say: "This is not going to be tolerated. We need to do something about it. We need to do something about it now." So yes, you can see the power of those pictures was very effective. …

Did it have to happen that those contractors were in there unbeknownst to you, driving themselves into a disaster?

I think it's a cost of modern warfare today with the preponderance of contractors and independent people on the battlefield. You know, it's a city; it's a living, breathing city. We can't control every aspect of it. So those are the things that we have to learn to deal with and control a little bit better.

Certainly the next time I'm sent someplace with Marines, the amount of control that I need to establish up front is going to be clear and more restrictive, and we'll just release the restrictions as things improve as far as infrastructure and those things inside the city.

… [Is there] a debate within the military over just what do you subcontract out and what do you do yourselves.

The issue of outsourcing and privatization is a big issue, but there are a lot of cost savings associated with some of it. The preponderance of security teams in an environment where there is a conflict, naturally there's going to be some conflicting ways of doing business.

We have a tendency to want to be a little bit more sure about operating in an environment. We're going to do the risk analysis, and we will, in most cases, opt to reduce the amount of violence. Whereas I think some of the contractors are motivated by the financial remuneration and the fact that they probably want to get someplace from point A to point B quickly, their tendency [is] to have a little more risk.

So yes, we're at odds, but we can work it out. But it requires, as I stated earlier, having a joint coordination center where everybody is aware of the rules. And somebody has to be the big dog, and that needs to be us. ...

What was your reaction to the fact that this had occurred on your watch, in your zone, these guys running into this trap?

I felt responsible, as well as I felt responsible for every burning truck that occurred in my AO [area of operations].

Did you feel angry, though?

No, I don't feel angry. I'm very frustrated, because I'm also a student of history. I know that there are things that occur that cause the military to get involved. The fact that we were told to go into the city doesn't necessarily bother me.

It did at the time?

The only reason why it bothered me is because we had developed a pretty detailed plan on how we were going to address the problem. And by those contractors being killed, that really forced us to put that aside and to opt for the more direct approach.

You were ordered?

I was ordered. But as I explained, I'd already gone into the city three days prior because of insurgent activities that were stepping up, and we needed to do something about it. And our way was to confront the issue, and that's what we did. So I didn't hesitate to go into the city and confront the issues, but I did believe that over time we probably could have established a relationship with the local government that did not require us to destroy a lot of the infrastructure in the city, and eventually over time -- and if not [on] our Western schedules, it's got to be Arab schedules -- build an agreement where stability would reign in Fallujah and Al Anbar.

But time is the key. "Patient, persistent presence" was our motto. That's what we wanted to establish, and by going into Fallujah, I think we kind of stepped over that whole patient issue.

And the tipping point was the four contractors?

It was the tipping point, absolutely.

Going in there without you having any knowledge of what they were up to and what they were doing?

I had a fairly good understanding as to who was running the city and who were behind some of the insurgent activities, but I did not know who was responsible for the killing of the contractors.

It sounds like you knew a little bit more about the insurgents than you did about the contractors.

I did, I did. But I also offer that I think the contractors know and knew that they should have coordinated, and if they were at Camp Fallujah, they knew who to talk to in order to get some instructions on how to get around the city.

By not asking and not confronting us, to me they were basically saying, "We've got a job to do." They're motivated by other means, and they're going to get their job done.

You're aware that there's a lawsuit, that the families of the four contractors who died in Fallujah are filing against Blackwater?

I'm not.

[They] claim -- and I think you probably saw it in press stories, and maybe you had opinions yourself about it -- that they were ill prepared for the mission; that they were undermanned; they were undergunned; they were really in a bad situation. They were supposed to have three men per vehicle; they had two. They had no rear gunner; they had insufficient weaponry; they didn't have a map.

I would tell you that any of those contractors that were running around in Iraq at that point in time were all undergunned and undermanned, and they were taking a major risk.

And putting you in a difficult position?

And putting us in a difficult position. I don't know the whole story about what additional motivation they had for going through the city, but certainly I would not have sent any of my guys through that city -- two men in a vehicle, two vehicles. That would not happen. At a minimum it would be our standard six-vehicle unit with gun weapons systems in four of the six vehicles.

Would you have had your men in armored vehicles?

I would have them in armored vehicles if I had enough vehicles to be armored. At the time, all of my vehicles were not armored, but yes. ...

… You were criticized for engaging in collective punishment rather than going in on an investigation, taking your time, finding the people who were responsible and going after them.

… From my perspective at the tactical level, as I explained, we were open, waiting to see what kind of response they were going to make.

But beyond that, I was putting together preparations to re-establish the security inside the city, because obviously this is something that shouldn't happen. So I was prepared to cordon off the city, prevent any of the insurgents who were responsible from leaving. And then I was just waiting for the word to do it.

[Did you think] it may create more of a problem than you had begun with?

Absolutely, from my perspective.

And so who did you express that to?

I did not express that to my superiors. I would tell you that that's a commonly known theory that all of us have, that if we're going to use force, really you've stepped beyond going over that bridge, and there is no going back.

So when you make that decision, you make it fully understanding that there is no turning back. And so I trusted that my superiors were going to be working with the higher level to ensure this was in fact the last [resort], and I believe that they did.

I know that certainly it's no easy task when I tell the division commander, "Sir, I can do this, but I'm going to need some additional resources." Then he has to make the decision to pull from other sensitive places, which he did. And that's taking some big risks. But I believe still to this day that when we talk about punitive actions that it has to be very, very measured, and I think that it was done at levels above me. ...

I knew that when I was given the orders to go into Fallujah that this was a very major operation, that it was going to be a matter of me staying inside that city in a very difficult environment, an urban environment, where I had no front door, no back door -- I mean the big city, 350,000 people -- and it was going to be a very tough operation.

It would be relatively simple to seize the objectives that we had established in the city. The hard part was going to be to maintain security in the city where now we've already had to destroy some equipment. People have died on both sides, and you start building a level of mistrust that it's very difficult to go back on, and I was fully aware of that. And that was totally changing the initial plan that we had for Iraq and for that city.

So that's disappointing?

Very disappointing, and I can tell you the mind-set of the Marines. We had developed to the point where they understand the importance of rebuilding, reconstruction, working with the people, earning trust, and now we were going in as their worst enemy. And it's tough to come back from that.

But then when your superiors order you to go in, you go in, and then within just a few days you're told to stop.

That's correct.

How did that strike you?

At the tactical level it became difficult for us, a lot of us, to bite and appreciate, because obviously we had had casualties. It was a tough fight. And really, we were relatively close to seizing the final objectives, bearing in mind that while we knew that wasn't going to be the end, but we would be in the center of the city [and] then from there operate out from there to maintain security in the major portion of the city. So when we were given the word to stop, it was "Stop, and hold what you've got." And it was clear to me that the level of destruction that we were bringing onto the city was extensive.

And the pictures of that destruction and the impact, the future impact, if it continued at that level, that it would have, caused higher headquarters to take a second look and say: "Are we ready to really do this, or is [there] another way?" And I believe that was, at least at the higher levels, their rationale.

And there are other things that I'm not aware of as far as other political discussions that may have gone on, but I understood that. And I understood that rationale. However, as the commander of Regimental Combat Team One [RCT-1], it was difficult for me to explain to these Marines and soldiers and sailors that we're stopping; we're going to hold what we've got.

"OK, sir. And what's next?" "Well, we're going to hold what we've got, and we're going to see if our higher headquarters can't work something out with the local authorities to re-establish some security inside the city and turn in the people who were responsible, turn in all heavy weapons," etc., etc., etc. So that's what I explained. We held those positions for over 30 days, and it was a constant fight every day.

So even though we had stopped the assault, we still maintained our positions, security positions, inside the city. And I don't know if you've seen a map of where we were, but we were fairly deep into the city in the southeast and in the northwest. And so it was a constant fight.

All these contractors take --

Very similar techniques. The contractors were easily identified on the roads, because they were all in brand-new SUVs, 2004 SUV, tinted windows. There was probably two, maybe three guys in the vehicle, along with some other person, usually a contractor or a government agent.

So they were easy to pick out. And the insurgents knew that there was a fairly easy mark. Their primary means of security was speed. Somebody shoots at them, they've got the nice big engine in the SUV, and they just barrel through there as fast as they can. ...

Were you calling for more coordination before the incident? Was there a conversation going on? Was somebody at CPA [Coalition Provisional Authority] paying any attention? Was somebody higher up in the military paying attention to the problem of having contractors running around in your zones?

Yes. And I think part of the problem is that we'd just got there. We'd only been really in the area for a week, and I still didn't actually fully own the area. It still was under somebody else. So if we had had more time, we would have gotten the coordination procedures down better.

But it happened at what we call a seam in the operation. Any time you're relieving somebody else, there's going to be seams. And I think the insurgents understood that there was a major turnover of forces and this would be a good time for them to step things up, so I think they took advantage of it. And we worked those coordination problems out. We did not have contractors coming through our area after that without obviously talking to us on our frequency nets and coordinating at our entry points in and out of our AO. ...

Have we outsourced too much? Are we providing too much in terms of lifestyle? Are we just outsourcing too much and not maintaining sort of the lean, mean fighting machine that we should have out there, protecting our own vital assets? Bremer himself is protected by Blackwater. Many of the convoys that are vital to your operations -- the food and supplies, fuel -- are being guarded by private contractors.

I think the question for us in the military is that we don't have unlimited resources, and there are trade-offs that we need to make all the time. That's part of our business; that's part of my job. I make trade-offs all the time.

But if I just looked at the tasks that I had in my area of Al Anbar, where I really needed three essential tasks, I had to secure the MSRs, the major supply routes; couldn't allow infrastructure to be blown up. I couldn't allow oil trucks or contractors or any of those things from being interrupted. Secondly, I needed to make sure that I established an influence in and among the cities and the city governments to see how they were going, to provide some training and assistance to the security forces. And then thirdly, I had to combat terrorism; I had to combat the insurgency. But if I looked at [the tasks] I gave you in priority, the major supply routes and maintaining some influence in the key cities, I really didn't have a whole lot left to really combat the insurgents.

I took assets from a variety of different things to plug in. I could have used more forces, and I think any commander would tell you that he could have used more forces and done a better job. So the trade-off is, as the Marine Corps provides more logistics and supply and those kinds of items, it's going to take away from those operating forces that you need to do the job. And so if the contractors can do it without drawing too much of the military resources away, that's a plus. But by the same token, they shouldn't be operating in an area where by extension, by them operating, they now draw us further into problems.

So there's a paradox there that I'm not sure I can resolve for you. There are pluses and there are minuses.

You'd prefer to have the budget to not have to have contractors working in essentially a war zone. I mean, there's no place that was hotter than Fallujah.

I think that I would have preferred not to have any contractors there initially and that as I was able to establish more control and better security inside the area, I would prefer then to turn things over to contractors and to step back the guys in the flak jackets and the helmets and put the guys in the civilian clothes and have them meet the public, because generally speaking, they'll probably have more resources, financial resources, and more functional expertise to get things going.

But there's a transition period, and it's a very delicate time, and you need to be able to pinpoint and say: "This is it. All right, contractors, it's now safe for you to operate without putting us at risk anymore." ...

You should look [at] Kosovo. Have you already looked at it? Almost weeks after the ground forces had moved into Kosovo, they shaved off the top of a mountain, put this massive KBR [Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg, Brown and Root] structure on top of it. And it's the first time in my then, maybe 25-year career, I said, "What are we doing?" I mean, we are serving food 24 hours a day?

These are massive operations.

Massive. And I'm going to tell you that it was a beacon for every mortar rocket that wanted to fire into that place. You could shoot from all directions at this big, glowing KBR base. Fortunately, in Kosovo, the environment was not like it is in Iraq, because a structure like that would have been just decimated. ...

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