Thursday, December 11, 2003

Anatomy of a Decision II: The Rally 
The Baghdad press corps seems to have missed a larger story. This article, from United Press International
describes an antiterrorism demonstration in Baghdad attended by an estimated 4,000 people. An Iraqi blogger-on-the-scene has this report:

The rallies today proved to be a major success. I didn't expect anything even close to this. It was probably the largest demonstration in Baghdad for months. It wasn't just against terrorism. It was against Arab media, against the interference of neighbouring countries, against dictatorships, against Wahhabism, against oppression, and of course against the Ba'ath and Saddam.

What you don’t see in the UPI story is that the demonstrations were not limited to Baghdad: there was actually a series of coordinated rallies across in cities across the country, including one scheduled from 0930 to 1200 hours at the government center here in Ar Ramadi.

Here’s what things looked like from my little corner of the Army:

I have recently been temporarily assigned to the post of battalion “battle captain.” For nonmilitary readers, that means from 0100 to 1300 hours every day I am the battalion commander’s representative in the TOC, and basically run all routine operations in the absence of the battalion commander or executive officer. If this were Star Trek, I’d “have the conn.”

At about 1100 hours on the 10th of December, we received word from a civil affairs detachment at the government center that the demonstrations had wound down, which allowed us to stand down a mounted quick reaction force we had standing by “just in case.”

After terrorists had murdered 15 people in the bombing of a police academy graduation ceremony just 20 yards away last July, we were very concerned that the rally would become a target for terrorist attack. We were also concerned that the march itself could turn ugly, and had decided to hedge our bets by maintaining a reserve to react to anything that could happen. But hearing that the rally was winding down without serious incident was certainly good news.

A few minutes later, though, my RTO took a call from the civil affairs team stating that a counterdemonstration had formed, and a slogan-chanting mob of about 200 people had come from the east, and was throwing rocks at Americans and Iraqi police inside the compound. “By our lives, by our souls, we will preserve Islam!” The team was not part of our unit. I actually didn’t even know they were there until they called in. They were in our area of operations, though, and the RTO told me they wanted permission to fire a warning shot.

I hate to be the guy sitting in a safe place on a radio and a room full of maps denying a request to someone in a tight spot in the field.

But on the other hand, I had to weigh the immediate needs of the guy on the ground against the broader mission: the stability of Ar Ramadi in the long term.

The problem with using warning shots in this kind of situation -- when you’re not confronted with an immediately lethal threat -- is that once you fire, you’ve played out your hand. If the rock throwing continues, you either have to kill people or appear impotent. It’s a lose-lose proposition.

Furthermore, put yourself in the position of some average Joe Iraqi in the crowd. You can hear the shots ring out, and you can hear the difference between an M16 and an AK-47. So you know it was the Americans who fired first, but you have no idea that the first shots didn’t hit anybody. If there’s a gun available, and you’re a male, and there are women around, you’re going to grab one. (Arab machismo makes people do nutty things.)

Now, we know that there’s an AK-47 inside almost every shop, and almost every apartment immediately above and behind the shops. Iraqi families keep them around for home protection. There are more AK’s in Ar Ramadi than there are Elvis plates in Vegas. There is also a known extralegal weapons market just a couple of hundred meters away. If a warning shot is misinterpreted, the crowd could quickly arm itself with implements far deadlier than swords, and it could do it in minutes.

I didn’t consciously thought about it at the time, but one of my NCOs on duty reminded me that we’d seen this happen before, in July, at the very same location. We had most of a company stationed at the government center at that time. A bunch of kids started throwing rocks at the compound. A crowd gathered. The compound started taking small arms and RPG fire from across the street. To the west, a man was skipping around behind a bunch of kids handing hand grenades to children and encouraging them to throw them at our troops behind the compound.

Our soldiers couldn’t get a shot at him without endangering the children. So they returned aimed fire at the RPG shooters and small-arms fire to the north, but they held their fire to the west, and just took the grenades.

When it was over, at least three Iraqis were dead.

If we fired warning shots, and they were misinterpreted or ignored, then chances were good that things could escalate to a pitched battle within minutes.

“Have them hold their fire and hunker down,” I ordered the RTO. “Meanwhile, let’s stand that QRF (quick reaction force) back up before they break down completely.”

But the guys had anticipated that order and were already transmitting it before I even thought of it. Sharp team.

I explained my reasoning to the RTOs real quick, though, so they’d have some guidance from me. “I’m not going to meet non-deadly force with deadly force,” I said. “We can always go deadly later.”

At that time, though, I still had no idea how many U.S. soldiers were at the government center. The civil affairs unit had not coordinated with us that morning to tell us they were showing up. So I decided to tell the QRF to roll towards the government center and deploy in a show of force.

Once the order to hold fire and the order to roll the QRF was clear, I picked up the radio myself and called the CA team.

Generally, I don’t pick up the radio, personally. We’ve got tremendous, sharp RTOs, with tons of common sense, who’ve been directing battalion operations for months. My role is to track happenings on a map, monitor the overall situation, and make sound and timely decisions. Which means my job isn’t to yap on the radio. (That’s a common mistake young lieutenants make).My job is to think!

But this time I picked up the radio, because a guy on the ground in a tight spot is going to want to talk to the decision maker, and I wanted to hear the voice of the guy on the ground and get a couple of points of information in person.

“Hey, how many soldiers do you have?”

He told me…which I won’t be specific about, but it was enough to defend themselves for the time being, if need be.

“Ok. Do you have enough transportation assets to mount everyone up and leave if you have to?”

“Oh, roger, that’s not an issue!”

“Ok. Are you getting any assistance from the Iraqi Police?”

“Roger. They’re doing a good job. They’ve showed up in enough force to move the crowd away. Things are going ok for now.

“Ok, roger. Now, I don’t know what your mission is. But will it fuck your mission up to withdraw and come back tomorrow? Are you done for the day?”

“Roger, that’s not a problem. We’re done for the day!”

“Roger, wait one. Out.”

So my NCOIC I went over to the map and worked out a plan—talking it over out loud, because I’ve been on the job long enough to know two RTOs have good, sound tactical ideas of their own, and they’re not afraid to voice them. (if anything, they voice them TOO much, but I can always tone that down or cut through that if I really need to. I’d rather have to reign someone in than drag them along, any day).

We agreed to roll the QRF and have them set up a blocking position between the government center and the mob, and cover the withdrawal of the civil affairs team. If air was available, we’d ask it to monitor the crowd, but we wanted to get our people out of there, for the same reason that you want to remove the oxygen supply from a fire. If it were a pro-Islam demonstration, the hope was that it would fizzle out in the absence of Americans.

Once everyone knew what the plan was, all we had to do was set the RTOs loose to communicate the plan, and monitor events.

Because I don’t normally pick up the radio, but work through my TOC NCO and let the RTOs do their job, when the battalion commander walked in, I was able to take a minute to brief him up on the situation without the flow of information skipping a beat.

The QRF arrived within minutes. The civil affairs team trucked up and left, with the infantry withdrawing immediately after. Everyone called in with updates. The civil affairs team was also had enough on the ball to take some digital photographs of the rock throwers and leaders of the violent counterdemonstration, and emailed them to us within a day.

A couple of Iraqi policemen received minor injuries from the rocks, but no one was killed, no shots were fired, no property was destroyed, as far as I know, and everyone on both sides made it home alive.

It wasn’t a difficult day, nor a particularly difficult decision. It’s just one of a very few points during this deployment where I managed to earn my meager officer's pay.

Which brings us to…

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