Last month I made contact with Chris Ieva, who was the Commander of Kilo Co. That initiated a great email exchange, which I’m including below (with his permission).
As a Capt in 2005, Chris led the battalion’s primary maneuver unit through all of 3/2’s major operations and most of the kinetic fights. He has recently retired as a LtCol, and now lives with his family in New Jersey.
After our initial contact on FB, Chris sent me a fantastic ‘40,000ft overview’ of western Iraq (AO Denver) during that timeframe, and the context that 3/2 was operating in.
I’m sharing it here because it is such a great ‘frame-setter’ for understanding the big picture. At the end, he also discusses the current situation in Iraq & Syria. I’m also including my response, which provides more details on my background and experience in Iraq.
On Mon, Jan 23, 2017 at 8:44 PM, Chris wrote:
Subj: Framing Email
I wanted to provide you with quick reflections of our deployment. As always, I wish to acknowledge the Marines and Sailors who I had the pleasure to serve alongside. A decade removed, I am more humbled and respectful for those who made the ultimate sacrifice. In case I drift off, I wanted to capture their sacrifice and dedication. Instead of a chronological approach, I wish to provide some thematically organized impressions of the deployment to provide both context and perspective to the individual actions.
#1. Economy of Force
A. Operational. After the 2d Battle of Fallujah in November 2014, Western Al Anbar was seen as an economy of force mission. In the post Fallujah vacuum, AQI leadership, facilitators, and a growing Sunni foreign fighter connection grew along the rat-lines from the Syrian Border. 2d Marines (RCT 2), along with its battalions 2d LAR, 3/2 & 3/25, was affected by the latency between force and mission prioritization in a post Fallujah landscape. 3/2 had to give up one Rifle Company (Company L) for airfield security at Al Asad. 3/25 also had to yield forces for this task. With one company from 3/2 in Husaybah (Company I) and one Company from 3/25 in Hit. 3/2’s Company K and 3/25’s Company L, plus 2d LAR from Rutbah and SOF forces, were the only maneuver forces between Al Qaim, Haditha, and Al Asad. By the peak of the surge, this same battle space would be controlled by a force of about 8 US and Iraqi battalions!
B. Tactically. Company K was charged with Security of Al-Qaim and a radio relay station north of Camp Al-Qaim for VHF Communications. Upon arrival, my team executed my vision for reducing force commitments for static missions along with the task of obtaining a standardization of processes, procedures, force rotations and logistics in the execution of these requirements. I named the relay station Khe Sanh, where we would eventually send a squad for weekly rotations. Senior NCOs, many who had diverse backgrounds, were invaluable in establishing this level of standardization. While the combat maybe glamorous, this necessary evil successfully protected two positions for an entire deployment in order to enable the preponderance of Company K along with Weapons Company 3/2 to operate offensively.
A. Company L, 3/25. 3/25 was a reserve battalion based out of the Haditha Dam. I believe their Lima Co. took the most KIA than any other Company in Iraq or Afghanistan. 3/25 took 48 KIA and over 200 wounded. They had a hard mission and the reservists, quite simply, lacked the same technical proficiency in the heavy fighting as their active equivalents. As an Officer and a Marine, my greatest career contribution was the technical proficiency of my company. Quite simply, I ignored the prevailing attitudes at Lejeune before the deployment that we would be conducting ‘stability operations.’ I prioritized urban fighting with an emphasis on combined arms. In all major named operations, we fought alongside Company L 3/25 more than 3/2 companies. The RCT-2 Commander used Company K as a fire brigade across AO Denver. I think we spent 4-6 weeks total in Haditha. One time, after a sniper team was killed, and we were sent with Company L 3/2 to find an MIA sniper. You cannot tell 3/2’s story by omitting 3/25.
B. SOF. Based on the increase of HVTs, many top tiered SOF and Special Forces operated from Al Qaim at the end of the deployment. I know of 6 KIA from a top tier force (one was a friend). They should not be overlooked. My Company also displaced to Al Asad to support a 1st Force RECON raid around 4 July 2005.
#3. Technical Proficiency. Company K was blessed with a great bunch of SNCOs and LTs… gifted really. In preparation for combat, I was ruthless stressing technical proficiency. Rehearsals were real distance, real time, real gear, and real comms. Amateurs practice till they get it right, Pros practice until they don’t get it wrong.
#4. Operations SPEAR & MATADOR were at direct odds with prevailing COIN theory. The organization & coagulation of AQI insurgents required flat out destruction. As a frame of reference, during SPEAR Company K called in over 30 airstrikes and used 400 tanks rounds in an area bounded 1 KM wide and maybe 2.5 KM deep in Karabilah.
#5. The ‘Ho Chi Minh Trail’ in Iraq was 25 inches deep. This was my personal observation. On our first operation in 2005, we exploited a cache. Something like 100 arty rounds plus small arms. I felt jubilant…we had saved the lives of fellow Marines. Then we found more and more. RCT 2 did an operation where they found 1,000 arty rounds plus other weapons just by walking along the Euphrates. Two weeks later, they went back out and found the same amount. We had an insurgent network who not only had 1,000 arty rounds (about 40,000 lbs total!), but could logistically move and store their weapons at scale. On my first operation to Haditha, we passed Ammo Supply Point (ASP) Wolf. Out in the middle of the desert, there were arty rounds everywhere. We stopped to blow rounds, but were overwhelmed… too many… had to make arrival times @ Haditha. I found out that ASP Wolf was a former Iraqi ASP. I did my research, and at the time there were 4,000 ASPs across Iraq. The private contract to sweep them was only 24 inches deep and only rounds greater than 122mm were swept. When I did a staff tour in Iraq in 2009, I learned that 4,000 had eventually been swept, and so finally insurgents had resorted to Homemade Explosive (HME) and importing illicit weapons. Outside of our raid cycle, named operations, guarding Al-Qaim and Khe Sanh, I would try to find unexploded ordinance (UXO) at known ASPs in my AO. Most notably, the H series of airfields (along the former H-1 pipeline to Haifa) was rich in UXO. I wish in 2003 US forces would have done a better sweep. I was shocked considering the WMD issue. I would apply this observation/lesson learned in Afghanistan in 2011.
#6. Anbar Awakening. My staff tour in 2009 gave me a better understanding of the dynamics inside Iraq… meaning I had no understanding. Too many people thought they understood the situation and applied their own cognitive filters (myself included) to this problem set. The fall of Husaybah to Al Qaeda towards the end of deployment, right before 3/6 arrived, was a weird turning point. Chris Starling (Operations Officer for RCT-2), who is a friend and mentor, has a really good handle across 3/2 & 3/6 deployment. I attended the Naval Postgraduate School from 2006-2008 for a dual degree in Systems Engineering and International Relations. For many of my papers and thesis work, I explored these concepts. While there is an art in simplification, it can be dangerous. More than once, I have used this analogy in articulating the challenge of predictive analysis: In last year’s ESPN NCAA DIV I Men’s B-Ball bracket contest, there was only one person who predicted the course of the tournament exactly. Think about that! Known rankings, known assets to each team and strict rule-based engagements (games) and construct, but only one dude got it right. I think predicting and understanding these tribal, political, and social dynamics should be approached with the same caution as you would predicting a bracket in an office pool.
#7. Iraq & Syria Today. 1/7, 3/2, and 3/6’s time in Western Al Anbar and Al Qaim should be a case study for the present state of play with ISIS in Iraq & Syria. Who are the good guys? Who are the bad? Although ISIS is a terrorist organization, it is also a Sunni nationalist group. As a civilian now, I just recently saw that the Iraqi government voted to incorporate Shia Militias into the Iraqi Army…the very thing US Forces tried to prevent. I am 100% positive that the reports of Shia atrocities against Sunnis are very much true and likely underreported. Newspapers say that there are 100,000 Iranian troops fighting in Iraq. While the preponderance of the media today is rooting for the re-capture of Mosul as a liberation akin to Paris ’44, they all but ignore that the elements at play are very different. During the 2016 Presidential debates, I watched Secretary Clinton and Senator Kaine announce a policy decision to have an INTEL surge to get Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS. But they forgot, omitted, or simply did not know, that we already captured & released him in 2005 and the same in 2009. Our #1 enemy was someone who we had and let go… two times. President Trump and VP Pence missed a chance to pounce on the incongruence in approach and history, but likely forgot, omitted, or simply did not know that we already had the dude before. Sorry to bang on about this point, but it is startling!
I hope this provides some measure of context, I am happy to answer any questions!
Subj: Re: Framing Email
Fantastic overview! Thank you so much for taking that time. Let me tell you a little about myself, and then about the research I’ve done so far:
I’m a retired Air Force intel guy, but I’m actually very attuned to ground operations, COIN precepts, the progress of strategy and operations in Iraq, and the origins of the Awakening. In 2004/05, I served a tour at the CAOC at Al-Udeid AB in Qatar, but with several in-and-out trips into Iraq. I was providing intel support to a ground TF around Balad, so struggled (like everyone then) to understand the multi-faceted, fast-morphing insurgency. Then, in 2007, I was attached to the Army’s 3rd ID during the surge and was involved in small exploitation teams supporting maneuver units south of Baghdad. I was at FOB Kalsu in the ‘southern belt’ and then out by Al-Kut and the Iranian border, trying to help stanch the flow of EFPs and other ‘accelerants’. The effects of the Awakening were obvious and exciting.
Also, I’m the father of an Army Ranger, in the 75th RGR REGT. He’s part of those ‘upper tier’ operators you mentioned, with 11 combat deployments in IZ and AF. So I have a very personal connection to someone at the speartip, and have learned much from him, both in concrete and intangible ways.
And, being an intel guy from way back, I have a knack for putting pieces together to form the bigger picture, and ‘filling in the holes’. At this point, I’ve been studying the campaign in west Anbar for several years, and have amassed quite a chunk of references and reports. And in just the last month, I’ve started reaching many 3/2 vets through FB (incl quite a few Kilo Marines). They have expanded my understanding in many ways.
I’m not saying this to impress, just so you know I’m not your typical ‘outsider’ (like a staff researcher, reporter or academic) coming in to skim off the surface. Outside of 3/2, I think it would be hard to find anyone else that understands more about your 2005 deployment, the dynamics of your AO and the operational environment. I have truly been digging deep.
Having said that, your ‘frame setter’ is outstanding and very valuable. I’m well aware of the ‘macro’ factors you outline (economy of force, RCT2s campaign plan, AQI’s intent, etc), but several of your emphasis items have struck home — 3/25 and its role in the story, the dug-in enemy in Karabilah, and the TF side of the campaign.
Along those lines, one of the sections I’m working on is what I call the ‘four-way war’. Which entails 3/2 and RCT2 engaging in very kinetic ‘security & stability ops’, the Albu-Mahal tribe and allies fighting against AQI and their allies (red v red), the ODAs engaging the tribes, and the TF going after Zarqawi’s network. I’ll focus on 3/2’s operations, but place them in the full context of the other three.
Anyway, I’m really glad I found you, and that you’ve responded (It was Gabe Diana that helped me find your FB profile). I look forward to getting to know you better and learning more from you.
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