Conservative Blogger Reports from Front Lines in Iraq

Posted: Sep 19, 2007 12:01 AM
Conservative Blogger Reports from Front Lines in Iraq

Former columnist Jeff Emanuel is currently in Iraq, where he has been embedded on the front lines with the U.S. military since the end of July.

A former tactical air controller in the Air Force, Emanuel participated in major combat operations in Iraq in 2003 as a member of a special operations task force. He has returned to Iraq multiple times as an embedded journalist, and he is currently in that country reporting from “inside the surge.” He will be there until the middle of October.

Following General Petraeus’ testimony before Congress last week, Emanuel took a few moments to correspond via email with about what he has witnessed.

The edited transcript is below.

Carpenter: Did you watch the Petraeus/Crocker hearings? What did you think and what are people saying about it in Iraq?

EMANUEL: Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to watch it, and neither did most of the soldiers here at Patrol Base Olson (in northwestern Samarra, Iraq), as the unit was busy with other operations at the time. The few people who did watch it said that it was exactly what they expected him to say, and that Congress reacted in an expected way as well – so, no surprises. The mission tempo is far too high for people to care about these things, or to even have time to watch or think about them. The daily cycle is wake up, go out into sector and try to stay alive (and to kill bad guys) while trying to work with the people of Iraq to move forward, make it back to the base safely, eat, go back out into sector on another mission, come back, eat again, sleep, and repeat. It’s far more exhausting than any who enjoy the cushy American lifestyle will likely ever understand.

Carpenter: Petraeus listed three indicators the surge has been successful: violence was down, casualties have decreased across the board and Iraqis in the Anbar province were ready and willing to fight Al Qaeda. Is this consistent with what you've seen on the ground?

EMANUEL: That is only one small part of the story, though the massive swath of western Iraq that makes up Anbar Province – including its major cities of Ramadi and Fallujah, which many in the coalition were all-but ready to write off entirely as recently as last summer – is one worth knowing and talking about. In the last year, unimaginable progress has seemingly come from nowhere and blossomed into the ‘Anbar Awakening.’

Numerous tribes and clans of the region put aside their historical differences and banded together to drive out the majority of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and other terrorists from their territories. Whether this alliance of tribes will last into the future, once there is no longer a common enemy who offers in the words of one tribal sheik “only death” to the people is another matter altogether – but, if the counterinsurgency mission in Iraq is to end in a successful exercise in stable nation-building, well, that issue will have to be addressed at some point in the future. 

The fact is that increasing the coalition troop presence, and moving the troops back out into the communities they are responsible for securing – as well as moving soldiers into areas that were abandoned by the coalition after the initial invasion of 2003 – has resulted in increased security and more insurgents killed and captured.

This is an outcome even those with no knowledge of military operations or of the situation in Iraq should have been able to predict.

During my time on the front lines in Iraq – which has been spent in some of the most kinetic areas that the country has to offer – I have had the opportunity to observe General Petraeus’s strategy from the ground level, and I have seen clear evidence of the strategy’s effects.

I have personally observed public clinics, in which coalition medics and doctors provided Iraqi tribesmen and villagers with a level of care that had been unheard of in this country-- even before the fall of Saddam Hussein. I have toured reconstruction sites being worked on by Iraqi contractors, and have ridden along in gun-truck escorts whose job is to protect these men as they work to rebuild their own country, while terrorists try not only to kill them, but to destroy any and all improvements they have managed to provide for their countrymen in infrastructure and quality of life.

I have sat in on meetings – both above-board and clandestine – with sheiks and tribal leaders, who want the coalition to help them help themselves and their people to achieve better and more secure lives, despite the fact that being seen consorting with the Americans immediately puts a price on each of these leaders’ heads; likewise, I have heard the concern voiced – more times than I can even count – that the coalition, which currently remains the sole source of stability and security in this country, will give in to the cries from home to abandon the Iraqi people to death, and will finally do so.  

I have participated in combat operations which were driven solely by intelligence provided by Iraqi citizens who knew of terrorist plots and personnel in the area and called the Americans to let them know; likewise, I, along with the soldiers whom I have covered, have had my life saved several times by tips from the Iraqi citizenry about Improvised Explosive Devices and ambushes put into place to kill us.  

The job is still far from complete. There remains a persistent terrorist population in Iraq, both foreign and homegrown.

In Samarra (and the surrounding desert), for example, where I spent the first half of September, the ranks of al Qaeda in Iraq – the number one (and only) enemy – are supplemented by fighters from Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, the Sudan, and even Bangladesh (there have also been rumors of Chechens and other central Asian insurgents in the area, as well). Rather than simply taking this terrorist presence lying down, though, many Iraqis – in Samarra, as well as in Baqubah, Fallujah, Ramadi, Salman Pak, Residents in Baghdad, and countless other areas – have shown amazing courage, not only by providing an ever-increasing amount of information to coalition forces regarding insurgent activity, but also by working to rebuild what the insurgents have destroyed and by putting their lives on the line to drive terrorists out of their own villages.

Much, much more of this must happen if Iraq is even to have a chance at a brighter future – but at this point, progress is inarguably being made.

Carpenter: Although Petraeus did recommend a slow drawdown of U.S. troops from Iraq, he said doing so any more quickly that he recommended could have "devastating consequences." What's your take on that?

EMAUEL: It’s absolutely true – and likely an understatement from a man who is both a consummate leader and, when necessary (like now, when he is almost certainly under pressure from the administration not to call for more forces out of fear of political reprisal) a smart follower.  

From my observations, there are actually still too few troops here to be effective in the long-term.

The actual combat troop strength currently in Iraq is, in reality, still far too low to clear, hold (secure), and build – the three pillars of counterinsurgency – the entire country (let alone to nation-build successfully, including leaving behind a functioning, autonomous government of any kind, democratic or otherwise).

Although Field Manual 3-24 (Gen. Petraeus’s treatise on Counterinsurgency) says that 20 soldiers for every 1,000 people – a ratio which, given the 27 million person population of Iraq, would demand that a staggering (and currently impossible) 540,000 U.S. troops be in Iraq at the same time – is an ideal number to successfully wage such an effort, the fact is that, in essence, fewer soldiers than it would take to fill up Washington, DC’s RFK Stadium (the actual percentage of the 140,000 total troops here in Iraq who are performing combat operations, as the majority of the soldiers here are support troops who rarely leave their Forward Operating Bases, or “FOBs”) have been asked to secure and patrol a nation the size of California, while also training Iraqi Security Forces and performing reconstruction projects.  

Further, of the units that are in Iraq, being grossly undermanned is the rule rather than the exception at this point. Southeast of Baghdad, for example, in the area around Salman Pak, two companies from the 3rd ID’s 1-15 Infantry (neither of which possesses a single platoon that is even ¾ manned) are responsible for securing a string of cities and villages up the Tigris River Valley to Baghdad, as well as for clearing and holding dozens of square kilometers of open agricultural land to the east – while also conducting clinics, holding meetings, refurbishing schools, training police, and conducting day and night patrols along the main roads to interdict terrorists and weapons bound to and from Baghdad. Further, mere Company-sized elements, like Samarra-based Charlie Co. 2-505 (from the 82nd Airborne), have been tasked with clearing, controlling, and policing great swaths of land – the size of which not even a battalion-sized element could patrol effectively – which include not only cities but massive hinterlands that can (and do) serve as perfect hideaways for terrorists and their materiel. In less populous areas, like the region of extreme northwestern Iraq near Tal Afar, where one Cavalry Squadron and one Special Forces team are the only coalition presence in a very large area, far more terrain must be covered by far fewer troops than could ever effectively clear and hold – let alone secure – it. 

These examples are much closer to the norm among units in Iraq than most realize. While the sheer number of soldiers that are present in Iraq may sound large, its effective combat footprint – when matched up against a map of Iraq – is frighteningly small. 

Carpenter: Tell me what U.S. reporters sitting on Capitol Hill don't report that you wish they would, or anything else that's on your mind.

EMANUEL: It’s not what they don’t report – it’s that they do attempt to report on events, developments, and actions of which they have no understanding and no firsthand knowledge. My good friend J.D. Johannes, who is a documentary filmmaker (as well as a former Marine and former staffer for the Kansas Republican Sen. Sam Brownback who works exclusively on the front lines in Iraq), put it best when he said that anybody who has never been to Iraq, is not in Iraq, and will never go to Iraq should be obligated to keep their opinions on the situation here to themselves.

While this is an extreme – and he meant it somewhat tongue-in-cheek when saying it – the fact is, the situation in Iraq is far more complex and fluid than any member of our fast-food, sound-byte culture at home currently grasps.

As a result, commentators across the spectrum consistently misreport and misrepresent events, developments, and the overall situation there, simply because they do not have access to – or the contextual knowledge to understand – the facts on the ground there. I have seen people who are trying to support the troops and the administration make glaring errors and hurt their cause more than they are helping it as those who are ideologically against the entire effort there.

For the sake of getting the facts correct, rather than simply gathering enough information (correct or not) to fill a brief sound-byte, ‘reporters’ and other journalists should either come here and get out to the battlefront to witness these events with their own eyes, or communicate with the miniscule number of us who do do that, before going to press or going on camera with only a fraction of the story which they are trying to report.

If you would like to read more of Emanuel’s reports, or find out more about his mission (which is 100% funded by reader donations), go to