Air assault no “stunt”

Posted: Mar 20, 2006 2:40 PM

The latest criticism of the war in Iraq has become so politically manipulative, so disingenuous, so over-the-top; it is undermining a critical cause that we cannot afford to lose; and for a variety of global security reasons.

As I mentioned in my piece on irresponsible reporting, there is far too much emphasis on blatantly inflammatory words and pictures – any opportunity to focus attention on tired stories like Abu Ghraib or an angry politician’s loaded comments about “no WMDs” or an “impending civil war.”

Thanks to the short shrift given it by many members of the mainstream press, too few Americans appreciate or grasp the magnitude of the fact that the first session (since last December) of a freely elected Iraqi parliament convened on March 16: A result that would not have been possible had it not been for three risky albeit remarkably successful elections since January 2005.

And as far as the U.S. effort is concerned, it seems there is almost nothing the White House, the Pentagon, or for that matter any American rifleman on the ground can do that is good enough to garner so much as a one-line “attaboy” from many of our country’s largest newspapers and television news networks.

Let’s look at last Thursday, March 16, the day the Iraqi National Assembly opened in Baghdad and a high-profile “air assault” northeast of Samarra, as an example:

The earliest news leads in U.S. newspapers (particularly the online versions) read something to the effect of, “Iraqi and coalition forces today launched the largest air assault operation since the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom in southern Salah Ad Din province to clear a suspected insurgent operating area.”

They were legitimate leads, based largely on the U.S. Defense Department’s initial press release about Operation Swarmer, a “50-ship” helicopter assault aimed at seizing weapons caches, gathering intelligence, and nabbing or killing terrorists in the targeted area.

But a misinterpretation of military terminology resulted in many – perhaps most – Americans having an image in their minds of waves of bombers and fighters unleashing a 2006 version of 2003’s “shock and awe.” And those responsible for disseminating the news, did not initially help much in that regard.

When I logged into my email Thursday morning, I had numerous messages from colleagues who – unlike me – are opposed to our efforts in Iraq. One reporter-friend asked, almost gleefully, “What are we doing now? Why are we launching a ‘massive’ bombing campaign in Iraq? So now we are bombing and killing lots of innocent civilians? Justify this!”

After responding to his message, I zipped off a note to editor Kathryn Jean Lopez at National Review Online for posting on NRO’s The Corner. A portion reads:

“They [my email buddies] are confused by the term, ‘air assault.’ An ‘air assault’ is actually a helicopter-borne infantry assault. In this case, large numbers of helicopters are ferrying airborne-infantry soldiers to enemy targets.”

Fine. And it didn’t take long for the rest of the nation to figure that one out, too. But that wasn’t good enough.

By Thursday afternoon, Slate magazine was reporting, “W. Thomas Smith Jr. on National Review's Corner blog tries to clear up the difference between a bombing campaign and an air assault for people who think an air assault will kill loads of civilians.”

Notice the interjected doubt in the word, “tries.”

Nevertheless, since there were no waves of roaring jets dropping napalm to rail against, the cut-and-run crowd decided to take another tack.

By Friday evening, the new charge was that “Swarmer” was nothing more than a “media stunt.” Some blogs and news outlets referred to it as “underwhelming.”

In fact, Time magazine online reported, “…contrary to what many television networks erroneously reported, the operation was by no means the largest use of airpower since the start of the war. (‘Air Assault’ is a military term that refers specifically to transporting troops into an area.) In fact, there were no airstrikes and no leading insurgents were nabbed in an operation that some skeptical military analysts described as little more than a photo op. What’s more, there were no shots fired at all and the units had met no resistance, said the U.S. and Iraqi commanders.”

Then there was UPI’s totally propagandized story published Sunday.

”Operation Swarmer, a joint U.S.-Iraqi offensive around the northern Iraqi city of Samarra in Salaheddine province, went into its fourth day Sunday with very little to verify why it has been described as the largest assault operation since the American-led invasion of Iraq three years ago,” writes UPI correspondent Sana Abdallah from Amman, Jordan.

Who told Abdallah it was the “largest assault operation” since 2003? Certainly not DoD.

Was it the largest “air” assault operation? Yes.

The story continues, “There have been no reports of casualties or exchange of fire, although the offensive involves 1,500 American and Iraqi troops and 50 helicopters, but no air strikes were reported.”

Despite suggesting a hollow raid; “no casualties,” “no shots fired” and “no airstrikes” are actually the goals of any competent military commander.

Much more than a photo-op, Swarmer was launched as a correct “package” combining U.S. Army airborne, infantry, and cavalry assets along with Iraqi infantry and commandos against a predetermined series of targets. The assault was based on sound intelligence gathered over the past few weeks, and thoroughly developed in the days prior to the first helicopter lifting off the pad.

Swarmer has thus far resulted in the seizing of numerous weapons caches – netting hundreds of mortar-rounds, rocket-propelled grenades, 130-mm artillery rounds, hand-grenades, machineguns, assault rifles, and nearly 2,000 rounds of armor-piercing rifle ammunition – as well as recovering terrorist training manuals and videos, stolen Iraqi military uniforms, and various triggers and devices used to detonate explosives. Also, a substantial number of insurgents (at least one, as of this writing, is said to be a “ringleader” in the recent bombing of the Golden Dome shrine in Samarra) continue to be captured, and some will no doubt yield solid intelligence for future operations.

Yes, Swarmer is proving-out to be both a bloodless military operation – netting weapons, bad guys, and fresh intelligence – and a successful show of force aimed at energizing Iraqi soldiers and demoralizing insurgents: a tactic often employed by smart, successful armies. A triumph in military commander’s book: Hardly “under-whelming” or a “media stunt.”