Army Major Keith Boring spent much of 2006 and 2007, his second Iraq combat tour, as a battalion plans officer for 1-40 Cavalry, 4-25 Infantry south of Baghdad. While his specialty was armor – he is a tank-driver, after all (“There’s nothing cooler than a tank”), his second stint in Iraq taught him that in some cases, moola can be more important than M-1s.
We were a light infantry unit, meaning, I came from a mechanized background so I often don’t think about us getting out of our vehicles. Our tactics were Infantry-based. We take our vehicles because we still have to use them to get from point A to point B, but we dismount and we would spread out.
We would have Soldiers spread out around off the roads and so it would actually confuse the enemy at first because they had IEDs focused on mounted vehicles. They were very explosive but they were directed to blast straight upward to maximize the damage on a vehicle.
Now, if you have Soldiers walking around spread out, one Soldier would have to step directly onto that IED in order to be killed. If they detonate the IED, the IED was probably meant to maximize effects against a crew vehicle of five personnel. If it gets one Soldier then that is just one Soldier and the rest of the squad is still okay…
We realized it was really understanding the population; to recognize the difference between the insurgents who was just a local and why he’s fighting us, versus the al-Qaeda cells that may be there. A lot of those are actually fighters from outside of Iraq.
It was definitely an intelligence-based war. At this time, what was also going on in the Fallujah area, out in the Sunni provinces out west of Baghdad, you had the Sunni Awakening where the different Sunni tribes began to coop with the U.S. forces there.
That’s where we’re realizing that we were able to separate these guys from al-Qaeda and get them to co-op with us. While word of this was starting to spread slowly around the country, our area of operations — it was actually an Sunni tribesman who started approaching us.
We also have a lot of insurgents who had been captured earlier in the war years ago and they’re just getting released; their time was up. Some were just like, “I’m tired of running from you guys,” and so we started getting these guys approaching us in the whole spirit of the Awakening.
It was a little difficult for us because frankly these guys were laying IEDs and blowing us up weeks earlier. We had a lot of casualties in our unit. We didn’t have as many deaths but a lot of injuries. The IEDs that were geared towards our vehicles would injure a lot of Soldiers but they wouldn’t kill them. We had a lot of Soldiers sent back to the rear for medical treatment and thankfully we had few actual deaths.
But still, at this point, about the midway point, of our 15-month tour, was when we were starting to see the change with the Sunnis and the population.
In just talking with them, you can gain an insight into their mindset and how the insurgency worked. With al-Qaeda, they were very good with propaganda, themes of common culture and common language — a lot of those are actually economic, they also pay people.
“Here’s $100. Dig a hole for me. Don’t ask why.” There was high unemployment there; anyone would go for a job so being paid $100 just to dig a ditch — one guy digs a ditch and the other guy gets $100 or $50 just to — “Here’s a box, just put this in the ditch.”
It was basically like an assembly line process. It wasn’t just a team of guys who go out in the middle of the night, dig a ditch, place a bomb and then set it up. It was one person at a specific task, which made it difficult for us to track.
With our UAVs in the area and our thermals at night, we just see a guy walking around and he’s just digging a hole. Okay. Of course, we eventually got smarter on that.
Back to dissecting this kind of insurgency, al-Qaeda was definitely very appealing to them in kind of getting them employment and paying them. They would say, “The Americans are the outsiders, they’re the Western crusaders, the invaders are out to take away what you have.”
Of course, being very tribal, these people never liked any outsiders or any kind of outside governance that they didn’t have anything to do with. I think the previous regime under Saddam Hussein knew to leave some of these populations alone.
For the most part, they were left alone and now the Americans and al-Qaeda is there and they’re caught in the middle essentially. Well, the thing was that al-Qaeda was starting to become more aggressive; they started imposing Sharia law.
They would say, “Your daughters cannot go to school or else we’ll punish you by death.” They’re telling them, “You’re supposed to grow a beard at a certain length,” which were very Taliban-like measures.
I guess for the Iraqi mind, that doesn’t work so well.
Basically, what was happening was that they were getting sick of al-Qaeda telling them what to do so much and then they started saying, “We want our towns back.”
A lot of these town leaders were threatened and afraid of al Qaeda; al-Qaeda was the big boss in town. Now they were returning and saying, “We want our neighborhoods back,” and they approached us.
Once we got over that, we were realizing this was an opportunity.
We had that open mind, understanding that this is part of the operational environment we need to understand and take advantage of, and we can make a difference. So, fine, we’ll do it.
We started with paying them. Instead of al-Qaeda paying them to lay IEDs, we paid them. “Go find these IEDs that you laid a couple of weeks ago since you know where they are.”
We wanted them to just point them out to us so that we could have our bomb disposal teams go in and disarm them. We actually called it bird-dogging. They dig them up, they come up to our doorstep and they’re like, “Here you go,” fully armed ordnance or artillery rounds that they lay at our feet. [Laughter]
We’re like, “Oh my God!” [Laughs]
We were realizing that things were changing. They wanted to work with us. We were starting to underwrite their economy by paying them just to get these IEDs…