The Magazine

Operation Phantom Strike

How the U.S. military is demolishing al Qaeda in Iraq.

Sep 3, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 47 • By MARIO LOYOLA
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Falluja, Iraq

On August 15, several hours after night fell over Baghdad, an air assault squadron of the 3rd Infantry Division launched the first attack of Operation Marne Husky. A dozen darkened transport and attack helicopters took off and headed south along the Tigris River, carrying a full company of infantry--about 120 young riflemen with night goggles and weapons loaded. Their objective was a hamlet several dozen miles away. At about 11 P.M., the force landed and rapidly surrounded several small structures. The occupants were taken by surprise. Five suspected insurgents were captured. By 4 A.M., the entire team was airborne again.

Every night since then similar scenes have unfolded at dozens of locations in and around Baghdad--all part of a larger operation named Phantom Strike. The attacks involve units of all sizes and configurations, coming in by air and land. In some cases, the units get out quickly. In others, they pitch tents for an extended stay. The idea is to keep the enemy--al Qaeda and its affiliates--on the defense and constantly guessing, thereby turning formerly "safe" insurgent areas into areas of prohibitive risk for them.

Time and space

The impetus for Phantom Strike was, in a way, born in Washington, where Congress created a series of benchmarks for progress in Iraq by mid-September, at which point an "interim report" is required from Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander. The legislation inadvertently (perhaps "negligently" is a better word) created a "Tet" opportunity for al Qaeda here. If it can dominate headlines with spectacular mass-casualty suicide attacks in the days and weeks leading up to the report, the political climate in Washington might turn irretrievably against the military effort, thereby snatching a victory for the terrorists that they have failed to win on the ground. (Just as the Viet Cong's Tet offensive in 1968, while a military debacle for them, convinced U.S. media and political elites that that war was lost.) With this in mind, operational planners earlier this year began laying out a strategy to disrupt al Qaeda's ability to carry out the expected attacks.

Learning from past mistakes, commanders of the "surge" forces now take territory only if they can hold it. But for certain elements of Phantom Strike, they are making an exception to that rule. Divisional commands across Iraq have been instructed to cash in their accumulated intel and attack insurgents where they are most likely to be hiding--whether it makes sense to hold the territory or not. In planning rooms across the central third of Iraq, commanders looked at their target wish-lists--places where they had taken fire in the past, or tracked possible insurgents, or gotten credible tips from the population--and chose the most enticing ones.

The Joint Campaign Plan, a document that operationalizes the surge in accordance with Petraeus's counterinsurgency strategy, calls for coalition forces to give the government of Iraq "the time and space that it needs to succeed," according to military officers. The practical emphasis has been on "space." By pushing coalition forces out from their bases and into neighborhoods across Baghdad and other major urban centers in Iraq, commanders have sought to establish "area security" through "clear, control, and retain" operations. Key to retaining these areas is the participation of Iraqi Security Forces and other nonmilitary Iraqi government support.

The success enjoyed in places like Anbar province has come because security forces convinced people that they were there to stay. Those populations have shown their appreciation by joining the fight against al Qaeda in their neighborhoods, joining the police, and establishing neighborhood watch systems. Purely disruptive raids in which neither control nor retention is sought have thus fallen somewhat into disfavor.

But there is one good reason not to abandon them altogether. Disruption is a way to seize and maintain the initiative. Disruptive attacks keep the enemy off-balance, guessing as to your next move. That makes him concentrate on defense, and put off his own attacks. It's like a boxer keeping his opponent on the ropes with a flurry of jabs until the right moment for a knock-out blow.