ABOARD THE USS BONHOMME RICHARD --
Speaking bluntly from the ship’s “O’Bannon Suite,” Col. Carl E. Mundy III, Commanding Officer of the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit, has dubbed the unit’s recent deployment an “undeniable” success.
Taking time out from a flurry of homecoming briefs, after action reports and future training plans, Mundy, 47, sipped a Diet Coke and slowly sorted out his command reminiscence of the time spent on the ground in Iraq’s Al Anbar province during the summer’s “troop surge.”
Mundy’s Marines were the first surge unit to leave the CENTCOM theater as part of Gen. David Petraeus’ surge force reduction, and are currently less than two weeks away from reuniting with family members in Southern California.
Operation Iraqi Freedom
Without a doubt, the days of sensational urban sweeps and kinetic combat have dwindled. In the wake are small battles not won by destroying military targets or toppling a dictator. Mundy said he believes the difficult victories of today’s war in Iraq are won in the human heart by conducting counterinsurgency operations (COIN).
Marines spent their summer in a complicated COIN theater, living among the population north of Karmah in a once lush region west of Bagdad. Two years ago, 3rd Battalion, 1st Marines was committed to an urban area, rooting out well-organized al-Qaeda terror cells. Now functioning as the 13th MEU’s Battalion Landing Team, 3/1 patiently knocked on doors, conversed with local families and conducted a census in Area of Operations (AO) Anaheim.
Daily life for Marines in the remote region focused around the principles of counterinsurgency: 1) Separate the enemy from the population that supports him, 2) Occupy the zones the enemy previously operated in, and 3) Coordinate actions over a wide area and for a long enough time that the enemy is denied access to the population centers that enable him. In short, the MEU moved into the terrorist’s neighborhood and put a swift end to “evil deeds,” Mundy said.
With a limited amount of time, Battalion Landing Team 3/1 conducted a “textbook counterinsurgency operation,” tackling a seven-month mission in less than half that time and turned the AO over to Iraqi Army Forces.
Balancing the scale
Counterinsurgency, Mundy said, is like a see-saw. Humans act as a fulcrum while the conduct of war by an occupying force maintains the harmonic balance of peace and violence. “When the people shift, either way, it has a cascading effect,” he said.
That same cascading effect swept Anbar in the months leading to the MEUs presence, hailed by the Coalition as the “Anbar Awakening.” Winning over the population in AO Anaheim that had little to no contact with Coalition forces prior to the 13th MEUs arrival would be a different story.
“The first purpose of our presence was to deny the enemy a sanctuary,” said Mundy. By blocking enemy supply lines and occupying rest and planning areas, enemy forces across the province had nowhere to run. Nearby, Army units targeted Mahdi rebels in Bagdad. Constant searches and sweeps by Marines in Anaheim turned out mass quantities of “accelerants,” or weapons material such as homemade explosive mixtures and detonation devices – the makings of lethal roadside bombs. Within one month, a “third phase” of MEU operations was given the green light.
Through Coalition intelligence and information offered freely by grateful locals, Marines were able to push enemy forces out of the area and “set the conditions” for Iraqi Army forces to assume operational control, Mundy said.
As quickly as BLT 3/1 slashed operational objectives, IA forces previously operating in Fallujah moved in and began immediate coordination with 3/1 staff. By the end of August, 3/1 Marines and IA forces were conducting side-by-side patrols. The cooperation between forces, said Mundy, sent a clear message the to local population that friendly forces would not soon leave the area.
Of course the employment of the MEU as a surge force had to end sometime – “We weren’t going to be there for fifteen months,” said Mundy – although the time on deck was uncertain, even after an extension took the MEU to the ninety-day mark.
In early September, right before the unit’s scheduled departure, Gen. Petraeus announced “the Marine Expeditionary Unit deployed as part of the surge will depart Iraq.”
Media outlets, including NEWSWEEK, attacked the announcement as political deception. Mundy saw the issue both ways, saying “if he pushed hard enough he probably could have gotten us extended …”
According to Mundy, however, the 13th MEU’s deployment schedule will allow for time to refit and retrain for the next cycle, and “more importantly to rest.” After an undeniably successful deployment, filled with war, brutal training and shipboard rock concerts, the 13th MEU is preparing to do just that.
Author's Note: This story is part three in a three-part series titled "Ship Days." The series captures the activities and reflections of Fighting 13th Marines aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard as their 220-day WESTPAC 07-1/OIF deployment nears an end.