Operation Overblown

BAGHDAD — “Operation Swarmer” is turning out to be much less than meets the eye, or the television camera, for that matter. And that should raise concerns about relying on Iraqi intelligence.

BAGHDAD — Operation Swarmer is turning out to be much less than meets the eye, or the television camera, for that matter.

Iraqi and Coalition forces launched Operation Iraqi Freedom’s largest air assault operation in southern Salah Ad Din province March 16. Named Operation Swarmer, the joint operation’s mission was to clear a suspected insurgent operating area northeast of Samarra.

Operation Swarmer included more than 1,500 troops from the Iraqi Army’s 4th Division, the U.S. 101st Airborne Division and 101st Combat Aviation Brigade. The Soldiers isolated the objective area in a combined air and ground assault.

More than 50 Attack and assault aircraft and 200 tactical vehicles participated in the operation. Troops from the Iraqi Army’s 4th Division, the “Rakkasans” from the 187th Infantry Regiment and the “Hunters” from the 9th Cavalry Regiment assaulted multiple objectives. Forces from the Iraqi 2nd Commando Brigade then completed a ground infiltration to secure numerous structures in the area.

Initial reports indicate a number of weapons caches were captured, containing artillery shells, IED-making materials and military uniforms. Iraqi and Coalition troops also detained 41 suspected insurgents.

That sounds exciting! But according to a colleague of mine from TIME who traveled up there today on a U.S. embassy-sponsored trip, there are no insurgents, no fighting and 17 of the 41 prisoners taken have already been released after just one day. The “number of weapons caches” equals six, which isn’t unusual when you travel around Iraq. They’re literally everywhere.

(Digression: Just to clear some things up, “air assault” does not equal air strikes. There are no JDAMs being dropped, and there are no fixed-wing aircraft involved at all, except maybe for surveillance. An air assault is the 101st Airborne’s way of inserting troops into a battlespace. There is so far no evidence of bombardment of any kind. Also, it’s a telling example of how “well” things are going in Iraq that after three years, the U.S. is still leading the fight and conducting sweeps in an area that has been swept/contained/pacified/cleared five or six times since 2004. How long before the U.S. has to come back again?)

As noted, about 1,500 troops were involved, 700 American and 800 Iraqi. But get this: in the area they’re scouring there are only about 1,500 residents. According to my colleague and other reporters who were there, not a single shot has been fired.

“Operation Swarmer” is really a media show. It was designed to show off the new Iraqi Army — although there was no enemy for them to fight. Every American official I’ve heard has emphasized the role of the Iraqi forces just days before the third anniversary of the start of the war. That said, one Iraqi role the military will start highlighting in the next few days, I imagine, is that of Iraqi intelligence. It was intel from the Iraqi military intelligence and interior ministry that the U.S. says prompted this Potemkin operation. And it will be the Iraqi intel that provides the cover for American military commanders to throw up their hands and say, “well, we thought bad guys were there.”

It’s hard to blame the military, however. Stations like Fox and CNN have really taken this and ran with it, with fancy graphics and theme music, thanks to a relatively slow news day. The generals here also are under tremendous pressure to show off some functioning Iraqi troops before the third anniversary, and I won’t fault them for going into a region loaded for bear. After all, the Iraqi intelligence might have been right.

But Operation Overblown should raise serious questions about how good Iraqi intelligence is. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told by earnest lieutenants that the Iraqis are valiant and necessary partners, “because they know the area, the people and the customs.” But when I spoke to grunts and NCOs, however, they usually gave me blunter — and more colorful — reasons why the Iraqi intelligence was often, shall we say, useless. Tribal rivalries and personal feuds are still a major reason why Iraqis drop a dime on their neighbors.

So I guess it’s fitting that on the eve of the third anniversary of a war launched on — oh, let’s be generous — “faulty” intelligence, a major operation is hyped and then turns out to be less than what it appeared because of … faulty intelligence.

UPDATE 2400 GMT +0300: Time.com has posted the magazine’s official version by Brian Bennett, my colleague who was on the operation today.

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