Leadership: Pacifying the Baghdad Airport Road

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November 16, 2005: For two years, the ten kilometer road from Baghdad to the airport was the site of constant combat, as terrorists set off roadside bombs and shot at coalition and Iraqi troops. This was embarrassing, as everyone leaving Baghdad via the airport got a vivid example of something the U.S. Army was NOT able to control. From a military standpoint, it should not have been impossible to make the road safe. But over the last year, the road has been tamed. And in the Summer of 2005, another battalion commander was put in charge, who drove terrorist activity down to practically zero. The job was given to Lt. Col. Michael Harris, commander of the 3rd Infantry Division's 6th Battalion, 8th Calvary Regiment (the divisional reconnaissance battalion). Harris quickly followed up on earlier tactics that had reduced the risks. First, there was the problem of roadside bombs. These came from teams of terrorists who crossed about 75 meters of open ground from the villages along the smaller parallel road, to the multilane airport road, and set up the bombs. Over the last two years, this had become a lot more dangerous, because of regular UAV and helicopter patrols. But the air cover was not there 24/7, and the more persistent terrorists would wait for when there was nothing the air, and make their move. As planting roadside bomber became more difficult, suicide car bombers got onto the highway in greater numbers, because the access roads were not guarded all the time.

The solution, it turned out, was the increasing availability of reliable Iraqi soldiers and police. Harris arranged for the Iraqi police to set up 24/7 check points on all access road to the airport highway. There were now enough Iraqi police to patrol the villages along the highway, and American troops were made available to back up the Iraqi cops if they ran into large groups of terrorists (who, in the past, were assembled to chase the police out of a village or neighborhood.) The people in the villages, as they grew more confident in the abilities of the police, were more inclined to report terrorist activity.

Harris also took advantage of the better training and tactics of American troops and had them slow down when traveling on the highway. This made it easier to spot any roadside bombs, before they could go off. There weren't many bombs along the road anyway, and if they could be spotted, they could be disabled or destroyed. By slowing down, the troops also reduced traffic accidents, which caused a lot of injuries and damage.

In October there was only one injury along the road, from enemy attacks. There were more losses from traffic accidents. The Iraqis benefited the most from this, because most of the losses on the road this year had been Iraqi civilians. The troops were ready and able to defend themselves, the civilians weren't.

The resources had been there for a while to make the highway safe, but it took one officer with sufficient insight and leadership skills to make it happen.

 


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