Small Wars Journal

Operation Tigris Waves: Victory and Defeat

U.S. Army Captain John Shermer e-mailed us his thoughts on Operation Tigris Waves as seen through the lens of Dr. David Kilcullen's Twenty-Eight Articles : Fundamentals of Company-Level Counterinsurgency. CPT Shermer is a Military Intelligence Officer who served two tours in Iraq. Both tours were with 1-66 Armor Battalion as their intelligence officer. He is currently in command of a tactical intelligence company at Fort Hood, Texas.


Victory and Defeat - Operation Tigris Waves and the Twenty-Eight Articles: Fundamentals of Company-Level Counterinsurgency

Captain John Shermer

In March 2006, 1st Brigade, 4th Infantry Division planned and executed Operation Tigris Waves to stabilize the city of Tarmiyah, Iraq, set the conditions to create a local security force capable of protecting the populace of Tarmiyah, and to integrate the town government into the Shia dominated government of Iraq. This operation ultimately failed. Not for lack of planning, or allocation of military and interagency resources, but because early successes in the operation changed the environment to such a degree that other priorities in 1st Brigade's Area of Responsibility (AOR) began to pull resources away from the Tarmiyah area. Eventually security could no longer be maintained, and the coalition initiative was again lost. This essay examines Operation Tigris Waves, the successes and failures of the operation, and provides commentary on how well the operation utilized the Twenty Eight Articles : Fundamentals of Company-Level Counterinsurgency by Dr. David Kilcullen.


Tarmiyah, a city of largely Sunni Muslims (who were, or remain, Ba'ath Party members) of Iraqi descent with a significant, though dwindling, minority of Shia Muslims, is located 20 miles north of Baghdad along the western bank of the Tigris River. Population estimates of the urban area ranged from 50,000 - 200,000. The agricultural area surrounding Tarmiyah is largely palm and orange groves, with scattered raised-berm fish farms. Goats, cattle, and poultry and other livestock are farmed to a lesser extent. Several significant government complexes from the Saddam Regime are in the area; the largely rubbled Ibn Sinna Chemical Plant and the Karkh Water Treatment Facility, which continues to supply the majority of fresh water to upper class and government facilities in the Karkh area of Baghdad. Tarmiyah is located only 6-7 miles from Highway One (Main Supply Route (MSR) Tampa), a heavily patrolled U.S. Army Corps MSR route; but despite the relative proximity to near constant transient U.S. and Iraqi Army patrols, it is isolated enough to need dedicated security from insurgent attacks.

Insurgent attacks on U.S. forces and non-local Iraqi security forces persisted since the end of high intensity combat operations in 2003. Route (RTE) Coyotes, the main improved road linking Tarmiyah to the rest of Iraq, experienced improvised explosive device (IED) attacks or attempted attacks daily. Attacks on U.S. forces and security forces inside of Tarmiyah were less persistent, but tended to be of higher complexity and intensity than attacks on the roads, particularly attacks against fixed facilities, like the Tarmiyah Police Station, or U.S. checkpoints. Prior to 1st Brigade involvement, security in the city consisted of a police station with approximately 10 individuals "on duty." Supporting the police station were intermittent U.S. patrols. In early 2006, the Tarmiyah Police Station was abandoned by U.S. forces following coordinated attacks on a monthly basis.

A Joint Operational Graphic from 2000 placed an "approximate boundary for the Baghdad area" just north of Tarmiyah. These operational graphics were used by Corps planners in delineating division boundaries. These boundaries effectively sealed off the Albiyachi area from U.S. patrols in 1st Brigade and created an area north of Tarmiyah not patrolled by U.S. forces. This insurgent sanctuary north of Tarmiyah played a role in the outcome Operation Tigris Waves.

Operation Tigris Waves involved placing an Iraqi battalion and U.S. company in a fixed facility inside the city and sealing it off the with concertina wire. There were two entry control points for all traffic entering the city. From a patrol base, joint patrols were conducted in order to secure the populace and build indigenous combat power. Figuring prominently in the operation was the addition of local projects to increase the standard of living of the populace and a focus on information operations to inform the populace of the projects and the actions of their local government. Also included in the patrol base were combat support assets, such as local intelligence collectors and signal support. The base was supplied regularly from Camp Taji, 12 miles away.

The operation was, initially, a resounding success. Security in the city quickly increased, and Tarmiyah went from being one of the most feared places for U.S. forces to being the location showcased for VIPs. During the first few months of Operation Tigris Waves it was not unusual to see patrols shopping on the streets of Tarmiyah or eating in cafes. Locals hesitantly embraced the security that coalition forces brought to the city despite the inconvenience of a semi-sealed city and commerce flourished. Drives to recruit police officers were successful and locals were sent to police training. Multiple governance meetings were held and the city was deluged with projects to assist in rebuilding destroyed or neglected public areas in the city. U.S. leadership was invited to mosques, schools, and other events. Insurgents, wary of the U.S. presence in the city and fearful of U.S. operations, fled the area to either Albiyachi, villages south of Tarmiyah, or Baghdad. Intelligence collection initially surged as individuals previously too intimidated to come forward to provide information were now comfortable talking with U.S. patrols or at the Joint Patrol Base.

As 2006 continued conditions in other portions of the 1st Brigade sector changed. The Brigade focus shifted from stabilizing Sunni insurgent strongholds to patrolling Sunni/Shia demographic fault lines and combating a rise in IEDs on MSR Tampa near the town of Mushada. With the return of police recruits and a change in focus on other areas of the brigade sector, security forces began to be pulled away from Tarmiyah. The first drawdown was a relief in place of a U.S. infantry company by a U.S. engineer company half the size of the infantry company. Following this reduction was the displacement of the Iraqi army battalion in Tarmiyah to Baghdad. Insurgents, biding their time in non-U.S. controlled Albiyachi, saw an opportunity to reestablish dominance in Tarmiyah. Killings against citizens in Tarmiyah rose, and an infantry company was again brought in to regain control. Despite a lack of adequate security in the city, project money continued to flow. Consistent, unconfirmed reports emerged of project money flowing into insurgent hands to protect city officials from reprisal attacks from insurgents.

By the winter of 2006 the infantry company was removed leaving only a small contingent of U.S. military police assisting with the security of Tarmiyah. The local Iraqi police, recognizing that the security situation favored the insurgents and fearful of reprisal attacks on their families, quit. By late February 2007, Tarmiyah had come full circle, with U.S. forces manning an empty Iraqi police station, a lone outpost in enemy held territory and vulnerable to attack.

What Went Right

U.S. forces did a remarkable job of stabilizing the populace and, if judged by Dr. Kilcullen's Twenty-Eight Articles on Company Level Counterinsurgency, did very well at a number of his precepts. U.S. Forces knew the land they were going to operate on, diagnosed the problems in the area, and did passably well organizing for intelligence, by dedicating a human intelligence team to augment the company commander's organization. A local patrol base meant light walking patrols, easily augmented with reach-back combat power from the patrol base. Though a political advisor was not dedicated to the company at the patrol base, there was a dedicated brigade command and control node that furnished information operations support on a daily basis. The game plan of building a local security network through the police force was valid and well executed.

The most important dictate of Dr. Kilcullen, that of "being there" was executed daily. Networks were built slowly, over time, as patrol leaders interacted daily with the populace. Deterrent patrolling was done daily by both U.S. and Iraqi patrols through all areas of the city. Armed civil affairs operations were conducted through a series of projects, from relatively minor medical operations to large projects such as adding a distribution pipeline from the Karkh Water Treatment Plant to Tarmiyah. All of these facets of Operation Tigris Waves were well within the tenants of the Twenty-Eight Articles. This, in itself, was a remarkable accomplishment for a U.S. brigade tooled, not for counterinsurgency, but for high intensity warfare.

What Went Wrong

Operation Tigris Waves also failed on several of the precepts of the Twenty-Eight Articles. U.S. Forces did not ever truly organize for interagency operations. A brigade staff section was selected to oversee civil-military operations but at the company level there were no dedicated individuals to develop relationships with civilian agencies. Even if the company could have developed these relationships, they would have been lost as the U.S. components were forced to conduct relief in place operations to facilitate directives to other portions of the brigade AOR.

Another area that failed the Twenty-Eight Articles was that by starting in Tarmiyah, an insurgent stronghold, U.S. forces did not "start easy," as Article 14 suggests. This meant U.S. forces did not have an area to re-cock from when the Tarmiyah security situation disintegrated. However, Article 14 was hard to apply to Iraq in late 2005 and early 2006 as some estimates suggested that 80% of the Iraqi populace had the potential to act as a mass base for the insurgency and 45% of the Iraqi populace believed that attacking U.S. forces was justified. Given these statistics, a suitable location to begin focused counterinsurgency operations was difficult to identify at best.

Another article that was not implemented was Article 22, "local forces should mirror the enemy, not ourselves." In this, there appears to be a divergence from Dr. Kilcullen's beliefs, as U.S. forces have, and continue to be, focused on raising an Iraqi security apparatus that looks very similar to western military and police forces in doctrine and organization. In the microcosm that was Tarmiyah in 2005-2007, this Article played out in both victory and defeat as Iraqi reconnaissance squads were very successful at retooling into a paramilitary-like force that did their best work in civilian clothes in marketplaces, mosques, and other social circles, while Iraqi tank battalions were not particularly efficient uses of combat power in combating the Sunni insurgency in the area.

Perhaps the biggest deviation from the Articles was in Article 25, "fight the enemy's strategy, not his forces." As Operation Tigris Waves achieved its first objective of providing security to the built-up area of Tarmiyah, attacks in other portions of the brigade AOR increased, particularly in mixed Sunni/Shia areas. Over time, a focus on this rise in activity led to retasking of combat power out of the city of Tarmiyah, ultimately undermining the operation as a whole. In order to fight the Shia insurgency, U.S. forces ceded power to the Sunni insurgency.

Operational Security (OPSEC) is a very difficult problem in Iraq, and it is frustrated on an even higher scale by clockwork troop rotation plans, and the rise of internet and cell phone use. Because of this, Article 27, "keep your extraction plan secret," was another article that U.S. forces had difficulty with. Civilian leaders in Tarmiyah knew the end of 1st Brigade's troop rotation just as well the troops did.

Troop rotations are a particularly poignant problem in Iraq. Just when military leaders have a good handle on the civilian leadership and have built relationships, the entire area's U.S. military leadership changes hands. This seems to violate the last article of Dr. Kilcullen, "whatever else you do, keep the initiative." Months pass before the elements of operational friction from the troop rotation are overcome, ceding time to the Iraqi insurgencies to reengage the population and make up for lost ground due to previous coalition victories.

Despite applying most of the 28 articles to the security in Tarmiyah, ultimately it was the success of Operation Tigris Waves that led to its downfall. Tarmiyah was perceived as secure, and security forces initially dedicated to the operation were moved away from the center of gravity of the Sunni insurgency in 1st Brigade's AOR to contend with the other Iraq insurgency: the Shia insurgency in Baghdad and other enclaves. As stated previously, a superficial resemblance to coming full circle was perceived with the security situation in Tarmiyah, but this is not entirely true. Much like a biological organism will recover from a transient disease with a new resistance, so did the insurgency in Tarmiyah. A sporadic approach to security, with rapid task-organization changes and shifts in focus acts to harden an insurgency and the local populace against U.S. involvement. Coalition forces are perceived as transient. The superficial resemblance of the security situation in Tarmiyah in early 2007 to the security situation in Tarmiyah in 2006 is false. It is not the same. It is worse. The insurgency has come through another on-slaught from U.S. forces. The insurgent capabilities that were not able to make it through the security environment were destroyed; the insurgent capabilities and relationships in the community that survived are now stronger. Evolution has occurred, and not in the coalition's favor.

The U.S. Army will continue to contend with Dr. Kilcullen's' 28 Articles, as they are now doctrine (FM 3-24, Appendix A) and in time the Army may improve in the execution of these articles.

However, without significantly restructuring combat forces for counterinsurgency, realizing that withdraw or drawdown of forces currently in place is not possible until conditions affecting the targeted populace fundamentally change, and providing a sufficient force to address limited objectives in an increasingly prohibitive operating environment, decisive victory for U.S. objectives in Iraq remains in jeopardy.


Maximus (not verified)

Wed, 04/04/2007 - 10:36pm


Thanks so much for sharing the history of this operation. It's really too bad that we don't have such info readily accessible and available on all villages and towns throughout Iraq for Marines/Soldiers to access. It's also a shame that despite initially applying most of the "28 Articles", we ultimately jumped ship, failing to realize that you need to "be there" in an area for months, if not years before indigenous forces can secure it independently.

While in many ways dissappointing, I'm still cautiously optimistic about our chances for success in Iraq because many of us are learning from our mistakes at a faster rate than we generally have in similar wars of years past. For example, most villages and towns in Anbar have Marines living in security stations amongst the population, and the only way they're leaving these positions is if we're ordered home. Looks like we're doing much the same in Baghdad and elsewhere.

Through open and honest discussions like this one, we'll ultimately find a way to succeed (assuming we're given the time to do so). Thanks again.

Semper Fi!