Operation Knockout: COIN in Iraq
On 12 November 2005, Coalition and Iraqi forces
demonstrated again the flexibility and agility so necessary for
counterinsurgency (COIN) operations against a smart, adaptive foe.
After concentrating large-scale operations for months in Ninewah
and Al Anbar Provinces northwest and west
of Baghdad, Coalition forces conducted a new, no-notice operation
in Diyala Province, northeast of Baghdad. Named Operation Knockout,
this successful action reinforced the tactics, techniques, and procedures
needed to defeat the insurgents and terrorists in Iraq.
Cordon and Search Operations
The bread-and-butter offensive COIN operation
in Iraq is the battalion and smaller unit cordon and search. From
2003 to 2004, Coalition forces conducted literally dozens of these
operations daily. In 2005, however, Iraqi Security Forces independently
planned, prepared for, and conducted most cordon and search operations.
Confronted constantly by these operations, some insurgent and terrorist
cells adapted to survive; others did not, and Coalition and Iraqi
forces disrupted their operations or destroyed them.
Coalition and Iraqi forces have also been successful
in large-scale, deliberate offensive operations such as in Fallujah
in November 2004 and in Tal Afar in September 2005. Publicized ahead
of time and with deliberate force buildups accompanied by provincial,
tribal, and sectarian diplomacy, these large-scale operations resulted
in significant gains in two major insurgent strongholds-gains that
were reinforced with economic, social, and civil efforts. As with
cordon and search operations, large-scale offensive operations are
increasingly Iraqi-led. For example, in 2004 nine Coalition battalions
led five Iraqi Army battalions in the attack on Fallujah. By contrast,
in the successful 2005 attack on Tal Afar, 11 Iraqi Army battalions
led 5 Coalition battalions. Coalition forces killed or captured
insurgents who did not flee Tal Afar, disrupted their cells, and
restored law and order to the towns and surrounding areas.
Operation Knockout confronted the insurgents
and terrorists with another challenge: a division-size raid designed
to destroy or disrupt all of their cells in a large locality in
a single night. In this case the target was the city of Ba'qubah
and its environs. Seven battalions under the command of two brigades
and a single division headquarters departed after midnight on 12
November 2005, moved along three separate routes, and struck hundreds
of targets in Ba'qubah and nearby towns. Coalition and Iraqi forces
captured 377 suspected insurgents without destroying one house or
harming one civilian; nor did they kill any friendly or enemy combatants,
and only three Iraqi Special Police were wounded. More remarkable
was that the Iraqi Special Police Forces of the Ministry of Interior
(MOI) had planned, prepared, and executed the entire operation.
In late October, the minister of interior told
the Operations Directorate to study options for a large-scale, simultaneous
strike in Diyala against a large number of suspected insurgents
and their support and information networks. After receiving the
options, the minister decided on 5 November to execute the mission.
That same day the intelligence section of the Operations Directorate
provided a list of insurgent and terrorist targets to the Public
Order Division commander with a warning order to be prepared to
move to Ba'qubah and conduct operations to detain those targets.
The Public Order Division immediately began
planning, focusing on developing target folders for the hundreds
of discrete targets forces would have to secure. Simultaneously,
Multi-National Force-Iraq (MNF-I) was notified through its cell
in the MOI National Command Center. Planning and coordination continued
with an MOI/Multinational Command-Iraq (MNC-I) meeting on 9 November
to address deconfliction of routes, battlespace, and access to Coalition
medical evacuation (MEDEVAC) and effects. The 3d Brigade Combat
Team (BCT) of Multi-National Division-North Central hosted the meeting
and conducted detailed coordination with Public Order Division units
to prepare for supporting the Iraqi operation.
Throughout the planning and coordination stage
of Operation Knockout, Special Police Transition Teams (SPTTs) under
Colonel Gordon B. "Skip" Davis and Colonel Jeffrey Buchanan
advised the Iraqis and planned and coordinated their own support
to the operation. These teams of 10 to 12 soldiers lived, trained,
and fought alongside the Iraqi Special Police 24 hours a day and
contributed significantly to the Iraqis' development. For several
months before Operation Knockout, Davis and Buchanan's teaching,
coaching, and mentoring helped the Iraqi Special Police plan, coordinate,
and develop the operational skills necessary for success. At the
small unit level, the SPTTs did not just train the Iraqi Special
Police to fight; they helped develop noncommissioned officers and
junior leaders who could lead the fight.
At execution, Public Order Division elements,
reinforced by a brigade of Iraqi Special Police commandos, moved
along three separate routes to their objectives in and around Ba'qubah,
conducting clean-up operations in small towns along the way. At
0500 on 12 November 2005, seven battalions of Iraqi Special Police
struck their main objectives nearly simultaneously. At target areas,
they dispersed into small groups, each executing several preplanned
and prepared targets. As soon as they accomplished their missions,
the units redeployed. By noon all raids were complete, and by 1800
all units had returned to their bases. Detainees were immediately
placed in the detention facility at Forward Operating Base (FOB)
Justice, with the overflow held in the FOB dining facility.
In designing Operation Knockout, Iraqi planners
used the same sophisticated approach U.S. planners had employed
for Operation Just Cause in Panama in 1989. Both operations were
based on well-developed intelligence and knowledge of the enemy.
Both were supported by in-place capabilities: in the case of Operation
Just Cause, by U.S. forces permanently based in the Panama Canal
Zone; in Operation Knockout by Iraqi Army and Special Police units
and the 3d BCT.
In both actions, operations security and deception
were effectively integrated and contributed to success. And, in
each operation, the main body deployed en mass from out of sector
to achieve surprise. The critical similarity is that both operations
struck dozens of points almost simultaneously to overwhelm the enemy
physically and mentally. Finally, both operations swiftly exploited
combat gains. In successfully executing Operation Knockout, Iraqi
Special Police carried out one of the most complex and challenging
types of military operations.
Operation Knockout demonstrated the necessity
for and effectiveness of intelligence-based COIN operations. The
MOI Intelligence Office of the Operations Directorate spent several
weeks developing the targets that would eventually be raided. Local
informants confirmed potential targets, and the Intelligence Office
produced one- to three-page papers detailing why each individual
was targeted. Using manual methods and Falcon View Light (an airborne
mapping capability), Special Police units developed a target folder
for each individual. Surreptitious eyes-on provided last-minute
updates to target sets.
One of the other lessons learned is that planners
must provide clear targets to raiding forces. For some of the targets,
the MOI gave the Public Order Division little more than names and
addresses. When that happens, the burden of target development is
transferred to the tactical unit, and the reason for going after
that target becomes unclear.
A second lesson concerns the need for accurate
maps. While Iraqi Special Police demonstrated great agility in planning,
preparing, and executing a division-size operation in a week, they
did so without accurate maps because the Iraqi Ministry of Defense
and MOI have virtually no map-production and distribution system.
Iraqi Special Police units were forced to rely on the SPTTs for
maps. The Coalition must work with the security ministries to develop
a responsive capability to produce more sufficient maps.
Surprise and operations security. A number
of factors helped Iraqi Special Police gain the advantage of surprise,
which in turn resulted in an effective mission with almost no casualties
or collateral damage. The short time between notification of the
mission and its execution reduced the chance that notice of the
operation would leak to the residents of Ba'qubah or the media.
MOI leaders also employed basic deception techniques. Special Police
commanders briefed their troops on potential operations in southern
Baghdad and then employed deception as to the timing and magnitude
of the coming operation. Next, rather than a slow buildup of troops
visible to insurgents and their supporters, Special Police units
staged in Baghdad at various FOBs, then moved the approximately
40 kilometers to the Ba'qubah area along multiple routes in the
middle of the night.
The speed with which units moved slowed enemy
reactions and reduced advance warning to intended targets. The use
of a new tactic, a division-size raid rather than a smaller, sequential
cordon and search or deliberate attack, ensured that opponents would
have to react without preplanned counters or tactics. This tactic
and the raiders' swift departure after mission accomplishment meant
Special Police units had already returned to their protected compounds
near Baghdad before any opponent could react.
Small, distributed, simultaneous operations.
We can attribute much of the Iraqi Special Police's success to tactics
that were ideal for the COIN environment. Insurgents survive by
dispersing into small cells distributed across the battlespace and
by reacting and adapting faster than conventional opponents. Operation
Knockout negated these advantages during execution when the Public
Order and commando battalions broke into dozens of company-size
elements that struck simultaneously.
Simultaneity was the key because targets had
no opportunity to react or even to pass warnings before other targets
were hit. More conventional operations are conducted linearly, starting
at one end of a town and pushing deliberately through that town
on line. They resemble squeezing a tube of toothpaste from the bottom
up: You might get the first insurgents you put the clamps on, but
those further up the street will escape to fight another day. In
contrast, the Iraqi Special Police's small-unit raids were distributed
laterally and in depth, allowing little opportunity for escape.
By executing distributed, simultaneous operations, the Special Police
units demonstrated solid training, discipline, and the ability to
execute actions using mission orders and commander's intent instead
of detailed, direct supervision.
Minimizing casualties and damage. COIN operations
must do more than simply kill or capture opponents. To win the COIN
fight, counterinsurgents cannot alienate the local population; in
fact, the people must be turned from supporting the insurgents to
supporting the legitimate government and its forces. Killing and
wounding innocent civilians and destroying homes and businesses
can have adverse strategic consequences that far outweigh any temporary
Under Saddam Hussein's regime, the police had
a reputation for oppressing the people, a reputation that seemed
to carry forward when disturbing images of abused detainees from
the Baghdad Bunker surfaced the same week Operation Knockout was
conducted. But the Iraqi Special Police took care in planning, orders,
and execution to ensure the operation would show the people of Ba'qubah
that government forces could defeat terrorists without destroying
homes or harming innocent civilians. Through discreet, deliberate,
precise targeting; by conducting operations at night; by focusing
on detention, not killing; and by treating detainees humanely and
rapidly releasing detainees who were innocent, the Iraqi Special
Police set the example for operating in a manner designed to win
hearts and minds without creating new opponents. That no civilians
were killed or injured and no local buildings were destroyed proves
the Iraqi Special Police understood the strategic, not just the
tactical, effect of military operations.
Exploitation. In the days following the raid,
the Iraqi Special Police took specific steps to exploit their success.
First, they used investigators to screen out noninsurgents, whom
they released as fast as possible. Those who remained in custody
received three hot meals a day (the same food Public Order Division
policemen were eating) and were given mattresses, blankets, clean
clothes, and access to latrines and washing facilities. External
observers, media, Coalition officers, and local sheikhs from the
tribes of Diyala were welcome to observe this humane treatment and
were free to speak to the detainees.
The Public Order Division also followed up
the raid with preplanned media events designed to demonstrate their
competence and to assure the Iraqi people that the Special Police
were there to protect them from the insurgents. The speed with which
the Public Order Division organized effective media events despite
only a week's notice was impressive; more conventional forces with
highly centralized approval of themes and messages are often incapable
of exploiting tactical success. By conducting a media event each
day for several days, the Special Police kept their successful operation
in the local and national Iraqi news long enough to reinforce the
Public Order Division's key messages.
Operational mobility. The Iraqi Special Police,
a national force designed to operate anywhere in Iraq, have worked
in Baghdad, Fallujah, Mosul, Ramadi, Tal Afar, and Samarrah. They
provide a level of operational agility that other, more conventional
forces simply cannot. And they will get even better. For Operation
Knockout, Public Order Division and commando units had not yet received
their full complement of cargo and fuel trucks, ambulances, water
trucks, and personnel transport. Fortunately, the distances traveled
and the duration of the raid were short, so the lack of vehicles
did not hamper operational mobility. That must be corrected, however,
to make full use of these units' unique capabilities.
The Public Order Division enhanced its operational
mobility by building a Command and Control (C2) van, which the Division
Commander used as an assault command post. With Iraqi Special Police
tactical communications connectivity to the brigades and battalions;
operational communications back to the MOI National Command Center
and division headquarters; and laptop computers for battle tracking,
the C2 van allowed the Division Commander to exercise command when
away from his headquarters.
Iraqi Security Forces "In the Lead"
Operation Knockout is an excellent example
of what happens when Iraqi Security Forces take the lead. Iraqi
Special Police commanders planned, prepared, and executed the raid
and then conducted an after-action review (AAR). The SPTTs also
used the mission as a training vehicle, observing, providing Coalition
coordination, and coaching when necessary.
While training for Operation Knockout, Davis's
division-level SPTT focused on battle-tracking by the Division Commander
in his van and by division headquarters at FOB Justice. The Public
Order Division hosted several meetings to conduct detailed coordination
with the 3d BCT/3d Infantry Division and its higher headquarters,
the 101st Airborne Division, to ensure Coalition support (such as
quick-reaction and MEDEVAC) was integrated into the operation.
The Public Order Division commanded and executed
Operation Knockout. SPTTs at each level accompanied their assigned
units, observed, and ensured that Coalition forces had situational
awareness of the operation. They were prepared to call for Coalition
support if required. The 3d BCT executed a small, parallel raid
to reinforce the Iraqi Special Police's operation and to provide
quick-reaction forces and on-call MEDEVAC. Far and away, however,
Operation Knockout was an operational punch delivered by Iraqi units.
The final AAR was run entirely by the Iraqi
Special Police chain of command, which used the review process to
reinforce lessons learned and training at every echelon from battalion
to division. The AAR was robustly attended, with the MOI, MNF-I,
MNC-I, 101st Airborne Division, and Multinational Security Transition
Command-Iraq participating. Clearly, though, the Iraqi Special Police
were "in the lead."
On the Road to Victory
In 21st-century counterinsurgencies one operation
cannot win a war or even change the course of a conflict. But Operation
Knockout certainly marks a positive stage in the development of
the Iraqi Security Forces. The Iraqi Special Police proved to have
a keen understanding of the fundamentals of COIN operations, as
well as of the leadership, discipline, and training needed to execute
those operations. They demonstrated clearly that they are fully
capable of leading and executing both the kinetic and nonkinetic
aspects of COIN operations. By conducting an innovative, effective
operation, they have given the insurgents and terrorists a new set
of problems to adapt to and overcome. All in all, Operation Knockout
demonstrated that Iraq is on the road to defeating the insurgents
and ensuring its future as a secure, democratic state.
Also available online at: