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Operation Judgement Day

On July 6, The New Yorker published the story of the 3rd Brigade of the 101st Airborne Division, the Rakkasans and their tour of Iraq in 2006. Raffi Khatchadourian’s article captures the difficulties inherent in nation building, like target identification, war crimes and the proper way to disarm a population.

Many Soldiers will have heard stories about Colonel Steele and his Rakkasans before reading the article; I first heard about them during my infantry officer training in early 2007. Now that the New Yorker has broken the ice, I feel comfortable publishing what I have heard. The following story is not a word for word quotation, but what I remembered and recorded in my journals during my training.

My platoon mentor for infantry officer training had just come from 3rd Brigade of the 101st. During down time, he would answer questions from the new lieutenants about warfare, deployments and counter-insurgency. One day, as we waited to practice room clearing a soldier raised his hand and asked about Rules of Engagement (ROE) in Afghanistan or Iraq and his thoughts on it.
“That’s a good question.” He paused. “I have a story that shows the difference between killers on the ground and politicians covering their asses, acting politically correct.    
“I was with the Rakkasan’s during OIF IV. One day CJTF headquarters decided to change the ROE. The change altered the criteria needed to engage a ‘target.’ Basically, it said that if two sources confirmed a target then it could be destroyed. What JAG didn’t realize at the time, was they hadn’t defined the term ‘target.’ They meant hard target as in buildings or vehicles. A rational person could also describe a target as a hostile individual.

“So we devised a plan where we had informants give us names of an IED cell. We then took pictures of individuals in the area they operated. We had another source point out which ones were the IED cell. With the second identification, we had our two sources confirming our targets. Our source even gave us home addresses.

“We called the operation ‘Judgement Day.’
“A few nights later in the dead of night we simultaneously hit the houses. As the targets prepared to surrender the soldiers entering didn’t pause or stop; just put two in the chest and one in the head.

“By the last house, the word had gone out that the coalition forces were no longer detaining suspects. The last man held up his baby son in front of his face. SGT _______  used his M4 to push the baby to the side and put two rounds in his face. Oh, in another house, one of the target’s daughters ran to him as the team came in and she accidentally took several rounds and died with him.

“After we executed the mission and the word went up to higher, CJTF headquarters quickly adjusted the ROE to restrict targeting individuals like we had done. They basically made only High Value Targets kill on sight and that authorization had to come from Corps level.”

The platoon was silent. Slowly the guys started to comment how awesome that mission sounded, and how it sucked we could not conduct missions like that more often.

I disagreed. Operation Judgement Day epitomized bad counter-insurgency to me. Practically, the death of one little girl outweighs the benefits of killing three insurgents to a local population. And of course, ethically, killing little girls should be avoided at all costs, and never treated casually or flippantly. I don’t know if anyone else felt the same way, but no one agreed with me. As we discussed ROE, and I took the position that this mission made no sense, my fellow lieutenants--all about to be Platoon Leaders--disagreed with me and supported Operation Judgment Day.

The US Army has a long way to go before population-centric counter-insurgency, the intelligent, difficult style advocated by General Petraues, David Kilcullen and John Nagl, is accepted by the Army as a whole. While it may be doctrine, that does not mean that the Army at large buys into it. Or, as my story shows, has been trained in it.

ten comments

I just wanted to say that when I edited this article for Michael, I told him the ninth paragraph seemed over the top. But he replied that was how he was told the story. If we lose compassion, especially for the deaths of little children, we’ve lost a lot.

Very depressing. Shocking that you were disturbed by the murder of the little girl, but not of the men, fathers, and husbands—who were never proved guilty of anything, but being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or looking like someone who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. If foreign soldiers were camped out in my country killing people without a trial, I would probably start affiliating with anti-occupation “terrorists” as well.

Other than it being “really cool,” were there any other justifications for why this operation could be deemed good/useful? Aside from the fact that the intelligence itself looks a little suspect (to me it’s hard to justify executing people in their homes with zero hard evidence they’ve done anything) it is “good” that an IED cell is gone. But it seems like a completely wasteful mission if you’ve created a bunch of martyrs (child martyrs no less!) that will rally people against you.

Another question I have is: if you had the same intelligence, what would you have your platoon do differently?

First; fantastic name for an operation. Judgement Day. It’s almost poetic considering Coalition Forces offered up summary justice to confirmed terrorist targets. While I agree that the collateral damage is unacceptable, the targets were confirmed in accordance with the ROE. They were confirmed combatants. That is the justification for the operation. But the justification for the “two in the chest and one in the head,” remains elusive. Considering the lack of resistance, the above story borders on criminal.

Thanks for sharing the story. Fundamentally, we have a case of good concept, but poor execution with this operation. It should rarely be a first choice, but killing is a critical component of the security effort in COIN. While it is difficult, and less timely in a non/less-permissive environment such as Iraq, kill/capture operations in COIN should look more like law enforcement raids, rather than brute force urban clearance. With good intelligence, confirmed and fleshed by reconnaissance and surveillance; much like good police work; proper patterns of life for targets can be developed. These patterns, applied in a well planned operation help to ensure that only the target individuals are killed/captured and collateral damage is minimized. Tragically, this case looks to a breach of tactical patience to achieve a narrowly conceived objective. While a small victory (debatable even) in the sense of taking an IED cell off the street, as an intelligence officer, I can only think of what was missed in the rushed execution of the operation and deaths rather than live capture of the targets. Who were their suppliers, financiers, et al.? In COIN, it is usually a good idea to think how not only a military officer might approach the problem set, but also a police officer, city planner or diplomat. You don’t always have to follow the “softer” choice, but the thought process will help make the right decision for a long term positive impact, rather than short term fleeting victory.

As I and a few others have commented on other posts, this does seem like a situation that would greatly benefit from a more law enforcement style raid. That is why police departments have SWAT teams — to ARREST, not kill, targets that are considered high risk. I completely agree with nd that it would have been far more valuable to capture these individuals and learn the supply chain for their operation.

Also, on a semi-related note, I read a lot about Iraqi Army and Iraqi Police or Afghani Army and Afghani Police but they both seem to be doing the same things in there country. I want to know what the real differences is when they are both conducting the same types of operations. This may be something you could address in a future post — maybe discuss the differences between police and military operations in conducting a counter-insurgency.

I can’t speak for Iraq, but yes the Afghan National Police (ANP) and Afghan National Army (ANA) have somewhat similar missions with some key differences. ANA are almost never native to the area in which they are assigned, while ANP are generally more locally recruited. The ANA is an offensive force that conducts maneuver operations, while the ANP rarely does anything more kinetic than accompany coalition forces as the token Afghans on an operation.

The key here is that there is no force in most areas that acts in a true policing role and overall, the ANP is corrupt and not trusted while adding little to the security of an area. This topic could fill a book and varies widely across the country anyway.

Regardless, the ANP and law enforcement in general are the true keys to long term security in Afghanistan; not the ANA. Nobody would argue that there is a major insurgency in New York City and indeed it has one of the lowest crime rates of any major city in the world, yet it still requires 37,838 police officers to keep the peace. The entire trained and present for duty ANP is probably that large for a population approaching 30 million across an area the size of Texas. ANP training, operational readiness and manning rates are woefully insufficient, as is their compensation and equipment. On top of this, what good is a police force without a justice and prison system to back it up? There is essentially no court or prison system present anywhere in Afghanistan, leaving a huge “justice gap” which the Taliban exploits quite well. The point here is that (holding constant the imperfect state structure currently in place in Afghanistan) from basic dispute resolution to major criminal and low-level insurgent activity, the security solutions are local and the ANP is the force best poised to provide the answers. We must reallocate the efforts to train the ANP and build the legal institutions to back it up in order to make any long term progress in security in Afghanistan. Our ISAF allies would do well to reallocate their inadequate combat capabilities toward ANP training and justice capacity building.


Terrible. I also find it strange that some of the most highly trained personnel at Jag would “forget” to define their targets. That would seem like one of the first steps. Calling the project “Judgment Day”, on top of it, to me that’s thumbing your nose at what America stands for.

And I’m sad to say I’m not surprised about this. And how f*cked up is it that we’re finding mass graves over there now?I feel like our military is being abused.

And they can take that military smoking ban and shove it. If anybody deserves a cigarette it would be our guys and girls in the military.

There are too many leeches in the system, and they’re bad decisions, and intel puts our soldiers in danger. I really don’t think some of them understand the value of our military, or the value of the human lives of the civilians caught in the crossfire. Look at what they do with skyrocketing amount of predator drone attacks going on these days.

“ In early April, the Pakistani Taliban leader Mullah Nazir said he had caught “spies” who were inserting into militants’ phones “location-tracking SIMs” — Subscriber Identity Module cards, used to identify mobile devices on a cellular network.

Ten days later, 19 year-old Habibur Rehman made a videotaped “confession” of planting such devices, just before he was executed by the Taliban as an American spy. “I was given $122 to drop chips wrapped in cigarette paper at Al Qaeda and Taliban houses,” he said. If I was successful, I was told, I would be given thousands of dollars.”

But Rehman says he didn’t just tag jihadists with the devices. “The money was good so I started throwing the chips all over. I knew people were dying because of what I was doing, but I needed the money,” he added. Which raises the possibility that the unmanned aircraft — America’s key weapons in its covert war on Pakistan’s jihadists and insurgents — may have been lead to the wrong targets.”

@ Kate – I’m shocked at the deaths anyone, and you are totally right. What I was expressing shock is that for the men, it was plausible they were in the insurgency. Since the beginning of war, soldiers have demonized and de-humanized their enemies. I don’t like this, but I understand it. On the flip side, there is no way a six year old girl could be an insurgent, or an enemy. To casually accept her death is to take war to a degree I don’t like. Her detah symbolizes that.

@ Nick – Great points on the ANA

In response to, “what would I do?” I would try and capture the people. At a very low tactical level, that is the only real option. The other option, if you could pull it off, is to flip the IED-makers into intelligence collectors for you or as explosive disposal units in the Iraqi Army. Its a stretch, but better than creating martyrs as you said.

@nd- I think the main stumbling point that pushes this scenario from correct application of hard power to overreaction is the death of the innocent girls and the lack of further gain from their deaths. Also telling is the fact that the ROE was quickly revised to eliminate the ability to conduct operations like this. The US forces should not determine who dies in Iraq—ideally—the Iraqi government should.

Will and Nick- Regarding the policing problem, I also find it just ironic that we have trained the Afghan Police for years and whole stations will never make any arrests. In my area, it seemed like their job was to get shot at by the Anti-Afghanistan Forces (if they were not bought off).