When the towers fell, the President had proclaimed, “Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists." Whether or not this was ill advised to say publicly would be debated, but for a truly short period of time, the United States of America had a great deal of sympathy from other nations across the globe.
At least overtly.
The Middle East is somewhat famous for its finnicky and malleable approach to alliances, but its history is far deeper than the history of strategic partnerships that America has pursued. Still, lines had been drawn for the initial volley.
Similarly, a resounding call to arms trumpeted within many halls of bureaucracy in the federal government. Between all the competing entities, at least a temporary truce was declared. The homeland had been threatened, of this there was no dispute. Cooperation across the intelligence community ensued, and the levers of power were properly aligned against Al Qaeda and its allies.
The linear thinkers brought full vengeance to the Taliban in Afghanistan. A cabal of non-linear thinkers thought it wise to foray into Iraq due to a policy to remove Saddam that dated to the Iraq Liberation Act signed by President Clinton in 1998. Many plans were developed, with forced entry access considerations paramount. Swirling amongst all of the calculus were Nations’ considerations of loathing or fealty to Saddam Hussein.
How did the Iraq chess piece play into the broader game of Shiite/Sunni dominance between Saudi Arabia and Iran? What was the economic interplay of oil?
So many variables.
A US led invasion into Northern Iraq via Turkey was slammed with a resounding ‘no!’ Turkey found zero obligation that was rooted in the NATO charter and Turkey was pressing hard to get into the EU. Several key members of the EU were steadfastly against regime change in Iraq. To make matters worse, the Barzani clan and others in the Kurdish peshmerga had interests that aligned with the US.
Since they had been the victim of 1983 and 1988 massacres by Saddam, the Kurds were particularly motivated. Overland routes from Turkey were the only secure means to get to the Kurdish enclave. The only problem was that in many experts’ opinion, the Turks and the Kurds were considered mortal enemies. Due to the military necessity of needing to open a front on the northern flank and managing the political nuance of embedding with the peshmergas, the CIA assembled a team to work with the two most viable Kurd forces: the KDP and the PUK.
* * *
SO3 Mehmet Ataturk had graduated the famous BUD/S class 234 and deployed to Afghanistan with SEAL Team 8 after initially conducting VBSS (Visit, Board, Search and Seizure) operations in the Persian Gulf. Having spent his youth wrestling, he was a natural athlete and leader, so his call sign and nickname became ‘Mojo’ during that first deployment. Due to the close cooperation between SOCOM and CIA, a computer search spat out his name from a database based on language attributes.
Because his father had grown up in Yuksekova, Mojo had a little bit of the Kurmanji dialect of the Kurd language along with his more native Turk woven into the fabric of his cradle languages. He had even scored a 2/2 on his DLPT in Kurdish, and 3/3 in Turkish. Due to his combat proficiency as a SEAL, the Agency would not take no for an answer from DOD, and Mojo was seconded to the CIA to participate in unconventional warfare. He would even precede the 10th Group pilot team as he was attached to the Deputy team leader’s element as an interpreter/security guard.
He first met his new team leader, Charlie, at the air base in Incirlik. Charlie greeted him warmly, “Welcome, Mojo, we’re really pleased to have you on the team!”
“I was pretty surprised to get the call,” Mojo replied, “I am pretty junior for this sort of duty.”
Charlie diplomatically parried, “Well, to be honest, your chain of command was reluctant to let you go for the same reason. But I think what carried the day was your shooter skill set, a deployment under your belt, and we really could use a terp.”
“Yes, sir.” Mojo replied.
“First thing, call me Charlie. No ranks here. We generally use call signs only.” As the overall Deputy team leader, Charlie was fairly senior, a GS-15, with many deployments as a case officer across the Middle East under his belt. “Unfortunately, you were not involved in our planning, but the lay down for you is fairly simple. You will accompany me anywhere I go. Our sector is in the zone controlled by the Patriot Union of Kurdistan, the PUKs.
We’ll focus on providing assistance to Jalal Talabani, as he is the leader of the PUKs. Our longer-term objective is the removal of Saddam, but a Sunni terrorist group operating in this area, Ansar al-Islam, also an enemy of the PUKs, must first be dealt with.”
Mojo was tired from the flight, but inquired, “OK, boss. Mind if I meet the rest of the team?”
The two walked to the hanger where the team had assembled. In turn, Mojo met Fanta, Rogue, Ian, Eric, Blaze and Drone. Most were case officers; Blaze was a communicator and Drone was a paramilitary officer (PMO). Other than Mojo, no one on the team had fewer than 10 years of service; several had also done 8 years in the military before joining the Agency.
As time was short, the group loaded up in 4 Land Cruisers, two per vehicle. From this point on, Mojo was pretty much in Charlie’s back pocket. Mojo drove toward the border crossing point—Khabur Gate.
* * *
The team leader, Ian, split off with Fanta, Eric and Rogue at Irbil. Since the relationship with the KDP was a little dicey, Ian took on that challenge as he was the overall team leader. On top of that, to get Turkish permission to cross the border, Ian had been saddled with a Turkish officer to ‘act as a guide.’
Part of the reason Mojo went to Charlie’s team was to deny the Turkish officer comfort that Mojo’s language capabilities might afford. The Turkish officer was tolerated because they had no choice. He was, however, effectively persona non grata, or PNGd and isolated from all operational discussions once across the border.
As Deputy team leader, Charlie led Mojo, Blaze and Drone to their base camp at Qalah Chulan. On the compound, all the cinderblock buildings were of the same vintage and construction. Even the PUK leader, Jalal Talabani, lived in the same type of abode—no RHIP here. They would live fairly rough, but in relative terms, here they would be protected.
Even the Kurds had heard stories about Navy SEALs fighting prowess and Mojo’s immersion into daily Kurmanji discussions strengthened his proficiency to garner even greater respect from their hosts. For the next several months, this austere location would be Mojo’s home.
* * *
Mojo felt like such a newb. Sure, he had ground it out during BUD/S and his follow-on training; he had done a successful deployment in the Persian Gulf and had even boarded several Iranian Dhows to search for illicit material; he had spent 4 months in Afghanistan in the mountains north of Khost hunting Taliban and had survived three wicked firefights. But this environment was crazy!
He was getting a crash course in unconventional warfare and advanced tradecraft with a group of 4 Americans surrounded by tens of thousands of Ansar terrorists in the middle of Northern Iraq. His crash course was not the controlled Robin Sage training exercise that US Army Special Forces went through—his was live, on the edge, living rough every moment with brave Kurdish fighters who desperately wanted Saddam gone.
His language skills were improving exponentially with his immersion and daily application as Charlie’s terp. He also absorbed the nuances of negotiation the deputy team leader employed when continually being undermined by Washington in negating the plans the team set forth to Jalal Talabani. The support the Americans were supposed to bring—air support, precision guided munitions, artillery, heavy machine guns – kept getting delayed or denied, as Turkey was unshakable in its insistence that no such armaments would cross over their sovereign border.
Mojo learned a great deal more about strategic reconnaissance (SR) as the team always accompanied a PUK detachment going out on patrol whenever the PUKs offered. They would snoop and poop and scope where all the Ansar heavy gun or AA positions were—captured their disposition digitally and transmitted as bits of data to feed up to the invasion planners. These photos were pure gold. They saw things on the ground that satellites could not possibly discern as a threat. Their IIRs would save lives.
Blaze and Drone would go out with PUK security to either go hunt for new sources or handle incoming intel reported from already recruited sources. In four months, Charlie only released Mojo to go on these forays six different times. He observed the security procedures tailored for each meet, kept his mouth shut and just watched. He saw live, in the field, the tradecraft taught at the Farm for new career trainees.
* * *
Perhaps the largest influence in Mojo’s language skill improvement was because he had befriended one of the fighters, a 17-year-old boy named Azwer Tovi. Maybe Azwer sought out the friendship, when they bonded and attribution as to who was the instigator was unclear, but for some reason they mutually felt a kinship. On Mojo’s third patrol, the small group had encountered an Iraqi force, shots were exchanged as the PUKs gained fire superiority quickly. No Iraqis were taken prisoner as the Kurds unleashed their ferocious assault.
As the PUK patrol did SSE to gather any portable intel, they noted the Iraqi’s radio had taken a round, maybe negating the need to get quickly out of the area before reinforcements arrived, but they wisely had not taken the chance.
Later that night around the firepit, Azwer exclaimed, “My good friend Mojo fought well today--Şikur ji te re, Mojo! I think you bring us luck in the battle.”
Mojo replied, “No, Azwer, I think it was you who brought the good fortune today!”
There were a great many exclamations such as ‘his hands are beautiful’, a Kurdish expression of thanks. The group feasted on Yaprach (Stuffed Onions) as they celebrated a small victory and gave thanks that they had all lived another day.
* * *
Time was passing, and Washington was finally augmenting the small CIA team. Elements from the 10th Special Forces Group called a pilot team augmented the CIA team in Qalah Chulan. This pilot team was headed by a Captain who was accompanied by 4 NCOs. This SF contingent would do a great deal of scouting across the Kurdish sector of Northern Iraq, and they would report a great deal of data of military value: how many tons a given bridge over a river could withstand, the general layout and capacity of an abandoned airfield in Harir, the level of sophistication of combined arms training the Kurd militias had attained.
None of this made up for the deficiencies regarding promises made and promises kept. The Americans had promised Javelin missiles to negate Iraqi tanks. Mojo watched Charlie suffer through meetings trying to explain why that promise had not been delivered. With the few resources they had, the team built rapport with the peshmergas by providing small unit maneuver and marksmanship training.
Finally, the time had come when Turkey lessened restrictions concerning overflights for supply routes and two Special Forces Battalions flowed into Northern Iraq. Charlie was fortunate to partner with the more squared away of the two SF battalion commanders, and after the infiltrating operational detachments (ODAs) linked up with their Kurdish peshmerga counterpart units, the Ansar al-Islam terrorists were swept away, 3–4-man teams penetrated the Green Line and conducted SR on Iraqi armor formations near Irbil, and Mojo watched their former tiny base turn into a beehive of activity.
Nearly a year had passed, and before Mojo would return to SEAL Team 8 and begin, once again, to do ‘normal’ SEAL tasks, he would perform one more effort with the Agency. Since Charlie now had a 10th Group terp, Mojo was detailed to an advance party that would set up and occupy a new CIA safe house in Sulaymaniyah.
While establishing a State Department warehouse, Mojo, Drone and two NCOs from the Military Intelligence Detachment (MID) from 10th Special Forces Group HQ joined another small contingent of CIA logisticians. For security, Drone had brought along a large squad of PUK peshmerga, to include young Azwer.
Joining that throng were a group of signals intelligence specialist from SCS. SCS is a joint CIA/NSA activity that conducts mid-point SIGINT out of US flagged activities like an embassy, consulate, or State Department Annex. SIGINT tasking may be in direct support of HUMINT operations out of Station, like in the case of asset validation, or in direct support of tasking from an Ambassador (rare). SCS is also unique in that not only do they collect, but on site there are dedicated analysts and linguists on live collection missions for immediate break down (not sending it back to Ft Meade and waiting).
The SCS folks sequestered themselves to build out their array of antennas, with coax cable running all over the compound and terminating in their respective processors. Until their air conditioners arrived in country, all their computers would be shut down due to the already stifling June Iraqi heat.
From Incirlik to Sulaymaniyah, Mojo had undertaken a unique journey in this Iraqi campaign in the Global War on Terror. Over that course of time, he had made lifelong friends, but it was time to return home and rejoin his SEAL brothers and family. Soon, enough, he would return to Iraq.