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Operation Knockout

November, 2005

On 12 November 2005, Coalition and Iraqi forces demonstrated 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

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 November 12, 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, apparently 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. The Iraqi Special Police Forces of the Ministry of Interior (MOI) 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 de-confliction of routes, battle space, 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 the operation. 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 5 am on November 12, 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 6 pm 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 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 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 from Operation Knockout 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 had virtually no map-production and distribution system. Iraqi Special Police units were forced to rely on the SPTTs for maps. Coalition sources commented on the need to work with the security ministries to develop a responsive capability to produce more sufficient maps.

Another problem encountered in Operation Knockout was that 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. However U.S. and Iraqi officials warned that this lack of vehicles would need to be corrected 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.

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.

Much of the Iraqi Special Police's success was attributed to tactics that were ideal for the COIN environment. Insurgents survive by dispersing into small cells distributed across the battle space 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.

U.S. military officials commented that the operation’s apparent successes (with no civilians killed or injured and no local buildings destroyed) proved the Iraqi Special Police understood the strategic, not just the tactical, effect of military operations.

In the days following the raid, the Iraqi Special Police took specific steps to exploit their success. First, they used investigators to screen out non-insurgents, 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 said to be welcome to observe this treatment and to speak to the detainees.

The Public Order Division also followed up the raid with pre-planned media events designed to demonstrate their competence and to tell the Iraqi people that the Special Police were there to protect them from the insurgents.

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 are said to provide a level of operational agility that other, more conventional forces simply cannot.

Operation Knockout is one of the better examples of the potential for Iraqi Security Forces to take the lead in future anti-insurgency operations. 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."

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 to some that they are fully capable of leading and executing both the kinetic and non-kinetic 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.