How the Army’s Delta Force and Nightstalkers teamed up to rescue hostages in Iraq, according to operators who were there

A US Marine Corps tank in Baghdad in April 2004
A US Marine Corps tank crew in Baghdad, April 2004.

  • A year after the US’s March 2003 invasion of Iraq, the country faced a growing insurgency.
  • That violent campaign challenged US special-operations forces tasked with operations to counter those militants.
  • In mid-2004, US Army special operators executed a rare daylight raid to rescue foreign contractors held hostage near Baghdad.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Almost a year after the US invasion in March 2003, Iraq was starting to spiral out of control, with a complicated Islamist and sectarian insurgency forming up.

On a normal spring day in 2004, a gang of Iraqi kidnappers abducted five contractors, four Italian and one Polish, off the streets of Baghdad.

Soon after the abductions, the Iraqi kidnappers executed one of the hostages, releasing a video of it as a warning. If the Italian and Polish governments didn’t pay a hefty sum, the rest of the hostages would be executed one by one.

US and Coalition special-operations units began looking for leads on the location of the four remaining captives. The task fell primarily to the top special-missions unit in-country: the US Army’s Delta Force.

Alongside Naval Special Warfare Development Group (DEVGRU), formerly known as SEAL Team 6, Delta Force is the US military’s dedicated counterterrorism and hostage-rescue special-missions unit.

With four squadrons (A, B, C, D) of about 70 operators each, the Unit, as Delta Force is known, has an exemplary hostage-rescue record, with several successful high-risk operations since its creation in the late 1970s.

Part of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), Delta Force and DEVGRU are the US’s first responders for any urgent hostage rescue and counterterrorism contingencies.

Find, fix, and finish

Black Hawk helicopters take off from Baghdad's Green Zone
US Black Hawk helicopters take off from Baghdad’s Green Zone, July 13, 2007.

A lot of groundwork has to be done before such an operation. The task force had to pinpoint the location of the hostages – a tall order in the middle of a growing insurgency that included several different sectarian militias and terrorist organizations, such as Al Qaeda in Iraq and the Iran-backed Mahdi Army.

For the majority of operations, that intelligence would come from other raids, including details from prisoner interrogations or from cellphones or other materials gathered by commandos during other missions.

Any information gleaned from interrogations or devices would give the task force additional leads for more raids in a perpetual cycle until they got to their primary target. Essentially, US and coalition special-operations units would “raid” themselves to the top.

“Time is really off the essence in HR [hostage rescue] and CT [counterterrorism] ops. Hostages or HVTs [high-value targets] can literally be moved in a matter of minutes,” a retired Delta Force operator with several deployments to Iraq told Insider.

“We’ve had occasions where when we launched a mission the target was there, but by the time we had arrived they had moved. These kinds of missions are very kinetic, and you can come up with a dry hole even if you’ve got overhead ISR [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] monitoring the area,” the retired operator said, speaking anonymously to discuss mission planning.

Italians held hostage in Iraq in 2004
A still image of three Italians held captive in Iraq, Umberto Copertino, Salvatore Stefio, and Maurizio Agliana, on April 26, 2004.

On this occasion, intelligence about the location of the four hostages came from a coalition special-operations unit that had debriefed a prisoner.

Once the suspected location of the hostages was pinpointed, JSOC and the intelligence community began monitoring the compound for any signals intelligence that might reveal more information about the kidnappers or the hostages.

In addition, JSOC teams conducted close-target reconnaissance of the area to gather more information about the building’s layout and the pattern of life of those inside.

On June 8, JSOC managed to pinpoint the exact location of the four hostages. Within minutes, the operators had donned their gear and the helicopters spun up for a daring daylight mission.

Objective Medford was on.

Usually, special-operations units operate in the night, using their advanced night-vision and thermal optics and goggles as an advantage. Daylight operations aren’t unheard of but are rare.

In this case, however, the Delta Force operators had to get to the compound as soon as possible to avoid a last-minute relocation of the hostages or, even worse, an execution. Every minute mattered.

‘We’re Navy SEALs, we’re here to get you out!’

US special operations troops during hostage rescue in Iraq
US special-operations troops during a hostage rescue in Iraq, June 2004.

The assault force was composed of a troop of Delta Force operators from A Squadron and eight special-operations helicopters from the elite 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, nicknamed the “Night Stalkers.”

Four MH-60 Black Hawk choppers carried most of the ground force, while four AH/MH-6 Little Bird helicopters provided armed overwatch and assault support.

The assault force flew fast and low across busy highways and farms, touching down just outside the target compound. Knowing that their loud entry would alert the hostage-takers, the Delta Force operators sprinted toward the building.

In record time – just over 17 seconds – the Delta operators swept the compound and located and recovered the four hostages alive. The kidnappers still in the building offered no resistance.

Black Hawk helicopters prepare to land in Baghdad's Green Zone
US Black Hawk helicopters prepare to land in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone, February 14, 2007.

A leaked helmet-camera video provides unique insight into a real hostage-rescue operation by one of the world’s top special-operations units.

As the Delta operators stormed the compound and secured the four hostages, Delta Force operator Jamey Caldwell shouted, “We’re Navy SEALs, and we’re here to get you out,” jokingly quoting the infamous 1990 movie “Navy SEALs,” starring Charlie Sheen.

The movie is a sore point for the Naval Special Warfare community, which sees it as bad publicity.

“That’s what we’re trained to do. We specialized in hostage rescue, and to me that was the most satisfying work. You’re risking your life for someone in dire need and making split-second decisions on whether the guy in the room is a threat or needs help,” Caldwell, now retired, told Coffee or Die Magazine last year.

Delta Force and the Night Stalkers had once again pulled off an impressive operation. As the insurgency flared up in the years that followed, they would have to repeat similar and more difficult feats on an industrial scale.

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.

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How British special operators defied their bosses to rescue 2 comrades captured on a secretive mission in Iraq

40 Commando British Royal Marines in Basra Iraq
Members of 40 Commando Royal Marines on patrol in Abu Al Khasib, a suburb of Basra, March 31, 2003.

  • In September 2005, British special-operations forces in Basra faced a problem.
  • Two of their own had been captured during an undercover operation, and their lives were in peril.
  • In addition to hostile Iraqis, British SAS troops had to overcome reluctant commanders in order to save their comrades.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

In September 2005, British special-operations forces found themselves facing a problem.

Two of their own had been captured and beaten by local Iraqi police during an undercover operation in Basra, and their lives were hanging by a thread.

The operators were members of the famed Special Air Service (SAS) – the British equivalent of the US Army’s Delta Force – and had been part of a surveillance operation targeting the police and their commander, suspected of rampant corruption.

Coalition intelligence also suspected the Iraqi police chief was working with insurgents, particularly the brutal Mahdi Army, a Shia militia organization supported by Iran.

The Shia insurgents had no love for the British. SAS, Special Boat Service (SBS), and Special Reconnaissance Regiment (SRR) commandos had been targeting them in a nonstop for months as part of a counterinsurgency campaign.

That meant there was little room for negotiation. Other US or Coalition troops who had been captured by insurgents had been tortured and killed. If not rescued immediately, the two SAS operators faced the same agonizing fate.

An operation gone south

A British soldier jumps from a burning tank
A British soldier jumps from a tank set ablaze after a shooting incident in southern Iraq city of Basra, September 19, 2005.

The two operators, a sergeant and a lance corporal, were using a light disguise to better blend in to the environment.

As they were finishing their surveillance mission, they were compromised by some plainclothes Iraqi policemen. A scuffle ensued, and the British commandos fired their weapons, wounding some Iraqi policemen.

The two British commandos tried to escape, relying on their “native” garb for protection.

“I always thought as soon as I spoke to someone, they would realize I was British. But we had fake tan, hair dye – I was even driving an Iraqi taxi – because we were trying our best to fit in,” one of the captives, Sgt. Colin Maclachlan, said years later.

Maclachlan spent seven years in the SAS, serving in Northern Ireland, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Sierra Leone, where he was involved in the rescue of British troops held hostage in September 2000.

As they were leaving the area, they came upon an Iraqi police checkpoint and decided to try to talk their way out of an increasingly bad situation, but to no avail.

With an angered mob gathering, the Iraqi policemen handcuffed the SAS troopers and took them to the Al-Jamiat police station.

Screw the brass

Iraqis protest a British raid in Basra
Iraqi police and civilians demonstrate against a British raid which freed two undercover soldiers, in the southern city of Basra September 21, 2005.

The team to which the SAS operators belonged was too small to launch a rescue on its own, so they requested urgent reinforcements from Baghdad, where the main SAS contingent had its headquarters in the Green Zone, right next to Delta Force.

As the SAS commandos were preparing to rescue their own, the officer-in-charge received a call from the UK, ordering him to stand down any rescue attempts. The SAS operators, including the unit’s commanding officer, were dumbfounded.

The bureaucrats in London had also been taken by surprise and were slow to react. The political situation in the recently liberated Iraq was precarious. A complicated insurgency made up of terrorist groups and Sunni and Shia militias was threatening to destroy the very fabric of Iraqi society.

This political quagmire was the only rational reason for the senior leadership’s hesitation to rescue their own.

However reasoned that decision was, it was unacceptable for the SAS, whose leaders decided to disobey orders in this critical moment, risking court-martial to save their own.

An Iraqi boy taunts British soldiers in Basra Iraq
An Iraqi boy taunts British soldiers after a shooting incident in the southern Iraqi city of Basra, September 19, 2005.

Meanwhile, the situation inside the police station was deteriorating. The Iraqi policemen issued a statement, accusing the two British commandos of subversion, and published pictures of the operators looking harangued and beaten.

The Iraqis also put the British commandos through several mock executions.

“They had a pistol up against the back of my head, then there would be a click. There was lots of shouting, but I couldn’t really tell what they were saying. They were going to execute us,” Maclachlan told The Scotsman in 2009.

An assault troop of 20 SAS operators from A Squadron and roughly 40 paratroopers from the Special Forces Support Group (SFSG) flew to Basra. (SFSG is a specialist unit designed to support other British special-operations forces.)

“I was keeping myself mentally alert and I still had faith in my SAS colleagues coming to get me though. But being at the sharp end of this incident, I had no idea about the hoo-hah which went on,” Maclachlan said.

As reinforcements were en route, the British military sent in a mechanized infantry company to try and negotiate the release of the two commandos. That effort failed, and those regular troops had to evacuate after a mob of Iraqis attacked them with stones and Molotov cocktails, setting one armored personnel carrier ablaze and lightly wounding several British soldiers.

The situation was getting worse by the hour.

‘Who dares wins’

A British military helicopter lands in Basra Iraq
A British military helicopter lands near the scene of an incident between Iraqis and British soldiers in the southern city of Basra, September 19, 2005.

With the reinforcements in Basra, the SAS launched another rescue attempt with helicopter and mechanized infantry support.

They stormed the Al-Jamiat police station, rolled over the wall surrounding the compound, assaulted the building, and took the Iraqis by surprise. But their colleagues had already been moved.

During an impromptu interrogation, Iraqi policemen revealed that the two SAS captives had been taken to a nearby compound. The ground force regrouped and made up another assault plan on the fly.

Once they reached the compound, they stormed the building through numerous entry points, a classic hostage-rescue tactic meant to disorient the captors and prevent them from killing the hostages.

At first the rescue force couldn’t find the captive SAS troopers and feared they had been moved again. But in another sweep of the compound, the task force found the two SAS operators handcuffed in a bathroom – beaten and disheveled but alive.

On that September day, the SAS leadership took a great risk, mutinying to save their colleagues. But it was a calculated risk that paid off. British political and military leadership gave post facto permission for the rescue attempt. The SAS lived their motto: “Who Dares Wins.”

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GOP lawmakers say Biden hasn’t responded strongly enough to Iranian-backed attacks on US personnel at least 6 times last week in Iraq and Syria

President Joe Biden waves as he walks on the Ellipse after stepping off Marine One on May 17, 2021 in Washington, DC.

  • Iran-backed militias waged multiple attacks on US personnel in Iraq and Syria, Reuters reported.
  • In one of the at least six attacks, two US service members were injured.
  • “Iran-backed militias’ continued assault on US personnel in Iraq cannot be tolerated,” GOP Sen. Jim Inhofe told Politico.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Republican lawmakers said President Joe Biden is not responding strongly enough after numerous attacks against US personnel in Iraq and Syria by Iran-backed militias, Politico reported.

In the past week, at least six rocket and drone attacks targeted US troops and diplomats. On Wednesday, for example, two US service members were injured when at least 14 rockets hit an Iraqi airbase hosting US troops, Reuters reported.

Politico reported the exchanges this week are the latest in a long string of back and forth attacks between the US and Iranian-backed militias.

Biden has been working to be less involved in the region to focus on dealing with the coronavirus pandemic and Republicans have been critical of the minimal approach.

“Iran-backed militias’ continued assault on US personnel in Iraq cannot be tolerated,” Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement to Politico. “President Biden must put forward a real strategy for deterring and ending these attacks, rather than continuing his bare-minimum, tit-for-tat approach that is failing to deter Iran or its militias and puts American lives at increased risk.”

Former United States Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East, under former President Donald Trump, Mick Mulroy told Politico that “Iran needs to know they can’t hide behind their proxy forces.”

Read more: Photos show shirtless Democratic congressmen and their wives riding camels on a Qatar trip paid for by a special interest group

Biden did order airstrikes against Iran-backed militias on the Iraq-Syria border late last month, as well as in February following attacks on US personnel, but faced backlash from progressives.

“I will be briefed on the imminent harm to our troops who the President has a duty to protect and why the Administration believed this was necessary for self-defense,” Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna of California, who sits on the House Armed Services Committee, told Insider’s John Haltiwanger last month. “What this shows, however, is the need for a broader strategy to bring our troops home so they are not at risk and to de-escalate the tensions with Iran.”

During a press conference, Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby addressed the attacks on Thursday and said the US is evaluating a response.

“Obviously deeply concerned. We take the security and safety of our people overseas extremely seriously. And you’ve seen us retaliate appropriately when that safety and security has been threatened,” Kirby said.

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Donald Rumsfeld’s legacy is defined by the disastrous Iraq War and America’s disgraceful use of torture

Donald Rumsfeld
Former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld listens to questions during a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on what military leaders knew about the combat death in Afghanistan of U.S. Army Ranger and former football star Pat Tillman, in Washington, August 1, 2007.

  • Donald Rumsfeld, George W. Bush’s powerful defense secretary, died at 88 on Wednesday.
  • His legacy will always be tied to the Iraq War and torture.
  • Rumsfeld helped push the false notion Iraq had WMDs – the basis for the 2003 invasion.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

In the days leading up to Donald Rumsfeld’s death, the US targeted Iranian proxy fighters along the Iraq-Syria border with airstrikes in what the Pentagon said was a “defensive” response to drone attacks on American forces in the region.

The fighting between the US and Iran-backed militias is intrinsically tied to Rumsfeld’s legacy. The 2003 US invasion of Iraq and removal of its dictator created a power vacuum that Iran took advantage of, using it as an opportunity to prop up Shiite Islamist militias and political parties that vie for power in Iraq and counter America’s agenda and troops.

As former President George W. Bush’s secretary of defense from 2001 to 2006, Rumsfeld was one of the main architects of the 2003 Iraq War and a proponent of the torture methods that damaged America’s global standing. He played a central role in selling the false notion that Saddam Hussein was actively developing weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) that posed a direct threat to the US. Later, Rumsfeld referred to his baseless assertions about WMDs in Iraq as “misstatements.”

In one of his most infamous statements about the war, Rumsfeld once dismissed looting that occurred shortly after the invasion by simply stating: “Stuff happens.”

The war was a costly disaster for Rumsfeld’s political career and in far more reverberating ways, with the conflict claiming many Iraqi and American lives while undermining US credibility worldwide.

The “global war on terror,” which the Iraq invasion was fundamentally linked to and began while Rumsfeld was Pentagon chief, has also been an exorbitantly expensive debacle. It’s claimed over 800,000 lives, displaced at least 37 million, and the US government places the price-tag around $6.4 trillion, according to the Brown University’s Costs of War project, which estimated that as many as 308,000 people directly died as a result of the war’s violence.

The 2003 Iraq invasion also helped catalyze the rise of the Islamic State or ISIS, a terrorist organization that has claimed responsibility for devastating attacks across the globe. ISIS was initially founded as “Al Qaeda in Iraq” in 2004. By 2014, ISIS declared a caliphate as it controlled a large swath of territory across Iraq and Syria. ISIS lost its territorial holdings and has seen top leaders killed, but is still viewed as a threat by the US and its Western allies.

“ISIS, al-Qa’ida, and Iran and its militant allies continue to plot terrorist attacks against US persons and interests, including to varying degrees in the United States. Despite leadership losses, terrorist groups have shown great resiliency and are taking advantage of ungoverned areas to rebuild,” the US intelligence community said in its annual threat assessment released in April. The US maintains a presence of roughly 2,500 troops in Iraq as part of the international coalition continuing to fight the remnants of ISIS.

Rumsfeld in his 2011 memoir said he had no regrets about the 2003 Iraq War because it helped take out Saddam Hussein, which he said helped stabilize the Middle East. History tells a different story.

“While the road not traveled always looks smoother, the cold reality of a Hussein regime in Baghdad most likely would mean a Middle East far more perilous than it is today,” Rumsfeld said. “Our failure to confront Iraq would have sent a message to other nations that neither America nor any other nation was willing to stand in the way of their support for terrorism and pursuit of weapons of mass destruction.”

Years before the 2003 invasion, Rumsfeld served as the Reagan administration’s special Middle East envoy. At the time, he met with Hussein and offered the Iraqi leader assistance – even though the US knew that Hussein was using chemical weapons against Iran amid a devastating conflict.

Rumsfeld was also a documented proponent of enhanced interrogation techniques – or torture.

In one memo that Rumsfeld signed as defense secretary approving the use of torture on detainees, he wrote a handwritten note asking why they would only be required to stand for four hours.

A December 2008 Senate report also concluded that Abu Ghraib torture scandal was a product of the interrogation techniques approved by Rumsfeld and other top Bush administration officials.

Human rights groups and civil liberties groups like the ACLU filed unsuccessful lawsuits against Rumsfeld over his involvement in America’s use of torture. Such organizations pointed to this legacy as they reacted to the news of Rumsfeld’s death.

“Rumsfeld may be dead, but other senior Bush administration officials are alive and well and available for criminal investigation into torture,” Andrea Prasow, deputy Washington irector at Human Rights Watch, said in a tweet.

Jameel Jaffer, the executive director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, tweeted that the “top of every obituary” should state that he “gave the orders that resulted in the abuse and torture of hundreds of prisoners in US custody in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay.”

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US carried out airstrikes in Iraq and Syria on facilities used by Iran-backed militia groups

Aerial view of the Pentagon

  • The US carried out airstrikes in Iraq and Syria early Monday morning.
  • The Pentagon said the targets were used by Iran-backed militia groups that were conducting attacks on US facilities in Iraq.
  • The US aimed “to send a clear and unambiguous deterrent message,” a Pentagon spokesperson said.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The Pentagon carried out airstrikes Monday morning in Iraq and Syria on facilities used by Iran-backed militia groups, Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said Sunday.

“At President Biden’s direction, U.S. military forces earlier this evening conducted defensive precision airstrikes against facilities used by Iran-backed militia groups in the Iraq-Syria border region,” he said in a statement.

Kirby said the targets were selected because they were used by Iran-backed militia groups that are conducting drone attacks against US personnel and facilities in Iraq. The groups included Kata’ib Hezbollah and Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada.

“As demonstrated by this evening’s strikes, President Biden has been clear that he will act to protect U.S. personnel. Given the ongoing series of attacks by Iran-backed groups targeting U.S. interests in Iraq, the President directed further military action to disrupt and deter such attacks,” Kirby said.

Read more: Meet 7 BidenWorld longtime consiglieres and a couple relative newcomers who have access to exclusive White House meetings

“We are in Iraq at the invitation of the Government of Iraq for the sole purpose of assisting the Iraqi Security Forces in their efforts to defeat ISIS. The United States took necessary, appropriate, and deliberate action designed to limit the risk of escalation – but also to send a clear and unambiguous deterrent message,” he continued.

The airstrikes targeted operational and weapons storage facilities at three locations, two in Syria and one in Iraq, all near the border between the two countries.

It was not the first time the US launched airstrikes in the region under President Joe Biden. In February, Biden ordered airstrikes in Syria against assets of Iran-backed militia groups after militants fired rockets at an Iraqi airbase used by the US military. The militia groups were the same ones targeted on Monday.

Several militant groups in Iraq and Syria are supported by the Iranian government, which has struggled with years of economic sanctions. Biden has sought to engage Iran in talks aimed at restoring the 2015 nuclear deal that the US withdrew from under former President Donald Trump.

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Rep. Barbara Lee says Biden putting US on course to end ‘forever wars’ with support for 2002 AUMF repeal

Debris are seen following a US-led coalition airstrike hits Headquarters of al Nusra Front in Aleppo, Syria on November 06, 2014.
Debris are seen following a US-led coalition airstrike hits Headquarters of al Nusra Front in Aleppo, Syria on November 06, 2014.

  • In 2002, Congress passed an Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq.
  • In 2020, the AUMF was cited by the Trump administration to justify killing Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani.
  • The White House on Monday announced its support for repealing the law.
  • Sign up for the 10 Things in Politics daily newsletter.

When the Trump administration sought a legal justification for killing an Iranian general in Baghdad, it pointed to a measure passed by Congress more than 17 years earlier: the law that formally granted President George W. Bush the authority to invade Iraq.

To critics like Rep. Barbara Lee, a California Democrat, that was quite a stretch – and another example of Congress losing its authority over matters of war and peace to the White House. Now, however, a new president is backing Lee’s effort to eliminate at least one legal justification for military force.

In a statement on Monday, the Biden administration announced support for legislation that would repeal the 2002 Authorization to Use Military Force Against Iraq.

“The president is committed to working with the Congress to ensure that outdated authorizations for the use of military force are replaced with a narrow and specific framework appropriate to ensure that we can continue to protect Americans from terrorist threats,” the White House said.

But it also noted that its support was made easier by the fact that no “ongoing military activities” rely “solely” on the 2002 AUMF. Indeed, it is an AUMF passed in 2001, in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, that is far more often cited to justify military actions, from Somalia to Yemen, against perceived threats to the US.

But the Biden administration is pledging to work “on repealing and replacing other existing authorizations of military force.”

In a statement to Insider, Lee – the only lawmaker to vote against the 2001 AUMF that preceded the US invasion of Afghanistan – said she is prepared to work with the administration on that.

“Our goal is to put matters of war and peace back in the hands of Congress,” she said. “President Trump used the 2002 AUMF to justify his killing of [Qassem] Soleimani,” one example of presidents from both parties using the law “to justify engaging in military conflict while sidestepping Congress.”

The 2002 AUMF has been a staple of the US-led global war on terror.

President Barack Obama, for example, cited it in 2014, to justify airstrikes against the Islamic State group and an al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, an intervention that ultimately saw the US fire more artillery rounds than it did during the entire war in Vietnam. By contrast, the Obama administration insisted it could not take action against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad for its use of chemical weapons without a new congressional authorization.

“President Biden’s support of this legislation means that we are one step closer to not only ending forever wars but making sure that we no longer engage in them in the future without Congressional approval,” Lee added.

The Democratic-led House previously passed Lee’s repeal bill in 2020, before it languished in the Senate. It is set to vote again Monday night.

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The US military likely killed 23 civilians in 2020, according to a new report from the Defense Department

GettyImages 1232600143
KABUL, AFGHANISTAN – APRIL 29: A Black Hawk helicopter of the US Air Force is pictured in front of the cityscape on April 29, 2021 in Kabul, Afghanistan.

  • The Defense Department said 23 civilians were likely killed and 10 injured by the US military in 2020.
  • The finding came in a report on US operations in Afghanistan, Somalia, and Iraq.
  • Independent observers said the actual toll is likely much higher.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The US military killed at least 23 civilians in 2020, according to a new report from the Department of Defense, a steep decline from previous years as offensive operations were significantly reduced during the pandemic. Another 10 civilians were likely injured, the department said.

In 2017, by contrast, the US military said it had killed nearly 500 civilians.

But independent observers said the actual number of civilian casualties is once again likely far higher than the US is willing to admit. The monitoring group Airwars, for example, estimates that a minimum of 102 civilians were killed by US operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.

Chris Woods, director of the group, said he welcomed the report, which is mandated by Congress and released annually.

“We remain concerned, however, that DoD estimates of civilian harm once again fall well below credible public estimates, and call on officials to review why such undercounts remain so common,” Woods said in a statement. “Civilians surely deserve better.”

The report itself, which the department releases annually, acknowledges that there are many more claims of innocent people killed than the military itself deems credible.

In Afghanistan, according to the report, the US military received 165 reports of civilian casualties related to operations in 2020. Of those, seven were deemed legitimate, resulting in approximately 20 civilian deaths and five injuries.

Airwars, by contrast, estimates that at least 89 civilians were killed and another 31 injured.

It often takes years for the US to admit civilian casualties occurred.

In November 2020, a spokesperson for US Central Command told Insider that an internal review found two civilians had indeed been injured from an airstrike in Yemen that took place some three years earlier.

In Somalia, the US also admitted last year to killing two civilians in a February 2019 airstrike after insisting for months that the victims were “terrorists.”

The latest report itself notes that an additional 65 civilians were killed between 2017 and 2019, with another 22 injured, beyond the numbers previously reported.

Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU’s National Security Project, accused the Biden administration of obscuring the full toll of US military operations.

“The grossly inadequate official accounting for the costs and consequences of the United States’ lethal actions abroad prevents meaningful public oversight and accountability for wrongful deaths and perpetual war policies,” Shamsi said. “Civilian victims, their families, and the American public deserve far better than this.”

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Biden’s plan to get out of Afghanistan risks repeating the ‘end’ of the war in Iraq

A US soldier watches a UH-60 Black Hawk Helicopter land in southeastern Afghanistan, August 4, 2019.

  • Biden’s plan to withdraw troops from Afghanistan by September 11 doesn’t comply with the peace deal but is welcome.
  • But Biden has to stick to his plan and refuse to let the end of the war in Afghanistan in 2021 replicate the “end” of the war in Iraq in 2011.
  • Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

In a video address to the nation on Wednesday last week, President Joe Biden announced the 20-year US war in Afghanistan will finally end by September of this year.

It’s not quite the timeline of the pact negotiated with the Taliban by the Trump administration: Biden said he’ll “begin” the final US withdrawal on May 1, which was to be the deadline for its completion, and instead complete it by the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

This doesn’t exactly comply with the peace deal, but it doesn’t discard it, either, and that could prove enough to hold the Taliban to its side of the bargain.

This is excellent news – long overdue, but only made more welcome by two decades of delay. Biden’s brief speech made a cogent case for US departure from Afghanistan, giving weight to his insistence that this plan is to be taken seriously. That weight is, frankly, needed with a war of this length, cost, and chaos.

Indeed, the challenge for Biden over the next four months will be keeping to his own agenda, refusing to let the end of the war in Afghanistan in 2021 replicate the “end” of the war in Iraq in 2011.

Kuwait US soldiers Iraq withdrawal
Kuwaiti and US soldiers close the border gate after the last vehicle crossed into Kuwait during the US military’s withdrawal from Iraq, December 18, 2011.

Biden’s arguments for ending US intervention in Afghanistan were practical and persuasive. He pointed to the futility of Washington’s nation-building attempts and argued for Afghan self-determination and resolution of what is essentially a civil war.

Recounting a trip to the country in 2008, Biden affirmed that “only the Afghans have the right and responsibility to lead their country.”

An endless US war can’t “create or sustain a durable Afghan government,” he said, and we are foolish to continue to try. This is the problem with the conditions-based exit scheme long popular among the bipartisan foreign policy establishment: The conditions will never be met. Thus an ostensible schema for ending the war is in practice a tool to prolong it perpetually, as Biden seems to understand.

The president emphasized the distinction between the war’s initial mission – retribution for 9/11 and “ensur[ing] Afghanistan would not be used as a base from which to attack our homeland again” – and the aimless mission creep of subsequent years. He promised US counterterror programs would continue to keep Americans safe.

The connection he could have drawn a bit more boldly, however, is that the counterterrorism model of 2001 (invading, occupying, and manipulating a whole country because it hosted terrorist training camps) makes no sense in 2021 (when far more advanced intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities allow the US to monitor and address threats emanating from anywhere in the world).

Army soldiers Iraq withdrawal
Soldiers from the last US military unit to depart Iraq arrive at Fort Hood in Texas, December 21, 2011.

“Our diplomacy does not hinge on having boots in harm’s way – US boots on the ground,” Biden rightly said. He should have made clearer that US counterterrorism doesn’t require forever wars either.

That absence is part of what leaves me still a bit skeptical about this plan. In previews of the announcement last week, Biden administration officials told The Washington Post the “goal is to move to ‘zero’ troops [in Afghanistan] by September.”

But a New York Times report the same day revealed “zero” may not mean “zero”: “Instead of declared troops in Afghanistan, the United States will most likely rely on a shadowy combination of clandestine Special Operations forces, Pentagon contractors, and covert intelligence operatives to find and attack the most dangerous Qaeda or Islamic State threats, current and former American officials said.”

That means this might not be the full withdrawal the remarks suggest. Biden said he wouldn’t pass the responsibility of “presid[ing] over an American troop presence in Afghanistan” to a fifth consecutive president, but that’s only true if we use a deceptively narrow definition of “troops.”

As it stands, it appears Biden’s plan is to keep a small American military presence in Afghanistan indefinitely.


That continuous exposure to attacks from anti-American forces opens the door to future re-escalation, to precisely the “cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan” Biden decried. It opens the door to an “end” of a war unfortunately reminiscent of the Obama administration’s “end” of the war in Iraq in 2011.

There too, ending combat operations didn’t mean going to a true “zero” troop presence. The war re-escalated just three years later when the Islamic State registered as a new regional threat, and it has continued ever since.

“It’s time for American troops to come home” from Afghanistan, Biden said last Wednesday. That’s absolutely correct, and the president should match those words with a full exit that precludes all possibility of resuming our country’s longest war.

Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities, contributing editor at The Week, and columnist at Christianity Today. Her writing has also appeared at CNN, NBC, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and Defense One, among other outlets.

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4 of the US military’s biggest tank battles were during the same war

Army Abrams tanks Iraq Desert Storm
M1A1 Abrams main battle tanks during Operation Desert Storm, February 15, 1991.

  • Every branch of the US military was involved in Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.
  • Between the Army and the Marine Corps, that war had some of the largest tank battles the US has ever fought.
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During Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, the US military was at its finest, liberating Kuwaiti civilians from the forces of an evil dictator.

In every way, every branch of the military and every American ally was on display, showing they could handle anything the enemy might throw at them and coming out on top.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in the ranks of US military armor.

Between the Army and the Marine Corps, the battles fought during Operation Desert Storm were some of the largest tank battles the United States ever fought – and among the largest in world history.

1. The Battle of Kuwait International Airport

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A Iraqi tank destroyed during the Gulf War.

The biggest tank battle in United States Marine Corps history is also the fastest. It’s also one of the most forgotten battles in history, despite the massive size of the forces involved.

On February 25, 1991, the 1st Marine Division and 2nd Marine Division, along with the Army’s 2nd Armored Division’s Tiger Brigade, Army Special Forces, and – later – the 4th Marine Division’s 4th Tank Battalion met 14 Iraqi divisions and a field artillery brigade.

The 1st Marines had broken through the Iraqi lines and into Kuwait City, on its way to the airport drove through them and ahead, fighting skirmishes along the way and destroying at least 100 enemy tanks. The 2nd Marine Division would approach from the other side.

One tank unit, Bravo Company, 4th Tank Battalion woke in the morning to find 35 Iraqi Republican Guard tanks moving to hit them from the front. Outnumbered 3-to-1, the Marines of Bravo Company snapped to, destroying all of them in about 90 seconds. This battle came to be known as the “Reveille Engagement.”

2. The Battle of 73 Easting

m1 abrams tank desert storm gulf war iraq
An Abrams tank in the desert during Desert Storm.

A young Army officer named H.R. McMaster (yes, that H.R. McMaster) was leading a group of nine M1A1 Abrams tanks through the desert at the start of the Desert Storm ground war.

Soon, his tanks came over a hill – and right into the path of an entire Iraqi tank division.

When outnumbered by hundreds, many officers would withdraw or surrender. McMaster plowed through. His troop destroyed 28 Iraqi tanks, 16 personnel carriers and 30 trucks in 23 minutes.

They called in other tank troops as they fought and were soon joined by more Americans, more than 840 armored vehicles in all. With the Iraqis knocked out, the Americans were free to engage behind the lines and onward into Kuwait.

3. Battle of Norfolk

T72 battle tank russia destroyed
An Iraqi T-72 main battle tank destroyed in a Coalition attack during Operation Desert Storm.

What happens when American and British Armor meet the Iraqi Republican Guard inside Iraq? Some 1,100 Iraqi tanks destroyed, along with hundreds of artillery pieces and armored personnel carriers and thousands of Iraqi prisoners.

With 12 divisions on the battlefield, this was the second largest tank battle in US history and the largest of the Gulf War.

Two hours after the Battle of 73 Easting, coalition forces advanced to Objective Norfolk, an intersection on Iraqi supply lines and an important hub for moving material. Defending Norfolk was the Tawakalna Division of the Iraqi Republican Guard, which had just been bloodied at 73 Easting.

By the time the US Army’s 1st Infantry Division controlled Norfolk, the Tawakalna Division ceased to exist.

4. Battle of Medina Ridge

us army gulf war tank
A US soldier on top of a tank destroyed during the Gulf War.

For two hours, the US Army’s 1st Armored Division and the 2nd Brigade of the Iraqi Republican Guard Medina Luminous Division slugged it out at one of the Iraqi desert’s few landmarks. Around 348 M1A1 Abrams tanks met hundreds of enemy tanks in one of the toughest battles of the war.

The Iraqis, positioned behind the ridgeline, could only be seen directly when US tanks crested the hill. Which would have been an effective defense if it weren’t for the Army’s Apache helicopters and the Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt IIs constantly strafing them.

The Iraqis arguably put up the stiffest defense of the war at Medina Ridge, but the loss was still lopsided – four US tanks were destroyed while the Iraqis lost 186.

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Biden has finally found a country the US can rebuild

Highway collapse traffic
A collapsed freeway overpass near downtown Oakland, California, in 2007.

  • The Biden administration has made an ambitious $2 trillion proposal to address the US’s infrastructure problems.
  • That influx of money would be welcome after two decades and billions of dollars squandered trying to rebuild other countries.
  • Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist at Newsweek.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

It doesn’t take a genius to know that America’s domestic infrastructure is in utter disarray. Travel down I-95 between New York City and Boston, and you will be lucky not to hit a 5-inch-deep pothole in the middle of the lane.

The United States, the most prosperous country in the world, is now 13th in terms of infrastructure quality, below many of its peers in Europe. Over 20% of its roads are in poor condition. About 127,000 bridges across the US are either structurally deficient or need to be replaced. And as the water crisis in Flint, Michigan showed, even clean water supplies aren’t a given.

The United States, in other words, is in desperate need of investment at home. The alternative is watching as Americans who live in cities continue to suffer from dilapidated highways while their fellow citizens in rural areas are left searching for a basic broadband connection.

The juxtaposition outside US borders is stunning. Over the last two decades, as US infrastructure was worsening, Washington was busy conducting reconstruction initiatives in nations that to this day remain consumed by conflict and led by unaccountable and corrupt governments.

Afganistan Iraq embassy troops soldiers
Afghan policemen stand guard outside the Iraqi embassy in Kabul after an attack, July 31, 2017.

As of December 2020, the US has spent approximately $143 billion of taxpayer money on reconstruction projects in Afghanistan.

The projects were designed to kickstart the Afghan economy, introduce a degree of self-sufficiency over the long-term, and ensure ordinary Afghans were able to enjoy the kinds of public goods – accessible water supplies, highways, access to hospitals – that are often taken for granted in the West.

Yet the results, to put it generously, have been poor. $1 billion was devoted to schools in Afghanistan that weren’t even operating. A $8.5 billion program to wean Afghan farmers away from growing poppy was unsuccessful, evident in Afghanistan’s current status as the world’s foremost producer of opium.

As Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko testified to Congress last month, systemic corruption in Afghanistan undermines US-funded reconstruction initiatives to the point of irrelevancy. Of the $7.8 billion in US reconstruction funds SIGAR investigated, just $1.2 billion – 15% – went to their intended purpose.

Many of the buildings paid for by the US taxpayer were left abandoned. Afghanistan still relies on international donors for 80% of its budget; remains dominated by corruption at all levels of government; and is seemingly incapable of exhibiting the slightest degree of responsibility in how it spends US taxpayer money.

US Soldier Selfie Iraq
A US soldier takes a selfie at the US Army base in Qayyara, south of Mosul, October 25, 2016.

The US experience in Iraq isn’t much better. Despite their good intentions, US officials ran into problems on the reconstruction front almost immediately.

After an infusion of $172 million to restore the Baiji power plant after the initial invasion, the plant was only churning out half of its potential output. The United States sunk billions into large and costly projects the Iraqi government was unable to handle or finance.

Schools and prisons funded by Washington were left idle, while water treatment plants in dangerous areas like Fallujah were overbudget and woefully inadequate for the population. Today, Iraq remains a country so riddled with parochialism and multiple power centers that Shia militias are building up their own revenue streams separate from the state.

As US soldiers and aid workers were essentially throwing billions of dollars in the toilet in Afghanistan and Iraq, America’s own schools, roads, and bridges were falling apart.

Total spending on US domestic infrastructure fell between 2007-2017. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave the US a “C-” on its infrastructure score and estimated that the US economy could lose $10 trillion in GDP by 2039 if Washington failed to plug the infrastructure spending gap.

The Biden administration, like its predecessors, is hoping to solve (or at least mitigate) America’s infrastructure problems with an ambitious $2 trillion proposal that would be paid for over a period of 15 years.

Flint Water Crisis
Michigan Army National Guard soldiers hand out bottled water at a fire station in Flint, Michigan, January 17, 2016.

The plan would dump $600 billion into improving and modernizing ports, railways, bridges and highways. $300 billion would be devoted to supporting domestic manufacturing, while an additional $100 billion would be invested into building up an electric grid prone to occasional outages.

Biden’s initiative will run into steep opposition due to the cost. But leaving the details aside, one can’t help but feel a sense of jubilation that US policymakers are actually showing some interest in investing in America rather than in countries overseas that have proven to be perpetually weak, dysfunctional, and perhaps even immune to US generosity.

Policymakers, lawmakers, and pundits still like to describe the United States as an exceptional nation in a league of its own. But no nation, not even the United States, can thrive if it underinvests in its own communities or takes its eyes of the ball to what is truly important: expanding its own strength domestically.

It’s a lesson the old denizens of the Soviet Union learned the hard way – and when they finally appreciated the concept, it was too late.

America’s source of power overseas is anchored in its prosperity at home. If the US is so keen on nation-building, it should start and end in its own cities and towns.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist at Newsweek.

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