Republished with permission from Lucian K. Truscott IV
What the hell is going on over there in the Jordanian desert?
That’s the question that people should be asking down in Washington D.C. as the White House, and the Pentagon, and every member of Congress on Capitol Hill, and everybody else starts digging into what was behind the death of three soldiers and the wounding of 40 more on Sunday when an armed drone hit a U.S. Army outpost, apparently called “Tower 22,” on Jordan’s border with Syria. Responsibility for the attack was claimed by “the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, an umbrella group that includes the militias Kataib Hezbollah and Harakat al-Nujaba among others,” according to a report from Al Jazeera. The attack is one of 170 attacks on U.S. bases by Iranian-backed militias in Syria and Iraq intended to drive American forces out of the region, according to a report by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW).
The Associated Press described the situation starkly when reporting today that President Biden faces “a difficult balancing act, blaming Iran and looking to strike back in a forceful way without causing any further escalation of the Gaza conflict.” The U.S. has already struck back at Iranian-backed militants for previous attacks on U.S. bases that resulted in some troops being wounded, but no deaths.
Here is a map from ISW showing the locations and numbers of attacks that have occurred since early October of last year:
With all those circles indicating attacks on U.S. military bases, what the hell are we doing over there? Why do we have so many bases? There are about 350 troops on the base that was hit on Sunday. How many troops are on the other bases?
Given the fact that everything we’re doing in Iraq, Syria, and Jordan is top secret, the situation is very, very murky. According to the ISW, which has been following what U.S. forces are doing in the region for years, what we’re doing boils down to containing ISIS. The groups claiming responsibility for the attack on Sunday in Jordan and other attacks don’t call themselves ISIS, but then, Islamic militants trying to run the U.S. out of the Middle East don’t walk around wearing patches or carrying IDs with the four letters, “ISIS” on them.
Here is the way the Critical Force Project of ISW analyzes the situation. Iran wants the U.S. out of the region so it can step up its support of militias opposing Israel. In other words, Iran is backing a proxy war against the U.S. and Israel that is happening all over the Middle East right now. The Houthis in Yemen are being supported by Iran with missiles, drones, and other weapons they are using to attack commercial shipping in the Red Sea. Iran supplied weapons and training to Hamas in Gaza that led to, but was not solely responsible for, the attack by Hamas on Israel on October 7, 2023 that killed 1,200 Israelis and caused the war now raging against Hamas in Gaza that has killed more than 25,000 Palestinians. Iran has supplied weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon, supported militants in the West Bank, and is backing militant militias associated with ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
Here is how the ISW describes what would happen if Iran is able to drive the U.S. out of Iraq and Syria: “The United States leaving Iraq and Syria risks allowing ISIS to resurge there. CTP-ISW continues to assess that the United States and its partners in Syria have successfully contained but not defeated ISIS and that a US withdrawal from Syria would very likely cause a rapid ISIS resurgence there within 12 to 24 months. A resurgent ISIS could then threaten Iraq. Iraqi security forces still face significant deficiencies in fire support, intelligence, and logistics that will impede their ability to defeat ISIS alone.”
So, it’s all about ISIS, but how do you fight a group that is as spread out, diverse in both nationality and ideology, dangerous and well-supplied with weapons as ISIS is?
Well, the way the U.S. is doing it is putting American soldiers on the ground in Iraq, Syria, and Jordan on bases that provide intelligence to our allies over there who are threatened by ISIS, mainly Iraq and Turkey. The strategy seems to be similar to what our strategy was in Afghanistan in the late years of our presence over there: leave enough U.S. soldiers on enough bases to prop up whatever regime is in charge so that, in the case of Afghanistan, the Taliban couldn’t overrun Kabul and take over whatever was left of the government.
Is that what we’re afraid might happen in Iraq if we pull completely out of there? Well, we might look at what happened in Mosul for an example. Mosul fell to ISIS militants under the command of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2014. It took until 2016 for a coalition of forces that included the Iraqi military and Kurdish fighters, backed up by the 101st Airborne Division, and units of French, Australian, and Canadian armies, along with heavy airpower, intelligence, artillery, ground-to-ground HIMARS missiles and airstrikes from aircraft carriers and French airbases in Jordan to drive ISIS out of Mosul. The main battle went on from October of 2016 through February, 2017, with continued clashes that went on into the summer.
So it’s not like we’ve just got American soldiers sitting over there for no reason. But it’s the way these kinds of asymmetrical wars are fought that is the problem. The way we’ve fought them going all the way back to Vietnam has been the same: send soldiers over to the country in question, establish armed American basecamps, send out some patrols and wait for the enemy to shoot at you.
It’s not really that simple, or that stupid, but it’s close. I remember when I was with embedded in the first infantry company I was assigned to in Iraq in 2003. We were in a small basecamp on the edge of the Old City in Mosul. Iraqi militants took pot shots at the basecamp occasionally, and soldiers from the company went out on patrols. I accompanied a patrol one day. We were seemingly wandering through streets in downtown Mosul, so I asked the sergeant in charge of the patrol what we were doing. He said, “We’re on a target patrol, sir.” I asked him what the hell a target patrol was, and he said, “Well, we leave the basecamp and walk around Mosul, and we’re the targets.”
Which kind of summed up what we did in Vietnam, too. U.S. units established basecamps and went on patrols looking for the enemy until they got shot at, and then they shot back. They did it in the Delta with boats, they did it using helicopters flying into unexplored areas of the highlands, they sent out small unit patrols from basecamps, and sometimes they just dug in and got shot at and then shot back. Khe Sahn is a perfect example. Hamburger Hill is another.
The battle of Hamburger Hill was initiated as a so-called “reconnaissance in force.” Three battalions of the 101st Airborne Division went into an area near the Laotian border known as the A Sau Valley looking for North Vietnamese army forces. They found them. Over a period of several days, they fought to take Hill 937 from North Vietnamese forces. They finally took it, suffering the loss of 72 U.S. soldiers and 372 wounded. They abandoned the hill shortly thereafter. The commander of the 101st Airborne Division would later admit, “The hill had no military value whatsoever.”
Do you remember the attack on U.S. Special Forces in Niger in 2017? Turns out we had about 800 soldiers nobody knew about in Niger manning at least one drone base that was monitoring the flow of ISIS insurgents moving south. Four U.S. soldiers who were on a patrol apparently looking for a militant leader were killed in an attack by ISIS militants. But what the U.S. soldiers were really doing was the same thing we did in Vietnam: it was a target patrol. They were out there driving around waiting to get shot at. Well, it happened, and all of a sudden it was a major incident because apparently nobody but ISIS militants knew we had anybody over there. At least nobody in Washington did, because when news got out that U.S. soldiers had been killed, questions erupted in Congress wanting to know what U.S. soldiers were doing in Niger in the first place.
It’s hard to tell from here what the military value of the basecamp in Jordan called “Tower 22” has, especially given the fact that we didn’t even know it was there before Sunday. One report said the camp is used for surveillance of the Jordan/Syria border, to prevent infiltration of militants out of Syria into Jordan. Another report said the camp is used to resupply yet another U.S. camp six kilometers across the border in Syria that presumably does the same thing.
Here is an aerial photo I found of the camp taken by a civilian satellite owned by Planet Labs PBC:
It’s hard to see from a satellite, but the camp is surrounded by a defensive dirt berm, probably topped with razor wire and mined. At the lower right of the photo is the camp entrance, separated from the main camp in its own enclosure. To the left of the entrance is a paved airfield. The four black objects in the squares are helicopters. There is another paved area with three more helicopters to the left and above.
In the middle of the compound are a bunch of white rectangular boxes in tight rows. Those are living quarters, essentially metal shipping containers converted into trailers. Reports about the attack on Sunday say that the drone hit the “barracks area” on the base, so using this satellite photo, that would be the white shipping container/trailers. With warfare being conducted using armed drones controlled remotely by operators who can guide them to their targets using video, we’re going to have to do a better job of protecting the places troops are housed. Those container/trailers are so tightly packed together that a single armed drone was able to kill three soldiers and injure 40 more. The U.S. Army can do a lot better than that.
The larger white rectangular structures near the container/trailers are probably a recreation tent and dining facility. I don’t know what the smaller white boxes are near the living facilities; they could be storage containers of some sort. The intelligence gathering area of the compound is the structures on the right. The lighter colored areas around the living facilities and airfields are covered with gravel to reduce dust. The rest of the area, both inside and outside the base, is desert, probably a mix of sand and dirt.
A video on Al Jazeera claims to show the launch of the drone that hit the base, but it looks more like a missile launch than a drone, unless it was some kind of new cruise missile. Reports late today said that the enemy drone was missed by defenses at the base because it was mistaken for a U.S. drone that was in the air near the base at the same time, which makes any craft similar to a cruise missile unlikely.
So, you can see the murk we’re in with any kind of reporting coming out of that area. It’s the middle of the desert. I’ve looked at the area on Google Earth and Google Maps where Jordan, Iraq, and Syria come together, and let me tell you, other than the presence of the single paved road that passes the base, there’s nothing around there in Jordan that looks like a settlement, much less a town. Across the border in Syria, there is a tiny town marked Al Tanf that the ISW map shows as a “garrison.” It must be a garrison with U.S. soldiers, because given the size of the brown circle on the ISW map, it’s a place that has had between four and eleven attacks on it since October.
This is one of those situations where there is no good answer to what the situation really is and no good solution to what we should be doing over there. Should we pull our troops out of Syria altogether and just sit back and see what happens? We tried that in northern Iraq before 2014, ISIS took Mosul, and two years later, we had several units of the 101st back over there providing assistance to the Iraqi army from the same airbase they first occupied way back in 2003.
There are a lot of unhappy locals over there in Syria and Iraq. They’re unhappy with each other, with Shiites in Iran mad at Sunnis in Iraq, and Sunnis in Iraq mad at Shiites everywhere, and everybody mad at the Kurds, and lets not even get into what that whole thing is about.
And most of them are mad at us, especially right now with the U.S. backing Israel in its war against Hamas. Everywhere you turn is another group mad at somebody about something, with the U.S.A. right at the top of most of their lists.
So, unless all the angry guys decide to settle down and stop being mad at each other and the U.S.A., I guess we’re going to have soldiers on the ground supporting the Iraqi and Jordanian governments, and wherever our soldiers are, they will be targets. In the meantime, more and better air defenses seem to be in order for all those top secret bases we have, or there will be more Americans coming home in body bags.
Lucian K. Truscott IV
Lucian K. Truscott IV, a graduate of West Point, has had a 50-year career as a journalist, novelist and screenwriter. He has covered stories such as Watergate, the Stonewall riots and wars in Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan. He is also the author of five bestselling novels and several unsuccessful motion pictures. He has three children, lives in rural Pennsylvania and spends his time Worrying About the State of Our Nation and madly scribbling in a so-far fruitless attempt to Make Things Better.