I sat in the back of a van that bounced into a remote training base in Northern Syria. Like many of my Kurdish hosts, I was technically in the country illegally after being smuggled in from adjacent Kurdistan. It was 2014 and the war was young, none of us knowing how much bloodshed was still to come. We parked our vehicles and stepped out onto what turned out to be a rail yard. At the time, I passed between the train cars, stepping over the rail, and walked into the Kurdish YPG training base without giving the railroad a second thought.
Little did I know of the importance of the railroad running through Syria and Iraq, and the critical rail junction that existed at the training base I had arrived at near Qamishlo, Syria which connects to Mosul, Iraq.
The birth of rail in Syria and Iraq can be traced back to the late 1800’s as Germany envisioned a rail line linking Baghdad (and ultimately Basra on the Persian Gulf) with Berlin. This would have provided a way for the European power to project force, influence, and economic power into the Arabian peninsula. Had this project been completed, it could have fed the Prussian war machine with an endless supply of oil. Meanwhile, the proud British Navy had always maintained dominance at sea. This fact would be of little use once Germany secured a land bridge into the Middle East.
The first Iraqi rail line opened in 1914, linking Baghdad and Samarra. The British military was invested in stopping the railroad upon the onset of World War One and after the war, the Brits remained and continued to improve Iraq’s rail infrastructure linking Baghdad and Basra. In subsequent decades Iraqi rail carried both freight and passengers. During the Saddam years, the railroad was maintained and some small improvements made. During the Gulf War and again during Operation Iraqi Freedom, the railroads were shut down. During the Gulf the rail line was intentionally disabled, but during OIF it was left intact for later use. Nonetheless, during the American occupation the railroad fell into disuse and disrepair. Parts of it were still running, but needed a lot of work.
By 2006, the US Army was looking for a way out of Iraq. In the power vacuum created by the removal of Saddam, a full-blown insurgency had broken out with hundreds of factions battling for control over various parts of the country. US Special Operations Forces were deployed to take out High Value Targets and conventional units attempted to stabilize problematic neighborhoods, but it was all just a band-aid on the problem. Long term solutions to the drivers of the insurgency could be addressed by improving the economy. Between the HVT strikes and economic improvement, the insurgency would hopefully die down and provide an opening for America to exit stage right.
This was where a small group of US Army railroaders came into play. Major Scott Meyer interviewed for a job at a railroad unit stateside and soon found himself attending civilian rail schools as an 88D, a rail officer. He went to train master and yard master school, and many 29-day tours several times a year doing “forts and ports” unloading vessels, uploading train cars, and then sending them on their way. Most of these stateside tours saw Meyer overseeing the shipping of ammunition. Meyer worked alongside reservists who were professional railroaders in their day job. “All they did was exchange their blue coveralls for their green coveralls,” Meyer explained, talking about how much he learned from the experienced sergeants in his unit. He also handled Federal Military Sales like shipping Harpoon missiles to Pakistan and torpedoes to Israel.
Meyer was deployed as a tactical intelligence officer working on counter-IED issues since he was an engineer and did a survey of bridges and culverts from Iraq all the way back to Turkey. On his second deployment, Meyer found himself doing his real job as an Army railroader. Multi-National Corps-Iraq (MNC-I) under General Petraeus requested Meyer to work on rail. In 2005, a small assessment team from the Army had been deployed to do a survey of Iraqi rail and since that time, they had been backfilled with contractors who were supposed to keep the railroad running along with some Army Corps of Engineers and a small British contingent.
In 2005, the Army had re-built the rail going into Camp Speicher but then in 2006 the Army units stationed on the base pulled up all the rail and destroyed it for force protection issues thinking that the enemy could put an IED on a train and run it into the base. It would have been a simple matter to disable a switch or put a de-railer on the tracks. In Al Qaim the Iraqis had one of the biggest rail maintenance facilities in the Middle East. The US Army ruined it, pushing machines and tools out the door, filling in inspection pits, dumping rail road ties everywhere, and generally making a mess so they could park their Humvees in the warehouse. For these reasons, Meyer suggested creating 5-6 man train unit in Iraq to stop the Army from tearing up hundreds of thousands of dollars of rail work that the American tax payer had paid for. With a frequent turn over as units rotated in and out of Iraq, there was a serious problem in maintaining continuity.
By 2008, the surge and the Sunni Awakening was in full swing. The US military was pushing hard on reconstruction projects. An army memo from the time states:
The current Iraqi Republic Railway situation presents an ideal opportunity to support the Army Civil Affairs efforts in establishing and maintaining Iraq’s stability and for improving the Army’s Title 10 intermodal transportation capability. SDDC is skilled at leveraging commercial partnerships and great benefits can be derived in supporting this endeavor. SDDC can provide the MNF-I with an Army capability to advise, train, and assist the IRR and enable it to become a fully capable strategic and operational partner. Also, this would foster retention of a core competency within the Army’s logistics community. To support the IRR system, it is proposed that a Rail Advice and Assistance Team (RAAT) and a Maintenance-of-Way (MOW) Company be developed.”
The US bought a new train control system for the Iraqis costing 43 million dollars and then brought in a few guys to train Iraqi engineers to use it. This became a bit of drama as the Army desperately wanted to downsize their footprint in Iraq so even deploying two men to show the Iraqis how to use the system became a dispute.
The Iraqi engineers were dedicated and talented, guys who had worked for the Saddam-era government and had a proud tradition going back nearly 100 years of Iraqi rail. Greenbriar train cars were purchased, brought into Taji, loaded in 50-minutes and sent down to Umm Qasr. The trip took about a third of the amount of time it would take trucks to make. Interestingly, rail did not come under attack from enemy ambushes or IEDs. In Saddam’s day they used rail to transport Iraqi troops and war material. Why the US Army never used Iraqi rail to insert Infantry or SOF elements is not known.
The rail road was running, and the Iraqis were ready to work, they just needed some material support. “Petraeus said we needed infrastructure,” Meyer described; so that is what they did. The Army Major makes no secret that he felt it his job to generate business for Iraq. “Regular rail road units don’t do what I was doing. They operate it, they don’t generate business.” If people are making money, if the rail road is providing jobs, it drains the pool of available fighting age males who will join the insurgents. They brought in train cars to transport cars, a Saudi food company was interested, and General Electric wanted to use rail to ship turbines.
On one occasion he scouted out a railroad tie factory. The Iraqi Minister of Transportation used to really hassle Petraeus and Odierno quite a bit, but he also knew how to get things done. “If you are making them money, you have them, you have leverage. We were showing them how to make money,” Meyer said. At Abu Ghraib they got the rail road tie facility working again. The original construction conglomerate that ran the factory was more than happy to come in and begin work again. The US Army did a transfer of authority back to Iraq and the factory was not just working again, but had greatly expanded their output.
Meyer found it to be a rewarding job as he was making nationwide policy decisions as a Major, kind of like a Vanderbilt or Rockefeller must have felt over century ago.
Another area that needed repair was a the Al-Fuehemi bridge going out to Al Qaim. The support structure was partially blown out by an IED, and would not support passing trains any longer. One support pillar was blown out and another shifted out of place. The Corps of Engineers sent Aegis contractors out to take some pictures of it, and the engineers began figuring out how to repair the bridge. Unfortunately there were delays because there was no central knowledge base, or at least not an effective one in Iraq, as American units deployed and re-deployed out of theater so often and progress on projects was not adequately tracked.
In a few places Iraqi rail ran into Syria, meeting at a juncture that I saw in Qamishlo, which also connects to Hasake, Raqqa, Deir-A-Zour, Aleppo, and also runs into Turkey.
“That why the Syrians contacted me through the Iraqi rail road. The Syrian government wanted a piece of our re-posturing out of Iraq, they wanted in on that money,” Meyer said. For better or worse, the Iraqis did not want to begin pushing product through Syria even though it was cheaper than going through Kuwait. The Iraq-Syria rail link was dead on the vine due to politics.
“How come we didn’t clear out the port of Umm Qasr until 2009 or 2010?” Meyer asks. “Why did we wait seven or eight years to start clearing a port when we should have done that right off the bat to drive the economy? If it goes through Kuwait, their truck companies that are 51% owned by the government get the money. I figure that’s how that works.” Rail could have provided a viable alternative line of logistics, one that did not travel overland on roads infested with IEDs that killed truck drivers and security guards on a near daily basis.
The US Army didn’t use rail to resupply troops in Iraq. Transportation Command is said to have a mixed relationship with rail because they were focused on trucks and promoting trucks as the preferred method of logistical re-supply.
In 2008, the US Army touted the re-opening of the Taji rail line as a proof of principle, demonstrating that Iraqi rail was back up and running and would soon link Baghdad and Mosul. The line would open up venues for commercial development and highlighted the progress being made by coalition forces at getting Iraq back up on its feet.
Sadly, the Iraqi rail road was never developed as well as it should have been. Then of course ISIS moved in and key rail links were captured by the enemy. An overland rail link between Berlin and Baghdad is in many ways just as important and relevant as it was in 1917. Rather than fighting perpetual conflicts in the region, a Middle Eastern Marshall Plan that focuses on industrial development could actually change the dynamics on the ground and drain the swamp of potential terrorist recruits by giving the local people an actual future.
(Lead image courtesy of DVIDS)