Best Defense

McMaster speaks: What went wrong in Iraq

Brig. Gen. H.R. McMaster is about as close to a celebrity brigadier general as the Army has. He went from being in the middle of a big tank battle in the 1991 Gulf War to leading the first major successful counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq (in Tal Afar in 2005-2006) and then was the brains behind ...

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Brig. Gen. H.R. McMaster is about as close to a celebrity brigadier general as the Army has. He went from being in the middle of a big tank battle in the 1991 Gulf War to leading the first major successful counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq (in Tal Afar in 2005-2006) and then was the brains behind Gen. Petraeus during the Surge (which, in case you were wondering, succeeded tactically but failed strategically).

So when he spoke at the Naval War College’s conference on counterinsurgency earlier this week, people listened. He politely but powerfully dissected American failures in Iraq from 2003 through 2005. First, he said, there was “a failure to recognize” that the security problem in Iraq had shifted from insurgency to a communal struggle for power. Then, in 2006, he added, there was a centrally directed, well-executed campaign to ethnically cleanse Baghdad, but American commanders and civilian officials failed to recognize this until late in the ballgame. Instead, he said, they kept talking about accelerating the transition to Iraqi authority, not seeing that “there really wasn’t an Iraqi government.” What looked to some like a government, he explained, was instead a situation where different people had captured parts of the government structure. “So in effect our strategy in 2006 was a rush to failure,” and even was intensifying Iraq’s problems, he said.

How did this come to pass, he asked? It wasn’t that everything was going swimmingly until the Golden Mosque in Samarra was blown up in February 2006, he said. He called that view a “myth.” Rather, he said, from early on in the war, American commanders failed to adjust to the realities of Iraq. “We were always a step behind.”

Also, he said, “We had these maximalist objectives [such as transforming Iraq and the Middle East]. … but we took a minimalist approach to the application of resources.” The preoccupation of senior people, he said, always seemed to be how many brigades could be withdrawn from Iraq in the coming months. “This is the period of self-delusion,” he said.    

McMaster argued for developing leadership that is more adaptive, more comfortable with ambiguity, and less inclined to believe that reality is captured by aggregated statistics. His bottom line on strategic planning: “Think what is a sustainable outcome. And then commit the damn resources or go home.”

I agree with everything he said — until that last line. The problem I have is that if you commit the resources, the military tends to use them — even if that isn’t the most effective course. If you have enough troops to go into Nuristan, you’ll probably go there, even if that isn’t the best course. By contrast, Congress capped the U.S. military presence in El Salvador, which forced the military to maintain a small advisory force. This was, I think, far more effective than pouring infantry brigades into there — an option that of course wasn’t available. Generally, focusing on advisory functions, and raising local police and security forces, seems a far better way to fight these wars than injecting tens of thousands of American infantrymen, backed by tens of thousands of support troops, plus tens of thousands of contractors, and some trigger-happy mercenaries to top it off.     

So, good Dr. McMaster: Astute diagnosis, but I have some concern on the prescribed remedy.

MUJAHED MOHAMMED/AFP/Getty Images

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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