Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Book excerpt — national security advisor at war: McMaster as a colonel in Iraq

In sum, he basically was the first commander to get things right in Iraq.

US President Donald Trump announces US Army Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster (L) as his national security adviser at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, on February 20, 2017. / AFP / NICHOLAS KAMM        (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump announces US Army Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster (L) as his national security adviser at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, on February 20, 2017. / AFP / NICHOLAS KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)


Best Defense is on summer hiatus. During this restful spell we offer re-runs from the past 12 months. This item originally ran on February 21. 


Best Defense is on summer hiatus. During this restful spell we offer re-runs from the past 12 months. This item originally ran on February 21. 

Here is what I wrote in Fiasco about Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, President Donald Trump’s new national security advisor, when he was a colonel in command of the Army’s 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Iraq. In sum, he basically was the first commander to get things right in Iraq. For that reason, among others, “Big Army” has never been comfortable with him. He makes them look bad.

The 3rd ACR leads the way

[T]he most striking place to see how the Army was changing was in Tall Afar, a town of about 250,000 in far northwestern Iraq, near the Syrian border. As the U.S. military had reduced its presence in northern Iraq in 2004, insurgents had taken over the medieval-feeling town, which is dominated by an old castle on a hill in its center. Just as Fallujah in central Iraq was used as a base to launch attacks on Baghdad, the biggest city in the country, they made Tall Afar a base from which to send suicide bombers and other attackers 40 miles east into Mosul, the major city in the north.

The unit given the job of fixing the situation was the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment. In sharp contrast to its mediocre first tour in Iraq, the unit did an extraordinary job in recapturing Tall Afar. The 3rd ACR’s campaign in 2005 “will serve as a case study in classic counterinsurgency, the way it is supposed to be done,” said Terry Daly, a retired intelligence officer who specializes in the subject. The Army agreed: When U.S. military experts conducted an internal review of the three dozen major U.S. brigades, battalions, and similar units operating in Iraq in 2005, they concluded that of all those units the 3rd ACR had done the best at counterinsurgency.

The 3rd ACR’s campaign really began back at its home base at Fort Carson, Colorado, in June 2004, when Col. H. R. McMaster took command of the unit and began to train it for going back to Iraq. His approach was that of a football coach who knew that he had a bunch of able and dedicated athletes, but that he needed to retrain them to play soccer.

McMaster was an unusual officer. Like many of the most successful U.S. commanders in Iraq, he was well educated, and had earned a Ph.D., in his case in military history at the University of North Carolina, where his subject had been the failures of the Joint Chiefs during the U.S. decision to intervene in the Vietnam War. But like the Marines’ Gen. James Mattis, he also was a dynamic leader, constantly moving among his troops and talking to them. He taught them from the outset that the key to counterinsurgency is focusing on the people, not on the enemy. He changed the standing orders of the regiment: Henceforth, all soldiers would “treat detainees professionally” — which hadn’t happened with the 3rd ACR during its time in Iraq in 2003-4.

McMaster visited every component unit in the regiment to reinforce that message, telling every soldier in his command, “Every time you treat an Iraqi disrespectfully, you are working for the enemy.” Recognizing that dignity is a core value for Iraqis, he also banned his soldiers from using the term “haji” as a slang to describe them, because he saw it as inaccurate and disrespectful of their religion. (It actually means someone who has made the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca.) Cultural understanding became a major part of the regiment’s training. One out of every ten soldiers received a three-week course in conversational Arabic, so that each small unit would have someone capable of basic exchanges. McMaster distributed a lengthy reading list for his officers that included studies of Arabian and Iraqi history and most of the classic texts on counterinsurgency. He also quietly relieved one battalion commander who just didn’t seem to understand that such changes were necessary.

McMaster also challenged U.S. military culture, all but banning the use of PowerPoint briefings by his officers. The Army loves these bulleted briefings, but McMaster had come to believe that the ubiquitous software inhibits clarity in thinking, expression, and planning.

When the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment moved into northwest Iraq in May 2005 it faced a mess. In 2003, a U.S. commander faced with an insurgent stronghold in a city likely would have immediately set about staging a major raid. He would sweep up suspects and move back to his base somewhere else. In 2005, McMaster took a sharply different tack, spending months preparing before attacking the entrenched insurgents in Tall Afar. That indirect approach demonstrated the key counterinsurgent quality of tactical patience, something that didn’t come easily to the U.S. military.

McMaster began his preparations by dismantling the insurgents’ support infrastructure outside the city. He had the 3rd ACR bolster the security operation along the Syrian border, in an effort to cut off support and reinforcements from coming in. He then eliminated safe havens out in the desert, beginning in June with a move against the remote town of Biaj, which had become a way station and training and outfitting post for those fighters coming in from Syria. Immediately after the 3rd ACR took Biaj, Iraqi forces set up a small patrol base there.

“This was the first ‘clear and hold,’” McMaster recalled in his plywood-walled office on a base just southwest of Tall Afar. State Department officials heard about this move and briefed their boss, Condoleezza Rice, on it. A month later she mentioned it in congressional testimony.

One of the keys to winning a counterinsurgency is to treat prisoners well, because today’s captive, if persuaded to enter politics, may become tomorrow’s mayor or city council member. As more remote small towns surrounding Tall Afar were “rolled up,” recalled Maj. Chris Kennedy, the 3rd ACR’s executive officer, Iraqi police immediately moved into each—and were reminded to treat the locals well, a departure for some heavily Shiite police units operating in the Sunni-dominated region.

The 3rd ACR also set up a system to poll all its detainees on how well they were treated, and also to interview some about their political views. “The best way to find out about your own detainee facility is to ask the ‘customer,’” said Maj. Jay Gallivan, the regiment’s operations officer. This system of checking with detainees was unique to the 3rd ACR, and it apparently worked: In sharp contrast to the unit’s first tour in Iraq, not one 3rd ACR soldier was charged with acting abusively during the regiment’s second tour, McMaster said.

In late summer, McMaster started receiving more cooperation from local Sunni leaders who had been sympathetic to the insurgency. One reason, according to U.S. military intelligence analysts, was that some insurgents were unhappy with their foreign allies, who seemed determined to start a civil war.

Another was that McMaster did something few commanders had been willing to do in public: Admit the obvious and say that U.S. forces made mistakes in Iraq. “We understand why you fight,” McMaster told Sunni leaders with ties to the insurgency. “When the Americans first came, we were in a dark room, stumbling around, breaking china. But now Iraqi leaders are turning on the lights.” The conciliatory concession helped break down barriers of communication, he said, and made them willing to listen to his conclusion: The time for legitimate resistance had ended. This in fact was a threat, stated as politely as possible.

McMaster strengthened his position in another innovative way: by taking his officers for an outing with Iraqi army officers during which he conducted a staff ride — the military term for a formal professional examination of a historic­ battlefield — of a spot near Mosul where Alexander the Great had routed the army of the Persian Empire. It was a subtle way of showing that the Americans recognized that they were representatives of one of the world’s youngest cultures trying to work with a people from one of the world’s oldest.

With the insurgency’s support infrastructure weakened in outlying areas, McMaster moved on Tall Afar. But even then he didn’t attack it. First, following the suggestion of his Iraqi allies, he ringed the city with a dirt berm nine feet high and twelve miles long, leaving just a few checkpoints where all movement could be observed. This was a nod to the counterinsurgency principle of being able to control and follow the movement of the population. Building on that, U.S. military intelligence had traced the kinship lines of different tribes, enabling the 3rd ACR to track departing fighters to likely destinations in the suburbs of the city. As they fled the impending attack, some 120 were then rounded up. Next, to minimize the killing of innocents, civilians were strongly encouraged to leave the city for a camp prepared for them just to the south. Some more insurgents were caught trying to sneak out with them.

Finally, in September 2005, after four months of preparatory moves, ­ Mc­ Master launched his attack. By that point, there were remarkably few fighters left in the city. Those who remained seem to have expected a swift U.S. raid that they would counter with scores of IEDs — that is, roadside bombs. Instead, U.S. forces and their Iraqi allies moved slowly, clearing each block and calling in artillery strikes as they spotted enemy fighters or IEDs, using firepower precisely and quickly.

Next came Phase IV: Unlike the invading U.S. forces in the spring of 2003, McMaster had a clear plan in hand for his postcombat operations. He also knew how he wanted to measure his success: Would he asked, Iraqis—especially Sunnis—be willing to join the local police, to “participate in their own security”?

The first step in Phase IV was to establish twenty-nine small bases across the city. That, along with steady patrolling, gave the American military and its Iraqi allies a view of every major stretch of road in the compact town, which measured only about 3 miles by 3 miles. This degree of observation made it extremely difficult to plant bombs. Also, said Lt. Col. Chris Hickey, who commanded the U.S. troop contingent inside the city, “It gives us great agility.” Instead of predictably rolling out the front gate of his base, he was able to order an attack to come from two or three of the small bases that dotted the city.

Unlike most commanders, who ate and worked on big forward operating bases and then ventured out into Iraqi society, Hickey lived in the city, sleeping back at the base only rarely. From his perch downtown, he said, “I hear every gunshot in the city.” His conclusion: “Living among the people works, if you treat them with respect.” When Iraqis’ electricity went out, his did as well, except for military communications equipment that was hooked to a freestanding generator.

Ultimately, fourteen hundred police were recruited, of which about 60 percent were Sunni, many of them from elsewhere. In addition, by year’s end the city was patrolled by about two thousand Iraqi troops, and it had a working city council and an activist mayor. Tips on insurgent activity began to pour into a new joint operations center. The Army officer running the center, Lt. Saythala Phonexayphoua, a Laotian-American West Point graduate, said it had been “a surprise, the actionable intelligence we get. We get cell phone calls — ‘there’s an insurgent planting an IED.’”

Excerpted from Fiasco by permission of me.

Photo credit: NICHOLAS KAMM/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 Twitter: @tomricks1

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