The noble tragedy of H.R. McMaster’s strat­egy in Iraq

Jon Finer cov­ered his suc­cess­ful bat­tle against in­sur­gents. But his tac­tics couldn’t win the war.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Twit­ter: @jon­finer Jon Finer spent 18 months cov­er­ing the Iraq War as a foreign cor­re­spon­dent for The Wash­ing­ton Post. He was chief of staff and di­rec­tor of pol­icy plan­ning for Sec­re­tary of State John Kerry.

On the eve of his big­gest mission, in a ca­reer marked by hard jobs done well, Col. H.R. McMaster ex­plained to me how the United States could win the bat­tle for the city of Tal Afar and, even­tu­ally, the Iraq War.

It was a bold be­lief at the time: Au­gust 2005, the dog days of a long, bloody sum­mer, dur­ing which a bru­tal in­sur­gency had plunged Iraq to the brink of civil war. Amer­i­can ca­su­al­ties mounted, and there was no clear strat­egy for turn­ing the tide.

McMaster was about to give the or­der to launch Oper­a­tion Restor­ing Rights, which would be­come the conflict’s sec­ond-largest mil­i­tary cam­paign, af­ter the lib­er­a­tion of Fal­lu­jah a year ear­lier. But Tal Afar, McMaster knew, would in some ways be even more com­pli­cated — de­mo­graph­i­cally (a mix of Sunni Turk­men, Shia Arabs and Kurds), ge­o­graph­i­cally (less than 100 miles from a ter­ror­ist cross­ing point into Iraq from Syria) and po­lit­i­cally, as the new Iraqi gov­ern­ment was strug­gling to find its feet and the Ge­orge W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion’s war of choice seemed to be spin­ning out of con­trol.

In con­trast with Fal­lu­jah, heav­ily cov­ered by the in­ter­na­tional press, the Tal Afar of­fen­sive was rel­a­tively low pro­file, in part be­cause it co­in­cided with, and was over­shad­owed by, the land­fall of Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina. As a Bagh­dad

cor­re­spon­dent for The Wash­ing­ton Post, I was one of two Western reporters ac­com­pa­ny­ing McMaster’s 3rd Ar­mored Cav­alry Reg­i­ment, as­signed to a pla­toon called Ea­gle Troop for al­most three weeks. From be­fore dawn un­til well af­ter dark, we swept through the city — house by house, block by block, of­ten un­der fire that couldn’t be lo­cated — in search of ter­ror­ists who had made it their home.

When McMaster (who is now a lieu­tenant gen­eral) was named Pres­i­dent Trump’s new na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser, I re­trieved from a closet three dusty spi­ral note­books from that time. They re­minded me of the fa­tally flawed hand he was dealt and the flicker of prom­ise he pro­duced, seized upon by an ad­min­is­tra­tion des­per­ate for good news and yet soon snuffed out.

“The good peo­ple of this city have been un­der as­sault from the en­emy for months,” McMaster told me in our first meet­ing, be­fore walk­ing me through Tal Afar’s toxic mix of sec­tar­ian vi­o­lence, il­lit­er­acy, ter­ror­ist in­fil­tra­tion and in­ter-eth­nic ten­sion. “You have tribal ri­val­ries that go back 200 years. You have Turk­men Sun­nis who feel com­plete evis­cer­a­tion from the Kurds in the north and the Shia in the south. You have all of the prob­lems of Iraq here, in mi­cro­cosm . . . it all comes to­gether in this lit­tle town.”

Tal Afar, which be­fore the 2003 U.S. in­va­sion was home to some 200,000 peo­ple, has the du­bi­ous dis­tinc­tion of be­ing one of the most fre­quently “lib­er­ated” cities in Iraq, to use the U.S. mil­i­tary’s term of art; which, of course, also means it has been among the most of­ten con­quered. Af­ter the in­va­sion, it was one of the ear­li­est cities to be taken by in­sur­gents. In 2004 the U.S. Army pushed them out but left only 500 troops be­hind, and by 2005 Tal Afar had been re­cap­tured.

I was tipped off about the com­ing of­fen­sive by a Wash­ing­ton col­league. You will like McMaster, he told me. It turned out ev­ery­one in the me­dia liked McMaster, start­ing with his rare ré­sumé, well-chron­i­cled in re­cent days, re­plete with both sol­dierly valor and in­tel­lec­tual cred. He also has a flair for pun­gent com­ments tai­lor-made to be quoted.

The morn­ing the oper­a­tion be­gan, he re­counted how in­sur­gents had re­cently mur­dered a child, placed an ex­plo­sive in his body and then det­o­nated it when his fa­ther came to re­trieve him. “The great­est priv­i­lege of a pro­fes­sional sol­dier,” he said, “is to have the op­por­tu­nity to kill these peo­ple.”

Bravado aside, how­ever, killing ter­ror­ists was not McMaster’s pri­or­ity, he said. He had a plan to make Tal Afar the prov­ing ground for a new way of fight­ing the war, which the U.S. gov­ern­ment was only start­ing to grudg­ingly ac­knowl­edge as an in­sur­gency. It was the dawn of a short-lived age when “coun­terin­sur­gency doc­trine,” a niche spe­cialty among a cer­tain set of sol­dier-schol­ars, be­came the Wash­ing­ton zeit­geist.

McMaster brought to Tal Afar as an ad­viser an Army re­servist named Ahmed Hashim, a bona fide expert with a doc­tor­ate in se­cu­rity stud­ies from the Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy. Hashim was can­did when I asked how he thought the war was go­ing. “The U.S. re­sponse is not that dif­fer­ent from a lot of coun­tries faced with in­sur­gen­cies: deny it, down­play it, dis­par­age it. It’s not an ef­fec­tive strat­egy,” he said.

As McMaster ex­plained it, the mil­i­tary needed to fo­cus not just on killing ter­ror­ists but on pro­tect­ing and win­ning over civil­ians, so they would not al­low the ter­ror­ists to re­turn. This meant tak­ing greater risks with Amer­i­can lives than the Pen­tagon had ac­cepted to that point. He de­scribed what he called the “lessons” he would im­ple­ment:

First, “if we go in and fight and then re­duce our pres­ence, the en­emy will move to where there are in­suf­fi­cient se­cu­rity forces, be­cause the Iraqi se­cu­rity forces can’t with­stand them yet.”

Sec­ond, “you have to de­feat the en­emy’s cam­paign of in­tim­i­da­tion over the pop­u­la­tion by pro­vid­ing se­cu­rity for peo­ple who co­op­er­ate with you. You can­not al­low ret­ri­bu­tion.”

Third, you need to “clarify your in­ten­tions to peo­ple by de­vel­op­ing re­la­tion­ships, by ac­tion, by di­a­logue with peo­ple and by ad­dress­ing lo­cal griev­ances.”

Fourth, “this means be­ing out in the city. We could stay in our F.O.B. [For­ward Op­er­at­ing Base] and eat mini piz­zas and ice cream and re­de­ploy in a year, but that won’t win the war.”

Fifth, “do ev­ery­thing you can to min­i­mize destruction. If that hap­pens, it’s the en­emy’s fault. We’re not booby-trap­ping build­ings, putting ex­plo­sives in the ground, snip­ing in­dis­crim­i­nately. We’re fight­ing the peo­ple do­ing that. We don’t want to kill this city, we want to bring it back to life.”

I spent the next 15 days with McMaster’s troops as they fought their way to what was sup­posed to be the al-Qaeda strong­hold, a dense tan­gle of an­cient streets in a neigh­bor­hood known as Sarai. McMaster kept in touch with me by phone, which was rare for a com­man­der dur­ing an in­tense oper­a­tion — and a sign of his me­dia savvy. He called to give me up­dates on the oper­a­tion. He called to apol­o­gize af­ter one of his sleep-de­prived sol­diers shot at me twice af­ter mis­tak­ing my flak jacket, which was a dif­fer­ent color than those is­sued by the Army, for a sui­cide vest. (We agreed it could have been worse.)

He also called to com­plain about my cov­er­age, specif­i­cally my use of the la­bel “pesh­merga” to de­scribe the Kur­dish forces he had bused in to do the heav­i­est fight­ing. McMaster asked that I re­fer to them as the Iraqi army, which, tech­ni­cally, they were. But their uni­forms and ve­hi­cles were adorned with Kur­dish flags, not Iraqi ones. They spray-painted Kur­dish slo­gans on the sides of build­ings. Their pres­ence had the po­ten­tial to alien­ate the ma­jor­ity Turk­men and Arab pop­u­la­tion, which saw them as a threat. In the end, I told McMaster I would hap­pily ask the Kurds who they thought they were fight­ing for and go with what­ever they said. He laughed and even­tu­ally dropped it.

The only time I saw McMaster on the bat­tle­field came as the oper­a­tion was wind­ing down. He and his Iraqi coun­ter­part stopped by to watch Iraqi troops prac­tice storm­ing build­ings. For train­ing pur­poses, they chose a struc­ture with an Iraqi flag plas­tered across the front wall, which meant it had al­ready been checked for any­thing danger­ous.

Sec­onds af­ter the Iraqis charged through the door, an ex­plo­sion erupted in­side, fol­lowed by peals of gun­fire. Two sol­diers stum­bled out, car­ry­ing a third, whose blood was soak­ing through his uni­form on his right arm, ab­domen and leg. McMaster ran over and put his hand on the wounded man’s shoul­der. “You’re go­ing to be fine,” he said, as a medic ban­daged the Iraqi’s wounds and in­jected him with mor­phine. “You’re go­ing to be okay.”

Maybe an in­sur­gent had sneaked back into the build­ing af­ter it was cleared. Maybe it had never been cleared at all. Ei­ther way, the Amer­i­can train­ers were fu­ri­ous and em­bar­rassed. Most im­por­tant to McMaster, though, was what hap­pened next. The Iraqi troops, who at an ear­lier point in their train­ing might have pan­icked and re­fused to fight, re­grouped and went look­ing for a man they thought they saw throw a grenade be­fore flee­ing out a back door.

An hour or so later, af­ter an­other fire­fight a cou­ple of blocks away, the call came over the ra­dio: “I have two AIF KIA” — anti-Iraqi forces killed in ac­tion. The Iraqis said they got their man, though it was dif­fi­cult to know for sure.

By the rel­a­tively low stan­dards of that phase of the war, Oper­a­tion Restor­ing Rights was a suc­cess: In­sur­gents were ei­ther killed (a small num­ber), cap­tured (a larger num­ber) or fled the city (the vast ma­jor­ity, deny­ing the sol­diers the show­down they sought). McMaster’s troops took a mod­est num­ber of ca­su­al­ties. He seemed to have thought more deeply about the chal­lenge U.S. forces faced, and in­spired greater fealty among his charges, than any other com­man­der I saw while em­bed­ded with the U.S. mil­i­tary in Iraq.

“Coun­terin­sur­gency tac­tics dealt the in­sur­gents of Tal Afar a huge blow,” he told me be­fore I boarded a C-130 to Bagh­dad. “We have bro­ken the fear that dom­i­nated this place.”

Res­i­dents who re­mained in the city walked freely in the streets for the first time in months. “In a few days we will ask the civil­ians to re­turn,” said Mayor Na­jim Abed al-Jabouri, who had been brought by the United States from Bagh­dad to gov­ern the di­vided city.

Still, ac­cord­ing to the stan­dards McMaster him­self had laid out, the oper­a­tion was far from per­fect. U.S. forces were more re­strained than I had ob­served else­where, but they tore apart hun­dreds of Iraqi homes they en­tered, of­ten af­ter break­ing down or blow­ing through doors, shout­ing in English at ter­ri­fied res­i­dents, and leav­ing a wake of cry­ing women and chil­dren and seething men. Ev­ery night they evicted fam­i­lies so they would have a place to sleep. As I wrote at the time, they de­tained peo­ple on lit­tle more than the say-so of anony­mous in­for­mants who may have merely had an ax to grind.

On the eve of the fi­nal as­sault on the city cen­ter, we stayed up late, the skies alight with ca­cophonous strikes from Apache he­li­copters. The next day, many build­ings had been re­duced to rub­ble, though not on the de­struc­tive scale of Fal­lu­jah. Be­fore Ea­gle Troop en­tered Sarai, what we thought was a fire­fight broke out. U.S. troops un­loaded hun­dreds of rounds in quick bursts over 45 min­utes. When the ra­dios called for a cease-fire, it turned out the shoot­ing was go­ing in only one di­rec­tion.

None of this was un­usual in the foggy ur­ban fight­ing that U.S. forces were asked to do in Iraq. Hashim, the skep­ti­cal aca­demic who had been in­te­gral to de­sign­ing the strat­egy, pro­claimed him­self sat­is­fied, though with some hes­i­ta­tion. “The prob­lem is, what hap­pens when this unit leaves?” he lamented. “It’s only a one-year vi­sion, and then we ro­tate out.” That turned out to be a pre­scient ques­tion. For at least two years af­ter I left Tal Afar in mid-Septem­ber 2005, Iraq con­tin­ued to dis­in­te­grate. The city that got a shout-out from Pres­i­dent Bush (“the out­lines of the Iraq we’ve been fight­ing for”) de­scended back into in­sur­gency. By mid-2006, Tal Afar was awash in the sec­tar­ian vi­o­lence that had en­gulfed much of Iraq. A spate of sui­cide at­tacks cul­mi­nated in early 2007, when two truck bombs killed 152 peo­ple and wounded more than 300 oth­ers.

The U.S. troop surge in 2007 and 2008 em­ployed na­tion­wide the tac­tics pi­o­neered by McMaster, who was back in Iraq to ad­vise com­mand­ing Gen. David Pe­traeus. Though the po­lit­i­cal chasm be­tween Shi­ite rule and Sunni griev­ance was un­re­solved, Tal Afar ben­e­fited from re­duced vi­o­lence across the coun­try.

It didn’t last. In June 2014, al­most three years af­ter U.S. com­bat forces left the coun­try, Tal Afar was one of the first cities cap­tured by the Is­lamic State as it ram­paged across north­ern Iraq. Re­ports soon emerged of sum­mary ex­e­cu­tions on the same streets McMaster’s troops had pa­trolled.

The cause of Iraq’s most re­cent dis­in­te­gra­tion is hotly de­bated. Crit­ics of Pres­i­dent Barack Obama blame the troop draw­down he over­saw, although the lead­ing al­ter­na­tive was a much smaller force with a non­com­bat mission. Iraqi leaders’ un­will­ing­ness or in­abil­ity to gov­ern in­clu­sively — a per­haps-in­evitable re­sult of the sec­tar­i­an­ism the U.S. in­va­sion un­leashed — played a role, as did the un­ex­pected erup­tion of an even more bru­tal conflict next door in Syria.

To­day, much of Tal Afar re­mains un­der the con­trol of the Is­lamic State, though Iraqi forces, backed by the United States, have be­gun to lib­er­ate it yet again.

Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster’s strate­gies saw mixed suc­cess in the Iraq War.

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