Col. H.R. McMaster

photo of mcmaster

McMaster led the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment's successful counterinsurgency campaign in Tal Afar and the surrounding Ninawa province from May 2005 through June 2006. He is also the author of the book Dereliction of Duty, which is critical of American military leadership during the Vietnam War. He is now a research associate with the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London and an adviser to the new commander of coalition forces in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus. This is an edited transcript of an interview conducted on Feb. 2, 2007.

Late 2004, you're at Fort Carson, [Colo.], preparing your troops. How are you training for counterinsurgency?

[Our] regiment returned from Iraq in March 2004 and had only about 10 months to prepare to go back to Iraq in February 2005, so we used that time to really learn as much as we could from the experience in Iraq between 2003 and 2004 and then apply those lessons to our training strategy and our standard operating procedures: how we intended to fight the fight in Iraq, bring stability to communities and develop indigenous security forces such that those gains would be sustainable over time. ...

You're coming up with new ideas, training troops in a different way. Why was it that we hadn't gotten it before? Was it a case where we were just missing it?

I think there's a continual effort to adapt going on within Iraq, but it's not a linear progression toward counterinsurgency proficiency. It's a continuous interaction with the changing, shifting, adapting enemy as well. ...

What is the state of the insurgency in mid-2004 when [Gen. George] Casey, [commander, Multi-National Task Force-Iraq (MNF-I), 2004-2007], arrives?

In mid-2004 we had made some tremendous gains by that time. We had developed some indigenous security forces: police, the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps [ICDC]. The Iraqi army was on track, and the enemy recognized that this was the greatest danger to their organization. In fact, [Al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-]Zarqawi said as much and said, "What we have to do is attack these security forces before they develop a greater capability."

So what we saw in the summer of 2004 was a shift in the enemy's effort to attack these security forces, and many of them disintegrated because they hadn't developed a strength to withstand those kinds of brutal attacks.

Also at the same time, the enemy intensified attacks on infrastructure to increase public discontent and to use that pool of discontent to recruit young, unemployed, largely undereducated young males to the cause. We see in this period of time the insurgency sort of coalescing as alliances of convenience form between former members of the Hussein regime -- Baathists, former members of the Iraq intelligence service -- some really brutal people who are very well-networked across the country.

What is amazing is once you are able to lift the pall of fear off of these populations, how life just flows back into these cities. But what's important is to keep security there, because we're battling a very ruthless, a murderous enemy, who's determined to come back into these areas.

Now they're allied with these Takfirists or Salafi jihadists, Islamic extremists who are connected to Al Qaeda. And while this is an unlikely alliance, it makes sense to both parties, because they both bring certain strengths to that union. So we face an uncertainty that is coalesced over time and has brought greater capabilities to their effort. ...

Were you in communication with folks on Casey's staff?

As we were preparing for the mission, we were obviously tracking what was going on within Iraq, and we were in receipt of orders that were issued to units in Iraq. We were in direct communications with brigades who were occupying the areas that we would ultimately go into in south Baghdad, north Babil province, the so-called Triangle of Death area initially, and then into western Ninawa province. So we're learning as much as we can about the shifting nature of the insurgency and then our plans to counter that insurgency, which emphasized at the time population security and development of capable and legitimate security forces. ...

You argue that to deal with an insurgency, you have to call it an insurgency. What do you mean by that?

It's important to call it an insurgency because there's a vast body of literature and a wealth of experience in combating or countering insurgencies of the past. So it's important to study insurgency like you study history -- in breadth and then in depth, in specific cases -- so you understand the complex causality of events and the best techniques that could be employed, even in a very complex insurgency with unique conditions associated with it like that that we face in Iraq.

For example, you could learn lessons from [the British experience in] Malaya, in terms of ... how important it is to have complete unity of effort with indigenous forces and ensure that the police and the army components of those indigenous forces work well together. From the experience in Algeria -- although there are many things to learn not to do from Algeria -- population control and issuing of identity cards and understanding who the insurgents are and isolating them from the population is an important lesson from that experience. ...

So ... the fact that there was an inability to even call it an insurgency for a while, why was that a problem?

I don't think it was a problem within the Army. I think everyone recognized that this was an insurgency that was growing and coalescing in the period 2003 to 2004. There may have been, I think, a reluctance to call it an insurgency because of some strategic communications issues associated with that: not wanting to legitimize these people who are murdering their own people. ...

What does the term "colonel's war" mean? Why was that the case?

I think people called it a colonel's war because of the complexity of Iraq and the nature of the situation in Iraq changes dramatically based on location. ... It is a colonel's war because it's important to understand the very complex ethnic, tribal and sectarian dynamics within a particular region, and then to craft a strategy that is mindful of those dynamics.

There seemed to be some units that were hunting and killing [insurgents], while others were … using counterinsurgency methods. Why was that?

Offensive operations and hunting down the enemy is an integral part of any counterinsurgency approach. In some areas, based on the enemy's situation, your efforts have to be biased in favor of military operations, ... because the enemy, in some of these areas, has been able to establish a high degree of control. In some areas the enemy organizations actually established very deliberate defensive positions, as we saw in Fallujah, as we encountered in Tal Afar when we first arrived there. So there has to be an emphasis on initially establishing a degree of security such that economic and political development and the development of indigenous forces can proceed. ...

What was the significance of the battle for Fallujah in November 2004?

What's very important, as the Iraqi Interim Government was developing and the political process was proceeding, is to deny the enemy the ability to have any kind of a safe haven or support base anywhere in Iraq, because what the enemy would do is use these safe havens ... as a base for attacks elsewhere in the country. So, for example, instability in Fallujah and the degree of control that the enemy enjoyed there is a threat not just to the people of Fallujah, but it's also a threat to the people in Baghdad and in other mixed Sunni and Shi'a areas north along the Tigris and Diyala rivers, for example.

Fallujah, because it lies astride the Euphrates River, is also an important ... line of communication leading westward out to Syria, which was an important source of external support for the insurgency. ... So it was important for the enemy to be denied this sort of safe haven and support base in Al Anbar province.

But what occurred in this period of time, in November 2004, is the enemy's strategy had been shifting away from the Sunni Arab-based insurgency ... and now trying to incite sectarian violence in mixed areas. Ninawa province was a perfect place for the enemy to do that ... because of the mixed demographics. It lies along a fault line between predominantly Kurdish populations and predominantly Sunni Arab populations. It's complicated further by the presence of Yazidis as well as Turkmen, and the Turkmen are further subdivided between Turkmen Sunni and Turkmen Shi'a. So ... the enemy made a deliberate effort to destabilize that region and set conditions for civil war, essentially, in Ninawa province.

When our attention was on Fallujah, theirs went elsewhere?

Yes. ...

Is this part of a "whack-a-mole" process that's going on here?

No. I think what this is really is it's a continuous interaction with the enemy. The Prussian philosopher of war Carl von Clausewitz said, "War is a continuous interaction of opposites." And at the most fundamental level, it's an interaction between our forces and Iraqi security forces, and the insurgent organization.

What you see in the summer and fall of 2004 is a shift in the enemy's strategy toward inciting sectarian violence and inciting the destructive civil war, because what they want is a chaotic environment in which they can operate freely. What they need is a portion of the population to regard them ... as patrons and protectors. So they want to create a sense of victimology, beleaguerment among the Sunni Arab population, get invited into those communities, use those communities as a base for attacks against Kurdish communities, against Turkmen Shi'a communities, against Shi'a Arab communities. ...

What are your assessment of successes/failures of Fallujah II?

... What the enemy tried to do in the wake of Fallujah is to take what was clearly a military defeat -- and what should also have been a psychological defeat -- ... [and] turn it into a propaganda victory: to make our operations in Fallujah look like an attack on the people of the city rather than an attack on the terrorist and insurgent organizations who were victimizing the people of that city.

So this is one of the things we learned from Fallujah: ... We understood that it was very important to win really on two battlegrounds. One is intelligence: to really develop the intelligence necessary such that the enemy can no longer hide among the population, can no longer intimidate the people of the city; and then also to win on this battleground of perception: to bring the population with us in this effort to continually clarify our intentions, not just with words but with our deeds, and to counter the enemy's disinformation campaign. ...

One of the big grievances in Tal Afar was that we have a Shi'a-dominated, Iranian-influenced government in Baghdad -- you know, "Those people don't represent us." Well, then you'd ask them, "Did anybody vote during the last election?" "Well, no." "Why didn't you vote?" "Because it was too dangerous. The terrorists would kill us if we voted."

So the follow-up question is, "Well, whose fault is that?" So with improved security in the city, over 90 percent of the eligible population in Tal Afar voted after Operation Restoring Rights. ...

Some people view Fallujah II as fueling the actions of the Sunnis to boycott elections. ... How did Fallujah lead to the boycott?

What Al Qaeda in Iraq and the insurgency broadly wanted to do in 2004 was derail the political process. ... So they really were able to have it both ways: They denied people the opportunity to vote, and then once people couldn't vote and were underrepresented in the constitutional assembly, they then said, "Well, look, this process isn't representative of the Sunni population."

Leading toward more of a sectarian divide?

Right. … If the government doesn't have legitimacy among all the various communities that comprise Iraq, that's a political vulnerability that the enemy can exploit. ...

Tell me about Casey: How is he viewed as the commander?

Gen. Casey, by the time we'd arrived, had been in Iraq for a year already. So we relied very heavily on Gen. Casey and his staff as a source of information and analysis to help us understand better the nature of the mission, the nature of the enemy, how the political process was progressing and so forth.

Gen. Casey was the kind of commander who would travel around to units and give you his assessment of the situation and then entertain your questions, as would his staff. So we felt as if we were very well prepared for our mission because we had, I think, developed an understanding of the nature of the problem based on the regiment's experience already in Iraq over a period of a year, what we had learned from many other organizations across our Army and across our Marine Corps, and then really what Gen. Casey and his staff were able to impart to us as we arrived in Iraq.

What takes place when you get to Tal Afar? …

We have very clear instructions about our new mission in Tal Afar and in the western portion of Ninawa province: First, it was to re-establish control along the border and then to develop an Iraqi army division ... as well as a border defense brigade along the border; and then to conduct counterinsurgency operations with Iraqi security forces to defeat the insurgency in western Ninawa province so that economic development and political development could proceed.

The situation when we got into Tal Afar was very bleak. The enemy had essentially established control over the city. This was sort of a franchise operation of Al Qaeda in Iraq.

How violent was it? …

The mission, once we arrived in Tal Afar, was very difficult. The border was wide open at the time. Tal Afar was being used as a safe haven, support base, training area for insurgent operations across Ninawa province and all of Iraq. The enemy had really established a high degree of control over the city services, had ... replaced the imams with laymen with third- or fourth-grade educations who were preaching hatred and violence, and recruiting adolescent and young males to the cause and enlisting them in the jihad.

The enemy had collapsed the police force. The police force was now an exclusively Shi'a organization which in many ways had become sort of a retribution squad aimed against the Sunni tribes. So the cycle of sectarian violence had begun, and it engendered a chaotic environment. And the enemy used that chaotic environment to establish control across the city. ...

And so when we first arrived in Tal Afar, our lead squadron -- our 2nd Squadron, under Lt. Col. Chris Hickey -- they were immediately in a major fight. ... The call to jihad would go out over the loudspeakers within the city, and we would have very sharp battles with 300, 400, 500 of the enemy at a time. ... In these engagements we were killing 30, 40, 50 of the enemy at a time. ...

This area is 75 percent Sunni, right? Is there a problem with civilian casualties also?

When we first arrived in Tal Afar, we're in very sharp combat with the enemy. Our 2nd Squadron had done a tremendous job in defeating the enemy, but at the same time building relationships with the community that led to very detailed intelligence. So we're finding and defeating and killing, capturing enemy cells that operate within the city. We're finding large weapons caches.

The way the enemy reacts to this is they move into the neighborhoods that they think are safe, the neighborhoods that are dominated by the terrorists and where people are most intimidated. They also then atomize these weapons caches into small caches all over the city to evade our reconnaissance efforts. But what's happening is more and more people in the city are giving us intelligence, because we're telling people that we and the Iraqi army respect them, are there for their security.

We're countering the enemy propaganda and disinformation, the main component of which was that we were there to repress the people of Tal Afar rather than liberate them from this pall of fear that had descended over the city: ... The markets were closed; the hospital was inaccessible; children hadn't been to school since September of the year before. So the people really wanted a change, and they were partnering with our forces, giving us intelligence. ...

The way the enemy responded to this intelligence we were developing was by intensifying their attacks on the civilian population, conducting sectarian cleansing within mixed neighborhoods of the city, deliberately attacking playgrounds and schoolyards and soccer fields. On one occasion they targeted a soccer field with a mortar attack and wounded 19 children. ... These terrorists also wanted to deny us the ability to help Iraqis reconstitute their police force, so they took a 13-year-old mentally disabled girl, had her hold the hand of a 3-year-old mentally disabled girl; they had strapped the 13-year-old with explosives and had her walk into a police recruiting line and then detonated her remotely. ...

By June of 2005 we begin to develop a very clear picture of the enemy's organization, and during a very large-scale raid in early June of 2005 we capture 26 of the enemy in sanitized homes. These were leaders of the terrorist organization who then went to prison, and this began to very severely disrupt the enemy organization. Again, they responded with intensified attacks on the population, murdering civilians. Anyone who said, "We ought to reconcile between the Shi'a and the Sunni in the city," [was] kidnapped and murdered.

So it's clear to us ... that a large operation is necessary to defeat the terrorist organizations such that economic and political development can proceed, and so we can set conditions for the introduction of Iraqi security forces -- a reconstituted police force and the Iraqi army -- so the improvement in security in the city is permanent, and then on the back end of that operation, to conduct reconstruction, to rekindle hope among the population and to set sort of the foundation for reconciliation between the Sunni and Shi'a populations within the city.

This is the clear, hold and build policy.

Yes. ... And what is amazing is once you are able to lift the pall of fear off of these populations, how life just flows back into these cities. But what's important is to keep security there, because we're battling a very ruthless, a murderous enemy, who's determined to come back into these areas. ...

And what that allowed is very courageous Iraqi leaders -- the mayor of Tal Afar, Mayor Najim al-Jubouri; Gen. Khorshid [Saleem] of the 3rd Iraqi Army Division; Gen. Sabah [Hamidi], the police chief -- to begin to broker reconciliation among these tribes who had been in direct military competition with one another. Everyone recognized over time that the source of their discontent, the source of the misery in that city, was Al Qaeda in Iraq, and so they turned against these terrorists for a number of reasons: I think, first of all, the discipline, the compassion, the professionalism of our soldiers; and the discipline, compassion and effectiveness of the Iraqi army and the new police force that was reconstituted under new police leadership. Without these courageous Iraqis, we couldn't have achieved what we achieved. ...

Then the other thing that was important, though, was not just the way we were treating the population, ... but the brutality of the enemy worked against them. The enemy deserves credit for their own defeat. ... These were people who wanted Tal Afar to fail, who wanted Ninawa province to fail, and people recognized over time that we and the Iraqi security forces wanted their town to succeed, and wanted Iraq to succeed.

What do you say to people who remark that the success in Tal Afar was an exception?

What's interesting about Tal Afar is that I think it replicated in microcosm the complexity of Iraq generally. But that said, I think people have to understand that the situation in Iraq is very different based on location and the unique ethnic-sectarian-tribal dynamics in a particular area; the strength of the enemy -- the insurgency, Al Qaeda in Iraq, the terrorist organizations that are there; and also the strength of the Iraqi security forces and the willingness of the people to help take responsibility for their own security.

It's important to understand that this insurgency changes over time, ... and that also it changes based on location. The insurgency, for example, in Al Anbar province, in an area that is almost exclusively a Sunni Arab area, is much different than the way the insurgency operates in the mixed neighborhoods in Baghdad, or along the Diyala and Tigris rivers or in Ninawa province. So it's important to understand the difference in the situation.

It's also important to understand what we had going for us. It was a very difficult situation. The terrorists had established control of the city, but we had an Iraqi army division who we could partner with. We had an Iraqi border police brigade being formed, and this was a big difference from the period 2003 to 2004. What we were able to do in 2005 was based in large measure on the coalition's success and Iraq's success in developing security forces over that period of time, consistent with Gen. Casey's vision. ...

Has there been a problem with in Tal Afar with the "hold" part of clear, hold, build?

... It took time. It takes even more time for these forces to be able to stand on their own. There were certain capabilities within police forces, within army forces, that take time to develop.

Part of those capabilities is leadership, and leaders have to be educated over time to be effective. Part of that is a logistical capability. Part of that is adequate facilities for these forces and ability to communicate [with] and control these forces. Pay systems, promotion systems -- a lot of these capabilities weren't existent in the force initially, and so coalition forces had to compensate for a lot of these deficiencies. But we're working alongside Iraqis to develop these capabilities that just take time to develop.

What can we learn from the problems that we have had in pushing forward the strategy?

It's important to understand that forces can't be withdrawn prematurely from an area. I think sometimes you're trapped by the initial success of an operation: Insurgents are defeated in a certain area; a life returns to that area; the markets are back open; people are happy again. And you think, wow, things are better now; I can leave, and I can leave behind police forces and maybe some Army and support.

But what's important to understand is that the forces left behind [have] to be just not capable of sustaining the current situation, but they have to be capable of dealing with an intensified effort on the part of the enemy, which is certain to follow a successful operation. ...

It's also important to understand that the standard for success for these Iraqi security forces is very high. They have to secure a population against an enemy who is willing to conduct mass murder against innocent people. The standard for success for the terrorist is very low, because they're willing to murder women and children in a marketplace.

And it's very difficult to defend everywhere in a very dense, urban area, so it's important not only that these security forces have the physical capability, but also that they develop very strong informant and source networks so they can have access to good intelligence. It's also important that they develop good relationships in the community so that people are willing to come to them for assistance when suspicious people move into the neighborhood.

There are a lot of dimensions to the capability of Iraqi security forces that don't really appear on paper that we have to focus on developing over time.

Casey's predictions and the general optimism proved not to be correct.

I think what is a danger for American forces in Iraq is to not regard withdrawal from a certain area ... as an end in and of itself. It's very important to focus on developing the conditions necessary to allow that sort of a transition to Iraqi control to occur. We were very realistic in our assessments in our area of what it would take. ... And it's not just military capability; it's not just the strength of a police force; but it's also the effectiveness of local government.

If local government can provide for the basic needs of the people, the people will go to the mayor and the city council instead of going to their sheikh and their imam. When they go to their sheikh and their imam, it sort of reinforces the tribal and ethnic identity that the enemy preys on in Iraq to continue this cycle of sectarian violence.

Rule of law has to be established; there have to be consequences for criminal or insurgent or terrorist activity. And if Iraqis understand that if they're caught attacking their fellow Iraqis, attacking coalition forces, then an Iraqi judge is going to put them in jail for a full term, that would really introduce a very significant disincentive to violence.

So it's local governance, rule of law, economic development and improved security going hand in hand that set the right conditions for U.S. forces to withdraw. In many areas of Iraq still, coalition forces are the glue that holds this effort together, and so ... until Iraqis can develop the ability to fulfill their responsibilities to their people at the local level, I think coalition forces owe it to them to help hold the effort together.

Some say we created the insurgency. What's your point of view on that?

I think it's ridiculous to say that the coalition created the insurgency. The insurgency was really this localized, decentralized, hybrid insurgency that then coalesced sort of around the backbone of the Iraqi intelligence service: the Fedayeen Saddam [militia] and the Mukhabarat [secret police] and the Special Republican Guard.

These were people who wanted the new Iraq to fail. They felt as if they were the big losers; their world had been turned upside down. They were a minority who was empowered; they were a minority who were brutalizing their own people. And now they were the losers, and they knew that the Iraqi people would never accept them back.

So initially what they would call the resistance developed around members of the former regime, and then they began to integrate others, people ... who would resent any occupying force, no matter how well intentioned.

Certainly policy decisions could have strengthened the insurgency during this time; people cite mistakes by coalition forces or heavy-handed tactics. Certainly Abu Ghraib was a disaster in that connection, but these things didn't create the insurgency. The insurgency benefited from some of these things -- maybe the disbanding of the army, the severe de-Baathification measures and so forth -- but this is an insurgency that developed on its own and then used these things to strengthen their effort. ...

How did Casey's folk view your successes?

Our headquarters -- both our division or corps and Gen. Casey's headquarters -- were a big part of the success in Tal Afar. Gen. Casey and [Maj.] Gen. [Robin] Brims -- a British general, his deputy -- were tremendously helpful in making sure the Iraqi government understood what we were achieving, and to reinforce our efforts with additional Iraqi forces, and then also politically to support the effort in terms of the nature of the operation as well as what would have to follow the operation, which is really a significant reconstruction and economic development effort.

One of the complaints is though they recognize the success, this wasn't taken theaterwide.

Well, it's hard to just take an operation like we did in Tal Afar and just apply that blanket across the country. But many of the units were taking the same approach: emphasizing security of the population, development of police and army forces and assuring unity of effort between them, and emphasizing economic development.

For example, 1st Brigade of the 25th Division had largely done already in Mosul what we did in a much smaller city of Tal Afar later, and Mosul is a city of 2.5 million people. ... In other areas of the country that same sort of approach is being applied. For example, in Ramadi right now, with 1st Brigade of the 1st Armored Division, Col. Sean MacFarland and his soldiers, alongside Iraqi soldiers, are bringing security back to neighborhoods where the terrorists had really taken control in a city of about 700,000 people. In the area of south Baghdad, where our regiment went initially, tremendous gains are being made there as well. ...

What's happening at the time of the Samarra [Golden Mosque] bombing? Are we winning the counterinsurgency war but losing the civil war?

All insurgencies have a dimension of civil war within that insurgency. And in this case, this was a deliberate effort on the part of the enemy, going all the way back to at least early 2004, to set conditions for civil war. …

What Al Qaeda in Iraq wants to do is set the conditions for a civil war, and then when U.S. forces disengage, that war can sort of accelerate; the cycle of sectarian violence will become even more destructive. And then what Al Qaeda will be able to do is support the Takfirists, the Salafi jihadists, and take control of at least a portion of Iraq and use that as a base for terrorist operations across the region and really across the globe. So what you see after the Samarra bombing is really this strategy coming to fruition. …

Now, do the majority of Iraqis want to fight and kill each other? No. I mean, it's astounding the degree to which these communities are intermarried. Iraq is a crazy quilt of ethnicities and religious sects. They've lived next to each other for centuries, and while there has been sectarian and ethnic violence in the past, certainly it is not the natural condition of the people, who I met anyway, in Iraq.

So what's important is to break that cycle of sectarian violence and improve security such that reconciliation can occur at the national level, while at the same time doing whatever is possible to set conditions for reconciliation at the local level. ...

What does force protection mean? How can it slow a force down?

The key thing about force protection is ... if you focus too much on force protection and you disengage yourself from the community, you're putting yourself at greater risk, because you need to interact with the community in a positive way to gain the intelligence you need. To develop the relationship you need to be able to bring the population with you.

So when we're operating in Iraq, we have a lot of sayings: "Maximize positive interaction with the Iraqi people"; "Stop by, don't drive by." It's really important to be in the communities. At one point we had over 30 patrol bases; ... all across our area of operations, you found a couple squads of American cavalry troopers along with a platoon of Iraqi soldiers living in the neighborhood. ...

You would think that's kind of risky, putting soldiers out in the middle of a city of 250,000 people, very densely populated and narrow, winding alleyways, complex urban terrain. But actually the riskiest course of action would have been to consolidate our forces on one big base and feel safe but really not know what's going on as well as we should know by living within those communities. …

You can evaluate the sources of information better. You can understand what the local grievances are, so you can address those grievances and sort of dry up the pool of discontent such that the enemy can't recruit from that population anymore. And of course the number one grievance among many Iraqis is security itself: They want to live without fear; they want their kids to be able to go to school, to walk down the street, to play in the playground, to play soccer on the soccer fields. And they can't do that because these terrorists understand that if life returns to normal, if people are happy, that they can't operate freely within these communities any longer.

So it's important to secure the people, and the best way to do that, until the Iraqi security forces can do this on their own, is to live among the people ... in close proximity certainly to Iraqi army and police forces. ...

Will [Gen. David] Petraeus, [commander, MNF-I, as of 2007], attempt to "Tal Afar-ize" Baghdad?

You can't "Tal Afar-ize" Baghdad. You can take the same fundamental approach, but you have to recognize that Baghdad is a heck of a lot more complex, just on scale alone. ... While Tal Afar existed in a very complex ethnic, sectarian, tribal dynamic, Baghdad is the capital city of about 6 million people. It's the largest Kurdish city; it's the largest Sunni Arab city; it's the largest Shi'a city in Iraq.

So the stakes there are very high, so the enemy will be even that more determined. You have mixed neighborhoods which are very difficult to isolate, whereas Tal Afar, a city of 250,000 people, that was relatively easy to isolate, to contain the enemy. ...

There are a lot of things that you can learn, I think, from Tal Afar that you can apply generally and conceptually to other areas of Iraq, ... but the actual mechanics of how you do it, how you go into these neighborhoods and improve security is going to depend on a number of factors. It's going to depend on the unique ethnic, sectarian, tribal dynamics in the particular neighborhood. It's going to depend on the capabilities of the enemy in that neighborhood and how strong of a hold they have on the population, either through fear or some form of sponsorship from that community. And it's going to depend on the capability of Iraqi forces: How representative are they of the population? ... Do they treat the people with respect? Do they have credibility among the population? And how can that be achieved?

There are so many factors that bear on this. I mean, will reconstruction funds and resources be available on the backside of the operation? To what degree can local government be reconstructed in the wake of the operation and a degree of rule of law established? And can that government establish habitual access to revenue and resources such that they can provide basic services for that community in the long term? All these are factors that will bear on the success or failure of operations in Baghdad and anywhere in Iraq.

Sounds like a daunting task.

It's a very difficult task, and again, the reason is it's a very complex environment. First of all, I think people have to understand Iraq is a traumatized society. These are people who suffered for over three decades under one of the most brutal and murderous regimes in history, only to emerge into a chaotic environment where they're now being victimized by a terrorist organization whose principal tactic in this war is mass murder of innocent civilians.

So people sometimes get frustrated with Iraqis: "Well, they have to want it more than we want it." Or you'll hear that Iraqis are not taking enough responsibility for their own security. But one has to realize that when people are being victimized by these terrorists, they fall back on their desire just to survive, and the way Iraqis survive is by blending in, by not taking a stance.

What has to happen is our forces, alongside Iraqi forces, have to lift the fear off of these people so that they can participate in their own security, so they can help rekindle hope among these various communities. And the people who are largely absent from the story of Iraq are the vast majority of Iraqis who are caught in the middle ... between Al Qaeda in Iraq and their affiliates and these Shi'a militias. And that vast majority just wants a better future for their children. That represents a lot of potential for stability, but that potential has to be tapped through improved security at the local level.

Can bringing in an additional 21,000 U.S. forces into that situation accomplish the goal?

Yeah. I think one of the critical elements of improving security is the number of forces you have to be able to carry out that security mission, along with the other missions that you have. Securing the population is obviously first and foremost. And this is a mission ... for American and coalition forces working alongside Iraqi forces.

The other mission is to develop Iraqi security force capability, ... and that takes a lot of soldiers and Marines to carry out that effort: to train these forces, to help them organize and then to introduce them initially in the context of multinational operations where we operate alongside them until they develop the ability to operate on their own.

Also, just securing critical infrastructure, lines of communication -- I mean, there are a lot of demands on our forces, and our soldiers and Marines are just doing an amazing job with multiple tasks simultaneously. So I think additional forces will certainly help. Is it the answer in the long term? No. The answer in the long term is still very much the same: that the Iraqis have to develop their own ability to provide the kind of security that is necessary such that economic development and political development can proceed. …

… Did we blow it when we didn't deal with the militias?

When the terrorists take over part of Iraq -- a neighborhood, a community like Tal Afar -- ... what happens is, if there is a vacuum of security for any period of time, the tribes arm themselves. And oftentimes, in the case of the Shi'a, they'll affiliate themselves with the larger organization for logistical support, and of course the Sadr Bureau and the Mahdi Army is all too willing to help these tribes.

So there's a dimension to this ... that is at the local level, and the first step is to improve security, and then to allow the Iraqi government to have a monopoly on coercive force and disarm that militia after that security is improved, and then to either bring portions of that militia into legitimate security forces under new leadership that are representative of the population broadly. This is what's frequently referred to as disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of militias. That's what has to happen at the local level. And at the national level the same sort of approach has to be taken. ...

If the sectarian violence continues to grow, if the Shi'a and those in the government do not come out and put forward a unity government, what is our situation? Is there a possibility of victory in that situation?

I think there certainly is a possibility to stop the sectarian violence and to re-establish security; it's essentially what we had to do in Ninawa province. ... So I think what is important is not to say, "Well, if there's a full-blown civil war in Iraq there's really not much we can do." I think what's really important is to say, "We have to prevent a full-blown civil war from occurring." ...

Did we learn our lessons from Vietnam?

I think one of the responsibilities of professional officers is to ... prepare yourself and your organization for combat through the study of history, because it's very difficult before a war to understand completely the demands of that war. ...

Vietnam was one of those conflicts that I think many of us had learned from. We came up in an Army led by officers who had experienced the Vietnam War, and some of those lessons were passed on to us. Some were not deliberately passed on to us because the Army in some measure wanted to get beyond Vietnam; it was a very painful experience and destructive experience for the institution of the Army.

So there wasn't a lot of frank discussion about Vietnam for those of us who came into the Army in the post-Vietnam period. But I think all of us have studied previous conflicts and have learned what we can from those conflicts and applied them to contemporary challenges.

Did we forget how to deal with a counterinsurgency?

I think it's clear that even though we had been involved in complex military operations previously, operations that involved stabilizing countries, providing humanitarian assistance -- certainly the Balkans is an example. We confronted the complexity of tribal warfare in a very destitute part of the world; in Mogadishu, [Somalia], for example. We faced post-regime-change instability in Panama. We had confronted a very difficult situation in terms of tribal infighting, a high level of crime and instability in Haiti.

So the Army has a lot of experience to draw on, but it hadn't really been institutionalized in terms of counterinsurgency operations, because the Army was biased in favor of conventional wars and the application of military power in a way that didn't involve a protracted commitment and a complex state-building counterinsurgency environment like we found ourselves in in Iraq. ...

The Army has caught up to the tremendous adaptation that occurred at the brigade and division level in Iraq from 2003 to 2004, and you see that with the emerging counterinsurgency doctrine. You can see it with the way the Army trains units and prepares units and leaders and soldiers for the mission: the language training; the cultural training; the scenarios that replicate the very complex environment in Iraq; the emphasis on development of human intelligence and civil-military operations and psychological and information operations.

All these reforms have occurred in our Army over the past several years, and I think the adaptation was very fast at the grassroots level. But just by nature of the Army being a large organization, some of the bigger institutional changes in terms of education and the counterinsurgency doctrine and so forth just took longer to formalize than the adaptation that had occurred at the lower levels. …

You're being called back to Iraq now. How do you feel about going back again? What are your goals?

I think any of us who have been involved in the mission of Iraq have developed a great deal of affection for the Iraqi people and are emotionally invested in what we think is a vital mission. ... So I think any of my contemporaries would welcome the opportunity to go back and make a contribution to this extraordinarily important mission. …

Who is Col. Bill Hix?

Col. Bill Hix was an adviser to Gen. Casey and has really helped develop the conceptual foundation for a theater strategy in Iraq. He traveled widely across the country in late 2005 to conduct a study on counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and to identify best practices and recommend the implementation of those practices across the country. He's also one of the officers who help found the counterinsurgency academy [COIN Academy] at Taji, which was meant to develop a common understanding of counterinsurgency operations across the coalition as we come into the theater of operations.

Did you attend?

We attended. Our leadership attended the counterinsurgency academy as guest instructors at the end of our tour in Iraq. ... I think we participated in a session in January 2006.

Why would someone say that Col. Hix was the most important colonel in Iraq at that period of time?

Col. Bill Hix was fulfilling what is a very important role, which is to identify best practices across the force and disseminate those. There's a long tradition in various militaries of small teams of officers and non-commissioned officers [NCOs] traveling around an army and trying to effect institutional or doctrinal change. A great example is German doctrinal change in World War I; ... essentially a small group of officers were asked the question: "How do we solve this problem with trench warfare?" So this small group of officers went all across the German army and developed what became infiltration tactics or Hutier tactics. ...

Define this moment: We have a new command team, a new head of CENTCOM, a new ambassador, a new command, a new strategy. Where are we?

I think it's broadly acknowledged we're at a very critical point in Iraq for a number of reasons, certainly in terms of the Iraqi people. We risk the Iraqi people becoming exhausted from the violence. It's also critical in terms of the American people and their faith in the effort. I think it's going to be very important to communicate to the American people the stakes involved within Iraq and just why this is a very difficult endeavor, emphasizing at every point possible this interaction with a very brutal, determined, murderous enemy. And I think that's lost oftentimes, that car bombs and suicide bombings don't just happen; there are people, murderous people who are doing this and who are victimizing the Iraqi people. And the Iraqi people, I think, deserve our support to protect them from this kind of brutality.

The other thing [that] is important is that [during] this time of change, in terms of leaders changing and so forth, there's some very important continuities here. There are very courageous Iraqis who have, at great risk not only to themselves but to their families, ... stood up to protect their communities. And they've done this despite multiple mass-murder attacks against them in a recruiting alliance on the streets of every contested city in Iraq. And so a continuity is going to be, I think, the courage of many Iraqis who are standing up for their future.

And then of course it's the courage, the compassion, the discipline, dedication of American soldiers and Marines who are just doing a tremendous job in the most complex, difficult conditions every day. ...

Say we're successful in Baghdad. Is that a beginning or an end? What will that be as an accomplishment?

Improving security in Baghdad is the beginning of making that improved security permanent. So in the wake of operations and improved security in particular neighborhoods of Baghdad or in certain communities, ... what has to happen is the generation of a police force that is capable and legitimate; the positioning of Iraqi army forces such that they can support that police force against an intensified enemy effort; the development of effective local governance and rule of law so people know that their rights are protected and they'll be secured and their basic needs provided for by that government. And all these things are mutually reinforcing and have to be achieved in the wake of improved security.

You're seen as a hero, someone who's accomplished something. Are you the exception? How do you define your job done?

I would say that our success was not exceptional at all. It was representative of what our whole Army was endeavoring to achieve in terms of the adaptations to this very complex environment. It's amazing, the scope of responsibilities that our units, our leaders, our soldiers are undertaking. ... And it's a difficult environment; there will be various degrees of success achieved based on a number of factors. But I would say that of what we did in Tal Afar, nothing was exceptional, and nothing was original. ...

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posted june 19, 2007

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