The Colonels' War

Confronting the enormous complexities of the Iraqi insurgency plus a growing sectarian conflict, some American junior officers, with little guidance from above, began creatively improvising new tactics and strategies. Commenting on this aspect of the Iraq war and its significance are soldiers and military experts interviewed for this FRONTLINE report.

Col. H.R. McMaster
Commander, Tal Afar 2005-'06

photo of mcmaster Read his full interview

I think people called it a colonel's war because of the complexity of Iraq and that 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.

Col. Kalev Sepp (Ret.)
Gen. Casey strategy adviser

photo of sepp Read his full interview

… The Iraq insurgency … is what Dr. Conrad Crane, [director of the U. S. Army Military History Institute at the U.S. Army War College], has so aptly called a "mosaic war." It's a different war in every province, in every town, in every neighborhood, sometimes down a street. It has its own dynamics, its own politics, its own give-and-take.

So if the insurgency is local, that means the counterinsurgency has to be local, and that puts the burden of dealing with the insurgency on the shoulders of sergeants and lieutenants and police chiefs at that level, and that means their competence is supreme.

So you can have a dynamic division commander, corps commander or theater commander, but ultimately it comes down to how they handle the battle at their level. There are the brigade commanders that we have [who] are very, very capable, but how many among them had the kind of background and experience that [Col.] H.R. McMaster was able to accrue to himself through his assignments and through his education that he did? …

There was a constant tension in this when we bring American forces into this kind of fight, because an insurgency is all about decentralization, and fighting it is about decentralization. But the reflex of the American military … is centralization of resources and direction of its resources against a fixed and pointed enemy. It's a paradox, and it's almost impossible to resolve.

Lawrence Kaplan
The New Republic

photo of kaplan

… It's become something of a cliché these days to point out that there can be no consistent theaterwide strategy because different towns in Iraq pose different challenges. So one unit, say in Tikrit, may operate in on way; one unit in Basra may operate another way.

The problem with this cliché, and the problem really in Iraq all along, is that because there's been no overarching strategy, you have, in the very same towns, one unit will come in 2003. It will knock down doors. It will bulldoze houses. Then another unit will come in the same town in 2004. It won't leave its base. It just won't patrol the town. And then another unit will come in 2005 and reject both approaches. And it will set up small patrol bases and initiate civil affairs projects, but it will also fight. …

And this, I think, you can fairly blame [Gen. George] Casey [commanding general, Multi-National Task Force-Iraq, 2004-2007] for, which is really not initiating … a theaterwide strategy other than this vague instruction to all commanders that their mission orders should be to turn over their areas of operation to their Iraqi counterparts as soon as possible. …

So what you have is a series of different colonels really, I think, walking away from Casey in effect, and to some extent walking away from their own tradition, and deciding to fight their own wars under their own guidelines and consistent with their own styles, with very little guidance from above. Under Casey, you really have a vacuum from the top, and, in turn, above Casey, you have a vacuum coming from Washington. …

And then gradually, over the years, from the success stories a coherent strategy does emerge, and I think by 2007, you are seeing it. It is bubbling up to the level where you have the president and Gen. [David] Petraeus and other commanders embracing the strategy that is really devised at the brigade level. But it is taking so long to identify the one correct solution that in all likelihood it is too little and too late.

Gen. Jack Keane (Ret.)
Army vice chief of staff, 1999-'04

photo of keane Read his full interview

I would suggest it's much more a captain's and a sergeant's war than it is a colonel's war, because it's very decentralized. It gets down to squads and platoons and companies where the fighting takes place and tragically, of course, where the dying takes place as well. They're making all the decisions also in terms of who lives and who dies in terms of the enemy. Colonels are really not involved, and certainly generals are not. What they do is set the conditions for these small-unit leaders to be successful, and only on a very rare occasion, like in Fallujah, do you get brigade commanders and general officers involved in actually prosecuting the fight. Most of the fighting that takes place is very decentralized, and it's done by junior leaders and senior sergeants.

Is there a downside to this?

Well, it's the only way you can prosecute a war like this. I don't think there is a downside of it. The risk you have to it manifests itself in, as you decentralize and you have smaller units out doing things, it puts much more of a premium on educating everybody as to how to do things.

Philip Zelikow
Counselor, State Department

photo of zelikow Read his full interview

It is a colonel's war or major's war; it's battalion-level, and maybe even below. It's a highly local form of conflict in which everything needs to be adapted to local circumstances and informed by local information.

That said -- this point's critical -- you have to have a strategy countrywide that tells your battalion and company commanders what their jobs are. They then have to have a lot of autonomy for the execution of those jobs and the execution of that strategy adapted to local circumstances. But they have to be trained in an approach to the problem.

What's remarkable about Tal Afar is, why isn't that being done in different forms all over the country? Well, because it wasn't a countrywide strategy, because actually people are just improvising and inventing almost ad hoc from unit to unit, from brigade to brigade or division to division. There isn't really a strong countrywide template.

Lt. Col. Andrew Krepinevich (Ret.)
Defense Department consultant

photo of krepinevich Read his full interview

This war at its fundamental level … is an intelligence war. … Here, if we know who the enemy is and where the enemy is, we win this war. The people who have that intelligence are the Iraqi people. The question is, how do you get them to give you that information? You get them to give you that information by making them feel secure, so they won't be victims of retribution, by giving them a stake in the future, by making them feel like they're part of something.

And that's what people like Petraeus and [Marine Gen. James] Mattis intuitively know. And later on, generals like Pete Chiarelli, [commanding general, 1st Cavalry Division], who will operate in and around Baghdad, that's what they know. That is something, though, that a lot of their colleagues don't know. And since there is no central direction from Baghdad, there is no integrated overall approach.


home . introduction . watch online . interviews . timeline . themes . join the discussion
producer's chat . readings & links . site map . dvd & transcript . press reaction
credits . privacy policy . journalistic guidelines . FRONTLINE series home . wgbh . pbs

posted june 19, 2007

FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of wgbh educational foundation.
main photograph © corbis, all rights reserved
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation