A veteran of the first Gulf War and a counterinsurgency expert, he commands the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment and led the U.S. assault on Tal Afar in late 2005. A town near the Syrian border, Tal Afar had been terrorized by Zarqawi's Al Qaeda forces for more than a year. In this interview, Col. McMaster talks about how the jihadis organized and operated in the town and how, over the course of months, they gradually were ousted by the U.S. military. What remains today, he says, is a "fragile" situation -- dealing with a hybrid insurgency that's still present and providing security to help the community slowly rebuild. But McMaster says he is an optimist in the end about how things will turn out for the Iraqi people. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted in the fall of 2005. [Editor's Note: Then-Major H.R. McMaster was interviewed by FRONTLINE in 1999 for its report, "Give War a Chance," a program that examined the use of America's military might in the context of the Bosnia war in the Balkans.]
Let's go back to what happened in [Tal Afar] a little over a year ago, the first territory, the first city that Al Qaeda-like elements … ever controlled. What happened?
The security situation here in Tal Afar deteriorated over the past year in a dramatic way. There had been an element of the former regime here. There had been former intelligence officers and senior ranking members within the Iraqi army who were disgruntled, who didn't share the same vision as the majority of the people in Iraq for the new Iraq. So there was always an element of the insurgency present here in Tal Afar.
But what happened over time is that that organization grew in strength and sophistication, and then in September of last year, many of those leaders became convinced that they had no future in the new Iraq, and what they really needed to do was to conduct an armed action to attack these nascent security forces -- the new police and the new army -- before those institutions gained strength.
And so in September of last year they attacked symbols of government legitimacy, [like] the municipal building. They went into the police stations and told the policemen, "Either you leave, or I'm going to kill you, and I'm going to kill your family." These are the most brutal elements of society; these are many of the people they've been conditioned to fear for decades. So these institutions, which really lacked the confidence and the capacity to withstand that sort of pressure, collapsed in September. Then the insurgents … extended their control into government functions, coerced the mayor and the city council to at least lend them passive support.
They took over the hospital and had the hospital director do their bidding, controlled basic services and funnelled water and food and electricity to the neighborhoods they controlled. What happened is you had the people really beleaguered by these insurgents.
What was the experience then for the people of this city during this year?
The life was literally choked out of the city. The terrorists had everyone living in abject fear. I mean, people didn't want to come out on the streets; they were afraid for their children to go to schools; the marketplaces closed. What the terrorists did that was very effective for them in terms of giving them the freedom of action they wanted in this city is they [incited] violence … between the Turkmen Sunni, who are the majority population here, and the Turkmen Shi'a. (See the map.)
They attacked the Shi'a, and it was based on this attack … ideology that anyone who does not believe in their narrow definition of Islam is a rejectionist, and it's their duty to wage jihad against them. There were kidnappings and murders and beheadings. These armed camps developed, and the communities fell in on themselves and defended themselves behind what were essentially tribal militias, and one of the tribal militias here in Tal Afar was the police force.
The police force, to defend themselves, took sort of an offensive approach to it. They committed atrocities and injustices as well, and so it began this cycle of … tribal violence which further destabilized the city and further victimized the people.
[Why was it so important for the insurgents to establish themselves in Tal Afar?]
This city gave them access to external support from Syria; this city gave them the ability … to create conditions for the civil war they want to happen here; and this city gave them enough safety so that they could organize, they could train, they could equip insurgent cells for [deployment] not only here, but throughout the region. To have that kind of safety to be able to hide in plain sight in this city among the good people, they had to have the people here living in abject fear.
[How did they operate?]
What this enemy did is they organized themselves very precisely. What you see in Tal Afar is a blending of the military experience. [The] former Iraqi intelligence officers … organized themselves here into four battalions, or katibas, and within each of those katibas, they had what they called a direct-action cell, what we call direct-action cell fighters -- about 120 to 200, sometimes even a little bit bigger, in the enemy's safe haven area. Then they also had a sniper cell, which they used to not only attack our forces and Iraqi security forces, but to terrorize the population.
Then they also had a cell for not only attacks against us again, but [for] indiscriminate attacks into playgrounds, into neighborhoods … where they knew children were playing outside so they could inflict the maximum numbers of casualties on children. And then [they] also had a propaganda cell, a disinformation cell that would videotape their attacks, try to make themselves … look like heroes and sort of magnify their abilities, so [that] in the mind of the people they would be even larger. Everything they did with propaganda aimed to keep in place the intimidation campaign, to ensure that nobody would even think about informing [on] them or doing anything to stop them.
And how do you effectively roll that back?
Well, we had to take a very deliberate approach to this problem. One of the things that the enemy did was they tried to cast our intentions here as actions against the Iraqi people and against the Turkmen Sunni population in particular. They've cast our intentions as [those] of crusaders and occupiers who wanted to exploit the Iraqi people rather than help the Iraqi people get their feet under them so this country could succeed and prosper and have security such as they deserve so much. So we had to defeat that disinformation campaign, and it took some time to do that, because you just don't tell people, "Hey, you know that my intentions are pure." You have to prove to them your intentions through your deeds and through building relationships, and we were able to do that over a period of a few months.
It was also important for us … to separate these terrorists and insurgents from the population. It was important for us to address some of their local grievances, and it was important for us as well to show them that we were a force to be reckoned with, … that we had the capability and the determination to defeat these terrorists, because they wouldn't throw their lot in with us … if we didn't demonstrate that commitment to win the fight.
We had some initial actions against the enemy which were devastating to the enemy. [We] were killing 30, 40, 50 of the enemy at a time. I think that helped us; people thanked us for that. Intelligence came in at a much higher level after those very sharp engagements with the enemy within the city. … With the intelligence we were receiving, we could conduct very precise offensive operations to capture them. We had people who were willing to come forward and tell us exactly what these people did and to testify against them in court, because people were really desperate to return to normalcy and to bring security to the city and to their children.
The enemy then tried to deny us that access by attacking the people in an indiscriminate manner, and a very determined and brutal manner. … It became very clear to us that based on the nature of this enemy, based on the strength of the enemy here, that we would have to conduct an offensive operation to defeat the enemy's operation and then immediately transition into getting Iraqi army and police into position throughout the city to prevent the enemy from returning.
[Have the insurgents tried to return?]
The enemy has tried multiple times [to return to Tal Afar]. We've had a series of some sharp engagements, but mainly we have dictated the time and place of operations against them as they come back into the city, attempt to reconstitute their capabilities. People are telling us that they don't want these people back in their neighborhoods.
In one case we had detained two people in a neighborhood, [but] we didn't have enough evidence on them, so we released them back in the neighborhoods with some kind of an insurance program where they would check in with the police periodically. And the people were up in arms: "Why did you let these people back in our neighborhood?" We said, "We didn't have enough evidence on these people; we're here to help establish rule of law under Iraqi law and operate under Iraqi law." So the people merely said: "Whatever it takes. We'll tell you what these people have done." And then they wrote statements against these individuals and were able to detain them and remove them from their neighborhoods.
So lifting the fear off the community is the first element. The second element then is to be able to follow that up with the security capability, Iraqi police backed up by Iraqi army. They can provide an enduring sense of security to the people and protect them from these terrorists and murderers who had them living in abject fear for so long.
And you're at that stage now?
We're at the stage now where we have established permanent security in the city, so we're accelerating the development of a reconstituted police force. One of the big grievances among the people here is the police force was not representative. After its collapse in September of 2004, the police force became pretty much tribal militia who [were] mainly determined to protect their small tribal enclaves within the city. They were seen by the vast majority of the city as predatory rather than protective for the people. Now we've recruited over 1,000 police candidates. They're in various stages of training now; they're being integrated with the Iraqi army. …
We tried to re-establish a new police force when we first got here, so in July we had a big recruiting push. We gave vouchers to the sheiks and the local leaders -- you get this many slots for police training -- and we got a total of three candidates from the Turkmen Sunni community, and that's because they were in fear. They were told by the terrorists, "If you join the police force, we will kill your family." So we had to remove the terrorists as a precondition to addressing the grievances.
The enemy preyed on this community to such a degree, it became increasingly clear to the people that the source of all of their problems and all of their grievances were the terrorists themselves, whether it was the lack of basic services, the employment situation. But we couldn't do reconstruction here because the contractors would be shot at; the new water pipe would be blown up; the new power line would be destroyed. And so a precondition for progress along any line in any area was the removal of this terrorist organization within the city.
Who is [this] enemy?
The enemy we're fighting here is a hybrid enemy. It's a combination of former regime people who benefited from Saddam, and also some Islamic extremists, both indigenous Islamic extremists and those who are influenced from foreign elements. What we found is over time, this decentralized hybrid insurgency has sort of [evolved], and there have been some alliances of convenience made between elements loyal to the former regime, some nationalist elements who resent any sort of force who's here to change Iraq even for the better, and then these Islamic extremists elements.
[Can you elaborate on the insurgency, define it a bit?]
Well, I think the first thing about this insurgency is if you think you've got it figured out, you just don't know enough about it. It is a hybrid insurgency, and there's a combination of motivations, a combination of organizations based on those motivations. You have the former regime elements who were on top under Saddam, and now their world has been turned upside down and they are no longer in control. They were a minority of the population, and they feel that they were the rightful leaders of Iraq. They [don't] necessarily welcome a representative government and a democratic process because they know they're going to be the losers. Then you have elements that are sort of nationalists, either Iraqi nationalists or Arab nationalists who resent any force in their country, no matter how well intentioned we are. And then you have the Islamic extremist element of the insurgency. … And, you have a very strong foreign influence and foreign element as well and that agenda is completely different from the nationalist agenda and from the agenda of the former regime elements.
But what we have seen, I think, over the last couple of years is that this decentralized hybrid insurgency … has now moved toward coalescing and forming alliances of convenience between these disparate organizations with disparate agendas. The one thing that they're doing is trying to make the new Iraq fail. They want democracy to fail. They want people who didn't have a voice before and deserve to have a voice to continue to be excluded from the political process. And especially this foreign element wants Iraq to fail, because their vision for Iraq is [as an] Islamic extremist state that can be used as a base for terrorism within the region and globally.
Wouldn't it be just simpler, though, for the coalition to leave, for the majority to fight the minority without Western intervention, however bloody that might become, and the weight of numbers would tell, … and the insurgency would in a sense die?
I think the reason we have to see this through is so that there is enough security such that the Iraqis can develop their own ability to maintain that security. The reason we've got to see this thing through is that there is nobody really on Earth who deserves security more than the Iraqi people. Part of what we're fighting here is the legacy of 30 years of living under one of the most brutal and murderous regimes in history. Really, Saddam's regime was limited in the number of people it was able to kill and to torture and imprison only by its capacity to do so. The survival mechanism for people in Iraq was to blend in, not take a stand, don't stand up for your own rights. That's what has to be cultivated in this society for Iraq really to gain the strength that it deserves and to bring security to the people.
There needs to be not only this emotional and psychological shift, but there has to be institutional development. That's what we need to help the Iraqis through and to defeat these [insurgents], help them defeat these people who want to see this country fail.
I suppose that the real test about the success of the operations here will be shown over time, whether [the insurgents] return and gradually build up again, or whether, in fact, it goes [in] the other direction and true security does come to this town.
We've had tremendous success in this operation. You could see it in the city. Life has come back; the markets are open; children are going to school; people are happy. People come to us spontaneously and thank us for the operation and for our continued security efforts. People greet the Iraqi army in the street triumphantly and thank them for what they've done. The police have more credibility. But we also recognize that this success is very fragile and that the situation here generally is very fragile.
So every day we're trying to strengthen, really strengthen this success and to ensure that the Iraqi security forces, the police and the army build a stronger and stronger capability. We've recruited police; they're in training. It's going to be very intensive training to give them the confidence that they need to stand up against these thugs and murderers. And we're connecting the police security effort with the Iraqi army effort and our effort. So there's mutual support between them and backup for the police, who were the target of the enemy last September and September of '04.
What is your feeling for how long [it] might take before you can begin the process of scaling down [operations and your presence here] and move elsewhere?
Well, the key thing to remember here is that to us the standard for success for the terrorists and insurgents is pretty low. Really what they need to do is they need to create a chaotic environment, a perception of insecurity, and they do that with these attacks, these murderous attacks, spectacular attacks against people, against security forces.
The standard for our success is very high. We have to provide real security to protect people from an enemy who has no scruples, so the important thing for us is to build a capable and legitimate security force [that] people trust, and then that legitimate security on the ground will build a lot of psychological momentum in the city as well. We're seeing that happening already. People feel more secure, and as a result of feeling more secure, they're more … prone to cooperate with the security forces and inform on these terrorists and criminals who move into the neighborhoods, and so that the key thing is now we're able to pre-empt attacks because we're able to capture the enemy. We're able to reduce the weapons [caches] and to capture the weapons before those weapons are employed against us or before this enemy can organize an effort against the people or the Iraqi security forces.
Do you have any sense of how long it will take before you really could pack up your bags and head down the road?
I think it's really hard to put a time on how long it's going to take to develop the security forces, because we're in this continuous interaction with the enemy, and the ability of the Iraqi security forces to provide the permanent security that's needed here for the people depends on a number of factors. It depends on how quickly they build their strength, which has to do with leadership. It has to do with the ability of the police to conduct investigations and develop evidence against people. For the army, it has to do with their ability to command and control, talk to each other and to track where people are in the city and have support with one another. There are logistic and resupply capabilities. And it has to do with the development of their leadership -- all the things that take more time to develop in a military organization or in a police organization, [like] fielding the soldiers and equipping them well and getting some leaders into positions. We really need more depth in the leadership.
[But you, the coalition forces, have real advantages over the Iraqi forces.]
While we're well ahead of the Iraqi army in terms of technology and so forth, the Iraqi army and the Iraqi police are way ahead of us in terms of their ability to fight this fight, because they know the people, and they know the culture. They have access to intelligence in ways that we just can't get access to. Whereas we have certain technological advantages, the Iraqis have many advantages that make them more effective. And so in combined operations with them, we are extraordinarily effective. It's true synergy between our forces. And what we have to do is compensate for the weaknesses that remain in those security forces, make sure they're strong enough to withstand enemy action.
The future course of events in this war depends not only on what we decide to do and how well we can build Iraqi security forces, but it obviously depends on enemy actions and initiatives and attempts to reassert control or to undermine Iraqi control in certain areas. The key is not just to have security forces here that are just strong enough for the security situation right now, but strong enough to deal with the security situation in the future and to take into account any possible or anticipated enemy actions.
It's hard to predict the future, but you're basically an optimist. Do you think that although it may be a tough fight and perhaps a long fight, that there is really only one course that this conflict is going to take?
Yes, I'm an optimist because I know Iraqis. I think anybody who really knows the Iraqi people is an optimist, because they see a people who are emerging from 30 years of brutality under Saddam, and they see a people who are very strong in character. They see a people who are kind by nature, who really are determined to have a better life. You also see people who have been victimized and continue to be victimized by this insurgency. And so I think it's our duty, it's our responsibility to help them through this difficult period.
And I'm an optimist because I know that our enemy offers these people nothing except for more violence, more brutality. I know that what the Iraqis, the good Iraqis, the new Iraqi government … offer are the good things -- prosperity, the ability for children to go to school without wondering if they're going to come back because of the violence on the streets. And I think the Iraqi people are increasingly behind the good Iraqis who have stood up for their country and for their people.