The Lessons of Counterinsurgency

McMaster, left, told his unit that treating Iraqis disrespectfully would only help the enemy.
McMaster, left, told his unit that treating Iraqis disrespectfully would only help the enemy. (Photos By Thomas E. Ricks -- The Washington Post)

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By Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 16, 2006

TALL AFAR, Iraq -- The last time the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment served in Iraq, in 2003-04, its performance was judged mediocre, with a series of abuse cases growing out of its tour of duty in Anbar province.

But its second tour in Iraq has been very different, according to specialists in the difficult art of conducting a counterinsurgency campaign -- fighting a guerrilla war but also trying to win over the population and elements of the enemy. Such campaigns are distinct from the kind of war most U.S. commanders have spent decades preparing to fight.

In the last nine months, the regiment has focused on breaking the insurgents' hold on Tall Afar, a town of 290,000. Their operations here "will serve as a case study in classic counterinsurgency, the way it is supposed to be done," said Terry Daly, a retired intelligence officer specializing in the subject.

U.S. military experts conducting an internal review of the three dozen major U.S. brigades, battalions and similar units operating in Iraq in 2005 privately concluded that of all those units, the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment performed the best at counterinsurgency, according to a source familiar with the review's findings.

The regiment's campaign began in Colorado in June 2004, when Col. H. R. McMaster took command and began to train the unit to return to Iraq. As he described it, his approach was like that of a football coach who knows he has a group of able and dedicated athletes, but needs to retrain them to play soccer.

Understanding that the key to counterinsurgency is focusing on the people, not the enemy, he said he changed the standing orders of the regiment to state that in the future all soldiers would "treat detainees professionally." During the unit's previous tour, a detainee was beaten to death during questioning and a unit commander carried a baseball bat that he called his "Iraqi beater."

"Every time you treat an Iraqi disrespectfully, you are working for the enemy," McMaster said he told every soldier in his command. He ordered his soldiers to stop using the term hajji as a slang term for all Iraqis, because he saw it as inaccurate and disrespectful. (It actually means someone who has made the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca.)

One out of every 10 soldiers received a three-week course in conversational Arabic, so that each small unit would have someone capable of basic exchanges with Iraqis. McMaster, who holds a PhD in history from the University of North Carolina and is an expert on the Vietnam War, distributed a lengthy reading list to his officers that included studies of Arab and Iraqi history and most of the classic texts on counterinsurgency. He also quietly relieved one battalion commander who didn't seem to understand that such changes were necessary.

When the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment moved into northwest Iraq last May, it faced a mess. Just as Fallujah had become a major staging point for attacks into Baghdad, Tall Afar was being used as a base to send suicide bombers and other attackers 40 miles east into Mosul, the largest city in northern Iraq.

Instead of staging a major raid into the city for suspects and then moving back to operating bases, McMaster said he took a sharply different tack, spending months making preparatory moves before attacking the entrenched insurgents in Tall Afar. That indirect approach demonstrated tactical patience, a key to effectively battling an insurgency and a skill that doesn't come easily to the U.S. military.

McMaster had his unit bolster the security operation along the Syrian border, in an effort to cut off support and reinforcements coming into Iraq. He also sought to eliminate havens in the desert, beginning in June with a move against the remote desert town of Biaj, which had become a way station and training and outfitting post for fighters infiltrating from Syria. As he made the move, he brought Iraqi troops with him.

Immediately after taking Biaj, Iraqi forces set up a small patrol base there for U.S. troops. "This was the first 'clear and hold,' " McMaster recalled in an interview in his plywood office just southwest of Tall Afar. State Department officials heard about this move and briefed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. A month later, she mentioned it in her congressional testimony.


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