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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)

One of the keys to winning a counterinsurgency is to treat prisoners well. The 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment polled all detainees on how they were treated and interviewed some about their political views.

"The best way to find out about your own detainee facility is to ask the 'customer,' " said Maj. Jay Gallivan, the regiment's operations officer. Some Iraqis told the Americans why they were angry with the U.S. military presence. None of the soldiers from the unit have been charged with abuse during the regiment's current tour in Iraq, McMaster said.

In late summer, McMaster started receiving greater cooperation from Sunni leaders who had been sympathetic to the insurgency. One reason, according to U.S. military intelligence analysts, was that some insurgents were unhappy with foreign allies who seemed determined to start a civil war.

Another was that McMaster was willing to admit that U.S. forces have made mistakes in Iraq. "We understand why you fight," McMaster recalled telling Sunni Arab leaders with ties to the insurgency.

"When the Americans first came, we were in a dark room, stumbling around, breaking china," he said. "But now Iraqi leaders are turning on the lights." The concession helped break down barriers of communication, he said, and made Iraqis willing to listen to his belief that the time for resistance had ended.

With the insurgency's support infrastructure weakened in outlying areas, McMaster moved on the city. But even then he didn't attack it. First, following the suggestion of his Iraqi allies, he ringed the city with dirt berm nine feet high and 12 miles long, leaving checkpoints from which all movement could be observed. This was a nod to the counterinsurgency principle of being able to control and follow the movement of the population.

Building on that idea, U.S. military intelligence had traced the kinship lines of different tribes, enabling the unit to track fighters traveling to likely destinations just outside the city. About 120 fighters were then rounded up from among those fleeing the impending attack.

Next, McMaster and his subordinates recalled, civilians were pressured to leave the city for a camp prepared for them just to the south. Some more insurgents were caught trying to sneak out with them.

In September, after four months of preparatory moves, McMaster launched the attack. By that point, there were remarkably few insurgents left in the city. Many had fled or been caught. They seem to have expected a swift U.S. raid that they would counter with scores of roadside bombs. Instead, U.S. forces and their Iraqi allies moved slowly, clearing each block of the city and calling in artillery strikes as they spotted enemy fighters or explosives.

McMaster had a clear plan in hand for his next step. He also knew how he wanted to measure his success: Would Iraqis -- especially Sunni Arabs -- be willing to join the local police force? Would they "participate in their own security," as he put it?

The first step in this phase was to establish 29 patrol bases across the city. That, along with steady patrolling, gave the American military and its Iraqi allies a view of every major stretch of road in the compact city, which measures about three square miles. And that amount of observation made it extremely difficult for insurgents to plant bombs.

"It gives us great agility," said Lt. Col. Chris Hickey, a 1982 graduate of Chantilly High School in Virginia, who commands the U.S. troop contingent in the city. Hickey said that he can order an attack to come from two or three of the patrol bases instead of predictably rolling out the front gate of his base.

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