The Lessons of Counterinsurgency
U.S. Unit Praised for Tactics Against Iraqi Fighters, Treatment of Detainees

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.

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.

Hickey also has spent months living in the city, perched in the Ottoman-era ramparts that dominate it. He slept at the base only rarely. From his position downtown, he said, "I hear every gunshot in the city." His conclusion: "Living among the people works, if you treat them with respect." When the electricity goes out for Iraqis, he noted, it does for him too, even though he has a generator for military communications.

Hickey also moved a U.S. firing range out of earshot of the city. "I like quiet," he said.

Ultimately, 1,400 police officers were recruited, about 60 percent of whom were Sunni Arabs, many of them from elsewhere in Iraq. In addition, the city has about 2,000 Iraqi troops, and a working city council and an activist mayor. A few feet from where the city council meets is a new Joint Operations Center, set up to collect intelligence tips and act on them. The Army officer running the center, Lt. Saythala Phonexayphoua, said he has been surprised by the amount of "actionable intelligence" troops receive.

Phonexayphoua noted: "We get cell phone calls -- 'There's an insurgent planting an IED.' "

Last summer, there were about six insurgent attacks in the area each day. Now there is about one, according to U.S. military intelligence.

Even now, McMaster said, he understands that his success is "fragile." The city's mayor, Najim Abdullah Jabouri, is unhappy that McMaster and his unit are leaving Iraq this month. "A surgeon doesn't leave in the middle of the operation!" the mayor said intently to McMaster over a recent lunch of lamb kabobs and bread. He waved his finger under the colonel's nose. "The doctor should finish the job he started."

McMaster and Hickey tried to calm him down. "There's another doctor coming," Hickey ventured. "He's very good."

The mayor wasn't mollified. He said he has seen other American units here before, and they didn't coordinate with Iraqi forces like McMaster's has. "When you leave, I will leave, too," the mayor threatened. "What you are doing is an experiment, and it isn't right to experiment on people."

Nor is it clear that McMaster's example can be followed elsewhere by American commanders in the country. The biggest problem U.S. troops in Iraq face is Baghdad, a city about 30 times the size of Tall Afar. With the current number of American troops in Iraq, it would be impossible to copy the approach used here, with outposts every few blocks.

"Baghdad is a much tougher nut to crack than this," said Maj. Jack McLaughlin, Hickey's plans officer, who attended Robinson Secondary School in Fairfax, Va. Standing in the castle overlooking the city, he said, "It's a matter of scale -- you'd need a huge number of troops to replicate what we've done here."

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