THE LESSON OF TAL AFAR
Is it too late for the Administration to correct its course in Iraq?
by GEORGE PACKER
Issue of 2006-04-10
This is just an excerpt of an excellent article. I would seggest reading it in it's original at the link above.
THE “I” WORD
Colonel H. R. McMaster, the commander o the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, is forty-three years old, a small man, thick in th middle, with black eyebrows that are the onl signs of hair on a pale, shaved head. Hi features are deeply furrowed across the bro and along the nose, as if his head had bee shaped from modelling clay; but when he grin mischief creases his face, and it’s easy t imagine him as an undaunted ten-year-old marching around and giving orders in his ow private war. The first time I saw him, he had football in his hands and was throwing har spirals to a few other soldiers next to hi plywood headquarters, on a muddy airfield few miles south of Tal Afar
McMaster and the 3rd A.C.R. had been stationed in Tal Afar for nine months. When they arrived, in the spring of 2005, the city was largely in the hands of hard-core Iraqi and foreign jihadis, who, together with members of the local Sunni population, had destabilized the city with a campaign of intimidation, including beheadings aimed largely at Tal Afar’s Shiite minority. By October, after months of often fierce fighting and painstaking negotiations with local leaders, McMaster’s regiment, working alongside Iraqi Army battalions, had established bases around the city and greatly reduced the violence. When I met McMaster, his unit was about to return home; the men were to be replaced by a brigade of the 1st Armored Division that had no experience in Tal Afar, and no one knew if the city would remain secure. (Within weeks, there were reports that sectarian killings were on the rise.)
The lessons that McMaster and his soldiers applied in Tal Afar were learned during the first two years of an increasingly unpopular war. “When we came to Iraq, we didn’t understand the complexity—what it meant for a society to live under a brutal dictatorship, with ethnic and sectarian divisions,” he said, in his hoarse, energetic voice. “When we first got here, we made a lot of mistakes. We were like a blind man, trying to do the right thing but breaking a lot of things.” Later, he said, “You gotta come in with your ears open. You can’t come in and start talking. You have to really listen to people.”
McMaster is a West Point graduate who earned a Silver Star for battlefield prowess during the 1991 Gulf War: his armored cavalry troop stumbled across an Iraqi mechanized brigade in the middle of a sandstorm and destroyed it. That war was a textbook case of what the military calls “kinetic operations,” or major combat in relatively uncomplicated circumstances; the field of battle was almost easier, some Gulf War veterans say, than the live-fire exercises at the National Training Center, in Fort Irwin, California. After the war, McMaster earned a doctorate in history from the University of North Carolina. His dissertation, based on research in newly declassified archives, was published in 1997, with the title “Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam.” The book assembled a damning case against senior military leaders for failing to speak their minds when, in the early years of the war, they disagreed with Pentagon policies. The Joint Chiefs of Staff, knowing that Johnson and McNamara wanted uncritical support rather than honest advice, and eager to protect their careers, went along with official lies and a split-the-difference strategy of gradual escalation that none of them thought could work. “Dereliction of Duty” won McMaster wide praise, and its candor inspired an ardent following among post-Vietnam officers.