Learning is Winning
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.)
He also quietly relieved one battalion commander who didn't seem to understandthat such changes were necessary.
The lingering problem:
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."
This reminds me of one of my favorite military books, The Battle for Hunger Hill. If you can learn and adapt, you can win.