Transcript: Major Gen. H.R. McMaster on the geopolitical lessons of the Iraq War

Partial transcript of Q&A with Major Gen. H.R. McMaster, Commanding General at the U.S. Army Maneuver Center of Excellence, on the geopolitical lessons of the Iraq War at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on March 21, 2013:

Major Gen. H.R. McMaster, Commanding General at the U.S. Army Maneuver Center of Excellence:
Well, thank you so much. Of course, there’s so many lessons and our, you know, our military has obviously, over the past 12 years of the wars in both Afghanistan and in Iraq, adapted to what initially were really unforeseen circumstances and difficulties associated with both wars.

And I think the first lesson is that we have to make sure that we understand the continuities in war and warfare. And this cuts against, to a certain degree, what you see as the emerging conventional wisdom about both Afghanistan and in Iraq, that somehow these wars were aberrations because of their complexity, and they were aberrations because of the type of sustained commitment we needed to attempt to forge a sustainable political outcome consistent with our vital interests.

And this is because, in the years prior to the war, there was a great deal of momentum that built up behind what I would call a fantastical theory about the nature of future armed conflict. And this was based primarily in the belief that advances in communications technologies, information technologies, computing power and precision munitions had completely revolutionized war and warfare; and therefore, wars could be waged in the future in a way that would be very fast, cheap, efficient and low cost, mainly by the projection of firepower onto land, from the maritime and aerospace domains, but also employing small numbers of elite special forces, and that would provide the answer to the problem of future armed conflict.

And it was an appealing argument, because we would all like war obviously to be fast, cheap, efficient and low cost.

But of course, as it turns out, in both Afghanistan and in Iraq, we were confronted with realities that really demonstrated that this argument in the 1990s, associated with what was called, at the time, the revolution in military affairs, you know, was mainly a faith-based argument.

And then once we confronted reality, you know, we really had to adapt quickly to, I think, what are four main continuities in war and warfare that were certainly evident in Iraq. And the first is that war is an extension of politics. Of course, this is nothing new and quite consistent with the writings of the 19th century Prussian philosopher Carl von Clausewitz.

And what this means is you wage war to achieve political outcomes that address the cause of the war and get you to, again, this sustainable political outcome consistent with our vital interests.

We perhaps did not do as good of a job of defining that end state as we should have in context of the political, social, tribal, religious dynamics inside of Iraq, and then how that fit into the broader geopolitical landscape within the region. And so we were at a disadvantage in not really having that clearly defined political objective.

And when you look back at war planning for both Afghanistan and Iraq, you see it dominated mainly by how we’re going to apply military force. What are the numbers of troops, how are those troops and those capabilities going to be applied on the physical battleground?

But of course, that should all conform to a political strategy that lays a foundation for all military operations, activities, initiatives and so forth. So the first continuity that we relearned, I would say, is that war is an extension of politics.

The second key continuity is that war is a profoundly human endeavor. And of course, we talked this morning really about understanding the history. In fact, Ambassador Crocker said history, history, history. And of course, what is most important in understanding what is going to be the nature of a particular conflict or the character of a conflict is that most recent history.

And so in Iraq, the factors that were most important were the fact that Iraqis had been living under a brutal, murderous regime for over three decades, a regime that had engaged in a destructive and extremely costly war between 1980 and 1988 with the Iranians, a regime that had invaded Kuwait after which U.N. sanctions really put an additional strain on Iraqi society, while at the same time strengthening the criminalized patronage networks associated with Saddam that really controlled the country and the police state there.

The associated polarizing effect on Iraq’s communities, how they had become pitted against each other, how the regime had used weapons of mass destruction on his own people, the Kurds in the north, and how he had persecuted the majority of the population, the Shi’a population, in the wake of the 1991, ’92 Gulf War.

And so – and also other factors associated with his return to the faith initiatives and the use of really a Salafi-jihadist ideology to really turn people’s frustrations away from the regime and toward the West and Israel and so forth, in the context of this Zionist crusader conspiracy, and the effect that had on Iraqi society.

So understanding that human dimension of conflict and, in particular, understanding local conflicts that could occur, how these tribal ethnic-sectarian competitions for power and resources would play out, and then how they would be connected, not just to national politics, but also to the agendas of other countries and organizations. And I think of particular relevance in this case would be Syria, Iran and transnational terrorist organizations associated with al-Qaida.

So the political and human dimensions of war, I think, are obviously extremely important for us to remember and an important lesson for us to carry forward.

The other key aspect, I think, is that war is uncertain. And we heard a lot about today failures to predict the cost of the war, for example. And that’s not – that really is not unusual obviously for us not to be able to predict the future, the course of events in war, although we continue to try to do it.

And in fact, I think you could, you know, you could define American war planning oftentimes as a bit narcissistic in terms of defining the problem and what we like to tend to do only in relation to us really, and then to assume what we would like to do is not only going to be relevant, but decisive to the outcome of the war.

And so it’s for this reason when you go to war it’s very important to be able to take actions, to adapt continuously, it’s for this reason why oftentimes if you try to be efficient in war by limiting numbers of troops, for example, in effect, you could seize the initiative to enemies in Iraq, for example, as in what was initially a decentralized, hybrid, localized insurgency coalesced, we did not have sufficient forces, and forces frankly were not well prepared for a counterinsurgency or security mission to establish security conditions and to address the vacuum of power and rule of law that was left after the unseating of the Hussein regime.

And then I think the final of these four main continuities in the nature of war is that war is a contest of wills and that we have to communicate our determination to see the effort through toward that sustainable outcome consistent with our interests and worthy of the sacrifices and the investments we’ve made in the outcome of that war.

And so overall, I think it would be fair to say that we are oftentimes fixated when looking back on a conflict on how we did on the physical battleground, how we really operated against the fielded forces of enemy organizations when in fact what we have to do is think about how we operate and how we plan to achieve a sustainable political outcome consistent with our interests.

And so I think this is a particularly important lesson now, because as we look at the war in Iraq, the ongoing war in Afghanistan where we still have 66,000 troops engaged every day, there will be a tendency to, again, define the problem of future war in a way that we think we can solve that problem in a way that’s fast, cheap and efficient and relies mainly on technological prowess.

And I think that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are both instructive in terms of their way that they have highlighted important continuities in war and warfare that have to be taken into consideration from the outset.

Jessica Mathews, President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace:
Can I – and I mean this with respect – will we ever learn those lessons? I mean, you know, certainly in the thinking about Iran, less so, I think, with respect to Syria, as I listen to you, I thought we might well have learned a lot of those lessons in Vietnam, the conflict you studied so deeply; it’s not so obvious that we’ve – that much has changed in terms of the learning. Has it?

Major Gen. H.R. McMaster, Commanding General at the U.S. Army Maneuver Center of Excellence:
Well, I mean, that’s yet to be seen. And I think, ultimately, you can make the argument that what we learned from the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan will be as important as the outcome – could be as important as the outcome of those wars.

To answer your question, we do relearn these lessons every time we go to war. The question is, will we be able to understand these lessons and apply them to really how we structure our national defense – for national defense and how we prepare, you know, our leaders, civilian and military leaders, to deal with future threats to national, international security. So I think that remains to be seen.

But I think what may be – there are some major impediments to us learning these lessons. One of those impediments is the tendency in the conventional wisdom to view these wars dismissively as, you know, wars of choice or aberrations Unless you’re going to say that future policymakers will make perfect decisions in the future based on near-perfect foresight or understanding of the situation at the outset, then we obviously have to be prepared for the complex interaction that we found in both Iraq and Afghanistan against determined enemies and in very complicated environments.

The other impediment to learning is just really defining war as fast, cheap and easy is appealing. And one of those manifestations of this appeal is this sort of what I would call a rating mentality that has emerged from a misunderstanding of what led to really success in Iraq during the period 2007 to 2009, during which I think we had a very good shot at consolidating gains after that period of time and getting to a sustainable political outcome that was consistent with our interests and, I believe, with the interests of the Iraqi people.This is the idea that really future war mainly is about identifying sort of nodes in an enemy’s organization and then conducting raids against that organization, an attrition or targeting approach to war, those raids being conducted either by precision-guided munitions or by highly specialized Special Forces when in fact, that sort of approach confuses military activity with progress, again, toward trying to achieve sustainable objectives.

And so it’s appealing, it sounds great, but when you consider the four continuities of war, war’s political dimension, human dimension, the uncertainty of war and war as a contest of wills, then you recognize, you know, the inadequacy and actually the danger associated with that kind of approach to future war.

It is, in many ways, strategic (bottom ?) theory from the 1920s in a new guise.

Jessica Mathews, President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace:
Do you see, General, Zbig’s distinction between wars undertaken following an attack versus ones that we choose to launch as being equivalent to your distinction between a war of choice – you didn’t use the word – but a war of necessity? Is that the same dividing line you see?

Major Gen. H.R. McMaster, Commanding General at the U.S. Army Maneuver Center of Excellence:
Well, I think that really we could debate for quite a long time about the decisions to go to war. But I think what is important from a military perspective is to understand really what happens when that decision is made and how the military can contribute, again, to achieving an outcome consistent with our vital interests and worthy of those sacrifices.

So I think to answer your question more directly is that we have to understand the character of particular conflicts on their own terms, to try to seek some kind of equivalency between World War II and the dropping of atomic bombs, and what our response was to the murder of over 3,000 Americans on September 11th, 2001. I think you can only get limited utility out of that.

Talking about Iraq, I think we also have to understand that those conflicts evolve over time. Again, war’s inherent uncertainty and non-linearity. And it seems that in retrospect as we look at the war in Iraq, we don’t ascribe any agency at all to our enemies. And again, this is another sort of aspect of the narcissistic approach we take to understanding war and warfare. It is as if only our decisions affect the circumstances and the outcomes.

And what the truth is really, in Iraq, is that we faced very brutal, determined, murderous enemies. And what the – and the conflict evolved over time.

After really unseating of the Saddam regime, there was a period of time during which a decentralized, hybrid, local insurgency coalesced. They pursued a strategy initially, just kill some Americans and they’ll leave, sort of the “Blackhawk Down” approach. And Saddam had distributed that movie to his people, and they thought if they inflicted some casualties on us, we would leave. That didn’t work.

Then what they began to do is to attack infrastructure, power lines, water pipes. This is Lenin’s, you know, sort of theory of the worse, the better. Grow pools of popular discontent from which the enemy, the insurgency can draw strength.

But then in December of 2003, very early in the war, Zarqawi wrote a letter. And he said, we are losing because Americans over here, they’re kind of disoriented, they don’t speak the language, they won’t be able to really identify us, but increasingly larger numbers of Iraqi forces are becoming more capable. And this was in particular the Iraqi civil defense corps.

The strategy around that time had shifted to attacking, usually with mass murder attacks at recruiting depots and so forth, these nascent security forces before they developed the resiliency to stand on their own.

But in December, what Zarqawi said is, what we have to do is start a civil war, and then once we start a civil war by pitting Iraq’s communities against each other, we can gain sponsorship within the Sunni, Arab and Turkmen communities and then use that sponsorship to gain control of territory and resources and perpetuate a sectarian civil war and pursue our objective of establishing the Islamic state of Iraq.

That’s when you have in March of 2004 Fallujah won concurrent with some Shi’a militia uprisings in Karbala and Najaf. And from that period of time on, there’s a slowly evolving sectarian conflict. So you had a problem of insurgency and transnational terrorist organizations grafted onto that insurgency, and then the character of the conflict at that time began to evolve into a sectarian civil war that really was in full blast after the Samarra bombings, but preexisted the Samarra bombings in February of 2006.

Now, the other parties to this conflict were not just, you know, not just, you know, insurgencies, insurgent and terrorist organizations that were committing mass murder attacks and trying to keep a cycle of sectarian violence going. Increasingly, these were Shi’a Islamist militias associated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps of Iran, increasingly so beyond 2003. After the Sadrist uprising in early 2004 and the destruction of large numbers of that Sadrist militia, they took a different approach, began to get more training in Iran, get more training on how to conduct assassinations, how to conduct a subversive campaign, how to operate in smaller groups, how to emphasize sniper attacks, small direction-action attacks, and especially employ IEDs and roadside bombs, and the most destructive ones being EFPs.

So by the time – by 2006, the dominant feature of the war had become a sectarian civil war. Our strategy had not kept up with that. What we caught up with, an understanding of the character of the conflict, we were able to develop a political strategy aimed at bringing Iraq’s internal communities toward a sustainable political accommodation that would remove support for either Shi’a Islamist militias or for al-Qaida in Iraq, the military strategy aimed at breaking the cycle of sectarian violence through more effective security of the population and by targeting those who were irreconcilable among both parties to that civil war, I mean, the extremist, murderous groups that were perpetuating that cycle of sectarian violence, with the idea being that as we destroyed elements of those organizations, others would learn vicariously and say, my best alternative to a negotiated agreement here is looking pretty bad and so what we’re willing to do now is to advance our interests through politics rather than through violence.

And this when we had a much more, you know, successful election, the parliamentarian elections and so forth.

There was an opportunity, I believe, at that stage to consolidate some gains and to move toward a sustainable political outcome. And we know that some of those efforts failed or weren’t sufficient to consolidate those gains. And so the future of Iraq is obviously very much in question beyond this point.

But I think it’s very important to understand that these conflicts evolved over time. And we’re fighting enemies there who have a say in the future course of events, and we need to talk more about those enemies, what are they trying to achieve, what are their goals, what are their strategies, because then we could inform the public about what the stakes are.

But instead we talk about only us, and we talk about only our number of troops and what we did, and as if everything that we did led to the outcome without any interaction with those against whom we’re fighting.

Jessica Mathews, President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace:
And we saw that I think in 2002. Let me turn back to you.

Major Gen. H.R. McMaster, Commanding General at the U.S. Army Maneuver Center of Excellence:
Well, I think just to – I’ll just address one of the questions which was about more responsibility and just to tie into what Dr. Brzezinski said, I think it does have a lot to do with historical antecedents and what evolved inside of Iraqi society, really from the 1970s onward, especially against the destructive war with Iran from ’80 to – 1980 to 1988, the decision to invade Kuwait and then the U.N. sanctions that followed that and the effect that that had on Iraqi society, which made it all the more difficult for that society and that polity to move toward stability in the wake of unseating of the Hussein regime in 2003.

And then, you know, from my perspective, I would blame al-Qaida in Iraq and the murderous bastards, frankly, who used mass murder as their principal tactic in the war. And this is where I think you have to pay attention to local realities.

And I would ask Dr. Brzezinski to, you know, to go visit the cities in Iraq that were rocked by these – by these murderous attacks and ask them who they blame. And what they will tell you is they blame the people who committed those murders, and that’s who they should blame, I think.
In 2005 when we went into Tal Afar, it was a city that life had been choked out of it because of really systematic attack, a very sophisticated attack by al-Qaida in Iraq and their associated groups. They turned that city into their training base.

I command Fort Benning, Georgia now, which is our maneuver center. This was the Fort Benning, Georgia of the insurgency. It’s where they conducted sniper training, mortar training, medical training.

These aren’t just insurgencies that kind of happen because people don’t like America. These are organizations that mobilize resources and people. This is an enemy organization. Courses offered there in Tal Afar included kidnapping and murder, obviously, and the courses you would imagine in terms of IED courses and so forth. And they literally choked the life out the city. Schools had been closed for over a year. Marketplaces had been closed. Communities had fallen in on themselves, because they had succeeded in pitting the Sunni and the Shi’a communities against each other. And I think that this is the tactic that gives, I think, us a window to understanding other conflicts in the – you know, really across multiple regions.

The first lesson, I think, is understand every local contact – conflict on its own terms, understand its connection to larger political struggles and conflicts at the national level and regional level.

But one general observation you can make, whether it’s in Mali or whether it’s in northern Nigeria or whether it’s in Syria or, I think, in Lebanon or northern Yemen or southern Thailand or, you know, pick – or Pakistan in the FATA, so forth, is that these groups are pursuing political agendas by the use of terrorist tactics, and those tactics involve trying to gain sponsorship among certain aggrieved portions of the population and to use that sponsorship to gain a foothold and then to use that foothold to perpetuate violence between groups, pitting groups against each other.

So what was necessary in Tal Afar was to set the security conditions to bring people back together, to forge an accommodation between parties who had been fighting against each other and to – for the good people who had – to develop a common vision for the future in which they could believe their interests would be advanced and protected, and then to remove sponsorship for these murderers who were inflicting so much pain and suffering on that – on those communities. And so my experience has been, in both Iraq and in Afghanistan, that American soldiers, Marines, airmen, sailors took great risks and made tremendous sacrifices to break the cycle, these cycles of violence and provide security so that those accommodations can be made.

I think it is analogous to what’s happening in Afghanistan, where you essentially have an intra-Pashtun civil war going on, a civil war that was perpetuated in part by a perception that there had been the establishment of exclusionary political economies that left key elements of the population outside the tent. Those became recruiting grounds for the Taliban groups, various Taliban groups, Haqqani network, Hizb-i-Islami Gulbuddin and Quetta Shura Taliban.

As people saw that providing sponsorships to these groups means a return to the same sort of Taliban brutal rule that they experienced after the 1992 to ’96 civil war, and as soon as they saw that they were going to be victims of that kind of oppression again, and then when they saw there was an alternative and we could move toward a more inclusive political settlement at the local level, then that broke that sponsorship for those Taliban groups and we’ve been able to consolidate gains, at least temporarily, in southern Afghanistan and in eastern Afghanistan.

The same, I think, was true in the period after the very destructive fitna and civil war, very costly fitna and civil war from 2006 to 2008. Iraqis came together, began to forge these sorts of accommodations at the local level and what we hope to see is more of those accommodations at the national level. And we talked, obviously, in the first panel more about why that hasn’t occurred.

Commanding General at the U.S. Army Maneuver Center of Excellence:
OK, I’d like to just go back to the question about air-sea battle quickly.Air-sea battle is a really – an operational approach designed by mainly the Air Force and the Navy, but with participation of the other services as well, to defeat what is seen as emerging enemy anti- access capabilities.

I think it’s – I mean, I’m a huge fan of it because, obviously, you know, as a soldier you can’t get anywhere unless you travel through the air or by sea, right, to contingency operations overseas, certainly.

But of course, the question is really – it is not an answer and I think that – I don’t think anybody, you know, I would say in their right minds would say it’s a solution to the problem of future war. It’s just a way to be able to get to – use joint forces in a position to do what they need to do given the situation.

And so the question is, when everybody poses something like this as an operational capability, how does it get to a strategy? Well, it would have to do, I think, with those four continuities of war that we were discussing at the beginning.

On the question of Syria, I can’t really comment on that because, first, I’m not an expert at all, by any means. I’m not an expert on Iraq either, but I think the main thing for us to consider, looking back at Iraq as a lesson that may be applicable more broadly, is that we have to understand really all the battlegrounds that are contested between us and our enemies.
And again, you know, we can’t – we can’t just assume that what we decide to do either is going to be sufficient for us to achieve our objectives or explains everything that’s wrong in a particular area.

What the U.S. is – it seems like we are ready to affix blame for everything, to ourselves as well, which I reject having encountered enemies who do use mass murder as their principal tactic, and I think any sort of comments that go toward the equivalency of what our forces do and what forces do who take a 13-year-old girl and strap her with explosives and have her hold the hand of a 3-year-old mentally disabled girl, walk them into a crowd and remotely detonate them, you know, I just don’t accept that kind of equivalency argument.

And so I think – I think we have to recognize where we’re contested on the physical battleground, but also on the psychological battleground, because this is a battleground where our enemies use fear and intimidation to advance their objectives.

We also have to be concerned about a battleground of perception, where our motives are portrayed as being, you know, imperialist or associated with some sort of, you know, Zionist crusade or a conspiracy and so forth. So we have to become more effective at clarifying our intentions, countering the enemy’s disinformation, exposing their brutality and bolstering the legitimacy of those who are really genuine partners who’s interests are congruent with ours.

And then there’s the battleground within governmental institutions that oftentimes we don’t really recognize. And this really would have to do with Iraq in the case of the infiltration and subversion of state institutions by Islamist groups, mainly Shi’a Islamist groups and those connected to the Iranians in particular. And this made it particularly difficult to strengthen the Iraq state, and especially to move toward, you know, toward rule of law and effective governance.

And oftentimes, we don’t even see that subversive campaign. This is nothing new. You know, Sir Robert Thompson wrote many decades ago that there are five keys to effective counterinsurgency operations. One of those is to defeat enemy political subversion.

What happened in Iraq during the period of time when the civil war, the fitna, was particularly destructive is that surrogates of Iran were using state institutions to mobilize resources in what became, you know, a sectarian cleansing campaign in certain portions of the country, and that perpetuated the violence.

The approach that the RGC and her proxies have taken in Iraq is to try to make the Iraqi government dependent on them for support, but at the same time to support the development of militias that lie outside of government control that can be turned against the government if the government takes action against Iranian interests.

So I think if you look at Syria, the key things to keep into consideration are what are the multiple battlegrounds, and then be able to understand what we would define as enemy or adversary activity on those battlegrounds, and that could be a step toward understanding what can be done to support really the – an outcome there that will stop this humanitarian catastrophe of colossal scale, but do so in a way that’s consistent with our interests and what I believe is the interests of all civilized people.


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One Comment on “Transcript: Major Gen. H.R. McMaster on the geopolitical lessons of the Iraq War

  1. Pingback: Transcript: Q&A with Ambassador Ryan Crocker on the state of Iraq 10 years after the U.S. invasion | What The Folly?!

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