Mother Jones: Do you think the strategy in Iraq is working better now?
Colonel H.R. McMaster: Well, one of the things to remember is that the nature of the conflict does not remain static. One of the fundamental conceptual flaws in our efforts so far, and really even more so, the popular understanding of the war, is that we thought linearly about it. We thought that we could sort of program out a future course of events based mainly on what we decided to do, forgetting the interaction with various enemies within Iraq and then also interaction with other destabilizing factors and other causes of instability and violence. So what has occurred is that over time, the nature of the conflict has changed. And most recently, in the last year, the conflict shifted from what had been predominantly an insurgency, or the problem of insurgency and counterinsurgency, to a communal struggle for power and survival. Of course, to address that civil conflict would take a different kind of approach to the problem. And then it wasn’t just, of course, the communal struggle, but it was also still an insurgency. It was still also an insurgency that had allied itself and established alliances in communities with transnational terrorist organizations affiliated with Al Qaeda. This is Al Qaeda in Iraq and there were external sources of instability, not only in the form of this transnational terrorist organization but also Iran’s efforts to destabilize Iraq through its sponsorship of extremist Shiite militias and the so-called special cells situated in the Mahdi Army and the role of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard corps generally. They keep the cycle of sectarian violence going to advance their agenda through not just military action or sponsorship of proxies in Iraq, but also infiltration of certain governmental organizations and security institutions. And political parties. All of this is happening in the context of a weak state that lacks the capacity to do what needs to be done to stabilize the situation.
MJ: So far it doesn’t sound like there’s a lot to work with.
HRM: There’s a lot to work with, but there are no easy solutions. There really is a lot to work with, because in Iraq, despite this cycle of sectarian violence that has sort of created the chaotic environment and the descent into chaos you witnessed late last year, the vast majority of Iraqis don’t want this kind of violence, obviously. They want to live normal lives. They want a better future for their children. This kind of ethnic and sectarian tension that leads to this kind of violence is not natural among Iraqis. This is something that has been deliberately incited by Al Qaeda in Iraq.
MJ: Yes, but how is the sectarian violence different from so many other civil-war-type conflicts we’ve seen in Bosnia and Lebanon and other places? The population, of course, doesn’t want it.
HRM: Right. That’s why it’s important to intervene in a way that allows you to establish peace to break that cycle of sectarian violence and to lift the pall of fear off those populations, to defeat this campaign of intimidation and coercion that allows these terrorists and militias and criminal gangs that have grafted themselves onto this problem. You have to be able to defeat that.
MJ: And you guys have had big success doing that in Anbar? Is that right?
HRM: Yes, it’s a huge success in Al Anbar province and there are also successes that were underreported, or maybe not fully understood, previous to that in Ninewa province, which is where our regiment operated and where the First Brigade of the 25th Infantry Division operated before us in Mosul. They really stopped this cycle of ethnic violence predominantly in Mosul between Kurds and Sunni Arabs and other sub-communities within that city of two-and-a-half million people. The success in Anbar has now spread to Baghdad, Babil, Diyala, and Salah ad Din provinces. Ours and Iraqi forces have been able to break that cycle of sectarian violence and create the conditions for sustainable stability in some of the most critical mixed-sectarian areas. This approach of emphasizing population security, breaking the cycle of sectarian violence, rekindling hope among the population, lifting the pall of fear off the people, and then actively engaging the various communities to bring about political accommodation is working at the local level. What’s key now is to sustain that effort at the local level and try to elevate those successes to the national level. Now, one of the things that is going for the Iraqis, and for us in that connection, is how tired they are of the violence. The number one cross-cutting issue is security. My personal experience in Ninewa province has been that at the most fundamental level people don’t really care if it’s a Shiite, a Sunni, a Kurd, or a Turkoman that’s providing them security, as long as that force treats them with respect.
MJ: Is that really true of the Sunni tribal sheikhs?
HRM: If you have a force that’s professional, that’s well led, that treats people with respect, that’s not advancing a narrow sectarian agenda in a way that’s destabilizing to the situation, people will accept that force after a period of learning about that force and meeting the people. It doesn’t happen easily, and it takes what we call an information campaign, a real effort to reintroduce the Iraqi population to their own security forces. When we first went to Iraq we thought, “Hey, there is a big part of this culture that has to do with mediation and we’re going to have to look for Iraqi mediators to really help us with the population.” What we have found is that we were the principle mediators in many cases between the Iraqis and their own security forces and their own government, and so you have to almost embrace that role. Now you don’t want to create dependency. A big part of this problem is not just the capability of Iraqi security forces but their legitimacy. One of the ways to do it is you recruit from the population. What we found is probably the best setup is a combination of indigenous forces, mainly in the police force, but also some outside forces too, that help insulate these security forces from some of the tribal pressures associated with criminality, for example, or a particular tribal agenda. So you don’t want a homogeneous force, but a force that is, at least to some degree, representative of the local population.
MJ: What signs do you see that Iraq is making progress poltically?
HRM: It will take time to develop the institutional capacity so the government can perform at the base level. This is one of the problems with the previous strategy. What I mentioned before was the evolution of the conflict to a conflict that involved communal struggle as well as insurgency. And then the other aspect of it was that our strategy was to rapidly transition to security forces that not only lacked the capacity but also the willingness to do what was necessary. Many of these security forces were infiltrated by malign sectarian organizations. On the government side, the strategy was to rapidly transition to this so-called “unity” government that lacked not only the intuitional capacity but also the willingness to do what was necessary because the way the ministries were divided up between certain organizations that were endeavoring to extend patronage networks and consolidate power, rather than operate effectively as a government ministry. The transitioning as an end in and of itself can’t really allow us to achieve an outcome in the country consistent with what I believe are Iraqi interests and certainly a situation that would be inconsistent with our national interests.
MJ: Does the U.S. have the capacity to continue its troop commitment at this level, or do troop levels have to come down a bit? If that’s the case, can the military continue to foster the kind of security successes on the local level that you’ve been describing?
HRM: I think it is certainly feasible and even likely that if we were able to sustain an effort, perhaps not at the same level we have now but at a slightly reduced level, that you could achieve the condition of really sustainable stability. That’s basically a level of security that permits a level of economic and political development to succeed and also sets the conditions for the kind of political accommodation that’s necessary between the various communities. Essentially, you recognize that many of these differences won’t be resolved for a generation, but you move that battleground from a military battleground to a political battleground through aggressive mediation and diplomacy, which is a big part of what we have to do in the region to help move these communities to political accommodation, to get the neighbors to play a more productive role. That includes the neighbors who have exhibited malign intentions there, Iran and Syria, but also our friends in the region. The important thing to remember is war does not progress linearly. The future course of events is going to be very difficult to predict with a high degree of precision.
MJ: What about the so-called Washington clock?
HRM: I think that the key element that has been missing is again that the nature of the conflict was evolving faster than we were adjusting to the evolved nature of that conflict. I think that was very much apparent to journalists, to politicians, to the American people generally, and to any keen observer of the conflict. It was clear to them that the strategy was no longer addressing effectively the fundamental causes of instability. I think now we are pursuing a strategy that does address those fundamental causes of instability. The question remains whether or not we’re going to be able to succeed, will the strategy prove adequate to this very complex and daunting and difficult task? I believe that certainly it does have a very strong chance of succeeding if we possess the will to see it through. And that’s the fundamental question, you know? It is a fundamental question.
MJ: Quantify the type of commitment we’d need to see this through? Ten years, tens of thousands of troops?
HRM: Well, I think the commitment is much more than military. The security aspect of the strategy has to be very closely connected to what we’re doing in many areas including development of Iraqi rule of law, local governance, movement towards political accommodation, and the diplomatic aspect of this problem. You can sustain an improved security situation with a reduced number of forces over time if you can make progress toward political accommodation, because that ameliorates one of the fundamental causes of violence and conflict. Once that is addressed effectively then you don’t need as many forces to conduct area security and counterinsurgency operations. So that’s just one variable. Another one is obviously the capability and legitimacy of Iraqi security forces, which also could shift dramatically over time.