Everything you need to know: H.R McMaster, Iraq and war


H.R. McMaster has been chosen by US President Donald Trump as the new National Security Advisor. Here is what you need to know about him from interviews he has given and other sources.


Born in Pennsylvania in 1962, he was a graduate of West Point and is a scholar of war and strategy. Holding a PhD in history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill he wrote his thesis on the US role in Vietnam which became a book in 1997 called Dereliction of Duty. This is a big deal because it not only shows deep thought on strategy and the relations between the military and political echelon and goal-setting, but it also shows a willingness to write about a controversial subject and challenge superiors.

In the Gulf War he played a key role in armored command at the battle of 73 Easting, a major tank battle and one of the few major engagements of the war. He was involved in planning the 2003 Iraq war and in 2004 took command of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment. In Tal Afar his leadership helped reduce the Iraqi insurgency. He was lauded in the press as the “architect of the future U.S. Army” and hailed as a “warrior-thinker.” But he was passed over for brigadier general twice in a row, which should have been a career-ender. Yet his star has risen since and now he is close to the pinnacle of achievement.

In the book Why we lost McMaster was praised for his role in Tal Afar, but the author also noted that he was good at “engaging and winning over journalists.” The book told the known tale that in Tal Afar where 10% of attacks had taken place throughout Iraq in part of 2005, that he had helped reduce the insurgency through patrols and staying in the urban environment with the Iraqis.

In 2008 he spoke about counter-insurgency with Charlie Rose.


He hasn’t stopped thinking. In a 2013 profile by Thomas Ricks at Foreign Policy, he was quoted as critiquing COIN, the famed counter-insurgency strategy of David Patreaus. “The counterinsurgency manual, the stability operations manual, and the security-force assistance manual, but I don’t think we have put the politics at the center of those manuals. So, for example, we assume in our doctrine that the challenges associated with developing indigenous security forces are mainly about building capacity, when, in fact, they’re about trying to develop institutions that can survive and that will operate in a way that is at least congruent with our interests.”

What he’s really saying here is that you can have lots of manuals and terms and all sorts of mumbo-jumbo about “capacity,” but if it doesn’t put down roots, it will wither on the vine. The Iraqi army did wither on the vine in 2014 when ISIS overran its divisions and it basically ceased to exist as a real fighting force.  The same year Breaking Defense noted “he takes that mission [Army Capabilities Integration Center] at a time when both the Army’s budget and its case for strategic relevance are coming under intense assault. If there was ever a time the Army needed a bare-knuckle intellectual like McMaster in the job, the time is now.”

Is America “outgunned”?

In 2016 McMaster went further and said the US army risked being outmanned and “outgunned” in the future. He was speaking to the told the Air-Land subcommittee of Senate Armed Services committee and warned that rivals in Russia and China could outpace the US.

He warned in 2016, and was quoted in Politico: “It is clear that while our Army was engaged in Afghanistan and Iraq, Russia studied U.S. capabilities and vulnerabilities and embarked on an ambitious and largely successful modernization effort,” McMaster told the Senate Armed Services Committee last week. “In Ukraine, for example, the combination of unmanned aerial systems and offensive cyber and advanced electronic warfare capabilities depict a high degree of technological sophistication.”

Attrition doesn’t work

McMaster has been the subject of three extensive interviews and profiles. In a major 2006 George Packer at The New Yorker in 2006 looked at the “lessons” of Tal Afar. “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,” McMaster said. “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…You gotta come in with your ears open. You can’t come in and start talking. You have to really listen to people.” McMaster stuck by his Vietnam narrative, noting that for counterinsurgency to work it must be mostly political and have a strategy. Just killing the enemy and attrition doesn’t work. He focused on training for realistic scenarios dealing with civilians.

Tal Afar

The profile in the New Yorker notes: “McMaster ordered his soldiers never to swear in front of Iraqis or call them ‘hajjis’ in a derogatory way (this war’s version of ‘gook’). Some were selected to take three-week courses in Arabic language and culture; hundreds of copies of The Modern History of Iraq, by Phebe Marr, were shipped to Fort Carson.” The men also got copies of Seven Pillars of Wisdom and Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife. In Tal Afar he saw “Shiite death squads” and noted “The Shia and Sunni communities fell in on themselves…They became armed camps in direct military competition with one another.” Like so many Americans, he tried to out-Islam the sectarians, “We tried to switch the argument from Sunni versus Shia, which was what the terrorists were trying to make the argument, to Iraqi versus takfirin,” said one of those who worked with McMaster. The New Yorker profile is interesting for the absence of Kurds, which is the author’s own bias because he felt that Kurdish separatism is bad for Iraq, because America’s project has often been a united Iraq, without respecting Kurdish rights to self-determination.

Understanding demographics and local conditions

In a 2007 interview at PBS he provided another explanation of the conflict in Iraq and the defeat of the insurgency. He described the conflict as “a colonel’s war because it’s important to understand the very complex ethnic, tribal and sectarian dynamics within a particular region, and then to craft a strategy that is mindful of those dynamics.” He noted the concept was “to deny the enemy the ability to have any kind of a safe haven or support base anywhere in Iraq, because what the enemy would do is use these safe havens.” he also showed he had studied the demographics of the areas he was serving in, “Nenevah lies along a fault line between predominantly Kurdish populations and predominantly Sunni Arab populations. It’s complicated further by the presence of Yazidis as well as Turkmen, and the Turkmen are further subdivided between Turkmen Sunni and Turkmen Shi’a. So … the enemy made a deliberate effort to destabilize that region and set conditions for civil war, essentially, in Ninawa province.” He correctly noted “One of the big grievances in Tal Afar was that we have a Shi’a-dominated, Iranian-influenced government in Baghdad — you know.” One of the issues he found in Tal Afar was a porous border “The enemy had essentially established control over the city.” He saw the brutality and evil of the “insurgency,” noting “they had strapped the 13-year-old with explosives and had her walk into a police recruiting line and then detonated her remotely.” He concluded, “It’s important to understand that forces can’t be withdrawn prematurely from an area.” He also argued for better institutions, “When they go to their sheikh and their imam, it sort of reinforces the tribal and ethnic identity that the enemy preys on in Iraq to continue this cycle of sectarian violence.”

He also admitted that what worked in Tal Afar wouldn’t work the same elsewhere. “I think there certainly is a possibility to stop the sectarian violence and to re-establish security; it’s essentially what we had to do in Ninawa province.” As usual, he didn’t praise the security in the Kurdish region.

Technology vs man

In 2013 he gave an interview to McKinsey. He noted that war is essentially a human endeavor. “We assumed that advances in information, surveillance technology, technical-intelligence collection, automated decision-making tools, and so on were going to make war fast, cheap, efficient, and relatively risk free—that technology would lift the fog of war and make warfare essentially a targeting exercise, in which we gain visibility on enemy organizations and strike those organizations from a safe distance. But that’s not true, of course.”


On Afghanistan he noted that “But much of what we have done since then [the fall of the Taliban] —at least, as perceived by Afghans—raises doubts about our long-term intentions. This is not a criticism of policy. Rather, it highlights the need for us to be cognizant that war is a contest of wills.”

The Future

He noted that “We need the kinds of integrated solutions that acknowledge the complex nature of the environments in which we are working and that take into account the determined, adaptive, and often brutal nature of our enemies.” He is big on values as well. “In addition to the fundamentals of combat, our soldiers really have to live the Army’s professional ethics and values.” He is also big on studying, not merely history, but also people. “I think we’re always going to have to operate as part of a multinational force. To do so, we have to understand the history and the culture of each of these conflicts and of the microconflicts in each subregion.”

What we can see is an immensely complex man who is constantly evolving and thinking and challenging.  This analytical type is good for the position of National Security Advisor, probably a better choice than others who were considered.  He has a rich and varied history and he is willing to challenge received wisdom on America’s decade and a half old wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. However he hasn’t provided enough praise for America’s allies, such as the Kurds, instead seeking to always fix those who have tended to America’s enemies on the ground. In short, one gets the feeling that if he is confronted with militias seeking to kill Americans and a militia seeking to work with Americans on the ground in a place like Iraq, he will spend most of his time focusing on how to “fix” the bad militias and make them work with the US. The problem is there comes a point when there is no fix.

Americans tend to be solution-oriented. If only we do X then we can accomplish Y. McMaster has been willing to challenge many types of wisdoms and correctly diagnose strategy and the need for Clausewitz, but he may need to confront the largest question of all, namely that some places cannot be “fixed” and sometimes states simply do not function (sometimes they aren’t real states in the first place).

McMaster is an excellent choice for National Security Advisor, but this may be his biggest challenge. He needs now to step out from the history he has been reading and begin to manhandle that history, not merely be written into it, but to wrestle with it and change it. Churchill of course was a great lover of history and became history. Perhaps in that model this soldier-philosopher can put the right foot forward.


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