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Credit Where it is Due: H.R. McMaster, the Author of the "Surge" Strategy

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John McCain speaks of his ability to "win wars" using the "surge" as his example. This is surprising, as this was the strategy that was first implemented in 2005 by U.S. Army Colonel H.R. McMaster, in what he called "Clear, Hold and Build;" a strategy that may have reduced the insurgency had it been supported at the time.

What makes the authorship of this strategy so important, aside from the fact that Colonel McMaster deserves credit where it is due, is the dust-up that resulted after the strategy was proposed to the Pentagon and then the White House in 2005 as a way to bring about conditions for a political solution in Iraq prior to the worst of the insurgency taking hold:

The successful strategy created by a Col. H.R. McMaster (Clear, Hold and Build), where his troops went into a city, lived among the population in small units, built trust and protected the population while they fought the insurgents.

Requests to implement his strategy that went up the ranks were stopped at the highest levels. The reasons given: it would take more troops and put them in more danger. Thomas Rick's reaction: you can't fight a war as a tourist." It was not implemented by the Pentagon.

The State Department representative in Iraq heard about "Clear, Hold and Build" and flew back to tell Condoleeza Rice. Rice then went before Congress and, in what turned out to be a direct challenge to Rumsfeld, formally recommended the Clear, Hold and Build strategy during a hearing that was broadcast live.

Rumsfeld quickly held a press conference where he said (paraphrase): we didn't have the troops to implement it and it wasn't our responsibility to protect the Iraqis.

The insurgency exploded.

There were generals who did not give up on the idea of "Clear, Hold and Build." They pointed to Col. McMasters' success as the only feasible strategy. When General Jack Keane went to see President George Bush about it in 2006, he came away thinking he had finally convinced him. Shortly thereafter, according to Thomas Ricks on the FRONTLINE episode, ENDGAME, Dick Cheney then talked George W. Bush out of supplying the necessary troops for success.

It was only after the new Secretary of Defense, Bob Gates, and General David Petraeus came aboard that the "Clear, Hold and Build" strategy was given serious consideration and it was Petraeus, a long-time proponent of the strategy, who implemented it beginning July 4, 2007.

What is missing from the above account is any support for John McCain's implication of authorship, as presented by his constant self-identification with the "surge." While he did, early on and during the early part of the Republican primary season, support the "surge" strategy, it should be noted that it was two years after Colonel McMaster had proven its effectiveness in Tal Afar, Iraq, before it was put through, long after the time when the wider implementation of McMaster's strategy could have reduced the level of insurgency and bettered the political outcome in Iraq. Which would have, in turn, freed troops for the neglected war in Afghanistan that has now "surged" to the forefront.

Which is exactly the argument Senator Barack Obama made when he voted against the surge; in hindsight, perhaps not a vote that has served him well against political spin, but still a valid consideration given the escalation in Afghanistan and the danger that the insurgent Taliban and the actual al Qaeda that attacked on 9/11 represents. An argument that seems to be falling on deaf ears due to the Republican Senator's rhetoric that implies his authorship of the surge without mention of Colonel McMaster, without mention of Senator McCain's own support for the invasion of Iraq, the Bush Administration's long neglect of the policy or the impact that neglect has had on the lives lost in Iraq and on the dangerous campaign in Afghanistan.

Credit where it is due, Senator McCain. In the case of "Clear, Hold and Build," that credit belongs to H.R. McMaster for his strategy; for the many lives that have been lost in the meantime and for the overstretched troops in Afghanistan fighting the resurgent Taliban while the reinforcements they needed were Clear, Holding and Building Iraq.

One more consideration: The "Surge" itself is not the only reason there has been a reduction in violence in Iraq. Consideration must be given the large transfer of funds to the Sunni Tribal Leaders who are now fighting against Al Qaeda instead of with them and to the Iraqi and Kurdish troops that are performing the "Hold" part of the "Clear, Hold and Build" strategy.

Afghanistan is a different model.

In Iraq, the Sunni tribesmen became genuinely horrified at the brutal excesses of al-Qaeda in Iraq. The Taliban in Afghanistan and the al-Qaeda that is hiding in near plain sight the wilds of Waziristan border region are, in some cases, popular, in many cases, indigenous, and in most cases, heavily tied into narco-trafficking from the poppy fields; the only income for the poorest of Afghanistan and for warlords not the least interested in relinquishing power.

Which leads to the most surprising of John McCain's claims: that Afghanistan is just like Iraq; that its tribes can be subdued with the "Clear, Hold and Build" strategy. While that may be partially true, it is, at best, a simplistic analysis. The Afghani tribes are not universally enraged at their Taliban brethren in quite the same way as the Iraqi Sunni tribal leaders were at al Qaeda in Iraq and it is unknown whether the large payoffs that secured those Iraqi tribal leaders will make the slightest dent in the narco-profits the Afghani groups now enjoy.

Col. McMaster's strategy deserves credit for its effectiveness. The troops that implemented it deserve the credit for their bravery. General Jack Keane deserves credit for his long support of the strategy, David Petraeus and Bob Gates for putting it through and John McCain, I guess one could concede, for rhetoric about it while nothing was being done and then for taking credit for supporting it when it was unpopular during the Republican primary campaign and when it became the single focus of success -- without mention of those payoffs to the Sunni Tribal Leaders, the fact that there is still no effective oil law implemented in Iraq (the political solution) or the impact on the increasingly overstretched troops in Afghanistan that could have used a "surge" quite some time ago.

Credit where it is due.

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