Fresh on the heels of a successful offensive in Mosul, Iraq, the Iraqi military is now poised to retake Tal Afar, long a hotbed of ISIS and other insurgent activity. Before we pulled out of Iraq, Tal Afar, like Fallujah, had been the focal point of multiple large-scale, costly offensives to eject entrenched insurgents. In 2005, then-Colonel H.R. McMaster led the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment (3rd ACR) in the largest of these offensives, Operation Restoring Rights. His reputation as a brilliant military strategist rests largely on the results of that one battle. Given the widespread support for McMaster in the media and Washington establishment, it is ironic that current reporting largely fails to mention this battle or McMaster’s central role in it.
McMaster’s widely-hyped strategic acumen has been called into question by high-level military sources with personal knowledge of his conduct in the field. These sources spoke with me on condition of anonymity.
McMaster rests his laurels on the counter-insurgency strategy he claims won the Battle of Tal Afar, Iraq. But sources say McMaster ignored counter-insurgency experts and that his reckless leadership killed between 70 and 85* Americans and almost lost the battle. The battle, the sources say, was won only through a valiant rescue mission during which most of those casualties occurred.*
Until today this information has been suppressed.
Today, National Security Advisor McMaster is facing sustained criticism for his seemingly relentless opposition to Trump policies, his purging of many competent, conservative Trump loyalists from the National Security Council staff, and “protecting and coddling” 40 Obama holdovers — almost one-sixth of the NSC staff — who are plainly out to sabotage the Trump agenda.
Yet he continues to enjoy President Trump’s support. Is President Trump reluctant to fire McMaster for fear of criticism? Has he decided that McMaster’s reputed military genius is worth the cost? Or has he been thoroughly misinformed about McMaster’s character and competence? Who is H.R. McMaster really?
Lieutenant General (three-star) Herbert Raymond McMaster is a career Army officer still on active duty. He came to the Trump administration as a quick replacement for Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn (Ret.), who resigned over controversies regarding his contacts with Russian officials. Whatever Flynn may have done wrong, his true sin was bucking the D.C. establishment, including many military leaders. And as frequently happens in Washington, when a strong conservative political appointee faces widespread (often manufactured) controversy, the knee-jerk reaction is to find a replacement the establishment likes. McMaster fits the bill.
On the surface, he appears to have the right resume. He has been awarded the Silver Star, Purple Heart, Bronze Star, the Legion of Merit and other medals, although John Kerry and many others have proved there are ways to get these medals without earning them. Most of this acclaim comes out of his service at the Battle of 73 Easting (1991), where in 23 minutes, McMaster’s nine M1A1 Abrams tanks and 12 Bradley Fighting Vehicles destroyed 30 Iraqi tanks and 14 armored vehicles. McMaster has been given credit for quick thinking and aggressive action, but his unit faced off against obsolete Iraqi T-55 and T-72 tanks operated by troops with inferior training. His unit was part of a larger operation that experienced similar success, ultimately destroying 85 tanks, 40 personnel carriers, and over 30 other vehicles. As George Dvorsky observes: “the [Republican Guard] didn’t have a chance.”
As the author of the 1997 book, Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, The Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies that Led to Vietnam, McMaster enjoys a reputation as something of a maverick, a fact which perhaps found favor in the unorthodox Trump administration. The book has been described as “the seminal work on military’s responsibility during Vietnam to confront their civilian bosses when strategy was not working.”
But, as noted above, McMaster’s reputation rests largely on the counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy applied at Tal Afar. It was later hailed by President George W. Bush, who said it, “gives me confidence in our strategy because in this city we see the outlines of the Iraq that we and the Iraqi people have been fighting for…” For once, the media agreed with Bush, published glowing reports on McMaster’s feats. Mother Jones and the Washington Post called him the “Hero of Tal Afar.” The left-leaning Slate.com calls him “the Army’s smartest officer.”
Now leftists are coming out of the woodwork to defend McMaster against his conservative critics. Newsweek accuses the “alt-right” of attempting to smear McMaster, while genuine slime merchants like Media Matters for America are smearing his critics. He is even being defended by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the propaganda arm of the Palestinian terrorist group HAMAS.
Okay, wait a minute.
When reflexively anti-American, anti-military outlets like Mother Jones, Slate and the Washington Post offer fawning praise for a Republican military commander, the reasons underlying those plaudits deserve further investigation. When anti-American, anti-military, George Soros-funded, extreme leftist smear operations like Media Matters go to war to defend a Trump political appointee, it casts a shadow on everything about the man. When the anti-American, terrorism-supporting, Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated CAIR defends an American general, the alarm bells drown out all other sound. And officers who have witnessed his “leadership” in the unforgiving crucible of combat are now sounding the alarm.
It is not unusual in Army practice that studies and reports often gloss over leadership failures by simply not mentioning the leaders who failed. This seems to be the case in an official military report prepared for the U.S. Army’s Combat Studies Institute concerning the conduct of 3rd ACR in Operation Restoring Rights, according to Brave Rifles at the Battle of Tal Afar. The 3rd ACR, also known as the “Brave Rifles,” is comprised of three ground squadrons, the 1st, 2nd and 4th, and a support squadron. Most of the fighting during this operation was conducted by the 2nd Squadron. Its commander, Lt. Col. Christopher M. Hickey, was the man on the ground leading the engaged combat forces.
Virtually all of the action described centers on decisions made by Hickey. McMaster barely gets a mention. The Washington Post‘s account of the battle puts McMaster in the middle of it, though the embedded reporter, Jon Finer, says he didn’t see McMaster until “the operation was winding down.” Brave Rifles does not describe where McMaster was at all, only that he responded to Hickey’s request for more troops by appealing to Task Force Freedom and Multinational Corps–Iraq (pp. 131-132). He likely oversaw the offensive from 3rd ACR’s operations base, FOB Sykes, 7.5 miles south of town (p. 130). Given that he had overall command of the regiment, that is probably where he should have been, except that he seemed to want people to believe he was in the heat of battle. He wasn’t.
The report is not especially critical of Hickey, but if the operation was an unqualified success, McMaster’s role presumably would have been highlighted. McMaster’s Tal Afar COIN strategy is also credited with inspiring Iraq’s 2007 “surge” operation. Yet Brave Rifles makes no such claim.
The report describes a halt in the advance to evacuate civilians that occurred little more than one day into the fight. In a “Frontline” video interview,  McMaster claims the pause was “about three days,” but according to Brave Rifles, it took a full week (p. 142). Officers on the ground during that battle claim that in fact the 2nd Squadron was surrounded and in danger of being annihilated. One Special Forces operative described it as a “goat fuck” (p. 142). A 1,150-strong Special Operations Group joined with other units to launch a rescue mission that would clear a path to McMaster’s beleaguered forces.
The following is an account of that effort provided for this article by the commander of the Special Operations Group. He is a highly decorated retired Special Forces flag officer with decades of service under his belt. His bona fides have been confirmed by other top-level military sources. All have requested anonymity. Given the D.C. establishment’s demonstrated hostility to whistleblowers, you can’t blame them.
Here is his story:
Mine was one of three units sent to rescue McMaster from Tal Afar. McMaster replaced most of the operations people upon assuming command with his admirers — most of whom had limited combat experience at best. The majority never had a troop command, even in peacetime. As an apprentice of David Petraeus, McMaster was recommended to command the 3rd ACR not because of his ability/experience to command a large armored formation but simply so he could get his ticket punched on the way to flag rank.
The strategy called for assault, clear and hold, but McMaster simply ordered the squadron to advance without securing positions taken. This allowed insurgents to come in behind his assault force and it was soon surrounded. It came to be known among the troops as “Little Stalingrad” because of McMaster’s arrogance and disregard of advice from COIN experts. McMaster was thoroughly briefed that Tal Afar was an insurgent stronghold but ignored this intelligence and attempted to take the city by coup de main (surprise attack) using a blitzkrieg strategy like Von Paulus used in the Battle of Stalingrad.
Use of armor in urban warfare is fraught with danger if not carefully coordinated with infantry and combat support. The insurgent force, commanded by former Iraqi officers, allowed McMaster’s column to enter the city, then sprung the trap. As with Von Paulus, McMaster soon found his tanks and tracks hopelessly bogged down in the streets and narrow alleys of Tal Afar.
The insurgents used the city like a giant maze. M1A2s (Abrams main battle tank) have vulnerabilities the insurgents used to their advantage. The Abrams was designed with no escape hatch underneath. The insurgents dropped Molotov cocktails on the tanks from tops of buildings. With the tank on fire, the crew had to exit thru the top of the tank, where they could be fired upon as they climbed out.
The M1A2 is also vulnerable to RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades]. Tal Afar had been ringed with sand berms to make it difficult for insurgents to get away. However, to enter the city, the tanks had to drive over the berms. The M1A2 underbelly is not adequately armored. As the tanks came over the berms, insurgents shot at their undersides with RPGs. The insurgents learned these tactics from the experience of jihadis who fought the Russians in Afghanistan in the 1980s. McMaster apparently didn’t.
McMaster attempted to paint a rosy picture of the assault but it soon became apparent to others his unit was in trouble. McMaster estimated the assault would take one-and-a-half days to complete, but by that time the 2nd Squadron was trapped. The official record claims that they halted the assault to allow civilians to evacuate. The truth is that they had become surrounded and couldn’t move.
My SF unit, just off another operation, was ordered to re-deploy and fight our way in to open a supply route into the city to replenish ammo and supplies and Medevac the wounded. Earlier attempts to drop supplies by helicopter met intense fire and risked supplies falling into enemy hands. It took us three days to battle our way to them. I lost 40 men KIA [killed in action] in one day and a total of 50 lost from my unit alone during the pause, with many more wounded.
The operation which was supposed to last 2 days, turned into an 18-day battle, with the 3rd ACR being decimated. Many soldiers died later in field hospitals overloaded with wounded. Many civilians were not evacuated until after the forces engaged, and they too suffered many dead and wounded.
This fiasco was covered up by McMaster’s good friend, mentor and fellow West Pointer, David Petraeus, who worried that revealing the depth of McMaster’s mistakes would reflect badly on him as well.
McMaster is a political officer who took credit for the hard work and sacrifice of others. He advanced his own career and burnished his myth with the help of David Petraeus and John McCain. A deeper research into Army records including casualties and vehicle losses will paint an accurate picture of the debacle, not mythical accounts.
The truth about Tal Afar is that a major cover up has allowed an unqualified officer to occupy one of the most critical positions in our national security apparatus.
According to the Brave Rifles report, 2nd Squadron lost 8 men and 12 soldiers from other units who joined them in the fight and 38 friendly Iraqi soldiers and 6 Iraqi policemen also perished.** (p. 147). According to the Special Forces officer, however, losses actually included:
Approximately 250 killed in action, including 70 to 85 American troops* and approximately 165 to 180 friendly Iraqi forces
1 HH47 Chinook helicopter
4 Blackhawk helicopters
4 M1A2 Abrams Tanks
30 Bradley Fighting Vehicles
Heavy losses of 5-ton trucks and fuel tankers
McMaster’s reputation for arrogance and incompetence filtered down to the rank and file as well.
Mathew Bocian served in the U.S. Army as a cavalry scout with 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry (Stryker). He deployed to Mosul and Tal Afar in 2004 and to Baghdad for The Surge in 2007. He has written a book about it, The Ghosts of Tal Afar. Bocian’s unit was in Tal Afar when McMaster’s 3rd ACR showed up. He had this to say about McMaster’s leadership:
[T]he regiment’s senior leadership thought they were hot-shit, and would teach us a thing or two. I was in a Squadron-wide officer call when good old H.R himself told the room not to worry – the real cav[alry] was here, and they brought the “big guns”. We deterred Hajj [the insurgents] by going into town every day – yes, even Al Sarai [the insurgent stronghold] because if you didn’t, Hajj took more and more control of the town; they were trying to drive a wedge between U.S. Forces and the Iraqi populous [sic]
3rd ACR’s idea of deterrence was to park a few tanks up at the castle and occasionally shoot main gun rounds over Al Sarai and into the empty desert. Yeah. That worked for all of about an hour until the Hajj (who are pretty fucking smart) got wise to the scheme and weren’t afraid of the sound. All that did was keep the residents in their homes so the only folks who went out were the bad dudes.
Not long after we returned to Mosul to take part of the Brigade’s new offensive to seal off all of Mosul, 3rd ACR launched an offensive of their own. They had opted to “assess” the situation for a week and had neglected certain parts of Tal’Afar – including Al Sarai. They lost a tank, a Bradley and an M-88 recovery vehicle in that initial push – and taking heavy fire and multiple casualties, were repelled by the Hajj, who had entrenched themselves in the area given plenty of time to prepare.
I don’t know how many soldiers 3rd ACR lost, or had wounded in Tal’Afar, but I look back in disgrace and wonder if their leadership had listened and were less cocky, if their losses could have been fewer.
Other sources I interviewed say that McMaster has very few admirers in the general officer corps and was considered to be just another typical “political general.”
He has not been given any battle commands since he was promoted to general. They say he would never have made general rank without the help of David Petraeus. He was passed over twice for promotion to flag rank, and didn’t get his first star until Army Secretary Peter Geren, a former Democratic congressman from Texas, took the unprecedented step of pulling General Petraeus from a combat command and appointing him to chair the Army’s promotion board, which Geren also hand-picked. Petraeus, of whom it has been said, “throughout his military career had worn his ambition like a strong aftershave,” saw to McMaster’s star. Then-Army Chief of Staff General George Casey concluded, “If McMaster weren’t such a smart-ass, he would have been promoted a long time ago.”
General officers require Senate confirmation both for appointment and advancement. McMaster’s Senate champion was and still is Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). McCain advocated replacing Flynn with McMaster. McCain described McMaster as “a man of genuine intellect, character and ability.”
To obtain his fourth star, McMaster must please his Senate overlords and their allies in the military — i.e. the establishment. This virtually guarantees a NSC advisor beholden to the swamp. In a recent interview with Breitbart News, Erik Prince, founder of the military contractor Blackwater, said:
[T]he danger of appointing a serving general, a three-star general that wants to be a four-star general, means that that general will always go with his service. If it’s a long-retired guy that’s not worried about a promotion, I think it’s easier to give objective advice. That’s the danger of having a serving officer as the national security director.
It is worth noting that Trump had consulted Prince extensively regarding Afghanistan strategy and Prince had been invited to join him at Camp David deliberations, but McMaster allegedly took him off the list at the last minute.
It seems the height of irony that Iraqi forces are now entering Tal Afar again, this time with Iran-backed militias — responsible for killing many Americans in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Meanwhile, the “Hero of Tal Afar” counsels President Trump to certify Iran in compliance with a nuclear deal composed in secret that was never signed and never consented to by the Senate. On the home front he resists efforts to declare the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, emboldening groups like CAIR, that have joined with other subversive groups in their efforts to destabilize our nation.
My source concludes: “With McMaster now as National Security Advisor, maybe some aspiring young Army officer will write a sequel to McMaster’s book and call it, LtGen McMaster: Dereliction of Duty II. We can only hope General Mattis and General Kelly, along with a very distinguished group on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, give our President competent and honest military advice and guidance, not tainted by ‘what’s in it for me’ from a man who is a legend only in his own mind.”
James Simpson is an economist, businessman and investigative journalist. His latest book is The Red Green Axis: Refugees, Immigration and the Agenda to Erase America. Follow Jim on Twitter & Facebook.
*The Special Forces flag officer who served as the primary source for this article acknowledged after the article was initially published that he had previously provided incorrect casualty figures from the Battle of Tal Afar. The resulting errors in this article have been corrected and where they have been corrected there now appears an asterisk (*).
**The Iraqi casualties from the Brave Rifles report were not stated in the original article but in light of the flag officer’s now-corrected information, we have included those figures.