Respected Army Thinker Takes New Job in Iraq

U.S. Army Col. H.R. McMaster has been credited with critical thinking and combat commands that have helped shape some successes in Iraq. Now he's being tapped for a new, and perhaps more difficult, job: making Iraqi ministries run efficiently.

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In military circles, Army Colonel H.R. McMaster is a celebrity. In the 1990s he had a new Ph.D. and a widely read book, both focused on the failures of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Vietnam War. But he's not simply an academic, he's also proven himself on the battlefield.

Two years ago, as a Combat Commander, McMaster pacified Tal Afar, then one of the most violent cities in Iraq. Now, he has a new job behind a desk, and perhaps a greater challenge - to help make Iraqi government ministries run more efficiently.

NPR's Tom Bowman reports from Baghdad.

Unidentified Man #1: What did they have today Mango or wild berry? Wanna go for the for the...

TOM BOWMAN: The Presidential Palace coffee bar inside the heavily fortified Green Zone is a far cry from a remote combat outpost. McMaster chuckles when he recalls his old surroundings.

Colonel H.R. McMASTER (Brigadier General, U.S. Army): You know, you're sleeping on cots in a dusty environment.

BOWMAN: The Army Colonel was brought here by General David Petraeus, the top American Commander, as a special assistant. The Americans are focusing more on bringing essential services to Iraqis, making the Iraqi government more responsive.

Col. McMASTER: When the regime collapsed, many of the key institutions that just made government work also collapsed and the functions were no longer occurring.

BOWMAN: McMaster and his team have worked on a project for several months now, talking to Iraqi and American officials, poking his head into ministries. Now, he's putting the finishing touches on a report - a string of recommendations on how to make Iraq work.

Col. McMASTER: There's a lot of great work going on, and it's work you don't see. Because, you know, before you can see the results, you kind of have to strengthen the bass of a lot of these ministries. So, what USAID has been doing here is developing capacity through training and education civil service.

BOWMAN: McMaster is a compact 45-year-old with a shaved head in an easy manner. He's wanted to be a soldier from an early age.

Col. McMASTER: There are pictures of me when I was two or three years old with, you know, with a fake rifle and a little army uniform, and I always wanted to go the military academy at West Point and serve as an officer in the army.

BOWMAN: He did end up at West Point, earned a Silver Star fighting in the First Gulf War, then picked up a doctorate in history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. There, he focused on the American Military in Vietnam.

Col. McMASTER: One of the lessons of Vietnam is that you have to really pay attention to the local conditions.

BOWMAN: He brought Tal Afar under control with those lessons, a mixture of aggressive combat power and essential services. The city was an ethnic sectarian cauldron. Al-Qaida was creating a base, arms and fighters were spilling in over the nearby Syrian border. President Bush devoted an entire speech, last year, to what Tal Afar was like.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Colonel H. R. McMaster of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment described it this way: when you come into a place in the grip of al-Qaida, you see a ghost town.

BOWMAN: Then the president talked about how it had changed.

Pres. BUSH: You see markets opening and you hear the sound of construction equipment as buildings go up and homes are remade. In short, you see a city that is coming back to life.

BOWMAN: Iraqi forces helped McMaster take control of Tal Afar, but countrywide they were too green. To clear hold and rebuild other Iraqi cities, more American troops would be needed and what would later be called a surge.

Mr. MICHAEL O'HANLON (Defense Analyst, Brookings Institution): Well, what stands out far and away, of course, is Tal Afar, the Northern Iraqi small city, where, in many ways, this so-called clear, hold, and build strategy was first employed by McMaster.

BOWMAN: Michael O'Hanlon is the defense analyst at the Brookings Institution.

Mr. O'HANLON: This so-called clear, hold and build strategy was first employed by McMaster a couple of years ago, predating the whole debate about the surge.

BOWMAN: Now, the surge is coming to an end. Overall, security has improved but the government is still not responsive. There is incompetence, corruption, sectarianism. O'Hanlon says a responsive government is a key challenge now.

Mr. O'HANLON: Well, it's hugely important because we do not see very good performance by most of the Iraqi ministries in delivering services to the Iraqi population. We've seen virtually no documented improvement in education or health nationwide since the overthrow of Saddam.

BOWMAN: McMaster argues there is improvement. Government money is flowing to the provinces in greater amounts, markets are opening. There is a large database of on-going projects. But, he concedes, the ministries are still caught up in the sectarian power struggle.

Col. McMASTER: Some of these ministries were captured by maligned organizations and militias. It is less of a problem but is still a significant problem. The Iraqi government is really going to take a lead on that and we can provide support, and the Iraqi government is doing that.

BOWMAN: Many here say that's still questionable. What McMaster accomplished in Tal Afar came through a good plan in sheer force of will. To achieve the same thing across Iraq will take far more than a hard charging colonel with a Ph.D.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Baghdad.

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