When our Humvee squeezed through the labyrinthine streets of Tal Afar late last year, what immediately struck me was that the U.S. soldiers were living in the heart of this war-scarred city among the local people. What a contrast, I thought, as we pulled up outside an ordinary home - the base for a company of American GIs - to the garrison-like encampments I'd visited elsewhere. The U.S. commander in Tal Afar had clearly understood that success in counterinsurgency meant focusing more on protecting civilians than on battling the enemy - and he was willing to accept risks to do that.
If smart military tactics like these have made Tal Afar a textbook counterinsurgency campaign, as President Bush asserted last week, they also underscore how exceptional Tal Afar is among U.S. military operations in Iraq. So, when the president cites Tal Afar as a reason for having confidence in the military's "clear, hold, build" strategy, another question comes to mind: What would it mean - in terms of troops, resources and time - to embrace the lessons of Tal Afar and apply them across Iraq? Moreover, however impressive the military achievements in Tal Afar are, they are only part of the equation. The city's future rests on resolving its bitter sectarian divide and building a society that will be able to rely on Iraqi forces and political decisions that are outside the U.S. military's control.
The challenge that was Tal Afar came to light the day after my arrival, as sunrise cast a pale light over a maze of streets. Beneath the hulking Ottoman-era castle, the rubble of houses was a telling reminder of how this city had become one of Iraq's worst trouble spots. Sectarian bloodletting - aggravated by a dug-in Sunni insurgency and Islamic extremists from elsewhere - had brought the city of 290,000 to the brink of civil war. Ironically, a U.S. military sweep dubbed "Black Typhoon" in the fall of 2004 had hastened the city's slide into bedlam: A Shiite commando brigade shot up the city in response, and Sunnis saw the operation as an attack on them, U.S. officers said.
In many ways, the city's turnaround can be attributed to the strategies of commanders like Col. H.R. McMaster, who abruptly diverted his 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment to Tal Afar last spring. McMaster was determined not to repeat earlier U.S. mistakes. As Capt. David Barnard, an expert on the region, told me, McMaster agonized about how to ensure he didn't "destroy the town to save it."
The 3rd ACR, Barnard explained, adopted McMaster's methodical approach. "They didn't have what I call the culture of assault - the need to kick in doors," he explained. Instead, McMaster had required hundreds of his soldiers - one in each platoon - to learn basic Arabic in an attempt to break down barriers with Iraqi civilians. He also enlisted regional experts to piece together what amounted to an anthropological profile of feuding sectarian tribes, right down to the kinship lines of families, allowing him to grasp - and track - who fought whom and why.
And one squadron commander, Lt. Col. Christopher Hickey, described how he took the bold move of reaching out to what he called the Sunni "resistance" in an attempt to split them from extremist elements. One day last summer, when Hickey rolled up in a Bradley Fighting Vehicle to the home of a Sunni tribal leader recently released from Abu Ghraib, the man seemed delighted to see him.
All this helped smooth the way for 3ACR to clear Tal Afar of fighters last September, after evacuating most residents. Only three civilians died in that attack, according to both U.S. and Iraqi officials; about 150 fighters were killed and 800 captured.
By December when I arrived, Tal Afar was awash with patrols by thousands of Iraqi and U.S. troops including a fresh battalion of 600 paratroopers that McMaster had requested to help "hold" the city. This was another anomaly in Iraq, where U.S. forces are typically spread far thinner - too thin, some American commanders say.
Those numbers meant regular house-to-house searches were possible, making it harder for insurgents to operate and easier for Iraqis to point them out. Attacks were down from five to fewer than two a day, to the relief of residents like Nazhat Hato Baker, a mother of seven who thanked a soldier for getting rid of the "people with masks."
Returning Iraq to Iraqis
The ultimate test of U.S. strategy will be whether Iraqi forces alone can hold Tal Afar. Iraqi army units cruising through the city showed more discipline and confidence than a few months before, according to U.S. soldiers who trained them. But at one juncture Hickey hustled me into the back of his Bradley when gunfire erupted nearby as citizens flocked to vote on election day. (We soon found it came from a group of Iraqi soldiers, who were dancing and waving their rifles in the air, despite exhaustive security rehearsals.) The Iraqi army also suffered from pay problems, shortages of junior officers and inadequate equipment. "AK-47s and Russian jeeps are not going to keep the peace in Northern Iraq," said on U.S. tank commander.
Sectarian fears among the population also remain deep - and this hampers the new 1,700-strong Shiite and Sunni police force. During my visit, police conducted a heavy-handed dragnet of a Sunni neighborhood where an officer had been shot the day before, rounding up nearly 100 suspects and trucking them to a tiny jail in the castle. U.S. officers were glad to see the police take the initiative, but cringed at their "investigative technique."
The next day, U.S. troops escorted police back to the area to hand out food and try to repair their image, but distrust among Sunni residents was high. Soon after, Hickey was approached by a Sunni laborer, Fakari Wahab, who asked where his 30 tribesmen were. Hickey told him to bring a list of their names to the castle. "If I go to the castle, I'll be locked up!" Wahab protested.
It is enduring tensions like these, McMaster says, that make the city a "fragile" victory that "must be strengthened every day." And without an effective justice system, financial autonomy and the resources to alleviate unemployment, the city could revert to violence. That's why the city's mayor and a former Iraqi general, Najem AbdullahÏ Abed, says he hopes the U.S. "lions" will stay for at least three years. Anything less, he says, would be "a great gift to terrorists."
- Ann Scott Tyson, who covers defense for The Washington Post, spent 10 days in and around Tall Afar in December