The toughest posting for an American officer in the early years of the Iraq conflict was Tal Afar, a small scrubland town close to the Syrian border dominated by a castle and held by Islamist extremists. Lieutenant-General HR McMaster, Donald Trump’s national security adviser, who was pivotal in the decision to attack a Syrian airbase on Friday, was deployed to Tal Afar in spring 2005 – and it was to be the making of him.
Tal Afar, held by Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) at present, was at the time in the hands of several extremist groups, including Isis’s predecessor, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaida in Iraq. McMaster, then a colonel and an unorthodox military thinker, made a point of immersing himself in Iraqi culture, winning over the local police and portraying the US army not as an occupier, but a protector of the town’s 150,000 inhabitants.
But he combined this “hearts and minds” approach with tough, disciplined military engagement. He had a large sand berm built around the town to control entry and exit, and retook neighbourhoods house by house. The list of names on a memorial in the middle of the base testified to the high casualty rate among his Third Armoured Cavalry Regiment.
The strategy applied in Tal Afar – to take the local population with you and, when a decision to use military force is made, go in hard – came to be adopted by the US military across Iraq in 2007, an expansion of American forces that became known as the Iraqi “surge”.
Anyone familiar with McMaster’s searing military experience in Iraq will understand why, when faced with intervention against President Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian military, he would have been cautious about being drawn into the complexities of the Syrian conflict and instead opted for a more limited objective of attacking an airbase.
Herbert Raymond McMaster, 54, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and is the author of Dereliction of Duty, a damning indictment of failures by the US high command in Vietnam to confront civilian politicians with hard truths, and instead pursue compromises that McMaster argues made the war unwinnable.
He first came to public attention in the Battle of 73 Easting in the first Gulf war, when the nine tanks he was commanding in 1991 came up against an estimated 80 Iraqi Republican Guard tanks and other vehicles and – mainly because of technical superiority – destroyed them all, with no loss of life on the American side.
He might normally have enjoyed faster promotions, but his criticism of higher ranks earned him enemies. In between deployments – he served in Afghanistan too – he spent time in military thinktanks in London and Washington. Before joining the White House, he had been employed by the US army trying to predict what it should look like by 2025 and beyond.
He was not Trump’s original choice for national security adviser and was only called in to replace retired lieutenant-general Michael Flynn, who was forced to resign in February in a row over contacts with Russia.
Barely a month into his accidental tenure, McMaster has revealed himself as not only a pre-eminent military thinker but a capable bureaucratic infighter, a skill that does not necessarily follow from his military career.
His first speech on the job spoke to a demoralised and fearful career national-security staff, and revealed that he would sand off the edges of the blood-and-soil nationalism pushed by Trump strategist Steve Bannon.
People close to McMaster say that an early priority for the three-star general was to marginalise Bannon and re-empower the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and director of national intelligence, whose places on the principals’ committee of the national security council Bannon had taken. At a stroke, McMaster accomplished that this week, establishing his supremacy over the homeland security and economic councils for good measure, and cementing his alliances with joint chiefs chairman General Joe Dunford and intelligence chief Dan Coats.
McMaster’s camp has been crowing about their man’s victory. They point to a critical behind-the-scenes ally: defence secretary James Mattis, who has played a similar role to McMaster at the Pentagon and strikes similar notes on hostility towards Russia, openness to Nato and reassurance to South Korea and Japan. Both men are positioning themselves as reliable points of contact to US allies confused by the mercurial Trump, but without contradicting the president directly.
While Bannon’s allies spun the move as no demotion and pointed out that he can still attend situation-room meetings, they have also leaked to the press that he is dissatisfied to the point that he is contemplating resignation only 11 weeks into the Trump administration.
While Mattis travelled to Trump’s Florida Mar-a-Lago resort to brief the president on Syria strike options on Thursday, Bannon remained in the background after the strike, turning a press briefing over to McMaster, which was the first time he had addressed reporters since taking post.
Alongside Rex Tillerson, the secretary of state, McMaster again demonstrated clarity and decisiveness, defining the strike mission as one geared to change Assad’s “calculus” for launching chemical strikes, while Tillerson meandered into discussions about diplomatically ousting the Syrian leader.
Although Tal Afar proved to be a tactical victory, Iraq proved in the end to be overwhelmingly resistant to a foreign counterinsurgency strategy. The town is back in the hands of Islamist extremists. And McMaster, for all his brilliance, is still pinioned between competing visions of foreign policy. He will have to demonstrate in the years ahead that he can manoeuvre his way between a hard-nosed, rational policy and a mercurial, bellicose president.