Tom Ricks heard McMaster speak recently, and summarizes his explanation as follows:
He politely but powerfully dissected American failures in Iraq from 2003 through 2005. First, he said, there was “a failure to recognize” that the security problem in Iraq had shifted from insurgency to a communal struggle for power. Then, in 2006, he added, there was a centrally directed, well-executed campaign to ethnically cleanse Baghdad, but American commanders and civilian officials failed to recognize this until late in the ballgame. Instead, he said, they kept talking about accelerating the transition to Iraqi authority, not seeing that “there really wasn’t an Iraqi government.” What looked to some like a government, he explained, was instead a situation where different people had captured parts of the government structure. “So in effect our strategy in 2006 was a rush to failure,” and even was intensifying Iraq’s problems, he said.How did this come to pass, he asked? It wasn’t that everything was going swimmingly until the Golden Mosque in Samarra was blown up in February 2006, he said. He called that view a “myth.” Rather, he said, from early on in the war, American commanders failed to adjust to the realities of Iraq. “We were always a step behind.”
Also, he said, “We had these maximalist objectives [such as transforming Iraq and the Middle East]. … but we took a minimalist approach to the application of resources.” The preoccupation of senior people, he said, always seemed to be how many brigades could be withdrawn from Iraq in the coming months. “This is the period of self-delusion,” he said.