H.R. McMaster On War: When Should We Stay and When Should We Leave?

Michael Wakin

Ten months after leaving his position as national security advisor in the Trump White House, Herbert Raymond McMaster sat down with the Kenyon Observer for a wide-ranging conversation about some of the most controversial military and interventionist foreign policy decisions our country’s leaders have made in recent history.

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By Michael Wakin

Ten months after leaving his position as national security advisor in the Trump White House, Herbert Raymond McMaster sat down with the Kenyon Observer for a wide-ranging conversation about some of the most controversial military and interventionist foreign policy decisions our country’s leaders have made in recent history. During our discussion, which took place in the glass offices of the Hoover Institution on Stanford University’s campus where he is a fellow, McMaster shared his views from the rare vantage point of a decorated military leader and presidential advisor. Among his noteworthy comments, he called the American involvement in Afghanistan a success, blamed flawed U.S. strategy during the Vietnam War on over-politicized policies and a superficial understanding of war, and criticized the inconsistencies of the United States’ recent approach toward the Middle East.

McMaster, known as H.R., became the country’s 26th national security advisor on February 20, 2017, when President Trump named him to replace Michael Flynn. McMaster’s tenure lasted until March 2018, when he was forced out by conservatives who criticized his views as being out of step with the Trump administration’s foreign policy. The more hawkish and hardline John Bolton succeeded him.

McMaster is a retired U.S. Army general, who rose to prominence through his service during the first Gulf War, Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, and Operation Iraqi Freedom. In addition to his 34-year, decorated military service, McMaster is widely respected for his intellect. He received a Ph.D. in American history from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill and taught military history at the United States Military Academy. In 1997, he published his acclaimed book, “Dereliction of Duty,” which presents a devastating portrait of President Lyndon Johnson and his military advisors’ failed policies during the Vietnam War. McMaster is an imposing figure. Wide-framed, he wears a large gold ring on his left hand and speaks in a raspy baritone. His military erudition is not exaggerated — at one point in our conversation, he cited Thucydides and Clausewitz in the same breath.

During his time in the White House, McMaster had hoped to act as a moderating presence, tempering the president’s more instinctual and isolationist tendencies. At times, he at least partially achieved this goal. In December of 2017, for example, the White House released the “National Security Strategy,” which softened much of President Trump’s anti-institutionalist and transactional foreign policy rhetoric by affirming the importance of NATO and calling out Russia and China’s malevolent activity. Other times, McMaster was less successful at reigning in the President’s combative language. In February 2017, for example, the New Yorker reported that McMaster failed to convince the President to not use the term “radical Islamic terrorism” during an address to Congress.

Below are excerpts from our conversation, edited for clarity and length.  Each excerpt is followed by my own commentary, in italics.

To what extent did the civilian background and previous experience of President Johnson and the decision-makers in President Johnson’s administration contribute to the failed policies regarding the Vietnam War?

I think it played a significant role. I think that those who study war and warfare only superficially tend to overemphasize changes in the character of war and neglect continuities in the nature of war. They tend to think technology and the application of technology to military organizations guarantees a differential advantage over the enemy because they don’t fully consider war as an extension of politics and the need to combine what you are doing militarily with a wide range of other political, diplomatic, economic, informational, sometimes law enforcement and intelligence efforts to achieve a sustainable outcome.

They neglect that war is human and the people fight for the same reason that Thucydides identified twenty-five hundred years ago: fear, honor, and interest. They lack strategic empathy to understand what is driving and constraining your adversary and your enemy.

The progress of war is not linear. You can’t plot a crossover point if you’re McNamara and you can’t announce years in advance, if you’re President Obama, exactly the number of troops you are going to have and what they are going to do because actually the enemy may have a say there. War is a contest of wills. The Clausewitzian phrase is that “winning in war requires convincing your enemy that your enemy has been defeated.” I think that those continuities are often being neglected.

McMaster’s comments about President Obama refer to his disclosing plans to withdraw troops at the same time he announced in 2009 an increase of 33,000 troops in Afghanistan. The military establishment said announcing the withdrawal subverted the goals that the surge was intended to achieve. When making the decision to announce the troop surge, President Obama told his speechwriter, Ben Rhodes, to explicitly counter the parallels with Vietnam, according to the New York Times. It is important to highlight the link between Afghanistan and Vietnam, which appeared to loom large in President Obama’s decisions regarding Afghanistan and may have influenced his decision to announce a time frame for withdrawal.  

Were decision makers thinking rationally when constructing the Vietnam policies?

You really have to consider what they are basing their decisions on. In this case, it really had to do with the president’s priorities to get elected in ’64 and then to pass domestic legislation in ’65. He saw Vietnam principally as a danger to those goals and wanted McNamara to give him a strategy that allowed him to pursue his priorities without Vietnam getting in the way. And what’s paradoxical about it is that I think Johnson didn’t want to go to war in Vietnam but every step he took with these other objectives in mind seemed in retrospect to have led inextricably to an American war.

The Johnson Administration’s Vietnam policy was based on the idea of gradual pressure, which was designed to gain maximum results with minimum costs. The goal was to incentivize North Vietnam to stop supporting the Viet Cong through precise strikes. This strategy gave President Johnson a politically expedient policy before the 1964 election that solved the perception of losing the war while maintaining the appearance that he was peaceful. The major problem with gradual pressure was that it viewed the North Vietnamese through a purely Cold War prism, rather than as a committed revolutionary force that made fundamentally different cost-benefit analyses than U.S. policymakers expected. Simply put, the Johnson administration underestimated the resolve of the North Vietnamese to remain in and even escalate the conflict, despite the human casualties. As a result, the U.S. became embroiled in a protracted conflict in a country with little direct threat to the United States’ vital interests and security.

Screen Shot 2019-03-28 at 8.32.33 PM.pngFrom the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History

Do you think that credibility is more of a function of a state’s past actions and ability to live up to its word or rather a function of its relative power and military strength to back up its claims?

It’s both, I think. What is important is to have consistent policies over time that are based on the definition of your vital interests, your understanding collectively across a government but in a democracy with the people on board with your appropriate role in the world, what you will fight for because your particular adversary or enemy action will threaten your vital interests, your way of life, and your security or prosperity or freedom. Then to be able to execute that not just in one administration but across administrations.

So, if you look at our Middle East policy now— what it has done, the inconsistency of it, has convinced a lot of key actors in the Middle East that the U.S. cannot be relied on for a consistent policy and, therefore, they have to hedge their bets. While one would like them to see those who are like minded partners in the region to act more in concert with our interests, they often times do not so they can maintain relationships with our adversaries like with Russia, for example.

So, President Trump’s announcement to unilaterally withdraw troops from Syria hurts the United States’ credibility in the region and sends a signal to our allies?

Exactly, or the complete withdrawal out of Iraq in 2010, 2011.

While McMaster didn’t elaborate on the connection between President Obama’s troop withdrawal from Iraq and President Trump’s announced withdrawal from Syria, there are clear distinctions. The decision to withdraw troops from Iraq began with President Obama’s predecessor, President Bush, who in 2008 signed a status of forces agreement that stated all U.S. combat forces would leave Iraq by the end of 2011. Additionally, President Obama’s decision to withdraw troops was coupled with political and economic support to Iraq, including, for example, $2 billion in foreign aid in 2012 and an engaged embassy in Baghdad.

President Trump’s decision to withdraw lacked these elements. His sudden announcement was made with little consideration of allies and contradicted the guidance of his military advisors. The decision resulted in the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Brett McGurk, the special presidential envoy to the coalition fighting the Islamic State.

Is our current involvement in Afghanistan sustainable?

I think it is sustainable. What if you reinterpreted Afghanistan—ok, we already won. I mean Afghanistan is not going to be Switzerland. It just needs to be Afghanistan. Afghanistan is a transformed society. Half of the Afghan population is urban now. That’s a huge difference. Kabul, in 2001, was 500,0000 people. Now it’s 6 million and 500,000 people. In 2001, there were three phones in the country, you had to drive to a phone and arrange to use it. Now, everybody has cell phones. Zero women were being educated. Now women are being educated.

So, it is a transformed society, although there is a great deal of violence. The Taliban have a safe haven support base in Pakistan. They enjoy the support of the Pakistani ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence) and they have contested a good deal of territory, but they don’t have a safe haven and support base in Afghanistan. What if that’s the end statement…

The key to answering the question of whether the U.S. has “won” the war in Afghanistan lies in understanding the criteria for success. In the wake of 9/11, the U.S.’ initial objectives for using military force was to prevent Al Qaeda from residing and launching terrorist attacks from Afghanistan, remove the Taliban government and help the formation of a new government that would prevent the exportation of terrorism.

While I understand McMaster’s argument that Afghanistan looks like a drastically different country between 2001 and present day, given the U.S.’s initial objectives in Afghanistan, I would say it has had mixed results. The Taliban remains present and there is no guarantee Afghanistan will not again become a terrorist haven. The U.S.’ recent negotiations with the Taliban signal that U.S. officials understand a complete eradication of the Taliban is unlikely. That being said, the United States’ 17-year involvement in Afghanistan has not been a complete loss. The Taliban’s presence in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, has been essentially reduced to zero. Osama bin Laden, the leader of Al Qaeda and main architect of the 9/11 attacks, was killed in Pakistan, as well as several other prominent Taliban leaders. Al Qaeada and the Taliban are separate organizations with different objectives and ideologies. The former is a militant Sunni Islamist transnational organization, while the latter regards itself as a nationalistic political movement and insurgency fighting the U.S.-supported Afghan government.

Ultimately, the U.S. failed to achieve its core objectives for several reasons. Primarily, democratization was not rooted enough in grass-roots organizations and lacked sufficient concern for the interests of the Afghan people. As a result, the U.S. failed to accomplish the central goal of “nation-building,” which is to establish loyalty to nationhood. Secondarily, President Obama’s decision to increase the U.S. presence by an additional 33,000 troops in 2009 failed to stem violence because U.S. policymakers underestimated the Taliban ability to initiate attacks from neighboring Pakistan and overestimated the stability of Afghanistan’s central government.

The best-case scenario given the current course of the conflict would be for the U.S. to strike a deal with the Taliban that prevents another civil war from occurring, while ensuring that the Taliban will not aid terrorist organizations in return for complete U.S. combat troop withdrawal.

Screen Shot 2019-03-24 at 7.10.58 PM.png

From the New York Times

If Afghanistan is a success, what’s stopping the immediate withdrawal of troops?

Because success should not equate to withdrawal. If your objective is to withdraw, you can do that anytime. If your objective is to prevent the return of transnational terrorist organizations who can control territory, population, resources, and marshal those resources and apply them to murder our children, which is what they want to do… I think departing Afghanistan would be analogous to the withdrawal from Iraq. We’re still in South Korea since 1953. In 1953, South Korea looked like a basket case. There wasn’t a tree left in the country, no natural resources, corrupt government, hostile neighbor, illiterate population; and look at it now. We still have troops there. So, troops withdrawing from the peninsula wasn’t the criteria for success.

The U.S. currently has approximately 28,000 troops and civilians in South Korea. The first U.S. combat troops were first sent to South Korea in 1950 to prevent a North Korean invasion and occupation. Roughly 33,000 American troops were killed during the three-year conflict. After the Korean War, the United States and South Korea signed a mutual defense treaty that committed the United States to aid South Korea’s defense.

The current American combat troop level in Afghanistan is roughly 14,000 with an additional 8,000 NATO and allied troops. In December, 2018, President Trump announced the withdrawal of roughly 7,000 American troops, signaling a shift in U.S. policy. The conventional argument against the complete withdrawal of American troops is that government in Kabul might collapse without U.S. support and Afghanistan will devolve into a haven for terrorists to plot attacks against American interests and citizens, globally and domestically.

Another argument has little to do with the actual course of the war and more with American credibility. Similar to President Trump’s announcement to withdraw troops from Syria, if U.S. completely retreats from Afghanistan, it will create the perception that the U.S. is unable to maintain its previous commitments abroad and is receding as the unipolar power from the global stage. Yet, President Trump’s recent decision to halve the U.S. commitment in Afghanistan prompts the following question: if the U.S. was unable to accomplish all of its goals with 100,000 American troops, then why would 14,000 or even 7,000 troops be any more effective?

Screen Shot 2019-03-30 at 3.42.55 PM.png
From USA Today

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