President Trump shakes hands with National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, Friday April 6, 2018, in the Oval Office at the White House, to bid farewell to McMaster, who tendered his resignation from his post last month [Photo: White House]
Retired military brass: Stay the never-ending course in Afghanistan

After reading and watching the latest comments about the still ongoing U.S. war in Afghanistan from former Generals Joseph Votel and H.R. McMaster, one is left with a simple question: is there something about being a 3 or 4-Star General that makes you argue so passionately for the status-quo? 

During an interview with Voice of America on September 17, Votel — the former Commander of Joint Special Operations Command and CENTCOM — applauded U.S. Afghanistan envoy Zalmay Khalilzad for his tenacious attempts in bringing the Afghan government and the Taliban to the peace table.

Yet at the same time, Votel said that he hoped U.S. forces would remain in Afghanistan in order to continue supporting Kabul militarily against all threats, foreign and domestic. He would add that while al-Qaida and the Islamic State may be degraded, there are plenty of other foreign terrorist organizations on Afghan soil that Washington needs to worry about. The only remedy, it would seem, is an open-ended U.S. troop presence — a piece of advice at odds with the sentiment Votel himself expressed in a December 2019 op-ed in the New York Times.  

Votel’s comments, however, were gentlemanly compared to H.R. McMaster’s. This past Sunday, September 20, the former Trump administration national security adviser and retired lieutenant general castigated his old boss’s Afghanistan strategy.

Speaking to 60 Minutes to promote his new book, McMaster accused Trump of conniving with the Taliban against the Afghan government during the course of negotiations. “I think what [President Trump] did with this new policy, is he, in effect, is partnering with the Taliban against, in many ways, the Afghan government,” McMaster said. “And so, I think that it’s an unwise policy.”

The longtime military man went even further in his book, arguing that Trump “cheapened” the sacrifices of U.S. troops by offering too many concessions at the table.

That McMaster is viscerally opposed to a U.S. drawdown from Afghanistan (or to U.S. drawdowns anywhere; he also opposes a troop reduction in Germany, a country that has been at peace for decades) is not exactly a surprise. During his short tenure as national security adviser, he was a leading proponent of increasing U.S. troop levels and putting additional military pressure on the Taliban to roll back the insurgency’s gains on the battlefield and drive senior Taliban leaders into negotiations with Kabul.

McMaster was so desperate to prevent a withdrawal that he partnered up with Vice President Mike Pence to rehearse the arguments before meeting with the president at Camp David (Pence’s aides denied this at the time). Those arguments turned out to be so flimsy and shallow that they made Stephen Bannon’s counterargument sound like Hans Morgenthau, the intellectual grandfather of foreign policy realism.

In discussions with Trump, McMaster tried to explain that Afghanistan was a bleeding wound that could still be dressed and stitched back together again. As the Washington Post reported in 2017, McMaster “presented Trump with a black-and-white snapshot from 1972 of Afghan women in miniskirts walking through Kabul, to show him that Western norms had existed there before and could return.”

It was a wholly pathetic, last-ditch gambit on McMaster’s part, but it worked. In late August, Trump would deliver an address to the American people and roll out his South Asia Strategy, a key component of which was the deployment of an additional 4,000 U.S. troops into a unwinnable quagmire.

Nearly two years later, in his new home at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, McMaster returned to the same theme, arguing with a straight face that Afghanistan could return to what it was like in the 1970s if the United States was just resolute and patient enough to see it through. 

Naturally, McMaster is not the only national security VIP who has pushed back against cutting the cord on Afghanistan. There are plenty of pundits, analysts, and senior fellows in the Beltway think-tank circuit who continue to strongly oppose concessions to the Taliban and still hold out the unsubstantiated hope of a U.S. victory in this now 19-year war (ask what “victory” entails, and you will usually get a smorgasbord of ridiculous generalities or unattainable objectives, from the “enduring defeat” of terrorists to the establishment of “security and stability” in Afghanistan). 

Writing in Foreign Affairs magazine this year with Vance Serchuk, a foreign policy adviser to former Sen. Joe Lieberman, Gen. David Petraeus advised Americans to “not delude themselves into thinking that Afghanistan will somehow stabilize itself or vanish from the world stage absent U.S. involvement.” They also all but suggest that the next 9/11 could be just around the corner if Washington finally pulled the U.S. military out. 

Others take a more nuanced position of staying the course. The Washington Post editorial board, for example, argued last week that the Trump administration should pace any further U.S. troop withdrawals with progress made in the intra-Afghan talks. The subtext here is, if the talks collapse — which is certainly a possibility — the U.S. military will continue to sit in bases across Afghanistan for as long as it takes to…well…be victorious. 

While there may be minor differences between them, the McMasters of the world are in essence recommending a continuation of what the U.S. military has been doing in Afghanistan for the last 19 years: clobber the Taliban from the air; train and back-up the Afghan national security forces on the ground; fund the Afghan army to the tune of $30-$40 billion a year; and prop up a government in Kabul that spends more time bickering against itself over power-sharing than it does serving its constituents.

McMaster refers to such an approach as a “sustainable” expenditure of American resources compared to the 130,000 troops the U.S. and NATO stationed in the country during the 2010-2011 surge. But the three-quarters of Americans who no longer want anything to do with the war would beg to disagree.

In their defense, McMaster, Petraeus, and many other U.S. military officers who have been involved in Afghanistan (there have been 17 commanders of the war effort over a span of 19 years) are brought up in a “can-do” military culture where everything is possible and no problem is too difficult for the men and women of the U.S. armed forces to solve. Unfortunately, this sentiment can also lead to the very overstretch the American people are so disgusted with.  

H.R. McMaster is more than free to voice his objections. But if he wants U.S. service members to stay in Afghanistan for another 20 years, with no timetable for leaving and with a mission that is far more expansive than the reason Washington went into the country in the first place, the good general should at least be honest and say it openly. 

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