The Cable

For Army General, Military Risks Self-Delusion If It Ignores Past Wars’ Lessons

For someone tasked with thinking about the future, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster is obsessed with the past. In the hour he spent talking with reporters on Thursday morning, the historical lessons came fast and furious, as McMaster discussed Napoleon, the 2006 Lebanon War, Vietnam, the Korean War, the bombardment of London during World War II, ...

‘Afghanistan needs military leaders of courage, competence and character’
The Combined Joint Interagency Task Force Shafafiyat commander, U.S. Army Brig. Gen. H.R. McMaster, visited the National Military Academy of Afghanistan Dec. 7 to discuss the importance of military core values. McMaster provided the more than 1,800 cadets with the key factors into how and why, in the course of conflict, soldiers and leaders can at times be drawn into immoral or unethical behavior.

For someone tasked with thinking about the future, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster is obsessed with the past.

In the hour he spent talking with reporters on Thursday morning, the historical lessons came fast and furious, as McMaster discussed Napoleon, the 2006 Lebanon War, Vietnam, the Korean War, the bombardment of London during World War II, and why combat vehicles were first designed during World War I to restore mobility on the Western Front.

But for McMaster, who leads the Army Capabilities Integration Center at its Training and Doctrine Command, the most relevant lessons for preparing the Army for the future come from the wars just fought in Iraq and Afghanistan. And forget 2025, the year McMaster is supposed to be planning for: Many of these lessons have direct implications for conflicts the United States is engaged in today, from Ukraine to Syria to Iraq.

“I think in many ways what we learn from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq could in the future be as important as the outcomes of those wars,” McMaster said at a breakfast Thursday. “If we learn the wrong lessons, we’ll engage in the kind of self-delusion that we engaged in in the 1990s, which set us up for many of the difficulties that we encountered in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

The “Revolution in Military Affairs,” a concept popular inside defense policy circles in the 1990s, predicted that the U.S. military, armed with superior technology, would be able to easily defeat its enemies. The lingo of the time included terms like “full-spectrum dominance” and “rapid, decisive operations.”

“War was going to be fast, cheap, and efficient,” McMaster said.

After 12 years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, more than $1 trillion spent, and U.S. troops now returning to Baghdad after leaving in 2011, that kind of thinking looks naïve and foolhardy.

“War is anything but certain, because of its human and political nature,” said McMaster, who’s been a longtime critic of the idea that technology can fundamentally change the bloody reality of war.

In his current role, McMaster is committed to making sure the Army accepts and embraces the hard-won lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan by including them in training and doctrine manuals. But some of these lessons’ implications apply to the broader U.S. government and are not within the Army’s power to change. “The Army does whatever the president or [defense] secretary asks it do,” McMaster said. But that didn’t keep him from warning about the consequences of repeating history’s mistakes.

“I’m not questioning any policy decisions, but Libya is an example of what happens when you don’t consolidate military gains,” McMaster said, referring to the U.S.-led NATO bombing campaign in 2011 that unseated Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi. Since then, Libya has been wracked by violence and infighting, a chaotic situation that has allowed the Islamic State to make inroads into the country.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, the military learned too late that its operations had to be part of a larger campaign that included diplomatic, development, and political efforts if it wanted to capitalize on battlefield wins, McMaster said.

For him, a key lesson out of Afghanistan — and one that is extremely relevant to today’s anti-Islamic State strategy — is to be careful of the proxies that you empower on the ground.

In Afghanistan, he said the United States used proxy militias to topple the Taliban. That unwittingly empowered the militias to morph into organized crime networks and otherwise engage in crime. It also left the door open for the Taliban to return and win over factions that were excluded from the political structure that was created with U.S. support.

In doing so, the militias “hollowed out institutions that we, the international community, were trying to build,” McMaster said.

A similar thing happened in Iraq after American troops left. Former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, took advantage of his power to target and disenfranchise the country’s Sunni population, which in turn created feelings of mistrust that fueled the Islamic State’s rise.

Another takeaway from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is the need to understand the enemy and to explain what’s at stake to the American public, McMaster said.

That may already be the case in the fight against the Islamic State, which has mastered the art of propaganda to advertise its brutality. But otherwise, McMaster said, it’s difficult to convince Americans to be patient with, or agree to fund, wars.

“How many Americans can name the three Taliban groups?” McMaster said. “Can you imagine fighting a war in the past and not even be able to name the enemy?”

Photo by Army Sgt. Tamika Dillard

Kate Brannen is deputy managing editor at Just Security and a contributor to Foreign Policy, where she previously worked as a senior reporter. @K8brannen

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