McMaster’s appointment has been met with bipartisan praise, which is rare in the currently polarised US polity.
While he led celebrated operations in both the Gulf Wars, McMaster’s reputation as one of the US army’s foremost soldiers was forged with his Dereliction of Duty – a book that delineated the mistakes made by the joint chiefs of staff by deferring to political leadership, which contributed to a hubristic Washington plunging into the disastrous Vietnam War.
While Iraq has largely shaped his professional career and was where he introduced new counter-insurgency tactics, McMaster is also familiar with the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, where he served from 2010-2012. As head of the Combined Joint Inter-agency Task Force Shafafiyat (Transparency), he had the mandate to conduct International Security Assistance Force’s anti-corruption activities and clean up the contract system which had flushed in an enormous amount of money into a fragile Afghan political and social structure. The Afghan stint gave him unique insight into the US’s mistakes and lessons, which combined with his Iraq experience, could help to balance Trump’s more ideological aides like Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller.
Last year in May, McMaster told Small Wars Journal that Afghanistan’s requirement was “to be strengthened and hardened against the regenerative capacity of the Taliban which lies across the border in Pakistan.”
This would require a multi-pronged approach – one of which would have to be reconciliation talks to reach a political settlement between the Afghan government and violent groups, he argued.
“…to do that effectively it is going to take a political accommodation between Pashtun groups because the nature of the conflict in Afghanistan is primarily an intra-Pashtun civil war. It also takes a political accommodation between Pashtun populations and the other ethnic groups,” he said in an interview in May 2016.
Both, Kabul and New Delhi are not particularly enamoured by the description, ‘intra-Pashtun civil war’ – used by some western Afghan scholars – as it seems to give a free pass to the involvement of foreign powers from the beginning.
This lack of foresight to plan a political future after the end of the conflict has been a recurring theme in McMaster’s speeches and writings.
What can a military man bring to the table?
Less than a month ago (January 25), he was asked during an interaction with a London-based think tank about his views on what a military officer can bring to ‘political space’. The question was then in the context of Trump surrounding himself with retired generals, from Jim Mattis as secretary of defence, John Kelly as homeland secretary, to Michael Flynn who resigned as national security adviser.
McMaster’s answer was pat, “What a military officer [brings to the table] should be expertise, his professional knowledge of war and warfare”.
While civilians, he implied, put forth strategies of war, they only understood war or its limitations, superficially. “And one of those fallacies which do not consider the nature of war – [that is] we wage war for sustainable political outcome,” he noted.
“The idea of regime change without paying due attention to what is the political order that will replace that regime that started us off quite badly both in Afghanistan,” he added.
In Afghanistan, he believes that the outcome of the Bonn process – which excluded certain groups – had contributed to the determination of the Taliban to re-emerge after their defeat.
The Afghan civil war “was perpetuated in part by a perception that there had been the establishment of exclusionary political economies that left key elements of the population outside the tent”.
“Those became recruiting grounds for the Taliban groups, various Taliban groups – Haqqani network, Hizb-i-Islami Gulbuddin and Quetta Shura Taliban,” he asserted during a discussion hosted by Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in March 2013.
The Hizb-i-Islami have recently signed a deal with the Afghan National Unity Government, which includes immunity and removal of UN sanctions against Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Kabul has paraded the deal as a successful example of political settlement, even as they point fingers at Pakistan for not being able to bring the Taliban to the table.
Russian presence in Afghanistan
With the Trump administration in a chaotic transition process, Russia has taken the lead in Afghanistan – for the first time since the Soviets left – to find a political solution. This has left New Delhi at a disadvantage. Russia has advocated a settlement to bring the Taliban into mainstream politics in Afghanistan. Moscow sees ISIS as the main threat in the region, a view that Pakistan agrees with. The Taliban is seen as a lesser threat and is seen as the only group capable of taking on ISIS.
While McMaster has publicly talked about his views on some of the key markers on the path to defeat ISIS in Syria and Iraq, he has not dwelled at length on the presence of ISIS in Afghanistan. This omission might mean that he shares the view of top US military officials that ISIS is mainly re-packaged TTP militants, who have some link to Pakistani security agencies.
Returning to the Taliban, McMaster does understand that Pakistan is key to the “behaviour of the enemy and external support for the enemy”. He argues for the use of diplomacy to convince Islamabad to abandon supporting illegal armed groups and terrorist groups “who continue to destabilise the situation not only in Afghanistan but also in Pakistan itself”.
But, he has never taken a direct potshot at the Pakistani government, unlike some other US army officers who have been frustrated at Islamabad’s lack of cooperation in closing down terror shelters.
A 2012 Wall Street Journal article about the general’s Afghan posting also remarked about this reticence.
As per the report, McMaster had pointed out that Afghans were increasingly viewing the Taliban as “a tool of hostile foreign intelligence agencies” – a perception which helped to persuade local villagers to assist US military special forces in remote regions against the terror group. “Still, it’s easy to get carried away by the glimmers of hope, and the general is very much a realist. For one thing, Pakistan remains a haven for insurgency, and General McMaster says little more than it ‘remains to be seen’ whether Pakistan’s leaders will conclude that their interests lie in defeating the Taliban,” the report said.
There were two other necessary ingredients, McMaster stated, for Afghan stability. One of them was “strengthening” the security forces through rule of law so that “the population believes its interests can be advanced and protected through those state or local institutions and through politics rather than through violence”.
The other, which is key to India’s Afghan policy, is to “sustain international support”. McMaster had said,
“Situations in which a weak government is under siege by powers that are destabilising, require a strategy to address both the internal and external political dynamics…. We have to recognise that these are long term problems and there are no short-term solutions for these long-term problems.”
With the 2014 drawdown of international troops, New Delhi has been apprehensive that resultant loss of western media and political interest would lead to a complete withdrawal, sooner than later. With Afghan security forces suffering from manpower and equipment shortage, this would have be an advantageous scenario for Taliban – and by extension, Pakistan.
Therefore, pushing the US political leadership to remain consistently involved in Afghanistan is a key part of India’s policy in the region.
From both Iraq and Afghanistan, McMaster said that central moral was that any military operations, even with overwhelming technological superiority, had to be “part of a larger campaign that included diplomatic, development, and political efforts if it wanted to capitalise on battlefield wins”.
With McMaster in White House, the US military may get a valuable ally for their proposal to increase troops from the current 8,400. The US defence secretary, Mattis has said that he will suggest whether or not to increase the number of soldiers to the president.
A major lesson that the US military learned in Afghanistan, he noted, was that it could not totally depend on proxies to fight the US’s wars. In a breakfast chat with reporters in February 2015, McMaster said that the US used proxy militias to defeat Taliban.
“That unwittingly empowered the militias to morph into organised crime networks and otherwise engage in crime,” said Foreign Policy’s account of the interaction. The proxy militias “hollowed out institutions that we, the international community, were trying to build,” he told the journalists.
With McMaster urging the US military to learn from its mistakes, the general was pointedly asked by an audience member at a recent talk that his advice on proxies was not exactly in line with policy in Iraq and Syria where the Kurds and other rebel groups are fighting ISIS.
“An over-reliance would be flawed. There will have to be reliance,” he asserted, adding, “There is no way to get to a sustainable outcome without primary responsibility being on those who are going to stay in that region and have to craft and live with some kind of political accommodation”.
A new world order?
Incidentally, McMaster’s reading list for ‘military professionals’, published in April 2013, recommended two books which delineated Pakistan’s links to terror groups: Peter Bergen’s masterpiece on US’s war with Al-Qaeda and the Bruce Riedel’s Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America, and the Future of the Global Jihad.
On North Korea, McMaster has said that it was “very difficult to overstate” the danger from the nuclear-armed hermit country.
While he considers Iran to be a principal threat in middle-east with its “clear vision” of propagating ‘Hezbollah model’ in weak Arab states, McMaster does not seem as a strident Tehran-baiter – at least, compared to his predecessor. A more tempered view of Iran will certainly be helpful to New Delhi, so that it can pursue the development of a strategically crucial port of Chabahar without threat of imminent sanctions.
In his London speech made three weeks ago, McMaster warned that the current geo-strategic situation is “eerily familiar and looks analogous to 1914”. “So we have I think a highest chance, threat, risk of a major war, great power war than we have seen in seven years,” he said.
And the risk of a ‘great power war’, McMaster implied, was due to the endeavour of both Russia and China to “collapse the post World War Two and post-Cold War political, economic and security order and replace that order with a new one which is more sympathetic to their interests”.
Towards this end, both these “revisionists powers” had employed a “very sophisticated strategy” of unconventional military power and a campaign of “political subversion, disinformation and propaganda, economic actions of broad range of proxies, including organised crime networks and so forth”.
It is not known if McMaster shared his view with Trump about Russia being involved in “political subversion”, but his view is certainly more in line with the position of US security establishments than with Trump.
On China, he has described Beijing’s activities in South China as being in violation of international law. “China is building islands and positioning military capabilities there in an effort to intimidate the countries in the region and establish a degree of hegemony. China’s actions in the South China Sea lead to questions about its intentions and its commitment to uphold a rules based international system,” McMaster said last year, even before an international arbitral tribunal had declared Chinese action as illegal.
For the first time since inauguration day, an aircraft carrier from the Pacific fleet is on “routine operations” in the South China sea, with the US studiously avoiding the phrase ‘freedom of navigation’ patrols. The Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, predictably, criticised the US presence: “..we are consistently opposed to relevant countries threatening and damaging the sovereignty and security of littoral countries under the flag of freedom of navigation and overflight”.
McMaster has described Russian and Chinese strategic behaviour as ‘probing powers’, borrowing the term from Jakub Grygiel and Wess Mitchell’s book. “[They] are probing on the frontiers, far reaches of American and British power and have been successful to certain degree and therefore, become emboldened,” he told a UK audience.
However, it remains to be seen if McMaster, who remains a serving army officer, will be able to exercise considerable influence with Trump in the White House, especially when ideologues like Steve Bannon have had the upper hand. The continued presence of Bannon in the National Security Council might be an indicator of his influence, especially since Trump has reportedly promised McMaster to seriously consider removing Bannon.