Trump’s Afghanistan Strategy: Old Wine and No Bottle

August 26, 2017–The next presidential election in the United States will occur in four years. The young Marine or GI deplaning at Bagram base then, beginning his first tour in the war, will not have been born yet when the American war in Afghanistan began. That is, assuming the U.S. war effort will not yet, by 2020, have gone down in flames. The predilection of American generals for dated and inadequate strategic formulas–which some officers even recognize as such–is one root of disaster. Another is the monumental arrogance and incompetence of a president who is simultaneously frozen in the face of decision and convinced his strategy–spoon-fed by tiny-minded generals–is the most brilliant ever. All of this is a recipe for endless anguish. And a load of tripe.

You’ll have read in a dozen places already that the United States has little reason to believe it can do with 8,400 troops in-country what it could not when there were 100,000 in Afghanistan. That’s whether or not Trump sends another 4,000–or any other number. Let’s review: When there were a hundred thousand, American troops were conducting their own offensive operations, Special Operations Forces (SOF) put a cap on the effort by targeting the enemy leadership, development programs helped win Afghan favor by building clinics, schools and the like, and there was a reasonably coherent Afghan government–one we perhaps frowned upon, but which actually had a writ that extended past Kabul’s city limits. Besides that, the Taliban enemy had been reduced to a fraction of its former strength. None of those factors applies today.

In Afghanistan today there are no U.S. operations apart from SOF’s special ones. The Afghan military is in the lead but except for their own SOF they don’t fight. Regular troops and national police hold static positions like outposts and checkpoints that merely make them clay pigeons. Recent Taliban and Afghan ISIS strikes in major national army bases, regional headquarters, and even the heart of the government quarter in Kabul, demonstrate that the static security approach is bankrupt. Depending on who you speak to the Taliban control between 50 and 60 percent of the country. Afghan police are suffering their greatest losses ever, while the military has suddenly decided its casualty figures are classified. The latest Afghan reform plan is to expand their SOF from 27,000 to much larger. That is not likely to work either–Afghan SOF constitute a very high proportion of the total force structure and cannot be much expanded without diluting their quality. Moreover, since they are already the general reserve called upon in every emergency, their offensive capability will only be restored within a context in which their effectiveness has diminished.

One American response, one particularly attractive to the CIA, was to work in Afghan localities with local militias and leaders who could call on their followers. While this has produced more troops to staff checkpoints it has not increased government’s overall capability, and has indeed increased the centrifugal forces tearing the country apart. The Afghan president is feuding with his vice-president. Another vice-, a communist general from the 80s, and other muslim warlords from that era, are all reasserting their authority. Indeed, Afghanistan today resembles nothing so much as the warlord state that existed after the collapse of communist rule in the country. Corruption is rampant, eating up the aid that is aimed at helping the nation. General H. R. McMaster, now Trump’s national security adviser, ran an anti-corruption campaign in his most recent tour of Afghan duty. He saw up close and personal the depth of corruption and disintegration of the government. Now the Trump strategy–of which McMaster is an architect–assumes a stable Afghan government. McMaster even sided with other military chiefs this past July in shooting down a different strategic approach which did not make that assumption. Hal McMaster charged an earlier generation of U.S. generals with dereliction of duty for not speaking the truth to Lyndon Johnson in the Vietnam war. Here you see McMaster doing the same thing for Donald J. Trump. I call him “Appropriate Dereliction” McMaster. He has decided dereliction of duty is a good thing.

Other generals were responsible for convincing President Barack Obama to shift from a stance of steady withdrawal to one of determining the course of action by looking at the state of the war. The Taliban were worn down then, but they were reforged in the heat and darkness and have re-emerged stronger than ever. Chasing their heels are an even fiercer Afghan ISIS. The Russians, sensing an opportunity for payback from the CIA covert operation in the 1980s, are moving to help them. The Chinese seem to be headed in that direction too. The role of Pakistan–on which the U.S. defends, but which Trump has threatened–is cloudy. If war conditions dictate action this is a formula for conflict without end. That is why our 18-year old GI will be arriving at Bagram in 2020. Donald Trump explicitly promised a U.S. victory, and he said that America will attack. Under the prevailing conditions there might be a broken-backed attack but there will be no victory.

McMaster’s Un-Appropriate Dereliction

August 11, 2017–As the world staggers toward an entirely unnecessary nuclear abyss I have to question–again–the alleged competence of General H. R. McMaster, currently serving as national security adviser to President Donald J. Trump. Pictures of General McMaster sitting alongside President Trump as the latter hurled threats at North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, further exacerbating tensions brought on by nothing more than words plus weapons testing, are supremely distressing. The function of a national security adviser is to keep a president’s foreign policy system operating efficiently and to furnish the president insightful advice on the policies themselves.

General McMaster has accomplished neither. When he attempted to jettison some of the overblown ideologues who had been brought on to the National Security Council (NSC) staff by his predecessor, McMaster was blocked by White House political potentates. His efforts to tone down presidential rhetoric were similarly derailed. When Mr. Trump attended a NATO summit and neglected to affirm a fundamental United States security alliance, McMaster tried to represent his boss as having said what he did not, in fact, say. At an international conference in Hamburg, Germany, where Trump continued to mouth patent falsities, McMaster proclaimed the president’s remarks “appropriate.”

H. R. McMaster achieved an undeserved intellectual reputation I argued, based on his book Dereliction of Duty.  There he described the strategic level of United States leadership during the Vietnam war. McMaster criticized the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) for giving President Lyndon B. Johnson false impressions of the practicality of U.S. strategies, and accused them of dereliction of duty for not providing the nation’s top leader with their real views. Years ago–as long ago as 2009–I showed in my book  Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War  that the McMaster charges were unfounded, that the JCS had in fact repeatedly offered the president a standard, set view, of what the strategy should be. That the JCS had wrong ideas of what might work does not make them guilty of dereliction. In any case, in principle, one should hope that senior advisers do guide–or nudge, if they have to– presidents toward good policies.

From that standpoint it appears that General McMaster very quickly gave up on nudging his president, and soon after that became an enabler for presidential crankiness. At that point I wrote a reflection observing that McMaster, following his remark quoted above, had learned “Appropriate Dereliction.”

Generals are trained in deterrence and in the tenets of credibility. H. R. McMaster certainly knows enough to see that Trump, with his “fire and fury” rhetoric, is painting himself into so tight a corner that he may have to use force simply to preserve his credibility. It was incumbent on McMaster to steer his president away from that fateful, stupid, place. Instead McMaster sat at Trump’s side as an authenticator, while Mr. Trump thundered away. Today General McMaster is no longer just guilty of Appropriate Dereliction, he has moved up to Un-Appropriate Dereliction as well.

Trump: Lurching Through the Swamp

July 9, 2017–If you thought President Donald J. Trump’s first foreign trip a disaster, the second has been even more extraordinary. In fact we’ve yet to finish mopping up the detritus of the first trip–Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is off from Hamburg to try, by shuttle diplomacy, to mediate the Saudi blockade of U.S. ally Qatar that Mr. Trump approved on that first trip. Here, on the second, more booby-traps were set.

For starters let’s look at the prep. You do something, mess it up, and do better the next time, right? Some of the talking heads–the ones who weren’t praising Mr. Trump’s alleged brilliance–took that line after the first trip. Now? I bet they all speak of our brilliant president. But the truth is neither of those things applies. Brilliant results? We’ll get to that in a minute. But better preparations? Laughable! The Polish leg of this trip amounted to pure PR stunt. Warsaw merely provided backdrop for a saber-rattling speech.

The Hamburg summit, a meeting of the Group of 20, the union of the world’s largest economies, was bound to be problematic given Trump’s climate denialism and anti-trade stances. Despite that, careful advance work could have minimized the damage. Instead, Chancellor Angela Merkel, the German host, brought together Europe, Russia, China and Japan–everyone but the U.S.–in a show of unity. A photograph of a break in the conference, with Mr. Trump sitting alone by himself while officials from all over the world chattered excitedly behind the table, said it all. The United States is not just alone it is irrelevant. This from the man who was going to make America great again.

Donald Trump’s much-discussed meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin took place at Hamburg. This first encounter of the two presidents was the most significant event of the trip. Worth getting right. From the perspective of United States foreign policy, Mr. Trump did everything possible to make this event a disaster. He made it impossible to keep a tangible record on the U.S. side. He permitted no professionals or experienced advisers in the room. He resisted having an agenda. As a result the Russian foreign minister went off to claim one thing, with the American secretary of state left to paint a picture that could differ only in nuance without inviting Moscow to contradict him. This arrangement may have suited Donald Trump’s personal interests–but that only shows, again, that this president puts personal ahead of national interest.

Back to Warsaw. White House staffer Stephen Miller bragged about Trump’s speech, which appears to have been reaching for an invocation of the inaugural address, but one with a more international flair. The most pompous rhetoric, invoking the “decline of the West,” was attributed to Mr. Trump personally, on Air Force One, as Miller, national security adviser H.R. McMaster, and the president huddled over the text. Here’s a fresh failure from “Appropriate Dereliction” McMaster (see, “H. R. McMaster: Appropriate Dereliction,” in this space, May 17, 2017). To say there is an existential threat to the existence of the West is a huge (“Yuge”?) distortion of reality–and, if there is, an America backing away from NATO is in no position to contain it. For Donald Trump to assert he will be the West’s savior is pure bombast. General McMaster ought to have warned his president against this bit of foolishness.

Trump took the occasion in Warsaw to denounce the U.S. media and American intelligence services, once again, for speaking of a Russian political influence operation aimed at America’s 2016 election. Not only was that an improper act–carrying the nation’s internal disputes to foreign lands, Trump used the assertion as platform for asking Polish leaders if they have similar problems with their press. As it happens, the Polish government has been imposing authoritarian restrictions on media, which Donald Trump supported with this sally. This amounts to extending, not draining, the swamp.

And it put Trump in the worst possible position to begin his unscripted talk with Vladimir Putin. Obliged to raise the issue of Russian political meddling, Trump started from where he had denounced this as “fake news.” He virtually invited Putin to denounce the charge, which the Russian was happy to do. At the end, Secretary Tillerson tried to extend the cloak of invisibility over the covert operation, using the old saw that what is important is to move forward, not dwell in the past. As Air Force One took off for the return to the U.S., the New York Times put out the story of yet another meeting with a Russian connection–organized by Donald Jr., and attended by campaign big shot Paul Manafort, and presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner, this one took place a month ahead of the political convention that nominated Trump for the Republican Party.

General McMaster, on the plane, declared that “What the president and Secretary Tillerson charged us with as they came out of the [Putin] meeting is what we’re going to do going forward.” Watch out for the booby-traps.

 

 

“Appropriate Dereliction” McMaster’s At It Again!

June 5, 2017–In case you thought I was too hard on Hal McMaster several weeks ago (“H.R. McMaster: Appropriate Dereliction,” May 17, 2017), here’s more–he’s at it again. Remember, by the way, that “dereliction” is his word, not mine. “Dereliction” is what McMaster accused the military’s top officers of doing when, during the Vietnam war, they hesitated to express their hard-nosed visions of reality to President Lyndon Baines Johnson. Today, General McMaster is doing the same, covering for our simpleton president instead of educating him. McMaster held that the Joint Chiefs of Staff were derelict in not resigning when LBJ kept to his own course. General McMaster today is also doing the same thing for which he accused the Joint Chiefs of dereliction. The word “appropriate” is also from McMaster. In his previous sally he excused the actions of President Donald J. Trump as entirely appropriate. Hence we have “Appropriate Dereliction” McMaster.

In a speech over the weekend to the “Global Forum” conference of the American Jewish Committee, General McMaster engaged in fantasy and articulated falsity. It is a fantasy to say, as “Appropriate Dereliction” did, that Israel and its Arab neighbors are on converging paths. McMaster and Trump may believe this is a moment of opportunity, but we will be unable to take advantage of any such chances if we misunderstand the national interests of the involved states and the global context which drives them. McMaster also asserted that President Trump, on a visit with NATO leaders, had reaffirmed United States support for Article 5 of the NATO treaty, which Trump did not do. Quoting Trump’s warm up before his denunciation of NATO allies as an affirmation is fake news. There is a reason why allies like Germany are running around questioning America’s steadfastness–and it’s not because Trump supports them. McMaster’s damage control effort is appropriate dereliction.

So is “Appropriate Dereliction’s” comment on Trump and the recent terrorist attack in London. Where the president is poking at British officials and using the incident as fodder for his own political goals, McMaster evades any reference to Trump’s major display and quotes merely the single statement of support the president made before misrepresenting the mayor of London. The United Kingdom is a NATO ally. How does Trump’s action square with Article 5? Appropriate dereliction again.

Seventy-three years ago today American and British troops–plus contingents from many nations that are now NATO allies, were in the middle of the English Channel, on their way to invade France, clear northwest Europe, and end World War II. The Joint Chiefs of Staff approved that mission. The architects of that operation and the postwar alliance would be aghast at the antics of “Appropriate Dereliction” McMasters.

 

H. R. McMaster: Appropriate Dereliction

May 17, 2017–Now the truth stands revealed. When then-Lieutenant Colonel McMaster published his book Dereliction of Duty in the middle 1990s he got an extremely friendly reception. He rode that to generals’ stars, command in Iraq, scuttlebutt finding him a suitable candidate for chief of staff of the United States Army, and more. Today, Lieutenant General McMaster is national security adviser to the President of the United States. On the White House podium yesterday it all came tumbling down.

There were some more doubtful observers of the McMaster parade, me among them. I always thought McMaster’s argument about the Vietnam war a cheap shot. I said so in historian circles and in my book Unwinnable War. The thesis in McMaster’s book was that the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) and NSC staff at the time of the Vietnam war played the inexcusable roles of enablers by going along with President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s strategy–partial, cautious steps, fragmentary escalations–instead of demanding action on their real, much more forceful menu of operations. By McMaster’s lights this left the United States on an uncertain, wavering course, meandering through history to defeat in Vietnam. I thought McMaster wrong both in general and in detail. It was not true the JCS never held out for their “large solution” operations. What was true was rather that each time a major strategic review occurred the Chiefs argued for the large solution. Lyndon Johnson, acutely aware of the dangers war in Vietnam could morph into war with China or Russia or both, consistently resisted the maximum escalation. While LBJ staged scenes to denounce and embarrass the generals they never, in fact, gave up their underlying strategy. They were never guilty of dereliction of duty in the sense that H. R. McMaster (and the U.S. military) use the term.

The generals (and NSC staff) did act to preserve the dignity of the president and his office. They did not complain of the president’s high handedness. Only one, Army chief Harold K. Johnson in 1967, contemplated resigning in protest (hoping LBJ might agree to war mobilization and an invasion of North Vietnam to dissuade him). He didn’t do it–and he, too, kept his silence on what had happened.

McMaster’s prescription in his book was that an official, faced with such a dilemma, must resign in preference to dereliction of duty. Yesterday, in reality, the general met his Waterloo. Elevated to national security adviser, Hal McMaster serves Donald J. Trump. The president blocked his national security adviser from ousting staff who made trouble, prevented McMaster from keeping offensive rhetoric out of Trump’s public comments, and kept silent as the president called him a “pain.” In the past week the general no doubt watched in horror as President Trump fired the FBI director even as evidence of an attempt to manipulate a federal investigation began surfacing. Then, a few days ago, Mr. Trump blabbed to visiting Russian officials of secrets given the United States by an intelligence ally, reportedly Israel. This violation of every protocol regarding handling of classified information, Mr. Trump defended with the bland defense that, as president, he can declassify any intelligence.

General H. R. McMaster stood up for President Trump. He denounced the Washington Post’s report that Trump had leaked classified information, “It didn’t happen.” Why not? Not because it did not happen but because a president can decide to declassify secrets. Yesterday McMaster took the podium at the White House. He made more excuses for Trump. “The president wasn’t even aware,” the general said, “where this information came from.” The president had an “absolute right,” the general said. Nine times the general insisted that what President Trump had done was “wholly appropriate.”

Lieutenant General H. R. McMaster did not resign in protest. He did do precisely what his forebears had done during the Vietnam war–act to preserve the dignity of the office of the president. General McMaster seems to have discovered appropriate dereliction of duty.

Beware the White Knight McMaster

February 23, 2017–Do you hear the swooning? The country is almost heaving sighs of relief over President Trump’s appointment of Army Lieutenant General H. R. McMaster to preside over the National Security Council (NSC) staff in place of the departed Michael T. Flynn. The oohs! and aaahs! are audible. Suddenly the perception is that Mr. Trump is enlisting an adult to run his inside-the-White House national security staff, so rationality will prevail. The gossip is also that the NSC structure Trump laid down in one of this early presidential directives will be revised (again) to bring back the director of national intelligence, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and CIA chieftain. Before we go too far, though, I want to register a “Not so fast!”

Part of the continuing problem is structural. What President Trump did, long before appointing McMasters as national security adviser, is create competing centers of power at the White House. None of them is the NSC staff. The president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, obviously has The Donald’s ear any time he needs it. Strategist Stephen Bannon reflects the political base of Trump’s power, and he has an agenda. He will not be crossed, or dismissed, unless the president decides on radical surgery and holds on to the tiller come what may. Reince Priebus mirrors the Republican party hierarchy that Mr. Trump needs to govern. He has an agenda too. For all of them the national security adviser is a target, someone to enlist to further their goals. Some objectives of the assorted White House power centers may overlap but others do not–and no amount of overlapping is going to do away with the equally thorny competition among the potentates for who gets the credit for each thing they do.

From this point of view Mike Flynn actually had an advantage. As an ideologue on his own account, one whose opinions were close to Trump’s, Flynn almost had the jets to stand up to the policy predators. General McMaster lacks such preordained positions. He might have strong prescriptions for strategy in Afghanistan and Iraq, but across the Trump administration policy spectrum McMaster has an empty file cabinet waiting to be filled. Expect to see more, rather than less, engagement from the predators.

Much of the relief bandied about with General McMaster’s appointment centers on the historical conclusions he drew in a Vietnam history published in 1997, Dereliction of Duty. Many see McMaster as finding the military leaders at the time of Vietnam as wanting–failing in their duty to tell truth to power and kowtowing to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s (LBJ) agenda by keeping their silence and not telling him his strategy was flawed. That construction is mistaken. General McMaster actually delivered a much more conventional interpretation in which LBJ, the military’s civilian leaders, and the White House staff shared responsibility. The secretary of defense at the time, Robert McNamara, in this version of history, moved from distrusting the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) to misleading them, and McNamara plus LBJ created the illusion that decisions to attack North Vietnam were alternatives to war rather than war itself. According to this logic the course led to planning for failure, and then a war without direction.

I critiqued McMaster’s analysis in 2009 in my book Unwinnable War  where I noted a number of things off with that construction. For one, LBJ’s views on Vietnam were opaque, and varied from day to day. McMaster cited only the telephone conversations where Johnson wanted no war, not those where LBJ spoke of “touching up” Hanoi. It is true that Robert McNamara rode herd on the JCS, but the charge the military were derelict is thin. Quite the opposite is true: every time they were asked for an opinion the Chiefs recited a litany that included cross-border operations into Laos, bombing, mining, and ground troops in great numbers. That litany would be recited as early as the Tonkin Gulf incident of August 1964, and over time they added more elements. In 1967, when Congress held hearings on the bombing, the military openly and publicly denounced McNamara’s approach. As for the directionless war, there is no evidence the Joint Chiefs had any more innovative a military strategy in mind than did the president.

Meanwhile, senior military leaders were well aware of the political impact of their public views. Then–as now–the military were guarded and diffident about what they said. H. R. McMaster should have been well attuned to that aspect, which, at the time he was writing, had most recently been demonstrated in the Gulf War of 1990-1991, when Joint Chiefs chairman Colin L. Powell had kept silent his differences with then-defense secretary Dick Cheney. What goes around comes around–in the prelude to the Iraq invasion of 2003, Army chief of staff Eric Shinseki did openly express a different view from his political superiors–and he was promptly let go. The diffident silence which McMaster found so objectionable when looking back at Vietnam is the norm, not the exception.

In the Trump administration today the military has a different planetary configuration. It is not only General McMaster as security adviser, but also General James Mattis as secretary of defense, and General John F. Kelly as secretary for homeland security. Other military men occupy numerous positions on the NSC staff, including McMaster’s current deputy. Some of the public’s relief at the McMaster appointment actually stems from the thought these officers will be the “adults” who rein in the outlandish proposals of the president and his henchmen, but that is unlikely for two reasons: the norm of deferring to the political leadership (reinforced in McMaster’s case, by the way, because he remains on active duty, and therefore subject to regulations about what can be said about [and to] a chief executive); and the limited knowledge and experience of these military men outside their chosen profession. Meanwhile McMaster will be under intense pressure to conform to the views of the various White House power centers.

The McMaster appointment does not get citizens out of the woods. President Trump’s activities will continue to provoke and  distress. A more likely role for the military men in this presidency–as General Mattis has already shown–is to sooth nerves shaken up by the president. We’ll see.