Lieutenant Colonel John Bolton, U.S. Army, is a doctoral candidate at Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies. He previously commanded Bravo Company, 209th Aviation Support Battalion, served as the Executive Officer for 2-25 Assault Helicopter Battalion, and the Brigade Aviation Officer for 4/25 IBCT (Airborne). He is a graduate of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College’s Art of War Scholars Program and holds degrees in military history and mechanical engineering. An AH-64D/E Aviator, he has deployed multiple times with Engineer, Aviation, and Infantry units.
Title: McMaster, Afghanistan, and the Praetorian Mindset
Date Originally Written: November 20, 2021.
Date Originally Published: December 20, 2021.
Author and / or Article Point of View: The author believes some national security professionals are taking the wrong lessons from Afghanistan, blaming a non-existent lack of public support for the failure of the American campaign.
Summary: Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, USA(ret) recently blamed the U.S. public for a “lack of support” in Afghanistan. McMaster’s claim evokes the legacy of dangerous “stabbed in the back” mentalities that emerged after Germany’s defeat in WWI and the U.S. Army’s withdrawal from Vietnam. Instead of blaming others, the U.S. military would benefit from a far-reaching study to discover the institutional lapses and shortcomings that precipitated failure.
Text: Retired U.S. Army Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, former Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs (APNSA), has rightfully lambasted the U.S. withdrawl from Afghanistan as embarrassing. However, McMaster goes too far in calling the withdrawl a “defeat” with severe implications for American credibility. More troubling, in a recent column, McMaster blamed the U.S. public and unnamed leaders who allegedly failed to back the American military. According to McMaster, “There are a lot of people in senior positions in government who have never led anything… they’ve never done anything except maybe in academic environments or write policy papers.”
McMaster is wrong about Afghanistan and his narrative endorses a praetorian mindset – one dangerously close to the “stab in the back” dogmas that took hold in Weimar Germany after World War I and among the American Military Officer Corps after Vietnam. Leaving Afghanistan will have few, if any, long-term effects on American security but the war’s impact on civil-military relations portends pernicious tensions, especially if military leaders adopt McMaster’s mentality.
McMaster says America was fighting “one-year wars” in Afghanistan for two decades, obscuring the reality that the U.S. military chose this rotational model and often failed to adapt to local conditions. But the 2017 Afghanistan “surge” engineered by McMaster while he was APNSA was more of the same. The McMaster Surge did not quell violence, deter the Taliban, nor generate effective (or loyal) Afghan Defense Forces. From 2017-2020 Americans did more of the same: hunting the Taliban and training and foisting expensive equipment on poorly trained and often barely literate Afghan forces. Americans were also dying. During the author’s 2017-18 tour, six Soldiers died during a time when Afghans were supposedly in the lead. “Bureaucratic capture” is the only way to explain how otherwise intelligent professionals can endorse logically inconsistent, sunk-cost arguments about a strategically unimportant place.
Rather than explain why Central Asia has relevancy at home, McMaster and others have made expansive credibility arguments – we must stay there because we are there. In doing so, McMaster bastardizes historian Zachary Shore’s “strategic empathy.” But instead of understanding the domestic and cultural sources of U.S. adversaries’ actions, McMaster’s “strategic empathy” justifies expansive American action by equating all challenges as likewise threatening. Better to employ a rational consideration of interests and achievable ends, especially amid a public justifiably skeptical of employing force. Moreover, American credibility has shades – eschewing a non-vital commitment in Afghanistan is hardly relevant to the enduring North Atlantic Treaty Organization alliance, for example. Tellingly, according to McMaster, violating the 2019 U.S.-Taliban agreement and staying in Afghanistan would not have affected American credibility.
Despite the folly of throwing good Soldiers after bad policy, McMaster and the praetorians see no systemic failure in American national security institutions. Instead, McMaster blames the “defeatist” U.S. public for a lack of support – as if 20 years and trillions of dollars materialized without public consent and Congressional support. If anything, the public and Congress were far too lenient with oversight of the Afghan efforts, largely bequeathing whatever national security leaders wanted.
The irony of a former APNSA decrying “policy paper writers” is palpable but McMaster certainly knows better. An accomplished soldier-scholar, his doctoral thesis (later turned in the book Dereliction of Duty) savaged senior officers who allowed President Lyndon Johnson to lurch America toward tragedy in Vietnam. Once U.S. forces began fighting, the Joint Chiefs of Staff did little to question U.S. Army General William Westmoreland’s fundamentally flawed strategy. Consequently, Johnson felt boxed in by his own military advisors. Unfortunately, in an unnerving reprisal, American strategy in Afghanistan developed little beyond asking for “more time,” “more money,” “more troops,” while leaders proclaimed “great progress” or “being on the right azimuth.” To paraphrase the Afghanistan Special Investigator General John Sopko, “so many corners were turned, we were spinning.” When Americans did speak out, as in the case of a U.S. Army Special Forces officer who grew tired of his Afghan partner’s pederasty or an officer who described rampant false reporting in 2012, they were ignored.
As documented by the Washington Post’s “Afghanistan Papers,” false hopes and false reporting were mainstays of Afghanistan strategy across multiple administrations. A 2014 Army report demonstrated the war’s toll on the ethics of Army Officers, finding lying and false reporting had become “common place.” Officers, the report said, were often “lying to themselves.” Civil-military distrust arising from Afghanistan needs to be analyzed in this context. If the public shares blame, it is for being too credulous – treating soldiers like saints and senior leaders as anointed heroes, too pious to be questioned, let alone contradicted. Blaming the public is insipid at best and dangerous at worst. Here McMaster espouses a praetorian view of civil-military relations grossly out of step with the American tradition.
Leaving Afghanistan is exactly the exactly the type of prioritization McMaster called for in his 2017 National Security Strategy. While the Afghanistan withdrawal was embarrassing, leaving demonstrates that United States can make unpleasant distinctions between what is long-standing and what is vital. A perpetual counter-terrorism mission in Afghanistan would (and did) distract from other regions. Rather than abandon a failed project, McMaster continues to advocate for doubling down on efforts that were often corrupt and ineffective. It is foolhardy to adopt a national security paradigm predicated on long-term occupations and defense posture anathema to the American public and much of Congress.
McMaster is an American hero, not only on the battlefield but in the war for the intellectual soul of the U.S. Army. His views on warfare helped shape a generation of officers, including the author. But his correct view of war’s nature has not translated into feasible policy. By failing to distinguish concerns from vital interests this worldview lacks the wherewithal to make difficult strategic decisions.
America is and will remain the world’s sole superpower. But even massive reserves of power are finite, requiring an adept strategy based on a healthy understanding of the world as it is. Good strategy also requires an engaged but not overly deferential public. U.S. policy will succeed when it prioritizes threats and interests and aligns them with the resources available, not assuming it can do as it wishes abroad with no consequences to the nation’s budget, civil-military relationship, or moral standing.
 McMaster quoted in Hal Boyd, “Gen. H.R. McMaster on America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan,” Deseret News, October 27, 2021, https://www.deseret.com/2021/10/27/22747222/general-hr-mcmaster-on-americas-withdrawal-from-afghanistan-trump-national-security-adviser-biden.
 H.R. McMaster, “Honor Veterans by Having the Will to Win,” Wall Street Journal, November 10, 2021, https://www.wsj.com/articles/honor-vets-the-will-to-win-war-military-service-veterans-day-afghanistan-taliban-mcmaster-11636576955
 McMaster quoted at the 4th Great Power Competition Conference, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dvx1rmU-QAU&t=2093s
 See Summers, On Strategy and Evans, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich for discussion of the “stabbed in the back” narratives.
 McMaster interviewed by Chuck Todd, Meet the Press, August 29, 2021, https://www.nbcnews.com/meet-the-press/video/mcmaster-afghanistan-a-one-year-war-fought-20-times-over-119712325910
 See Human Rights Watch, “Afghanistan: Events of 2018,” https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2019/country-chapters/afghanistan; Craig Whitlock, “Afghan Security Forces’ Wholesale Collapse Was Years in the Making,” The Washington Post, August 16, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/investigations/afghan-security-forces-capabilities/2021/08/15/052a45e2-fdc7-11eb-a664-4f6de3e17ff0_story.html
 See Alexandra Kuimova and Siemon T. Wezeman, “Transfers of major arms to Afghanistan between 2001 and 2020,” SIPRI, September 3, 2021, https://www.sipri.org/commentary/topical-backgrounder/2021/transfers-major-arms-afghanistan-between-2001-and-2020.
 McMaster, lecture to George Washington University’s Elliot School of International Affairs, March 2021, https://gwtoday.gwu.edu/hr-mcmaster-stresses-strategic-empathy-effective-foreign-policy
 Anna Shortridge, “The U.S. War in Afghanistan Twenty Years On: Public Opinion Then and Now,” Council on Foreign Relations, October 7, 2021, https://www.cfr.org/blog/us-war-afghanistan-twenty-years-public-opinion-then-and-now
 Kyle Rempfer, “Trump’s former national security adviser says the public is fed ‘defeatist narrative’ that hurts the US in Afghanistan,” Military Times, May 9, 2019, https://www.businessinsider.com/hr-mcmaster-defeatist-narrative-hurting-us-afghanistan-strategy-2019-5
 See “Afghan ISAF commander John Allen sees ‘road to winning’,” BBC News, February 10, 2013, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-21399805; Sara Almukhtar, “What Did the U.S. Get for $2 Trillion in Afghanistan?,” The New York Times, December 9, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/12/09/world/middleeast/afghanistan-war-cost.html; Chris Good, “Petraeus: Gains in Afghanistan ‘Fragile and Reversible’; Afghans Will Take Over in Select Province,” The Atlantic, March 15, 2011, https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2011/03/petraeus-gains-in-afghanistan-fragile-and-reversible-afghans-will-take-over-in-select-provinces/72507.
 Dan Grazier, “Afghanistan Proved Eisenhower Correct,” Project on Government Oversight, November 1, 2021, https://www.pogo.org/analysis/2021/11/afghanistan-proved-eisenhower-correct/
 See Joseph Goldstein, “U.S. Soldiers Told to Ignore Sexual Abuse of Boys by Afghan Allies,” The New York Times, September 20, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/21/world/asia/us-soldiers-told-to-ignore-afghan-allies-abuse-of-boys.html; Dan Davis, “Truth, Lies, and Afghanistan,” Armed Forces Journal, February 1, 2012, http://armedforcesjournal.com/truth-lies-and-afghanistan
Craig Whitlock, “The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War,” The Washington Post, December 9, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2019/investigations/afghanistan-papers/afghanistan-war-confidential-documents/
 Leonard Wong and Stephen Gerras, “Lying to Ourselves,” Strategic Studies Institute, February 2015, https://press.armywarcollege.edu/monographs/466
 The White House, “National Security Strategy,” https://trumpwhitehouse.archives.gov/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/NSS-Final-12-18-2017-0905.pdf
 SIGAR, “Corruption in Conflict: Lessons from the U.S. Experience in Afghanistan,” September 2016, https://www.sigar.mil/pdf/lessonslearned/sigar-16-58-ll.pdf