When President Donald Trump announced the selection of Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster as his new national security advisor, I thought back to my days as a young lieutenant in 1991. I served as then-Capt. McMaster’s fire support officer in Eagle Troop, 2nd U.S. Cavalry, and I observed first-hand his outstanding leadership qualities at the Battle of 73 Easting, in which McMaster’s nine tanks and 12 Bradley Fighting Vehicles utterly destroyed an Iraqi Republican Guard armored brigade.
McMaster is among the most accomplished men in uniform today, but his new job provides a greater challenge than any he’s ever faced. He must work to guide American foreign policy at a time when a course correction is long overdue.
McMaster’s qualifications as an army leader are superb. His two major military operations were unqualified successes. When he took over Eagle Troop in 1990, the unit was dysfunctional, disheartened, and in poor shape. McMaster immediately infused it with focus, energy, and drive. After months of training, he led a confident Eagle Troop into the largest American tank battle since World War II, annihilating a brigade of the Iraqi Tawakalna Division. In 2005, U.S. forces in Iraq were foundering under the ravages of a full-blown insurgency. Then-Col. McMaster commanded the 3d Armored Cavalry Regiment, stationed in Nineveh Province near the violent, insurgent-filled city of Tal Afar. McMaster had trained his regiment on the basics of counter-insurgency prior to deployment. Working with political leaders of Tal Afar, his cavalry troopers succeeded in routing the insurgents and returned a sense of security to the city.
While McMaster’s tactical bona fides are beyond reproach, a national security advisor must be much more than an experienced combat leader. In normal times, it would be important to ensure that the person chosen to run the National Security Council has balanced experience set in both diplomatic and military affairs. But in the current Trump administration, it is doubly so.
From Operation Desert Storm in 1991 through his change of command in Afghanistan in 2012, nearly all of McMaster’s military operations abroad accomplished their near-term objectives, yet they failed to achieve sustainable, long-term strategic victory. This is a microcosm of U.S. foreign policy today, and this is why McMaster should challenge the status quo and re-think America’s grand strategy.
President George W. Bush praised McMaster’s success in Tal Afar, claiming he
shows how the three elements of our strategy in Iraq — political, security and economic — depend on and reinforce one another… [and] the people of Tal Afar have shown why spreading liberty and democracy is at the heart of our strategy to defeat the terrorists.
The efficacy of the operation, however, must be examined not in tactical terms of what happened in 2005, but in strategic terms concerning what happened after the city was skillfully liberated.
McMaster’s regiment left Tal Afar in early 2006; before the year was out, sectarian violence had returned. The following year, a truck bomb exploded in a Shiite area of the city, killing 152 and wounding another 347. This physical bomb also ignited a political explosion that, as reported by The New York Times, “set off a wave of reprisals by Shiite policemen and others that left another 47 people dead and shattered the image of Tal Afar held up by American politicians last year as a model of a turbulent city turned peaceful.” This all took place during Bush’s administration. The violence was not because of President Barack Obama withdrawing from Iraq too soon. The city continued to suffer sectarian violence until it was captured by ISIL in June 2014.
Thus, the peace brought to Tal Afar in 2005 by U.S. forces evaporated less than a year after the troops left, descending into violence even worse than that which preceded their arrival. This episode is illustrative of how even brilliant tactical military victories do not always solve regional, complex political problems.
McMaster experienced a similar situation five years later in Afghanistan. In 2010, he was made the commander of the Combined Joint Interagency Task Force-Shafafiyat in Afghanistan. This organization was set up by then-commanding Gen. David Petraeus to get Afghan government corruption under control. McMaster correctly identified the problem in a 2014 report, saying, “Ultimately, Afghan leaders have to become convinced that it is in their interest to take on the problem of corruption and organized crime.”
In November 2016, the independent organization Integrity Watch Afghanistan (IWA) declared that, “In the last 14 years, the Afghan government has failed in the fight against corruption…..Lack of political will and inappropriate institutional arrangements were amongst the key factors behind the total failure.” As with Tal Afar in 2005, despite millions of dollars and years of high quality, professional effort, McMaster’s command – though carried out with integrity and great energy – had no effect on the problem; and today, the Afghan government might be even more corrupt than it was in 2010.
What the United States needs after decades of counterproductive militarism abroad is a new season of restraint, elevating diplomatic and other means of complex problem solving. It does not serve the needs of the country to continually use force abroad – even when effective at the specific mission – if it fails to provide strategic benefits to the United States.
Lt. Gen. McMaster is a highly intelligent man who is a voracious reader and researcher. It is my hope that in this new position he will develop a greater appreciation for the diplomatic instrument. He has performed brilliantly under fire in the most pressure-filled situations. If he can quickly learn to expand his skill set to include an understanding of domestic governance needs, diplomacy, and appropriate restraint of the military instrument, he will serve the president and nation well.
Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former officer the U.S. Army who retired in 2015 as a lieutenant colonel after 21 years, including four combat deployments.
Image: Mario Acevedo, U.S. Army