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Gen. McMaster: Raiders, Advisors And The Wrong Lessons From Iraq

Posted by Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. on

WASHINGTON: On the tenth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, one of the Army’s leading thinkers warned Washington not to learn the wrong lessons.

[Click here from top Army generals on Iraq: Shock and Awe? Never again!]

Army Maj. Gen. H.R. McMaster, now chief of the tank and infantry school at Fort Benning, singled out two pitfalls in particular, one about over-reliance on Special Operations raiders, the other about over-reliance on proxies and advisors. Call them (our words, not his) the Zero Dark Thirty fallacy and the Lawrence of Arabia fallacy.

The first mistake is what McMaster called “a raiding mentality”: the idea that we’ll get a “fast, cheap, and efficient” victory if we can only identify the crucial “nodes” — enemy leaders, nuclear weapons sites, whatever — and take them out, whether with a Special Ops team like the one that killed Bin Laden, a long-range smart weapon, or a drone, McMaster said in his remarks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“That’s a fundamentally unrealistic conception,” said McMaster. “We know raiding and an attritional approach” — i.e. just killing enemies until the survivors give up — “did not solve the problem in Iraq” (or for that matter Vietnam). “Targeting does not equal strategy.”

At its worst, a raiding approach is a militarized version of “George Costanza in Seinfeld, ‘leave on an up note’ — just go in, do a lot of damage, and leave,” McMaster said to laughter.

The second fallacy, McMaster said, is that “we have exaggerated what we can accomplish through proxies or partners.” There’s a real value to T.E. Lawrence-like advisors who can guide a foreign force to victory, and the Army’s spent a lot of time learning how to do that, with McMaster as one of the leading advocates of cultural and language skills.

But partners can only do so much on your behalf. Increasingly, McMaster said, you hear the argument that “‘We’re in fiscal constraints, so let’s just outsource it to other armies. We’ll just provide small advisory teams… and we can get them to fight wars in a way that is consistent with our vital interests.'”

The problem is that “our interests are not always congruent with those of our so-called partners,” he said, speaking from bitter experience in Iraq. “We were enthusiastically ‘building capacity’ for Iraqi police forces and the Ministry of the Interior,” he said, at the same time those agencies were riddled with Shia extremists, including agents of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, who just went on to use their American-provided arms and training to perpetrate torture, death squad hits, and outright “sectarian cleansing” that drove many Sunnis into the arms of al-Qaeda.

In Afghanistan, likewise, some of our painstakingly built-up partner forces have used US aid to better extort their own people, helping to fan discontent that the Taliban can exploit. “Building partner capacity,” to use the current jargon, is important, but you need to pick your partners, McMaster said: “What about the politics? Whose capacity are we building? How does that capacity relate to who’s in power within these security forces, and how would they use that power?”

“War is an extension of politics,” McMaster said. “There’s been a great deal of talk, as you know, about AirSea Battle” — the influential Air Force-Navy concept for future war — “[and] we talk about sea control, which is an important concept, but we never talk about land control, and land is where people live; land is where these problems emanate from.”

Through US history, McMaster said, “our tendency is to decide what we would like to do [and] then assume that’s going to be relevant to the problem…. We make these projections into the future that are unrealistic and, as a result, we create vulnerabilities that our enemies exploit.” At times, he said, American strategy can be “almost narcissistic.”

Asked after his public remarks if he were challenging the administration’s January 2012 strategic guidance, which emphasizes Special Operations and building partners, McMaster said the strategy was “fine,” but it was important to balance those tools of statecraft with other ones — say, a sizeable land army equipped with heavy armored war machines like the proposed Ground Combat Vehicle, which he took time out to extol.

“Don’t expect too much of anything,” McMaster told clustering reporters. “There’s no silver bullet solution…. You need to have a broad range of capabilities that you can apply in combination, based on the situation.”

The problem, of course, is a “range of capabilities” costs more than a single solution at a time of shrinking budgets. The manpower-intensive ground operations that McMaster and his fellow counterinsurgency theorists are associated with have gone out of fashion. Witness the fact that the room today at CSIS wasn’t packed, even for one of the icons of “COIN,” and even while 60,000 US troops continue to conduct counterinsurgency in Afghanistan. In such an environment, how do you sell the Army’s continued relevance to policymakers?

“It’s not my job to sell it,” McMaster told Breaking Defense. “You just provide your best professional assessment… In a democracy, you get the army that the people are willing to pay for.”

What do you think?