Reflections on the Continuities in War and Warfare
SWJ Discussion with Major General H.R. McMaster
Major General Herbert Raymond (H.R.) McMaster is the commander of the US Army Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning, Georgia.
SWJ: Sometimes history rhymes. There are a lot of parallels between the current situation and the context of the US in the mid 1970s, after the Vietnam War. Then, we were leaving behind a long conflict; we faced a draw down in defense capabilities, while returning to some small-footprint solutions (training and advising) in Central and South America. The domestic mood was one of uncertainty about the US role in the world. What are some of the big lessons of the Vietnam Era and post-Vietnam Era that we should keep in mind as we move forward post-Iraq and Afghanistan?
MG H.R. McMaster: There are important first order lessons from Vietnam, ones that are consistent with the study of war broadly across time and war under different conditions and periods. The first lesson associated with Vietnam is that war is in fact an extension of politics and in any war military operations have to be conducted in such a way that they contribute to sustainable political outcomes consistent with vital interests that are at stake in that war. To consolidate military gains politically, the military effort has to be integrated with all elements of national power. The failure to do so was of course one of the biggest problems in Vietnam.
Another important lesson from Vietnam is that it is critical to consider the regional and global context of local conflicts. Many of the situations in which we will find ourselves in war demand both internal solutions (security, economic, social, political) and external solutions such as getting neighbors and others to either reinforce the resolution of the conflict or to at least to not undermine it.
Another lesson from Vietnam is that wars are profoundly human endeavors. That means we need to pay particular attention to the drivers of conflict, including local dynamics as well as regional factors, and understand that cultural, ethnic, tribal, and religious factors can affect the course of war and its outcome in a profound manner. Therefore, defense concepts must take into consideration the social, economic and historical factors that constitute the human dimension of war. We often neglect those factors.
SWJ: Technology and rational choice were key features of “the graduated pressure approach” implemented by the US during the Vietnam War. Why didn’t it work?
MG H.R. McMaster: It didn’t work because it was based on a definition of the war as we wanted the war to be and it was inconsistent with the real character of the conflict in Vietnam. It was based on not only a misunderstanding of that particular conflict, but also cut against the enduring nature of war-- war as an extension to politics, war as profoundly human, and war as inherently uncertain due to continuous interaction with the enemy and other destabilizing factors that makes the future course of events uncertain. Graduated pressure took a sort of systems engineering and predictive approach to war. It didn’t take into account the essential cultural and historical factors that influence the future course of war. It was based essentially on the explicit assumptions that the Ho Chi Min and the Vietnamese Communists would respond to bombing attacks and other forms of pressure on the North similar to the way the rational man in English Common Law would respond. Graduated pressure was based on the assumption that applying just enough military force would signal American resolve and persuade the enemy to alter his behavior by changing his calculation of interests. It was a narcissistic approach to war. It defined the war as certain people would like the war to be and it didn’t give agency to the enemy in Vietnam.
SWJ: Are we at risk of pivoting too sharply towards an RMA-like, force-on-force construct?
MG H.R. McMaster: There is a danger that we will return to the orthodoxy of the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) that dominated defense thinking in the 1990s. The RMA neglected continuities in warfare and focused on only one factor that affects the character of war, which is technological change. If we regard the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as aberrational, we risk failing to consider recent historical experience. In fact, these wars possess many continuities with past wars. We have to be careful that budget pressures do not push us toward simple solutions to the complex problems of future war. We should recognize that the orthodoxy of RMA. grew out of a fundamentally narcissistic approach to war and the associated belief that we could determine the future character of conflict mainly by developing technologies (advances in communications, in information collection capabilities, precision munitions, robotics) that would allow us to achieve military dominance mainly through the application of firepower onto land from the aerospace and maritime domains. We must be careful not to neglect the fundamental nature of war, as a profoundly human and political endeavor that is inherently uncertain. In the end, people fight for many of the same reasons today as they did 2,500 years ago when Thucydides said people fight for three reasons: fear, honor and interest. I recommend Donald Kagan’s On the Origins of War: And the Preservation of Peace, which is quite good on this particular point of why nations fight and the impact that has on the prospects for sustainable peace and how to understand the causes of wars.
SWJ: People’s wars tend to be driven by political, social and economic grievances. Fixing the starting causes does not require a technology-oriented solution. Does this mean that “winning” such wars ultimately requires some form of state-building or even nation-building?
MG H.R. McMaster: Most often, winning in armed conflict requires the achievement of a sustainable outcome consistent with a nation’s vital interests, those that were threatened and caused the initiation of the war. In both Iraq and Afghanistan we tried to allay fears of minorities, preserve each group’s sense of honor, and convince communities that they could best protect and advance their interests through politics rather than through violence.
SWJ: In their latest book, Counterinsurgency in Crisis, David Ucko and Robert Egnell emphasized that “war is about politics and politics is about people; it follows that war is intimately tied to the people over or among whom it is being fought”. How can we ensure that there is a local political strategy that takes advantage of the security bubble that a military effort in counterinsurgency can create?
MG H.R. McMaster: The first step we need is to ensure we develop an understanding of the local dynamics (political, historical, ethnic, sectarian, religious factors and trends) in a particular region because ultimately what is necessary for the sustainable peace at the local level is an accommodation between various groups who may be in competition with one another for power, resources and often times, survival. What complicates this picture and drives the broader conflict is the ability of transnational terrorist organizations and insurgent groups to take advantage of those local competitions for power, resources or survival by portraying themselves as the patron or the protector of one of the parties in competition. Oftentimes, as we’ve seen, Al Qaeda or an associated group portrays themself as a patron of a local group and tries to gain control through brutality and intimidation and then to retain their sponsorship among the population by perpetuating and accelerating cycles of the communal conflict at the local level. What is necessary is to isolate these extremist groups psychologically, politically and ultimately physically from the vast majority of the population--whether they are Shia Islamist Militias associated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps of Iran, or Takfirist Groups associated with Al Qaeda. To cope with a communal conflict, it is often necessary to break that cycle of violence and to deal with the human dimension of war: to first understand the tribal, sectarian and ethnic dynamics and then to mediate some sort of outcome that is sustainable and thus remove support for the extremists. What this takes is an accommodation between competing groups that addresses their fears, sense of honor and interests in such a way that they believe they can advance their interests through means other than armed violence.
SWJ: In a time in which we won’t have the option to invest in large-scale state building exercises, how can we become better at influencing or changing the calculations of sub-Westphalian, tribal groups and local communities?
MG H.R. McMaster: Understanding is again the first step, so that we can work with partners whose interests are aligned with ours to address the drivers of the conflict to address the threats to our interests and those of our allies. Developing that sort of understanding is crucial, but also is recognizing that these are not only conflicts in the physical, military battlegrounds but that these are often conflicts that operate on multiple different battlegrounds: those of perception or political subversion. For example a problem all civilized people have is of irreligious groups using religion to advance criminal or political agendas. They draw power from ignorance; they use ignorance to foment hatred and hatred to perpetuate violence. You can see this in a dramatic fashion in the Tribal Areas of Pakistan, where these groups have schools and madrassas that they run that are mainly brain-washing factories, a way to mobilize adolescents into the armed conflicts that they perpetuate. So this battleground is one of education and perception. If you consider what is most responsible for undermining apolitical settlement in Afghanistan and driving the conflict there, the most critical battleground is one of political subversion. Hezbi Islami Gulbadin, for example, has penetrated key institutions of the Afghan Government, at the local and national level. They use a sophisticated propaganda and political subversion campaigns to weaken the Afghan government and undermine our efforts there.
SWJ: You were a pivotal actor in turning around Tal Afar in 2005. Later it became a textbook case study in waging counterinsurgency. What mattered in winning the support of the local community and of the tribal elders? What changed in their calculations?
MG H.R. McMaster: The most important thing was to understand the character of conflict, the nature of our enemies, of the enemy organizations and ask first-order questions: what did this organization want to achieve? What is their strategy? It was also important to gain visibility into the enemy’s network structure in order to understand what was ultimately the source of their strength and the weaknesses of that organization. Ultimately it came down to an effort to isolate these insurgent groups from the population. The way we did this was to undertake very effective military operations to secure the population, break the cycle of violence and weaken the enemy organizations. What was important was to address some of the psychological drivers of the conflict: to understand the fears, sense of honor and interests of these communities. Once we developed that understanding it was essential to be able to trace the population grievances back to the enemy and to insure that the enemy organization could no longer portray itself as patron and protector. Rather, the enemy began to be accurately perceived as the source of the brutality, of the violence, the source of all the grievances associated with the breakdown in city services (the schools being closed), as well as Iraqis’ ability to vote and have a say in their government. Tracing grievances back to the enemy and at the same time clarifying our own intentions with words and deeds was extremely important in reshaping the local environment. We relentlessly pursued the enemy but we also made clear to the population that, together with our Iraqi partners, we were committed to protecting them and providing a better future for them.
SWJ: Which were your main COIN formative experiences that provided insight in preparing you for Tal Afar? What did prepare you for this campaign?
MG H.R. McMaster: I had the real privilege to travel all over Iraq from 2003 to 2004 and see every brigade multiple times. There were brigades that were very effective in conducting counterinsurgency operations. That was often due to the imagination and ability of commanders to understand the problem and adapt quickly. But it was also due to the amount of force that was available. Oftentimes in Iraq in the early days, because the forces were stretched so thin, and as this decentralized hybrid localized insurgency coalesced, many of our forces had few other options but to conduct raids to strike and disrupt the insurgency. These actions would occasionally confirm enemy propaganda and exacerbate some aspects of the security problem. I learned a lot from other brigade commanders in 2003-2004. Because the 3rd ACR did a tremendous job in Iraq in that first year in Iraq, we were able to unpack a lot of lessons when I joined it in the summer of 2004, with only 8 months before our return to Iraq. Our leaders in the regiment helped shape our general approach to the problem sets as they were evolving in Iraq. And finally it was from the study of history, as Sir Michael Howard recommended it, in width, in depth and in context, looking at previous insurgencies and counterinsurgency campaigns to help us ask the right questions and be able to frame our efforts more effectively. Ultimately a lot of Iraqis helped us and we augmented that expertise with an officer who had a history PhD and wrote his thesis on the 1920 revolt against the British. He helped us understand the tribal and historical drivers of the conflict.
SWJ: What was the role of The Combined Joint Inter-Agency Task Force-Shafafiyat in the larger framework of the Afghan comprehensive civilian-military COIN campaign? What lessons should we take from this exercise in fighting domestic crime networks, but also in changing the calculations/incentive structures of Afghan bureaucracies?
MG H.R. McMaster: Our mission was to reduce the threat of corruption and organized crime, and do so alongside our Afghan partners, so that this threat would no longer challenge the viability of the Afghan state and our mission in Afghanistan. The first lesson was, again, to understand the nature of the problem and one of the key things that we recognized was that this was fundamentally a problem of political will on the part of the Afghan leaders to take on these issues. The problem of political will was connected to how the political settlement has evolved in Afghanistan and how it became reliant to some degree on tolerating the illicit activities of some criminal organizations in exchange for loyalty to the political establishment and maintaining the status-quo. The criminal networks that were penetrating and subverting state institutions and functions were motivated, like any other criminal organizations, by traditional purposes, but also by political objectives which were mainly related to consolidating power in a post-ISAF Afghan environment. All of these factors manifested themselves in a short-term maximization of gains mentality that was destructive to the Afghan state.
SWJ: What will be the American Way of War in the coming decades?
MG H.R. McMaster: First, any soldier knows better than anybody that the first thing you want to do is to deter conflict. What we need to do is to maintain a very capable joint force so that those who would take actions that would threaten our security or the security of our allies abroad would realize such a decision is unwise from the perspective of their interests because they would be subjected to defeat. I think that a balanced joint force capable of preventing conflict and deterring conflict is the first priority.
Secondly, what our force should be prepared to do, to have an effective deterrent effect and to win conflicts, is to ensure that the Joint Force is capable of defeating enemy organizations. Defeat means that the enemy can no longer effectively pursue its strategy or threaten our vital interests. But our force also must be able to shape security environments through effective engagement and provide military support to activities that are essential to consolidating security gains and achieving sustainable political outcomes that are consistent with our vital interests and are worthy of the sacrifices of our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines.