The most important thing to know about Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, President Trump’s new National Security Adviser, is that he’s not a fan of committing troops to action if they, or their allies, can’t hold the territory they seize — in his terms, “consolidate their gains.” His previous comments suggest that he’s skeptical of surgical special operations raids and drone strikes absent a realistic plan to change political realities on the ground.
Back in February 2015, when McMaster was the deputy commanding general of futures at the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, he offered an indirect—but unmistakable—critique of the light-footprint approach to dealing with escalating conflicts in places like Iraq, the approach that the United States was taking toward the Islamic State, or ISIS.
McMaster, who had first gained fame as the tank commander in the Gulf War’s Battle of 73 Easting, then solidified his credentials as a thinking soldier with the well-received Dereliction of Duty, said that the chaos in Afghanistan and the parts of Iraq and Syria then held by ISIS was the fault of multiple parties but stemmed from a single cause: a failure to consolidate gains. Read that to mean the deployment of a substantial number of troops, enough to manage the transition of an occupied territory into a reliable U.S. ally, or at least a stable country.
“Control of territory is significant,” said McMaster at a meeting of the Defense Writers’ Group, pointing out that ISIS’s hold on broad swaths of Iraq allows them “to perpetuate the kind of conflict that gives them power.”
A few days later, he elaborated on that point at the New America Foundation’s Future of War event in Washington D.C.
“The lesson of Iraq and Afghanistan,” he began, “…my personal belief the lesson is that we did not do it the way we could have done it. We could have done it more effectively, because we did not plan for it effectively, because we did not recognize that this was an enduring requirement in a post-conflict situation we were unable to consolidate gains effectively and that created opportunities for our enemies to gain strength…
“The lesson for today is somebody has to consolidate gains and we’ve always had to do it,” he said, referring to the United States. “If you look across our history, American military forces, except in conflicts where the political objective was very narrowly circumscribed, we’ve had to consolidate gains,” he says.
It was still possible to degrade and destroy ISIS, but “we made it as hard on ourselves as we could have” by not understanding the need commit to changing the political reality on the ground through the presence of either U.S. troops or allied troops capable of doing the job, he said at the Writer’s Group.
He blamed the situation in Iraq on the country’s own leaders, who had failed to build on “the temporary and fragile victory we achieved from 2007 to 2009. But he also offered blunt criticism of the administration of George W. Bush. It was, he said, “pretty clear the planning for the war in Iraq was inadequate, and that was an intellectual failure.”
The inability to consolidate gains may be what eventually got us into trouble in Iraq, but the U.S. remained wedded to the light-footprint approach throughout Obama’s presidency, preferring to send in advisors and special operators and drones.
In 2015, McMaster was careful to point out that he perceived his Army job as carrying out the strategy of the commander-in-chief, but his comments also pointed to a rift in the way some military leaders—particularly in the Army—viewed the ISIS fight and the way the Obama White House went about it.
A better solution to Iraq would have looked something like the U.S. military occupation of Korea. Indeed, the Army had recently released its U.S. Army Operating and Training Concept, a set of guideposts explaining its approach to training soldiers for the world of 2020-40. The section on “gains consolidation” highlights the need for Army commanders to “understand cognitive, informational, social, cultural, political and physical influences affecting human behavior…emphasis on early and effective consolidation activities as a fundamental part of campaign design enables success and achieves lasting favorable outcomes in the shortest time span.”
“Now who consolidates gains should not matter as long as you are getting to that sustainable political outcome,” McMaster said at the New America Foundation event. “But what’s necessary to consolidate gains? It always has been military support to indigenous security forces who take on increasing responsibility, the development of security forces that are capable but also legitimate, you know, trusted by the population. It’s military support to governance and rule of law consistent with their traditions…so you can deny the enemy the ability to operate freely among those populations.”
McMaster’s bottom line: “It’s very difficult to achieve sustainable political outcomes from standoff range,” he said. So go big or…don’t go.