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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 11/18/21

HR McMaster and what lost Afghanistan

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Retired general and former National Security Advisor HR McMaster published a Veterans Day op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal. Reflecting on the defeat in Afghanistan and pondering future conflicts, he warns that leaders must have the will to see things through. Otherwise young Americans will not join up and our voluntary military will be endangered, as will our ability to respond to threats around the world.

Twenty years of war, unfathomable sums of money, and grim streams of casualties don't betoken lack of will. It's unfortunate that a public servant of his stature has responded not with sound analysis of the defeat but with tendentious exhortation to do more and more.

Paradoxically, McMaster's doctoral thesis excoriated civilian and military leaders for failing to come to grips with the Vietnam War. Tellingly, he thinks it could have been won. But not all wars are winnable, any more than all wars are begun after careful thinking. In the previous century, leaders of many countries showed iron will and fought on year after year - often to bitter, ignoble, ruinous ends. Fortunately none were American, until the 1960s.

Several years into our Afghan war serious problems emerged that cast doubt on the chances for success. The Afghan government was deeply corrupt. No blandishments or threats from Washington could change that. Many Afghans mistrusted their government, wouldn't support it, and let it fall.

US development projects were lavishly funded but poorly managed. Schools, irrigation systems, roads, and the like were begun but rarely finished. Billions of dollars disappeared, foreign banks prospered. SIGAR, a US government watchdog group, documented the immense swindle in weekly reports.

The Afghan military was no less corrupt and more inept. Soldiers of one ethnicity didn't trust those of rivalrous ethnicities serving beside them. Officers from company-level to chiefs of staff got their jobs though political connections, not professional achievements. Vulnerable outposts couldn't rely on food and ammunition, reaction forces, or even pay. An army divided against itself will not fight. American personnel saw the problems firsthand but wrote misleading reports year after year. The denouement came last August.

Insurgents enjoyed safe havens in and support from Pakistan. American officialdom, civilian and military, knew this but refused to act, even though generous American aid flowed into the Pakistani military the whole time. In time, Russia and Iran began aiding the Taliban as well.

These formidable problems were clear ten years ago. Washington tried a troop surge, counterinsurgency programs, drone strikes, and increased air power. The Taliban continued taking district after district.

The war was lost, Washington was at sea. Leaders, civilian and military, did not have the will to admit it. They gutlessly stayed the course and continued squandering American money, lives, and dignity. They were not faithful to America or the young men and women entrusted to them.

The best way to honor our soldiers and veterans is not by calling for greater will. It is by seeing they are commanded by leaders who understand conflict regions, recognize the limits of what the military can do, and have the integrity and will to admit failure. If we do not, we cannot expect young Americans to join up. Our voluntary military will be endangered, as will our ability to respond to threats around the world.

 2021 Brian M Downing

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Brian M Downing is a national security analyst who has written for outlets across the political spectrum. He studied at Georgetown University and the University of Chicago, and did post-graduate work at Harvard's Center for International (more...)

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