REQUIRED READING – AT 10:49 A.M. ET: The Wall Street Journal runs an important interview by David Feith with Major General H.R. McMaster, one of the most prominent military intellectuals of our time, on the war in Afghanistan.
I am not, to be truthful, that familiar with McMaster's work. I'd be interested to hear opinions about him from the military professionals among our readers. In this interview McMaster argues forcefully that the war in Afghanistan can be won. He quotes Grant: "The distant rear of an army engaged in battle is not the best place from which to judge correctly what is going on in front."
"The difficulties are apparent," says the two-star Army general, "but oftentimes the opportunities are masked."
For a sense of those opportunities, consider some of the metrics of battle. When Gen. McMaster arrived in Afghanistan in July 2010—as President Obama's surge reached full strength—enemy attacks numbered 4,000 a month. A year later, they had dropped to 3,250. In March, there were 1,700. Every month from May 2011 through March 2012 (the latest with available data) had fewer attacks than the same month the year before, the longest sustained reduction of the war.
Meanwhile, Afghan security forces will number 350,000 this summer, up from 240,000 when Gen. McMaster arrived. Afghans now lead nearly half of all combat operations. Eight million Afghan children attend school, including three million girls, compared to one million and zero girls in 2001. Where finding a telephone 10 years ago often required traveling a full day, now more than 12 million Afghans own cellphones (out of 32 million total).
"Our soldiers, airmen, Marines and sailors, working alongside Afghans, have shut down the vast majority of the physical space in which the enemy can operate," says Gen. McMaster. "The question is, how do we consolidate those gains politically and psychologically?"
I was not aware of the details that McMaster gives. So much for the mainstream media. The school and cellphone figures are remarkable.
Yet the Afghan War's most important factor, in his view, could be the Afghan people's expectations for the future. "Why did the Taliban collapse so quickly in 2001?" he asks. "The fundamental reason was that every Afghan was convinced of the inevitability of the Taliban's defeat."
Today it's not clear who the strong horse is, so many Afghans are hedging their bets. "What you see in Afghanistan oftentimes," the general says, "is a short-term-maximization-of-gains mentality—get as much out of the system as you can to build up a power base in advance of a post-[NATO], post-international-community Afghanistan."
Near the end of our interview, we turn to the future of American warfare. U.S. troops are scheduled to end combat operations in Afghanistan in 2014, perhaps sooner. Focus is turning from the Middle East to East Asia, and to the air and sea power required in the Pacific.
Does that mean that for the foreseeable future the U.S. won't "do" another Afghanistan or Iraq? "We have a perfect record in predicting future wars—right? . . . And that record is 0%," says the general. "If you look at the demands that have been placed on our armed forces in recent years, I think the story that will be told years from now is one of adaptability to mission sets and circumstances that were not clearly defined or anticipated prior to those wars."
That's fortunate, Gen. McMaster makes clear, in light of Clausewitz's 200-year-old warning not "to turn war into something that's alien to its nature—don't try to define war as you would like it to be."
COMMENT: If you can, read the whole piece. It's well worth it. Agree or disagree, McMaster presents some very stimulating ideas.
May 13, 2012