The word “surrender” is rarely used to describe American foreign policy. Yet that is how H.R. McMaster characterizes the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Testifying to Congress after a chaotic end to America’s 20-year campaign in the country, the retired Army general and former national security adviser lambasted both the Trump and Biden administrations for their roles in unwinding what he calls “a lost war.”
It was not the first time he made important people uncomfortable. You might say he’s made a career of it.
McMaster was a young but accomplished officer and a Ph.D. student at the University of North Carolina when he wrote “Dereliction of Duty,” critically examining the failure of senior military leaders to oppose policies that ultimately led to America’s downfall in Vietnam. He later advised Gen. David Petraeus as he developed counterinsurgency strategies during the Iraq War, and served in the Training and Doctrine Command, crafting the Army’s long-term philosophies. But he was also passed over for promotions that some believe he deserved, even as young soldiers studied battles he won in Iraq.
Ironically, that maverick reputation may have appealed to former President Donald Trump, who made McMaster his national security adviser from 2017 to 2018. In that role, McMaster recently told Deseret Magazine, he presented options for sustaining a manageable level of engagement in Afghanistan, intended to preserve stability in the region and prevent terrorist attacks, and that’s what the president chose to do. McMaster is clearly dismayed that Trump later changed tack, a year after McMaster agreed to resign.
When you talk to McMaster, two realities quickly become clear. First, he says what he thinks, unconstrained by partisan loyalties or social niceties. Second, he believes in the military as both an institution and a collection of individuals who he venerates for their talents and their spirit of service. Our conversation is edited for length and clarity.
Deseret: Was leaving Afghanistan not the right decision?
H.R. McMaster: We left because of a mantra of ending endless wars, and I believe we talked ourselves into it. Our level of effort in Afghanistan had become quite small, especially relative to the peak of that war. By 2018, we had about 10,000 troops there, and the Afghans were bearing the brunt of the fight. It was sustainable as an insurance policy to prevent what’s happening now. That was the path that President Trump initially chose in 2017, but in 2019 he departed from that and initiated what I would describe as capitulation negotiations with the Taliban. In 2021, President Biden doubled down on that.
Deseret: What went wrong in our departure?
McMaster: What you see in Afghanistan are the consequences of a lost war. The cost of the evacuation in terms of Afghan and American lives has already far exceeded the cost of the war in recent years. And it’s striking that we prioritized withdrawal over our own interest. Across both the Trump and Biden administrations, we made concession after concession to the Taliban. We strengthened the Taliban and weakened the Afghan government and security forces on our way out.
Deseret: Nearly half of American adults (46%) say we ought to pay less attention overseas and concentrate more on the problems at home. Why should Americans care about foreign policy?
McMaster: When challenges to our security, our prosperity and our future develop abroad, they can only be dealt with at an exorbitant cost once they reach our shores. This is the fundamental lesson of 9/11. Remember, al-Qaida declared war on the U.S. in the 1990s, but nobody paid attention, even when they first bombed the World Trade Center in 1993. When they attacked our embassies in Africa in 1998, we fired a few cruise missiles and called it a day. Of course, we all know what happened on Sept. 11, 2001. It was devastating.
You can say the same about the COVID-19 pandemic, which China failed to contain. We need a sustainable approach to foreign affairs and national security that recognizes that the world is interconnected. Technology has ensured that the two great moats of the Atlantic and the Pacific no longer provide us with the security that they once did.
Deseret: In foreign policy, are you a realist or an idealist?
McMaster: Those labels aren’t that useful. That polarization is rooted in what I call strategic narcissism, defining the world only in relation to us, and assuming that what we do or choose not to do is decisive in determining the outcome. On what might be called the self-loathing far left, many believe that America is the problem and therefore disengagement is good. And on the far right you have neo-isolationism, driven by a mild form of bigotry. But what they both fail to recognize is that others also have agency and authorship over the future, including our adversaries, rivals and enemies. As G.K. Chesterton observed, the best way to settle differences is to ensure they’re not settled for you.
Deseret: But should the United States be trying to export democracy and engage in nation building?
McMaster: I don’t believe we were trying to turn Afghanistan into Denmark. It just needed to be Afghanistan. That country needed a government consistent with their traditions, with their culture, with their decentralized nature. At the same time, we needed to establish a political order that was hostile to jihadist terrorists. And that’s what we had developed, and that’s what we gave up. Their society had been transformed since 2001, but not into a Jeffersonian democracy. We wasted a lot of effort based on unrealistic assumptions about Afghanistan.
Deseret: A majority of Americans support withdrawal. Why would sticking around be worth all the treasure, toil and lives that it would require?
McMaster: When terrorists have a haven and a support base they become more dangerous by orders of magnitude. That’s what occurred with al-Qaida prior to 9/11 and it’s what occurred in Iraq after our withdrawal in 2011. That December, when Biden was still vice president, he called President Obama and said, ‘Thank you for allowing me to end this war.’ The conceit behind that statement is that wars end when one party disengages. Instead, al-Qaida in Iraq morphed into ISIS, the most destructive terrorist organization in history, conducting well over 190 attacks internationally including the Brussels airport and Paris attacks, and inspired the San Bernardino attack in the United States. The reality is that when we disengage we’re not safer. There are already more than 20 U.S.-designated terrorist organizations along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Deseret: A year into President Biden’s administration, how do you grade his foreign policy? Is America better or worse off?
McMaster: Worse off, for sure. We’re only beginning to see the consequences of the disastrous surrender in Afghanistan, and both the humanitarian and political costs will mount. Remember when everybody was upset about Donald Trump’s mean tweets to allies? Well, we just abandoned the citizens of allied countries in Afghanistan. It’s going to affect American influence, and we’re going to pay a security cost as well. China immediately sent a message to Taiwan that said, ‘Hey, do you think America has your back?’ Look at what just happened over there. Pakistan, who supported the Taliban against us, is essentially a client state of China. And the Russians are emboldened in the region as well. And you’re seeing a whole range of hedging behavior on the part of allies and partners who don’t believe that the United States is reliable.
Deseret: What did the Trump administration do well with regard to foreign policy, and what should the administration have done differently?
McMaster: The shift from cooperation and engagement with China to transparent competition was long overdue. We were clinging to unrealistic assumptions that China, welcomed into the international order, would play by the rules and liberalize its economy and its form of governance. On the other hand, the biggest failures were prioritizing withdrawal from Afghanistan and the tendency to view the greater Middle East as a mess to be avoided under the assumption that problems that develop there stay there and just can’t get any worse. It can get worse.
Deseret: What was it like to work in the White House? Are you satisfied with the job you did?
McMaster: It was a privilege to serve as national security adviser. I was in my 34th year of military service, and President Trump was the fifth commander in chief I’d served. What I endeavored to do was to give him the best analysis and advice from across the departments and agencies of our government, informed by the perspectives of others in academia or the private sector and like-minded partners internationally. And to give him multiple options in each situation, recognizing that he’s the one who got elected. A national security adviser is the only person in the national security establishment who has the president as his or her only client. And I think I served the president well. But it is a competitive environment, and I’m sure this is true across Washington, D.C., in terms of individuals trying to advance narrow agendas.
Deseret: You had a rich career of service. What’s your biggest takeaway?
McMaster: It’s easy to see the challenges and difficulties associated with military service — separation from family, being in dangerous and arduous situations, and most difficult of all, seeing people who you love or care for get killed or wounded in battle. But what many Americans don’t see is how it feels to be part of something bigger than yourself and part of a team where the man or woman next to you is willing to give everything including their own lives for you. What you see in Afghanistan is a cause for heartbreak and disappointment, but it also ought to be a source of pride, because now you can see what our effort there was preventing from happening for two decades. For those who have lost confidence in what America stands for, and serving in uniform, I think the opposite ought to be the case. We need the best of our young men and women to serve now more than ever.