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McMaster's Afghanistan Plan Offers Knowledge Without Wisdom

by LAWRENCE SELLIN, PHD August 29, 2017

Like physical education majors, Army officers often get extra credit when they are able to muster a modicum of intellectual rigor, which could be the case for then Major H.R. McMaster, who wrote "Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, The Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies that Led to Vietnam, the 1997 book highly critical of the Vietnam-era military and political leadership, the academic equivalent of shooting ducks in a barrel.

After stripping away the shock and awe of a "soldier-philosopher" or "warrior monk" lauded for constructing coherent sentences without a sprinkling of "f-bombs," a soberer analysis of McMaster's contribution to the literature can be framed.

At the time when McMaster's book was published, Dr. Steven Metz, Henry L. Stimson Professor of Military Studies, US Army War College concluded:

"While ‘Dereliction of Duty' might set new standards for stridency in its criticism of America's entry into Vietnam, it does not offer radically new ideas, evidence, or concepts" and "does not add substantially to the literature on Vietnam."

Then Dr. Metz focused on what he considered McMaster's core criticism of the decision-making process during the lead-up to the Vietnam War:

"whether the United States could ever again take a dangerously astrategic approach to national security as the Johnson Administration did in Vietnam, making decisions having profound strategic implications without considering the strategic objectives or assessing possible long-term effects."

I think that question has been answered about McMaster, albeit satirically, in the May 2017 article entitled "Dereliction of Duty' Author Urges Escalation of Unwinnable, Never-Ending War," which succinctly captures McMaster's re-fighting of the Vietnam War in Afghanistan:

"McMaster, who rose through the ranks as an unconventional military thinker, dismissed comparisons to the Vietnam War, in which the US military tried to prop up the failing Diem regime amidst an insurgency sponsored by North Vietnam, and the war in Afghanistan, in which the US government is supporting the faltering government in Kabul against a Pakistan-sponsored insurgency.

It would be laughable, if it was not so tragic for the troops who have fought there, both in Vietnam and Afghanistan.

McMaster himself stated that his motivation to write "Dereliction of Duty" was because "I wondered how and why Vietnam had become an American war-a war in which men fought and died without a clear idea of how their actions and sacrifices were contributing to an end of the conflict."

He describes victory in our longest war as:

"Winning in Afghanistan means that there are no terrorist groups who are able to control key parts of the territory or population centers there that could be used to mobilize resources, raise funds, use those funds to then organize, plan, and conduct attacks against us and our allies and partners."

That has been the objective since 2001. The problem is, not the objective, but the strategy to achieve that objective. McMaster does not seem to have grasped the fact that the strategic conditions on-the-ground are significantly different than they were in 2001.

Stated simply, McMaster's Afghanistan plan has been overtaken by events.

Pakistan's objectives for Afghanistan have always been different than those of the United States. Pakistan has always controlled the supply of our troops and the battle tempo, through its support of the Taliban and other Islamic terrorist groups like the Haqqani network. The leverage Pakistan wields in that regard is stronger than ever.

It is not the Taliban that needs to be "convinced" to come to the negotiating table, but Pakistan.

There has been an exponential growth of radical Islamic groups in Pakistan, one manifestation of which is the Islamic State (ISIS) fighters, who, although originating in Pakistan, we are now engaging in eastern Afghanistan.

The Islamic State is less an entity than a brand name, which individuals or groups adopt in their search for ever purer and more intolerant forms of Sunni Islam. That process has been underway in Pakistan for decades. As long as the ideology exists and, in fact, is nourished, the Jihadi pipeline will never be empty.

The evolution of Islamic extremist ideology in Pakistan is complex, but I will provide two high-level examples.

The Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), the radical Deobandi anti-Shia organization was formed in the wake of the Iranian revolution to counter Shia influence in Pakistan. When SSP proved insufficiently militant, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) broke away and, from them, the Lashkar-i-Jhangvi al-Alami (LeJ-A) was created, which, over the last 18 months, has claimed responsibility for several bloody atrocities in Balochistan. One of its leaders, Shafiq Mengal, is considered the head of the Islamic State in Pakistan. Mengal is believed to control a Jihadi recruitment network in Pakistan and Afghanistan according to the confession of a Pakistani teenager who was captured moments before carrying out a suicide attack.

The growth of radical Deobandis in Pakistan is only exceeded by the Saudi-funded Salafis, the extremism of the latter differing from that of the former in terms of the literal interpretation of the Islamic texts. Ahl-i-Hadith, is the Pakistani equivalent to Saudi Wahhabism. It is the ideology of the terrorist group Lashkar-i-Taiba (LeT), which has been named as the perpetrator of the savage 2008 Mumbai attack, and its "charitable" front organization Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD). Both have long been considered operational elements of the Pakistani military and its intelligence service, the ISI. The JuD, believed to have up to 500,000 "volunteers", has recently launched a new political party in Pakistan called the Milli Muslim League.

The U.S. has never exploited the fractures among Pakistani radical Islamic splinter groups, Pakistan's festering ethnic-separatism or the Sunni-Shia divide, in general, to keep our enemies off balance.

Layered on top of all of that is China and its global ambitions and close alliance with Pakistan.

The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is part of China's larger Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), aims to connect Asia through land-based and maritime economic zones. CPEC is an infrastructure project, the backbone of which is a transportation network connecting China to the Pakistani seaports of Gwadar and Karachi located on the Arabian Sea. China is expanding the port of Gwadar and its international airport, as preludes to the establishment of Chinese military facilities near the mouth of the Persian Gulf to complement its base in Djibouti at the entrance of the Red Sea and the Suez Canal.

Chinese economic and military efforts in Pakistan depend on the stability of Balochistan, and, thus, presents a possible lever to influence a strategic environment that directly affects U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and our national interests in South Asia.

In other words, you get at the Taliban through Pakistan and you get at Pakistan through China.

Yet, the need for developing strategies and covert capabilities to counter South Asian transnational terrorism and confronting the global challenge of China goes unaddressed, while we tinker with a failed counterinsurgency policy.

Unfortunately, the only "progress" we can expect from McMaster's Afghanistan plan is to get better at doing the wrong things.

Lawrence Sellin, Ph.D. is a retired colonel with 29 years of service in the US Army Reserve and a veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq. Colonel Sellin is the author of "Restoring the Republic: Arguments for a Second American Revolution ". He receives email at

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