Herbert Raymond “H.R.” McMaster, now a two-star general of some renown, returned to Colorado Springs on Nov. 13 to tell an audience that America is beginning to forget some of the hardest lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan.
McMaster gained fame in 2005 while commanding the Fort Carson-based 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Iraq. There, the regiment pioneered the “clear, hold, build” strategy in the insurgent haven of Tal Afar, between Baghdad and Mosul. The strategy later was adopted throughout Iraq and during the 2007 surge that helped speed America’s exit.
Now, McMaster said, with the end of the Afghanistan war on the horizon, the military is cutting its ground force and falling back on air and sea forces to fight.
“What we are at risk of today is neglecting some of the hard-won lessons of our war in Iraq and our ongoing war in Afghanistan,” McMaster told 130 people gathered for a luncheon of the Colorado Springs World Affairs Council.
McMaster said he watched the military in the 1990s mistakenly bet its future on the power of technology.
The armed forces were designed for tank-on-tank battle in a rapid conflict similar to the 1991 Persian Gulf War and faced an insurgency in Afghanistan and Iraq it was ill-prepared to fight.
McMaster said the insurgent fighting is something that could be a recurring theme for America.
“There are two ways to fight the U.S. military – asymmetrically or stupid,” he said.
“Our enemies will interact with us in ways to evade our strength and attack what they see as our vulnerabilities.”
McMaster said it’s also impossible to divorce warfare from political goals in the nation the U.S. is trying to change.
“We encountered this gap in our flawed thinking both in the early stages of Afghanistan and the early stages of Iraq,” he said.
While the military experienced early success in Afghanistan and Iraq, the quick victory proved elusive.
“How to achieve that sustainable political outcome, we neglected at the outset,” he said.
Another shortfall, he said, is that America ignored the psychology of its enemies.
“We looked at war as a targeting exercise,” McMaster said.
America also forgot that enemies get a vote, using long-term plans and expecting steady progress, rather than preparing for setbacks and remaining flexible to counter enemy actions.
“We have to recognize that we don’t wage war on an inanimate object,” McMaster said.
McMaster said the U.S. also learned in Iraq and Afghanistan that showing American will to win is key.
“Prior to the reinforced security effort in 2007, we were saying to the Iraqis, ‘If you don’t do what we want, and you’ll have to believe us, we’re going to leave’,” he said.
McMaster said he sees the military falling back on its 1990s experience, seeking technology to fight rapid wars.
“Like a vampire, it keeps coming back,” McMaster said.
He said of America’s electronic dominance: “It’s a capability and it’s masking as a strategy for future war.”
Wars of the future will need land armies to fight them, he said.
“We have to think about land control in a way the Navy thinks about sea control,” he said.
And in the next war, the public has to know how victory will be defined.
“I think we should be unabashed about using the word ‘win’,” McMaster said.
But defining victory means going in with an exit strategy that addresses the root causes of war.
“It’s important for us to always ask the question what comes next,” he said.