War in Afghanistan can be sustained, but the narrative of a war-weary American public is hurting that effort, former National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster said Wednesday.
Long wars are manageable when waged alongside allies, utilizing burden sharing, said McMaster, who now serves as chairman of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
“There’s this defeatist narrative that’s inaccurate, and doesn’t reflect what’s at stake and doesn’t reflect the actual situation,” McMaster said at a think tank forum in Washington, D.C.
The American public is not properly weighing costs when debating the military’s role in the Middle East, according to McMaster, who pointed to a recent town hall debate he watched.
“A young student stood up and said ‘all I’ve known my whole life is war,’” McMaster said. “Now, he’s never been to war, but he’s been subjected, I think, to this narrative of war-weariness.”
“The United States today has a smaller percentage of its military deployed overseas than it has had since 1950," he added.
Americans should view the war in Afghanistan as essentially an “insurance policy” against what could happen in the country, McMaster said, adding that the collapse of the U.S.-backed Afghan government would forfeit a region known as Khorasan to jihadi groups.
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“They’re trying to establish these emirates,” he said. “And then stitch these emirates together into a caliphate in which they force people to live under their brutal regime and then export terror to attack their near enemies, Arab states, Israel, and the far enemies, Europe and the United States.”
Some critics push back against that narrative, arguing instead that the Taliban are more nationalistic than many assume, and would not allow al-Qaida operatives back in the country should the U.S. pull out.
U.S. diplomats are currently negotiating a potential peace deal with Taliban leaders that could involve a troop withdrawal in exchange for the Taliban’s commitment to never again cooperate with terror groups like al-Qaida. Some analysts deem any promises the Taliban leaders make as fundamentally unreliable.
Regardless, McMaster said the cost of the war has dropped considerably.
During the Afghan war’s surge years, there were more than 100,000 troops deployed to the country. Today, there is roughly a tenth of that commitment — about 15,000 troops.
Between 2010 and 2012, the war in Afghanistan cost roughly $100 billion per year. With the smaller footprint, the war cost about $45 billion in 2018, Assistant Secretary of Defense Randall Schriver, the Pentagon’s top Asia official, told the Senate early last year.
“That’s still a lot,” McMaster conceded, but the U.S. can lean on alliances to offer more troops and funding rather than pull out wholesale.
There were 13 hostile deaths of U.S. troops last year, but the impact on Afghan civilians is much higher. As of August 2016, more than 31,000 civilians are estimated to have died violent deaths as a result of the war, according to the Watson Institute’s Cost of War project at Brown University.
The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan continues to document high levels of civilian casualties as a result of both pro-government and insurgent fighting.
“If you think about the importance of the mission in Afghanistan, to protect what is fundamentally a transformed society, from the enemies that we’re facing — the Taliban and their al-Qaida allies — it is a cost that is sustainable," McMaster said.
While there is an important shift to focus on conventional military force in an era of great power competition, McMaster added that China and Russia shouldn’t be used as excuses to shirk tough challenges in the Middle East.
“I think what’s happening now is almost an exclusive focus in some places on the return of great power competition," he said. "It has become almost an emotional cathartic to get beyond the wars of unanticipated length and difficulty in Afghanistan and Iraq.”
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It is more likely the U.S. military will fight an insurgent or proxy force than face naval battles in the South China Sea or Russian armor in the Fulda Gap.
Too dramatic a shift could leave the U.S. unprepared for future fights, which was an issue that military leaders faced after the Vietnam War, when they all but vowed to never again fight a protracted insurgency.
“We wrote it out of our doctrine," McMaster said of the shift after Vietnam. “There’s always been a need for our land forces to establish governance and consolidate our gains.”
McMaster also said that the term “nation-building” has created an unrealistic expectation of what the U.S. can do to shape another country, especially one like Afghanistan. But progress has been made there, he added, pointing to the arena of women’s rights and democratic voting.
“Afghanistan is not going to become Switzerland. It’s just not,” he said. “It can be Afghanistan, and it can be an Afghanistan like it was in the ’70s or like it was during this really short but brutal period of rule under the Taliban from 1996 to 2001."