H.R. McMaster served as President Trump’s National Security Advisor between February 2017 and March 2018. He is the Fouad and Michelle Ajami Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. He is also the Bernard and Susan Liautaud Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute and lecturer at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business.

Upon graduation from the United States Military Academy in 1984, McMaster served as a commissioned officer in the United States Army for 34 years before retiring as a Lieutenant General in June 2018. From 2014 to 2017, McMaster designed the future army as the director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center and the deputy commanding general of the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC). As commanding general of the Maneuver Center of Excellence at Fort Benning, he oversaw all training and education for the army’s infantry, armor, and cavalry force. He has extensive experience leading soldiers and organizations in wartime including Commander, Combined Joint Inter-Agency Task Force—Shafafiyat in Kabul, Afghanistan from 2010 to 2012; Commander, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Iraq from 2005 to 2006; and Commander, Eagle Troop, 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Operation Desert Storm from 1990 to 1991. McMaster holds a PhD in military history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His most recent book is Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World.

CTC: In some of your recent interviews,1 you’ve mentioned incompetence and how it can sometimes be tied to a lack of an integrated approach by agencies. What do you think is the right role for the National Security Council (NSC) when it comes to counterterrorism policy?

McMaster: I think the primary role is to coordinate and integrate efforts across the departments and agencies to do two things: first, make sure that the president has the benefit of best advice from across the government, and also to provide the president [with] options for securing the nation and addressing the greatest challenges to our national security, our prosperity, and our influence in the world. And you can only really do that if you have a venue to bring together the leadership of those departments and agencies, because if you don’t have that venue—in the Principals Committee of the National Security Council, for example—then you get exclusively bottom-up approaches to problems. And as a result, you subject counterterrorism policy and strategy to satisficing behavior, a lowest common denominator approach, the tendency to protect bureaucratic prerogatives rather than to work together in a collaborative manner and to improve effectiveness.

So, what we recognize as mission analysis and elements of the military decision-making process that involve commander’s guidance, that’s often missing in Washington. It’s important, I think, for the National Security Council to preserve a strategic perspective, a long-term perspective, and to focus on that coordination and integration function, to present options, and then to assist with the sensible implementation of policies and strategies. And of course, periodically assess them and adjust them, so not to do the departments’ jobs for them and their execution, but again, to focus on the integration of intelligence, for example, and operations broadly defined—against jihadist terrorist organizations, for example, or state-supported terrorists. And that includes the integration of intelligence with the military instrument, but it goes well beyond that. As your readers will know, counterterrorism involves the integration of counter-threat finance efforts and interrupting financial flows to these organizations. It has an important diplomacy, public diplomacy, and informational dimension associated with it to help separate jihadist terrorists, for example, from sources of ideological as well as financial support. And really, it’s only the NSC that can be effective in doing that. Because if you designate a lead agency, none of those other agencies work for that lead agency, and so it’s important to have that convening capability and coordination integration capability.

CTC: You talk about commander’s guidance: when agencies or departments start kind of sua sponte doing their own thing, is it the president’s role to kind of put them back into the box and coordinate through NSC or chief of staff?

McMaster: I think what you want is departments and agencies who are actually out of the box. You don’t want in any way to have an NSC process that is mired in tactical details and thinks that it’s in charge of all coordination between departments and agencies. You want to actually encourage that kind of collaboration outside of the formal venues that are used to convene leaders at the senior level, whether it’s the Deputies or the Principals Committee, or even the Policy Coordination Committee level, the assistant secretary level. I think really what you want is departments and agencies out of their box. And this is, of course, one of the major lessons in the 9/11 Commission, which exposed a lack of information-sharing and continuous collaboration, especially between those who were focused on intelligence collection and analysis abroad and those who had responsibility for protecting the homeland.

CTC: When it comes to counterterrorism, did you feel like you had enough information about tools and tactics that work? Or how could we improve our counterterrorism policies?

McMaster: We can improve significantly in connection with the same area, of integrating all efforts. I think part of the problem is we don’t frame the problem of jihadist terrorism or state-supported terrorism or transnational organized crime networks associated with threats to the homeland in an effective manner.

The way to think about jihadist terrorist organizations begins with a charge to our departments and agencies to defeat terrorist organizations, and this is a word that I think ought come back into our lexicon. And by defeat, I mean ensure that these enemies of all humanity—enemies who pose a threat to the United States and our interests abroad—cannot accomplish their objectives and can’t effectively pursue their main tactic, which is to commit mass murder of innocents and to use terror and fear in pursuit of political objectives—to establish the caliphate or to push the United States out of the greater Middle East or South Asia as the first step in accomplishing their broader objectives.

So I think we need to focus on defeating these organizations and to apply design thinking to understand the nature of these organizations and the threat they pose. And to ask the first-order questions: first of all, what is this particular movement? How are they connected across the ecosystem of transnational or international terrorist organizations?

The second is, what is their goal? What are they trying to achieve? Because ultimately what we want to ensure is that our strategy prevents them from accomplishing their objectives.

The third is, what is the strategy for pursuing those goals?

And only then, after that more holistic understanding, can we begin to really map the enemy network, which we’ve become pretty good at and to understand nodes in the network, the roles of those nodes in the network, the relationship between nodes in the network, but very important, the connection between these jihadist terrorist organizations and sponsors and those who give them resources or cover for action and range of criminal activity. For example, that nexus should have been much clearer between the Taliban, other organizations, like the Haqqani network and al-Qa`ida and Pakistan’s ISI and donors, most of whom reside in the Gulf states as well as state support that we know came to some degree, indirectly maybe, from Russia, China, and Iran. So, we have to get better at understanding not only how we map the network but how we connect that network and nodes within it to outside entities that are important sources of strength. Then, we have to look at the flows internationally through that network of people, money, weapons, maybe narcotics or precursor chemicals or smuggled oil and other illicit goods, so that we can begin to imagine how we can attack the network holistically.

And then finally, the questions to ask in framing—about how we become more effective against jihadist terrorist organizations is, what is our overall goal and associated objectives associated with defeating this organization and then, what are the obstacles to progress, and what are the opportunities that we can exploit. And then what are the sources of strength and support of this network and what are the weaknesses, vulnerabilities? Once you frame it, the strategy is the answer to the question of how do you isolate this jihadist terrorist network from sources of strength and support, and attack vulnerabilities, such that you’re able to defeat it? And I don’t think that kind of thinking goes on within our government. We need to seize opportunities to attack these networks holistically to achieve simultaneous activity and actions against that network that bring to bear all elements of national power and efforts of like-minded partners.

Former National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster attends the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on “Global Security Challenges and Strategy” in Washington, D.C., on March 2, 2021. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

CTC: When you’re looking at what appears to be a local terrorist problem, to what degree do you think we need to be involved before it becomes transnational?

McMaster: Well, if it’s an ally or partner, it’s to provide support. So that indigenous leaders and institutions and law enforcement organizations are capable of ensuring that that terrorist organization doesn’t become an international problem. We’re not going to achieve the end of terrorism. What we can achieve is that terrorists are unable to marshal resources, the popular support, the strength overall to pose the kind of threat that they’ve been able to pose since the 1990s against us and against all humanity.

CTC: From President Bush to President Obama and again from President Trump through President Biden, over the past 20 years, various administrations have sought to focus on great power competition as the prime threat for U.S. national security. But for all of them, questions of transnational terrorism, especially al-Qa`ida, and their global affiliates came to be a serious concern. In your thinking, how do we reconcile this tension between the desire to get away from combating terror when, time and again, it keeps popping up as a challenge for the United States?

McMaster: I think that it’s important to recognize that we fall victim to what I described in [my recent book] Battlegrounds as strategic narcissism,a the tendency to define the world as we would like it to be, to assume that what we decide to do is decisive toward achieving a favorable outcome. The problem with that kind of thinking is that it’s self-referential and doesn’t acknowledge the agency and influence and the authorship that others enjoy over the future, including jihadist terrorist organizations.

And because we believe that we are the principal actor internationally—and this applies across the political spectrum in the United States—we tend to think that our enemies, our adversaries, our rivals have aspirations only associated with their reaction to what we do. So when we say we’re going to end endless wars, it’s oftentimes based on the assumption that if we disengage from the epicenters of jihadist terrorism—whether it’s in the greater Middle East, centered on the Tigris and Euphrates River Valley, or in Khorasan region of the Afghan-Pakistan-Iranian border areas—that the world would be safer. And that’s based on the conceit that jihadist terrorists have no aspirations except those that are in response to us. That’s why you can’t end endless wars by disengaging if your enemies, in this case, are waging an endless jihad against you. And so, what we need is a strong dose of what Zachary Shore calls “strategic empathy”2 to understand our enemy better.

I think this is the greatest failure of the CT academic community that you’re an epicenter of. [It’s] that after so many papers and articles, monographs, after all the work that’s been done in the CT area, how did our leaders buy into an extreme form of self-delusion in connection with the nature of our enemies in Afghanistan and Pakistan? To not recognize that the Taliban had not reformed and that the Taliban were not going to share power and impose a more lenient form of sharia, that the Taliban were not disconnected from other jihadist terrorist organizations, including the Haqqani network and al-Qa`ida, that the ISI rebuilt and sustained the Taliban and coordinated with al-Qa`ida in doing so, and planned and helped execute the offensive that we just saw in Afghanistan. How did the CT community allow our policymakers to buy into these fundamentally flawed assumptions about the nature of our enemy? And I think that what we need is definitely more rigor in academia and those who look at the counterterrorism problem or the problem of jihadist terrorism, and to not buy into those who engage in kind of fuzzy-headed, overgeneralized, maybe hopeful analysis about jihadist terrorists.

You and I have had exchanges in the past about some of the work even printed in CTC Sentinel that I think was delusionalb about the nature of the Taliban. And so, I think that we should ask the question, why has the academic CT enterprise failed in such a profound way?

It has failed twice, really: the other time was between December 2011 and 2014 in Iraq when, remember, we ended the endless war there, and I don’t think the alarm bells were rung loud enough. I think everybody who really understood al-Qa`ida in Iraq knew that they were coming back and were predicting exactly what happened with the rise of ISIS, the strength of that organization, the fact that it was able to establish an Islamic emirate across territory the size of Great Britain and become the most destructive terrorist organization in history. But we had declared that war over. Where were the people who were saying, ‘Hey, the war’s not over’?

How about the role of Iran in perpetuating the cycle of sectarian violence, including periodically reinforcing jihadist terrorist organizations like al-Qa`ida to keep that cycle going in an effort to keep the Arab world perpetually weak, to be able to continue to prop up the Assad regime in Syria and apply kind of the Hezbollah model broadly to the region, including not only in Lebanon, but in Syria, in Iraq, and in Yemen. How come the CT community didn’t raise the alarm bells? Especially after everyone got access to the vast majority of the bin Ladin papers, which happened because I made their release a priority.

And the thinking that came from Barnett Rubin and others over the years who kept writing essays about how the Taliban is really this kind of rural movement that has an ideal in mind that is somehow consistent with Afghan culture? I mean, that’s a complete myth. This is an organization that is completely intertwined with jihadist terrorists and enjoy support from the ISI.

We keep papering over the danger. And then we enable optimism bias across multiple organizations. There aren’t too many quotations that are identical between President Obama and [former U.S. Secretary of State] Mike Pompeo, but one of those identical quotations is ‘al-Qa`ida is a shadow of its former self.’3 I think this is another example of the perpetual counting out of al-Qa`ida, even when we’re faced with evidence to the contrary, such as the 2015 Shorabak Farms operation,c the largest al-Qa`ida training base ever encountered, guarded by, run by the Taliban. How about Badri 313?4 When you have the State Department spokesman saying, ‘Hey, the Haqqani network and the Taliban, al-Qa`ida, these are all separate organizations.’d And then, [as part of the Taliban takeover] you have Badri 313 in charge of security of Kabul airport.e

CTC: How do you see the evolution of the jihadi terror threat since 9/11?

McMaster: Well, what I see is the [jihadi terrorists] continuing to adapt based on very effective counterterrorism operations after 9/11 and very effective counterterrorism operations not only centered on the major war efforts in Afghanistan and in Iraq, but also where we are mainly enabling partners to go after these organizations. So they’re gaining strength based on a number of factors: their ability to proselytize, their ability to communicate in new ways, to recruit more to the cause, their ability to take advantage of weak governance, to establish control of territory and populations and resources that allows them to gain strength. These dynamics have been seen in the G5 Sahel, across North Africa, across the greater Middle East, to Somalia and South Asia and then into the Far East, into the Philippines, for example. We responded to that threat effectively and appropriately based on the approach of enabling others to bear the brunt of the fight, enabling them with, obviously our extremely capable military—including special operations forces, but not just special operations forces—logistical capabilities like those we see in the G5 Sahel. And then, of course, intelligence collection and analysis capabilities that made operations much more effective.

But I think what’s happening now, what’s making these groups more dangerous is first of all, our disengagement from that fight. If you look at what the Biden administration has done recently, it has not only really completed what I would describe as our self-defeat and surrender to a jihadist terrorist organization in Afghanistan, which is what we did. We ought to call it what it is. But they have also taken a step back from our work with partners to continue counterterrorism operations against jihadist terrorists who still pose a threat to us and our interests abroad. That’s the first factor.

The second is that these groups are much larger in magnitude. You have to remember that it was the alumni of the mujahideen resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan that committed the 9/11 attacks. Now you have a vast alumni from various groups in South Asia, including Lashkar-e-Taiba but also Lashkar-e-Taiba has spun off Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan and how Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan became the core of ISIS Khorasan. These groups reside in a terrorist ecosystem in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area that essentially recruits adolescent males to the cause, systematically brainwashes and dehumanizes them, and then foments hatred as a justification for violence against innocents. We have to think of that region as a jihadist terrorist factory that commits child abuse on an industrial scale.

So, they’re gaining strength. Look at the ISIS alumni. ISIS recruited I think was about 30,000 [foreign fighters]f immediately to its cause with its much more adept use of technology in recruiting. And where are those alumni now? Many of them are back in Europe, in countries that don’t require visas to travel to the United States. So their ranks are bigger, they’re better connected internationally, and they have access to technology that makes them more effective and destructive. And here I’m thinking of Audrey Cronin’s excellent book Power to the People, which I recommend,5 which really explores this dynamic in greater detail and what we might call the democratization of destruction, that these groups now have access to more and more destructive capability.

So it’s for those reasons that jihadi terrorist groups are becoming more dangerous: our disengagement, increasing size of these groups, and access to better technology. Now, you add onto that, giving them a state, giving jihadist terrorists Afghanistan that already exists in an ecosystem where there are [many] U.S.-designated terrorist organizations. So, is the world becoming more safe or less? I hate to say it, but we’re becoming less safe. And a lot of it has to do with our own lack of will to sustain efforts against the enemies of all humanity.

CTC: In the September 2021 issue of CTC Sentinel, former acting CIA director Michael Morell assessed that following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, “the reconstruction of al-Qa`ida’s homeland attack capability will happen quickly, in less than a year, if the U.S. does not collect the intelligence and take the military action to prevent it.”6 What’s your view on that?

McMaster: Well, they’ve never stopped trying to attack us, right? And we have evidence. This is an area, Sean, that I wish that CTC could help with, is to advocate for the declassification of SOCOM documents. Initiate declassification for the purpose of public diplomacy, right? Exposing the brutality and the nature of this enemy, which can help maybe bolster our will because we don’t even talk about the enemy in popular media at all, but then also to understand better how many external attacks have been foiled by sustained, effective multinational counterterrorism efforts. I think the American people need to know that story. Because the debate’s going on now in Congress about the AUMF, the authorization for the use of military force, and we’re talking ourselves into self-defeat based on an under-appreciation of how dangerous these enemies are. We need to maintain our will. A way to do that is to go back to the bin Ladin papers. They show that bin Ladin and al-Qa`ida never gave up their desire to attack the far enemy: us. We need to get the examples out there.

CTC: In the September 2021 issue of CTC Sentinel, your Stanford colleague Asfandyar Mir stated this: “In case al-Qa`ida decides to attack from Afghanistan, the group may not claim attacks in order to help the Taliban work around its commitments under the Doha agreement. The Taliban may also argue that any operation was planned by al-Qa`ida cells in Pakistan or that there is no proof of al-Qa`ida’s role in the attack/presence in Afghanistan. With such denials, the Taliban may be able to claim compliance with the Doha agreement.”7 This speaks to concerns that the Taliban may try to publicly present that they have distance from attacks.

McMaster: This is exactly what they’re doing right now. I think that’s what they did in the attack that killed 13 of our servicemen and women at the Kabul airport. Did that attack happen without the knowledge of the Haqqani network, who’s been running the Kabul threat network and the Pakistan network for over a decade? I don’t think so. This idea that there’s a bold line here between ISIS Khorasan and the Taliban is wrong. These groups, even though they do work against each other periodically, they often coordinate efforts, and they share people and resources and expertise, and this is all well documented. Even the U.N. came up with a better intel estimate for the connections between ISIS-K and these other jihadist terrorist organizations. And so I think that what we have to do is end our self-delusion and serial gullibility in dealing with these groups. We have to remember, we were so desperate to get the hell out of Afghanistan that we were fooled by the impostor who we paid $150,000 to negotiate with the Karzai government.8 We just showed desperation. We released terrorists for the [Bowe] Bergdahl exchange,g opened up the Taliban, their [Political] Commission, and allowed them to put forward these people who were really acting as the shop window for the Taliban while they intensified their murderous campaign of assassination and mass murder attacks in Afghanistan.

We made concession after concession to them. We did not insist on a ceasefire. We did not include the Afghan government in negotiations; we forced them to release 5,000 of some of the most heinous criminals and terrorists on Earth.9 And then we gave our enemies a surrender document that pledged to them that we would withdraw completely and gave them the timeline of our withdrawal and the troop caps that we would put into place as we executed that retreat, essentially, from Afghanistan. That’s what we did, and not enough people are calling it that. They’re using these euphemisms of ‘we wanted to bring the war to a responsible end.’ What we did is we surrendered to a jihadist terrorist organization. And we did it across two administrations. We had the Trump administration —Zal[may] Khalilzad, who presided over these capitulation negotiations, signed the agreement during Secretary Pompeo’s visit, and then we adhered to that and the Biden administration just doubled down on the withdrawal, as an end-in-itself approach.

CTC: You served as the initial commander of the Combined Joint Interagency Task Force Shafafiyat that was stood up by the U.S. military to combat corruption in Afghanistan.h The U.S. has been criticized for supporting some warlords and powerful figures, some even claiming that the Afghan government was a kleptocracy enabled and sustained by our financial assistance and lucrative contracts that ended up with the elites. What did you learn during your time with this task force, and what advice would you have for anyone dealing with this now?

McMaster: First of all, corruption and organized crime were a fatal threat to the Afghan state, when we stood up this task force in 2010. What we sought to understand is, what is driving corruption and organized crime. And there are some people who would just say, ‘Oh, those Afghans, they’ve always been corrupt.’ This is what I would call bigotry masquerading as cultural sensitivity. The real reasons for unchecked corruption and organized crime that was fatal to the Afghan state was political, and it was related to, as you already alluded to, dumping aid assistance, logistical support into Afghanistan, especially after 2009, 2010—well beyond the absorptive capacity of those institutions and of that economy. But the other reason, that I think is paramount in perpetuating corruption and organized crime that turned out to be fatal to the state, is our short-term approach to what turned out to be a long-term commitment in Afghanistan. We were there for 20 years, but it wasn’t a 20-year war, right? It was a one-year war fought 20 times over. And we kept telling the Afghans, ‘Hey, we’re leaving. OK, now we’re really leaving. OK, here’s the timeline for our leaving,’ and people forget [given all the focus on the] much pilloried ‘mission accomplished’ episode of President Bush on the aircraft carrieri in connection with the Iraq War, Secretary [of Defense] Rumsfeld was in Afghanistan giving almost an identical talk, ‘Hey, the war in Afghanistan is over.’

Meanwhile, we knew by 2003 that the Taliban were generating in Pakistan with the help of al-Qa`ida and the ISI. And what happened is that then the Karzai government and those associated with his government looked over their shoulders and thought: ‘Who has our back? Nobody. So what we better do is we build up our power base in advance of a post-U.S. Afghanistan.’ And they did that by affecting state capture over these nascent institutions that had to be rebuilt after the hell of Taliban rule from ‘96 to 2001 and to use the capture of those institutions to engage in a range of corrupt and criminal activity, including the commoditization of positions; a whole range of rent-seeking behavior; the diversion of state revenue, borders, and airports; the diversion of international aid and assistance and security force assistance and what they were preparing for was a return to the civil war from ’92-‘96 because they thought, ‘That’s what’s going to happen if the U.S. disengages under these conditions.’ And we kept reinforcing that message to them, that we’re leaving.

Remember, then President Obama does this interminable assessment on Afghanistan and Pakistan and then so many of the people who were involved in that now say, ‘We never really understood what was happening in Afghanistan,’ which is complete and utter nonsense. They knew what was going on. The Riedel study,j all that stuff. They knew what was happening but instead they opted for self-delusion in this period of time, when they announced, in late 2009, the reinforced troop commitment in Afghanistan and at the same time announced the timeline for the withdrawal. And then said, after they gave the timeline for withdrawal, ‘Hey, let’s talk with the Taliban and cut a deal with them,’ after you’ve told them you’re on your way out the door. How does that work? We utterly disconnected what we were doing militarily from what we were trying to achieve politically. But all of this had an impact on corruption and organized crime, because it created this mentality of ‘Hey, get as much milk out of the international cow as you can as it wanders across the Afghan plain for the last time.’ So I think that the political causes of corruption and organized crime have been under-appreciated, and we have to understand the fatal threat as one that existed because of these criminalized patronage networks that were tied to the mujahideen-era elites and who were preparing for the next civil war.

CTC: Shortly after the recent fall of Kabul, President Biden said, “we’ve developed counterterrorism over-the-horizon capability that will allow us to keep our eyes firmly fixed on any direct threats to the United States in the region and to act quickly and decisively if needed.”10 Former deputy national security adviser Juan Zarate has stated, “‘Over the horizon CT’ is a myth [without] eyes [and] ears on the ground. [Without an] Embassy, bases, allies, CT is hobbled. Presence [and] force apply fundamentally in CT. A lesson [that we] painfully learned after the 2011 withdrawal from Iraq. It will become evident again in Taleban-controlled Afghanistan.”11 What is your view?

McMaster: Well, Zarate’s right. Everything in the president’s statement is the opposite of reality. Everything. Firmly fixed? No, you can’t keep your eyes firmly fixed with only technical [means], without augmenting those technical means for surveillance capabilities and without a physical presence and a partner on the ground that allows you to maintain even sustained technical intelligence collection. As you know, the logistics difficulties associated now with the distances, having given up the air bases in Afghanistan preclude the ‘firmly fixed’ part of that statement. And then decisively? What does that mean? It means actually indecisive, is what it means, and ineffective. We have in many ways recreated the conditions, albeit with more advanced technology, that existed in 1998 when al-Qa`ida bombed our embassies and the Clinton administration really felt then it had no option other than to fire a few cruise missiles and call it a day and think that, ‘Well, maybe they won’t bother us anymore.’ Well, you know, it’s a pretty short period of time between that and the most destructive terrorist attack in history: the mass murder attacks on 9/11. So I think we’re setting ourselves up.

And again, this is an element of self-delusion, and it’s just an extraordinary example of not understanding the nature of our enemy and other elements associated with Pakistan that indicate that Washington policymaking is hopeless. It’s hopeless. I think we don’t have serious people there who are trying to understand these challenges on their own terms. They’re all too happy to engage in a number of cognitive traps, including mirror imagining.

What have they said about the Taliban? The Taliban is going to be worried about international opprobrium and as a result are going to modify their behavior, become more enlightened or benign. What have they said? An example of optimism bias: they’re going to power share. They’re going to allow women to have their rights. They’re not going to give a safe haven to jihadist terrorists. Siraj[uddin] Haqqani is the head of the MOI [Ministry of Interior]. What other evidence do you need? And then confirmation bias, every little thing that they do: ‘Look, there’s one woman involved somewhere in the government.’ Everyone is trying to look for one indicator that confirms their delusion about the Taliban. And then, of course, mirror imagining is the other cognitive trap [they] fall into. [They] keep saying, ‘Well, it’s really not in the Taliban’s interest to give safe haven and support to jihadist terrorists.’ Well, what more do you need to know than the fact that [Taliban supreme leader] Haibatullah Akhundzada encouraged his son to commit mass murder as a suicide bomber?12 Do you think he [has] interests at the top of the agenda, or is it ideology? Is it emotion, that emotion being maybe hatred?

So I think that what we need, as I mentioned at the outset, [is] a really strong dose of empathy, and we need our leaders in Washington and we need our military leaders to be serious. I was so disappointed when I heard senior military officers say that we were partnering well with the Taliban and that they’re behaving in a professional matter. It should be gut-wrenching for all of us to hear this degree of self-delusion and an astounding degree of moral equivalence.

What we’ve seen in Afghanistan is an Orwellian reversal of the truth. Every statement that we’ve heard from Washington was the opposite of reality: ‘The Taliban are working with us on the evacuation. It’s going really well.’ We left American citizens behind to adhere to our surrender document to a terrorist organization. We gave them a ready-made hostage situation, with U.S. citizens, permanent residents, citizens of our allies, and the Afghans who have been working with us over all this time. And that is shameful. But what’s even more astounding is the degree to which it was painted as a success.

I’m sure you and many others who have Afghan friends have WhatsApp messages from people who couldn’t get out, who were harassed and beaten at Taliban checkpoints, the people we’re tracking like an American University of Afghanistan professor who we were helping with his paperwork, trying to get authorization to get [him on] a manifest on {a} flight out, was dragged out of his house, shot in the head in the street. We have so many examples of this. And what we kept hearing from Washington is this reversal of the truth, but essentially, I think what’s happened is reversal of morality. If we were going to just get out of Afghanistan, why the hell didn’t we just get out? Why did we actually strengthen the Taliban and do everything we could to weaken the Afghan government and security forces on our way out with these series of psychological blows we delivered to them? And then we advocated for a coalition government that included the Taliban? We thought that maybe Mullah Baradar could be the shop window for them and power share with Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah. [Zalmay] Khalilzad advocated for a Taliban role in the government. Well, how did that work out? But we advocated for them, and I think the former ISI chief was prescient a few years ago when he said, “When history is written, it will be stated that the ISI defeated the Soviet Union in Afghanistan with the help of America,” and [then] “the ISI, with the help of America, defeated America.”13 We have defeated ourselves, and we need to acknowledge it.

CTC: In a recent talk, you referred to the Taliban in Qatar as ‘window dressing.’ And that was what a lot of people latched onto when they talk about this question of ‘have the Taliban changed?’ Do you think that there’s any reasonable discussion about any difference or space between Taliban headquarters or Taliban Kabul and Taliban provincial? Do they have control of their fighters?

McMaster: No, of course not. This is a terrorist organization that is based on an ideology that wants to thrust Afghanistan back into the 7th century, eliminate all rights for women, impose their version of sharia, eliminate any kind of freedoms that we the United States [should believe], are unalienable, such as a right to have a say in how you’re governed, some sort of due process of law. For those who were for years advocating for power sharing with the Taliban, my question to them was: what does that look like? Does that look like every other girl school bulldozed? Does that look like mass executions in the soccer stadium every other Saturday? So why is it that Americans were advocating for power sharing with a terrorist organization that always intended to inflict the horrors on the Afghan people that we’re witnessing right now.

CTC: You mentioned this notion of 20 one-year wars in Afghanistan. In hindsight and for military commanders, strategists, policymakers, how do you string 20 one-year wars together into a meaningful campaign?

McMaster: Well, we didn’t, right? So what happened is we went in affected by this orthodoxy of the revolution in military affairs: that future wars will be fast, cheap, efficient, waged from standoff range. And so, the campaign that CENTCOM designed under the direction of the Secretary of Defense was to demonstrate this capability. And it was effective militarily. We enabled mujahideen-era militias with intelligence, our courageous intelligence professionals, our extraordinarily creative and effective special operations forces, and our tremendous airpower capability, and intelligence collection capabilities. And we overwhelmed the fielded forces of the Taliban [and] collapsed the Taliban government. But in our zeal and enthusiasm to demonstrate the effectiveness of the light footprint, we allowed the Taliban and al-Qa`ida, many of them, including Usama bin Ladin, to escape into Pakistan, where they began to regenerate. We had a hammer with that campaign, but we had no anvil. But really what happened [is that] by super-empowering the mujahideen-era elites and prioritizing just getting the hell out after that, we essentially allowed these militias to affect state capture, [as] I mentioned before, over these state institutions and functions—and we didn’t pay enough attention to governance and institution-building that is critical to consolidating gains to get to a sustainable political outcome in Afghanistan consistent with what brought us into the war to begin with, which was to have in place an Afghan government that was hostile to jihadist terrorists and to have in place Afghan security forces and security infrastructure broadly that was strong enough to withstand the regenerative capacity of the Taliban. But we didn’t do any of that up front. We prioritized just getting the hell out, and then we turned our focus to Iraq, and then in this period of time the Taliban regenerated.

Eventually, we realized that we were not on a peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan—remember, when our allies signed up for duty in southern Afghanistan, they thought they were going to Bosnia, and that’s when the Taliban really intensified their campaign. This is when the British, Canadians, and the Danes found themselves in a hell of a fight in the south, and the situation was going to hell in the south and in the southeast and east, and to some extent in the north. But what did we do? We reinforced our security effort, but it wasn’t the beginning of a long-term [commitment] and eventually to try to get to a sustainable commitment. That was the beginning of our withdrawal, the reinforcement in 2009. How the hell does that work?

If the great captains of history were to come back and take a look at the way we waged that war, they would think that we’re idiots. And then because we wanted to get out, we created some myths. Pakistan would be our partner: ‘All we really need to do is to pledge long-term support for Pakistan.’ Again, neglecting the primary motivation for the Pakistani army and the ISI. And then we said, ‘There’s really no al-Qa`ida in Afghanistan.’ Completely delusional. And so we focused really only on Pakistan. ‘It doesn’t really matter what happens in Afghanistan.’ So then we built the strategy based on a U.S. government document that was produced at the time, which I think is maybe one of the worst strategic documents in American history, which drove our policy at that time. It was utter self-delusion. Everything that paper was based on was the opposite of reality. And then you, of course, have this idea that you can keep soldiers engaged in combat, but really maybe not actively target your enemy who’s killing your own soldiers and committing mass murder against Afghans and killing Afghan security forces. We said that the Taliban was no longer a designated enemy. We were no longer actively pursuing them, even as we were taking more and more casualties. This was under the Obama administration, and then the actions associated with the beginning of what would become the capitulation negotiations in Qatar.

That’s when I came in as National Security Advisor in 2017. I felt like I owed it to President Trump to give him options. And what we did is we gave him options, and when we briefed him we began with withdrawal. We said ‘OK, here’s what it looks like.’ And we painted the picture of exactly what’s happening right now. And when he looked over that precipice, he said, ‘I don’t want to do that.’ I think if you go back to [President Trump’s] speech of August 2017,14 that is the first time we’ve had in place a reasoned, sound, and sustainable strategy in Afghanistan that prioritized our interests and could accomplish really an outcome—an Afghanistan that was not under the control of the Taliban or jihadist terrorists—consistent with what brought us into the war to begin with. Our level of military effort was very low in that period of time. But what’s most important is not the [troop] numbers, but what our military effort was enabling the Afghans to do, which was to bear the brunt of the fight, to begin to reverse the momentum, and reduce the losses that they were suffering when we ceded the initiative [to the enemy]. We said, ‘OK, the Taliban is [an enemy].’ Imagine that? That we’re actually going to fight those who are fighting against us, instead of tying our hands behind our back. And then what we did is we said we’re going to enable them with combat advisors and the ability to call in fires and air support down to the battalion level, which is what you need to do if you’re going to be effective. And guess what? It was effective against the Taliban. Afghanistan wasn’t turning the corner to become Denmark and there were still the issues of corruption and organized crime and other aspects of state weakness and of course continued dependence on the international community and international support, but it was at a sustainable level of effort and it was a level of insurance that we were paying that I think was actually cheaper compared to the cost of the collapse that we just witnessed.

And then Trump abandons that, by 2019, the Trump administration. We initiate the capitulation negotiations, between 2019 until February of 2020. And then we initiate our withdrawal. And you know what the Taliban did? They just went around to Afghans and said to political and military leaders, ‘Here’s how it’s gonna go. The Americans are leaving. They’re out the door. And so here are your options. On cue, either you accommodate with us or we kill your whole family. How does that sound?’ And so what military professionals should have highlighted are the psychological effects of our actions. And I personally was not surprised at all with the rapid collapse of security in Afghanistan. It seems like we did everything we could to engineer it.

CTC: With the expansion of the Islamic State’s official and unofficial affiliates across Africa, the U.S. reductions in Somalia, and France shrinking its CT mission in the Sahel, what concerns do you have about Africa right now?

McMaster: It’s a huge problem because we know that with these groups especially, with al-Shabaab and with AQAP, they have an agenda to establish a caliphate, but also to attack their near and far enemies. And so I think in each of these cases, what we have to do is assess the nature of the threat, obviously prioritize our security and interests abroad, and provide the kind of support that allows us to prevent the worst from happening again. I think what we should have learned from 9/11 is the threat from jihadist terrorists, once they reach our shores, can only be dealt with at an exorbitant cost. We should have learned that from COVID-19, by the way, as well. Once they turn into pandemics and reach the shore, [they] can only be dealt with at exorbitant cost. So sustained engagement abroad—not quite an endless war but waging a sustained campaign in support of indigenous partners to ensure that these enemies of all humanity don’t gain strength and don’t ever again commit the attacks against us on the scale of 9/11.

CTC: As a former national security advisor who assessed a broad array of threats to the United States, what do you think China and Russia learned or took away from watching us fight the last two-decade “War on Terror”?

McMaster: Well, they’re celebrating because I think they think that America doesn’t have the will to respond to various forms of aggression. And this is what I think we should learn from the un-enforced “red line” in Syria in 2013.15 I think you can draw a direct line from that to the invasion of eastern Ukraine, the annexation of Crimea, the rapid island building and weaponization of islands in the South China Sea. You already see Russia increasing its aggression, actions whether they’re economic and having to do with using their energy for coercive purposes, but the massive campaign against Ukraine and informational/political subversion campaign but also the amassing of military forces. And then you saw what China said to Taiwan in The Global Times16 the day after the deadly debacle in Kabul. They said, ‘Hey, do you think America has your back?’ If deterrence is capability multiplied by will, I don’t think our will is to zero, but I think our enemies think that our will is to zero. So I think we’re entering a dangerous period. And this, of course, ties with jihadist terrorists as well, who are now saying they have achieved victory over the world’s superpower. And of course, nothing bolsters your recruiting more than success, as we learned from ISIS. So that’s another factor that we have to consider. And even though we want to turn our eyes away from sustained effort against jihadist terrorists as a kind of emotional cathartic that will help us forget the long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, we have to recognize what the English philosopher and theologian G.K. Chesterton said: That war is not the best way of settling differences, but it may be the only way to ensure they’re not settled for you.k

CTC: Last question, what keeps you up at night?

McMaster: What I’m concerned about these days is how we seem determined to weaken ourselves by this combination of an interaction between identity politics or critical race theory on one end of the spectrum and various forms of bigotry and racism on the other, and centrifugal forces associated with that vitriolic political partisanship and really the actions by political leaders that try to score personal or political points at the expense of confidence in our democratic processes and institutions and principles. And so I think that we have to compete more effectively abroad, certainly, and [develop] more strategic competence, but we also need Americans to come together to reinforce the warm fabric of our society, emphasize our common identity across various identity group, and restore our confidence in the great promise of this country.

We have to take time to celebrate what we have. Our republic is always going to be a work in progress. So let’s work on it. What bothers me today is there’s a sense of a lack of agency among people. And when you put the word systemic or institutional in front of every problem, what you’re telling people is they don’t have agency. And I think what we’re getting in our society today is a destructive combination of anger and resignation. So I think we all have work to do to strengthen our own country so we can generate the resolve and the will to defend our interests and promote peace and security abroad.     CTC

Substantive Notes
[a] Editor’s Note: In his book Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World, McMaster applies Hans Morgenthau’s concept of “strategic narcissism” to “U.S. foreign policy and national security strategy,” describing it as “the tendency to view the world only in relation to the United States and to assume that the future course of events depends primarily on U.S. decisions or plans.” See H.R. McMaster, Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World (New York: Harper, 2020).

[b] Editor’s Note: The Combating Terrorism Center values a variety of different viewpoints and analyses to better inform scholarship and policy. We publish scholarship we believe is rigorous, objective, and relevant.

[c] Editor’s Note: In October 2015, U.S. and Afghan forces targeted an al-Qa`ida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) training camp in the Shorabak district of Kandahar, which was “probably the largest” ever found in Afghanistan according to the U.S. military commander in Afghanistan at the time. As noted by one analyst, the location was “right in the Taliban’s heartland.” Dan Lamothe, “‘Probably the largest’ al-Qaeda training camp ever destroyed in Afghanistan,” Washington Post, October 30, 2015; Anne Stenersen, “Al-Qa`ida’s Comeback in Afghanistan and its Implications,” CTC Sentinel 9:9 (2016).

[d] Editor’s Note: In answering a reporter’s question during a press conference on August 27, 2021, U.S. State Department Spokesperson Ned Price stated that, “The Taliban and the Haqqani Network are separate entities.” “Department Press Briefing – August 27, 2021,” U.S. Department of State, August 27, 2021.

[e] Editor’s Note: There are indications of a strong nexus between Badri 313 and the Haqqani Network. France 24 reported that Badri 313 is “seen as having benefited from training from the Haqqani network.” Long War Journal noted that the Haqqani Network “has long advertised the operations carried out by its special forces in the ‘Badri Army.’” “Taliban shows off ‘special forces’ in propaganda blitz,” France 24, August 25, 2021; Thomas Joscelyn and Bill Roggio, “Taliban’s special forces outfit providing ‘security’ at Kabul airport,” FDD’s Long War Journal, August 22, 2021.

[f] Editor’s Note:In September 2015, The New York Times reported that “American intelligence analysts have been preparing a confidential assessment that concludes that nearly 30,000 foreign fighters have traveled to Iraq and Syria from more than 100 countries since 2011.” Eric Schmitt and Somini Sengupta, “Thousands Enter Syria to Join ISIS Despite Global Efforts,” New York Times, September 26, 2015.

[g] Editor’s Note: In mid-2009, U.S. soldier Bowe Bergdahl “walked away from his unit’s remote outpost in eastern Afghanistan and was held captive by the Taliban for the next five years until a controversial prisoner swap for five former Taliban officials held at Guantanamo.” Luis Martinez, “Bowe Bergdahl to Face General Court Martial, Could Face Life Sentence,” ABC News, December 14, 2015. For news reports on this exchange, see “Prisoner Released in Bergdahl Exchange Tried to Reconnect With Taliban,” NBC News, January 29, 2015; Missy Ryan and Haq Nawaz Khan, “Key in Trump’s deal with the Taliban: Ex-prisoners whose release in 2014 unleashed Republican furor,” Washington Post, March 30, 2020; and Kathy Gannon, “5 freed from Gitmo in exchange for Bergdahl join Taliban’s political office in Qatar,” Military Times, October 30, 2018.

[h] Editor’s Note: The International Security Assistance Force “created Combined Joint Inter Agency Task Force–Shafafiyat as a Deputy Chief of Staff unit, reporting directly to the Commander of ISAF, to formalize its nascent counter- and anti-corruption effort in 2010.” Chad Brooks and Craig Trebilcock, “Fighting for Legitimacy in Afghanistan: the Creation of the Anti-Corruption Justice Center,” PRISM 7:1 (2017).

[i] Editor’s Note: This is a reference to President George W. Bush’s appearance and speech aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1, 2003, when he declared “major combat operations in Iraq are over” with a “Mission Accomplished” banner in the background. Cleve R. Wootson Jr., “Trump’s ‘Mission Accomplished’ tweet, and the premature declaration that haunted George W. Bush,” Washington Post, April 15, 2018.

[j] Editor’s Note: In January 2009, President Obama asked Bruce Riedel “to chair a review of American policy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan the results of which the President announced in a speech on March 27, 2009.” See “Bruce Riedel,” Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies; “Remarks by the President on a New strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan,” The White House, March 27, 2009; and “Press Briefing by Bruce Riedel, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, and Michelle Flournoy on the New Strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan,” The White House, March 27, 2009.

[k] Editor’s Note: “War is not ‘the best way of settling differences;’ it is the only way of preventing their being settled for you.” “War and Politics,” Society of G.K. Chesterton, as quoted from Illustrator London News, July 24, 1915.

[1] “Inquirer LIVE: Worldview with Trudy Rubin and former National Security Adviser General H.R. McMaster,” Philadelphia Inquirer, October 8, 2021.

[2] See Zachary Shore, A Sense of the Enemy: The High-Stakes History of Reading Your Rival’s Mind (New York: Oxford, 2014).

[3] Editor’s Note: See Ayesha Rascoe, “Obama defends record on terrorism in national security speech,” Reuters, December 6, 2016; Julia Musto, “Pompeo: Al Qaeda a ‘shadow’ of its former self, time to ‘turn the corner’ in Afghanistan,” Fox News, March 6, 2020.

[4] Editor’s Note: See Thomas Joscelyn and Bill Roggio, “Taliban’s special forces outfit providing ‘security’ at Kabul airport,” FDD’s Long War Journal, August 22, 2021.

[5] Editor’s Note: See Audrey Kurth Cronin, Power to the People: How Open Technological Innovation is Arming Tomorrow’s Terrorists (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019).

[6] Paul Cruickshank, Don Rassler, and Kristina Hummel, “Twenty Years After 9/11: Reflections from Michael Morell, Former Acting Director of the CIA,” CTC Sentinel 14:7 (2021).

[7] Asfandyar Mir, “Twenty Years After 9/11: The Terror Threat from Afghanistan Post the Taliban Takeover,” CTC Sentinel 14:7 (2021).

[8] Editor’s Note: For a news report on this episode, see Dexter Filkins and Carlotta Gall, “Taliban Leader in Secret Talks Was an Impostor,” New York Times, November 22, 2010.

[9] Editor’s Note: For a newspaper report on the release of the Taliban prisoners, see Mujib Mashal and Fatima Faizi, “Afghanistan to Release Last Taliban Prisoners, Removing Final Hurdle to Talks,” New York Times, August 9, 2020.

[10] “Remarks by President Biden on Afghanistan,” The White House, August 16, 2021.

[11] Juan Zarate, “‘Over the horizon’ CT is a myth w/o eyes & ears on the ground …,” Twitter, September 1, 2021.

[12] Editor’s Note: For a news report on this, see “Haibatullah Akhundzada: Shadowy Taliban supreme leader whose son was suicide bomber,” Reuters, September 7, 2021, and Jibran Ahmad, “Son of Afghan Taliban leader dies carrying out suicide attack,” Reuters, July 22, 2017.

[13] Editor’s Note: Ishaan Tharoor, “Pakistan’s hand in the Taliban’s victory,” Washington Post, August 18, 2021.

[14] Editor’s Note: For newspaper coverage of President Trump’s August 2017 speech on Afghanistan, see “Full Transcript and Video: Trump’s Speech on Afghanistan,” New York Times, August 21, 2017.

[15] Editor’s note: For more on this episode, see Patrice Taddonio, “‘The President Blinked’: Why Obama Changed Course on the ‘Red Line’ in Syria,” Frontline, May 25, 2015.

[16] Editor’s Note: “Afghan abandonment a lesson for Taiwan’s DPP: Global Times editorial,” Global Times, August 16, 2021.

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