How Gen. McMaster’s Insurgency Can Save Us From The Worst Of Trump


Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster is a living legend in the United States Army. By choosing McMaster as his national security adviser, Donald Trump has set up a new power rivalry in the White House. The resolution of that struggle will have profound implications on a global scale.

In every way that matters, McMaster is the opposite of the disgraced Michael Flynn, so his appointment is widely seen as an impediment to the ambitions of strategist Steve Bannon. Most commentary has also mentioned Fox News personality K.T. McFarland, the current deputy national security adviser, and speculated on whether Trump is willing to let her go. Everyone wonders if McMaster can contain the open warfare between the president and his intelligence apparatus.

These are important questions about morale and leadership. But a much more important question is whether McMaster can prevail on his fellow generals — James Mattis, the retired general and new Secretary of Defense, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the joint chiefs, and John Kelly, Secretary of Homeland Security — to refrain from encouraging Trump towards further operational disasters like the botched raid in Yemen last month.

McMaster cannot change the president, but he can change the president’s mind. To win Trump over against bad advisers, McMaster doesn’t need to fight a bureaucratic battle on the scale of, say, his victory over a Republican Guard tank brigade in 1991.

More recently, McMaster taught the US Army how to fight insurgency warfare by fighting less — a model that’s much less bloody, and more easily applied to his new role.

Developed in Southeast Asia after the Second World War, counterinsurgency (COIN) theory is famously “twenty per cent military and eighty per cent political.” Whereas the Bush-era Pentagon had invaded and occupied Iraq with a shattering bombardment, McMaster designed his famous 2006 campaign for the insurgent city of Tel Afar using minimal force.

Writing for The New Yorker, George Packer quoted one company commander’s description of the McMaster COIN doctrine as “a kind of training in empathy.”

In Colorado, McMaster and his officers, most of them veterans of the war’s first year, improvised a new way to train for Iraq. Instead of preparing for tank battles, the regiment bought dozens of Arab dishdashas, which the Americans call “man dresses,” and acted out a variety of realistic scenarios, with soldiers and Arab-Americans playing the role of Iraqis. “We need training that puts soldiers in situations where they need to make extremely tough choices,” Captain Sellars, the troop commander, said. “What are they going to see at the traffic control point? They’re possibly going to have a walk-up suicide bomber—O.K., let’s train that. They’re going to have an irate drunk guy that is of no real threat—let’s train that. They’re going to have a pregnant lady that needs to get through the checkpoint faster—O.K., let’s train that.” Pictures of Shiite saints and politicians were hung on the walls of a house, and soldiers were asked to draw conclusions about the occupants. Soldiers searching the house were given the information they wanted only after they had sat down with the occupants three or four times, accepted tea, and asked the right questions. Soldiers filmed the scenarios and, afterward, analyzed body language and conversational tone. McMaster ordered his soldiers never to swear in front of Iraqis or call them “hajjis” in a derogatory way (this war’s version of “gook”).

Contrary to the Trump doctrine of dark and dire pronouncements, according to McMaster’s theory of COIN, “lifting the fear off the community is the first element” of success. Journalist Thomas Ricks explains in Fiasco, his definitive history of America’s misadventure in Iraq, that McMaster set out to actually win the war of “hearts and minds” by turning the local population against the insurgents this way.

He taught them from the outset that the key to counterinsurgency is focusing on the people, not on the enemy. He changed the standing orders of the regiment: Henceforth, all soldiers would “treat detainees professionally” — which hadn’t happened with the 3rd ACR during its time in Iraq in 2003-4.

McMaster visited every component unit in the regiment to reinforce that message, telling every soldier in his command, “Every time you treat an Iraqi disrespectfully, you are working for the enemy.” Recognizing that dignity is a core value for Iraqis, he also banned his soldiers from using the term “haji” as a slang to describe them, because he saw it as inaccurate and disrespectful of their religion. (It actually means someone who has made the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca.) Cultural understanding became a major part of the regiment’s training. One out of every ten soldiers received a three-week course in conversational Arabic, so that each small unit would have someone capable of basic exchanges. McMaster distributed a lengthy reading list for his officers that included studies of Arabian and Iraqi history and most of the classic texts on counterinsurgency. He also quietly relieved one battalion commander who just didn’t seem to understand that such changes were necessary.

It’s not hard to see how this approach might work on the Trump administration just as it worked on an armored cavalry regiment. Gen. McMaster is willing to tell Trump that his ‘Muslim ban’ is counterproductive. He’s unafraid to condemn torture or say that a harebrained proposal needs work. As a colonel, he didn’t mind infuriating Donald Rumsfeld by acknowledging the insurgency in Iraq, even though it meant taking a hit to his career; he won’t back down before a bully like Steve Bannon or his shadow “Strategic Initiatives Group.”

Trump desperately needs to stop the impression of a slide into chaos. Just by saying yes to a job that qualified professionals did not want, McMaster made himself indispensable to the president. If he can get Trump to heed his counsel, subverting his rivals, then Gen. McMaster may prove indispensable to the whole world.

Featured image via AP/screengrab

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