A View from the CT Foxhole: Lieutenant General (Ret) H.R. McMaster, Former National Security Advisor.

AuthorMorrow, Sean

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--Shafafyat 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 infuence 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 satisfcing 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 fnance efforts and interrupting financial fows 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 staf?

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 signifcantly 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 firstorder 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 fows 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 likeminded partners.

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 afliates came to be a serious concern. In your thinking, how do we...

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