It is time to send H.R. McMaster to Afghanistan. Following reports of the National Security Advisor’s imminent departure from the White House, speculation on where the lieutenant general might end up has been rampant. While there have been rumors of a position at Stanford, most reports have focused on military options. McMaster opted to remain on active-duty when he took the job in the White House, making him eligible to return to the ranks.
As I and others have cautioned, McMaster’s tenure in the White House has had direct implications for civilian-military relations. Whether by choice or circumstance, McMaster’s approach to his role was less that of a coordinator and more of a champion of very specific foreign policy views. He also, unfortunately, did not avoid the realm of the partisan, even going so far as to draft an op-ed critical of the previous administration. This makes his continued service in the non-partisan role of Army officer inherently problematic, and it is difficult to imagine that the next commander in chief would be comfortable with McMaster’s loyalties given his close affiliation with the current president.
Yet this experience does not need to be a net-negative for McMaster’s military career. In fact, this experience makes him ideally suited to execute our strategy in Afghanistan. President TrumpDonald TrumpFormer New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver dead at 77 Biden, Democrats losing ground with independent and suburban voters: poll Bipartisan Senate group discusses changes to election law MORE famously campaigned on the idea that our Afghanistan strategy has been a failure. He even appeared to maintain that viewpoint once in office, and spent considerable time exploring new and often outlandish options, such as turning over the effort to a mercenary force. Trump was ultimately convinced to stay the course by none other than McMaster, who worked closely with Secretary of Defense Mattis to double-down on our current efforts.
This means that no one is as qualified as McMaster to translate Trump’s vision into a workable strategy for Afghanistan. Having spent countless hours in briefings and conversations with the president, McMaster presumably has a deep understanding of the priorities and worldview of the commander in chief. This would make him uniquely qualified to articulate military requirements to political leadership, while also translating our overall strategy into actionable objectives.
Most importantly, a move such as this would introduce something sorely lacking over the almost 17 years of our efforts in Afghanistan: accountability.
A common complaint of the Obama administration was that they had been rolled by the military by being presented with a limited number of options for the way forward in Afghanistan. And later, after seven years of effort with very little to show for it, it was the turn of military leaders to blame that failure on the timelines that Obama had set for withdrawal. There are inherent problems with each of these excuses, but they have been sufficient to deflect any real assessments of our current strategy and allowed both political and military leaders to claim they did their best with the hand that they had been given. Meanwhile, we have continued to dump American blood and massive amounts of money into Afghanistan with only a tenuous stalemate to show for it.
And that is the beauty of putting McMaster in charge in Afghanistan. Putting one of the primary architects of our current strategy directly in charge of execution would remove much of the political-military friction that sometimes hinders our national security efforts.
With over two years until 2020, McMaster would also have ample time to show progress before the next presidential election, and would be one of the longest-serving commanders we have had in Afghanistan.
While I remain skeptical of the fundamentals of our strategy in Afghanistan, if we are going to continue our commitment we should at least close the gap between strategy and execution that appears to have bedeviled our efforts for so long. McMaster has claimed that victory is possible in Afghanistan and he at least deserves the chance to prove it.
Jason Dempsey is an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.