McMaster says Trump’s Taliban deal is Munich-like appeasement

Oct. 20, 2020
National security adviser H.R. McMaster at the White House in October 2017. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

President Trump’s Afghanistan policy is confusing and unclear, even for his own officials. His top general and his national security adviser are publicly battling over U.S. troop withdrawals in the country. And now H.R. McMaster, a retired Army lieutenant general and former national security adviser, has publicly said that Trump’s Afghanistan policy is a “travesty,” and that his deal with the Taliban constitutes appeasement similar to Europe’s accommodation with Adolf Hitler in the Munich agreement of 1938.

McMaster, doing a publicity tour for his new book, sounded off about the Trump administration’s recent approach to Afghanistan during an online event hosted Thursday by the Alexander Hamilton Society, a nonprofit foreign policy network that operates on college campuses across the country. McMaster told the audience that, during his term as national security adviser, the U.S. commitment in Afghanistan had been on track to be sustainable and effective. But in making a deal with the Taliban, he said, Trump has now betrayed the mission and undermined U.S. security.

McMaster said that Trump repeated and then exceeded all of the flaws of the Obama administration’s approach to Afghanistan by seeking to bring the Taliban into the Afghan government and pressuring the Afghan government to go along. Trump, he said, apparently forgot that the Taliban are the enemy, and that they are intertwined with terrorist groups.

“War is a contest of wills. And we have to have the will ourselves to prevail,” McMaster said. “These are some of the most horrible people on earth. These are the enemies of all civilized people.”

Gabriel Scheinmann, executive director of the Alexander Hamilton Society, asked McMaster: “Is this our Munich agreement? Are we pursuing a policy of appeasement with Taliban?”

“Yes, yes, we are,” McMaster replied.

McMaster said that by pushing for an Afghan power-sharing agreement with the Taliban, the Trump administration was not only undermining its Afghan government partners but also undermining the moral and legal underpinning for U.S. intervention there. Trump’s strategy “renders the war unjust, because we no longer have defined a just end,” he said.

“It’s just a travesty,” said McMaster, predicting failure. “We will pay the price, and we’ll be back. We’ll have to go back, and at a much higher cost.”

McMaster’s comments came as the internal Trump administration battle over Afghanistan troop withdrawals spilled into public view last week. National security adviser Robert C. O’Brien and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark A. Milley are sniping at each other in public, each claiming to understand the president’s policy better than the other.

It started Oct. 7, when O’Brien told a crowd at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, that the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan would go down from about 5,000 to 2,500 by early next year. Referring to the Trump administration’s push for the Afghan government and the Taliban to strike a deal, O’Brien said: “Ultimately, the Afghans themselves are going to have to work out an accord, a peace agreement.”

Just hours later, Trump tweeted that all U.S. troops “should” be out of Afghanistan by Christmas, a typically vague tweet that could be interpreted either as an opinion or an order by the commander in chief. Asked about the troop withdrawal issue by NPR on Oct. 11, Milley took a direct swipe at O’Brien.

“I think that Robert O’Brien or anyone else can speculate as they see fit,” Milley said. “I’m not going to engage in speculation. I’m going to engage in the rigorous analysis of the situation based on the conditions and the plans that I am aware of and my conversations with the president.”

O’Brien hit back at Milley during an online event Friday hosted by the Aspen Strategy Group, repeating that Trump intends to draw down to 2,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan soon. “It has been suggested by some that that’s speculation. I can guarantee you, that’s the plan of the president the United States,” O’Brien said, pushing back on Milley’s claim that O’Brien didn’t speak for Trump. O’Brien also said that Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper and the Defense Department are “fully on board” with implementing the withdrawal plan.|

Officials tell me that O’Brien is definitely closer than Milley to being able to speak to the president’s intentions. Trump has been angry at Milley since the general publicly apologized for his role in the clearing of Lafayette Square with chemical agents so that Trump could hold a Bible photo op there in June.

Esper, who has also been on thin ice with Trump since that incident, has been keeping a low profile, traveling overseas and avoiding the U.S. media.

McMaster is surely voicing the concerns of many of the senior military brass who have spent years fighting in Afghanistan and worry that Trump is squandering those gains. He has spoken out against his former boss very selectively. At the Hamilton Society event, he implicitly criticized his successor, John Bolton, by saying that the national security adviser shouldn’t publicly reveal dirt about the president, especially while that president is still in office.

“You’re in a position of trust,” he said. “And to violate that trust and confidence during that administration is a travesty, because how are future presidents going to trust their national security advisers?”

McMaster says Trump’s Taliban deal is Munich-like appeasement