I haven’t written nearly as much about Afghanistan this year as I did about Iraq last year; a lot of that is the unavoidable fact that the war in Afghanistan is deeply personal to me now, and I want to try and separate my personal feelings from the larger questions I want to think about as a citizen.
Now, President Obama is about to announce his decision on Afghanistan troop levels…and what do I want him to do?
I want him to do the same thing I wanted George Bush to do in 2003: Lay out what the conflict is about; lay out our goals; lay out the broad means we intend to use to meet those goals.
This is congruent with some of the critical things I’ve said about Bush; specifically that he hasn’t articulated or sold his plan. I think it is necessary that he do so, because ultimately this war will be won by the side with the stronger faith; we are matching our faith in our vision of the future against our opponents’.
Trent [Telenko] thinks my position is silly, and makes some strong arguments that I’ll leave to him to fill in; in summary, his view is that Bush has a plan, but can’t articulate it for political/diplomatic reasons, and that we need to simply trust him – that we can simply rely on his character.
My reply is “nope”.
Even if I stipulate that Bush has grown immensely wiser and more credible than he was in his early life…and I do believe that he has grown, although I’m not convinced that he’s grown immensely…I just can’t accept the notion that we’re sending our sons and daughters – hell, that I may send my son – because GWB says so.
And I don’t think that I’m alone.
Modern leadership involves propagating your vision – of a project, or a business. It involves creating faith which can motivate people to accept discomfort, pain or loss. When a team shares a vision, they have some understanding of the high-level plan which will make them more tolerant of not knowing the low-level plans.
But you can’t ask people to accept burdens based solely on one’s character any more. We are past the point of kings.
In other words, I want a Grand Strategy.
COIN v non-COIN isn’t a grand strategic debate, it’s a debate over which set of ‘grand tactics’ we want to use to implement our goals (although I think the choice of grand tactics should be driven by and in turn helps decide larger scale strategies).
Surge vs. non-surge isn’t a strategy either. Let me bring in an expert to try and explain what we’re missing.
On my bookshelf I’ve got a faded copy of Col. Harry Summers’ great book ‘On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War.‘ He’s got a few things to say about this, and right now I think it’s really important that people go read them…
One of the more simplistic explanations for our failure in Vietnam is that it was all the fault of the American people – that it was caused by a collapse of national will. Happily for the health of the Republic, this evasion is rare among Army officers. A stab-in-the-back syndrome never developed after Vietnam.
The main reason it is not right to blame the American public is that President Lyndon Baines Johnson made a conscious decision not to mobilize the American people – to invoke the national will – for the Vietnam war. As former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Phil G. Goulding commented, “In my four-year tour [July 1965 – January 1969] there was not once a significant organized effort by the Executive Branch of the federal government to put across its side of a major policy issue or a major controversy to the American people. Not once was there a ‘public affairs program’…worthy of the name.” According to his biographer, President Johnson’s decision not to mobilize the American people was based on his fears that it would jeopardize his “Great Society” programs.
What the military needed to tell our Commander-in-Chief was not just about battles and bombs and bullets. They needed to tell him that, as Clausewitz discovered 150 years earlier, “it would be an obvious fallacy to imagine war between civilized peoples as resulting merely from a rational act on the part of the Government and to consider war as gradually ridding itself of passion.” They needed to tell him that it was an obvious fallacy to commit the Army without first committing the American people.
– Chapter 1
Ever wonder where Colin Powell got the roots of his Doctrine? Summers goes on, in Chapter 8 – ‘Tactics, Grand Tactics, and Strategy’
“Based on the pattern of events and . . . their outcome” makes it obvious that the problem in Vietnam, as in the early days of the Civil War, was not evil leaders or faulty arithmetic as much as it was a lack of strategic thinking. As George Allen, one of the CIA’s primary Vietnam analysts put it, it wasn’t so much the numbers, “it was a fundamental question of the soundness of our policy, of our whole approach to the war.”
This lack of understanding of the “Big Picture” was not peculiar to Vietnam. It is a common failing. Writing about 14th century warfare, Barbara Tuchman observed that “what moved knights to war was desire to do deeds of valor . . . not the gaining of a political end by force of arms. They were concerned with action, not the goal= which was why the goal was so rarely attained.”‘ Fifty years before Clausewitz, Marshal Maurice de Saxe observed that “very few men occupy themselves with the higher problems of war. They pass their lives drilling troops [an essential skill, by the way, for 18th century tactical success] and believe that this is the only branch of the military art. When they arrive at the command of armies they are totally ignorant, and in default of knowing what should be done, they do what they know.”
In Vietnam we also did what we knew. As was said in the introduction to this book, in “logistics and in tactics . . . we succeeded in everything we set out to do.”” But, as we have seen, our failure in strategy made these skills irrelevant. This is the lesson we must keep in mind as we look to the future. While we will still need “deeds of valor” and proficiency in logistics and tactics, we must insure that these skills are applied in pursuit of a sound strategy.
– Chapter 8
In the video I did with Uncle Jimbo, I said (starting about 2:50 in) “…to be honest, if you’re not a heroin addict in New York City, I’m not sure what America’s strategic interest in Afghanistan as a country really would be.” And I meant that, and mean it today.
If my son is fighting only to bring civil society to the 34 provinces of Afghanistan, eff it – bring him home tomorrow. Bring all of our sons and daughters home tomorrow.
I need to hear some kind of broader explanation of what we’re doing there and what we hope to accomplish through our efforts there – not only in Afghanistan itself, but in the region and in the rest of the world.
Craig Mullaney had the beginnings of some answers when I got to talk with him.
It is my genuine hope that we’ll hear more from the President tomorrow – and my genuine fear that we won’t.
I’ll try and do something on the politics around this – and on some of my hopes and darker fears about them – in the morning.