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October 11, 2005

Mission Creep is Back
Posted by Derek Chollet

The debate about what to do next in Iraq – and how long we should stay – presumes that we have the luxury of the full range of choices.  We don’t.  Our military is reaching its limit in Iraq, and few planners think that we can sustain the tempo of our presence there much longer.  In fact, I’ve heard from reliable sources that Army plans for next year call for pulling at least 4 brigades out of Iraq – 15,000 troops – regardless of what happens with the political process or the training of the Iraqi forces.  Not a full pullout, to be sure, but I think a sign of things to come.

Added to this is the growing role the military is assuming in many areas – from post-conflict reconstruction, to diplomacy, to domestic disaster relief.  Today’s New York Times has a story about an Army idea to create a specially-trained disaster relief force.

Writing in this week’s Defense News, my colleague Julianne Smith and I have some thoughts about this.   Here's what we say:

Our bottom line is that mission creep is back. In the wakes of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, Bush suggested that the military take on a bigger role in responding to natural disasters. Then his administration decided the Pentagon should assume responsibility from the State Department for providing assistance to Iraq’s Defense and Interior ministries.

Given the U.S. military’s unique competencies, particularly in managing large-scale and complex operations during a crisis, these changes might make sense in the short term. But Washington’s increasing reliance on the Pentagon is setting a dangerous trend, one that is already straining the force and undermining military preparedness for its core mission — to fight and win wars.

The trend is not new. Starting in the 1990s, the military slowly started to outrank its civilian chain of command in influence, authority and resources in many parts of the world. As the State Department struggled to meet the demands of an increasingly ambitious foreign policy agenda, and labored under severe budget constraints, U.S. combatant commanders — four-star generals in charge of military forces deployed around the globe —- stepped in and became a kind of regional ambassador on steroids.

With large budgets, their own planes and enough cache to secure an appointment with anyone and everyone they pleased, these military proconsuls transformed American diplomacy. U.S. ambassadors and their embassies often became sidelined in the process and the Defense Department found itself taking on a growing list of diplomatic tasks. Today, these combatant commands, in addition to their core military missions, find themselves spending an enormous amount of time shaping U.S. foreign policy with very little coordination with other parts of the U.S. government, and even less congressional oversight.

The Pentagon has also been given the de facto lead in undertaking and managing the full range of tasks associated with stability operations like those in Iraq and Afghanistan. Operations in Bosnia and Kosovo exposed the inability of other U.S. government agencies to mobilize sufficient personnel and resources for postconflict reconstruction. The Pentagon filled this void.

Yet, despite tireless efforts to learn from each mission, the U.S. military has little or no comparative advantage in many of the tasks associated with such operations, particularly those that fall outside of the security sector. With the exception of civil affairs units, the U.S. military is not adequately trained or equipped to build civil administrations, act as mayors of villages, establish a national financial system, rebuild health and sanitation infrastructure, instigate judicial reform, or hold elections.

Now, it looks like the Pentagon could soon supplement its military, reconstruction and diplomatic portfolios with domestic disaster relief responsibilities. The U.S. military’s enormous capacity to mobilize and turn on a dime is invaluable in the face of a natural disaster. But giving the military additional responsibilities at a time when it is already pushed to the limit in Iraq and Afghanistan is more than just unfair to the men and women who serve and the civilians who work in other government agencies. It could lead to the worst of both worlds: a military that is both ill-prepared and overstretched.

Republicans and Democrats alike must find a way to break their habit of turning to the military every time another agency fails to prove up to the task. Instead of piling onto the Pentagon’s never-ending list of responsibilities, the Bush administration and Congress must decide to resource and empower places like the State Department, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Treasury, Department of Education and Department of Homeland Security.

Those agencies need to develop the confidence to serve as the lead agency in their areas of comparative advantage, and confidence can only come with capacity. The State Department, for example, needs the authority and resources to build its own civilian operational capacity. And FEMA needs to return to the status it had in the 1990s, when it was a Cabinet-level institution fully empowered and funded to take charge when disaster strikes.

America’s military is one of this county’s most important institutions, and its men and women show every day why they are the greatest fighting force in the world. We want the military to be flexible, and we want it to be able to adapt and take on different kinds of missions.

But adding more responsibilities to an already overburdened force is not in the military’s interest, nor is it in the American people’s. Given all the challenges we face at home and abroad, we need the rest of the government to work too.


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Traditional or even next-generation war fighters are not the best choice for stability operations. However, that does not mean that civilians can necessarily fill the gap.

Civil administration involves many civilian tasks, but in environments like Iraq and Afghanistan it also means going armed. Establishing order and preventing looting is not a traditional military task, but it is also not a traditional State Department task.

My describing this phenomenon as mission creep, you beg the question of whether the Pentagon should have properly trained forces for nation building. In World War II, civil administration fell under the War Department and was handled far more competently than the present state of affairs.

The question is do we want a more militarized civilian department or a more civil administration oriented branch of the services? Addressing the long term need will require one or the other, and either will be a dramatic break with long standing U.S. policy. In any case, I don't think the concept of mission creep is the best guide for making this decision.

The choice of the military to do civilian work is perfectly logical given how Republicans and this president view government. Any tax dollars that have to be spent should never be spent on personnel costs. It creates a permanent class that feeds on the revenues of the government. This reality is true but it comes up against the reality that the market can not respond to the demands of natural disasters. What company is going to sit around with helicopters, supplies of medicine, food, water, clothing, infrastructure goods, trucks, etal waiting to put them to use?

It behooves the Bush Administration to realize this and fund the proper civilian agencies to do this job. You simply can not keep our economic infrastructure crippled waiting for the market place to act. Let the military do their job without drawing on their logistics ability.

If we were to give the military control of the nation-building stuff, and leave them unsupervised, then they might be mostly free of political cronyism etc. They might easily do much better than this administration has.

Similarly, if we were to give the military control of their own acquisition process, and let them choose where to put their own military bases and which contracts to accept and so on, we'd likely spend our money better.

I'm not sure how far we can take that logic and still keep a representative government, though. At some point you have to sacrifice efficiency for accountability. We'd do better if we could find a way to reform the methods that our military is accountable to our elected reprsentatives. And yet what reforms could leave us not susceptible to theos representatives trying to make sure their own districts get sufficient military spending spent in them?

This argument flies against the stated ambitions of Rumsfeld coming into office--that he would scale back the autonomy of the combatant commanders (indeed, he refused to call them "CINCs" anymore) in favor of civilian (i.e. Rumsfeldian) control in Washington. Are you saying that he failed, and, if so, can you elaborate a bit?

Praktike, if you're talking to me, I'm not saying that Rumsfeld failed. I'm saying that if we want our military to succeed at its various tasks we're depending on him to fail.

Our military works best when each officer gets the chance to use as much initiative as he's ready to accept, and at each level they get rewarded for results. The sergeants micromanage the privates who mess up without it, and the captains micromanage the lieutenants who mess up without it, and those guys don't get promoted.

When we say the army gets results, let's make the army do everything we need results for, and we try to control too much about how they get those results, we're getting rid of the trick that let the army get results.

OK, What?

For starters, this:
"In fact, I’ve heard from reliable sources that Army plans for next year call for pulling at least 4 brigades out of Iraq – 15,000 troops"

does not follow from this:
"Our military is reaching its limit in Iraq, and few planners think that we can sustain the tempo of our presence there much longer."

And that's taking it at face value. Any guess as to how far back I can google a DTG on "can't sustain presense/tempo much longer", Mr. Chollet?

Those reliable sources? They wouldn't happen to be every administration official that ever graced a sunday talk show for the last 24 months would they? This is your shocking argument opener?

In the context that you provide, what you call "mission creep" is more easily explained as "training". In fact, it is far easier to argue that the types of missions that the services have been conducting during the last 2 years in Central Asia have done more to prepare the military for putting back together a destroyed large urban area, than they have depleted it's ability to do so.

I seriously don't know what to make of your essay. It has a certain flow and rhyme to it. It looks and tastes like a FoPo article - But then you start to try and agree with some - any - part of it, and your head starts to hurt.

But, I guess that explains your closer:

We want the be able to adapt and take on different kinds of missions. But adding more responsibilities not in the military’s interest.

Really? Why? Not why to the first or the second - why? Why to both. What - you want them to, but they can't? Or we need them to, but they shouldn't? It's in their interst, but not ours? Do they even have an interest other than ours? (answer - No)

Mr Chollet?

Why isn't anyone questioning the use of Guard troops to augment our active duty forces.

The reason the Pentagon is considering using active duty forces for domestic situations is that the Guard which should handle that role have been conscripted for duty in Iraq.

It is Rumsfelds failed leaner army philosphy which needs to be examined. He should be share some of the blame for the slow response to Katrina because those guard troops should never of been in Iraq over two years after the invasion.

What we are seeing is the dissolution of the guard as independent components of the states and their absorption into the national defence forces. Rumsfeld and his incompetent staff are destroying the effectiveness of local state controlled units so that they can use the national army to control domestic situations.

It isn't mission creep so much as the deliberate obileration of state control over the National Guard.

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