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June 27, 2012

Re-Writing History - The Afghan Surge Version
Posted by Michael Cohen

ResponsibiltyI've been meaning for some time to read and write a bit about Rajiv Chandrasekaran's new book on Afghanistan, but deadlines, work and the raising of a 6-month old daughter tends to get in the way.

Still I've been struck by the popular reaction to the book, which appears to be an updated version of the Incompetence Dodge - namely it wasn't the idea to surge in Afghanistan that was the mistake, the errors instead came in implementation and execution (the original incompetence dodge references the war in Iraq and is made here by Sam Rosenfeld).

Case in point Andrew Exum's apologia today for war supporters in World Politics Review. Exum makes the argument that "what sunk Afghanistan was not the planning process but the execution." Exum's assertion, which appears to be similar to Chandrasekaran's, is that the US "squandered its best chance at reversing the momentum of the war in 2009" by sending troops into Helmand province and by the "vicious infighting among members of the Obama administration." While there is no doubt that these were serious challenges, they elide the real problems that hobbled the US effort it Afghanistan - namely adopting an unrealistic population-centric COIN "strategy" that had little chance of success and was practically destined to fail (some people did mention this at the time).

Even with perfect execution, the strategy pushed by the military and adopted by the White House was doomed to failure because it was predicated on a series of unrealistic assumptions, including that Pakistan would be a strategic ally of the United States (it's not); that the Karzai regime would be an effective COIN partner (they weren't); that a civilian surge would help provide good governance to Afghanistan (it didn't); and that US troops could act like armed social workers and "out-shura" the Taliban (they can't). This is not to mention the fact that it dramatically overstated the threat to US interests represented by the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan.

Yet, Exum implicitly rejects this argument and argues instead that, "the conduct of the Obama administration and the U.S. military in 2009 represents the ideal for strategic decision-making in terms of both process and the relationship between the military and its civilian masters."

Reading this quote I'm reminded of what George Romney had to say after Lyndon Johnson declared, in the aftermath of the Tet Offensive in 1968, that it had been a failure for the North Vietnamese. "If what we have seen in the past week is a Viet Cong failure," said Romney, "then I hope they never have a victory." If Afghanistan is a success I'd hate to see what a strategic decision-making failure might look like.

Indeed, as has been written ad nauseum at this blog the biggest problem in the strategic decision-making on the Afghanistan surge came well before implementation - and this was obvious well before the surge began. Rather it was that that a young president was bullied into a troop escalation in Afghanistan by military leaders who had gone from being advisors to open advocates. Indeed, the release of the McChrystal strategic review - along with the assembling of a think tank heavy roster of experts to write the review and then advocate for it upon their return from Afghanistan - was part of the public relations effort to push the President toward one strategy and one strategy only, population-centric counter-insurgency (and here I'm referring directly to McChrystal's review, which said that ONLY a POP COIN effort would succeed in Afghanistan).

There has been so much written on this topic that I won't bother to summarize all of it - skim Bob Woodward's book "Obama's Wars" for the fuller story. Woodward provides strong evidence of the oversized role of the military in pushing a COIN approach in Afghanistan; of the willfull efforts to keep non-COIN plans away from the President and of the military basically ignoring the President's dictates to stay out of areas that couldn't be turned over to the ANSF within 18 months (see Helmand offensive). But Exum thinks this is all much ado about nothing

"A few progressive commentators in the United States initially worried about a crisis in civil-military relations in the wake of the war’s escalation, but it was ironically the dismissal of McChrystal -- and the general’s conduct afterward -- that decisively demonstrated that these fears were unwarranted."

For the record I am the progressive commentator who shall not be named - but it's important to understand why this is wrong. The argument made at the time by those concerned about a civ-mil crisis was that the military was placing undue pressure on the White House. In fact the quote that informed the post linked to above, from Colonel John Tien who was working on the NSC, describes that pressure and challenge that Obama was facing from the military in vivid detail:

"Mr. President," Tien said, "I don't see how you can defy your military chain here. We kind of are where we are. Because if you tell General [Stanley A.] McChrystal [the U.S. commander in Afghanistan], 'I got your assessment, got your resource constructs, but I've chosen to do something else,' you're going to probably have to replace him. You can't tell him, 'Just do it my way, thanks for your hard work.' And then where does that stop?"

The colonel did not have to elaborate. His implication was that not only McChrystal but the entire military high command might go in an unprecedented toppling - Gates; Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Gen. David H. Petraeus, then head of U.S. Central Command. Perhaps no president could weather that, especially a 48-year-old with four years in the U.S. Senate and 10 months as commander in chief.

The very words "I don't see how you can defy your military chain here" should cause every American who cares about civil-military relations to lose sleep. Tien's argument (though not endorsement) is that Obama is beholden to his military advisors - to defy them would risk getting in a public battle with the military that would cause no end of political harm to him. Now granted this is a challenge that is hardly all the fault of the military - it's one that is reflective of a particular political meme, cultivated by Republicans, that sees Democrats as oppositional to the military in mindset and, in practice, reluctant to defy them. Can you imagine anyone saying these words to President Bush in 2007 when he defied the military on surging in Iraq? That Obama felt this sort of pressure to abide by the wishes of his generals may not be a full-fledged civilian-military crisis - but it's definitely problematic. To state the obvious, a situation where the President feels under undue pressure to NOT defy the military's wishes in Afghanistan is most certainly not how a strategic decision-making process should work.

And it's a problem that is hardly obviated by McChrystal's dismissal a year later. Indeed, the very fact that Obama replaced McChrystal with David Petraeus was emblematic of the political pressure that the White House faced in replacing even a disobedient four star general. Picking Petraeus as McChrystal's replacement was a move born in politics (as was the decision to pack P4 off to the CIA a year later). Indeed, it is indicative of the country's civil military problems - and the pressure felt by Democratic Presidents to avoid public battles with the military.

Now in fairness, in the two years since McChrystal was fired President Obama has demonstrated an encouraging inclination to defy his generals (as he did on Afghanistan policy in July 2011 by pulling the plug on the surge). Part of the reason, it should be noted is because the lack of trust he felt for them after the Fall 2009 surge screw-up - although he gets no medals for not having the guts to stand up to them then. But this notable action does not change the fact that in 2009 the President was pushed into escalation by his generals who became activists and advocates for a particular policy choice - a policy choice that ended up being a failure. 

Obama like all those who advocated for the surge - or who kept silent about their concerns - have a cross to bear on this one. Getting the policy right in July 2011 doesn't absolve him of the mistakes made in December 2009 - and of the lives lost in the pursuit of a failed mission. But he's not alone. In this regard, Exum is quite right that the Afghanistan surge "should prompt much soul-searching."

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