In the opening lines of the oldest treatise on the conduct of war, Sun Tzu said that the question of war is vital to the state, and therefore, it is imperative to study it. This timeless advice has been been ignored repeatedly by the United States since the end of WWII. The inevitable result has been an insensible rise of war mongering, fueled by arrogance and ignorance, culminating in the chaotic spectacle now enveloping the Afghan War Question in Washington.
The intellectual content of the debate over whether or how much to escalate our forces in Afghanistan has degenerated into formless ranting by all sides. The content of this debate is not conditioned by a clear definition of military success. Nor is it conditioned by a definition of a desired political endstate. When asked how he would define victory, the State Department’s special advisor on Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, arrogantly summed up the collective state of mind by saying pithily, “we will know it when we see it.” With thinking like this, it should not be surprising that can be no definition of an exit strategy or a timeline for ending a war we are admittedly losing, even though that war is now in its ninth year. By the way, Sun Tau also advised to avoid protracted war, and the only protracted shooting war we ever won was the American Revolution, in which we were the insurgents.
Yet, in the middle of the worst domestic economic crisis since the 1930s, President Obama appears to be on the verge of caving in to the irrational pressures for throwing more troops and money into the bottomless pit of Afghanistan. How did the Afghan escalation question degenerate into such a ridiculously chaotic state?
Its immediate antecedents are quite clear.
At the center of this debate is, or should be, the strategic plan submitted to President Obama in August by the theater commander General Stanley MacChrystal. That plan’s centerpiece is to provide security for the Afghan people by accelerating the training and expansion of the Afghan Army and Police Forces (ANSF). To buy time for this expansion, MacChrystal said a surge in US forces of 40,000 is needed, an estimate, according to subsequent reports, that may have been expanded to as many as 80,000 troops, a number the US would not be able to field and sustain without a reinstitution of the draft. MacChrystal or one his war mongering allies in the Pentagon or in the right wing of the Republican Party immediately increased the beating of the war drums by leaking a carefully “redacted” version of his “secret” recommendations to the most obliging courtier of the permanent Washington apparat, Bob Woodward of the Washington Post. By not attempting to find and discipline those responsible for a blatantly insubordinate act aimed a pre-empting his decision-making prerogatives, President Obama, the constitutionally designated commander-in-chief, telegraphed pusillanimity to the proponents of escalation, and thus set the tone for subsequent events.
In the best of circumstances, building an effective military force from scratch takes a long time. History has shown repeatedly that, absent a well trained reserve force and a highly trained active duty officer and NCO corps, it is impossible to rapidly expand the active duty forces of any military organization without seriously degrading its recruiting and training standards. This is the case, even when one is expanding it from the base of a competent core force, which is certainly not the case in Afghanistan. Nevertheless, as I pointed out in September, MacChrystal’s plan was fatally flawed, because it contained no systematic evaluation outlining the strengths and weaknesses of the current state of the Afghan forces he wants to double in size over a very short period.
In normal circumstances, such a failure of analysis would have been a sloppy, irresponsible omission. In this particular case, the omission was made even more outrageous for at least two reasons: First, building a national army that puts loyalty to the state ahead of tribe, clan, and family in Afghanistan’s ancient clan based vendetta culture would be, in the most ideal of circumstances, a highly dubious proposition, because its goal would go against the traditional perquisites implicit in an ancient, highly-evolved culture. At the very least, this challenge ought to have been subjected to the closest anthropological and historical analysis. Second, conditions are hardly ideal. Indeed, it is common knowledge that the current Afghan security forces are already riven by corruption, the conflicted loyalties of warlordism, drug trafficking and murderous criminality, not to mention the central fact that Afghanistan’s Pashtun plurality, whose alienated hearts and minds are crucial to the success of any counterinsurgency strategy, is grossly underrepresented in the army and police forces.
In short, MacChrystal’s cavalier portrayal of the Afghan National Security Forces at the center of his plan ought to have been a show stopper. Moreover, the fact that it was leaked by a politically motivated military officer or a civilian powerbroker to increase pressure on the President for its approval ought have resulted visible discipline. But of course, the huge hole in MacChrystal’s plan was ignored and is now forgotten. No one was hung for crass insubordination. So, it should not be surprising that the Afghan War Question devolved into an evermore formless debate.
A recent AP report by Ben Feller and Anne Gearan introduces two interesting points that will add to the confusion:
Rather than lowering the boom and acting as if it was controlling the events it should be controlling, the White is now retaliating by leaking like a sieve. Unnamed officials now tell us that Obama senses (correctly) that he is being railroaded and, in secret diplomatic cables, Ambassador Eikenbury recently injected his objections to the pervasive corruption infecting the government of Hamid Karzai. Obama, reportedly, is using Eikenbury’s objections as leverage to slow down deliberations and to justify his demand for a timetable laying out how long a continued US presence will be needed.
On the other hand, the report, in what is no doubt a trial balloon, says Obama is leaning toward a “compromise” position of authorizing an increase of 30,000 troops, including three Army brigades and an unspecified USMC contingent. Included in this “compromise” head count of 30,000, however, would be an authorization for the bloated overhead of a huge new headquarters housing 7,000 or more troops. Such a headquarters will no doubt necessitate a huge outlay in construction dollars to house it, a quantum increase in the thru-put of logistics pipelines, and a large increase in the number of field grade and general officers to man it. Therefore, this approval also implies an approval for an increase in the size of and vested interests in an open-ended commitment.
President Obama has been accused of dithering by delaying his decision to escalate, but his politically costly purchase of time is not serving to bring clarity to the debate. He has allowed the huge hole in MacChrystal’s incompetent plan to remain unaddressed, except perhaps obliquely by Ambassador Eikenbury, and to metastasize into a festering state of confusion. This confusion has opened the door to the displacement of rationality by emotion.
Not surprisingly, given the growing tolerance for irrationality in Versailles on the Potomac, the war mongering proponents of immediate escalation are becoming increasingly hysterical. If the mindless mutterings by the likes David Brooks (New York Times) and Michael Gerson (Washington Post) are representative, the proponents of escalation have now reduced themselves to emulating the irrational exhortations made by Adolf Hitler, from the depths of his Fuhrer Bunker cut off from reality, about victory being merely a question of willpower.
This kind of lunatic ranting should not be surprising, because as my good friend Werther recently explained, the triumph of the will over the intellect is an example of the Right Wing’s historic preference for emotion over reason. This kind of ranting also sets the stage for a future stab in the back argument that blames Obama for losing what was in reality a collosal Bush screw up.
Of course, the histrionics of Brooks and Gerson do not come close to rivaling the emotive power of the torchlight Nuremberg parades immortalized by Leni Reifenstahl in her artistic classic, “The Triumph of the Will.” But the feebleness of their imitation makes it all the more pathetic when a man as intelligent as Barack Obama, a gifted speaker who has all the advantages of the bully pulpit together with the awesome status of commander-in-chief, lacks the moral courage to lift his nation out of their kind of darkness into light of reason.
FRANKLIN SPINNEY is a former military analyst for the Pentagon. He currently lives on a sailboat in the Mediterranean and can be reached at email@example.com