The Next Secretary of Defense


One of the most pressing problems facing the incoming Secretary of Defense is posed by our denouement in Afghanistan.  For reasons explained by Paul Sperry in an excellent 30 December op-ed in the New York Post, extricating ourselves from this quagmire is now taking on dangerous overtones, and the need to leave may be approaching at warp speed.  The implications for the nature of the American withdrawal may be ominous, but they should not be unexpected.  It is now virtually certain that managing a coherent withdrawal will present a major challenge for the incoming defense secretary.

President Obama’s 2009 surge strategy for what he and Democrats liked to portray as the “good war” in Afghanistan was premised upon the assumption that the US could quickly build up and train large Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), including army and police forces.  Obama and the Pentagon sold this counterinsurgency strategy to the American people by promising a surge in American forces would quickly weaken the Taliban.  The emasculation of the Taliban would permit a rapid expansion of the Afghan security zones controlled by the Kabul government, while the rapid build up of the ANSF would stabilize and grow these zones even further, and thereby set the stage for a quick exit of US combat forces beginning eighteen months from the date of the surge.

Despite its central premise of quickly building up an effective ANSF, the surge-based counterinsurgency plan produced by the Afghan theater commander General Stanley McChrystal did not provide a realistic analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the existing Afghan army and police forces.  Yet these forces were the foundation for the both the expansion and the promised sequence of developments that would enable our quick withdrawal.

McChrystal’s grotesque oversight became obvious well before the plan’s approval, when his plan was leaked in the early fall of 2009 (as I explained here).    The limitations of this plan were again brought dramatically to the President’s attention by Ambassador Eikenberry in cables that were leaked immediately before the plan’s approval in January 2010 (summarized here).  Nevertheless, the President pressed on and approved the fatally flawed plan after an agonizing public debate during the fall and winter of 2009-10.

General McChrystal’s omission was both logically and empirically unforgivable, especially given (1) the contemporaneously emerging awareness of the counterproductive strategic effects of President Bush’s surge in Iraq, (2) the Soviet’s clear failure to build up an effective Afghan army in the 1980s as part of its exit strategy and (3) our own spectacular failure to build up an effective South Vietnamese army (i.e., Vietnamization), which was a central premise of President Nixon’s Vietnam exit strategy.

While hardly unique in its content, Sperry’s op-ed piece provides an excellent summary of how the easily foreseeable consequences of McChrystal’s oversight are now rapidly coming to a head. The problem is not just a strategic one of extracting our forces with dignity; nor is it a political one of fingering who is to blame, although there is plenty of blame to go around. It stems from deep institutional roots that reveal a need for reform in our military bureaucracies and particularly our leadership selection policies.

That is because the next Secretary of Defense must deal with the consequences of a strategic oversight that was made by and approved at the highest professional levels of the American military establishment — a plan which it then imposed on its weak and insecure political leaders.  This suggests a question: Will the new defense secretary succumb to business as usual by sweeping the dysfunctional institutional causes of the Afghan debacle under the rug or have the courage and wisdom to use this sorry affair as a reason to clean out the Pentagon’s Augean Stables?

If past is prologue, the former is far more probable than the latter.  The Vietnam catastrophe resulted cosmetic reforms, the most lasting of which dealt with improving the military’s capacity to manipulate press coverage to preserve its institutional prerogatives — a capability that became apparent in the First Iraq War, Kosovo, the Second Iraq War, and initially in Afghanistan, and the press’s fawning coverage of these wars.

But managing the Afghan denouement  is not even the largest challenge facing the new defense secretary.

A far more significant challenge will be posed by the need to sort out the programmatic chaos in the Pentagon’s hugely bloated defense budget, which, while not unrelated to the Afghan debacle, is caused primarily by out-of-control institutional prerogatives and bureaucratic game playing.  Notwithstanding its bloat, the current defense budget plan cannot modernize the  military’s weapons inventories on a timely basis; nor can it insure our shrinking, aging equipment will be maintained in a state of combat readiness, while providing sufficient funds for training troops.  Most importantly, the Pentagon’s accounting systems are a shambles.  The Pentagon’s budget and program planning books they can even pass the most basic constitutional requirements for accountability, much less provide the management information needed to fix the aforementioned modernization, force structure, and readiness problems.

As I explained here and here, these dysfunctional problems are connected and have deep behavioral roots.  Fixing these problems will require harmonizing and reigning in the disparate factions making up the dysfunctional political-economy of the Military – Industrial – Congressional Complex — the heretofore intractable problem President Eisenhower first warned America about in his farewell address in January 1961 (note: the reference to Congress was included in the first draft of his speech but subsequently dropped).

What I find depressing is that not one of these pressing issues has been the subject of speculations about the choice of a new defense secretary.  Au contraire, the press has been obsessed with the lobbying concerns of the discredited neocons on the right who helped to create Afghan and Iraqi messes, proponents of continuing American empire in the middle (who are now promoting our intervention in Syria and the budget busting pivot to the Pacific), and gender balancers on the left.

Perhaps such divagations of the public mind are a necessary diversion. After all, reigning in the out of control defense program has been declared a non problem by placing it off limits in the hypocritical fiscal cliff negotiations, where the President has chosen put social security payments on the block, even though social security is fully funded by its own earmarked payroll deduction tax (President Obama proposed cutting payments by adopting the chained consumer price index to lower the future inflation adjustments to these payments).

The bottom line, Mr./Ms. Incoming Secretary: SNAFU in Versailles on the Potomac raises the question: Do you want to be part of the problem … or part of a solution?

Franklin “Chuck” Spinney is a former military analyst for the Pentagon and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. He be reached at chuck_spinney@mac.com

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