We’re Here Because We’re Here Because We’re Here …

Beaulieu Sur Mer, France

The old German army had a term of art for describing the US strategy in Afghanistan: nicht schwerpunckt, meaning there is no center of effort or unifying idea around which to shape and coordinate the ever-changing kaleidoscope of supporting efforts as well as the tactical and grand tactical maneuvers, and counter maneuvers, all of which are, or should be, the reflections of a coherent strategy. The lack of coherence can be seen in the fact that over time our strategic aims have become increasingly unfocused and mutable: How can we be engaged in nation building when we are propping up a corrupt government that will never be able to survive on its own? Are we trying to destroy the Taliban or are we trying to negotiate with the Taliban? Are we trying to find an exit strategy or are we trying to establish conditions for a permanent presence to keep out Al Qaeda or the Chinese, the Iranians, the Pakistanis, or someone else? Is the absence of focus a reflection of a general impulse to empire as many libertarians believe or the unpredictable interplay of money with domestic politics or both? Etc.

Thinking about the absence of a strategic focus brings us to one timeless feature of war. Once begun, war gains a life of their own, and if this life gains the upper hand, an aimlessness takes over to dominate the course of events. World War I is perhaps the classic case in point where a kind of mindlessness took over that was perhaps best evoked in a mournful ditty the Tommys used to sing as they went over the top and marched like sheep into slaughterhouses like the Somme or Passchendaele:

“We’re here because we’re here because we’re here … because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here … because we’re here because …”

Afghanistan may not have a strategic schwerpunckt, but the same can not be said of the Pentagon and its partners in industry and Congress who are feeding off its unending aimlessness — and that gets us to the roots of the real problem. Money. The renowned American strategist Colonel John R. Boyd (USAF Ret. — see bio) put it succintly,

“People say the Pentagon does not have a strategy. They are wrong. It does have a strategy. It is: Don’t interrupt the money flow, add to it.”

Which brings me to an email I just received from a active duty Captain, a true patriot, and a friend. He is a dedicated officer and a thoughtful student of Boyd’s strategic and tactical theories and his profession. He now commands an infantry company. He recently rotated into his first tour in Afghanistan, but he has had multiple tours in Iraq. Note: I have introduced a few clarifying notes in [ ]’s into his email. Note also, his observations are generally compatible with those in the sitrep from a Colonel I posted earlier.)

I am finally up and running here in beautiful XXX, Afghanistan. The boys are doing well ? at this point, most of what we are doing is finding and eliminating the IED threat – both legacy and recent. Most of the enemy presence has left the area, either by choice or necessity. [IEDs are the cleverly designed land mines and booby traps which the Pentagon named Improvised Explosive Devices in a effort to portray this time honored guerrilla tactic as something new and unforeseen and therefore requiring the expenditure of billions of dollars on new technologies to counter.]

The movie you were in, “Why We Fight,” couldn’t be more on the mark ? this place is crawling with contractors. The camps/dining facilities/etc that I transitioned through on my way here made me sick ? this is not about hunting/finding/killing the enemy ? this [war] is big business ? and we are all pawns in the game.

I read Bob Woodward’s “Obama’s Wars” on the way over here and I was excited to learn that we finally had a mission and focus in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the reality is that we are trying to build a nation with a crew of people who are trained to break things.

It is like trying to convince the coal mining towns in West Virginia that coal is not good for their future and that they should pay attention to Washington, D.C. and organize and participate in the government [which the bureaucrats in Washington have designed for them]. The Afghans feel the same way that the West Virginian’s would.

If we would have taken 25% of the money that we have spent on technology and contracting and invested it in military education and training, we would have been out of Iraq and Afghanistan years ago. We need to focus on People – Ideas – Equipment — in that order, just like Colonel Boyd said, but we are doing the reverse.”

One problem is that we have fought fourteen 7-month wars each with a slightly different focus depending on who was in charge [of each rotation] and what the latest and greatest gear allowed us to do — not a ten-year war…and the Afghans are winning the [long] war. For example, I didn’t get the final members of my company until a few weeks before deployment. That is ridiculous! [And puts troops needlessly at risk.]

In order to be effective out here, the boys need to work together for months, developing implicit communication and be taught by someone who knows what he is doing, and more importantly, knows how to TEACH! [The captain’s reference to ‘implicit communication’ is a extremely important — he is alluding to the need for developing bonds of trust and empathy that are crucially important to the quick, clear communications needed among troops in the heat of battle. These bonds can only be built up over time by training together as a group in a variety of unscripted stressful situations.]

Our current training and education system is broken, and my guys are being forced to learn OJT or go home without their limbs. I think all this technology and contracting/etc is like trying to put a band-aid on an arterial bleed…and the dinosaurs in charge don’t understand why it isn’t working. They keep buying more band-aids instead of applying a tourniquet and doing surgery. Isn’t the definition of insanity doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result?”

The Captain rightly understands he is on the receiving end of the Pentagon’s backward priorities, with technology and equipment and contracts always taking precedence over ideas and most importantly people and training. But he may be wrong in thinking the dinosaurs don’t understand what they are doing. I think the dinosaurs know exactly what they are doing: They are shoveling money to their friends in industry, because if they don’t, the revolving door into post retirement jobs might get a little squeaky.

The Afghan War is a very big business, with gobs of incentives and waste keeping the backward priorities in place and the revolving door well greased. For example, the Commission of Wartime Contracting is about to release a report saying the US has wasted at least $34 billion of $200 billion worth of service contracts and grants doled out in Iraq and Afghanistan, with up to 200,000 civilians on the payrolls at times (see the 23 July report in Reuters).

One reason for this unprecedented dependence on contractors is the massive program of privatization of many traditional combat support tasks inaugurated by Richard Cheney when he was Secretary of Defense. Contractors, like Halliburton, are now necessary for even the most mundane tasks, because we have a military that no feeds itself or does its own laundry or many of the other housekeeping chores armies have done from time immemorial.

Cheney, who had spent his entire career in government and had no experience in the “private” sector, became a virtual totem for the revolving door by becoming CEO and then Chairman of Halliburton after leaving the Defense Department. During Cheney’s tenure, Halliburton moved up its ranking from 73rd to 18th on the list of the Pentagon’s largest contractors. Then he rotated through it again, back into government, where as Vice President of the United States, Mr. Cheney became a leading advocate of expanding the war on terror, which had the serendipitous effect of opening the floodgates of money flowing to all the defense contractors, including Halliburton.


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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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