Small Wars

This Week at War

What the four-stars are reading -- a weekly column from Small Wars Journal.

April 24, 2009
Attacks begin on the Afghan war consensus

On April 21, U.S. Gen. David Petraeus, the overall commander in both Afghanistan and Iraq, spoke at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. Petraeus used his speech to explain the differences between the two countries, differences that call for unique strategies for each.

It will be very difficult, and you won't see the dramatic turnaround that we have seen in Iraq, Petraeus warned. But he asserted that there is a nearly universal understanding of why the United States is fighting in Afghanistan. After all, he said, There is absolutely no debate about the fact that that is where the 9/11 attacks came from.

Writing at Small Wars Journal, Bernard Finel, a senior fellow at the American Security Project, accepts neither the consensus about the worthiness of the war in Afghanistan nor the logic inferred by Petraeus. In his essay, Finel argues that keeping the Taliban out of power in Afghanistan does nothing to prevent another 9/11-type attack on the United States -- the 9/11 attack was simple to plan, inexpensive to fund, and required no sanctuary in Afghanistan to organize. Thus, counterterrorism is not a logical justification for the war in Afghanistan. Finel sums up his conclusions with this passage:

[W]e need to acknowledge that there is virtually no compelling evidence that military occupation of Afghanistan provides any significant protection against terrorist plots, even those arising from Afghanistan itself.

Regime change and military occupation can control the development of conventional military capabilities and of WMD programs that require a large physical plant to implement (notably nuclear programs). However, these sorts of interventions have minimal counterterrorism benefits because terrorist attacks rarely require state-level support to be effective.

What remains to be seen is whether the argument put forth by Finel will become more popular if the escalation in U.S. casualties predicted by Petraeus occurs this summer.

Heretofore, Afghanistan has been this decade's good war. If that is so, is it because of the reasoning put forth above by Petraeus? Or because the Bush administration kept the effort small? Or because the Iraq war quickly claimed the bad war title for itself?

What the Obama administration needs to wonder is whether its wind-down of the U.S. effort in Iraq will open up a vacancy in the bad war position. If there will be such a vacancy, there are those who would like the Afghan campaign to fill it.

Do Defense and State need a marriage counselor?

Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), widely deployed now in both Afghanistan and Iraq, are a key device for improving local governance, institutions, physical infrastructure, and economic development. As such, they are an important part of the U.S. exit strategy from these conflicts. But if the PRTs are to deliver stable governance, economic growth, and a U.S. exit from Iraq and Afghanistan, the PRTs have to first sort out some internal culture conflicts of their own.

Colonel Michael F. Scotto and Jason Alexander, both members of the Salah ad Din PRT in Iraq, wrote an essay for Small Wars Journal directed toward young military officers headed for Iraq or Afghanistan who will come into contact with PRTs and their operations. The purpose of their essay is to acquaint these young military officers with what they should expect when they encounter the civilian staff from a wide range of agencies who work, sometimes for years, at the PRTs.

Scotto and Alexander discuss the sources of cultural conflict between U.S. soldiers in the field and U.S. civilians who work at the PRTs. Military training results in soldiers oriented toward short-term event-driven results (take and hold Hill X by 0900 hours tomorrow), while civilian employees from State, Agriculture, or the Centers for Disease Control focus on building relationships and establishing long-term sustainable processes. Mutual incomprehension over methods can result, say the authors.

Confusing lines of authority also create friction. PRTs are elements of the State Department and report up to the U.S. ambassador. However, the PRTs depend almost entirely on military support to execute their operations. This may make some in the military feel as if they are mere servants of the civilians in the PRT, a feeling that detracts from the military's other missions in the area. In addition, some in the military may be put off by the local Iraqi or Afghan's greater willingness to work with civilians rather than soldiers. Scotto and Alexander warn that these facts of life may come as an unpleasant surprise for a young U.S. military officer headed for his first encounters with a PRT.

News this week may bring a solution of sorts for this culture clash. After years of attempting to mobilize for deployment, it appears as if many U.S. civilian agencies are still unable to find employees willing or able to deploy for the coming surge to Afghanistan. Instead, the Pentagon will mobilize hundreds of military reservists, whose civilian careers will bring the expertise required. Although brought on to active military duty, the State Department will ask the reservists mobilized to fill the civilian positions in Afghanistan to not wear their military uniforms.

Having soldiers on both sides of the military-civilian divide may finally fix this culture clash.

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