Blame James Jones for fraying civil-military relations
A series of articles in the Washington Post this past week has revealed more than just a contentious White House debate over Afghanistan strategy. These reports have also exposed confusion and misunderstandings among top policymakers which have led to fraying relations between civilian and military officials. These misunderstandings, are symptomatic of inadequate staff work within the White House. And that staff work is the responsibility of James Jones, the national security adviser.
In the Oct. 8 Post, Rajiv Chandrasekaran chronicled the history of the Obama team's deliberations on Afghan strategy, starting from last winter. According to Chandrasekaran, Gen. Stanley McChrystal's call for up to 40,000 additional U.S. soldiers inflicted "sticker shock" on some at the White House. This quote from Chandrasekaran's piece sums up the feeling:
"It was easy to say, 'Hey, I support COIN,' because nobody had done the assessment of what it would really take, and nobody had thought through whether we want to do what it takes," said one senior civilian administration official who participated in the review, using the shorthand for counterinsurgency.
According to the article, McChrystal and his staff prepared their assessment with the assumption that President Barack Obama and his team at the White House had agreed to a counterinsurgency campaign. The "sticker shock" felt by the Obama team resulted in at least one anonymous verbal attack in the Washington Post on McChrystal's "assumptions - and I don't want to say myths ..." This then led Army officers gathered at a convention in Washington to rally to the general's defense.
Chandrasekaran's account of the White House staff's Afghanistan policy reviews portrays senior officials seemingly unaware of the costs, implications, and risks of the policy choices under consideration. The White House staff and McChrystal's staff then compounded this error when they apparently failed to confirm with each other the assumptions under which McChrystal would prepare his assessment. If many at the White House suffered from "sticker shock," it is only because they didn't first understand some basics about counterinsurgency and didn't establish adequate communications with McChrystal from the start.
Who is to blame for this string of foul-ups? The official responsible for national security staff work in the White House is the national security advisor. Jones and his staff should have ensured that all participants were well briefed on the options and that communications between civilian and military officials were clear. As a former NATO commander, commandant of the Marine Corps, and political liaison officer in Washington, it is hard to imagine someone more qualified for organizing the policy reviews.
It's possible that Jones and his staff did actually prepare the briefing books and establish communications with the field only to find those efforts unused. If Jones and his staff ever start feeling the heat for Afghanistan, I'm sure we'll read an anonymous defense someday in the Washington Post.