Small Wars

Why Is Washington so Bad at Strategy?

Generals and politicians never seem to be on the same page. Is there any way to fix it?

At his White House press conference on March 6, President Barack Obama admitted that the recent murders of U.S. trainers in Afghanistan was "an indication that now is the time for us to transition" out of Afghanistan. It was a confession that the intractable nature of the conflict and a collapse in U.S. patience could trump his plans for a steady and orderly shift to Afghan control. Even ardent war advocate Sen. Lindsey Graham, angered by Afghan President Hamid Karzai's apparent intransigence during negotiations with the United States, may be ready to "pull the plug."

In 2009, Obama took personal control over Afghan strategy, led a detailed strategy review process, and ultimately tripled the number of U.S. troops fighting the war. In spite of what seemed at the time to be careful analysis by the president and his advisers, the prospects for the U.S. mission in Afghanistan seem as troubled as America's two-decade struggle with Iraq, its disaster in Vietnam, and numerous other lesser strategic mishaps Washington has fumbled over the past six decades.

Why have U.S. policymakers, in spite of the wealth of tools and power at their disposal, fared so poorly at strategy? My FP colleague Peter Feaver has made the case that over the long haul, U.S. strategists have gotten the big picture mostly right. But few would deny that over the past half-century there have been many costly, and avoidable, screw-ups.

Writing in the U.S. Naval War College Review, Mackubin Owens, a professor at the Naval War College and a retired Marine Corps colonel, places much of the blame on a dysfunctional relationship between civilian policymakers and the generals.

The first cause of strategy dysfunction, according to Owens, is an excessive fondness for the "normal" theory of civil-military relations inside the U.S. civil-military culture. First coined by Johns Hopkins strategy professor Eliot Cohen, the "normal" theory calls for a clear demarcation between civilians, who determine war policy, and the uniformed military, which is then left in charge of the battlefield. The theory has become the archetype for the United States and other countries because it is thought essential to maintaining firm civilian control over the military.

Recent history has shown that the normal theory, however appealing on the surface, is an impractical way to actually run a war. Strategy is an iterative process with battlefield events, adversary decisions, and myriad other surprises constantly altering both the original goals of a military campaign and the resources and methods needed to achieve them. Without the civilians and generals sharing the responsibility and duties of policy and strategy formulation, success will be elusive. U.S. strategic performance over past decades might have been better had both the civilians and the generals been more involved in each others' core duties at an earlier stage.

Second, Owens blames the culture of the military services for resisting military participation in the top "political" level of strategy formulation.  The officer corps would prefer to focus on the technical, engineering, and managerial aspects of their profession, not least because mastery of these skills is the surest path to promotion. The military's (understandable) focus on operational tasks increases the knowledge gap between civilians attempting to achieve a policy goal and military officers focused intently on achieving specific military results on a battlefield. The result is a failure to link what the military instrument can deliver and what the policymakers want to achieve.

Third, Owens blames the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols defense reform, which ironically was designed to improve U.S. strategic planning. Goldwater-Nichols sharply downgraded the strategic authority of the Pentagon service chiefs while boosting the power of theater commanders in the field. The hope was that by downgrading the chiefs, service parochialism would be suppressed and joint service cooperation enhanced. And with theater commanders being held responsible for winning wars, it seemed logical to increase their authority at the expense of the service chiefs.

According to Owens, this change further separated the formulation of military strategy -- done by theater commanders in the field -- from top-level policy goals decided in Washington. Before Goldwater-Nichols, when the Washington-based service chiefs had more input, there was a greater chance (obviously, judging by the war in Vietnam, not always achieved) of integrating policy goals and military strategy. Since Goldwater-Nichols, according to Owens, the odds of successful integration have gone down.

Does Owens's diagnosis explain the strategic errors suffered by the United States over the past decade? Owens describes how Gen. Tommy Franks, the theater commander at the beginning of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, aggressively used his Goldwater-Nichols powers to smother the service chiefs and their planning staff. Likewise, if Gen. Eric Shinseki, the Army Chief of Staff at the beginning of the war, had misgivings about the initial war plan, he would have had more authority to do something about it in the pre-Goldwater-Nichols era. The initial invasion of Iraq in 2003 also revealed how much Franks was focused on the technical task of destroying Iraqi military forces, without much integration with overall policy goals -- an error for which both Franks and Washington policymakers must share the blame.

As for Obama's 2009 policy for Afghanistan, Bob Woodward's book Obama's Wars makes clear the overwhelming influence Central Command leaders Gens. David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal had over Obama compared to the president's Washington-based service chiefs and military advisers. And in another nod to Owens's thesis, Woodward discusses the Central Command generals' focus on specific military tasks such as security patrolling, raids against Taliban leaders, and training Afghan forces while these generals largely averted their eyes from top-level "political" problems such as cross-border sanctuaries and Pakistan's destabilizing influence, problems beyond the range of their military tools but that remain, nonetheless, crucial to success.

Preparations for future hypothetical conflicts are no less immune to the problems Owens describes. The Pentagon recently released its Joint Operational Access Concept (JOAC), a framework for preparing for sophisticated adversaries whose precision missiles could threaten the ability of U.S. military ships and aircraft to transit critical air space and sea lanes.

JOAC's authors do a good job explaining how adversaries might be able to inhibit U.S. access to critical areas in the Asia-Pacific region and the Middle East and propose 30 specific capabilities U.S. forces will have to possess in order to overcome these access barriers. The publication also supplies ten risks that come with attempting to implement the concept.

JOAC is an example of good staff work on an emerging problem for Pentagon planners. But, as Owens described in his essay, its authors are narrowly focused on the operational and technical aspects of military preparation, without much discussion of how the Pentagon's thinking regarding regional access might relate to policy goals.

JOAC is merely a conceptual framework and not a war plan. It was written to achieve synergies among the services regarding the regional access problem, not solve any specific geostrategic challenge. But to the extent it again shows the divide between the military's focus on technical matters without much linkage to resolving potential top-level policy issues, military planners will need to venture beyond concepts like JOAC if they are to fill in the gaps Owens has identified.

After a decade of war, civilian policymakers and the generals are integrating their efforts much better than they did in 2002. But as the Obama administration's very recent stumbles in Afghanistan show, there is still much room for improvement.

Small Wars

Persian Poker

The stakes couldn't be higher as Israel's prime minister comes to Washington. But is Obama ready to go all in?

On March 5, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will meet with President Barack Obama at the White House. The Iranian nuclear program will undoubtedly be the prime subject of the meeting, the outcome of which could decide for the Israeli leader whether to send Israel's air force to bomb Iran.

In a recent column, I discussed the time pressure weighing on Netanyahu and his military advisers, and why the sanctions effort organized by Obama and European leaders is not working fast enough for Israel. At next week's meeting, Netanyahu may ask that Obama publicly issue an ultimatum threatening U.S. military action unless Iran lays itself bare to international nuclear inspectors. Without such a dramatic escalation, Netanyahu and his colleagues may conclude that Israel will have to attack Iran alone, and soon.

Obama will be loath to commit the United States to such a drastic step to resolve a problem it sees as having much less urgency. With an Israeli strike imminent, Obama must select between two courses of action. First, he can attempt to forestall war by joining and reinforcing the Israeli military threat against Iran, in the hope that such a strong commitment will convince Iranian leaders to open their nuclear program to full inspections, or risk losing it to bombing. A March 1 Bloomberg article hinted at 11th-hour support from some officials inside the Obama administration for this course of action. And recent suggestions by unnamed Pentagon officials that Iran's Fordow mountain uranium enrichment site might not be impregnable after all, as previously suggested, could be a late-arriving signal of U.S. resolve.

However, such a late conversion to a hawkish stance would be a great gamble for Obama. Although the president has declared his opposition to an Iranian nuclear weapon and noted that he is considering "all options," he and administration officials have refrained from publicly committing to "red lines" that would convince Iran to open its program or reassure Israel that Iran will not become a nuclear threat. Opposition to a U.S. military strike on Iran seems to be the overwhelming majority view inside Washington, a view affirmed at a recent presentation by retired Adm. William Fallon -- former commander of both the Central and Pacific Commands -- and retired Marine Gen. James Cartwright, recently vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Iranian leaders would thus likely view a sudden U.S. ultimatum as a bluff. And given the paramount importance of the nuclear program to the Iranian regime, it would likely be a bluff they see as worth calling.

For Obama, that leaves the alternative of accepting an Israeli strike on Iran and minimizing the consequences to the United States. Obama will want the Strait of Hormuz to remain open, for oil markets to remain calm, and for U.S. allies in the region to feel secure. He will attempt to accomplish this goal by having U.S. air and naval forces around the Persian Gulf make an ostentatious display, by sending reinforcements to the region, by calling on Saudi Arabia to increase its oil production, and by releasing crude oil from the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Obama will also seek to avoid Iranian retaliation against the United States by disavowing the Israeli strike, but also threatening severe retaliation against Iran should it attempt terror attacks against U.S. targets.

Obama will thus hope to keep the United States out of the conflict and minimize damage to the U.S. economy. But subsequent events may complicate this aspiration. For example, it is highly likely that Israeli strike aircraft would fly through undefended Iraqi airspace en route to their targets in Iran. Israeli pilots may even conduct aerial refueling over Iraq in order to maximize their range and time over Iran. Indeed, the Israeli air force may need several nights over Iran to complete mission objectives and respond to Iranian retaliation against Israel.

White House officials will need to plan for a request from Baghdad for assistance defending Iraqi air space. Obama will naturally be highly reluctant to send U.S. forces back into Iraq or set up a confrontation with Israeli jets. Then there's the possibility that Iran might volunteer or be invited to defend Iraq against Israeli encroachment. Should the United States still decline to get involved, Saudi or Turkish intervention into Iraq, in response to an Iranian move, would then seem possible. At that point, the likelihood of regional conflict would increase, with unpredictable consequences for U.S. interests.

As I discussed in my Feb. 10 column, Israel can only delay Iran's nuclear progress. Israel will have to plan for the certainty that after an attack, Iran's leaders will restart the program and move toward nuclear weapons capability as rapidly as possible. Israel will then have to sporadically re-strike Iran and expand its targeting to include Iran's electrical grid, telecommunications system, oil industry, and over time the wider Iranian economy. Iran will naturally attempt to defend itself in every way it can.

Such an open-ended conflict would represent a failure of the international security system. Statesmen will have to ponder why modern international security institutions were not able to prevent a conflict that has long been foreseen.

Small Wars Journal launches its Latin America research center

This week, Small Wars Journal launched El Centro, a new website dedicated to researching small wars in the Americas. El Centro begins its work with 17 fellows, researchers and contributors, an introductory reading list, and will later add a Spanish-language version of the site.

El Centro will publish scholarship and essays on the hemisphere's criminal, cartel, and gang threats, as well as the drug market, migration, and the challenges these forces present to societies and governments on both continents.

Do the struggles between the region's legitimate security forces and the gangs and cartels they are fighting constitute an insurgency, like those U.S. policymakers have become familiar with over the past decade? And if so, are counterinsurgency (COIN) tactics and principles a wise response?

Two recent essays at El Centro argue both sides of this debate. Michael Burgoyne, a major in the U.S. Army and a foreign area officer assigned to U.S. Southern Command, asserts that some of the principles found in the U.S. Army's counterinsurgency field manual were effective against Colombia's Medellin and Cali drug cartels. According to Burgoyne, the Brazilian government's fight against Rio de Janeiro's favela gangs provided an even better test for the U.S. military's counterinsurgency doctrine. With these examples, Burgoyne asserts that U.S. COIN doctrine may be useful against criminal insurgencies elsewhere in the region, including in Mexico.

Burgoyne first establishes that the Colombian and Brazilian cases were in fact insurgencies by explaining how these criminal enterprises grew to become true national security threats in the eyes of local legitimate authorities. According to Burgoyne, the Colombian case showed that when security forces applied U.S. COIN principles such as intelligence-driven targeted operations, small unit empowerment, and support for host nation forces, they could make progress against the cartels. However, the paramount COIN principle of protecting the civilian population in order to win it over to the government's side did not apply in Colombia. Financial targeting of the cartels' assets and direct action operations against cartel leaders were more useful.

In Rio, by contrast, Burgoyne finds that broad U.S. COIN principles such as population security, improved services, economic development, and better governance were tools Brazilian authorities effectively employed against the favela gangs. He infers that with a few adjustments, policymakers should consider applying U.S. COIN doctrine to other criminal insurgencies in the region, including Mexico's drug war.

Brad Freden, a veteran U.S. Foreign Service Officer with experience in Mexico, dissents from Burgoyne's conclusions. Freden does not agree that Mexico faces an insurgency, and instead asserts that Mexico's cartels are simply criminal organizations with no interest in political control or public support -- they just want to be left alone to run their enterprises. Nor is Mexico a failed state; according to Freden, its security forces are capable of quickly asserting their power anywhere within Mexico on short notice. Freden concludes that since Mexico's cartels are apolitical and don't threaten the state, there is no insurgency.

While rejecting the COIN model, Freden does allow for the possibility of applying some COIN principles in Mexico on an a la carte basis. In fact, the Mexican government has applied COIN a la carte for some time. For example, it has used military forces for policing, while corrupt local police forces have been disbanded and rebuilt. With U.S. assistance, Mexico has established intelligence fusion centers, a technique the U.S. military learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, in order to improve collaboration across agencies and to speed up decision-making among security forces. Finally, Mexico is increasingly employing a "whole of government" approach to improve security and intelligence-gathering against the cartels.

It's an ongoing debate, and one that that will continue at El Centro.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images