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.

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