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.