Please God, Not Another Blue-Ribbon Panel

Here's how to really fix the State Department.

The first item on a modern secretary of state's to-do list these days appears to be establishing a high-level review that promises to change the way America conducts diplomacy. Colin Powell launched the Diplomatic Readiness Initiative. Condoleezza Rice bundled her reforms under the broad banner of "Transformational Diplomacy." Hillary Clinton conducted the first-ever Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR), modeled on similar efforts at the Pentagon. One can only imagine that the next secretary of state will feel inclined to conduct a second QDDR, or roll out another high-profile effort to reform the State Department's archaic bureaucracy.

All of these reviews were conducted because of a realization by respective secretaries of state -- Republicans and Democrats alike -- that America's foreign policy architecture is poorly structured to meet the demands of the very dynamic world around us.

So why does the United States continue to need such reform initiatives over and over again? The answer is simple: All of these blue-ribbon efforts have done a great job identifying the key problems plaguing the U.S. foreign policy apparatus. They just haven't been able to fix them.

The reviews have resulted in some progress, but largely around the margins -- some improved training, higher staffing levels, and the usual reshuffling of bureau names and responsibilities. None of them has been able to fix more fundamental problems, however, because none of these secretaries of state was willing to engage Congress in a major reform effort. Real reform requires not just a determined secretary of state, but buy-in from the legislative branch: Congress must pass new legislation to get rid of many of the existing and conflicting directives, objectives, and requirements that so muddy U.S. foreign policy.

It is no secret why Powell, Rice, and Clinton had little appetite for engaging Congress on these issues. Even minor pieces of foreign policy or foreign-aid legislation quickly get gunked up with a slew of amendments on abortion, religious freedom, guns, efforts to punish the dictator of the day, the United Nations and a host of other black-helicopter concerns. The idea of working with Congress to pass a major overhaul of the foreign policy architecture surely seems quasi-suicidal.

In an environment so rancorous that avoiding credit defaults and fiscal cliffs is difficult to manage, many have simply dismissed the idea of actually reforming State and USAID as impossible.

But it may not be as hard as it looks. The State Department should consider taking a page from the playbook of the Pentagon, which developed an interesting model for getting out of a similar trap. Whether the next administration is Obama II or Romney I, it would be wise to adopt an approach to foreign affairs reform modeled on the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission -- or as it is more commonly known, BRAC.

The BRAC process was created to deal with an equally difficult challenge -- how to get Congress to approve base closures and troop realignments when those decisions had immense political fallout in members' districts. Efforts to redraw the map of bases in the United States had foundered again and again on the shoals of opposition by a handful of congressman and senators who were willing to sabotage the entire process rather than give up a base in their state.

The BRAC process was, and is, nothing short of brilliant response. The Pentagon established a high-level bipartisan and expert commission, appointed by the president in consultation with Congress. That was nothing new. But importantly, the commission bundled its recommendations as an all-or-nothing package. There are no amendments or special dispensations for a single base in the package. The up-or-down vote eliminated the ridiculous process of member after member of Congress standing up to offer amendments that they knew would be poison pills.

The president can accept or reject BRAC recommendations in their entirety. If rejected, the commission has a short period to amend and resubmit its findings to the president. Congress has the opportunity to reject a BRAC report once it has been approved by the president; if it does not, the recommendations become law. While the BRAC process was initially highly controversial, it has become considerably less so over time, and the Pentagon now has the ability to make basing determinations on the basis of real strategic need rather than simply rewarding the fiercest and most vocal lobbying efforts. It is not perfect, but it -- along with the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986, which overhauled the military's command structure while greatly strengthening the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- demonstrated that institutional reform is possible on a grand scale in the U.S. national security establishment.

An enterprising secretary of state could adapt this process to meet the State Department's needs.  Rather than focus on physical installations, as BRAC did, an international affairs realignment commission would not only look at the physical presence of consulates, embassies, and USAID missions abroad, but more importantly would recommend regulations that could be eliminated, programs and projects that have outlived their usefulness, or even suggest institutional consolidation or streamlining.

Setting the appropriate mandate for such a commission's initial round of reforms would be crucial -- one of the reasons BRAC succeeded was because it took on major issues without overhauling the entire base structure in one gargantuan bite. For example, the commission could start off reviewing the number of USAID missions around the globe, how best to unify trade promotion efforts, or the division of responsibilities between State and USAID in dealing with emergencies in places like Haiti or Sudan.

Once that has been accomplished, a commission could build on its momentum by tackling a long list of concerns that have piled up over the years, from how the U.S. government delivers food aid to how it trains and selects Foreign Service officers. In these times of straitened budgets, that would allow the State Department to do more with less -- and maybe even save us from yet another blue-ribbon panel that is all hat and no cattle.


National Security

We're Winning in Afghanistan

Why hasn't the media noticed?

Last week, a New York Times editorial argued that it is time for U.S. forces to leave Afghanistan -- a process that it said should not take more than a year, a much faster timeline than the president has proposed.

The editorial reflects the growing effort to justify and rationalize our abandonment of Afghanistan, just as we did after the Soviets left. The international community has repeatedly promised the Afghan people that it would not do that again, specifically because we know many Afghans are concerned their country will fall apart when U.S. and international troops leave at the end of 2014. And yet, as the Associated Press reported in August, there is a sense in Afghanistan that history could repeat itself.

When the Soviet army withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, U.S. support to mujahedeen fighters who had been battling the Soviets dried up quickly, and the country sank into civil war as militias and warlords battled for power, devastating Kabul. That was followed by the rise of the Taliban and years of rule under their repressive regime.

Foreign Policy's own coverage has noted a shift in the conversation from fighting into 2015 or sticking around through 2014 to whether the United States even makes it to 2014. Ahmed Rashid, author of Taliban, has noted, "Pundits and politicians, as well as think-tanks and military officers have been full of doom and gloom."

But many of us on the ground don't understand the recent pessimism. As U.S. Marine Maj. Gen. Mark Gurganus, the regional commander for southwestern Afghanistan, told a group of media from Kabul about the negativity of recent press coverage, "When I read them I have to back up and say, are we talking about the same place?" He added: "We are still a province at war, but look at the progress that has been made in Helmand Province over the past three years." Indeed, even the Times editorial acknowledged that "[t]he Taliban has not retaken territory lost to coalition forces."

We are reaching the point in which the misperception being created by the media is undermining our ability to achieve their own definition of success in Afghanistan: denying al Qaeda a safe haven via a strengthened Afghan security force that is capable of taking over lead responsibility in the future.

Have insider attacks and sensational Taliban attacks taken place?

Yes, and we are accountable for that.

But there is something to the comments made by senior officials that the sensational attacks are reflective of a desperate insurgency. If you were a Taliban commander losing an insurgency for the past couple of years since the surge, wouldn't you feel the need to conduct sensational attacks to give the perception your narrative is winning out and to reassure your followers?

If the Taliban had genuinely gained ground or momentum, reporting that creates the perception the insurgency is everywhere and can do everything would be understandable; but harassing attacks by insurgents have not adversely affected our operational planning or the transition.

After the Sept. 14 attack on Camp Bastion, we observed a motivated insurgency in Helmand province planning more attacks to get some momentum going. Approximately 100 Taliban were staging attacks in the districts of Marjah and Nad Ali.

Then something happened that hadn't before: The northern district police chiefs coordinated sweeping clearing operations that killed approximately half of the would-be attackers and demoralized the rest.

The results of the surge -- specifically, the growth of the Afghanistan National Security Forces (ANSF) in both size and capabilities -- has made it possible for the coalition to transition to what we call a Security Force Assistance mode of operations. With this change, the campaign has progressed from one focused on coalition-led operations, to one that supports the development of the Afghan security forces (the intelligence services, the military, and the police), enabling them to conduct independent operations. 

The transition to a Security Force Assistance mode of operations in the southwest began in April, and where transition to the ANSF has taken place in our area of operations, there has been no significant increase in either insurgent or criminal activity. This includes the entire province of Nimroz and 8 of the 14 the districts in Helmand.

In order to strategically defeat the Taliban we need to highlight the successes of the ANSF and reassure the Afghan people that the international community will not abandon them. The 800-pound gorilla in the room is the lack of confidence the Afghan people have in their security forces being able to hold their own after the coalition leaves, and in some cases, it is the security forces themselves that lack the confidence.

The ANSF and the Afghan people don't know just how good their security forces really are -- and will be in the future. Should Afghans see confidence and esprit de corps in the ANSF, we could see something similar to the "Anbar Awakening" in Iraq.

That confidence is starting to build. In the first two weeks of September, insurgents moved in after 1st Battalion, 7th Marines pulled back from areas in the Musa Qala district of Helmand Province. Once the local officials and ANSF perceived this development as a problem, they ordered the area be retaken. Face-to-face and toe-to-toe, the Taliban had to back down, and we saw some bravado emerge from the ANSF that soon carried over to operations in Sangin.

This past week all of the casualties for our area of operations were members of the ANSF. Don't underestimate ANSF's bravery or their willingness to put their lives on the line for their country because they are doing it every single day. They are not afraid of the Taliban, and they move quickly to the sound of the gun.

Majid Saeedi/Getty Images