Greg Jaffe is a rather well-respected defense correspondent for the Washington Post, and he has won the Pulitzer Prize and all that, and his latest book, co-authored with David Cloud, is The Fourth Star: Four Generals and the Epic Struggle for the Future of the United States Army. That sort of thing might not be your cup of tea, but Thomas Ricks calls it “the best book I’ve read on the military in a long time.” And of course it’s probably not a bad idea to try to understand the military, as it could be said that they’ve become the fourth branch of government.
The current request by General McChrystal for forty thousand more troops for Afghanistan made that clear. Led by John McCain, Dick Cheney and Fox News, all you heard was that of course you give the generals what they ask for, as they know best and no one else knows squat about what’s really happening on the ground over there. George Bush liked to say that a lot, although all the requests for more troops for Afghanistan on his watch got lost in the system and never answered, as Iraq was more important. Still, generally, one school of thought is that no matter what civilian politicians and diplomats think, with their measured and carefully thought-out judgments on geopolitical aims and when to use force and when not, and in spite of a constitution that explicitly gives elected officials control of the military, we should defer to the military, as they may be the last competent and honorable Americans left. The individual soldiers are heroes, to a man, and we venerate and honor them, as the best of us – they are so far above us, what we would be if we weren’t the cowardly slugs that we are.
All of that comes down to one thing – you support the troops, or you don’t. You give them what they ask, or you don’t. That Obama wants to step back and think about what we’re doing in Afghanistan, and why – and then how we might do it better or differently, for larger aims in the region related to our national security – drives many people into a white-hot fury. You support the troops or you don’t. Who does Obama think he is? No pointing at the constitution will do you any good. The matter had been settled. The military, the generals specifically, know best. They ask. You give them what they want, no questions asked. Otherwise, the next thing you know, someone like Obama will be telling General McChrystal that he’s McChrystal’s boss, and the decision is his, not the general’s. Sure, that’s true on paper, but doesn’t Obama support the troops? What’s wrong with him?
Of course a lot of that is political, the party out of power must find a way to undermine and discredit the guys who won the last time around, and this sort of narrative helps. Obama hates the troops, and thus hates America. That is what Rush Limbaugh and that crowd is always saying. You hear it all the time. Obama’s recent midnight visit to Dover to salute the coffins of the fallen was, as Liz Cheney said, just a publicity stunt – to cover his cynical indifference, to hoodwink everyone, as George Bush did that all the time and never told anyone (and also hid all records anywhere that he ever did such a thing, ever, it seems). So Obama hates the troops. He won’t send help. He wants them all to die. You keep hammering away at that narrative, and maybe the next time around the voters will choose your side.
But of course there is a commercial element to this. You can sell a lot of books about the wonders of the military to a nation that trusts only the military. And McChrystal has his wonderful new counterinsurgency strategy (COIN) that needs to be explained to the general public. Thus you get books like this one from Greg Jaffe, which one reviewer called COIN-porn. That sums up something about the market for such things.
As for what’s in the book, there’s the product description:
They were four exceptional soldiers, a new generation asked to save an army that had been hollowed out after Vietnam. They survived the military’s brutal winnowing to reach its top echelon. They became the Army’s most influential generals in the crucible of Iraq.
Collectively, their lives tell the story of the Army over the last four decades and illuminate the path it must travel to protect the nation over the next century. Theirs is a story of successes and failures, of ambitions achieved and thwarted, of the responsibilities and perils of command. The careers of this elite quartet show how the most powerful military force in the world entered a major war unprepared, and how the Army, drawing on a reservoir of talent that few thought it possessed, saved itself from crushing defeat against a ruthless, low-tech foe. …
In an institution that prizes obedience, the most effective warriors are often those who dare to question the prevailing orthodoxy and in doing so redefine the American way of war.
Yeah, it is hero worship, almost fan magazine stuff, although scholarly and well-researched, and a bit arcane at times. But writing in the New York Times, Dexter Filkins called it “a very good book, readable, detailed and rich.” And you get profiles of four generals – Abizaid, Casey, Chiarelli and Petraeus – that are “nuanced and well drawn.” And of course “the generals really come to life, as does the Army itself.”
That is want people want, isn’t it? It’s not exactly like gossip about the secret life of movie stars, but it is a distant cousin of that. The only caveat is that Filkins says the implication is clear – “The future of the Army is up for grabs.”
Stay tuned. Don’t touch that dial. This is important, as the Army is America. Of course it is. Thus you get editorials like that recent one suggesting that it’s a good thing that some in the military are secretly discussing a military coup to solve the Obama Problem – these guys know how to run things, and are obviously good at nation building, and God knows we need a bit of that here at home. The column was withdrawn, as that would sort of end America as we know it, but it didn’t come out of nowhere, although there is no evidence anyone is planning a military coup. Call it wishful thinking, or wishful civilian thinking.
As for the McChrystal request for forty thousand more troops for Afghanistan, and whether he should get them, to implement his new counterinsurgency strategy, there are some issues. His COIN strategy is new, or irregular if you will, as it involves maintaining security and undermining the insurgents by providing safety and stability, and basic, real government services, not empty promises, so no sees much point in hooking up with the insurgents and prefers the local government, which it discovers is legitimate and caring and competent after all. Yes, in Afghanistan, the last part has become exceedingly difficult, as now we need to explicitly explain to the Karzai government that they need to stop being a bad joke. But the strategy has its merits.
The conventional strategy is to eliminate the insurgents – kill them, get rid of them.
Which will it be? Each strategy calls for different troop levels and different tasks. That seems to be the issue at the moment. It’s a more a bit more complicated than just “Supporting the Troops.” It doesn’t fit on a bumper sticker, and it involves not just troop levels, but what technology they use, and what you buy in term of planes and tanks and such, and how you plan. Maybe the future of the Army really is up for grabs.
And that lead to Andrew Exum’s interview with Greg Jaffe, who knows his generals, where he says this – “This whole conventional vs. irregular debate is stupid.”
Jaffe wants to keep things simple:
War is war. And we waste far too much energy trying to categorize it. I think most lieutenants, captains and majors are beyond this false conventional vs. irregular frame that we try to impose on war. I wish I could say the same for the more senior people in the Pentagon.
Matt Yglesias finds that rather odd:
I think there’s a lot of truth to that. At the same time, just because things look one way to “lieutenants, captains and majors” and another way to “senior people in the Pentagon” doesn’t mean we should take a dismissive view of the senior people’s outlook in a rush to celebrate the insights of the practical war-fighter.
There are bigger issues:
And when you get down to the guts of defense budget politics, these high-level strategic concepts matter a great deal. Nobody, of course, is going to say that the U.S. should somehow completely abandon its ability to fight conventional wars. But the choice between a mindset that says “the main purpose of the military is to scare China & Russia” – or a mindset that says “the main purpose of the military is to intervene effectively in third world backwaters” – has very real implications for what kind of hardware purchases look cost effective.
Jason Sigger picks up on that:
There is no doubt in my mind that the issue of “hardware purchases” looms very large in the minds of senior military and civilian decision makers. Conventional warfare means lots of tanks, armored vehicles, stealthy jets, next generation bombers, submarines, destroyers, and aircraft carriers. And let’s not even get into the care and feeding of that massive military machine. Counterinsurgency operations, or COIN, are completely the opposite, with a focus on maintaining security and diminishing the insurgent grasp on the population without destroying real estate. Also a no-brainer is that the DOD budget is already too bloated, and that in managing two wars, protecting the homeland, and trying to modernize its equipment, there’s going to be some in-fighting.
But it may be that what really matters is the theory and execution of national strategy:
The basic idea of military doctrine is that small military units execute tactics on the ground that must support the overall plan of operations within a theater. The theater commander needs to ensure that he has adequate numbers of personnel, that operations continue toward a particular set of goals, and that the logistics support those operations – and his operations must support the overall national strategy for that region. If your tactics and operations don’t align against the strategic goals and expected outcome, then you’re doing something wrong – even if you’re General McChrystal.
Is he allowed to say that? Does he hate the troops too?
No, he seems to look at what has happened:
Now under the Bush administration, strategic goals and outcomes changed every Friedman unit (six months), which made it difficult to effectively plan operations or execute tactics. But one thing that was certainly clear was that conventional tactics that destroyed the Taliban in 2002 and that took the Iraqi army out in 2003 didn’t support the post-conflict goals. You can’t prosecute military operations with a conventional frame of mind when what one really needs is an approach to irregular warfare. That’s why we failed in Lebanon in 1983.
On that last point, he suggests you see this lessons-learned item in Foreign Policy, one more of those analyses that suggests that after you win by brute force what comes next is where brute force fails. Can we imagine, then fund and man and support post-conflict occupations with a military organized around one key principle – apply brute force and win the day. Other less dramatic days will follow. They always do.
Sigger adds this:
Greg Jaffe is a good journalist, and I look forward to reading his book. On the other hand, making a statement like “War is war. And we waste far too much energy trying to categorize it” is a remarkably stupid statement. Nuclear war is not the same as conventional war. Conventional war is not the same as irregular war. Our military needs to be able to operate across a range of different operations, and needs to be equipped properly to execute its operations quickly and efficiently. But what we really need is national leadership that understands the nature of war, that knows how to develop a strategy that is executable, and that knows when it’s time to go.
And he quotes Sun Tzu:
All men can see these tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory is evolved.
Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.
It seems all we’re hearing is that noise.
But will the McChrystal new way of doing things actually work, with or without a functioning local government in Afghanistan? The answer to that might be unclear. On CNN you might have caught Fareed Zakaria interviewing former Foreign Service officer Matthew Hoh who recently resigned as a Political Officer in Afghanistan. You can watch the entire interview here. But some key points:
The first place where I really had – where this was codified for me and where I started to understand what we were doing and how we were involved – the Korengal Valley, which I’m sure a lot of your viewers are familiar with. It’s been on the cover of TIME Magazine. The “New York Times” refers to it as the valley of death. Off the top of my head, unfortunately, I can’t remember how many American soldiers we have lost there, but it’s probably 30 or 40.
This is a valley, I don’t know, 15, 20 kilometers long. There are only 10,000 people in it. They speak their own language. They speak Korengali. In the year 2009 we have a valley with people who speak their own language. Their only trade is the timber trade. And when they move their timber, they don’t even leave their valley. Most of the time, I believe, they just take it to the Mazar Valley, and a middleman picks it up and brings it to Pakistan for them.
We show up. We enter their valley. We occupy the richest man’s timber mill. And then we bring in Afghan army and Afghan police, who aren’t from there.
And then what do we do? Then we have the Afghan police and Afghan army. They say to the Korengalis, they say, “These Mountains here that your families have been cutting trees down, sustaining yourselves for hundreds of years, you don’t own them. The central government does. And you have to pay tax on that.”
I’m not sure how many people anywhere else in the world wouldn’t take up arms against something like that.
And so, and for every Korengal we’re in, like I said before, there’s a hundred we’re not.
In short, we’re here with our guns, to protect you, and here are the guys from your Karzai government, the good guys, who will now tax you. This may not go well.
Why are we doing this? What are we getting out of it?
It’s not going to defeat al Qaeda. It’s not going to – if you take our two goals as being the defeat of al Qaeda, and then, because of its nuclear weapons and because of the relationship with India, the stabilization of the government in Islamabad, 60,000 troops taking 50, 60 dead a month in this country, and how many wounded and killing how many Afghans, as well, it doesn’t accomplish either of those goals.
And this on our real enemy:
My belief is that, after 2001, al Qaeda evolved. They became, as I like to say, an ideological cloud. It exists on the Internet. They don’t need a safe haven in Afghanistan. They’ve got safe havens in five, six, seven other countries. …
And they recruit worldwide. The attacks over the last bunch of years, to include our own attacks on 9/11, were conducted by non- Afghans, non-Pakistanis. They were trained and prepared and planned for outside of the region, for the most part. Everyone knows that the flight training took place here in the United States.
This is an organization that is very ephemeral. It doesn’t really exist. Occupying a country is not going to defeat them. It’s the proverbial fly versus the sledge hammer.
And furthermore, if we keep 60,000 troops – well, let’s look at it this way. If there are 20 or 30 million people in the Pashtun belt of Afghanistan and Pakistan, how many recruits does al Qaeda get from there a year? We don’t know, but it’s probably in the hundreds, at the most, by far. It’s probably not even that many.
Well, in a population of 20 or 30 million, how are you going to keep 100 people from being disaffected and joining some fringe group? That’s impossible.
Furthermore, occupying a location only provides justification and only lends credence to the goals of that organization. It only inspires young Muslim men to want to defend their culture against an occupying army, which is what we are.
But other than that McChrystal has his wonderful new counterinsurgency strategy that could work. Yeah, yeah – trust the military. And ignore that noise Sun Tzu mentioned.