Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Thinking outside the box is a two way street

That seems to be the message in this quick Q and A with Colonel Charles Allen of the Army War College. He gives voice to what I think is a reasonable response to the mild hand wringing that has accompanied the latest Bob Woodward insider's glimpse into the deliberations of a CIC. (This makes book number 232 in that genre for the patron saint of journos does it?)

The Key section draws lessons from recent history:

The fact that a debate on the strategic direction occurred, allowing for conflicting and dissenting points of view within the Bush administration, is characteristic of healthy civil-military relations. Senior military officers--the theater and operational commanders as well as the Joint Chiefs of Staff--were engaged in discourse with the goal of developing a winning strategy. The military as institution supported the process and the outcome as just. Other key players (i.e., Secretary Rice) provided expert input.
Department of Defense advocates of the former strategy had their "voice" heard and the opportunity to exercise "loyalty." Secretary Rumsfeld resigned following the 2006 mid-term elections. General Abizaid retired after a full command tour (and is still held in high regard), and the Multi-National Forces-Iraq commander, General George Casey, was appointed as the Army Chief of Staff. General Casey would later reflect that he suffered from a disconnect from the strategic intent of senior civilian leaders, especially President George W. Bush.

The present situation is a logical evolution from that situation. In 2009-10 the guys who were 'boots on the ground' so to speak, in 05-06 are in the place of the Caseys and Abizaids. They bring with them the now "establishment" belief that COIN is the way to go in Afghanistan, recognize that the strategy is in what amounts to an uneasy shotgun wedding with the Karzai government, but having better success winning trust at local levels, and in need of time to succeed (or at the very least, in need of time for an accurate read as to the likelihood of success).

On the other hand, you have people in Obama's administration, who would like to return to the past, return to something very like the Rumsfeld Abizaid strategy, featuring emphasis on exit, light footprint and counter-terror. This is not surprising given the Obama-Biden campaign rhetoric, and the past positions of both men vis-a-vis Iraq and Afghanistan. What I find interesting is that what appears to the outsider to be intransigence or "in the box" thinking from the military people involved may not have been that at all. It may be that they won a moral argument. The ghost of Vietnam hangs over the proceedings as described by Woodward. I think Petraeus reminded his civilian commanders of the lessons learned from a too hasty withdrawal. We would be morally responsible if something were to occur that was similar to events in Vietnam Laos and Cambodia after the Paris agreement was signed. We were that close to allowing something like those events in Iraq. Thankfully Dubya-the-"decider" decided not to go that route.