Over at Ink Spots, Gunslinger responds to my recent post on civil-military relations. his key paragraph argues:
Our Afghan strategy, if you could call it such, is horribly vague to the point of uselessness, which I see has a failure in leadership at the highest levels here in DC. Any general, with 30-plus years of leadership experience, will naturally fill that void with how he best interprets his commander’s intent. In this case it seems to simply means: win in Afghanistan. So I think that is what Generals McChrystal and Petraeus were and are attempting to do. I don’t see this as a power grab by the generals and I don’t necessarily see the President as trying to use them to sell the war. Nor do I see it as a crisis – yet. But the civilians aren’t providing the leadership they should and the generals are filling that void as their nature dictates they should. The only solution to this particular imbalance, in my mind, is not to fire generals, but instead create a viable strategy and policy and provide the generals the leadership they need and deserve.
As it turns out, this is the Paul Yingling argument, that I discussed in a previous post:
Paul Yingling’s famous essay on the “A Failure in Generalship” is a fascinating document. He excoriates the military leadership for, in essence, failing to repair through operational brilliance the strategic incoherence of the Bush Administration in Iraq. Yingling has essentially given up on the ability of civilians to lead, and instead he pleads for a military savior to emerge.
Petraeus, is, of course, that savior. His concept for counter-insurgency warfare promises to square the circle. It provides an operational scheme to make foreign occupations possible despite insufficient resources. It eliminates the tensions between military intervention and local resistance. It is all an illusion, but it serves the purpose of removing civilian leadership from the loop. It is an operational concept based on the assumption that our civilian leadership is incapable of strategic thought, and that gives the military essentially unlimited authority to implement operational schemes designed to make the best of a bad situation.
(1) I get the argument. I really do. And I feel a visceral sympathy for it. If I were serving in Afghanistan, or if my loved ones were, I would absolutely want someone to step in and impose strategic coherence so that the war was not pointless. I’d want someone who could make the sacrifices meaningful, and try to ensure that the men and women on the ground do not suffer in vein.
(2) I also get that this is appealing to military culture. There is a great emphasis on people who can get things done and not always be asking questions and for clarification. Every young officer gets that drilled into them from their first contact with military service.
(3) That said, it is a bad for civil-military relations and bad for the concept of civilian control in particular. I think this should be an obvious point, though I acknowledge that reasonable people might argue that salvaging a decent outcome in Afghanistan is more important that sustaining some abstract concept of civil-military relations.
(4) But there is a bigger strategic issue. Well, two actually. First, strategic coherence is not theater specific. While it is true that McChrystal and Petraeus may be adding to strategic coherence in Afghanistan by “filling the void” there, this approach is actually increasing strategic entropy at the international level. The problem isn’t just that I have doubts about the focus on operations in Afghanistan; my bigger concern is that our commitment in Afghanistan (and before that Iraq) is serving to imbalance our global posture in innumerable ways. “Winning” in Afghanistan cannot be disconnected from our broader strategy in the world, and yet it definitely is. And simply put, Petraeus is not demonstrating much interest in that issue. So in the sense, he’s filling a void, while at the same time contributing to a bigger strategic void. So even if you forget about process and theories of civil-military relations, I am not sure that Petraeus is actually, in a net sense, adding to strategic coherence.
Second, “winning in Afghanistan” is a meaningless concept on its own. The question about desirable end states there have to be lodged in a broader vision of American policy, a vision that ultimately is supported and ratified by the American public. You can’t, in that sense, define victory autonomous from American domestic politics. And that is where my real beef comes in. You want to argue that Petraeus is simply filling a strategic void in Afghanistan? Okay. I am willing to accept in principle that the adoption of a state-building scheme is consistent with the policy guidance he is receiving. I’ll even grant that it is legitimate for Petraeus to lobby internally for COIN and nation-building as the appropriate approach to take, so that he is, in effect, writing his own policy guidance since no one else seems to want to. Fine. Not ideal, but okay. But that still does not excuse direct lobbying of the American public in support of this scheme. Saying that military leaders are allowed to act as policy entrepreneurs inside the government is already a significant modification of civil-military norms. Saying they should be the main public spokesman vis-a-vis the public is, I would argue, too much.