Failure is the new success as the U.S. military attempts to spin its poor performance in Iraq and Afghanistan in a new 36-page Pentagon self-assessment. The politically correct and largely “safe” report is entitled, “Decade of War” volume one. It reveals that the U.S. military has learned few lessons from its costly failures. It vaguely blames poor planning, intelligence failures, under-manning, lack of coordination, and strategic (i.e., Bush White House) mistakes for America’s non-victories. This is similar to the Clinton era “report cards” that the White House used to issue each year in which it awarded itself generally high grades.
The solutions proposed by the Pentagon are classic Washington, D.C. bureaucratic ploys. The military needs more resources, more training, more planning, more equipment, more intelligence assets, more experts, less rules and regulation, and ominously, more control over information disseminated to the public.
With the issuance of this report, the Pentagon has concurrently released its army of Washington, D.C. consultants, contractors and for-hire “experts” to begin supporting the new Pentagon narrative. This has resulted in a rash of newspaper stories about “the lessons learned by the Pentagon” and the Pentagon’s new strategies resulting from both wars. The spin is to emphasize the positive, which is that a better military will emerge from these challenges and that there is a silver lining to these failures. The reality is that “Decade of War” is superficial and largely worthless. It avoids mentioning many of the key failures and refuses to criticize systemic problems within the U.S. military, so nothing has really changed. The following is a brief listing of some of these failures and problems that this allegedly comprehensive review “missed.”
15 Key Problems Not Addressed in a “Decade of War”
1. Unit Deployments are a Mistake: U.S. deployments to Afghanistan continue to be unit deployments. This contrasts with the Vietnam War in which the units never left Vietnam; instead individual replacement soldiers were rotated in. While unit deployments and the resulting unit cohesiveness provide an important advantage in a conventional war, they hinder counterinsurgency efforts. Every year and in every area of Afghanistan the U.S. military loses all corporate and area knowledge, and severs all local relationships, as there is a complete turnover of personnel. If the U.S. military returned to the Vietnam era system, it would simply be rotating a small number of new people in per month per unit, which would be less expensive and less disruptive, and the U.S. effort would be able to continue seamlessly. The Pentagon refuses to discuss, let alone address this deficiency.
2. Poor Logistics Can Lose a War: The U.S. military is bogged down in a logistics nightmare. All of the brigades it deploys to Afghanistan, even its supposedly light airborne units, are in reality “heavy” brigades. They have this label because of their addiction to huge road-bound armored vehicles and because of the stunning weight of each brigade’s logistics needs. In addition to the cost and waste involved, the millions of gallons of fuel needed per day, the thousands of container loads of supplies required, and the long and precarious logistics routes into Afghanistan combine to create a vulnerability that an enemy could use to defeat U.S. forces. The Pentagon’s report could have served a productive purpose if it had flagged this crucial problem and targeted it for debate and correction.
3. A United Military is Needed: Inter-service rivalries can be as damaging to the war effort as enemy action. In Afghanistan, the insistence of the U.S. Marines that they cannot play well with others (and don’t trust the other services) and therefore need to operate in their own battle space, partially crippled President Obama’s surge of forces into Afghanistan. The Marines were not needed in Helmond as much as they were needed in Kandahar and along the Pakistani border. If the services cannot operate jointly, consideration should be given to merging them into one military. In addition, the number of U.S. Generals and Admirals sitting in Kabul is reported to be more than 100. Each service wants its quota of slots, even though the wisdom of deploying Admirals to a land-locked country is dubious. The U.S. needs far less generals and far more engineers and language experts
4. Reliance on Interpreters is a Bad Idea: Someone needs to definitively state the obvious, which is that U.S. military members cannot bond with their Afghan counterparts and with local civilians through interpreters. Deployed personnel, especially in training and mentoring capacities but also in all field forces, must speak the local languages. This was one of General Edward Lansdale’s criticisms of the rapid escalation of U.S. advisors in Vietnam prior to 1965. He stated that he would rather have a few thousand culturally sensitive and trained advisors, instead of the 20,000 that were deployed at one point. Quality trumps quantity. The so called Green on Blue (or “AF-Fragging”) incidents have dramatically increased over the past year. One cause is the alienation between U.S. advisors and their Afghan counterparts. They literally do not speak the same language. The fact is that a person does not shoot their friends and one does not make friends easily through an interpreter. Deploying a military trainer, who is himself not adequately trained for the mission unnecessarily places that trainer in greater jeopardy.
5. The Wrong Rules of Engagement: The rules of engagement in Afghanistan continue to be counter-productive and the problem is almost universally misunderstood. At the apex of the pyramid for the rules, there can be only one paramount concern, and the Pentagon has chosen for that apex the protection of its forces, rather than winning the war. The rules permit the use of deadly force whenever there is a subjective belief (however unfounded) that the military member is facing a potential risk. Winning a counterinsurgency campaign requires rules of engagement which place the protection of the civilian population at the apex. That means not shooting unless there are clear and objective factors that establish a threat. The military has to be committed to zero civilian casualties, which is not the current policy. It is undisputed that U.S. mistakes and the resulting civilian casualties have fueled the Afghan war. While altering the rules could result in a short-term increase in casualties, the war would end faster, resulting in an overall decline in casualties.
6. Substandard Equipment: The U.S. military has suffered through a decade of slow and lackluster decisions by its general officer corps regarding upgrades to body armor, vehicle armor, better weapons and equipment. The cause is that the U.S. military’s gaggle of generals and admirals operate by consensus instead of leadership. It takes time to make changes in key equipment because every general has to be consulted and everything has to be laboriously staffed with everyone’s views fully considered so as to avoid stepping on any toes. The result has been that it has taken years to implement important enhancements needed to protect the troops. Today U.S. forces continue to be deployed with substandard body armor, helmets, shoes and other equipment and the standard U.S. infantry rifle continues to have less range than the standard (and ancient) Taliban AK-47. There is seemingly no one who advocates for the troops in the field, a fact that the new Pentagon report continues to ignore.
7. COIN is Not for Everyone: This is one of the most important problems and a strict taboo for anyone in the Pentagon. A general analysis of both the Iraq and Afghan wars reveals that about one-third of U.S. field commanders were committed to counter-insurgency (COIN) and were a tremendous asset. One-third were not suited to the unique aspects of counter-insurgency and their heavy handed actions alienated the local population and set back the war effort. The remaining one-third performed a fairly good job and on balance managed to slowly push the war effort forward. This was also true of American troops. A small percentage simply should have been screened out and kept home. By doing so it is likely that many of the civilian killings, prison scandals and Koran burnings would not have occurred. Those incidents fueled and continue to fuel the war in Afghanistan. The Pentagon will never publicly admit this, therefore it will never agree to the solution. The solution is to screen out those who lack the temperament, control and discipline needed in counterinsurgency. Not everyone in the military can fight a war while surrounded by civilian that have to be protected.
8. Federalism vs. Strong Central Government: There is a major effort under way to re-write Afghan history. In hindsight, Pentagon officials are now claiming that a bottom-up federalist effort should have been chosen for Afghanistan. They conveniently forget that the idea for a strong central government was chosen because the U.S. military invaded Afghanistan with the support of local warlords who quickly reestablished their regional fiefdoms after the fall of the Taliban. The idea was that democracy would be strangled by these warlords. One solution is for the U.S. military to cease its reliance on local warlords, which it continues to support in Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen and other countries. Another solution is not to choose between a strong central government and a federalist system, but to support both. In 1958, South Vietnamese President Diem became concerned about the election of some pro-Viet Cong village leaders in the country, so he ordered an end to the practice of electing village and hamlet chiefs. Thereafter his government appointed all local leaders. This led to a firestorm of protests. The ancient Vietnamese custom was that the power of the central government ended at the village gate. In Vietnam over centralization helped to fuel an insurgency that brought a communist government to power 17 years later. A combination of local elections and limited national appointments usually is a workable compromise in most countries.
9. Private Mercenaries: The Pentagon continues to ignore a new development in the Iraqi and Afghan wars, which is the rise of the private mercenaries, which are called “security contractors.” They operate their own fleets of armored vehicles and even reportedly have their own helicopter gunships. The killings and scandals caused by such groups as Blackwater and ArmorGroup have created hostility in the region and damaged the war effort. Eliminating them from the battlefield should be a key Pentagon goal.
10. Counter-insurgency v. Counter-terrorism: Despite lofty opinions by Pentagon surrogates and consultants, counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism are mutually exclusive. In the former, the key goal is to protect the civilian community and to strive for zero civilian casualties while starving out the insurgency. In the latter, the goal is to kill terrorists and a certain level of civilian casualties and mistakes are apparently deemed acceptable. In the former, a professional military is necessary, while the latter can rely on private mercenaries, warlords, private militias, night raids on villages and homes, and air strikes. The two concepts, as they are currently being managed, are not compatible.
11. The CIA’s Role Needs to Be Debated: As a continuation of the former problem, there are concerns with the CIA being able to deploy its own paramilitary units. These deployments raise transparency and accountability issues, and there are problems with the international rules of war because they only permit military forces to wage war. CIA operations can result in the detention of host nationals, which are then transferred to CIA quasi-legal and secret detention facilities. In effect, people disappear. That is the practice of some of America’s adversaries, and stooping to that low level only fuels anti-Americanism. The core problem for the CIA (which is not its fault) is that counter-terrorism can be an effective tactic or tool, if employed as part of a well thought out counter-terrorism policy. The Bush Administration, to its credit, attempted to formulate such a policy around a core belief in democracy. That rudimentary effort was largely dropped during George W. Bush’s second term and ignored by the Obama Administration. The Arab Spring reveals that the Bush idea had merit. With no global policy of justice and democracy, U.S. agencies are left with few options but to continue their programs of targeted killings. The program helps to disrupt the enemy, but ultimately it leads nowhere.
12. The Expanded Enemy List: The Afghan war has seen a new expansion on the issue of who is an enemy. Ending centuries of tradition, the new definition is so flexible that everyone is a potential enemy and therefore a legitimate target. A person who serves a meal to some passing Taliban soldiers; a person who endorses a Taliban position on some issue; a villager who refuses to turn in a Taliban relative etc. Afghan and Pakistani citizens can be targeted if they appear to be Taliban (whatever that means) or appear to a passing drone to be acting as Taliban. This is a serious and important change to warfare and needs to be debated. If Afghan civilians can be targeted by the U.S. military, then are all American civilians who support their government now a legitimate terrorist target?
13. Getting Better at Nation-Building: While the U.S. record at nation-building is dismal, that metric is correctable. The systemic problems within the State Department and the Pentagon are deep rooted and will be difficult to fix, but they are fixable. U.S. diplomats need to leave the comfort of their plush embassies, learn the local languages and dialects, be skilled in reconstruction, and be physically fit and armed. The war is in the countryside and in the villages and districts. That is where a flood of dedicated U.S. officials need to be. They also need to be deployed for multi-year tours in order to bond with local officials. They need to emphasize humanitarian aid (food, potable water and medical care) over fancy development aid projects that have all too often failed. There needs to be a return to the basics in order to have the widest impact on the largest number of Afghans.
14. A No-Brothels Policy Would Be Nice: When the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, it was followed into Kabul by brothel owners who were quick to set up shops to service NATO and UN officials and their contractors. This was the same scene in Bosnia and continues to appear in Africa whenever the U.N. deploys peacekeepers. These brothels damage the war effort and the Pentagon should have a zero tolerance for them.
15. Telling the Truth Would Be a Good Policy: Finally, the Pentagon’s report emphasizes the need to “shape public opinion” and tout “positive aspects” of the U.S. mission. In essence, the Western publics need to be fed a steady diet of success and progress. They need happy stories of Afghan puppies being adopted by U.S. troops and of the Afghan Olympic Team. No one wants to hear the truth about 25% desertion rates, or increases in enemy attacks or declining morale nor do they want any details about the number of wounded and severity of wounds. While propaganda has a place in deceiving the enemy, it cannot be used in a democracy against the American public.
Pentagon officials are seemingly incapable of providing the American people with an honest assessment of the war effort.
It is stunning that military families would actually entrust their sons and daughters to these people. The Taliban have few redeeming features, but incredibly, its leaders seem to have more credibility than Pentagon officials. The Pentagon’s solution is more of the same.
Two years ago, the U.S. Commander in Afghanistan General Stanley McChrystal was fired because of his honesty, with no one in official Washington, D.C. willing to defend him.
The reason is that most of official Washington was mystified by the very concept of someone telling the whole truth.
U.S. officials and members of Congress were so baffled that someone would put their oath of office above politics that many were relieved to see this aberration relieved of duty. The widespread lack of honesty within the senior ranks of the military, Congress and the Administration is crippling to and erodes support for the war effort. .
In summary, “Decade of War” may have a value if placed into bird cages to collect bird droppings, but that is about it. The members of the U.S. military deserve a comprehensive assessment of all the problems, deficiencies and scandals, with no sacred cows protected. While some mistakes in wartime may be inevitable, they are not acceptable and every one of them needs to be identified, debated and fixed.