Archive for July, 2010

Intellectual Sclerosis, Sycophancy, and Spinelessness and War Decisions

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War, Getting Into Iraq, Iraq and Vietnam, Iraq War with tags , , on July 11, 2010 by whatafteriraq

The decision process by which the United States has blundered into ill-chosen, ill-conceived, and unwinnable wars since the middle 1960s has been disheartening but consistent. The process began with the convoluted decision process by which the country shambled into Vietnam, and has continued with the decisions to become immersed in feckless conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

What is disheartening is that the decision process in each case has been essentially the same and has reached the same, wrong decision, making one mindful of Einstein’s definition of insanity as doing the same thing repeatedly but expecting different results.

This observation certainly does not rise to the level of revelation, but it came back to mind while reading an article in last week’s Newsweek (“The Afghan Endgame,” by John Barry, Sami Yousafzai, and Don Moreau). In the article, the authors remind us that at the time the U.S. decided to bumble its way into the Afghan Civil War, there were voices within the government that counselled us not to do so, and did so citing very specific reasons, essentially all of which have proven to be correct . In this case, the vessel for this analysis was a group of CIA analysts dubbed the “Red Team,” whose job was to critique mounting plans to make war on and in Afghanistan. Their conclusion, according to the article, was that “the best America could reasonably hope for was to do as the British did in the 19th century and adopt the Afghans’ own tradition of paying off provincial warlords and sending out occasional punitive expeditions against the recalcitrant.” The paper, quite appropriately, was titled “Chaosistan.”

The Red Team, of course, has proven absolutely right in its conclusion about the initial war plan: “this plan can’t work.” Moreover, there are some indications that the latest U.S. initiative of working directly with the warlords represents a tardy recognition of the Red Team’s work. Whether it does or not is not the point, however.

The exposure of the Red Team effort reveals the similarity between the decision processes that led the U.S. into Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. In each case, there was ample warning, both from inside and outside government, that the proposed course was a mistake, placing the country in an unwinnable, quixotic campaign from which extrication would prove difficult. In all cases, those political elements in the United States who believe that all world problems can be solved by the application of American military muscle argued (falsely), that American vital interests would prevail and that if the American military was given the proper support, it could solve the problem (this latter assertion providing, of course, the excuse for explaining failure when a flawed policy failed: the military was not given adequate support, and if they had been….). In the process, those who argued against involvement were ignored, even after they were proven correct by later events. One would have thought that the mistake of ignoring Vietnam critics would have resulted in at least some appreciation that the dissenters might, just might, have a point when the decisions to go into Iraq and Afghanistan were made. Apparently not. Why?

As the title suggests, I propose a three-pronged explanation of sorts. It is, by no means, scientific, and its alliteration is also intended to indicate it probably should not be taken entirely literally. It does not, however, mean there is no truth to it. Here we go.

1. Intellectual sclerosis. The dictionary defines sclerosis as “hardening of a tissue or part of the body” in an unnatural way that makes that body part perform inadequately. While the term is normally associated with things like arteries, I suggest that the inflexibility underlying sclerosis can also be applied to intellectual processes. In this case, the sclerosis can be thought of as the ingrained Cold War mentality that the solution to all problems with some apparent military content is the application of U.S. military power. By extension, it is somehow unpatriotic and effete to suggest that military power is not the appropriate answer.

2. Sycophancy: A sycophant, of course, is a “servile or self-seeking flatterer; parasite; toady; lickspittle.” The upper reaches of virtually all private or public organizations have ample supplies of sycophants surrounding the leaders of those organizations (e.g. CEOs, generals, presidents of the United States). The role of the sycophant is to tell the leader how great and how smart he or she is, and thus how correct their decisions, regardless of their quality, are. Sycophants nurture and breed scleroris by a) enthusiastically endorsing sclerotic decisions, and b) by developing the same sclerosis to apply should they become leaders themselves (which, of course, they hope their sycophancy will make more likely).

3. Spinelessness. The definition of spinelessness is, literally, having no spine, and in its figurative sense, means “without courage, determination, or moral force.” Spinelessness enters the equation when people who could or should object to sclerotic, sycophant-supported bad decisions do not forcibly object to those for fear of the consequences, normally political. In the three cases of Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, spinelessness has been much in efforts as otherwise thoughtful analysts recoil in fear from the sclerotic warmongers who made the wrong decisions about going to war.

One might, of course, add a fourth “s” word to the mix: stupidity, or question the sanity (using the Einstein definition) of those who continue to make these ultimately misinformed decisions. That would not, however, be the point of the exercise. The point is: how can the decision process be improved so that prescient but unorthodox and unpopular perspectives are given their proper shrift. The lesson of Vietnam was supposed to be no more Vietnams, but that lesson was forgotten in Iraq and Afghanistan. A lesson of Afghanistan will, one hopes, be no more Afghanistans. The question is how to avoid the fate of no more Vietnams.

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July 4, 2010 and 2011

Posted in Afghanistan, Afghanistan War with tags , , , , , on July 4, 2010 by whatafteriraq

General David Petraeus accepted formal command of the nominally allied forces (International Security Assistance Forces or ISAF) today, July 4, 2010, replacing the departed and scarcely lamented General Stanley McChrystal, whose Paris night on the town brought new meaning to the old saw that “loose lips sink ships.” For Petraeus, the move was technically a demotion, since McChrystal reported to him as commander of Central Command (CENTCOM), and it placed him in an odd position. McChrystal was not replaced for pursuing a faulty strategy, but for insubordination, in effect. Instead, Petraeus is now charged with making successful a strategy that he helped craft and which McChrystal was apparently pursuing as well as it ould be pursued.

The problem, of course, was that the strategy was not working, and there is no particularly good reason to think a change at the top (particularly since it will not be accompanied by any strategic change of direction or emphasis) will make it work. It is arguable the strategy never has had any realistic prospects of success, because the mission it seeks to accomplish cannot be accomplished. A good strategy cannot accomplish an impossible task, and this seems to be the primary problem the Americans and our allies (including the Afghans themselves) seems to face.

Consider a remark by Petraeus in assuming command (reported by Dexter Filkins in the Washington Post on July 4, 2010 as “Petraeus Takes Command of Afghan Mission”). He is quoted as saying, “We must demonstrate to the people and to the Taliban that Afghan and ISAF forces are here to safeguard the Afghan people, and that we are in this to win.” Whoa!

Consider two elements of that quote that, in my mind, define the quixotic nature of the American quest in Afghanistan. First, it admits that the Afghans do not consider our presence liberating in any of the ways we have advertised as our intent, and that after eight and a half years, we still need to “demonstrate” that is what we are doing. If we have failed in convincing them we are the good guys for that long, the Afghans must have a pretty firm idea that we are in fact not that liberators, but something else (as in conquerors?). Second, this problem obviously extends to the Afghan government and Afghan forces as well, a rather blatant admission that we may be backing a congenital loser. These things being the cases,convincing the Afghans “that we are in this to win” rather obviously begs the question, “win what?”

Fast forward to July 4, 2011. At that point, American forces will, according to the Obama plan that Petraeus has very publicly supported, be beginning to come home. The question that must be asked is how, or whether, things will be any different then than they are now. Some, like John McCain, argue that telegraphing our departure date defeats the mission because it tells the enemy how long they have to lay low before we are gone and they can go on the offensive again. Implicit in this argument is that if we stay there in an open-ended commitment, the strategy will work. But where is the evidence for that?

The other position is that things will not change, because the whole Afghan enterprise is a mission impossible. No one has or can argue that the United States is making progress in the fight there: when was the last time one heard any encouraging words from Marjah, the centerpiece of the spring offensive, or about Kandahar, which has been delayed repeatedly as we try to convince the inhabitants that they want to be liberated? Is it too difficult to imagine that the Afghans simplydo not want us there and that they will fight and resist until we are gone (like countless invaders before us)? Is it also possible, as I suggested in an earlier post, that our presence is simply making matters worse FOR US, because our actions are simply creating Afghan jihadi intent on paying us back for what we are doing to their country by attacking ours in terrorist attacks? The latter–retribution–is, after all, why we went to Afghanistan in the first place: is turnabout only fair play?

Finally, what if the result of another year is simply to leave the situation essentially unchanged except for more American casualties? How will we treat those who simply allowed our young men and women in uniform to fight and die for an impossible cause ring at 2011 Independence Day celebrations a year from now?