Saturday, June 24, 2017

Giving the generals free rein in Afghanistan?

President Trump created some press that no doubt pleased his fans earlier this month, saying that he had given his Secretary of Defense, James "Mad Dog" Mattis, who until recently was a serving general, the authority to decide on troop levels in Afghanistan. Pentagon stenographer and nominal reporter Michael Gordon reported on it for the New York Times, Trump Gives Mattis Authority to Send More Troops to Afghanistan 06/13/2017:

One United States official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was discussing internal deliberations, said that Mr. Trump decided on Tuesday morning to grant Mr. Mattis the authority. It was the latest in a series of moves by the White House to give the Pentagon and its military commanders more latitude to deploy forces and carry out operations.

Mr. Mattis alluded somewhat cryptically to the decision when he testified on Tuesday morning to the Senate Armed Services Committee. During his appearance, the defense secretary promised Congress that the Trump administration would develop a new strategy for Afghanistan by mid-July to turn around the war.

That timetable led to a feisty exchange with Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona and the committee’s chairman, who complained that the Pentagon had yet to present a plan to regain momentum in a conflict that has been going on for more than 15 years.

“We’re now six months into this administration,” Mr. McCain said. “We still haven’t got a strategy for Afghanistan. It makes it hard for us to support you when we don’t have a strategy.”
Letting the generals run the war and not having civilians interfere with them is a favorite trope of conservatives. It reflects the chronic alibi-making from the military - we did everything right, it's just that the meddling politicians messed things up - that finds a welcome audience among military-idolizing Republicans. There is always somebody who will say we could have "won" if the US had just put in more troops, dropped more bombs, been more ruthless in killing civilians and torturing prisoners, etc, etc.

For the elected officials to defer unquestioningly to the generals on matters of war and peace would be irresponsible. And they often have been, including Congress in their shameless abandonment of their Constitutional responsibilities on war and peace. And, in general, the post-World War II foreign policy of the US has been excessively militarized in the sense of relying disproportionately on military threats and coercion as compared to reliance on diplomacy and "soft power." In a sad twist, the fall of the Soviet Union that made the United States the unquestioned sole superpower, or hyperpower, or global hegemon, resulted in a heavier reliance on military action than previously. And that really is a problem of both parties.

The Cheney-Bush Administration made a big show of giving the military everything they needed. But that was PR posturing. They did inflate the military budget, because pumping public money into the profits of the weapons manufacturers is a shared mission demanded by the donor class of their sponsored politicians in both parties. Actually, that Administration imposed some fairly strict military scrutiny and control of military operations. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was particularly focused on the idea that the US could knock off a "rouge" government with minimal forces and quickly install a new, stable government. So he insisted on going into to Afghanistan with limited force at the start.

Journalist Philip Smucker provided an account of how Rummy's strict imposition of his minimalist daydreams affected the Afghanistan War during what we now know was its early days in Al Qaeda's Great Escape: The Military and the Media on Terror's Trail (2004).

The problem with that approach was even more dramatically evident in the invasion of Iraq. While US forces were staging a propaganda scene of pulling down a statue of Saddam in Baghdad, looters were getting ready to sack anything and everything they could. By all accounts I've seen, the mass looting episode in Baghdad was a critical moment very early in the occupation that made establishing order far more difficult. Rummy insisted in limiting the number of troops, largely dismissing the risk that the occupation forces would run into protracted resistance after the regime's fall.

Whether Trump likes it or not, he is still responsible for managing the armed forces. And, of course, Mad Dog Mattis is serving in a civilian office, despite his recent status as a general. And i's highly unlikely that either Mattis nor his generals and admirals will abandon their well-established practices of providing alibis so that they can blame the meddling civilians one way or another for any military failures. As Fred Kaplan writes, "Letting a Cabinet secretary make the call does not let him off the hook; deciding not to decide is itself a decision." (An Abdication of Duty Slate 06/15/2017)

The main problem in Trump giving the nod to Mattis to escalate US troops presence and military activity in Afghanistan, he's escalating the risks inherent in continuing direct participation in the war there. Kaplan observes:

Mattis was an excellent wartime commander as a Marine. He is well-read in history and philosophy. But even the best Marines are trained mainly to execute policy, not to make it. And to the best wartime generals, the mandate of carrying out policy means winning the war. Retreating, withdrawing, drawing down — these might (or might not) be the preferences of a president, who views a war’s costs and benefits in the context of many other priorities, but they have little place in the thinking of a general whose job is to focus only on the war. (Mattis, who retired from the Marines four years ago, is now the civilian overseer of the Defense Department, but his reading of military history and his experience as an officer — a wartime commander, at that — govern his thinking about national-security matters.)

In other words, by turning over his authority to Mattis, Trump has all but guaranteed that more American troops will soon be sent to Afghanistan. Senior officers in the Pentagon have reportedly asked for another 5,000 troops in addition to the 8,000 still there. It’s a fair bet that Mattis will endorse the request. And it’s also a fair bet that they won’t be the last American troops sent over. When things go badly in a war, an officer’s natural instinct is to believe that a few more battalions or brigades might turn the tide. President Lyndon Johnson acceded to this instinct in Vietnam. President Obama quashed it in Afghanistan. (Obama let the generals have 30,000 more troops at the end of 2009 but said he’d start withdrawing them 18 months later if they failed to accomplish the mission by then — and, to everyone’s surprise, he kept his promise.) [my emphasis]
Paul Pillar says of this latest Trump gambit (Troop Levels Are Too Important to be Left to the Generals The National Interest 06/16/2017):

That delegation of authority is wrong not because civilian leaders necessarily have better judgment on such things than military officers. ...

What is instead wrong about the current president’s approach is that it loses sight of the principle that militarily achieving certain things on the ground is a means, not an end. Trump’s approach fails to acknowledge the need for a military expedition to have a clear objective that is not defined in a circular, self-referential way solely in military terms. It fails to acknowledge not only the need for careful assessment of what can be achieved with military force but also whether such achievement is worth whatever costs are entailed, bearing in mind the full range of U.S. interests that may be at stake, including alternative purposes to which scarce national resources might be put. That last topic gets squarely to questions of troop levels in foreign lands. And it is a topic that the military should not be expected to try to answer on its own.
[my emphasis]

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