Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Let's just be up front with each other: this is a really long rant about strategy

PRE-CLAIMER: Seriously, just don't even try. tl;dr

I've been thinking quite a lot about Jason's post from Monday night, though I feel reasonably confident that I still don't understand it completely. I've decided to carry the conversation forward with a post of my own rather than simply taking it up the subject in the comment thread, both because I'm hoping (in vain?) it will spur me to return to posting and because it gives me the opportunity to get into a couple of loosely-related ideas I've been kicking around for some time now.

Having read through Jason's post three or four times, I'm still trying to put my finger on just what exactly the problem is that he describes. I take it that he basically agrees with Mark Safranski, whose diagnosis seems reasonably straightforward to me. Here's how I read it: in a democratic society, decision-makers will often select policy options that are reflective of an approval-seeking need to do something—to signal a certain position or preference to a domestic audience rather than to accomplish a considered aim and effect a new reality. This can lead to suboptimal outcomes for the simple reason that the decision-maker's calculus is largely indifferent to outcomes: his incentive structure rewards superficially correct action more than it does substantively beneficial results.

If this isn't what Mark meant to say, then I'll stand corrected. But if it is, then I agree with him.

But here's the part where I get confused: even if civilian policymakers are prone to this sort of error (and I agree that they are), and even if, as Jason writes, "our strategy in Afghanistan is guided by process" (and I agree that it is)... I still don't understand how or why those two conditions should be causally related. Let me put it this way: the fact that our campaign planning in Afghanistan is process-focused seems to me largely disconnected from the fact that our politicians care more about doing right-looking things than right-ending things, because campaign plans and operational concepts aren't the purview of those politicians.

I'm willing to concede that the line between civilian and military reponsibilities in strategy formation and the associated operational planning is a blurry and unstable one, and that what I've laid out as the normative standard isn't always the way things play out in reality. You certainly shouldn't take anything I've written above as an exculpatory argument for our elected officials. But more on this a bit later.

As for our man Carl: Jason's choice of Clausewitz quote is simultaneously interesting and surprising to me. Committed students of the sage will recognize it from perhaps the most remarked-upon pages of On War: Book Eight, Chapter 6B. (If it were an episode of "Friends," they'd call it The One With the Politics By Other Means.) The language Jason excerpted is from the 19th-century Graham translation; just for the purpose of clarity, let's look at the somewhat more fluent Paret/Howard version:
In making use of war, policy evades all rigorous conclusions proceeding from the nature of war, bothers little about ultimate possibilities, and concerns itself only with immediate probabilities. Although this introduces a high degree of uncertainty into the whole business, turning it into a kind of game, each government is confident that it can outdo its opponent in skill and acumen. (606)
This is a pretty difficult passage (especially as I present it here, mostly out of context) but I take it to mean that governments are little interested in ruminations on war's escalatory momentum in the direction of its absolute form, but rather in how violence may be used to achieve concrete political goals. But the paradoxical reality is that addition of violence to politics – violence that is fueled in part by hatred and enmity, violence that is fundamental to war's nature and sets it off as distinct from all other human activity – actually re-shapes the character of the political contest. War's essential violence pressures the political contest to take on the character of a duel or a sporting event; without the harness of policy, war risks becoming a self-contained competition conducted according to its own rules, one where victory is not the mere accomplishment of political objectives but rather a revision of the relationship between the two competitors such that the victor is free to enact his preferences.

The "high degree of uncertainty" that Clausewitz concedes is introduced "into the whole business" is produced by divergence between the things we do in war and the things they are meant to achieve. In limited war, our actions are conceived as violent but discrete and purposive acts of policy, while as war moves toward its absolute form our actions are increasingly divorced from discrete political objectives short of the destruction of our enemy. To put it simply, shit gets crazy in war.

But "policy converts the overwhelmingly destructive element of war into a mere instrument," Clausewitz continues.
It changes the terrible battle-sword that a man needs both hands and his entire strength to wield, and with which he strikes home once and no more, into a light, handy rapier—sometimes just a foil for the exchange of thrusts, feints and parries. (606)
Of course, for the military instrument to be used effectively, its employment must be strategic—that is to say, it must be reasoned.

In the Kings of War post that Jason referenced, Kenneth Payne talks about what behavioral economists and psychologists call "choice-supportive bias"—our tendency to feel a preference more strongly after we've made a choice in its favor than we did when considering the whole range of options. (Payne incorrectly labels this as the "endowment effect," which describes a different cognitive bias – our tendency to value more highly those things that we already possess and stand to lose than those things we might gain – that's closely related to loss-aversion, but that small error is not germane to his point.)
Preferences are not revealed by choices, so much as created by them. That's particularly true if the choice we make is emotionally engaging, as war is—passionately so, ofttimes.
I feel a bit like a broken record, but Clausewitz talked about this, too: war's violent nature and appeal to primal hatred and enmity give it a tendency to escalate toward the absolute, to break free of its harness to policy, to unbalance "the remarkable trinity" that ensures it is purposive and endows it with meaning.

What I take from Payne's brief post is that modern discoveries in behavioral psychology and neuroscience are highlighting just exactly how difficult it is for individuals to behave "rationally," which has a complicating effect on strategy—the method we use to plan and undertake purposive action to achieve our goals. I very much agree with this, but I suppose it's worth including a reminder that while the science may be new, the behaviors that it observes and seeks to explain are not. Strategy has always been complicated by our flawed rationality; it's only now that we're beginning to achieve a more granular understanding of the biases impacting it than the somewhat more homespun generalizations Clausewitz offered on the subject.

That said, I very much disagree with what seems to be Payne's prescription: that we should give up on efforts at "balancing ends ways and means, or even discerning them," and instead conceive of strategy as a sort of elevated form of reactive planning.
Instead it's perhaps better to think about strategy in its less 'grand strategic' sense—and instead to conceptualise it as the organisation of power in the moment, in response to contingencies. Stop trying to anticipate the future so much, because, as Philip Tetlock has shown, we are rather bad at it.
Stipulated! But this form of "strategy" is an exercise in throwing the baby out with the bathwater, conceding initiative to our enemies and foregoing even the possibility of imposing our own preferences on the environment. Strategic thinking will not always be effective, even when the inputs are perceived correctly. But it beats the alternative, doesn't it? And how does Payne's model escape the very same pitfalls of bounded rationality? Even if we "conceptualise [strategy] as the organisation of power in the moment, in response to contingencies," are we not dogged by the same cognitive biases and flawed rationality that impinge on our ability to plan over the longer term?

The problem of modern strategy isn't that we make so many miscalculations—that's to be expected, and it's the very reason that strategy formation and adaptive planning are meant to be iterative processes. The main issue is that the so-called "strategy bridge" is still absent: we are failing to adequately specify – even to ourselves! – how successful operations will create the political effects we seek. When we pretend to do so, we speak in buzzwords, cliches, and generalities.

This is a failing on both sides of the political-military divide. Our elected leaders are responsible for ensuring that we undertake wars that have meaning—wars that can plausibly achieve the objectives set out in policy. And our uniformed leaders must ensure that those meaningful wars are executed sensibly, in a manner that maps military action to intended effect—whether that's the wholesale destruction of the enemy, conquering and holding a sliver of territory, deterring an adversarial regime, or whatever. I feel like I say this a lot, but this is the essence of strategy: developing a theory of victory, a reasonable concept of how the actions you take with the resources at your disposal can combine to achieve the objectives you seek.

The "strategy bridge" is the causal, conceptual link between the accomplishment of military objectives and the creation of political effects, something that is all too often missing in today's strategic thought. We fill that chasm only with bromides, wishful thinking, and specious "plans," then wonder why no one can walk across.

I suppose this is where I come to my issue with Jason's post, which I understand to be saying that the main problem with our strategy in Afghanistan is a failure to recognize that we've met our initial objectives.
We're still fighting a war against al Qaeda in Afghanistan even though they're no longer there because the policy has not adapted. So the military has experimented with various ways (as the means have been dominated by policy-makers) to achieve ends that have effectively been achieved. But we can't say that we've won because there is still so much violence in Afghanistan, so we toil longer and talk about 'winning'—and yet the original policy's ends still have not changed.
The policy objective in Afghanistan is, and presumably always has been, the one the president identified at the completion of the Af-Pak strategy review in March of 2009: "to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future." He further articulated the component parts of that overall objective several months later in the West Point speech announcing the escalation:
To meet that goal, we will pursue the following objectives within Afghanistan. We must deny al Qaeda a safe-haven. We must reverse the Taliban's momentum and deny it the ability to overthrow the government. And we must strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan's Security Forces and government, so that they can take the lead responsibility for Afghanistan's future.
Looking at those intermediate objectives and at the overall policy goal, isn't it obvious that the crippling and fundamental issue has nothing to do with a failure to revise ends in line with progress and change in conditions and everything to do with the government's determination to pursue political aims that were almost certainly unachievable and inaccessible to military action?

The problem in Afghanistan isn't strategy—it's policy. (The more I think about it, the more Jason seems to agree.)

Even if U.S. military operations over, say, a five-year period actually did achieve what the president hoped to – if al-Qaeda were effectively denied a safe haven in Afghanistan for so long as U.S. forces actively operated there; if the Taliban were held off or even decisively defeated over that time period; and if the GIRoA and ANSF were made capable and effective in the maintenance of the country's own internal security – there simply wasn't any plausible explanation presented for how the creation of those conditions would conclusively produce the end states we desired: al-Qaeda's disruption, dismantling, and defeat in Afghanistan and Pakistan and the prevention of its return to either country in the future.

The only conceivable justification for our continued refusal to do this is that winning just isn't all that important to us. And so we've come full-circle back to what Mark Safranski wrote: "the net result becomes burning money and soldiers' lives to garner nothing but more time in which to avoid making a final decision, hoping to be rescued by chance." As long as we're doing something, maybe something good will happen. The same logic animates a great deal of the anti-authoritarian interventionist sentiment we've seen in recent months, but that's a whole separate conversation.

I read a paper recently with the extremely lede-burying title, "The Myth of Military Myopia: Democracy, Small Wars, and Vietnam," by Jonathan Caverley. The thesis can be boiled down to this: those who argue that the military lost Vietnam through the application of flawed doctrine generally fail to recognize that the adoption of militarily sub-optimal courses of action was in fact a result of a rational policy determination by the country's political leadership.

Caverley oversimplifies quite a bit in his assumptions about optimal strategy, but the basic idea is that because the average voter cared far less about the financial cost of war than about the human cost (including not only casualties, but the possible expansion of the draft, etc.), politicians were incentivized to "substitute capital for labor"; i.e. to fight a technology-intensive style of war that was sensitive to the electorate's preference for limiting human costs, even while it was more expensive and less militarily effective. In short, politicians cared less about losing the war than they did about doing what the average voter seemed to want. (Which is, of corse, sort of what democracy is about.) I have some significant problems with the paper and am not sure the conclusions are all that sturdy, but it's an interesting hypothesis.

It's even more interesting if you read it in tandem with Patricia Sullivan's "War Aims and War Outcomes: Why Powerful States Lose Limited Wars," which is one of the most thought-provoking papers I've read in a really, really long time. Sullivan argues that the primary determinant of success for powerful states in small wars is the degree to which prewar expectations about the cost of victory match with reality: a state is most likely to pack up and quit when a war proves more difficult than expected. This often happens with limited wars because of the difficulty of accurately assessing the probability of victory (and associated casualties, duration, etc.) when accomplishment of war aims depends on concessions or lack of resolve on the part of the enemy rather than his wholesale defeat—in short, it's easier to predict how difficult it will be to destroy an army and conquer a state than to accurately project how many sorties are required to compel the enemy to make different political choices. I'm not doing the paper justice, and you ought to read it yourself.

What the hell does any of this have to do with what we were talking about earlier?, you're wondering. Surely I've just gone off on some stream-of-consciousness rant, spilling all the lost blog posts of the last two months into one text box. Well, there's a little bit of that. But try this one on for size: what Sullivan's and Caverley's papers both show is that powerful states often engage in wars that are not particularly important either to the government or to the electorate, and that they often wage them ineffectively and quit early as a result. In other words, states quite literally waste lives, money, and materiel on impulsive trifles, undertakings designed to send a message or show hardness or keep a campaign promise or give the appearance of doing the right thing.

And all of these things are perfectly acceptable uses of military force, perfectly acceptable instrumentalizations of policy... if you can show how the means you've chosen have even the faintest hope of accomplishing those political ends! I'm not at all suggesting that violence should only be used to conquer territory, or to destroy the enemy—not at all. What I am suggesting is that we cease to use military force in an unconsidered fashion. This isn't even an argument for choosing the right wars, but for figuring out whether the things we can do in war have any hope of creating meaning from war. If not, then we really are wasting lives—and those of us who fancy ourselves strategists are wasting our own. It's our job to build the damned bridge.

P.S. I am completely in love with the Kelly-Brennan monograph (pdf) MK mentioned in his comment on Jason's post—I have been since I first read it. I had hoped to discuss it here, but let's be serious: you can't take any more of this right now.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Ends as wasting assets: time's negative effect on policy

One of the truly enjoyable aspects of blogging, at least in the form and community which we do here at Ink Spots, is the interaction this format enables with other bloggers. I've often found that our fellow journeymen can say what I'm trying to better or they provide a different perspective I haven't thought of. To wit, Mark Safranski hand his excellent two-part series on strategy and perspective (here and here) that were riffs on my post of the same subject. You should read them both, but I'm going to focus in on the second.

In his second post, Mark discusses perception and that in Afghanistan the people aren't merely audiences, but participants in the conflict. Further, that civilian leaders are more familiar with processes rather than results, the former of which which is less objective-driven than the latter. [One could argue against this, but any student of civilian-agency programmatic planning versus military planning would be able to demonstrate it rather easily.] Mark continues that "[t]his perspective, while perhaps a career advantage for a politician, is over the long haul ruinous for a country [...] as the net result becomes burning money and soldier's lives to garner nothing but more time in which to avoid making a final decision, hoping to be rescued by chance." If I had to describe our strategic meandering in Afghanistan (and in many other places), this would sum up my opinion rather well.

I believe that it is safe to assume that our strategy in Afghanistan is guided by process, or in strategic parlance: ways. Our publicly released metrics of success focus on killing fewer civilians, creating more Afghan Army soldiers or policemen, aid money spent, kids going to school, etc. But these are not ends - they are means to ends, which I've already averred that we haven't effectively stated for our mission in Afghanistan. I would like to think that our desired ends made sense at some point, but they sure don't now.

Kenneth Payne at Kings of War wrote a post last week discussing strategy and time, a topic that Mark continued on to in the quoted post above. Payne makes the concise and insightful statement:
Strategy, I contend, is inherently about making judgments in time. We seek to use violence instrumentally to reach some desired future state. And we are guided by the past when we do. Strategy is temporal.
Bang on Kenneth. He goes on to observe that "the future we imagine we want might not actually be so pressing when we actually arrive there." Our desired ends down the road may not matter much to us once we get to the end of said road. Of course, they matter not a whit long before that.

One of the many challenges in developing strategy is in the interaction of policy and military plans. As the Grand Poobah of War himself said, "Policy in making use of War avoids all those rigorous conclusions which proceed from its nature; it troubles itself little about final possibilities, confining its attention to immediate probabilities." Policy concerns itself with the here and now and what the instrument of war can attain for it in the near term. Beyond that we get into the conundrum that Payne lays out for us. Further, the onset of a policy which employs war as a tool establishes desired ends according to the probabilities of the day, from which the military derives its plans. And then a divergence encroaches: process by its nature maintains the policy's original ends (possibly with some minor adjustments) while military operations must adapt to the enemy and the realities which it faces on the field. As subservient to the policy, the military thus applies ways and means, with input or allocation from the political class, to ends it cannot, should not, or cares not to attain if the mission continues for such a duration that the original ends become obsolete.

In my mind, this is part of where our strategy in Afghanistan has gone off the rails. We're still fighting a war against al Qaeda in Afghanistan even though they're no longer there because the policy has not adapted. So the military has experimented with various ways (as the means have been dominated by policy-makers) to achieve ends that have effectively been achieved. But we can't say that we've won because there is still so much violence in Afghanistan, so we toil longer and talk about "winning" - and yet the original policy's ends still have not changed. Ends do decrease in their value as time goes on, which requires policy and process to adapt and redefine ends, which goes against the very nature of policy and process.

The drawdown that we'll see over the next few years will be the culmination of that original process-based policy. For 10 years the military has tried to adapt its ways and we've all witnessed the results - some good and a lot bad. This friction at the intersection of policy and military planning is not new and will not go away because this friction between the two are due to the inherent nature of each. And that friction increases as the mission continues over time. I'm not sure this is a lesson the need to change either policy or military planning or to ensure that we do not engage in long-term operations. But it's a problem that we need to recognize as we consider other policies.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Stop loss filing deadline extended again

The Department of Defense has extended the deadline for eligible veterans to apply for Retroactive Stop Loss Special Pay (or RSLSP in DoD parlance which absolutely cannot help itself from making any and every term into an acronym - and yes, DoD parlance is a being unto itself, but I digress) until October 21, 2012. The special pay was authorized in the 2009 War Supplemental Appropriations Act to pay stop-lossed soldiers $500 for every month they were stop-lossed. But in spite of continuous extension for veterans to file for the special pay, DoD has paid out only a fraction of the approximately 145,000 eligible veterans have applied. As Juliet Beyler, acting director of Officer and Enlisted Personnel Management, said in the press release: "Even with extensive outreach efforts, and tremendous support from the President, Congress, the VA, veteran and military service organizations, and friends and family around the world, some qualified individuals have not yet applied." If you think you're eligible for it - apply now. If you know someone you think might be eligible for it, tell them to go apply now. For once, DoD is extending a deadline for the right reason. Take advantage of it - you've earned it.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Robert Bales is not the victim

This past weekend, DoD released the identify of the NCO accused of murdering 16 Afghan civilians last weekend. SSG Robert Bales, 38, assigned to 2d Battalion, 3d Infantry Regiment, 3d Stryker BCT, 2d Infantry Division of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington was flown to Fort Leavenworth within the past couple of days.

Which left major newspaper outlets tripping over each other to explain why it was everyone's fault except SSG Bales' (again, assuming he committed the murders based on his apparent confession) that 16 Afghan men, women, and children ended up dead. For example:
I'm not going to pick on the NY Times article, although it was not free of the same sort of innuendo we're about to pick apart. It just was merely the least offensive of the three. So let's take a look at Robert Bales, victim of society, through the lens of the Washington Post and Bloomberg news.

1. "Years of overseas duty on a sergeant's salary had squeezed the family's resources to the breaking point" via the WaPo. Here you have an "he snapped because of financial troubles because he didn't get paid much as a sergeant" - which begins to take the onus of these crimes off of Bales' shoulders and places them on the American people for screwing down it's military.

Let's take a closer look at this. An E-6 Staff Sergeant in the U.S. Army with over 10 years of service, living in the Joint Base Lewis-McChord area would receive per month: $3243 in base pay, $1650 in housing allowance (this is tax-free), and $348 in subsistence allowance (also tax-free). At $5241 per month, SSG Bales had a yearly income of roughly $62,890. The median income for the Tacoma, Washington area in 2010 was $48,673. That's right, SSG Bales made about $14,219 more than the median income for his area because he was a soldier. In fact, his deployments would have netted him more than $750 more per month with Family Separation Allowance, Imminent Danger Pay, and in not paying Federal income tax on his base pay. Deploying is financially good for soldiers, not disadvantageous. (For more on all of this, see Jimmy Sky's excellent post on military pay and benefits.)

This is a bit in the weeds, but if you're going to say that he was near a breaking point because of his pay you need to back it up. But you can't because it's a wrong statement. I don't doubt that Bales had financial problems, but if he did his financial troubles were because he made bad or unlucky choices that had nothing to do with the Army. So no, dear Washington Post, it wasn't his meager salary due to recurring deployments that caused him to do what he (allegedly) did - your statement is factually incorrect.

2. Not getting promoted caused him stress. All three stories mention Bales' not making Sergeant First Class on the 2011 promotion list and that they were all disappointed. I'm sure it sucks not making a promotion list, but you have to be realistic about these things. All three articles mention legal problems for Bales, including arrests or charges for DUI and hit-and-run (there seems to be some info missing about convictions, etc, so it's not clear what the final disposition of these cases were, but suffice to say something happened). Staff Sergeants do get promoted with that sort of baggage, but not often. And it's getting harder and harder as personnel cuts loom. Even a passing mention of it on any of these or related issues were on an NCOER, the odds are a promotion board would not promote him. So while that may be stressful for him and his family, it was not a promotion he was owed or was due to him. Promotions are earned and blemishes on record like those suggested by these stories prevent promotions. While an interesting data point in the "things that weighed on SSG Bales", chalk up not getting promoted caveated by "may have prevented this through his own actions."

3. Repeated deployments, PTSD, TBI, etc. This is the touchiest of all the topics covered by these three stories and generally speaking they did an okay job. All acknowledge that we don't know how much these three factors interact and what exactly they cause people to do. There are some undercurrents however that the Army failed to screen Bales out of his latest deployment. First and foremost, the Army generally does a poor job of screening for, diagnosing, and treating TBI and PTSD. If the current screening hasn't changed too much, it relies extensively on self reporting. So if Bales did want to redeploy, as friends of his say he expressed that he wanted to get back into the fight, then passing the screening is as easy as pie. The Army has to screen a lot people and there just isn't a cost-effective and effective test to manage this problem. Period. Not excusing the Army for this, but there isn't a viable solution as yet. If Bales wanted to deploy, no current screening mechanisms were going to stop him. But for a bigger picture, here are some numbers: between 1 and 2 million servicemembers have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001, well over 100,000 of them have deployed three or more times, and 300,000 to 600,000 are suffering from PTSD. So far only 1 person in that large population went out and killed 16 civilians.

4. "He and the family were told that his tours in the Middle East were over, and then literally overnight that changed." Apparently his lawyer said this and I can't believe Bloomberg didn't refute this. Even if some knucklehead said he would never deploy again, he was a healthy NCO in the U.S. Army. Guess what: you can't make - or believe - promises like that. It's not how the military works. Deployment orders suck and are super hard on families, but they are a reality of military life. Again, it wasn't as if the Army broke it's promise - it has no institutional ability to promise one healthy soldier it would never deploy him again.

This probably reads as nit-picking or sticking up for the Army, but it's not. Major news outlets are trying to find an angle and lens from which to view this guy and I get that. But all that's coming out are reasons why the Army is at fault for what happened - included some gross inaccuracies or outright lies, outlined here - and not SSG Bales. It seems there were a lot of factors that probably caused his state of mind that day - I can only guess that they include financial problems, TBI, PTSD, family stress, unhappiness with how his career was progressing - but most of those things fall on SSG Bales, not the Army. Could the Army have done some things differently? Undoubtedly - but stop blaming the Army for what this man did. Do your research, journalists, and stop making excuses for this guy. If the 16 dead were Americans, would we be doing this hand-wringing over why the Army screwed down the perpetrator? (I draw your attention to Fred Wellman's comments in that link.) Being a soldier is hard and while command has many responsibilities, commanders are not responsible for everything. Hundreds of thousands of troops have gone through what SSG Bales has gone through - or worse - and none of them shot 16 Afghan civilians.

This entire situation is sad - for the Army, for Bales and his family and his unit, and especially for the Afghans who lost loved ones. Let's keep perspective on that. And let's not take the easy way out and blame The Man for the actions of a man because it fits your narrative. That's not justice and it's irresponsible. Robert Bales is not the victim here - the victims are in Afghanistan.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Delicate strategic balancing: perception's role in formulating strategy

I, like nearly everyone, am saddened by yesterday's tragic murders in Afghanistan. The details are gruesome and as a father of young children, I react to the needless death of children viscerally. I'll hold off on any sort of analysis of this specific situation until investigation results are released. I'll also defer to others on what it portends for the U.S. mission in Afghanistan and suggest must-read analysts Daveed Gartenstien-Ross and Carl Prine.

I suspect it would be helpful to use this incident and similarly bad events that recently occurred to take a look at the role of perspective and how it affects strategy from a broader perspective beyond Afghanistan. I endorse Carl and his fourth point that the deaths of 16 Afghans will not likely drive changes in domestic perspectives and subsequently will not drive changes to our strategy. Our current force generation system - an all volunteer force - allows the government to use force as a tool of policy without burdening the overwhelming majority of the nation's citizens which in turn negates the need to have the people's consent to wage and continue war. Barring a catastrophe such as Mogadishu in 1993, the bombings in Beirut in 1983, or Tet in 1968, domestic perspectives simply do not play a role in determining how the U.S. government uses force in the current era. Both the government and the citizens seem pretty content with this arrangement as it allows them to pursue whatever they wish to pursue with minimal burden.

That all said, incidents in Afghanistan these past few months have caused me to question the validity of strategies that hinge upon the perspectives of foreign audiences*. This is not to negate the fact that foreign perspectives affect nearly every intervention in some way - there has been plenty of writing on this and believe it to be true. I firmly believe that reminding soldiers of this fact was possibly the only redeeming value of the counterinsurgency manual. To say nothing of this excellent work. But strategies that hinge upon the perspectives of foreign populations are another matter altogether.

This is not to say that abusing detainees, offending the religious sensibilities of local populations, killing civilians through negligence or indifference, mutilating corpses, and willful murder are unimportant or that they should not or may not affect the execution of a strategic plan. Iraq came unglued after the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal and Iraqis had every right to be angry, causing them to rebuke U.S. efforts. And of course there were more screw-ups after this incident - the strategic knucklehead is pervasive and unpreventable after all. But in spite of all of that, the U.S. strategy there eventually met most of its goals (reasons for which include a whole bunch of luck, but good strategy leverages luck). While Afghanistan is obviously not monolithic and reactions will vary, every new incident is accompanied by analysis of how much it sets back our mission there, suggesting to me that we're nearing a cusp where winning the approval of the Afghan people will become the determining factor of our outcomes.

We have a whole suite of problems with our strategy in Afghanistan, foremost of which are a failure to state specific and achievable ends as well as a misalignment of ways and means to achieve the pitifully-described desired ends we have written down. But if our strategic success now depends upon selling to the Afghans that we mean well and that they are now more skeptical than not of us, well we have a very, very serious problem. Balancing the Say-Do equation is an imperative. However, if public perception is that mistakes and crimes committed by individual U.S. service members is indicative of U.S. policy or strategy, then public communications begins to drive strategy instead of the other way around.

Public communications and information operations to influence perceptions are ways, but the U.S. keeps falling into the trap of making perceptions ends in themselves. If our ends, ways, and means were better formed and aligned, I suspect that the "Do" side of the equation would be solid enough to negate the affects of mistakes. But this is not the situation in Afghanistan where continued programs of questionable efficacy, strategic drift with regard to ends (compare this and this for instance), and continued support for an illegitimate and ineffectual government abound. If ways and means are not succeeding (to what ends?!?) or are the wrong ways and means entirely then your strategy rests in total upon Afghan perception that you're making a difference instead of in part, which amplifies individual disasters such as we've seen of late. While it is unlikely that the United States will change course at this juncture, we need to start paying attention to this phenomenon now and avoid it in the future so we can avoid codifying perceptions as ends and put influencing them back where they belong: as ways. A successful strategy would go a long way to restoring this balance. Once again, maybe in the next war.

*I apologize for the awkward term and I just can't find the right one that doesn't sound trite. Here it means the people living in the country in which your forces are operating.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

BG Richardson, DCG 1CD: Good for the Army, good for women in the Army

As we've been talking of late about women and their role in the military, I would be remiss if I didn't mention BG Laura Richardson's nomination as the Deputy Commanding General for the 1st Cavalry Division. She is the first female general officer to be nominated as a division DCG. As I've mentioned before, aviation branch will lead the way in providing an avenue for women into the highest ranks of the Army. BG Richardson is proving that assumption correct. As her bio notes, she was a UH-60 driver and held a number of command and staff positions with aviation battalions, including command of 5th Battalion, 101st Aviation Regiment. Frankly, I thought it would take a little longer for a move like this to occur, but here we are. She has also held a number of positions in her career that portend that, while division command is unlikely (she did not command a brigade - but I may be wrong here), she will continue to rise within the Army: military aide to the Vice President, assignment to HQDA G-3/5/7, command of the garrison at Forts Myer and McNair, and Army Liaison Officer to the Senate. This is the kind of career track that GEN Petraeus would love and is the kind of background the Army will be looking for in the coming years. And I don't want to hear that this is all about her being a woman - really read her bio. I wish most of the DCGs I've met had this kind of experience.

Congratulations to BG Richardson for breaking this very important barrier in the Army and for doing so based on a track record of excellence. I wish her all the best in this new and challenging endeavor.