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.

4 comments:

  1. Karma ... you left out karma.

    This will all resonate for decades.

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  2. 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.

    Well that's not quite accurate - there are parts of Afghanistan where small pockets of Al Qaeda and other transnational groups persist. And some form of durable stability in Afghanistan is required to A) prevent their resurgence and B) maintain the operational access to strike if required.

    The question is whether we're willing to reassess the profoundly flawed political strategy we've pursued in order to secure those ends (which are in turn enabling conditions for our broader strategic goal of defeating Al Qaeda).

    One might ask more pessimistically whether a reasonably stable Afghanistan is still achievable, but it is wishful thinking to imagine that leaving doesn't carry significant risks as well.

    And frankly, while there are some exceptional individuals and units, the military has not adapted all that much. While military operational planning has been hamstrung by flawed strategy, the degree of tactical adaptation in executing those plans is vastly overstated, IMO.

    Finally, while I agree about the inherent friction between the policy/strategic level and the operational level, the idea that we can simply eschew longer duration operations seems unrealistic. We'd be conceding a critical variable to our adversaries.

    Not sure if you've read it, but Justin Kelly and Mike Brennan proposed a different approach to the same problem in their 2009 monograph: http://www.strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil/pdffiles/pub939.pdf

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  3. I think the most important aspect of strategy is to see the situation as it is, to speak the truth, and to not tell ourselves little fictions and lies. Hey, even a Friedman column can be right twice a day, like a broken clock.)

    I agree--heartily I might add-- with MK on the following:

    Well that's not quite accurate - there are parts of Afghanistan where small pockets of Al Qaeda and other transnational groups persist. And some form of durable stability in Afghanistan is required to A) prevent their resurgence and B) maintain the operational access to strike if required.

    Isn't that a point that Dr. Steven Metz makes, that really our main issue is the transnational groups that would like to project beyond the Afghan "backyard?"

    There are places we've been for a long time, but we are either welcomed or our presence is more low key, cheaper, below-the-radar-ish, and thus sustainable.

    And the Kelly/Brennan approach monograph is very good. Is it similar in spirit to the CATO Kelly/Long/Rovner pieces I've seen?

    We need some minimum basing and an agreement for basing, and once again, a more low key profile that focuses on the "keeping an eye" on the situation and maintaining intelligence contacts with locals who oppose the same groups we do. Outside of that, well, development will follow security.

    Nice back-and-forth, Jason. I almost didn't post because at this point, I mostly feel a bit sad about the whole thing. I've gotten to dislike the subject and, to my dismay, I've developed certain cultural suspicions with regard to NATO policy and "South Asia" that I never thought I would be susceptible to. I simply don't trust some people on that part of the world. Their geostrategic ambitions and pet causes will cause harm. The double standards regarding state sponsorship of transnational groups are well noted. Well noted, indeed.

    - Madhu

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  4. For the life of me, I cannot figure out why we are still committing such large amounts of resources to Afghanistan. The idea should be to gradually disengage, try to strike the best deal we can with the Taliban, and if necessary drones and a limited number of covert guys on the ground can ensure that al-Queada does not regroup.

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