Afghanistan & The Limits of Military Advice

Is the President right to question the advice of his military advisers? You wouldn’t think so to hear some of the conservative and neo-con pundits excoriate President Obama for refusing to simply accept General Stanley McChrystal’s war plan for Afghanistan. Yesterday, National Security Adviser James L. Jones, who was a general in the Marines and Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, told CNN that other military advisers, and McChrystal himself, will be called upon to analyze a range of options.

Republicans forget that the founder of their party, Abraham Lincoln, spent most of the Civil War fighting with his generals and reminding them that he, not they, was the commander-in-chief. Closer to our own time, President Harry Truman fired Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Republicans chastised the President and celebrated the General who wished to launch World War III and who consistently disobeyed orders from his commander-in-chief. The outbursts of emotion for MacArthur subsided quickly as people realized his Caesarian potential.

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There is an even more recent example of military parochialism and politics that shows why President Obama is right to question, and question rigorously, the advice from his commanders. In the first year of the Clinton administration, the military said no to both gays in the military and to any U.S. intervention in Bosnia, both of which candidate Clinton had pledged in his campaign. The military brass said that gays in the military would destroy unit cohesion and that taking on the Serbs in Bosnia was impossible because of the mountainous terrain and the determination of the Serb fighters. At the time, I suggested that Clinton form an all gay brigade and send it to Bosnia, but that idea never went very far.

The military was wrong on both counts. Many countries now have gays serving openly in the military and none of them have reported any difficulties. And, we did finally go into Bosnia to end the genocide and we encountered virtually no casualties among our military. This is not ancient history, it is fifteen years ago. So, Obama is right to assume that military advisers, like all advisers, have certain parochial and personal and political blinders that he needs to overcome to reach the best solution.

I am not privy to the kind of information that would allow me to suggest this strategy over that. I think the fans of the Surge in Iraq make claims for its success but it is, in fact, unclear how permanent that success will be. And, it is sometimes the case that a suggested change in tactics leads to a re-examination of strategy that had been needed but not recognized previously. Something like this occurred during the American Revolution as it became obvious that there was no need to defeat the British redcoats in the kind of open-field warfare that was their strength. Better to skirmish and keep the Continental Army free from such set battles, to enter into a war of attrition and wear down the British. Indeed, that may be the Taliban strategy in Afghanistan today because it is undoubtedly the case that any people are more likely to remain loyal to a military fight for their own turf than for a foreign conquest. Finally, it is very unclear to me if any military strategy can achieve political stability in Afghanistan. We can be there with more troops or for more years and the country might still be unstable ten years hence. If there is a way to contain, if not defeat, the Taliban, without more troops, I am all for it. Such a strategy was adopted and worked in the Cold War, although it was adopted for different reasons than present themselves in Afghanistan.

None of us have the right to expect success to our decisions, yet decisions must be made. Whether you are running the country or the corner store, such infallibility does not exist. Our military deserves nothing but the highest praise for their skills, their commitment, the rigor of their methods, and their loyalty. But, they do not deserve a blank check to chart the nation’s foreign policy because no one deserves such a blank check.

 

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9 years 2 months ago
I think the answer is de jure partition to match the defacto balkination that already exists.  Indeed, western Pashtun Pakistan and eastern Pashtun Afghanistan should be joined into one country, with the Tajik portion merged with Tajikistan, etc.
9 years 2 months ago
As a side note, Donald Rumsfeld regularly questioned professional military advice. 
"that taking on the Serbs in Bosnia was impossible because of the mountainous terrain and the determination of the Serb fighters." 
I seriously doubt that the uhmm.. "incompetent brass" stated taking on the Serbs was impossible. Rather, they stated that a ground war was going to be difficult and cost U.S. casualties. The Generals were right. America avoided using any ground troops in Bosnia untill after a peace treaty was signed by all parties. Thus costly confrontations with skilled Serb, Croat, Bosnian or Jihadist fighters were avoided.
Republicans forget that the founder of their party, Abraham Lincoln, spent most of the Civil War fighting with his generals and reminding them that he, not they, was the commander-in-chief
Linoln was a far better politician and diplomat than a military leader.  His military skills produced mixed results, at best. A desire to nip potential political rivals in the bud (successful military commander turned politician) also influenced Lincoln's military decisions
Something like this occurred during the American Revolution as it became obvious that there was no need to defeat the British redcoats in the kind of open-field warfare that was their strength.
Actually, the exact opposite occured.  Guerilla warfare could annoy and hurt the British, but it could not win the war. To win, the colonialists, needed to beat the British in large, strategic battles. That is what they did and that is why they won.
 Closer to our own time, President Harry Truman fired Gen. Douglas MacArthur and [url=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bvbD3Y38gkU][color=#000000]Republicans chastised [/color][/url]the President and celebrated the General who wished to launch World War III
A valid point
9 years 2 months ago
Ah so now you are an expert in all things military and geo-political, yes? And so is Obama? Seems to me it was considered the height of patriotic duty for military officers to challenge the President (and leak classified documents) during the Bush administration. Now it's suddenly verbotten. Odd. I wonder what changed.
As for gays in the militaries of various countries.... name them. Give us examples of these gay-integrated units deployed to war zones and displaying unit cohesion under fire. The Danes perhaps? The Brits? The Chinese or Russians perhaps? The Taliban? Which unit, currently engaged in warfare has shown us successfully 'outted' gay soldiers performing, qua gay-soldiers, within standard expectations? 
The question about "letting" gays "come out" is one of practicality - how would letting them be open about their SSA make them better soldiers? Many have served with honor - without being open (and thus, not making any overt advances towards others....) so is the implication being made that allowing them to 'be open' - with all the Pride day, sensitivity mandates, 'diversity' seminars etc. somehow make them better soldiers? Or make their units 'better' at fighting the enemy?
The military may very well help someone's self-esteem, but it's not primarily about you, it's about serving the nation's interests. So how does "Gay pride" or celebrate gay diversity day" help achieve the military's mission?
Finally, a word about Bosnia. I vividly recall President Clinton promising us that the troops we eventually deployed would be home by Christmas. They're still there. Which is fine by me, since the US alone can keep the peace without raping the locals (apparently the modus operandi of every UN "peacekeeping force" ever assembled), but no liberal has cared much about that 'occupation'. So I wonder if liberals are OK with the coming 20 year occupation of Afghanistan?  
 
9 years 2 months ago
Thanks, John, for correcting MSW's historical mistakes.  I also challenge MSW's assertions that General MacArthur wanted to launch World War III and unconstitutionally usurp power like Julius Caesar, intriguing ideas that somehow the General's numerous biographers missed.
As usual, MSW misses the main point when it comes to this President's miscues:  General McChrystal was put into his position at ISAF because he was the general whose preferred strategy was most in-line with the Administration's declared emphasis of a renewed emphasis on Afghanistan and change of strategy to one of a highly-resourced COIN.  General McKiernan, the keeper of the flame of President Bush's under-resourced conventional approach, was publicly sacked from ISAF because his vision did not fit that of his new Commander-in-Chief. 
Now, suddenly, the Administration seems to be considering backing away from the COIN strategy.  President Lincoln second-guessed his generals because they failed on the field of battle.  IMHO McChrystal is being second-guessed not for military reasons but for political.  The President has that right.  But let's call it for what it is rather than specious arguments to historical fallacies or a fictitious ''blank check'' owned by the Pentagon.
     
9 years 2 months ago
Clemenceau, the French prime minister that led his country to victory at the end of World War I used to say:" war is too important a matter to entrust the generals". Churchill felt the same way. I can onlly agree with Michael, Obama must be very careful not to follow blindly military advice.
Antoine de Tarle

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