Iraq & Afghanistan

DoD did not consider troop levels when devising our latest Af-Pak war plans, more evidence that their OODA loop is broken

This is an update to How many troops would it take to win in Afghanistan?, 15 September 2009. 

Today we see more evidence that the White House and DoD did virtually ignored the key question of troop levels when devising their latest Afghanistan strategy — and (on a larger scale) that our national decision-making process is broken.

Excerpt from “Civilian, Military Officials at Odds Over Resources Needed for Afghan Mission“, Washington Post, 8 October 2009 (red emphasis added):

In early March, after weeks of debate across a conference table in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, the participants in President Obama’s strategic review of the war in Afghanistan figured that the most contentious part of their discussions was behind them. Everyone, save Vice President Biden’s national security adviser, agreed that the United States needed to mount a comprehensive counterinsurgency mission to defeat the Taliban.

That conclusion, which was later endorsed by the president and members of his national security team, would become the first in a set of recommendations contained in an administration white paper outlining what Obama called “a comprehensive, new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan.” Preventing al-Qaeda’s return to Afghanistan, the document stated, would require “executing and resourcing an integrated civilian-military counterinsurgency strategy.”

To senior military commanders, the sentence was unambiguous: U.S. and NATO forces would have to change the way they operated in Afghanistan. Instead of focusing on hunting and killing insurgents, the troops would have to concentrate on protecting the good Afghans from the bad ones. And to carry out such a counterinsurgency effort the way its doctrine prescribes, the military would almost certainly need more boots on the ground.

To some civilians who participated in the strategic review, that conclusion was much less clear. Some took it as inevitable that more troops would be needed, but others thought the thrust of the new approach was to send over scores more diplomats and reconstruction experts. They figured a counterinsurgency mission could be accomplished with the forces already in the country, plus the 17,000 new troops Obama had authorized in February.

“It was easy to say, ‘Hey, I support COIN,’ because nobody had done the assessment of what it would really take, and nobody had thought through whether we want to do what it takes,” said one senior civilian administration official who participated in the review, using the shorthand for counterinsurgency.

The failure to reach a shared understanding of the resources required to execute the strategy has complicated the White House’s response to the grim assessment of the war by the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, forcing the president to decide, in effect, what his administration really meant when it endorsed a counterinsurgency plan. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal’s follow-up request for more forces, which presents a range of options but makes clear that the best chance of achieving the administration’s goals requires an additional 40,000 U.S. troops on top of the 68,000 who are already there, has given senior members of Obama’s national security team “a case of sticker shock,” the administration official said.

This well-sourced article describes a shocking level of incompetence — shocking to those unfamilar with the history of the US government’s war-making processes. Apparently that includes Prof Bernard Finel. See this from “A Broken Process and a Lack of Due Diligence“, at his blog on 8 October 2009:

This story is extremely depressing. It suggests a shockingly low level of debate. No one brought up the force-sizing requirements in 3-24? And it makes me wonder whether they even considered what “diplomats and reconstruction experts” could actually accomplish in one of the poorest countries in the world.

This was the product of “weeks” of discussion? A strategy signed off on with no sense of the forces required? A strategy bolstered by a hand-wave about “reconstruction experts”? am just speechless.

But I have to admit, if this story is correct, my initial assessment of the process was wrong. The policy process was not captured by a cabal of COINdinistas shutting out all skeptics — the policy process was instead mismanaged and the participants failed to do sufficient due diligence. Incompetence rather than conspiracy explained the outcome.

Prof Finel is a brilliant and knowledgeable expert in these things (as described here).  Why does he find this surprising?  Why didn’t most of our geopolitical experts expect this?  It was clear from the stream of news leaks that force levels were not being realistically discussed.

This is more evidence that our national decision-making processes are broken.  Other posts about this are listed below.

For more information about this topic

To see all posts about our new wars:

Reference pages about other topics appear on the right side menu bar, including About the FM website page.

Posts about America’s broken observation-orientation-decision-action loop (OODA loop):

  1. News from the Front: America’s military has mastered 4GW!, 2 September 2007
  2. Another cycle down the Defense Death Spiral, 30 January 2008
  3. The magic of the mainstream media changes even the plainest words into face powder, 24 April 2009
  4. The media – a broken component of America’s machinery to observe and understand the world, 2 June 2009
  5. We’re ignorant about the world because we rely on our media for information, 3 June 2009
  6. The decay of our government, visible for all to see, 3 June 2009
  7. A great, brief analysis of problem with America’s society – a model to follow when looking at other problems, 4 June 2009
  8. Does America have clear vision? Here’s an “eye chart” for our minds., 15 June 2009

Afterword

Please share your comments by posting below.  Per the FM site’s Comment Policy, please make them brief (250 word max), civil and relevant to this post.  Or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

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14 replies »

  1. >McChrystal’s follow-up request for more forces, which presents a range of options but makes clear that the best chance of achieving the administration’s goals requires an additional 40,000 U.S. troops on top of the 68,000 who are already there, has given senior members of Obama’s national security team “a case of sticker shock,” the administration official said.

    I wonder if he’s even read the document. The “range of options” is actually the laundry list of things that need to be fixed – everything from the afghan’s bad breath to a pony in every village (with a little note that failing any one would doom the whole enterprise).

    And the 40 k are just to stave off defeat in the next 12 months. COIN by the armies own doctrine would require 500k. What is really shocking is that McCrystal dismisses the 500k as “excessive” and then proceeds to paper over it all be saying that of course we’ll hire whatever help is needed locally somehow.

    >his was the product of “weeks” of discussion? A strategy signed off on with no sense of the forces required? A strategy bolstered by a hand-wave about “reconstruction experts”? am just speechless.

    The problem is that there is nothing else – COIN is the only thing that the military have to deal with insurgencies, apart from genocide and defeat.

    And note that it isn’t even really even strategy – it’s an operational plan – there isn’t any explicit strategy! Just try to reverse engineer the implicit strategy – if you really want a laugh.

    To be fair nobody has a good answer to insurgencies and it could very well be that the whole question – how do you win an insurgency – is wrong. It may well be that an insurgency – a sign that people are voting against you with their lives – is not the start of a conflict but the end, and once the majority in a country start doing that, the conflict is already lost.

    It’s interesting that the military don’t actually believe that war is a continuation of politics by other means – they actually think it is ‘the substitution of other means for politics’. It greatly stunts their ability to reason about insurgencies.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: I strongly disagree with the following –

    “To be fair nobody has a good answer to insurgencies”

    Most governments successfully defeat insurgencies. But when they cannot do so and call in foreign patrons, the odds of success drop catastrophically. This is brutally clear in the post-WWII historical record, but of course its almost verboten to mention it (if you want to remain a member in good standing of the geopol experts club). Recognition of this simple fact would destroy much of the US military’s reason for existing at such a large size (The reason the COIN-ista’s have gained such influence because they offer a role in what appears to be the only wars available in the foreseeable future).

    Everybody works their rice bowl, and most geopol experts depend to some extent on affection of the pro-war sectors of the US ruling structure. Otherwise no consulting jigs, few appearances on talk shows and invites to conferences, difficulty getting published in the major geopol journals, etc. A few with strong reputations exist as token doves, but there are only a few such spots available.

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  2. Indeed the OODA loop seems broken, which is bad enough, but there seem to be additional systemic failures here. For example:

    1. Isn’t it still a pre-requisite for advancement to field grade rank in our armed forces that one attend a staff college of some kind? My understanding is that every such officer is expected to have a comprehensive grasp of military history, logisitics, personnel, intelligence, planning, and other relevent subjects necessary for waging war effectively – plus experience and assignments that prepare him for a senior leadership role. Given this preparation, why are such poor-quality decisions being made at the policy-making level? What can be done to improve the quality of advisement given to civilian command authority?

    2. No matter how well-prepared it may (or may not) be, advice on strategic and military affairs given by the Joint Chiefs and DOD is subject to final approval by elected civilian leaders in the White House and Congress. If these leaders are incompetent, uncaring, or simply lack the requisite background to make informed and educated choices, what then? The caliber of decisions being made in Congress, for example, seems to me to be directly dependent upon the people making them. Since we the people now seem to believe in “government by celebrity” ala Al Frankin, can it be any surprise that strategic-level policy decisions are increasingly devoid of understanding of the complexities involved in them? The same applied to the President; he is the CIC. If he lacks the grounding in history, plus the leadership skills to make informed choices, then his decisions will also be suspect.

    3. The Founders put in place numerous checks and balances to, it was hoped, self-correct mistakes and misguided policy. These checks and balances have now been largely subverted, co-opted or disregarded. The POTUS is now capable of waging war substantially without Congressional oversight, to name one example. Members of Congress, more concerned with being re-elected than making the hard decisions and choices they were elected to make, rubberstamp the recommendations that come before them. This is not, IMO, leadership – but sycophancy.

    Oblat, agree with your statement “To be fair nobody has a good answer to insurgencies and it could very well be that the whole question – how do you win an insurgency – is wrong. It may well be that an insurgency – a sign that people are voting against you with their lives – is not the start of a conflict but the end, and once the majority in a country start doing that, the conflict is already lost.”

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  3. Yeah, I’m not sure I agree with the assessment of this as being the norm. It is, I would argue, far more common for mistakes to occur because of political motivations or group-think, rather than what just seems to be lack of homework.

    Vietnam is often claimed as a case where ignorance of the facts of the case led to a quagmire, but Gelb and Betts argued in 1979 (The irony of Vietnam: the system worked, by Leslie H. Gelb, Richard K. Betts) that in fact our decision makers were well informed the whole way, just profoundly amoral in their decision making. They knew Vietnam was a lost cause, but didn’t want to pay the political price for acknowledging it. All the evidence since has confirming this judgment.

    In this case, however, it really seems like no one bothered to ask any of a series of important questions. Poor staffing? Hubris? Overwork? I just have trouble getting my hands around this one.

    They approved a COIN campaign… without apparently know what a COIN campaign entailed.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: That’s an interesting assertion, since Gelb’s book says the exact opposite. There was no adequate analysis before the various escalations, because it was not in the political interest of the groups involved to do so (the first such was 1966, see pp 146-147). They explain in their introduction in their introduction that this resuls from consistent and systemic institutional patterns of policymaking (not mistakes or groupthink):

    “The paradox is that the foreign policy failed, but the domestic decisionmaking system worked. It worked as it usually does, in the way that most constitutionalists and democratic pluralists believe it should work. Vietnam was not an aberration of the decisionmaking system but a logical culmination of the principles that leaders brought with them into it.”

    I’ll write up a brief post on this.

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  4. Reconstruction.
    I think the way to do this would be to apply the rules of animal training ( R + amd – , P + and – ) and of motherhood. An area where no troops are shot at for x days , sequentially remove roadblocks , create loads of jobs , remove troops , build roads ,clinics ,wells lingerie shops etc . One shot at troops and the whole process is sequentially reversed – flatten clinics , lay off workers etc . As paradise on earth happened in A-province , the women of B-province would start pestering their men to stop shooting americans and go ask them for a job .
    At this stage , americans in america would look at the wonder of A-province , and all the good stuff starting in B-province , and think …huh , what about reconstructing Detroit instead ?

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  5. I was too amazed when I last month heard that general McChrystal has only spoken once with president Obama. So lets see…Afghanistan is the central battlefield in the war against terror and the president has only spoken once with his most important field commander? I am really wondering if Obama is going to do the impossible: Make his predecessor look comptentent and good. Are we really one day going to miss Bush and Cheney?
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Why? Discuss troop dispositions? It’s a chain of command function. I doubt that Johnson spoke much with William Westmoreland. Sounds like propaganda to me.

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  6. FM:

    Sorry, I wasn’t clear. There was no “systematic” study of alternative options until 1966… perhaps. Depends on how you define “systematic.” But the bigger picture is that, as early as 1964, Johnson knew the war was not winnable. Continuing was not a mistake. It was a cold-blooded calculation that the political costs of leaving were higher than the human costs of staying. Immoral certainly. Criminal perhaps. But not a mistake based on faulty analysis.

    Beschloss’s Reaching for Glory is a nice compendium of the LBJ tapes, and ultimately bolsters and expands on the Gelb and Betts argument with evidence they did not have access to.

    Shorter version: Our political leaders knew full well it was a debacle from at least 1964 — they never had any illusion that we were going to “win.”
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    Fabius Maximus replies: The post on which you are commenting is a follow-up to one making exactly the same point (“How many troops would it take to win in Afghanistan?”, 15 September 2009. I used excepts from Ellsberg’s “The Quagmire Myth and the Stalemate Machine” — similar but IMO more cogent than Gelb’s.

    Both Ellsberg and Gelb document that there was no full or systematic analysis of the costs (force requirements — blood and iron) for the various alternatives presented. As Ridgeway did in 1954 and McNamara in 1966. What differentiated both these periods from what lie between was that senior political elements wanted this data to support already desired policies. Between 1954 and 1966 senior leaders did not want this information, as it would make their preferred policy choices more difficult to achieve.

    This dynamic is more evidence that our OODA loop is broken. I am unhappy with your clarification, as your original comment would have made a wonderful opening for my post. I’ll put it into the flow for next week.

    For others who would like information about this topic, I recommend the following:
    * “The Quagmire Myth and the Stalemate Machine”, Daniel Ellsberg (most easily found in his book Papers on the War).
    * “Vietnam: The System Worked“, Leslie H. Gelb, Foreign Policy, Spring 1971
    * The irony of Vietnam: the system worked, by Leslie H. Gelb, Richard K. Betts (1979) — an expanded and far clearer version of Gelb’s FP article.

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  7. That is still utterly astounding that strategic-operational policy decisions could made without any reference to troops-to-task (for such a single powerpoint slide that could be roughly guestimated by any COINdinista staff major inside a few hours, no?) as opposed to a bad decsion based on misleadingly optimistic estimates.

    Thats not even a broken process anymore, but an indication that those folks making decisions are utterly incompetent, and *any* process would be liable to fail.

    To invoke Godwin’s law, there were more realistic briefings in the fuhrerbunker in April 1945.

    Question : Does it follow that a (magical, data free) solution will be demands that other NATO nations take up more slack, and the expenditure of political capital to that end?
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    Fabius Maximus replies: While you are correct, there is a deeper level to this. It’s not a bug – it is the normal functioning of the machinery. This is the unpleasant reality Prof Finel and I discussed above.

    I have a post out next week that discusses this in more detail, but you can see this in the post to which this is a follow-up. This kind of data is not presented to decision-makers because they do not want to know.
    * Forecasts of the costs required to win would ruin the generals plans for a larger way.
    * Forecasts of the costs of muddling along indefinitely would ruin the politicans’ plans to defer hard decisions for a later day.
    Nobody wants the full truth, until that happy day when it helps advance their preferred policy choices.

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  8. Oblat in comment #1: “To be fair nobody has a good answer to insurgencies”
    FM reply: “Most governments successfully defeat insurgencies.

    Yes, FM, but when Sri Lanka murders thousands to defeat the Tamil Tigers, or China tightens Tiananmen square oppression, or the Russians kill hundreds in Chechnia, while I’d agree they are ‘successful’, I don’t agree that they are a ‘good answer’. Russians not successful yet. [I’ll not insert my usual ‘won the Vietnam war’ in 1973, lost the ‘Peace’ to the lying, murdering commies in 1974-75.]

    The key reason Afghanistan will be lost is because … heroin will remain illegal. Thus drug trades will remain illegal, and hugely profitable. And the most ruthless / successful druglords will be the local tribal leaders. Perhaps if the US would fund and support pro-US drug lords against anti-US drug lords, there would be a good chance to have ‘our bastards’ be in control. But I don’t see that honestly happening yet.

    Nor in Mexico, which increasingly needs similar analysis.

    The other mistake of the US strategy is support for the Afghan gov’t (based on force), rather than Afghan business (based on peaceful agreement). This has been a common failure of post-WW II foreign policy, increasing the force sector far more than the peace sector — by both Reps who want Strong, Good gov’t of law and order, and by Dems who want Big, Kind gov’t of many benefits to many worthies. The result of either type of increase is an increase in gov’t and corruption and usually an increase in the difficulty of creating a non-gov’t based successful peaceful business.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: I don’t understand some of this, other than the last paragraph (with which I strongly agree).

    “I don’t agree that they are a ‘good answer’.”
    First, you are using “good” in a different sense than the question — a moral evaluation, not a utilitarian one. Nobody in those nations cares about your moral judgements, just as you don’t care what they think. Second, fighting insurgencies is a nasty business, as General Sherman demonstrated to the people of the Confederacy.

    “The key reason Afghanistan will be lost”
    Lost? Do we own it? For an analysis of this insanity see “Are we fools? Yes, if we repeat the ‘who lost China’ madness.”

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  9. With regard to Chechnya, what choice did (or does) Russia have? I think in a real sense, you would have a correct application of the “Domino” Theory. After a loss of Chechnya, it could very well be the turn of Tatarstan, perhaps all the various Tatar peoples, the Komi, Sakha and all the other oil-rich republics belonging to the Russian Federation, especially the ones that were Muslim.

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  10. There is Peace and I missed it ! must have happened when I was sleeping !
    Peace must have happened because Obama won prize for it !

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  11. “It was easy to say, ‘Hey, I support COIN,’ because nobody had done the assessment of what it would really take, and nobody had thought through whether we want to do what it takes,”

    No, we do not want to do what it takes. A proper counter-insurgency operation in Afghanistan would require restoring the draft – which we do not have the national will to do.

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  12. FM note: I strongly recommend reading this, a brilliant comment.
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    FM: “Most governments successfully defeat insurgencies. But when they cannot do so and call in foreign patrons, the odds of success drop catastrophically.

    The critical factor is not foreign support it is popularity. The problem is that unpopular governments tend to call in foreign support to prop themselves up, or in many cases are actually put in place initially by the foreigners.

    Just checking RANDs study on insurgencies they never provide a direct indication either way – which in itself is notable. But for instance governments who call in less (indirect) support rather then troops, are more likely to fail while insurgents that are supported externally are more likely to succeed. Both the opposite of what you would expect if xenophobia or foreign incompetence were the deciding factor. While popularity of the government is very strongly correlated.

    The problem is not that the understanding of the dynamics of COIN and insurgencies is wrong. The problem is that when you mix in the values of American culture to decide what to do the conclusions don’t work. When yu ar always working back from the conclusion that we must succeed because we are too big and good to fail then you get these sorts of conclusions.

    The neocons are a very good example of this. There analysis of the problems that the US faced in 2000 is spot on and insightful, but their conclusions were insane.

    FM: “Recognition of this simple fact would destroy much of the US military’s reason for existing at such a large size.

    I applaud the objective but I think the opposite s true. The reason why the US military will continue to fail is not because it is too big but because it will never be able to be big enough and even more significantly the US economy would never be able to support that size on the many decade long deployments necessary.

    The idea that the Us should be going to go to a total war footing for decades- which is not uncommon in the military – just to hold down an occupation in a single rather small and weak country is quite political ludicrous, let alone economically catastrophic

    COIN is unworkable by its own measures of forces needed.

    FM: “(The reason the COIN-ista’s have gained such influence because they offer a role in what appears to be the only wars available in the foreseeable future).

    Off course this is also what it looked like in 1965 the last time the military go all hot for COIN. But they are very adept at dreaming up reasons why the need to exist in their own minds. My favorite in the 90s was the need to build a large expeditionary force to defend Estonia.
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    Fabuis Maximus replies: Thank you for posting this, with some powerful insights!

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