Paul Pillar

Civil-Military Relations and Decision-making on Afghanistan

A feature article in the New York Times points to a significant deficiency in the process through which the Obama administration will make its next major decisions about the war in Afghanistan, although the journalists don't call it a deficiency.  The article is about the relationship between President Obama and his field commander, General David Petraeus.  The general may in effect have the final say on matters, including how much of a withdrawal of U.S. troops will begin next July, on which he and the president might disagree.  This is partly because, as the article points out, the firing of the previous two U.S. commanders in Afghanistan has given Mr. Obama extra incentive to get along with Petraeus, to avoid an impression of not being able to get along with any of his commanders.  A broader reason is the prestige and popularity that Petraeus has achieved.  The American public is apt to give him the benefit of any doubt about the future course of the war.  This effect is accentuated by the American inclination to perceive a clear division between war and peace, and the related disinclination to believe that war is too important to be left to the generals.

The disproportionate influence of Petraeus represents a decision-making  deficiency not because he is anything less than the smart and accomplished leader we all know him to be.  Rather, it is because the decisions in question are not part of his responsibility.  Determining the best way to fight the war is part of his responsibility.  Determining whether the war is worth fighting is not.  The latter question is above his pay grade.  And it is the latter question, or variants of it, that is the most important question the administration has to address, and the most important ingredient in a decision such as the pace of troop withdrawals beginning next July.

The heavy and maybe decisive influence of the field commander on resolution of this question is a deficiency also because--however honorable Petraeus is, and however fair he tries to be--he necessarily has a highly biased and parochial view to apply to the policy question.  He has strong personal reason to emphasize the positive side of whatever results his strategy is achieving.  The Times article notes there is already a discrepancy between optimistic measures of battlefield progress from Petraeus and more pessimistic assessments from the intelligence agencies.  Petraeus also has a strong incentive, in the interest of preserving his own record and reputation, to see the American force in Afghanistan stay large enough long enough for him to have a hope of pulling out something that could plausibly be labeled a victory.  His long-term reputation will depend more on achieving that kind of result than on whatever costs were required to achieve it.  The reputation of Ulysses Grant rested more on his grinding down the Confederacy's Army of Northern Virginia to the point of surrender than on the heavy casualties to Union forces that his meat grinder approach entailed.

Leslie Gelb, in referring to the relationship between the president and the general, observes that "the leverage lies with Petraeus."  If the field commander does prove to have in effect the last word on a policy question such as the place of Afghanistan in U.S. interests and the amount of resources that ought to be expended there, it will be another manifestation of the confusion of ends and means in this war.  It also will be contrary to the American tradition of civilian supremacy over the military.