Paul Pillar

The Military Imperative

Bob Woodward has positively contributed to our understanding of how national security policy gets made, notwithstanding the criticisms that can legitimately be directed at his version of first-draft-of-history, with its unsourced channeling of score-settling among contending officials.  The early teasers in the press from his newest book suggest he has made another such contribution, about the making of the Obama administration's policy on Afghanistan.  As usual, much of the attention is being directed at the back-biting, head-butting, and general orneriness in the upper reaches of policymaking circles.  This is part of a pattern that has been replayed through several administrations--of both parties--especially when the policymakers confront especially difficult and frustrating problems, of which the war in Afghanistan is certainly one.

President Obama made the playing field wide open to this sort of inter-policymaker tussling when to his credit he subjected policy on Afghanistan to a long and inclusive review during the latter part of 2009.  I disagree with where that review ended up but applaud the president for conducting it, despite the hazard of providing lots of additional Woodwardable material, some of it perhaps politically embarrassing.  In this respect the making of policy on the current war is drastically different from the other still ongoing U.S. war, launched by the previous administration, for which there was no policy process at all devoted to the question of whether to launch it.  Just imagine how much more material Woodward would have had about Iraq and the Bush administration policymakers if there had been such a process.  (Then again, maybe there would have been no Iraq War and thus fewer Woodward books on the subject, because the notion that invading Iraq was a sound idea would not have survived any policy process worthy of the name.)

The press previews of the newest book show Mr. Obama reacting to the frustrations he was facing in some ways that I would hope and expect a president to react.  Holding such a policy review was one way.  Another was pressing subordinates for more options when he believed the ones he had been presented were too limited.  Yet another was to become so thoroughly engaged that he wound up constructing the ultimate decision paper himself--but as a response to what he was exposed to in the policy process, not as something plucked out of the blue or someone's imagination.

The president's chief frustration, and evidently the principal impediment to a better result from the policy process, was the rigid posture of the Department of Defense and the military in insisting that if this war was going to be fought, there was only one way to fight it.  The doctrine of General Petraeus, backed by Admiral Mullen and Secretary Gates, became a Procrustean bed into which policy on Afghanistan would be forced, with everything this entails in terms of the time and resources to be applied to the problem.  This posture was a classic example of standing Clausewitz on his head and making the scope and objective of a war fit military requirements rather than making the military the servant of a politically determined objective.  In this case the president ultimately imposed a compromise and the military did not get everything it wanted in the way of troops.  But the rigidity involved is the prime reason we have today an objective (defeating the Afghan Taliban and stabilizing Afghanistan) that is the standard kind of objective for the military doctrine involved--counterinsurgency or COIN--but is disconnected from the ostensible original purpose of the war of making Americans safe from terrorism.

A precedent this most brings to mind is how military doctrines devised by general staffs before World War I were so rigid, and the general staffs so insistent on adhering to the prevailing doctrine and its requirements, that the doctrines determined when a war would be fought and whether it would be fought in a way that would bring more adversaries into the opposing alliance.  Germany's Schlieffen Plan, carefully constructed in awareness of the strain on military resources that a two-front war would entail, was designed to deal a quick knock-out blow against France.  But this required violating Belgium's neutrality, which in turn brought more adversaries into the Entente against which Germany would have to fight.

Germany, Moltke, and the Schlieffen Plan; the United States, Petraeus, and COIN--the specific circumstances and consequences obviously are vastly different, but each was an upending of sound Clausewitzian principles about the relationship between national objectives and the use of military force to attain them.  And this works to the ultimate disadvantage of those objectives.  Woodward's newest book should provide useful material for future case studies about war and national policy.