The relief in June of Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal has led to an outpouring of articles about civil-military relations and the need for top generals to be better trained in high politics. In The Washington Post, reporter Greg Jaffe commented, “Today’s wars demand that top commanders act like modern viceroys, overseeing military operations and major economic development efforts. They play dominant roles in the internal politics of the countries where their troops fight.” And that’s the problem.
Jaffe inadvertently points out the real civil-military mismatch in American policy today, and one that has frequently impeded the U.S.’s ability to manage counterinsurgency campaigns: our inability to get the political leadership ahead of the military leadership. From Clausewitz to David Galula, military theorists and practitioners have emphasized the dominant role of political aims and the need to unify political-military planning.
We blow it again and again. From the dysfunctional relationship between Ambassador Paul Bremer and the hapless Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez in the early days of the Iraq war to the recent rift between Ambassador Paul Eikenberry and McChrystal in Afghanistan, we continue to foul up the real civil-military problem in two ways that impede our ability to succeed.
First, we refuse to unify political and military command. This problem goes back at least to the Kennedy years, when the new president, wrestling with the civil-military split, gave ambassadors authority over all military forces in their countries, with the exception of “fielded forces” that would then come under the president’s authority as commander in chief. During the Vietnam years and beyond, as the State Department entered a long, dark night of budget and manpower cuts, the ambassador’s authority to integrate military operations within his jurisdiction steadily eroded as the authority of the regional commanders grew. As State’s post-World War II veterans gave way to the post-Vietnam cadre, and a hostile Congress steadily chipped away at State capabilities, a generation that regarded the military suspiciously anyway came to accept as normal the idea that diplomatic and military actions were separate. That was fine with the military, a profession that historically has had little patience with striped-pants diplomats or with restraints on its war-making skills. Since the 1980s, military doctrine’s focus on rapid, decisive operations excluded the political side of war. The result, as we saw in the planning and initial phases of Operation Iraqi Freedom, was one-dimensional operational art: a success militarily, but a political disaster at practically every level. We have had our lesson, and it should have taught us this: Successful military engagements will amount to nothing unless there is a political strategy to guide them.
The optimum command setup to a counterinsurgency challenge should be to unify U.S. operations in-country or in-theater under a single political authority. Given the high-level talent available to a president, people respected by both State and the military and experienced at the highest levels of strategy should be available to exercise true unity of command. But given our sad track record, it’s more likely that the two-headed “unity of effort” system we use today will continue, despite its obvious weaknesses. In that case, picking the right civil-military heads takes on extra significance. When State’s chief of mission and the U.S. military commander get along, as the Crocker-Petraeus team did in Iraq, success is more possible. When they do not, then political and military planning gradually comes unzipped and a contemptuous relationship grows up between the two spheres, as we glimpsed in the Rolling Stone article. Ultimately, time is lost, lives are wasted and U.S. strategy loses momentum because Washington dithers over personality issues.
The second problem is the division of labor between the political and military spheres. The U.S. most often gets involved in counterinsurgency warfare when U.S. interests are at stake and a host government becomes so ineffective or so overwhelmed that American support is necessary. In many cases, overall success depends on the host’s political reform as much as or more than military operations. Nudging an allied government toward political and economic reforms is not liable to be in the skill set of a U.S. military officer, no matter how talented or prepared he or she is to be a “viceroy.” Instead, the host country’s own leadership should be front and center, getting credit for reforms while a U.S. diplomat works patiently behind the scenes and American troops train and support local forces.
The U.S. should institute policies aimed at a single political head in future counterinsurgency theaters. The putative viceroy should have, in addition to a close relationship with the president and his chief Cabinet officers, authority sufficient to insure that political and military objectives are mutually supporting. Preparing for this change now — restoring the civil-military equilibrium — is not only vital for today’s war, but for the future as well. As irregular warfare and insurgency continues to change and morph, more complete integration of political and military planning is going to become even more essential for success. AFJ
COL. BOB KILLEBREW is a retired Army infantryman and former Army War College instructor.