Battleland

AF-PAK Sitrep: The Good, the Bizarre and the Ugly

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It is becoming increasingly clear that the AF-PAK war will end in yet another grand strategic defeat for the United States. To date, President Obama, has been able to distract attention from this issue, but given the stakes in 2012, that dodge is unlikely to last. Get ready for an ugly debate over “who lost the Afghan War.” To those readers who disagree with my opening line, I urge you to study Anthony Cordesman’s most recent situation report on the AF-PAK war: THE AFGHANISTAN-PAKISTAN WAR AT THE END OF 2011:
Strategic Failure? Talk Without Hope? Tactical Success? Spend Not Build (And Then Stop Spending)?  It was issued by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington on November 15.

Reading the report is heavy slogging but I urge readers to download and examine it — at the very least, take a few minutes  to read the executive summary. Now compare Cordesman’s systematic, detailed, and workmanlike analysis to the bizarre obscurantism peddled one week later, on 22 November, co-authored by Michael O’Hanlon (Brookings Institution) and former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz (American Enterprise Institute) in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, entitled Defining Victory in Afghanistan.

O’Hanlon and Wolfowitz posit the bizarre thesis that the admittedly less than successful outcome against the FARC guerrillas in Colombia is a favorable model for justifying continuing business as usual in Afghanistan. Viewed through the refractions of their Colombian lens, O’Hanlon and Wolfowitz conclude,

Our current exit strategy of reducing American troops to 68,000 by the end of next summer and transferring full security responsibility to Afghan forces by 2014 is working. In a war where the U.S. has demonstrated remarkable strategic patience, we need to stay patient and resolute.

Are O’Hanlon and Wolfowitz living on the same planet as Cordesman, or do they live in some kind of parallel universe?

I submit it is latter. Here’s why -

Einstein showed how reasoning by analogy can be a very creative way of thinking, but it is also very dangerous, because bad analogies, if not rigorously tested against reality, can capture the imagination and cause one to see what one wants to see.  This problem has been particularly evident in the case of understanding the highly evolved complex tribal cultures of Afghanistan, as Jonathan Steele shows in his just released book, Ghosts of Afghanistan: The Haunted Battleground (Counterpoint, Berkeley, October 2011).  Steele explains how one of the enduring features of America’s 30-year adventure in Afghanistan is a policy-making decision cycle, [ i.e., what military reformers refer to as the collective Observation – Orientation – Decision Action (OODA) Loop], grounded in an outlook [i.e., Orientation] that is shaped by false assumptions and mythical beliefs.  The distorted Orientation causes decision makers and policy wonks to filter information in a way that causes them see what they want to see.  When this happens, as I explained here, decisions and actions become progressively disconnected from reality and decision-makers become overloaded by confusion and disorder — a process we in the Pentagon used to call incestuous amplification.

The only inoculation against incestuous amplification is to destroy the “model” shaping the orientation with a blunt dose of cold reality, like the Cordesman Report — yet as O’Hanlon and Wolfowitz have so convincingly demonstrated, the minds of some people are beyond saving.  A problem, of course, is that more people will read silly fantasies peddled in the Wall Street Journal than heavy tomes produced by serious analysts.

Cordesman’s report is also important for another reason.  Notwithstanding the last-ditch fantasies of O’Hanlon and Wolfowitz, an atmosphere of gloom is descending on Versailles, and the inevitable hunt for scapegoats to blame for the looming failure is in the offing.  While Cordesman is unlikely to be a part of any finger-pointing game, analyses like his (and others, like Steele’s) will add fuel to the fire heating up the emerging political debate over “who lost Iraq and AFPAK?”  We can expect that debate to go from the bizarre (like the O’Hanlon/Wolfowitz thesis) to the really ugly, given the unscrupulous know-nothing scorched-earth atmosphere currently so much in evidence in our contemporary politics.

Polls suggest withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan are more in tune with the majority wishes of the American public, which after ten years of costly futile war is understandably tired and is turning inward because of economic troubles at home. Yet polls also suggest the military is now the most “respected” institution of government–far more so than it was in the early 1970s; this is true despite (1) the fact that DoD is now the only federal agency that cannot pass at least part of the annual audit required explicitly by the Chief Financial Officers Act of 1990, and implicitly by the Constitution, and (2) that after ten years, its wars are sputtering aimlessly into an morass.

On the other hand, the military — really the Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex or MICC — is also far more politicized and influential in domestic politics than it was in the 1970s; its PR machine, abetted by ubiquitous advertisements by defense contractors in the printed and electronic media, is also far more sophisticated today than it was 40 years ago. Militarism has insinuated itself far more deeply into our popular culture. Indeed, as I have written elsewhere, Eisenhower’s nightmare is upon us.

To wit: the recent debate over deficit reduction effectively took serious reductions in defense spending off the table.  In fact, even though the Super Committee on deficit reduction just collapsed as many predicted it would, Pentagon officials have refused to even make contingency plans to cope with defense cutbacks caused by a sequester, and have decided instead to push back on Congress, in effect passing the pain onto social programs and Social Security and Medicare.  Evidence is mounting that defense spending and “no tax increases” are now eclipsing Social Security and Medicare as third rails in American politics.

My advice, dear reader, is to get ready for another Vietnam-like “stab in the back” argument like that of the late 1970s when the generals blamed their strategic/grand-strategic defeat in Vietnam on politicians at home.  That drumbeat in the 1970s, abetted by phony claims that budget cuts after Vietnam created a “hollow military,” when in fact the hollowness was a self-inflicted wound [1]⁠1, together with fantastical promises that new technologies would revolutionize the nature of war, plus the spreading of contracts to more and more congressional districts, fueled a political atmosphere that unleashed the huge and wasteful spending spree of the 1980s.

This time, a re-run of the stab-in-the-back argument is also likely to be abetted by an unstated racist undertone of being ‘stabbed by a black socialist president,’ (a totally phony charge) fueled discretely behind the scenes by the MICC.  This kind of inuendo will very likely to gain traction, particularly among the Limbaugh/Beck crowd on the hard right, but more generally among angry blue collar white men who have seen their standard of living stagnate or decline and their social status diminish.

Obama and the Democrats will be targeted for the bulk of blame, although in the case of Afghanistan and Pakistan, Obama certainly bears a major part of the responsibility for Afghanistan, given his reckless decision to escalate the ground and air war in 2009.  But the problems cited in Cordesman’s report did not build up in just three years, and its information helps us understand why blaming Obama and Democrats for ‘snatching defeat from the jaws of victory’ is a phony charge — there is plenty of blame to go around.  Nevertheless, it is a almost certain this charge will be a campaign plank of the Republicans in 2012.

Combine the likely intensification of the MICC’s ‘stab-in-the-back politics with the growing popular rage against austerity economics in the US and Europe, the increasing prospect of a double dip global recession or even a debt-driven deflation, and 2012 is shaping up to be a very dangerous year for the United States — particularly if Israel tries to take advantage of this mess by attacking Iran in the middle of an election year.

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Notes

1 As I explained in my 1980 report, Defense Facts of Life (see  Part I of Defense Facts of Life: The Plans/Reality Mismatch, Westview Press 1985) the so-called “hollow military” was a self inflicted wound caused by explicit internal decisions to cutback on readiness inorder to pay for modernization with increasingly costly and complex weapons.  My report proved this point by showing how the Air Force’s tactical fighter force suffered from the same readiness problems as the rest of  the military, even though the budget for the tactical fighter mission area increased dramatically in inflation adjusted terms after 1975.

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Franklin “Chuck” Spinney is a former military analyst for the Pentagon and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, forthcoming from AK Press.

Reprinted with permission by the editors of Counterpunch.

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