Monday, March 12, 2012
I, like nearly everyone, am saddened by yesterday's tragic murders in Afghanistan. The details are gruesome and as a father of young children, I react to the needless death of children viscerally. I'll hold off on any sort of analysis of this specific situation until investigation results are released. I'll also defer to others on what it portends for the U.S. mission in Afghanistan and suggest must-read analysts Daveed Gartenstien-Ross and Carl Prine.
I suspect it would be helpful to use this incident and similarly bad events that recently occurred to take a look at the role of perspective and how it affects strategy from a broader perspective beyond Afghanistan. I endorse Carl and his fourth point that the deaths of 16 Afghans will not likely drive changes in domestic perspectives and subsequently will not drive changes to our strategy. Our current force generation system - an all volunteer force - allows the government to use force as a tool of policy without burdening the overwhelming majority of the nation's citizens which in turn negates the need to have the people's consent to wage and continue war. Barring a catastrophe such as Mogadishu in 1993, the bombings in Beirut in 1983, or Tet in 1968, domestic perspectives simply do not play a role in determining how the U.S. government uses force in the current era. Both the government and the citizens seem pretty content with this arrangement as it allows them to pursue whatever they wish to pursue with minimal burden.
That all said, incidents in Afghanistan these past few months have caused me to question the validity of strategies that hinge upon the perspectives of foreign audiences*. This is not to negate the fact that foreign perspectives affect nearly every intervention in some way - there has been plenty of writing on this and believe it to be true. I firmly believe that reminding soldiers of this fact was possibly the only redeeming value of the counterinsurgency manual. To say nothing of this excellent work. But strategies that hinge upon the perspectives of foreign populations are another matter altogether.
This is not to say that abusing detainees, offending the religious sensibilities of local populations, killing civilians through negligence or indifference, mutilating corpses, and willful murder are unimportant or that they should not or may not affect the execution of a strategic plan. Iraq came unglued after the Abu Ghraib abuse scandal and Iraqis had every right to be angry, causing them to rebuke U.S. efforts. And of course there were more screw-ups after this incident - the strategic knucklehead is pervasive and unpreventable after all. But in spite of all of that, the U.S. strategy there eventually met most of its goals (reasons for which include a whole bunch of luck, but good strategy leverages luck). While Afghanistan is obviously not monolithic and reactions will vary, every new incident is accompanied by analysis of how much it sets back our mission there, suggesting to me that we're nearing a cusp where winning the approval of the Afghan people will become the determining factor of our outcomes.
We have a whole suite of problems with our strategy in Afghanistan, foremost of which are a failure to state specific and achievable ends as well as a misalignment of ways and means to achieve the pitifully-described desired ends we have written down. But if our strategic success now depends upon selling to the Afghans that we mean well and that they are now more skeptical than not of us, well we have a very, very serious problem. Balancing the Say-Do equation is an imperative. However, if public perception is that mistakes and crimes committed by individual U.S. service members is indicative of U.S. policy or strategy, then public communications begins to drive strategy instead of the other way around.
Public communications and information operations to influence perceptions are ways, but the U.S. keeps falling into the trap of making perceptions ends in themselves. If our ends, ways, and means were better formed and aligned, I suspect that the "Do" side of the equation would be solid enough to negate the affects of mistakes. But this is not the situation in Afghanistan where continued programs of questionable efficacy, strategic drift with regard to ends (compare this and this for instance), and continued support for an illegitimate and ineffectual government abound. If ways and means are not succeeding (to what ends?!?) or are the wrong ways and means entirely then your strategy rests in total upon Afghan perception that you're making a difference instead of in part, which amplifies individual disasters such as we've seen of late. While it is unlikely that the United States will change course at this juncture, we need to start paying attention to this phenomenon now and avoid it in the future so we can avoid codifying perceptions as ends and put influencing them back where they belong: as ways. A successful strategy would go a long way to restoring this balance. Once again, maybe in the next war.
*I apologize for the awkward term and I just can't find the right one that doesn't sound trite. Here it means the people living in the country in which your forces are operating.