Best Defense

The ‘Foreign Policy’ transcript (I): Our basic problem over the last 10 years has been decisionmaking at the top level

Here is the first part of a transcript of a conversation held at the Washington offices of Foreign Policy magazine in January of this year. A shorter version, with full IDs of the participants, appears in the current issue of the magazine. This is the full deal, edited just slightly for clarity and ease of ...


Here is the first part of a transcript of a conversation held at the Washington offices of Foreign Policy magazine in January of this year. A shorter version, with full IDs of the participants, appears in the current issue of the magazine. This is the full deal, edited just slightly for clarity and ease of reading, mainly by deleting repetitions and a couple of digressions into jokes about the F-35 and such.  

I had asked each participant to bring one big question about the conduct of our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. I began. We began with those. 

Thomas E. Ricks: One of my favorite singers is Rosanne Cash, a country singer who is Johnny Cash’s daughter, who has a great line in one of her songs: "I‘m not looking for the answers– just to know the questions is good enough for me." And I think that is the beginning of strategic wisdom: Rather than start with trying to figure out the answers, start with a few good questions.

So what I’d like to start by doing is just go around the table with a brief statement — "I’m so-and-so, and here’s my question." So, to give you the example: I’m Tom Ricks, and my question is, "Are we letting the military get away with the belief that it basically did the best it could over the last 10 years in Iraq and Afghanistan, but that civilians in the government screwed things up?"

Philip Mudd: I guess my question is: "Why do we keep talking about Afghanistan when we went in 12 years ago, we talked about a target, al Qaeda. How did that conversation separate?"

Maj. Gen. David Fastabend (U.S. Army, ret.): My name is David Fastabend, and my question is: "Do what we think, our theory and doctrine, about strategy — is that right? Could we not do a lot better?"

Rajiv Chandrasekaran: Rajiv Chandrasekaran, got a lot of questions. I suppose one among them would be, "How did the execution of our civilian-military policies so badly divert on the ground at a time, at least over the past couple of years, when there was supposed to be a greater commonality of interests in Washington?"

Lt. Gen. James M. Dubik (U.S. Army, ret.): I’m Jim Dubik, and my question’s related to Rajiv’s and Tom’s: "How do we conduct a civil-military discourse in a way that increases the probability of more effective strategic integration in decisions?"

Shawn Brimley: Shawn Brimley. I have a lot of questions, but one that keeps coming to mind, being halfway through Fred Kaplan’s book, is: "How did we, collectively, screw up rotation policy so badly that we never provided our military leaders the chance to fully understand the reality on the ground before they had to rapidly transition to a new colonel, a new brigadier, a new four-star?"

Maj. Gen. Najim Abed al-Jabouri (Iraqi Air Force, ret.): My name is al-Jabouri. As an Iraqi, I have a different view of 2003. I was a general in the Iraqi Air Force, so I wanted to shoot down your airplanes. After 2003, I was a police chief and a mayor, so I wanted your help to build my country. In the last 10 years I have learned that America has a great military power. It can target and destroy almost anything.

However, I have also learned that it is very difficult for America to clean up a mess it makes. Leaving a mess in someone else’s country can cause more problems than you had at the beginning. Military operations in Muslim countries are like working with glass. If you do it right, it can be beautiful and great, but if you break it, it is difficult to repair or replace. My question is: "Do American strategy planners understand the consequences of breaking the glass, and if so, do they know what it will take to repair or replace the broken glass?" Thank you.

Col. J.D.  Alford, USMC: My name is Dale Alford. I too have many questions, I guess, but I’m going to stay a little bit in my lane and I’m going to talk about the military. My question would be: "Can a foreign army, particularly with a vastly different culture, be a successful counterinsurgent? And if not, why haven’t we switched and put more focus on the Afghan security forces?"

David Crist: My name is David Crist, and a bunch of people had very similar lines of thought to what I was going to use, so I’ll take a common complaint that James Mattis says all the time and frame that into a question: "Do our commanders have time to think? Think about the issues and the information — in some ways they have to be their own action officer. Do they have time to sit back and think about the issues with the op tempo going on and just the information flow?"

Michèle Flournoy: I have two, and I can’t decide which one.

Ricks: You get both.

Flournoy: I get a twofer? So the very broad, strategic question is: "How do we ensure that we have a political strategy that takes advantage of the security and space that a military effort in counterinsurgency can create? How do we ensure that the focus remains primarily there while we resource that aspect?" Kind of a Clausewitzian question.

Second is a much more narrow question, and we have the right people in the room to reflect on this, which is: "What have we learned about how to build indigenous security forces in a way that’s effective and sustainable?" I mean, this is a classic case where we reinvent the wheel, we pretend like we’ve never done it before, we pretend like there aren’t lessons learned and good ways — and less effective ways — to do this. So: "Can we capture what we know about how to build indigenous security forces?"

Susan B. Glasser: I have a question of my own that’s particularly for the people with a military background in this room, which is: "In September 2001, if you had told us that in 2013 we are going to be in Afghanistan with 65,000 American troops and debating what we accomplished there and how quickly we can get out, how many more years and how many billions of dollars we’d have to pay to sustain this operation, my strong sense is that there would have been an overwhelming view in the U.S. military — and among the U.S. people more broadly — that that was an unacceptable outcome. So, if we can all agree that 13 years was not what we wanted when we went into Afghanistan, what did we miss along the way?"

(more to come…)

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at

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