Best Defense

The FP transcript (V): Why weren’t we more savvy about our political objectives?

[Here are Parts I, II, III, and IV.]  Ricks: Rajiv, you have been unnaturally patient. [Gestures dramatically with open right hand] This is a man who, in Baghdad, was famous for shouting at people, “Right now, right now, right now!” He was a great bureau chief. Chandrasekaran: I’m just taking all this in. It’s fascinating. ...


[Here are Parts I, II, III, and IV.] 

Ricks: Rajiv, you have been unnaturally patient. [Gestures dramatically with open right hand] This is a man who, in Baghdad, was famous for shouting at people, “Right now, right now, right now!” He was a great bureau chief.

Chandrasekaran: I’m just taking all this in. It’s fascinating. I find myself agreeing with an awful lot of what’s being said around the table.

Just sort of building on a lot of this, I feel like the military does a great job of looking at troop-to-task calculations. We don’t we do that on the diplomatic side of things? There was this assumption building on, all right, September 12: Was the Taliban really our enemy? We then — fast-forward a couple months — think that we can have a reasonably strong central government, civilian government, in a country with zero institutions, with no human capacity. There just, from the very beginning, weren’t the necessary questions asked about what this would take, not from a military point of view, but from a whole-of-government point of view.

All these assumptions get baked in that wind up being completely contradictory and counterproductive to any efforts to build a stable government, and at no point do we step up and say, “Wait. This doesn’t make sense.” Part of it’s a bandwidth issue. Part of it is, I think, civilian sides of our government aren’t doing the necessary sorts of calculations about: Is this in our best interests? Is this doable? What would it take to do it? And then, even further, getting right back to the beginning, the question of space; one associated issue with this — and I don’t mean to blame the victim here — we don’t do a good enough job of saying no to the partners we’re trying to help. Not just internationally, but the Afghans themselves. You know, when the Afghans say, “We want to centralize power in Kabul because, you know, Ashraf Ghani says it’s going to help fight corruption,” we don’t push back meaningfully and say, “Yes, but it’s completely unrealistic given the capacity of your government.” When [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai says, “We want you ISAF forces to go push into these districts because we’ve got bad guys there,” we don’t do a good enough job of saying, “Wait a second; it doesn’t make sense to do that.”

Ricks: General Jabouri, listening to this, as someone who has dealt with the Americans, what do you think of Rajiv’s analysis? Are the Americans able to say no? Do they make intelligent decisions, from your perspective as an Iraqi general and a mayor of a city?

Jabouri: I think the Americans, in the beginning, always take the ally from who said, “OK, do everything they want.” And they’re strong. Like Chalabi, Mowaffak al-Rubaie, someone, they always say to them, “OK, I’m from this hand to this hand [extends hands, palms up].” But after that discover they chose the wrong man. The ally is not the man who says it is always OK to do things.

Ricks: So again, a lack of sufficient thought, of understanding, going into the situation.

Jabouri: I think also they depended totally on the people outside Iraq, not from inside Iraq. The do not make a balance between that, but now we see the result in Iraq, with what happened.

Ricks: Ms. Flournoy?

Flournoy: I think this point about really being thoughtful about your political objectives and what’s the goals and the strategy to achieve them and not being all things to all people is really important. And I think it is something that we really struggle with. When you ask why, I do think it does also speak to the imbalance in our own investment as a government. I mean, we have this tremendously — well, at least historically — well-resourced military, well trained, well cultivated. Obviously when you put thousands of Americans in harm’s way, a lot of attention is going to rightfully be focused in that direction to make sure we know what we’re doing and are managing that well.

But again, if you think what drives the success or failure of these operations, it is your political objectives and your political strategy and how well you frame those question. I would argue we don’t grow on the civilian side grand strategists, we don’t grow political strategists. You occasionally find them, and I can list a few I admire and respect. But I remember one of the most difficult moments of the Iraqi government formation, sitting in the embassy in Baghdad saying, “Well, what’re we going to do? What’s our strategy to help them cohere?” Not that the U.S. was going to dictate the outcome, but how are we going to help get over this hump and move forward? Having the senior political officer at the time tell me, “Well, that’s not my job. My job, as the political officer, is to observe and report.” And I said, “I’m sorry. We invaded a country. We are occupying this country. Your job is thinking about the political strategy that’s going to help put it back together again on sustainable terms.” But that’s not what we train people to do; it’s not what we resource them to do. And I do think it’s connected to this fundamental imbalance of resources and that we didn’t put enough time, attention, thought, focus, resources into the whole civilian side of what we were doing.

Dubik: In conflicts that are essentially not winnable, militarily. The military operations are necessary, but they’re not sufficient. They’re not even decisive.

Ricks: Emile Simpson makes this very good point in his new book, War From the Ground Up, as a young British officer who fought in Afghanistan that you’ve got to turn Clausewitz on his head and look as this as violent politics, not as warfare that leads to a political outcome. A lot of it is political operations coming out of the barrel of a gun.

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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