This Week at War: Where is Jones?

What the four-stars are reading -- a weekly column from Small Wars Journal.


Blame James Jones for fraying civil-military relations

A series of articles in the Washington Post this past week has revealed more than just a contentious White House debate over Afghanistan strategy. These reports have also exposed confusion and misunderstandings among top policymakers which have led to fraying relations between civilian and military officials. These misunderstandings, are symptomatic of inadequate staff work within the White House. And that staff work is the responsibility of James Jones, the national security adviser.

In the Oct. 8 Post, Rajiv Chandrasekaran chronicled the history of the Obama team’s deliberations on Afghan strategy, starting from last winter. According to Chandrasekaran, Gen. Stanley McChrystal‘s call for up to 40,000 additional U.S. soldiers inflicted "sticker shock" on some at the White House. This quote from Chandrasekaran’s piece sums up the feeling:

"It was easy to say, ‘Hey, I support COIN,’ because nobody had done the assessment of what it would really take, and nobody had thought through whether we want to do what it takes," said one senior civilian administration official who participated in the review, using the shorthand for counterinsurgency.

According to the article, McChrystal and his staff prepared their assessment with the assumption that President Barack Obama and his team at the White House had agreed to a counterinsurgency campaign. The "sticker shock" felt by the Obama team resulted in at least one anonymous verbal attack in the Washington Post on McChrystal’s "assumptions – and I don’t want to say myths …" This then led Army officers gathered at a convention in Washington to rally to the general’s defense.

Chandrasekaran’s account of the White House staff’s Afghanistan policy reviews portrays senior officials seemingly unaware of the costs, implications, and risks of the policy choices under consideration. The White House staff and McChrystal’s staff then compounded this error when they apparently failed to confirm with each other the assumptions under which McChrystal would prepare his assessment. If many at the White House suffered from "sticker shock," it is only because they didn’t first understand some basics about counterinsurgency and didn’t establish adequate communications with McChrystal from the start.

Who is to blame for this string of foul-ups? The official responsible for national security staff work in the White House is the national security advisor. Jones and his staff should have ensured that all participants were well briefed on the options and that communications between civilian and military officials were clear. As a former NATO commander, commandant of the Marine Corps, and political liaison officer in Washington, it is hard to imagine someone more qualified for organizing the policy reviews.

It’s possible that Jones and his staff did actually prepare the briefing books and establish communications with the field only to find those efforts unused. If Jones and his staff ever start feeling the heat for Afghanistan, I’m sure we’ll read an anonymous defense someday in the Washington Post.

A Pakistani officer recommends an archipelago for Afghanistan

As Obama and his advisers debate U.S. policy for Afghanistan, it is worth a moment to consider the recommendation of a Pakistani army officer who may soon find himself in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province leading soldiers against the Pakistani Taliban.

Maj. Mehar Omar Khan is currently a student at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College in Kansas and is a graduate of Pakistan’s Command and Staff College. Writing at Small Wars Journal, Khan pleads for the United States to not give up in Afghanistan. But he also advises U.S. policymakers to give up on the notion of reforming all of Afghanistan. Instead, he recommends an international strategy that would build up an archipelago of secure and prosperous model districts inside Afghanistan. In addition to improving the well-being of their inhabitants, these model districts would provide convincing evidence of the international community’s good intentions. Most important, they would contrast favorably with the Taliban’s mismanagement and cruelty, helping to win the battle of ideas.

But before the United States and its allies can build the model district archipelago, Khan asserts that the Coalition needs to accept certain unalterable characteristics about Afghanistan:

Afghanistan cannot be governed, at least not in the Western sense of that term.

Coalition and Afghan security forces cannot hope to protect all Afghans.

Afghanistan has always suffered from some level of civil war.

Afghanistan’s poverty is so deep it has stunted the development of any national aspirations.

Whether there is a Taliban movement or not, Afghanistan’s Pashtuns will fight until they gain the country’s leadership positions.

Khan proceeds to describe his archipelago proposal, which would be the focus of coalition security and development efforts. What does Khan believe this project would achieve?

A few examples of model districts would unmistakably mean this: that the USA means good and only good; that Islam is not the sole monopoly of Mullah Omar; that Islam and Quran can co-exist with banks and schools and hospitals and businesses; that life without bloodshed is a good life and that what Americans do is better than what Taliban do or plan to do. The approach will give Pashtuns an irresistibly attractive reason to ditch the message and manipulation of the Taliban in addition to stripping Mullah Omar and his al Qaeda cohorts off their narrative and their manifesto.

There was a time when U.S. policymakers hoped to implement this vision for all of Afghanistan. But even if he gets his requested reinforcements, Gen. Stanley McChrystal intends to withdraw U.S. military forces from rural areas in order to provide security for populated areas. Khan’s plan would concentrate efforts on even fewer areas, abandoning large sections of the country to Taliban control, at least over the medium term.

Afghan leaders in Kabul and the provinces have understandably resisted this "ink blot" strategy. Once informed of their abandonment by U.S. and NATO forces, villages outside the "ink blots" would have three choices: self-organized defense with whatever weapons they can scrape together; displacement as refugees into an "ink blot" area; or submission to the Taliban.

Major Khan’s model district strategy hopes to win the battle of ideas over the long term. In the short term however, it will give the Taliban a significant propaganda victory as they capture significant portions of the countryside. Are Afghans and the coalition strong enough to weather that storm?

Robert Haddick is managing editor of Small Wars Journal.

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