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David Rothkopf

The Missing General and the Phantom Army

For all the debate of Afghanistan and troop levels and strategies and the views of Generals McChrystal and Petraeus, there are two vital facts that have been ignored. First, we are missing the one general who is probably most essential to our ability to ultimately achieve our goals in Afghanistan (including leaving) and we are ...


For all the debate of Afghanistan and troop levels and strategies and the views of Generals McChrystal and Petraeus, there are two vital facts that have been ignored. First, we are missing the one general who is probably most essential to our ability to ultimately achieve our goals in Afghanistan (including leaving) and we are ignoring the army that will not only be most useful to that general, but also the army that happens to be the largest in both of our Middle Eastern theaters of war.

More troubling still is that the general could have and should have been appointed by the president and approved by the Congress many months ago, but the position has been allowed to remain open throughout a critical period. And the army is more or less entirely within the control of the U.S. government and yet we lack the proper mechanisms to command or control it.

Whether our goal in Afghanistan is counterinsurgency or counterterrorism, whether we are “all in” or “all out” (or something in between), whether we are there for the long haul or the short term, there are nonetheless a few things all can agree upon. We need a stronger central government in Kabul and to become stronger the government will need to better provide services, strengthen existing institutions and win the support of the Afghan people. Infrastructure and economic growth will be key elements of this success formula. As it happens, they are also key elements of the counterinsurgency strategy argued for by General McChrystal as they are essential to both winning hearts and minds and to sending a message that the option we support has more to offer each individual Afghan than do the options offered by the Taliban or by the war lords who favor the kind of perpetual tribalism that has left the country vulnerable and dissolute for centuries. In addition, without creating the conditions conducive to a strong Afghan government, we will have no one capable of Afghanizing … which is to say, we can’t leave without handing the baton to someone else.

Central to our ability to achieve these goals are the people in the U.S. government who are specifically organized to handle post-crisis intervention and reconstruction functions. Unfortunately, despite our regular need for such capabilities, we don’t actually have a department or agency that is specifically built and sufficiently supported to achieve these goals. This despite the fact that such interventions have been among the most regular and crucial functions of the U.S. government for decades. Hopefully, Secretary Clinton’s QDDR process will produce some recommendations to remedy this.

In the meantime, the next best thing we have is the U.S. Agency for International Development, a worthy but inefficient and often lumbering entity. Nonetheless, it is going to play a critical role in what we do in Afghanistan … or it can and should play such a role. It also has related and vital roles to play in Pakistan, Iraq and other regions where state failure or state weakening create security as well as humanitarian risks. 

These are the things it has. What it doesn’t have is a leader. It is now almost November and the new administration has failed to arrive at a candidate for the job everyone can agree on and who can pass the muster of the absurd vetting processes that now dog would-be senior officials and impede this government’s ability to function. We came close a while back but the candidate withdrew his name. There is behind the scenes scuffling over this one, partially because there is a sense the agency needs to change and there is a division of opinion as to whether it should be more independent or more closely integrated into the State Department. (The correct answer is “b.” The work of A.I.D. is a critical component of American statecraft and the levers of its function need to be controlled by America’s chief diplomat.)

Whenever this missing general is brought on board however — and one can only hope that it is very, very soon — he or she is going to have to cope with another reality that is not fully understood by most Americans and which is vital to the function of the U.S. government and to our success or failure in Iraq and Afghanistan. And that is how we get to the phantom army I mentioned earlier.

That army represents the majority of people currently on the ground in those two countries on behalf of the U.S. government and is therefore the largest single force on the ground in our Middle Eastern theaters. It is the army of contractors that have become the Hamburger Helper of American military and diplomatic initiatives in our two current wars. 

One person who does understand this evolving reality is Middlebury College Professor Allison Stanger, author of One Nation, Under Contract: The Outsourcing of American Power and the Future of Foreign Policy. The book, now out from the Yale University Press, is a must read for anyone interested in how foreign policy really works in the 21st Century. And it reveals a reality that is radically different from what many expect. Stanger calls Iraq and Afghanistan America’s first two “contractor wars” because so much of the work done in each country is being done by cadres of workers reporting not to the U.S. government but to the lowest bidder. She points that the lion’s share of AID’s budget actually goes to contractors — that in effect, AID is essentially a contracting agency.

Stanger sees benefits to this approach — getting the right people for the job, creating efficiencies — and she sees weaknesses — Blackwater, anyone? But the vital message of the book is that the system has undergone a massive change but our views of it and the strategies and tactics we apply have not. Nothing makes this point more clearly than the fact that the largest army on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan does not actually report up the chain of command … or, for that matter, any coherent chain of command. Single capable individuals, like Richard Holbrooke, help mitigate this with energetic management of non-military operations … but the Holbrookes of this world are few and far between and throwing czars at problems is no way to provide lasting solutions.

To achieve whatever success is possible in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and ultimately the Palestinian Territories and elsewhere is going to require that we address these two problems. First, find that missing general. Then, let’s get down to the business of understanding what business we are really in … and create the strategies and structures we need to make the most of what we’ve got.


 Twitter: @djrothkopf

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