Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

The problems of U.S. relations with the host government in counterinsurgency

I was a year early on predicting that Ryan Crocker would become next U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, according to uber-reporter Karen DeYoung. I think he is terrific, so it’s a good move, and quite a sacrifice on his part, given his 11 previous tours of duty: He has done time in Iran, Qatar, Tunisia, Iraq ...

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

I was a year early on predicting that Ryan Crocker would become next U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, according to uber-reporter Karen DeYoung. I think he is terrific, so it's a good move, and quite a sacrifice on his part, given his 11 previous tours of duty: He has done time in Iran, Qatar, Tunisia, Iraq (twice), Lebanon, Egypt, Kuwait, Syria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. He also went to high school in Turkey, where his pop was serving in the Air Force. In 1983, when many of the little grasshoppers were not yet born, he was in the American embassy in Beirut when it was blown up.

Old Crocker's return to Kabul does make me think about something young Exum has pointed out, which is that we haven't figured out in American counterinsurgency what the U.S. government relationship with the host government is supposed to be. I think Crocker has a better handle on this than most.

I was thinking about this on a recent weekend when I re-read Robert Komer's fascinating autopsy of what went wrong during the Vietnam War, Bureaucracy Does Its Thing. If you are a steady reader of this blog, you've probably already read it. If not, you'll learn a lot from it -- plus it is free, just click on it and print it out. It is still one of the best studies of Vietnam going.

I was a year early on predicting that Ryan Crocker would become next U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, according to uber-reporter Karen DeYoung. I think he is terrific, so it’s a good move, and quite a sacrifice on his part, given his 11 previous tours of duty: He has done time in Iran, Qatar, Tunisia, Iraq (twice), Lebanon, Egypt, Kuwait, Syria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. He also went to high school in Turkey, where his pop was serving in the Air Force. In 1983, when many of the little grasshoppers were not yet born, he was in the American embassy in Beirut when it was blown up.

Old Crocker’s return to Kabul does make me think about something young Exum has pointed out, which is that we haven’t figured out in American counterinsurgency what the U.S. government relationship with the host government is supposed to be. I think Crocker has a better handle on this than most.

I was thinking about this on a recent weekend when I re-read Robert Komer’s fascinating autopsy of what went wrong during the Vietnam War, Bureaucracy Does Its Thing. If you are a steady reader of this blog, you’ve probably already read it. If not, you’ll learn a lot from it — plus it is free, just click on it and print it out. It is still one of the best studies of Vietnam going.

Komer was the veteran CIA officer who oversaw pacification and the controversial Phoenix program in Vietnam, seeking to either capture or kill Viet Cong leaders in the villages. After the war, Viet Cong officials disclosed that Phoenix had been extremely effective in attacking their control of rural areas. (Also, because main force Communist units laid low after taking a beating in the 1968 offensives, U.S. forces were freed to do more small unit patrolling, which added to the pressure on VC in the villages.) Stylistic bonus point: The straightforwardness of Komer’s prose reminds me of the fine memoirs of U.S. Grant.  

Anyway, reading Komer’s comments about his frustrations with the government of South Vietnam made me think there is a great but difficult dissertation to be done detailing and comparing U.S. relations with host governments during four wars: Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. I wonder if the more divided, both politically and organizationally, the U.S. government is, then the more difficult relations are with the local government. My hypothesis is that the more divided, both politically and organizationally, the U.S. government is, then the more difficult relations are with the local government. (This is different from the nation being divided. For example, when Vietnamese President Diem was whacked, the Vietnam War was not yet particularly unpopular, but Kennedy Administration officials differed sharply with U.S. military officers in Saigon about whether to back the coup against Diem.)

Or maybe this could be an Army War College seminar — bring in Allan Millett on the government of South Korea during the war there; someone good on Vietnam; Emma Sky and Sadi Othman on relations between the U.S. and the Iraqi government; and someone else, maybe David Barno and Vikram Singh, on the U.S.-Karzai relationship. And after each panel, invite commentary from Vietnamese, Iraqis, and Afghans who worked with (or, in the earlier wars, opposed) the Americans.

There is lots to explore here. For example, I was struck in a recent conversation when someone referred to good relations with the host government as the sine qua non of COIN. Au contraire, I responded: "Actually, the U.S. started making progress strategically in Iraq when it summoned the nerve to cross the Maliki government and started cutting deals with Maliki’s foes in the Sunni insurgency." You have to be tough-minded with the enemy, but perhaps even tougher with your allies.

Komer also is surprisingly complimentary of the analyses done by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, saying they often had a better handle on the war than did MACV in Saigon. "OSD/SA’s Southeast Asia Analysis Report, produced monthly or bimonthly since 1967, provides in the author’s judgment by far the best running analytical account (unfortunately still classified) of the course of the war." (p. 71) I believe the reports to which he refers are no longer classified, so it may be time to do a tasty dissertation on them. It might cheekily be called, "No, actually it was McNamara’s aides who were right." The quality of those analyses is reflected in the book by one of the aides, Thomas Thayer, that I’ve mentioned on this blog. There also is probably a good article or dissertation in just looking at Thayer’s papers.

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 ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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