Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

How can we avoid losing more wars? Start by putting somebody in charge of them

By Christopher Kolenda Best Defense guest columnist It may be shocking and disturbing, and even maddening and heartbreaking. But it is true all the same — no one is in charge of our wars. Among all of the so-called lessons from the recent bloody, expensive, and protracted wars, this one needs urgent attention. This may ...


By Christopher Kolenda

By Christopher Kolenda

Best Defense guest columnist

It may be shocking and disturbing, and even maddening and heartbreaking. But it is true all the same — no one is in charge of our wars.

Among all of the so-called lessons from the recent bloody, expensive, and protracted wars, this one needs urgent attention. This may also help explain why the best people armed with the best equipment and supported by American national resources underperform and fail to deliver success when it counts the most.

Lieutenant General Daniel Bolger, whom I have long admired, gives himself and fellow generals too much credit for failure. To be sure, as he outlined in Why We Lost, some of our generals made colossal mistakes. Others were extraordinary. Many just did their time and made no impact whatsoever.

Historian Colin S. Gray notes, however, that there is more to war than warfare, and more to strategy than military strategy. Warfare means fighting and killing. It is what turns conflict into war. War, however, encompasses far more than warfare.

Our generals are in charge of the warfare. They are partners in, but not in charge of, war. The distinction is critically important in understanding why our recent wars have gone awry; why we can win every battle but lose the war. Why we cannot kill our way to victory.

War requires developing the right policy (which includes aims, guidance, priorities, and boundaries on ways and means), and crafting a sensible strategy to attain the established aims within those parameters. Strategy integrates relevant elements of national power (e.g. political, diplomatic, economic, military, intelligence, and socio-cultural) into mutually supporting ways and means.

All of these elements are important; some can be more important to the outcome of the war than the fighting. An organization with the necessary authority, responsibility, and accountability is needed to organize and direct the conduct of the war and manage the myriad trade-offs that inevitably occur. It is here that we consistently fall short.

Take Afghanistan, for instance. In a May 2012 speech at Bagram airfield, Afghanistan, President Obama briefly outlined the five lines of effort for the war [NOTE: I have added some components in the first two lines of effort that were omitted from the speech]:

  • Completing the transition to Afghan full sovereignty. This effort had three major components: security transition — Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) taking lead security responsibility across the country; political transition — conducting the 2014 and 2015 elections and transfer of power from the Karzai government to a successor; and economic transition toward greater Afghan self-reliance. [Only security transition mentioned in the speech].
  • Prosecuting the civil-military campaign to degrade the Taliban and build Afghan capacity. This included developing Afghan government institutions, security forces, and economy. [The speech included only Afghan National Security Force development].
  • Developing a strategic partnership with Afghanistan, which encompassed a long-term diplomatic relationship; negotiations to conclude a bilateral security agreement for a post-2014 troop presence; and commitments for long-term economic support;
  • Promoting regional diplomacy to gain support from neighbors and the international community for a peaceful, stable Afghanistan.
  • Exploring reconciliation in an effort to seek a diplomatic solution to the conflict.

These five lines of effort were arguably the right ones — all necessary to gain a favorable and durable outcome in Afghanistan. The problem was that no one had the authorities, responsibility, and resources to coordinate, prioritize, and integrate these efforts into a coherent whole. No one was in charge.

The military had most of the resources but was a marginal player in several lines of effort. The generals were responsible for successful military activities. They had significant roles in only two of the five lines of effort: a part of the civil-military campaign plan (the warfare against the Taliban; building the Afghan National Security Forces), and the security component of transition.

The rest of the elements were the responsibility of others, who did not always have the necessary authorities or resources, but were also highly sensitive to the military encroaching on their business. The counterterrorism effort against al Qaeda was in different hands altogether. Nonetheless, not until 2013 did the Department of Defense finally acknowledge in the 1230 Report to Congress that success in the military effort alone was insufficient. The key risks and uncertainties were in the political and economic efforts.

The five lines of effort affected one another. Sometimes the effects were complementary. On several occasions, however, efforts to optimize one effort created major set-backs in others. For example, efforts to build civilian government capacity and empower officials, to include soaking them with influence over military and civilian development contracts, while paying ineffective attention to predatory corruption and other perverse incentives, helped to create the world’s most sophisticated kleptocracy. According to Transparency International’s 2013 Corruption Perceptions index, Afghanistan tied for first place with North Korea and Somalia. Their 2014 report has Afghanistan in third.

Such empowerment of corrupt officials made the security situation grow worse. As Afghan officials and other power-brokers grew more predatory, they often used unwitting international soldiers as score-settling bouncers – fingering the targets of their predation or blood feuds as Taliban or al Qaeda. This caused people to lose faith in the government and international forces, and to turn to the Taliban for support, protection, and retaliation. Thus, tragically, corrupt officials and power-brokers grew rich over the deaths of our soldiers. This is part of the reason that the Taliban is stronger today, despite huge numbers of casualties resulting from 13 years of successful U.S. tactical operations.

Another example is the lack of support for local political solutions to conflicts. Ideally, this is a mission for diplomats operating in local areas. Unfortunately, there were few diplomats operating in these areas, and the ones that were lacked the necessary resources and authorities to use military and non-military capabilities to achieve local stability.

Meanwhile, the military would track in daily updates numbers of enemies killed, wounded, and captured — especially high-value targets. This created a set of incentives for subordinate commanders. Not tracked or incentivized in any meaningful way were local political resolution efforts that addressed drivers of conflict.

The fact that many commanders were focused on “legitimizing” and empowering government officials whose predation was a key cause of conflict often caused the military to be seen by the Afghan people as complicit. Efforts by elders or Taliban supporters to try to negotiate local issues were serially rebuffed — “we do not negotiate with terrorists.”

A well-intended “Reintegration” program beginning in 2010 strayed from an initial focus on local governance and conflict resolution into a scheme to bribe insurgents off the battlefield. When the military linked a local police program to reintegration, a number of non-Taliban predatory militias (there are a lot of these) would declare themselves to be Taliban on one day so they could reintegrate on the next and become local police on the day following. By that time, the predatory militia was bankrolled by donor cash.

One last example is the abortive Reconciliation effort. The United States never developed a coordinated approach with the Afghan government on this highly sensitive and complex issue. In fact, the United States never coordinated an overall war strategy with the Afghan government. There was no consensus on whether the desired outcome for the war was a negotiated settlement or a decisive military victory or a decisive political victory or something else entirely — and how such outcome might be achieved. As such, there was no agreement between the two governments or even within the U.S. government on what was actually meant by “reconciliation,” and how it might come about.

The Afghan government wanted several million dollars in cash to encourage some Taliban leaders to defect, while prodding the United States to force Pakistan to turn over the others. Some in the U.S. government believed that enough military pressure on the Taliban would fracture them, inducing groups to defect; others naively thought the combination of military pressure, reintegration money, and offers to join local police would re-create the so-called Anbar Awakening in Afghanistan. Still others hoped for a U.S.-brokered deal between the Taliban and the Afghan government. Others, myself included, advocated for a gradual, deliberate peace process that integrated local, national, and international dimensions. These disconnects created significant animosity in the relationship with Karzai and created frictions within the U.S. interagency.

The problems came to a head on June 18, 2013. That morning was the security transition ceremony. The ANSF took the lead for security responsibility across the country. It was a major step toward Afghan sovereignty. It was the signature event of the military campaign since 2009, made possible by tremendous efforts to build the ANSF and significant sacrifice on the battlefield. It got moderate media coverage.

That evening, broadcast to the world live on Al Jazeera, was the ceremony in which Taliban representatives and Qatari officials marked the opening the Political Office of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Taliban flags and symbolism adorned the stage, while a Taliban flag was raised over the Office villa in an area of Doha that housed other embassies.

This caught the Afghan people (and ISAF) completely by surprise. There was no coordinated roll-out strategy; no effort to socialize the idea among an Afghan public that had been victimized by Taliban misrule and terrified by 12 years of insurgency; no public diplomacy effort to explain to Western audiences the differences between the Taliban and al Qaeda.

An outraged President Karzai waived a letter he had received from President Obama a few days earlier assuring him that the Taliban office would not look or act like an embassy and would not use the name “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” (the name of the former Taliban government in Afghanistan and what the Taliban use as their official name). On what basis the U.S. President gave such assurances is unclear.

This was the last straw in an already difficult relationship. Karzai’s sense of sovereignty was undermined; the perception was reinforced that he was still not in control of what occurred in Afghanistan or in the name of Afghanistan. Any hopes were dashed that Karzai would sign the bilateral security agreement authorizing U.S. troops past December 2014. The agreement had to wait for a new president to sign, creating a year-long delay that had adverse political, diplomatic, and economic consequences. Many Afghans were alarmed. Even the most supportive began to question U.S. intentions. Surely, they believed, ISAF officials must have known and supported what appeared to be an embassy that used the name Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Even the strongest relationships were strained.

These are a few illustrations of how the lines of effort affected one another, often in adverse ways. Dedicated officials devoted a lot of hard work; managers for each line of effort can reasonably claim they made progress and were successful. Strategically we remained stuck.

Afghanistan, of course, is not an isolated example. Look at the lines of effort for the war against ISIS, which have grown from an initial four to five and now include nine:

  • Supporting Effective Governance in Iraq
  • Denying ISIL Safe-Haven
  • Building Partner Capacity
  • Enhancing Intelligence Collection on ISIL
  • Disrupting ISIL’s Finances
  • Exposing ISIL’s True Nature
  • Disrupting the Flow of Foreign Fighters
  • Protecting the Homeland
  • Humanitarian Support

Common perception is that the military is in charge of this war. Defense leaders have agreed. But that is not really the case. The military has authority, responsibility, and accountability for only two of the nine lines of effort, namely those in bold. General John Allen, the special presidential envoy for the war against ISIL, works for the State Department. He lacks the authority to direct most of these efforts and he is not accountable for delivering an overall successful outcome.

Compounding the problem, just as in Afghanistan, there seems to be no clear end-game or set of end-games in mind that support a favorable and durable outcome. There is no sense of prioritization or clear concept for how these efforts fit together. The risk that progress in one may undermine others is not insignificant, and it takes little imagination to see likely conflicts. No one is in a position to manage all of the trade-offs. We all want ISIS to be defeated, but we have little reason to believe that our available means applied to these ways will add up to that hoped-for outcome.

We have a serious and systemic problem.

As capable as our presidents may be, none can manage limited wars and myriad other crises full time. The national security structure created for the Cold War serves us inadequately, as does the belief that diplomats do diplomacy and Generals do war.

That paradigm did not have had major adverse consequences in the 1991 Gulf War, with the exception of several war termination issues. It has been a serious problem in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and will very likely be one in the war against ISIS.

The United States has attempted to paper over the problem by aiming for “unity of effort.” This sounds good in theory but has been shambolic in practice. Even during the apparent heyday of 2008 civil-military cooperation in Iraq, actual integration was far less than advertised. As a then-senior diplomat from the U.S. embassy in Baghdad explained to me, “The military said unity of effort, but what they really wanted was unity of command. We were determined not to let that happen.”

The United States needs to re-think how we organize for war. We should start by putting an interagency echelon in charge. This echelon should be commanded by a presidentially appointed official who is invested with the authorities and responsibilities to turn policy guidance into a coherent strategy, direct all U.S. government activities and lines of effort, and make decisions to achieve our aims. That person should be held accountable for success. In some cases, this official could be military. More often, in cases such as Afghanistan and the fight against ISIS, that person should be a civilian. She or he should be supported by an interagency staff. The military commander, ambassador(s), intelligence chiefs, etc. should all report to her or him.

Military leaders should be held accountable to ensure that warfare is prosecuted competently and supports a larger strategy to achieve our war aims. Our senior leaders responsible for other lines of effort should be held accountable along the same lines. What we cannot have any longer is a structure in which everyone can claim success for their stove-piped effort while the war is lost.

Rationalizing our command echelons in war will not be easy, and there are wide-ranging implications that need to be addressed. The bureaucracies of all departments will resist. Making this change will likely require an interagency equivalent to the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act that forced the military services to operate in a joint environment. We should consider whether the current structure of military-centric regional combatant commands should be updated along similar lines.

The United States will also need to develop an interagency strategic doctrine and educational system that creates a common set of strategic concepts, terminology, and professional standards. We need to prepare senior officials for the awesome responsibility for waging war. Our current system has failed to do so.

These changes alone will be profoundly significant and bureaucratically painful.

The alternative, to leave the current system unreformed, is far worse. We must no longer send young men and women — civilians and military alike — into harm’s way without a coherent strategy and with no one in charge of winning the war.

Christopher D. Kolenda is the senior military fellow at King’s College London and the president & CEO of Kolenda Strategic Leadership, which helps NGO’s maximize their impact in conflict zones. A former commander of paratroopers in combat and veteran of four tours in Afghanistan, he has been a strategist and advisor on Afghanistan and Pakistan for the Department of Defense senior leadership.


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 Twitter: @tomricks1

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