Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Trapped! The seven habits of underperforming U.S military services

The U.S. is suffering a decline in credibility. Despite having the world’s most powerful military, America has underperformed in recent conflicts. These seven interrelated traps are major reasons why.



By Christopher Kolenda

Best Defense guest columnist


By Christopher Kolenda
Best Defense guest columnist

The U.S. is suffering a decline in credibility. Despite having the world’s most powerful military, America has underperformed in recent conflicts. These seven interrelated traps are major reasons why.

The Pavlov trapwhen the U.S. gets duped into to fighting someone else’s conflict. 

The speed of communications enabled by social media means that narratives form quickly and then become conventional wisdom — which can be politically problematic to change. Such characterizations are often formed in the very early stages of conflict — when our ignorance is the highest and most easily advantaged by vested interests.

At the strategic level, predatory governments have become adept at labeling their adversaries as terrorists. After September 11, the common bogeyman was al Qaeda. A mere mention of the name would garner U.S. largess in money, weapons, and capabilities. Now we have Daesh. As Akbar Ahmed argues in The Thistle and the Drone, some of the groups predatory regimes label as terrorists are in fact populations fighting back against repression. Providing copious amounts of U.S. military equipment to abusive regimes undermines our values and credibility.

At the tactical levels in both Iraq and Afghanistan government officials, warlords, and super-empowered individuals became highly adept at manipulating our military and civilian officials into advancing their personal interests and agendas. Playing on our aggressiveness and naiveté, they would manufacture intelligence to use our forces as personal bouncers, hit-men, and assassins. As Anand Gopal notes in No Good Men Among the Living, these often caused civilian casualties and perpetuated deep senses of injustice. They created more support for insurgency and undermined the legitimacy of our mission.

In a similar vein, aid and development efforts often empowered kleptocratic and sectarian predators which fueled rather than reduced grievances and violence. Being used as a pawn in someone else’s game gives new meaning to the term “special forces.”

Second is The Babel trapThis occurs when government agencies lack a common strategic language. This problem undermines coherent policy and strategy and makes the waging of war even harder. It also heightens the risk of civil-military discord.

Although Defense has codified doctrine, concepts, and terminology, the U.S. lacks them for the interagency. Highly intelligent officials repeatedly talk past one another, using terms and concepts to mean different things. Common false cognates include destroy, defeat, and degrade. In Afghanistan a proposal that the ISAF mission was to “defeat” the Taliban was seen by some as evidence of trying to box-in the President to a troop increase. President Obama’s September 2014 use of the term “destroy” as the aim against the Islamic State described a military requirement Defense officials said was not achievable.

The problems get worse when attempting to integrate elements of national power into coherent plans and operations. We have no common set of concepts that describe ways interagency civil-military efforts should work together to achieve desired outcomes at tactical, operational and strategic levels. It is tough to employ “smart power” during conflicts when people are unable to communicate its proper use and integration.

Next is the Occupy __ trap (Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Hong Kong, etc). This trap arises when war is allowed to become a leaderless movement. That, in fact, is the case for the U.S. today. No one is in charge of our wars.

No one below the president is directly responsible and accountable for success and has the authority to direct and manage all deployed elements of national power.

The president and the cabinet are not in a position to manage the proliferation of limited wars full time. In addition to dealing with every national security problem across the globe, they have departments to run and domestic policy to address. The national security structures designed to fight World War Three, and that served us so well in the Cold War, are no longer fit for purpose. 

An important consequence is that the distinction between policy and strategy, as Historian Hew Strachan observed in Direction of War, has become blurred. We tend to conflate the two. The result is overly detailed policy and no strategy. We skip strategy (because no one is really in charge) and move directly into agency-specific plans and efforts.

The result? As Robert Komer famously observed about the Vietnam War, Bureaucracy Does Its Thing. We fight war by bureaucracy. Each agency does its own thing, and is only loosely and episodically coordinated. The result is the current stove-piping — silos of excellence — in which each Agency can claim to have made great progress while the war is being lost. I call this the progress paradox.

“Unity of effort” has become a large camouflage net that masks incoherence, bureaucratic infighting, and strategic incompetence. The whole is less than the sum of its parts.

Fourth is the Self-deception trap, which results from unexamined or divergent strategies for success, and from an inability to understand others and see ourselves as they see us.

Every, strategy relies on assumptions for its theory of success – too often these are implicit and unexamined. As a result, our assessments do not examine whether our assumptions remain valid. This increases the risk of cognitive bias and flawed strategic metrics.

A related component of this trap is the often unexamined assumption that our partners share our aims and intentions and strategy. We deceive ourselves into thinking we are operating on a common trajectory, when, in fact, our partners have very different priorities and incentives. Even when we do recognize the disconnects, we fail to address them.

Likewise, our tendency to mirror-image undermines our ability to see issues from the perspectives of others, to understand their incentives and interests, and to work toward common solutions. What incentives do we promote when the generals offer lavish military support but diplomats can offer only exhortations on human rights and good governance?

Our diplomacy tends to be talking-point centric — focused on convincing others that we are right. So convinced that we are right, and that everyone in the world sees us as the good guys, we often fail to see how our actions are perceived, and how, with the best of intentions, we self-sabotage. 

Fifth is The Client trap. This involves uncritical support to an exclusionary or kleptocratic government. We fail to understand how the nature of governance, politics, economics, regional dynamics and other factors interact and affect our prospects for success.

We tend to mirror-image the notion that good governance is the top priority of governments. This was not necessarily true of our own government a century or so ago, and is often not true of governments in the developing world. Super-empowering individuals or factions creates huge perverse incentives toward exclusionary practices and the malign use of our forces to settle old scores.

As political scientists Paul Collier and Larry Diamond and others note, developing countries awash with liquid resources – gold, gems, oil, international aid, etc. — that have highly centralized governments and low public accountability are at high risk of succumbing to the resource curse — and morphing into kleptocracies. A 2013 RAND study, Paths to Victory, shows a consistent track record for interventions on behalf of exclusionary or kleptocratic regimes fighting against sustainable insurgencies – failure every time. 

Next, Goldilocks Trap. Interventions that are not too big, not too small, just plain counterproductive.

Political and diplomatic elements of power move on a slow but decisive arc. Military efforts tend to create very rapid consequences that can outpace and overwhelm them. War-by-bureaucracy results in agency self-optimization, which heightens the risk of military operations creating unintended consequences that unhinge national goals and objectives.

The seduction that stand-off precision munitions can deliver political goals has wedded good intentions to success-on-the-cheap fantasy. Firepower-centric approaches to political and humanitarian problems in Libya, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and others have unintentionally protracted conflicts, empowered adversaries, entrenched political dysfunction, and magnified human suffering.

Finally, the Super Bowl Trap: the naïve belief that all conflicts must end in a decisive military victory.

Our default position for success in war seems to be a surrender ceremony on a U.S. battleship, followed by a ticker-tape parade in New York City. While desirable, it is unrealistic in many conflicts.

As noted above, in an irregular conflict in which an adversary has sustainable tangible support and the host nation government is exclusionary or kleptocractic, the chances of winning a decisive victory are probably zero. However, we tend to ignore or reject early opportunities to negotiate because we see bargaining as a sign of weakness.

In rejecting or failing to seek a compromise sufficient to meet our national interests, we unintentionally sign up for bloody and expensive quagmires in support of highly compromised regimes. We achieve far less at much higher cost than had we sought credible diplomatic solutions early on.

Recommendations: Failure to address these traps will have long term costs in blood, treasure, and credibility. Here are six ideas for reform.

  1. Re-examine our national security architecture and theater commands. Do away with four-star military commands for these conflicts. The senior deployed echelon of command in limited war should be interagency – and in appropriate cases led by a civilian. That echelon should have the authority to direct and manage all deployed elements of national power, including military power, and be responsible and accountable for achieving a successful outcome. We should re-examine Combatant Commands along the same lines. Such reform will likely need an interagency equivalent to the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986. War is too important to be a part-time gig.
  2. Develop an interagency strategic doctrine. This will help agencies communicate using a common set of terms and concepts, and have shared expectations for how elements of national power work together. The terms need to be pitched at the policy and strategy levels. The concepts should include issues related to the conduct and termination of war and employment of conditionality on matters such as host nation reform, civilian protection, and human rights.
  3. Make distinctions between policy and strategy. Each must be developed and managed at appropriate levels. National Security Councils should develop policy and provide oversight on strategy. Strategy for conflicts and crises should be written and executed at a subordinate level (see recommendation #1).
  4. Reform the professional education system to develop strategic thinkers and leaders across government agencies. Professional education should be required for promotion to senior levels. For instance, War College should be required for promotion to O6 and GS-14 or 15. Flag ranks should be required to complete a senior policy and strategy curriculum.
  5. Include measures of success in policy and strategy documents. We must assess the validity of our policy and strategy assumptions. When indicators point to progress but the situation is worsening, both the indicators and the strategy are probably flawed.
  6. Policy makers need to better articulate intelligence priorities and requirements. This should include collection and analysis against policy and strategy assumptions, not just information on adversaries. We should consider whether NSA should have a greater analytic capability, and whether the CIA should retain a special status within the Intelligence Community.

Christopher D. Kolenda is the President and CEO of Kolenda Strategic Leadership. He commanded paratroopers and then served as Senior Advisor to the Department of Defense senior leadership and to three Commanders of International Forces (ISAF) over four tours in Afghanistan. He is the author of Leadership: The Warrior’s Art and The Counterinsurgency Challenge.

Photo credit: Emma/Flickr

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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