Afghanistan: A Failure of Expertise

  • by Pete O'Brien
  • 08-15-2021

You can already hear the first faint echoes of the experts running through the halls of power in Washington, screaming, Cassandra like: “I told them! I told them!”

Years ago, Michael Handel, a professor at the Naval War College, made the point that an intelligence officer’s duty was not simply to gather the facts and determine what the enemy are doing, he also needed to get the boss (commanding officer, secretary, president, etc.) to accept his conclusions. This, of course, applies to any other counselor or advisor. After all, what good is counsel if you don’t believe it?

But in the world of Washington, where no one accepts responsibility for their words or their actions, the answer has long been, simply: “I told them.”
And now Kabul is falling.

In 2009 I happened to write some thoughts down on Afghanistan. At the time the debate was whether President Obama should give the commanding general in Afghanistan all the troops he wanted.
What I wrote was that: 
US presence in Afghanistan should depend on only one thing: is it in US national interest?  IF it is, then the US needs to be there, irrespective of who is in power, how that government was formed, or even if there is a government in Kabul.
On the other hand, if the US has no national interest in Afghanistan, then it should leave, and leave immediately.  

I then went on to ask what are the US interests in Afghanistan? I answered by saying that the issue at hand is the nature of the region. "Afghanistan cannot be considered in isolation.”

To consider Afghanistan in isolation is to forget that it sits beside, one might say "on top of” Pakistan. And Pakistan and Pakistan’s neighbors are the real issue. Continued US involvement in the region was and is in the our nation interest. But, as I said then, we  need to develop a coherent strategy to further those interests.

It is, of course, important to remember that Pakistan in 2009, was the real home of the Taliban, and al Qaeda, and already had a capable nuclear arsenal and a strange and unpleasant relationship with Communist China. Since then that relationship with China has grown stronger.

It is also worth pointing out that there are all sorts of possible strategies that might have been employed, that just because you say something is in your interest does not (or should not, at least) immediately translate into “we need boots on the ground.” The key is to begin by correctly identifying US interests, and then naming the specific goals we are trying to achieve in the long term.

But what then happened (and arguably had already happened in 2001), and what has transpired in the last 12 years, is that the folks in Washington, and especially the “professionals” at Foggy Bottom and particularly the Pentagon, failed to define what US interests were, and are, in Afghanistan, or for that matter, in the region; they have failed to enunciate anything that looks even remotely like a grand strategy to protect US interests and achieve US goals in that region, and meanwhile they have spent literally hundreds of billions (some estimates place the figure at more than one trillion) in what can only be called sophomoric efforts at nation-building. Developing strategies isn’t necessarily difficult, but it begins by clearly defining your goals…

And, things have continued to develop; China is more assertive, Russia is more assertive, India is, arguably, more worried. Pakistan is falling further into the arms of Beijing. All this should have been addressed in an overarching grand strategy for Asia. But one searches in vain for any sign such a grand strategy existed then or exists now.

By all appearances US leadership still fails to clearly grasp what its interests are, never mind developing some sort of plan - a strategy - to protect those interests. A simple look at our confusing and contradictory policies vis-a-vis China is proof of that failure. Our confusing, hot-and-cold relations with India is further proof.

For more than 60 years US Foreign Policy and US Military Policy has been led by a relatively small number of folks who go to great pains to present themselves as professionals and experts. They hold themselves as altruistic servants of the nation and, indeed, all humanity, and they are quick to remind everyone, via their speaking engagements, numerous articles in the various journals of the intelligentsia, and of course through their endless production of unread bestsellers, that they’re experts of the highest caliber whose words should be etched in stone.

Yet, time and time again their advice has ended up costing the nation in lives, honor, and dollars. This is particularly true among the 3- and 4-star officers who have inhabited the E-Ring over the past 30 years. While there are a few exceptions, the sad truth is not simply that they are, on the whole, unremarkable intellects, but that their advice, which is presented as if it came from the burning bush, has often been wrong in every sense, wrong in the long-term health of the nation, wrong in personnel policies, and wrong in procurement.

Now, after 20 years in Afghanistan we leave, and we will soon watch on TV as the US Embassy is overrun. In that 20 years how many 4-star officers confronted the Secretary of Defense and said the strategy is broken? How many offered a different strategy? How many resigned rather than pursuing a goal that couldn’t be reached? And now, will anyone even be retired at less than his current rank? Or will we be treated to another book from a former Afghanistan theater commander explaining how he knew what the right answer was all along?

What are we going to do to fix the dearth of clear thinking in the Pentagon - finding generals and admirals who have the necessary intellect, and moral courage, to both debate and identify our national interests, who can instruct politicians without browbeating them, who can work with diplomats without disdain…and who are capable of developing cogent strategies to achieve our national interests?

What is clear is that the current career paths for our admirals and generals, with time spent at Harvard or Princeton, time spent in fellowships, time spent on the cocktail circuit, has left us with less capable admirals and generals than the ones we had several generations ago. They are more “joint,” they are more academically credentialed, they are far more capable of taking credit for their subordinates tactical successes, and they are, from a strategic perspective, far less competent. 

Many things need to change in the wake of this dismal outcome. One of them is we need a drastic change in how we grow our senior officers.

Cassandra was, of course, cursed by the Gods to know the future and yet no one would believe her. The experts in Washington don’t have that excuse. Their only real excuse is incompetence. We can only wonder if anyone will pay any price at all for their ineptitudes and their - and now the nation’s - failures.