Kaplan and COIN: The Tweets

Posted January 30th, 2013 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

Fred Kaplan graciously took part in a Twitter conversation about his book, The Insurgents. He explained his concerns that the military remains confused about its mission, and expounded on his view that counterinsurgency doctrine is sometimes the right recipe and is not, as I suggested in a question, “snake oil,” or “the best way to fight a kind of war we should never fight.”

The tweets have been gathered here in what to the horror of those who care about grammar, is called a “storify,” v. trans. “to storify.”

Arrested Development: The Pentagon Going Forward

Posted January 26th, 2013 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

The Pentagon finally learned to embrace new ideas. Can its short-lived revolution in thinking survive the coming period of austerity and retrenchment? [Originally posted on The Blog of the Century.]

The American military has maintained global dominance in part by being all things to all people. Blessed with a Brobdingnagian budget, it has been able to prepare for all kinds of war, all at the same time. Faced now with cuts after a decade of open-handed war funding, the Pentagon has raised the alarm about readiness. The Joint Chiefs of Staff in a unanimous letter in January complained to the president that “we are on the brink of creating a hollow force.”

The debate over the size and mission of the military often obsesses about questions of degree: should the United States be able to fight two major wars at the same time? Should it design a force that can fight many small wars?

But this debate, driven by budget-hungry service chiefs and tradition-hemmed academics and think-tankers, might be ignoring a far more important turning point facing the Pentagon today, which has more to do with mindset than money. Can the Pentagon retain the one truly good thing it acquired along the way in the bungled war on terror, Afghanistan, and Iraq—a possibly short-lived ability to learn?

Fred Kaplan’s new book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War, which I reviewed in the New York Times this Sunday, chronicles a chilling intellectual history of the officers who promoted counterinsurgency doctrine and eventually forced change among the Pentagon’s top brass. Kaplan is a skeptic, but his story reveals just how deeply hidebound the generals are, and how they were forced—through failure—to criticize themselves and adjust tactics.

Can this new mindset take root and become part of the Pentagon’s DNA, or is it destined to vanish as the generals who briefly dallied with self-awareness and adaptation now retrench around the common cause of budgetary self-preservation?

Listening to the current chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, isn’t reassuring. Half a decade ago in Baghdad he eschewed BS, acknowledging the burgeoning failure and once telling a group of us reporters bluntly that “there isn’t enough concrete in the hemisphere to make Baghdad safe.” Now he’s stumping for wild defense budgets based on a spurious claim that the world is more dangerous than ever before and that we face an infinite menu of threats. Dempsey’s about-face doesn’t bode well.

For all the pitfalls of the war on terror, a decade of coalition-building and counterinsurgency forced the military to adapt and open itself up to new methods with an alacrity not seen since World War II. It was a wrenching internal fight between rigid generals, abstract bureaucrats, and junior officers open to experimentation and self-criticism, which Kaplan documents in vivid detail.

In The Insurgents (published in January), Kaplan argues that the U.S. military, perhaps inadvertently, discovered on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan a new ability to learn. Now that the United States has moved away from those wars, Kaplan says, it is also throwing out what might be their only good legacy: imagination and flexibility in the Pentagon’s upper reaches.

His argument comes at a crucial time. President Obama last year ordered the Pentagon to cut off its budget for nation-building and long-term occupations of foreign lands—but he also instructed it to preserve the lessons it learned fighting counterinsurgencies in the Middle East. Many of the young officers who created a vogue around counterinsurgency in military circles grew just as dogmatic in their thinking as the older bureaucrats and officers who at first resisted new thinking, a sad process evident to any close observer of the slow failure of U.S. efforts in Afghanistan.

But they succeeded—at least in the last few years—at changing the military’s internal culture in ways far more consequential than the line item for a new bomber. They convinced the Pentagon to promote top generals who excelled in combat rather than those who had dutifully served in logistics and office posts. They reinvigorated the intellectual centers of military thinking, in particular the web of institutions from Fort Leavenworth to West Point that educate officers, write the military’s doctrine, and drive much of America’s strategic thinking. And they injected a strain of strikingly inventive utilitarianism—whatever works—into a vast defense bureaucracy that’s designed to protect fiefdoms rather than create new ideas.

Now, with the bloated war budgets ending and sequestration in site, a clear war of ideas is underway in the Pentagon: the old way, exemplified in the joint chiefs’ demand for big budgets, big weapons systems, and the same old lack of priorities, versus a fledgling new can-do culture that values the military’s ability to learn and adapt over its arsenal and size.

Let’s hope that creativity wins out. But I wouldn’t bet on it.

UPDATE: I debate The Insurgents and post-invasion Iraq with TCF fellow Michael Cohen. We’ll be on Bloggingheads TV on Wednesday.


How We Fight

Posted January 26th, 2013 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

Fred Kaplan’s Insurgents on David Petraeus

The American occupation of Iraq in its early years was a swamp of incompetence and self-delusion. The tales of hubris and reality-denial have already passed into folklore. Recent college graduates were tasked with rigging up a Western-style government. Some renegade military units blasted away at what they called “anti-Iraq Forces,” spurring an inchoate insurgency. Early on, Washington hailed the mess a glorious “mission accomplished.” Meanwhile, a “forgotten war” simmered to the east in Afghanistan. By the low standards of the time, common sense passed for great wisdom. Any American military officer willing to criticize his own tactics and question the viability of the mission brought a welcome breath of fresh air.

Most alarming was the atmosphere of intellectual dishonesty that swirled through the highest levels of America’s war on terror. The Pentagon banned American officers from using the word “insurgency” to describe the nationalist Iraqis who were killing them. The White House decided that if it refused to plan for an occupation, somehow the United States would slide off the hook for running Iraq. Ideas mattered, and many of the most egregious foul-ups of the era stemmed from abstract theories mindlessly applied to the real world.

There is no one better equipped to tell the story of those ideas — and their often hair-raising consequences — than Fred Kaplan, a rare combination of defense intellectual and pugnacious reporter. Kap­lan writes Slate’s War Stories column, a must-read in security circles. He brings genuine expertise to his fine storytelling, with a doctorate from M.I.T., a government career in defense policy in the 1970s and three decades as a journalist. Kaplan knows the military world inside and out; better still, he has historical perspective. With “The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War,” he has written an authoritative, gripping and somewhat terrifying account of how the American military approached two major wars in the combustible Islamic world. He tells how it was grudgingly forced to adapt; how it then overreached; and how it now appears determined to discard as much as possible of what it learned and revert to its old ways.

Read the rest in The New York Times [subscription required].