October 4, 2009 11:21PM

Afghan War Stuff

  • Les Gelb has a point when he says that what Afghanistan needs in the near‐​term is not a bigger military but one that is independent and effective. Even a bigger Afghan army is not going to independently pacify its country anytime soon. A more realistic plan might be to trade quantity for quality and aim in the next few years for Afghan forces that can keep Taliban militias from gaining ground when most U.S. forces leave, a primarily defensive mission. As Rory Stewart points out, the security forces we now plan for Afghanistan will cost about 500% of its annual government revenue, which means we will long fund it. A smaller military is one that Afghanistan might someday pay for itself. Charles Tilly argues that states developed because the need to fund armies for defense required a bureaucracy to extract taxes. What happens when foreign powers pay for the army in perpetuity?
  • The people complaining that the President doesn’t talk to Stan McChystal enough are confused, as military historian Mark Grimsley points out. McChrystal’s boss is Centcom commander David Petraeus. Obama talks to him, but even that isn’t really necessary; it would reasonable if he let Petraeus report to the Secretary of Defense and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Washington seems infected by a cult of the commander, where the guy in charge of a war is a treated an oracle, possessed of special knowledge unavailable to other mortals, which can only be conveyed in person.
  • According to civil military relations 101, McChrystal was out of line the other day in London when he disparaged the utility of more narrowly tailored objectives in Afghanistan. The traditional view of these matters, the idea of objective civilian control, says that this is a political decision that officers should not publicly consider, as doing so will politicize the military. But what exactly is the grave harm we fear here? A coup? A collapse of command authority? These are impossible and far‐​fetched, respectively. I doubt politicized generals are going to poison debate, and they might even improve it. For example, it would have been helpful if more generals publicly knocked the light footprint Rumsfeld wanted for the invasion of Iraq. A bigger danger from comments like McChrystal’s is that they damage the Army’s apolitical reputation. But since that reputation is somewhat fictional — the top layers of the military are plenty political — I don’t know if that’s a bad thing. A realist’s view of this matter is that McChrystal can express his views and the President can always fire him, if he can bear the political cost. It’s also worth noting that those attacking McChrystal tend to disagree with his substantive point while those supporting him are mostly counterinsurgency enthusiasts. The reaction to the (mostly retired) generals who attacked Rumsfeld in 2006 followed a similar pattern. The civil‐​military thing is a bit of a smokescreen. The real trouble with McChrystal’s comment is that he’s substantively wrong.
  • It’s good that James Traub wrote a piece for the New York Times’ Week in Review secton about realism and the war in Afghanistan. It would have been even better if he had cited or quoted a living realist. Maybe one of these people.