One of my favorite strategic thinkers, Steven Metz from the Army War College, has an article at The New Republic site arguing that the military is woefully ill-suited for nation building, that it should accept that reality and promptly off-load that mistakenly imposed part of its job description. Re-engineering weak states is so complicated an endeavor that its really a job best left to the professionals: primarily civilian experts in infrastructure development, financial and economic planning, education, governance and the rule of law.
That same point, that the military is just not a very effective tool for rebuilding war torn states, was echoed in an interesting conversation I had this week with a group of veteran Army field grade officers currently studying at the Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. “The Army is so good at winning the battles, but we do not have the capability to win the peace,” said Maj. Phil Kiniery, “that is where the interagency and all of our partners outside of DoD are better used.”
“It’s not just us [the Army] it’s also an interagency solution to what we see in both Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Maj. Tim Gallagher who saw the importance of civilian agency skills and experience during deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan , “I’m a believer.”
The problem is the shortage of civilian reconstruction experts, said Kiniery. “We’re always asking for this interagency piece to help us out but the government is not funding the interagency. We’re asking the State Department to pony up a bunch of people, we’re asking USAID to pony up a bunch of people, they just don’t have it.”
In the absence of civilian experts, the troops are forced to assume roles for which they’re not trained and don’t have experience, particularly the very specific skills needed for post-conflict reconstruction. “Bottom line is they’re the experts, they need to be on the ground, they need to help us, we can do everything we can to secure them," Kiniery said, “but when you’ve got a [soldier] out there and you tell him to go set up a power grid for ten cities and he just graduated from college and he’s a lieutenant, he’s going to do his best, but there are those professionals out there… we just can’t do it without them.”
Even while they fully recognize the challenges the military faces in the Afghanistan project, the consensus among the group of Army field grades was that Gen. Stanley McChrystal will need more troops to stabilize the situation there. Without enough boots-on-the-ground, you get stuck in the all too familiar whack-a-mole counterinsurgency game, said Maj. Michael Conway, speaking from his own experience during the surge in Iraq in 2007-2008. “By having enough people, it allowed us to leave people where that mole was and move on to the next target, rather than the do more with less principle… when you move on, the mole comes back.”
In places such as the Helmand Valley in Afghanistan, the shortage of troops has made it impossible to do the “hold and build” part of the “clear, hold and build” counterinsurgency approach, said Dutch Army Maj. Kristian Kold, an Afghanistan veteran and international student at CGSC, who was also on the conference call. “We didn’t have enough forces, we had the ability to go to some remote area and stay for a while and kick out the Taliban. But every time we left, the Taliban would come back and we’d be back to the status quo or even worse, because now we’ve disappointed the local population.” Winning over the population will require a demonstration of commitment and staying put once troops clear the Taliban from contested zones, he said.
Along with more troops, there must be a shift in the effort from trying to run down insurgents, to focusing on the convincing the Afghan people that the U.S. and NATO have more to offer than the Taliban, said Maj. Sebastian Pastor, who agrees with the strategic direction being pushed by McChrystal. To do that will require troops move off the big bases and get out and live among the people in their small rural villages, he said. “We can’t do everything at once, we can’t fix the infrastructure all around Afghanistan, but maybe we can fix it around specific towns and cities and go from there.”
What was Metz’s recommendation?
“If we are unwilling to pay the price for a serious civilian capability--and admit that foisting the job of development and political assistance on the military is a bad idea--the only option is to alter our basic strategy. We could find a way to thwart Al Qaeda and other terrorists without trying to re-engineer weak states. We could, in other words, get out of the counterinsurgency and stabilization business. This is not an attractive option and entails many risks. But it does reflect reality. Ultimately, it may be better than a strategy based on a capability that exists only in our minds.”