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Basic Rules of US Civil-Military Relations and Trump’s Afghanistan Policy

August 22, 2017

Trump’s speech has something for everyone … to criticize.  I will not focus here on how icky the first part on loyalty was.  Instead, I focus on the rules of US Civil-Military Relations:

  1. the US military does not like to start new wars (see Deborah Avant)
  2. once involved in a war, the US military likes to escalate.  They want more troops, as if more means better.  More can be better, but that really depends on the strategy and the adversary and the conditions.
  3. Washington, DC establishment prefers MORE … something.  It prefers action so one is likely to see more approving nods.
  4. Everybody hates micro-management.  But no one wants to be held accountable.  Ooops.  The US military likes to talk about how they are accountable, but the costs for bad decisions are borne by the local commanders (captains of ships, battalion commanders), not those making the bigger decisions in Kabul (Bagram) or the Pentagon.  It is not always the case that avoiding micromanagement means abdicating decisions to the military, but that seems to be the tendency in this administration.
  5. People complain about the rules of engagement, but these conversations tend to forget basic Clausewitz: war is politics by other means. Despite all of their sins and arrogance, Petraeus and McChrystal got that right.  If you want the public to support our adversary, then use more force and more recklessly.  How did being more brutal work for the Soviets in Afghanistan?
  6. Kicking the can down the road is the American way.  This additional four thousand troops will not lead to victory but it might help stave off defeat for a while.  Woot?

I really don’t know if some more troops is good policy or not.  I do know our troops need decent rules of engagement.  Barbarism may sound like fun, but is not a good look.  It offends the allies, it antagonizes the locals, and I do think we learned it is better to be more targeted, more careful than not.

The US has not lost wars because the troops’ hands have been tied.  The US lost wars (Vietnam) and are not winning recent wars (Afghanistan) because we simply have less resolve, less interest, less commitment than our adversaries.  Third party COIN is likely to fail precisely because it happens when the local government can’t do the job itself.  Oh, and counter-insurgency is really, really hard and takes heaps of patience, which is not something that Americans tend to have.

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Steve Saideman is Professor and the Paterson Chair in International Affairs at Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs. He has written The Ties That Divide: Ethnic Politics, Foreign Policy and International Conflict; For Kin or Country: Xenophobia, Nationalism and War (with R. William Ayres); and NATO in Afghanistan: Fighting Together, Fighting Alone (with David Auerswald), and elsewhere on nationalism, ethnic conflict, civil war, and civil-military relations.