Wednesday, January 28, 2015

it helps to be at the end of nowhere

Years ago I wrote a book on American policy toward Laos in the 1950s and 1960s. I called it The End of Nowhere because of a telling quote from a U.S. official posted there. "This place is the end of nowhere," he said. "We can do anything we want here because Washington doesn't seem to know it exists."

The same phenomenon -- out of sight, out of mind -- may lead to military success. A professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, Hy Rothstein, wrote an article in 2007 that argued "US success against irregular threats is inversely related to the priority senior US officials (civilian and military) attach to the effort. When
one investigates the return on investment in the global war on terror (GWOT), now increasingly described as the Long War, in Iraq versus in the Philippines, it is clear that US efforts in the Philippines are achieving great success with minimal resources, while efforts in Iraq are achieving limited success with almost unlimited resources. The same is true of US success against an irregular threat in El Salvador in the 1980s."

Rothstein contrasts the first few months of the American intervention in Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks as successful, but then the big Centcom planning machine took over. "The result was a large, higher headquarters that didn’t (and couldn’t) acquire or process the large amounts of information needed to generate combat operations, and subordinate units without the necessary authority to act in a timely manner to emerging situations. This hybrid produced paralysis. It also generated operations based on intelligence
that was old and no longer valid."

A commenter on Jim Fallows' discussion of problems in the U.S. military who is said to have extensive government experience makes the point quite effectively:
I find Rothstein's argument very compelling.  I work for [an executive-branch department]  and I see here too how once Big Washington takes over an issue it can quickly destroy it by demanding short-term results, beating the nuance out of any policy, and valuing domestic political considerations over any optimal policy outcome.

Also, once Big Washington takes over, people in the field spend more time reporting back to Washington than they do focusing on solutions to the problem at hand.  Finally, Washington has a tendency to micromanage operations in the field, but how well can anyone in Washington truly understand something as complex as Helmand Province or Anbar?  Instead, once the Washington bureaucracy seizes hold of an issue, it throws money, B-52s and civilian contractors at it until the issue goes away.
Maybe micromanaging is an even bigger problem in DOD than in the White House.

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