This Week at War: Why is Washington so Bad at Strategy?

In my Foreign Policy column, I discuss why U.S. policymakers and military commanders can't bridge the gap between policy and military strategy.


At his White House press conference on March 6, President Barack Obama admitted that the recent murders of U.S. trainers in Afghanistan was "an indication that now is the time for us to transition" out of Afghanistan. It was a confession that the intractable nature of the conflict and a collapse in U.S. patience could trump his plans for a steady and orderly shift to Afghan control. Even ardent war advocate Sen. Lindsey Graham, angered by Afghan President Hamid Karzai's apparent intransigence during negotiations with the United States, may be ready to "pull the plug."

In 2009, Obama took personal control over Afghan strategy, led a detailed strategy review process, and ultimately tripled the number of U.S. troops fighting the war. In spite of what seemed at the time to be careful analysis by the president and his advisers, the prospects for the U.S. mission in Afghanistan seem as troubled as America's two-decade struggle with Iraq, its disaster in Vietnam, and numerous other lesser strategic mishaps Washington has fumbled over the past six decades.

Why have U.S. policymakers, in spite of the wealth of tools and power at their disposal, fared so poorly at strategy? My FP colleague Peter Feaver has made the case that over the long haul, U.S. strategists have gotten the big picture mostly right. But few would deny that over the past half-century there have been many costly, and avoidable, screw-ups.

Writing in the U.S. Naval War College Review, Mackubin Owens, a professor at the Naval War College and a retired Marine Corps colonel, places much of the blame on a dysfunctional relationship between civilian policymakers and the generals.

The first cause of strategy dysfunction, according to Owens, is an excessive fondness for the "normal" theory of civil-military relations inside the U.S. civil-military culture. First coined by Johns Hopkins strategy professor Eliot Cohen, the "normal" theory calls for a clear demarcation between civilians, who determine war policy, and the uniformed military, which is then left in charge of the battlefield. The theory has become the archetype for the United States and other countries because it is thought essential to maintaining firm civilian control over the military.

Recent history has shown that the normal theory, however appealing on the surface, is an impractical way to actually run a war. Strategy is an iterative process with battlefield events, adversary decisions, and myriad other surprises constantly altering both the original goals of a military campaign and the resources and methods needed to achieve them. Without the civilians and generals sharing the responsibility and duties of policy and strategy formulation, success will be elusive. U.S. strategic performance over past decades might have been better had both the civilians and the generals been more involved in each others' core duties at an earlier stage.

Second, Owens blames the culture of the military services for resisting military participation in the top "political" level of strategy formulation.  The officer corps would prefer to focus on the technical, engineering, and managerial aspects of their profession, not least because mastery of these skills is the surest path to promotion. The military's (understandable) focus on operational tasks increases the knowledge gap between civilians attempting to achieve a policy goal and military officers focused intently on achieving specific military results on a battlefield. The result is a failure to link what the military instrument can deliver and what the policymakers want to achieve.

Third, Owens blames the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols defense reform, which ironically was designed to improve U.S. strategic planning. Goldwater-Nichols sharply downgraded the strategic authority of the Pentagon service chiefs while boosting the power of theater commanders in the field. The hope was that by downgrading the chiefs, service parochialism would be suppressed and joint service cooperation enhanced. And with theater commanders being held responsible for winning wars, it seemed logical to increase their authority at the expense of the service chiefs.

According to Owens, this change further separated the formulation of military strategy -- done by theater commanders in the field -- from top-level policy goals decided in Washington. Before Goldwater-Nichols, when the Washington-based service chiefs had more input, there was a greater chance (obviously, judging by the war in Vietnam, not always achieved) of integrating policy goals and military strategy. Since Goldwater-Nichols, according to Owens, the odds of successful integration have gone down.

Does Owens's diagnosis explain the strategic errors suffered by the United States over the past decade? Owens describes how Gen. Tommy Franks, the theater commander at the beginning of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, aggressively used his Goldwater-Nichols powers to smother the service chiefs and their planning staff. Likewise, if Gen. Eric Shinseki, the Army Chief of Staff at the beginning of the war, had misgivings about the initial war plan, he would have had more authority to do something about it in the pre-Goldwater-Nichols era. The initial invasion of Iraq in 2003 also revealed how much Franks was focused on the technical task of destroying Iraqi military forces, without much integration with overall policy goals -- an error for which both Franks and Washington policymakers must share the blame.

As for Obama's 2009 policy for Afghanistan, Bob Woodward's book Obama's Wars makes clear the overwhelming influence Central Command leaders Gens. David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal had over Obama compared to the president's Washington-based service chiefs and military advisers. And in another nod to Owens's thesis, Woodward discusses the Central Command generals' focus on specific military tasks such as security patrolling, raids against Taliban leaders, and training Afghan forces while these generals largely averted their eyes from top-level "political" problems such as cross-border sanctuaries and Pakistan's destabilizing influence, problems beyond the range of their military tools but that remain, nonetheless, crucial to success.

Preparations for future hypothetical conflicts are no less immune to the problems Owens describes. The Pentagon recently released its Joint Operational Access Concept (JOAC), a framework for preparing for sophisticated adversaries whose precision missiles could threaten the ability of U.S. military ships and aircraft to transit critical air space and sea lanes.

JOAC's authors do a good job explaining how adversaries might be able to inhibit U.S. access to critical areas in the Asia-Pacific region and the Middle East and propose 30 specific capabilities U.S. forces will have to possess in order to overcome these access barriers. The publication also supplies ten risks that come with attempting to implement the concept.

JOAC is an example of good staff work on an emerging problem for Pentagon planners. But, as Owens described in his essay, its authors are narrowly focused on the operational and technical aspects of military preparation, without much discussion of how the Pentagon's thinking regarding regional access might relate to policy goals.

JOAC is merely a conceptual framework and not a war plan. It was written to achieve synergies among the services regarding the regional access problem, not solve any specific geostrategic challenge. But to the extent it again shows the divide between the military's focus on technical matters without much linkage to resolving potential top-level policy issues, military planners will need to venture beyond concepts like JOAC if they are to fill in the gaps Owens has identified.

After a decade of war, civilian policymakers and the generals are integrating their efforts much better than they did in 2002. But as the Obama administration's very recent stumbles in Afghanistan show, there is still much room for improvement.


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With all this talk of dysfunctional US military leadership making it essentially impossible for a would-be strategist to make his way into seniority it is probably a timely moment to discuss a successful strategy being implemented by a successful strategist - despite the influence of dysfunctional leadership.
In the early 1980s when ALQ decided to attack the US it was decided that 5 key operational steps would have to be mastered before a nuclear strike could be achieved on US soil. Despite many observers suggesting the battlefield was chosen at random (i.e. the Recon ‘trick’ of throwing a dart at a map on Vietnam) there were in fact 5 important operational reasons for choosing the Af/Pak region.


ALQ hoped the ISAF would pursue the same helicopter-centric dismounted combat tactic the Soviets pursued against the Mujahedeen. In the remote chance the mistakes of Vietnam would have been forgotten ( the Soviets would argue it took only 300 odd helicopters before they packed up their noisy toys and left whereas the US lost 3400 in Vietnam before the penny dropped ) a much smaller ALQ (compared to the VC/PANV) had to choose a battlefield wherein the OGE performance of the Blackhawk, Apache & Chinook would ensure the ISAF declared ‘victory’ and promptly quit the battlefield. You can imagine the derisive ALQ laughter when our dysfunctional military leadership described the abandonment of the high country as a “focus on defending population centres.”


The need for numerous Wahhabi supporters to ‘punch their Jihadist card’ in a combat zone necessitated easy access for individuals flying in and out of the war zone. Pakistan is not unique in this regard but their geographical location on major routes and membership of IATA means frequent and unrestricted world access bolsters the overall strategy.


ALQ does not have access to an annual trillion dollar budget like the ISAF – in fact it would have access to less than 1/10,000th of that amount - so a reliable banking system was needed for the transfer of precious funding. The unforeseen exponential rise in the heroin industry in the Af/Pak region and the subsequent flood of black money has helped to increase and obscure the funding stream but it still needs to be placed in secure accounts immune to seizure from Western law enforcement and opportunist fraud. Pakistan fulfils this requirement admirably.


The necessity for Pakistan to descend into warlordism was somewhat thwarted by the coming of the Taliban in the mid nineties. However 9/11 and the ISAF invasion rapidly rectified that reversal. Happily for ALQ the strategy has been enhanced by Taliban Mk II’s subsequent descent into drug smuggling and much of the Pathan population embracing poppy growing.
The renewed IW and lawlessness in the region has already successfully facilitated warlordism into both North & South Waziristan. If it spills over into Baluchi separatism and reignites the unrest in Kurrum, Khyber, Momand, Bajur and Swat Pakistan will rapidly descend into the failed state status the ALQ strategists desire.


This is the overwhelming reason ALQ chose the Af/Pak region. Nowhere else do Wahhabis, terrorist trainers, drug dealers and anti-western zealots have direct access to nuclear weapons. Though these ALQ sympathizers represent a minority in the upper echelons of the Pakistan Army the descent of Pakistan into chaos would bolster their position immeasurably.

If you believe an overwhelming counterstike would act as a deterrent to the current Pak leadership spend a few days in any populated area of Pakistan. Encountering one of the tens of millions of untreated heroin addicts, universally poisonous tap water, open sewage systems in every city, zero public healthcare, broken infrastructures and rampant corruption in every aspect of daily life and you soon realise the Pak elite care nothing for their fellow countrymen and zero for any American civilian.

In death ALQ’s dysfunctional leader delivered a positive strategic input he rarely managed whilst alive. The SEAL’s undetected deep penetration of the Pakistan military’s heartland has scattered their nuclear arsenal to negate future ‘strategic raiding’ by the US but inversely bolstered ALQs access to a nuclear device.

A handful of ISAF deaths making front-page news around the world - whilst much more numerous Arab deaths are scarcely mentioned, infuriates the ALQ strategists. The West’s frivolous obsession with FMs, combat deaths, sanctuaries, legitimacy, budgets, cultural transgressions, elections etc emboldens their belief the West is strategically blinded.

ALQ are determined to inflict upon the US population the true consequences of a ground-zero. They have a strategy which is winning and they are marching on.


Our 20th/21st Century goals would seem to be (1) to get all of the world on the same sheet of music -- our sheet of music -- and (2) to get the United States to be acknowledged as being the one and only leader of the world band so-to-speak.

Herein, we have worked to cause states and societies with differing political, economic and social systems, and differing political objectives, to come over somewhat to our way of thinking.

Part I of this process: Get all the great powers on generally the same sheet of music -- our sheet of music. We believe that we have had some success in this regard in the past century. Important to note, in this regard, that because of the real threat that these great powers and their ideology posed to the United States, it was rather easy to obtain the necessary resources required for this part of the project, and to have our military forces built up and engaged -- as was necessary -- to achieve this portion of the objective.

Part II of this process: Get the lesser and remaining states and societies on the same sheet of music -- our sheet of music. Again, we believe we have had some success in this area. And we are hopeful that events such as those described as the Arab Spring may be an indication that even greater success can be expected in the near or mid-term future. As one might expect, however, the degree of necessity associated with transforming and incorporating the lesser and remaining states and societies is perceived as being less than that which was/is the case re: the outlier great powers; this, making the availability and sustainability of resources required for Part II of this project (to include the appropriate and necessary military forces) to be in somewhat less robust, sustainable and reliable supply. (This being especially true in times of financial crisis.)

The mission, however -- as described in the first paragraph above -- and our overall commitment to it, remains the same.

I wonder if the process question could be resolved with an amendment to federal law, so as to require a joint civil-military assessment of prospects before the US enters an undeclared war expected to last longer than three months. This would create a new kind of scrutiny for wars that we think are necessary or expedient to limit in scope and scale. It might also be useful before entering wars that may have no limit.

1. In Vietnam, Iraq post-2003, and Afghanistan post-2001, our goals were open-ended. The limits to our commitment (ie. the geographical scope of each conflict, the amount of force to use) enabled the enemy, after an initial stage of defeat, to recover and replace his losses indefinitely, if there was a supportive population in the country and if there were a state or states next door to supply sanctuary or additional replacements. The problem was that at the start of each war few in our government expected this outcome.

The remedy would be a federal law (1) to require the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff to report an assessment of prospects in a limited war, and (2) to require the White House to give the chairman in writing beforehand the constraints under which we would be expected to fight so that the military report could give a proper assessment. This would not limit the President's war powers (ie. power to escalate). What it would do is assess the prospects at one or more given levels of commitment, so that Congress and the American people would have a clearer idea of what to expect at that level and what we would accomplish. The military would not be crossing a line into policy judgment because the law would require an assessment based on policy constraints that the civilian leadership would have to provide.

2. With respect to wars that have no limit, we could find ourselves in one of these soon with Iran. Whoever is president next year has pledged to go to war if sanctions do not work, and a conflict entered in a limited way could quickly escalate as the other side retaliates. If the president decides to go to war, the military could report in a general way prior to the conflict what each stage of escalation would involve. Congress and the American people would then have less reason to be surprised by what follows if they interpose no effective objections.

There is an ambiguous boundary right now between technical military advice and policy judgment. A federal law to require a military assessment, in which the civilian leadership has the responsibility to determine the limits that inform the assessment, would I think remove the ambiguity and give each side its proper role. Non-military (ie. political) objectives in a war could also receive greater scrutiny if they are more clearly distinguished from the outset as such.

David Billington

The strategy diconnect occurs when the desired end state remains ill defind.

I believe most would agree that it is seldom that a nation's policy goals rest entirly in the military sphere. That is not to say that the military leadership should not participate in the process that derives those goals. In fact it is essential that the military participate to ensure they understand the role they are to play.

Where the process comes unhinged is when the participants fail to agree on what circumstance (end state) constitute sucess in achieving the goal(s). That is exactly the problem Tommy Franks faced in 2002/3. Franks asked repeatedly for guidance on what he was to do following defeat of the military forces facing him. He was told that that was not his problem.

During WWII the military was given a clear end state. Bring about the unconditional surrender of our enemies --Germany first followed by Japan. Since that time the US military has been called into armed conflict numerous times. With but a few exceptions they were not given a desired end state before engaging in combat. There are many paths you can take if you don't know where you are going. Unfortunately, in armed conflict, taking the wrong path can cost lives and treasure.

Would be interesting to explore the reason why it is so difficult to take policy goals and translate them into end states for the particpants involved in meeting those goals.

This is as much a commentary on our failure to educate and produce senior executive leadership as it is on process.

Too often we look to process to solve what are just as often human failings. Tweaking Goldwater-Nichols - I get it - but if you continue to staff the "new process" with the same old product, you don't necessarily get a new or better result.

It seems rather incredible that, given the almost constant state of expeditionary operations conducted by this country beginning in the 1980s, that from that experience we have senior military leadership (who are products of this time frame) who can discuss the conflict continuum and range of military operations but are unable to think or execute within those frameworks.

If this is truly the case, then historical examples such as the Germans after 1806, the US Army in the late 1800s and early 1900s under Upton's influence, the Marine Corps' intellectual revitalization under Lejeune in the 1920s, and the British reforms post-WWII all point to, frankly, education being the key component to transformation over process.

What are our war colleges and universities teaching? If they are not producing the kind of leadership that understands the nature of the relationship between politics and conflict within the framework of a democracy, then we have an issue.

The final thought I have is that, education and process aside, perhaps Mr. Haddick hits closer to the truth when he mentions the skills needed for promotion. In the end, we have to face the question once posed by James Webb - "how many stars are enough, General?" The mere existence of "career" anything produces its own problems...

General Mattis told the Senate Armed Forces Committee this week that he believes the Operational Design in Afghanistan is proper. When we remain wed to assumptions such as that it is hard to get to good strategy. All thinking simply becomes tactical drills in rearranging the proverbial deck chairs on the Titanic.

Dr. Feaver is a huge proponent for the post-Cold War addition to US strategy that promotes the concept that the US makes itself safer when it works to make others more like us in terms of their values and forms of governance. This approach leads us down the path of judging all who are not like us to be "wrong" (never appreciated at any level, let alone that national level); and to promoting concepts that are wildly out of synch with cultures and values of the governments and populaces of the world that we interact with. When did "Self-Determination" become un-American??

We are trapped in the inertia of decades of Cold War thinking within the context of a series of Containment strategies designed for a bi-polar, ideologically divided globe that no longer exists. We struggle to come to clearer thinking for a world with many nodes, state and non-state, rather than one balanced between two or dominated by one. We also struggle to recognize the role of domestic and foreign governmental policies in fueling the causation of so much of the instability and popular violence that has dominated the past 10 years. So long as we hold governments harmless and place blame on bogeymen ideas, such as ideology, religion, and economics, we will remain strategically hamstrung.

The first step to effective strategy is a willingness to accept responsibility for the effects of one’s own actions.

The second step to effective strategy is to come to a clear understanding of the problems one seeks to address.

We tend to skip steps one and two, follow our Cold War SOP and place all blame on external factors beyond our control. That is no way to get to effective strategy.