Military Study Criticizes Direction of U.S. National Security Policy

By Sandra I. Erwin

The United States does not have a credible strategy to combat enemies like Islamic extremist groups and needs to rethink its entire national security decision-making process, a new military-funded study suggests.

"I don't think we understand completely the fight we are in," said Lt. Gen. Charles Cleveland, commanding general of U.S. Army Special Operations Command.

Despite 13 years of grueling wars, he noted, the national security apparatus has not adapted to changing threats and has not learned to cope with complex challenges.

"We are in a competition where it looks like football to us, but it's really a game of soccer with elements of rugby and lacrosse," he said Dec. 12 during a gathering of think tank experts and military officials hosted by RAND Corp. senior analyst Linda Robinson. She is one of the authors of anew study sponsored by Army Special Operations Command, titled, "Improving Strategic Competence: Lessons from 13 Years of War."

RAND analysts wade into the debate about the lessons from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and whether the United States is applying those lessons to address future conflicts.

Cleveland said the study exposes uncomfortable truths that not everyone in official Washington will want to hear, but need to be recognized. One of those realities is that the military continues to fight the last war even though enemies such as the Islamic State present entirely new challenges. "We have to be honest about how much legacy we are bringing into a fight that is not suited for the legacy we bring forward," he said. "This is unlike anything we've confronted, I think, in our past."

The counterterrorism machine the United States stood up after the 9/11 attacks has become a bureaucratic juggernaut that struggles to adapt, Cleveland said. "We built a great apparatus for terrorism. It has huge advocacy. If someone questions it, you run the risk of taking on an entrenched infrastructure."

The United States needs fresh ideas on how to make the nation safe, he said, and they can't just involve military actions. "We keep adapting the existing tools the best we can but at some point we have to develop new tools, new ways to look at this problem."

In the case of the Islamic State, the Obama administration was caught unprepared to deal with a terrorist group that turned into a "no-kidding insurgency" that conducts maneuver warfare, information campaigns and is taking on the characteristics of a nation state. It is still not clear how to respond, Cleveland added. He also has doubts about the U.S. strategy, or lack thereof, to counter Russia's invasion of Ukraine. A resurgent Russia might be "manageable" if only the United States knew how far Vladimir Putin plans to take his aggressive posture, said Cleveland. Ukraine might just be the "first rattling" of a long-term effort by Russia to expand into Eastern Europe.

The current and future presidents need to be able to get sound advice from military leaders on how to cope with these new threats, said Cleveland. "Where do we, the military, send our young officers to learn how to put together those campaigns? And should we?" he asked.

Today's leaders might be ill equipped to give the best advice because their perspective is usually too narrow, he said. Given the environment today, the military has to take a broader view of national security, he said. Officers have to understand political warfare and how to integrate civilian elements of power into the fight. "We the senior military have to look at how to develop leaders that can provide the best military advice," said Cleveland. "We have to be more friendly in planning with our civilian partners."

Army Special Operations Command has started a series of informal "civil-military" meetings at Fort Bragg, N.C. "I'm not sure we have an adequate place that actually studies the problem," said Cleveland. "We need a focal point for the study of political warfare and resistance. ... Resistance is now the most common form of warfare. But we don't study political warfare even as traditional warfare is becoming less viable as a tool."

Another problem with current policy is that there are not enough honest brokers to challenge those in power. "We need a nongovernmental organization that is smart enough to be able to critique government policy," said Cleveland. "There needs to be an intellectual watchdog."

Former U.S. ambassador Lincoln Bloomfield, chairman of the Stimson Center, said Washington arrogance has gotten in the way of sound policy making. "Bureaucracies have become much thicker at the headquarters level, both civilian and military," he said. "I call it 'a thousand bowls of rice' that fight over turf and resources."

Government agencies excel at managing details, but "few people in Washington own the big picture," Bloomfield said. In the absence of a strategy, government throws money at problems, he added. Today's civilian leaders call for "strategic patience" in the fight against ISIS, an acronym for the Islamic State. Lack of patience is not the issue, he said. "The problem is that our reputation is declining. We're losing our way on the strategic focus at the national level. ... We're misreading the environment, and the influencers."

As much as White House officials talk about "whole of government" approaches to security problems, there is no such thing, Bloomfield said. When Syria's regime last summer attacked its citizens with chemical weapons, the White House called the Pentagon and asked for options. "They got military options. That is not whole of government," said Bloomfield. "We use military power because we don't seem to have any other resource, not because it's the optimal tool."

The RAND report said one of the hallmarks of the wars of the past 13 years has been a consistent lack of strategy. "The decision to go to war in Iraq, the decisions to send a surge of troops to Iraq and then Afghanistan to bolster faltering war efforts, and the approach taken toward countering terrorism in the past two administrations all illustrate strategy deficits," the study said. "During the past 13 years, the strategies typically failed to envision a war-ending approach and did not achieve declared objectives in a definitive or lasting manner. The ends, ways, and means did not align, whether because the policy objectives were too ambitious, the ways of achieving them ineffective, or the means applied inadequate."

RAND analysts propose the creation of an "integrated civilian-military process that would rigorously identify assumptions, risks, possible outcomes, and second-order effects through soliciting diverse inputs, red-teaming, and table-top exercises.”

The report also suggests military leaders have to be smarter about the political aspects of war. They choose to focus on tactical issues, troop levels, timelines, rather than the strategic factors that will determine a successful outcome. "The U.S. military has also been reluctant to grapple with the political aspect of war, in the belief that it is either not part of war or entirely up to the civilians to address," RAND said. "Yet an intervention is unlikely to produce lasting results without a strategy that addresses the political factors driving the conflict and provides for enduring postwar stability."

RAND's assessment bears the imprint of the former chief of U.S. Special Operations Command Adm. William McRaven, who retired last year. Robinson, one of the authors of the study, has written white papers and testified on Capitol Hill in support of McRaven's "soft power" approach to fighting terrorism and a greater involvement of civilian players.

Washington Post war reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran,  who was a panelist at the RAND conference, endorsed the report. "The special operations community should be commended for moving in the development of preemptive activities and whole-of-government partners," he said. But that only happens episodically, he noted. Further, SOCOM's efforts often are misread as a power grab, Chandrasekaran said. "SOF needs to combat the perception in some quarters that you're just itching for new theaters of conflict, and prepping new battlefields," he told officials at the RAND forum.

Military brass have to accept that their judgment is going to be increasingly challenged, he said. "It's unrealistic that we are going to return to the 'leave it up to the generals' attitude from the White House." This is not simply the result of the centralization of national security decision making under the National Security Council, Chandrasekaran said. It is also a consequence of growing numbers of isolationist policy makers in both parties. The military should be expected to provide a broad range of policy options, not just its preferred flavor, he told the officers. "You need to gird yourself for greater levels of friction in policy making. It's going to be a feature in the strategic landscape."

Vikram Singh, vice president for national security at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, poured cold water on the idea that the idea that civilian agencies will gain a prominent seat at the war-planning table. The Pentagon might be successful at fighting back budget cuts, said Singh, but the chances that the State Department and USAID are going to get anything but downward pressure on their budgets seems a political given, he said. "That's only going to increase that differential," he added. "Good will and intent are all nice but the resource disparity really does matter."

Topics: Counterinsurgency, Special Operations-Low Intensity Conflict, PsyOps, Logistics

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