Presumably, the Obama administration will soon decide on its strategy and accompanying plan for Afghanistan and the region. No matter what it does, there are three certainties. First, Obama’s choices range from bad to worse. Second, the plan will be savaged by critics of both the left and right. Third, implementation and not troop numbers, however important, will define success or failure.
Presidents can make grand strategic pronouncements and set overarching policy direction. Neither guarantees success. As General of the Army George Marshall observed some 70 years ago, if you identify the right objectives, a “lieutenant can write the strategy.” But that was when the nation’s war aim was “unconditional surrender” by the enemy. And assigning real authority and responsibility turned strategy into action.
For good or ill, Marshall and his naval and air counterparts had close to total authority over their services. Oversight by Congress and outside watchdog groups was virtually non-existent. Sen. Harry Truman’s investigation into procurement waste and abuse was a notable exception. Destroyers and Victory ships could be built in a week or less. Tens of thousands of aircraft, tanks and artillery pieces rolled out of factories every month. And, by the way, there was a real, very visible enemy with army, navy and air forces that had to be destroyed.
As President Obama creates his strategy that takes into account all the complexities, uncertainties and dangers in play, implementation matters. Marshall could be confident of his lieutenant because any strategy could be implemented if not through competence and experience then with nearly unlimited resources and without the obstruction of the heavy hand of government. We were able to spend our way clear of trouble. Those days are gone.
The Afghan endeavor rests on three pillars: security, governance and economic development. Each pillar requires planning that is intensive, comprehensive and detailed. And that planning must incorporate all of the toughest challenges and obstacles with solutions that will work.
Take the Afghan army. It is self-evident that this army does not and will not have for a very long time if ever the logistical, infrastructure and other support it needs to fight independently. Medical care is one critical area. What soldier wants to go into battle knowing that the nearest aid center or hospital is hundreds of miles away and that there is no transportation to get there? Of course, the United States and NATO can fill the medical gaps for the short term. But what happens when or if the full Afghan security force of 400,000 is fielded? What will support it? That answer will not please Afghan soldiers and families. Yet, this is one of a multitude of issues that must be addressed. Then, the plan must be implemented.
Regarding implementation, White Houses are notoriously and even purposely bad at it. It is up to the various departments and agencies of government to execute. And, as we all know, that process is badly broken. We talk of a civilian surge. But that is a fiction. For good and bad reasons, we simply do not have a large enough body of civilians to fill the needs of Afghanistan. A prime example is police. Every American cop has a day job and there are no reserves. So how do we train up the Afghans? As recent investigations show, we don’t do that very well.
Can we or do we learn? Eight years ago the plan was to topple the Taliban in Afghanistan, wipe out al-Qaida and get out. Similarly in Iraq, a similar philosophy applied. Overthrow Saddam Hussein, turn things over to a transitional government and withdraw. With no long-term objectives, planning was simple and implementation was unnecessary.
The recklessness of those approaches haunts us today and will plague us tomorrow if we only plan and do not follow through on implementation. But how to coordinate across the massive and often dysfunctional government here and a government that is far worse in Afghanistan? World War II does not yield all the answers because it was a two-step performance — defeat the axis and then deal with the peace. In Afghanistan and Iraq, we are simultaneously fighting and building.
As Ike was in charge in Europe — and he was in charge — and Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Adm. Chester Nimitz ran their theaters in the Pacific, no such authority exists today. To their credit, Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker ran Iraq as co-CEO’s. The same is needed in Afghanistan. Whether the combination of Gen. Stanley McChrystal and Ambassador Karl Eikenberry can be provided similar levels of power and authority to implement any plan is uncertain. But without that discipline, the best planning in the world will be defeated by the inability to implement.
Harlan Ullman is a member of the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Advisors Group and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the National Defense University. This essay was syndicated as “To plan is human, to implement divine” by UPI.