Shadow Government

Jim Jones channels Donald Rumsfeld

By Peter Feaver

Politico has a nice wrap-up of the recent "methinks he doth protest too much" coverage of General Jones, Obama's National Security Advisor. Apparently, there has been something of a whispering campaign directed against Jones, and the White House made him available for extensive on the record interviews to push back against it.

My former wingman and current Shadow colleague, Will Inboden, has already discussed the penchant of credulous reporters to credit Jones with instituting major changes in the way national security policy is made with "reforms" that are carbon copies of how the last three administrations ran the interagency. However, one little snippet in the Washington Post's piece on Jones leapt out at me and reminded me of another thing the Bush administration was credited with (or rather, discredited with). The snippet was presumably in response to a question like, "prove to me that you are actually influencing policy and not an empty suit, as some anonymous critics inside have been saying." In any case, here is what Karen DeYoung reported:

As Obama was mulling his first major foreign policy decision in February -- whether to increase U.S. military deployments to Afghanistan this year -- Jones said he intervened with questions about the information supplied by the Pentagon.

The numbers were "out of whack," Jones recalled. Beyond the requested 17,000-strong combat force, the military had included additional "enablers" that it said were required for logistical and other support functions. "I understand these ratios and what they ought to look like, and when they seemed a little high, I pushed back on it," he said. The numbers were reduced.

That sounds eerily like the interactions Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld had
with CENTCOM during the planning phases of both the Afghan and the Iraq
wars. Is this the beginnings of a new Fiasco (cue Tom Ricks)?

Now as a card-carrying civil-military relations theorist, let me stipulate for the record that it is right and proper for civilian political leaders (and in this case, Jones is a civilian political leader, and indisputably acting on behalf of THE civilian political leader) to press the military on these sorts of issues and to decide in ways the military does not like. It is fully within the political competence of civilian leaders to decide they want a heavier or a lighter footprint -- even if it turns out they are wrong about how many forces are needed. Civilians have the right to be wrong.

But when they do intrusively manage like this, they are very exposed if things go poorly. In those cases, the judgment of observers and of history can be severe (cue Tom Ricks again and everyone else who has written a bestseller excoriating Rumsfeld). That is why I was so surprised to see Jones reportedly bragging about his involvement in cutting force requests from the theater commanders. Perhaps he made the calculation that a credulous press would not follow-up with tough questions. If that was his calculation, then he may have been correct, because I have seen essentially no discussion of that issue.

One further point: while I can think of many cases of the Secretary of Defense (and of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) intrusively tinkering with the troop requests of combatant commanders in the past couple decades, I have not yet been able to come up with another example of a White House principal doing so since the controversial involvement of the White House in the planning and implementation of the disastrous Desert One Iranian hostage rescue attempt. I can think of many parallels from the Vietnam era and before, but in general, since Vietnam, the White House has been reluctant to tinker with battlefield requests, preferring to delegate that kind of involvement down to the Secretary of Defense level.

In that one respect, therefore, Jones may really be making policy in a way very different from how his immediate predecessors have done so. A change that dramatic deserves more attention and discussion than it has received to date.

Shadow Government

Start beating the Taliban, then talk

By Christian Brose

Should we talk to the Taliban? Not the hardened zealots, but the so-called "reconcilables" who have become insurgents for purely practical reasons and may be led just the same to switch sides. The prevailing wisdom is, yes, we should, and that doing so in some form or fashion is a prerequisite for defeating the insurgency -- an argument made in President Obama's Af-Pak strategy. Hassina Sherjan makes a smart case against this line of thinking in today's New York Times, which Steve Walt picks up on and takes issue with.

But if you really want to read the most thorough and nuanced study of this question currently on offer, check out Ashley Tellis's fantastic new monograph, "Reconciling with the Taliban?" Ashley's bottom line is "yes, but" -- with a big emphasis on "but":

If conciliation offered an honorable exit from the conflict, it would be one thing. But it does not.... Mullah Omar and the Taliban leadership have decisively rejected any reconciliation with the government of Afghanistan. And the tribal chiefs, village elders, and street fighters, who either support the insurgency or are sitting on the sidelines currently but are susceptible to being reconciled in principle, certainly will not take any steps in that direction so long as the Karzai regime, and its Western supporters, are not seen to be winning in their long-running battle against the Taliban. The coalition, therefore, is confronted by an inescapable paradox: any meaningful accommodation with those reconcilable segments of the rebellion will only come at the tail end of political-military success in Afghanistan and not as a precursor to it; yet, if such success is attained, reconciliation will become possible but, ironically, when it is least necessary.

For a similar take that leans more toward talking sooner, check out Dan Byman's new article in the Washington Quarterly on whether, how, and when to talk to insurgents. Here's his take on the dangers of talking at the wrong times and in the wrong ways:

Talks are not cheap. They often fail and can even backfire. Talks provide legitimacy to the other side, a concession that some insurgent groups desperately seek. Talks may discredit those who have long called for peace, rewarding the use of violence. At times, cynical insurgent groups simply use the lull in fighting to rearm and regroup, becoming more deadly as a result of the negotiations. When done unilaterally, talks may also anger allies, who may be unable to negotiate for political reasons. Moreover, talks and the use of force usually go together rather than being seen as alternatives. As a result, insurgent groups are more likely to negotiate if they believe they have little chance of success on the battlefield.

And here is Byman's specific prescription for Afghanistan:

Today, the conditions for talks are acceptable but not ideal. In recent years, the insurgents have been growing in strength. While outright victory remains far off, they are not negotiating from a position of weakness. Some may even believe that an ultimate battlefield victory is a question of time. In order to convince some aspects of the insurgency to truly embrace negotiations, military progress, therefore, is necessary.

Ultimately, I'm more with Tellis than Byman: hold off on talks now, create greater conditions of success, and then peel the reconcilables away from the insurgency from a position of strength. It's Human Psychology 101: If the Taliban believes that it's getting everything it wants through violence, and that eventually it will win a decisive victory over the Afghan government and its coalition supporters, it has no incentive to stop fighting, and certainly no reason to compromise on terms that would be at all desirable to us or our Afghan partners. And this is exactly the position the Taliban sees itself in today. Anne Stenerson over at Jihadica reads it right:

According to the Taliban, the solution is equally simple: Expel the "occupiers" first, and talk politics later. For those who have followed Taliban's official propaganda this is not very surprising. Ever since the start of the insurgency in Afghanistan, the Taliban's leadership has, at least officially, consistently refused to make any kind of compromises with the Afghan regime, let alone taking part in the democratic process.

So we and our coalition need to provide the Taliban with an incentive to stop fighting. We need to shift the correlation of forces on the battlefield in our favor. In short, we need to start winning.