Commentary Magazine


Topic: Christopher Walken

Less Cowbell

The Washington Post article Jennifer cited in “Flotsam and Jetsam” today appears to indicate that a dangerous rift is opening between the White House and the Pentagon regarding their expectations for Afghanistan. In a way, the echoes of Vietnam are actually amplified in this piece’s survey of strategic thinking. During the Kennedy-Johnson years, we tried an unworkably “calibrated” approach to Vietnam, but at least the direction from Robert McNamara and the president’s senior advisers was specific and largely executable. The White House direction for Afghanistan, as captured by the Post’s writer, appears to deserve neither epithet.

The article adopts the perspective that our military leaders are failing to conform to the president’s view of what our objectives should be in Afghanistan. But to an experienced planner, the most obvious thing in the whole piece is that President Obama has not expressed an identifiable objective to conform with. He has decided to send General McChrystal 30,000 more troops instead of 40,000, and has decided to authorize the training of 230,000 Afghan security personnel instead of the 400,000 McChrystal had proposed. He has moreover decided to begin a drawdown by July 2011. But he has done these things without outlining a new objective.

McChrystal’s original August 2009 proposal was based on the objectives of securing specified regions of Afghanistan – not the whole country – against the Taliban, and improving the Afghans’ confidence in their government. Obama has not redefined this job; he has only changed the toolset. The best his administration can seem to communicate is “not really the McChrystal plan, and definitely not the Iraqi surge.” The Post puts it this way:

The White House’s desired end state in Afghanistan, officials said, envisions more informal local security arrangements than in Iraq, a less-capable national government and a greater tolerance of insurgent violence.

The “greater tolerance of insurgent violence” is, of course, disquieting. Equally so is this passage from an administration official:

The guidance they [the military] have is that we’re not doing everything, and we’re not doing it forever. . . The hardest intellectual exercise will be settling on how much is enough.

Apparently the military is supposed to decide how much is enough, using the entirely negative guidance that “we’re not doing everything, and we’re not doing it forever.” And that’s a problem. This is not executable guidance. It’s also not guidance designed to achieve a positive, deliberate outcome.

We learned in Vietnam that if you’re not actively trying to achieve a positive outcome with force, you won’t. But the military doesn’t even need to have that lesson in mind to automatically translate Obama’s recent decisions into objectives more specific than the president may have intended. Requiring specific objectives is simply the nature of military force.

Obama comes off here as Christopher Walken demanding “less cowbell” – a formula that works in jokes and music but is inadequate to directing military operations. It’s Obama himself who needs to tell the troops exactly how much insurgent violence is the right amount to tolerate, and what level of competence we aim to cultivate in the Afghan central government. He should explain that to the American people too.

The Washington Post article Jennifer cited in “Flotsam and Jetsam” today appears to indicate that a dangerous rift is opening between the White House and the Pentagon regarding their expectations for Afghanistan. In a way, the echoes of Vietnam are actually amplified in this piece’s survey of strategic thinking. During the Kennedy-Johnson years, we tried an unworkably “calibrated” approach to Vietnam, but at least the direction from Robert McNamara and the president’s senior advisers was specific and largely executable. The White House direction for Afghanistan, as captured by the Post’s writer, appears to deserve neither epithet.

The article adopts the perspective that our military leaders are failing to conform to the president’s view of what our objectives should be in Afghanistan. But to an experienced planner, the most obvious thing in the whole piece is that President Obama has not expressed an identifiable objective to conform with. He has decided to send General McChrystal 30,000 more troops instead of 40,000, and has decided to authorize the training of 230,000 Afghan security personnel instead of the 400,000 McChrystal had proposed. He has moreover decided to begin a drawdown by July 2011. But he has done these things without outlining a new objective.

McChrystal’s original August 2009 proposal was based on the objectives of securing specified regions of Afghanistan – not the whole country – against the Taliban, and improving the Afghans’ confidence in their government. Obama has not redefined this job; he has only changed the toolset. The best his administration can seem to communicate is “not really the McChrystal plan, and definitely not the Iraqi surge.” The Post puts it this way:

The White House’s desired end state in Afghanistan, officials said, envisions more informal local security arrangements than in Iraq, a less-capable national government and a greater tolerance of insurgent violence.

The “greater tolerance of insurgent violence” is, of course, disquieting. Equally so is this passage from an administration official:

The guidance they [the military] have is that we’re not doing everything, and we’re not doing it forever. . . The hardest intellectual exercise will be settling on how much is enough.

Apparently the military is supposed to decide how much is enough, using the entirely negative guidance that “we’re not doing everything, and we’re not doing it forever.” And that’s a problem. This is not executable guidance. It’s also not guidance designed to achieve a positive, deliberate outcome.

We learned in Vietnam that if you’re not actively trying to achieve a positive outcome with force, you won’t. But the military doesn’t even need to have that lesson in mind to automatically translate Obama’s recent decisions into objectives more specific than the president may have intended. Requiring specific objectives is simply the nature of military force.

Obama comes off here as Christopher Walken demanding “less cowbell” – a formula that works in jokes and music but is inadequate to directing military operations. It’s Obama himself who needs to tell the troops exactly how much insurgent violence is the right amount to tolerate, and what level of competence we aim to cultivate in the Afghan central government. He should explain that to the American people too.

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