The U.S. and its NATO allies will spend US$11.6 billion on training and equipping Afghan security forces in 2011. When only a few years ago U.S. defense supplemental spending authorizations exceeded a hundred billion dollars, it is all too easy to skim right over that sort of figure. But putting that number in context, $11.6 billion was almost exactly Afghanistan’s entire Gross Domestic Product in 2008 ($11.76 billion according to the World Bank). The U.S. and NATO are creating an Afghan security apparatus that is estimated to cost $6 billion per year, a figure that exceeds annual U.S. Foreign Military Financing to Israel and Egypt combined – not to mention being far in excess of the Afghan government’s annual revenue.

This raises an interesting question about the strategy and grand strategy that guides our choices. Nine years ago, as Central Intelligence Agency operatives, U.S. Special Operations Forces, Marines and Soldiers were invading Afghanistan, how would we have viewed the proposition that in 2011:

  • We would have nearly 100,000 American troops waging a protracted counterinsurgency in the country?
  • We would have, combined with allied forces, some 30,000 more foreign troops in the country than the Soviets did at the height of their disastrous occupation (approaching 150,000 vs. less than 120,000)?
  • We would seek to create an indigenous security force that costs more than twice as much as the country’s GDP in 2001 to maintain and sustain annually (not even counting the cost of building and equipping it in the first place)?

And how will we perceive these historical facts in 2021?

In 2001, it was not only easy to declare a Global War on Terrorism – for the entirety of American national power to be directed at a tactic and an extremist ideology held by a precious few — it was essential, at least momentarily. Our intelligence on al Qaeda was so poor that there was immense concern about follow-on attacks involving chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapons. But given the post-Cold War security environment of the 1990s, declaring a Global War on Terrorism was also too easy. After all, the idea of ‘the end of history’ still held some sway. Post-Soviet Russia was a mess and what remained of conventional Russian combat power was bogged down in Chechnya. Japan and Southeast Asia were in economic crisis. We were eyeing China warily after the EP-3 incident in April, but we were not nearly as concerned about the military power commanded by Beijing as we have since become.

And al Qaeda had just killed Americans. In our uncertainty about the threat, we were deeply concerned that they might kill many more. But the profound, longstanding geopolitical foundations of American security remained unaltered. Al Qaeda at its worst did not and does not represent an existential threat to the United States and the American way of life. Yet in the sense of profound geopolitical security that we inherited from the 1990s, it was easy to re-orient American national power towards terrorism wholesale in a way that came to dominate not only operational but also strategic and grand strategic thinking. And as conditions on the battlefield deteriorated first in Iraq and then Afghanistan, more and more bandwidth and resources were directed at corrective actions in these two theaters.

As the last nine years have shown all too clearly, there are limits to even what the world’s sole superpower can achieve. So our actions must entail choice. We prioritized Iraq over Afghanistan, but we remained committed to both. From the perspective of 2010, where the U.S. finds itself in 2011 seems largely necessary and unavoidable – a product of exigencies of the moment where practical questions of reshaping the battlefield are paramount – and certainly far more important than the historical question of how we got there in the first place.

But the resources expended in Iraq and Afghanistan have an opportunity cost: money, resources and bandwidth that cannot, for example, be allocated to efforts and operations in Yemen against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (which is behind lower-level but active attacks on the homeland, whereas the old al Qaeda apex leadership is struggling to maintain even ideological relevance) or in Northwest Africa against al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. We are, after all, fighting a transnational phenomenon, not a geographically fixed one, even though we continue to explain the war in Afghanistan to the American public in terms of the old al Qaeda core that is neither in Afghanistan nor a physical threat.

And this goes beyond opportunity costs: the scale and scope of our operations in Afghanistan have in many ways directly contributed to the weakening of the Pakistani state over the last nine years, when a strong Pakistani state is a far more critical American national interest than anything we might achieve in Afghanistan. Indeed, a strong Pakistan remains of pivotal importance in managing Afghanistan in the long run and denying al Qaeda, its franchises and other transnational extremists from taking sanctuary there.

Meanwhile, in the last nine years, Russia has resurged and consolidated control over much of its periphery, the military capabilities of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, -Navy and -Air Force improved significantly and continue to improve, Chinese hackers continually probe our information technology systems and Iranian power has become the defining issue for much of the Middle East. While there have certainly been tactical failures along the way, this new geopolitical reality is a failure of strategy – and grand strategy. And as we all know, tactics and operations are to be guided by and consistent with strategic objectives.

The question I think this raises may not be inconsistent with many of the recent posts and commentary here at the USNI’s blog, where there seems to have been something of a recurring theme about the Navy’s senior leadership, whether it is the reaction to the breaking of the CAPT Honors story or a 30-year shipbuilding plan that no one seems to take seriously anymore. Perhaps this goes a step further? Is the current state of global U.S. military operations the product of tactical and operational needs run amok, unguided and unconstrained by larger, longer-term strategic and grand strategic thinking and choices? Has the U.S. military lost the ability, as an institution, to think and act strategically? And has the Executive Branch lost the ability to think as well as guide and constrain the military in accordance with long-term grand strategy?

Posted by nhughes in Army, Foreign Policy, Marine Corps

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  • Flashman

    Where to begin?

    Essentially, to recap the first part of your post, it seems like you’re questioning the National Security Strategy (grand strategy), U.S. military planning and operations to support the NSS, military procurement actions that support the resourcing of planning and strategy, as well as the intelligence that supports estimates and valuation of our action. Yes, somewhere within this, we have a problem.

    As far as the question – essentially, is the tail wagging the dog, or vice versa? (and how does this affect the Navy?), I offer a few observations.

    First, some decisionmaking history. The U.S. military did not make the decision to invade Iraq. That said, the decision was made by the Commander-in-Chief with the support of Congress, the American people, and with some international support (which was obviously a questionable decision due to the amount of public discussion). The choice to further invest in the Iraq fight — to fix the broken china — was a necessity for some of the factors that you describe and more. On a strategy level, whatever the opionion of the “Arab Street”, a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq would’ve endangered Saudi Arabia (King Abdallah still has concerns about Iraq turning into an Iranian client….but it would’ve been worse if we walked away). Further, holding Iraq together as a cohesive, stable, economically integrated unit furthers your point about containing Iran. Even a Shi’a dominated Iraqi government doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s an Iranian ally. The military’s decision to invest in COIN was a pragmatic one in many ways.

    As far as Afghanistan, I agree to some of your points, but they boil our currrent presence in Afghanistan down to 9/11, which is disengenuous. We have a strategic need to be engaged in South Asia and to see a stable Afghanistan. The conflict in Afghanistan (prior to 9/11) was important to both India and Pakistan. Like Kashmir, it had become a means by which to play out their political ends. Resolution of Afghanistan (to a point where it can be relatively secure and economically viable, and less vulnerable to manipulation by India, Iran, and Pakistan) ultimately will promote rleationships in South Asia which are stable. Again, I’m not justifying the invasion — only that we are there now and we own the problem. Staying is problematice, but withdrawal won’t solve it, either.

    As far as Russia and China, what makes you so sure that they’re threats? Both have had, at various times, significant roles in the world of international affairs. Countering Russia and China would be wasteful in so many ways and more effort should be extended to incorporate their rise in a more peaceful working framework (Gates is in China, in part, to accomplish just this).

    Your analysis would probably lead us towards withdrawing troops from Afghanistan and wrapping up our commitment in Iraq asap. I definitely don’t buy that an OEF withdrawal will lead to a stable Pakistan, and an Iraq withdrawal will not buy us any goodwill with Saudi Arabia or the gulf states who are concerned with Iran’s efforts.

    So, does the tail wag the dog? Given that the NSC seems pretty darn committed to the Middle East Peace Process (which seems to have less bearing on U.S. national security on most days than Mexico’s instability), hasn’t been seen to take much of an interest in Iraq except to contain crises in the past year, and seems fine with curtailing the military’s position in Afghanistan (a la Obama’s Wars), I’m not too concerned with the military establishment dictating to the NSC what the priorities should be in national security. We have a good, messy, pluralistic democracy that represents us in that regard. I’m also mindful that the military has generally been reluctant to go to war or deploy in force since Vietnam. Oddly, it was the State Department and the NSC that led the charge in the Balkans and Kosovo, Somalia, 9/11. Select civlian appointees from OSD, State, and the NSC seemed key to going to Iraq — not the flag officers. So, I dont’ think the tail always wags the dog, but there are changes made at the national level dependent on the military feedback (again, we have a pluralistic national security establishment where DoD does have a voice).

    I know I haven’t talked much about the Navy, but will stop here, with just a conclusion that the tail doesn’t always wag the dog, the tactical/operational hasn’t always overcome the strategic, and that not all rising great powers are clearly threatening us. thanks-

  • UltimaRatioReg

    Flashman at the Blog,

    You had me right up until you said “not all rising great powers are clearly threatening us”. China has made her intentions very clear. She will have her “place in the sun”, as she transitions into an outward-looking industrial power with interests in raw materials and energy supplies worldwide, after many centuries as agricultural and land-based power whose interests were largely continental. China has made it abundantly clear that, where China’s and America’s interests clash, they intend to contest things. Their navy, in fact their whole maritime strategy, is built with that in mind. Access denial is an operational concept to cause attrition of the US Navy should we attempt to intervene in China’s waters. That said, it is important that we prepare ourselves for China as a potential hostile element/enemy, while not treating her as such. Secretary Gates’ visit is prudent, as long as we aren’t selling off the farm.

    Russia, on the other hand, is Russia. She remains as she ever was, and should her means improve, will threaten her neighbors in what Putin terms her “near abroad”. She has for centuries, she will again. Ask South Ossetia. Implacable enemy of the United States? No. Implacable enemy to some of America’s allies? Probably.

  • Matt Yankee

    “And al Qaeda had just killed Americans. In our uncertainty about the threat, we were deeply concerned that they might kill many more.”

    9/11 was an attack that devestated 200 acres in donwtown Manhattan and set the Pentagon on fire and should be considered intolerable regardless of how many people were killed even though the human cost was in fact great. The buildings were not just any old office buildings out in the country.

    “Al Qaeda at its worst did not and does not represent an existential threat to the United States and the American way of life.”

    So because they used airplanes instead of nukes they are not an existential threat? They have shown clear intent to aquire nukes…is this just fantasy, should we seriously disregard their intent to obtain such weapons? Are New York and Washington’s existence not required for a healthy USA? What about states with nukes that might be happy to sale them a couple and reap some perceived benefits by setting the capital of the free world ablaze?

    “the scale and scope of our operations in Afghanistan have in many ways directly contributed to the weakening of the Pakistani state over the last nine years, when a strong Pakistani state is a far more critical American national interest than anything we might achieve in Afghanistan.”

    What if the Pakistani state is engaged in the same Jihad AQ is fighting? Did I not just read where 45 of Pakistan’s “moderate” clergy vocally supported the assisination of the Governor of Punjab? How many thousands of Pakistanis are indoctrinated with AQ style Islamist ideology in the madrassas? Why is it in our interests to have a strong, islamist country waging a stealth jihad on the USA, Israel, Great Britain, India and every other “Western” country?

    Post did not mention Islamist’s Jihad on the West. Whould we contemplate changes to Cold War strategy without talking about Communist ideology and what their intent is? Communists cared about self-preservation, can the same be said about Jihadis?

    I would like to hear an argument for why we shouldn’t kill every single living person in the Korangal Valley and then the next group of rocks with AQ and Taliban crawling all over them.

  • Flashman


    I accede the point that China’s national security strategy is predicated on the expansion of its economy and it views its strategic interests as being overseas. I completely agree that it’s naval strategy, one that relies on access denial, is oriented against the U.S. Access denial is also a fundamentally defensive and deterrent strategy — not an offensive one — and China’s naval strategy doesn’t necessarily mean that the Chinese government is ready to give war to the U.S. Being unwelcoming to U.S. presence in the region, building a military, and building an economy not reliant on the U.S. Navy’s patrolling of the Indian Ocean are pragmatic measures from the Chinese standpoint. The logic that China is a systemic and military threat, with a high likelihood of military action against the U.S., is a logic that tends to portray China’s capabilities as being inconsistent with its economic growth and the size of its population. China’s military rise makes sense, as does its desire for natural resources.

    As far as a mirror image – If the Chinese Navy patrolled within 10 miles of the the Channel Islands off of California for the last 40 years, and the U.S. was similarly a rising power with the same economic means available as China, wouldn’t we be looking for an access denial means against the Chinese? Again, their strategies tend to make some good sense for their role in the world.

    They have taken actions which are not to our benefit economically; but we’ve done the same. I’m not really into the notice of reducing their self-interest to being a direct threat to the U.S.

    It’s time to adjust to a multipolar world — and find common ground. It’s worth noting, that military buildup alone did not resolve the Cold War inasmuch factors of diplomacy, trade and the economy, cultural sharing as globalization started to take root, and good intelligence (that increased predictability), and backing off from a clearly threatening posture to one of negotiation. From our standpoint, we also have to be pragmatic – we don’t have the national treasure to waste on fighting China, and we have pressing, systemic, threats exclusive of China.

  • UltimaRatioReg


    Diplomacy deals with perceived intent, whereas military preparedness traditionally focuses on potential. Intent can wax and wane, so that preparedness is in place in case things go south. China’s rise does indeed make sense. They are doing the things that emerging powers do. However, some of those things may (and likely will) be absolutely counter to our interests, such as establishing hegemony throughout East Asia.

    I would also question that the Cold War ended because of backing off of a clearly threatening posture, because the cause and effect can be seen as being inverse. See: Reagan Buildup.

    We had better find the national treasure to prepared for China as a threat, whether they take that path or not. Relying on their good graces and our enduring mutual interests in place of that preparedness is foolhardy.

  • Flashman

    URR –

    Unfortunately, the division that you cite often is not realistic in application. Military preparedness, with or without diplomacy, is of itself a measure of national security – and can be perceived as coercive or deterrent. The two are inextricable. If we choose a path of widespread military preparedness against China, then it becomes the de facto policy of the U.S. that we perceive China as a threat. National security deals with the combination of capability, intent, and will. Diplomacy is simply another means of employing power. The DoD that fixates on capability is guaranteed to fight a beautiful, three-week war….only to find out that by not understanding the political, economic, and cultural environment, that they’re going to be challenged to turn the warzone back over as a functioning country. Not to be mean, but speaking as a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, I tend to see pure capabilities-based analysis as a bit of a red herring and a cop out.

    Our buildup will not make much of a case to the Chinese as far as our good intentions. As they’ve pursued a capabilities-based analysis of U.S. intentions, we’re a threat to them. The only means by which to head of the vast expenditure of treasure and blood is to find some common ground in terms of economy and diplomacy. Additionally, for China to continue lifting its vast population out of poverty, it’s going to have to make more inroads with Europe and Japan. China is not an island, and they’re aware of it. It’s worth keeping in mind that the Chinese already see us as ahead of them in terms of power in the region. We still have a (diminishing) basis of strength from which to make the argument. Additionally, we’re on more solid footing with the developed world — EU, Japan, and the Koreas — than China, and much of the developed world may take some yuan, but are pretty aware that China isn’t lifting all boats.

    The Reagan Buildup was only part of the solution and its definitely difficult to determine whether it was ultimately the cause, or one of the causes of the end. However, if you accept that the buildup was the major cause of the end of the Cold War, then you probably accept that Reagan’s buildup, and Russia’s refusal to back off from a buildup while carrying on an unpopular war, ended the conflict. John Lewis Gaddis and others basically wrote that Reagan’s buildup bled Russia’s financial wellbeing. If that’s the case, who’s playing which role right now with the U.S. and China?

    If we’re applying the DIME to national security, you’ll find me of the DImE school when it comes to China. They are an important power on the world stage, but that does not necesitate casting China’s policies as diametrically opposed to ours nor lumping them in with the Axis of Evil. We still have many other means through which to alter the relationship with China. It would be foolhardy to push in the direction of a self-fulfilling prophecy, fulfilling Chinese threat estimates of the U.S., furthering our economic decline and overreach, and ultimately facing the internal threat of an imploded economy with weakened institutions and the external threat of a U.S.-China war.

  • UltimaRatioReg


    You realize, of course, that if you exclude the “M” completely from DIME, you are of the “DIE” school.

    I cite no division between diplomacy and preparedness. There is much common ground, but much that is not. Expansion of the US Navy to 350-400 warships should have little or no impact on declaring our intentions toward China, as our commitments are global.

    Comparison of the USN on a ship-for-ship basis as a combat ration with PLAN is a mistake. More appropriate would be what a reinforced 7th Fleet would look like. In that equation, things are not so rosy. This does not mean that the US Navy must commence a buildup similar to the 1940-41 buildup, when Japan was clearly an enemy. But it does not mean that we should let the USN atrophy to 230 or even 200 warships, with only 7-8 CVBGs, and the concomitant limitations on projecting power in the Pacific should it become necessary while still minding our global commitments.

    We will have to agree to disagree when you assert that the only way we can convince China of our “good intentions” is to show them our throats and leave ourselves unable to challenge Chinese supremacy in the Pacific. Though not an enemy, China is indeed an adversary. It is how they think of us, and have been very clear in saying so. Certainly their actions in regards to North Korea have been bordering on hostile, and they present enough of a threat that South Korea and Japan are in talks for a military alliance, something that was unthinkable even ten years ago.

    To label an eye toward China’s capabilities as one of our guideposts for US sea power a “self-fulfilling prophesy” strikes me as odd. If the PLAN should not enter into our Naval planning, then who and what does? They have, at least in preponderance, chosen to interpret Mahan and Corbett in the most bellicose fashion. Some of China’s policies will indeed be diametrically opposed to our interests. They have recognized that fact and have stated plainly that they are preparing for that eventuality. Don’t you think if they recognize that fact, perhaps we should, too, and act accordingly?

  • UltimaRatioReg

    “Not to be mean, but speaking as a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, I tend to see pure capabilities-based analysis as a bit of a red herring and a cop out.”

    Well, you aren’t the only veteran. And nobody talked at all about “pure” capabilities-based analysis. In the 1930s, the USN even had a War Plan dealing with a hostile Great Britain, as they did us. May sound silly to you, but the Royal Navy had one dealing with a hostile France, too. Came in handy when the French fleet had its superb cruisers and destroyers in the Mediterranean up for grabs. The RN’s action at Mers-el-Kebir was grim necessity, despite how the French saw it and still see it.

  • Flashman

    I didn’t mean any comment as an attack on anyone’s service, but that my intention not to “be mean” was more so that my choice of words — a “cop out” — would not be seen as a personal attack. But, frankly, it is a bit of a cop out, and has led us down some very wrong paths.

    With respect to all who serve – Flashman

  • UltimaRatioReg


    Simple military capabilities is never the entire answer for what our Armed Forces should look like. But it damned sure plays into the equation. Of both NSS and NMS.

    One of the very common beliefs in this “post-modern” age is that geopolitics no longer matter, and are somehow displaced by “globalism” and this vague idea of the “commons”. The idea that a nation has characteristics that reflect not only its culture but its religion, resources, and geographic location has fallen deeply out of favor in the West. Much to our detriment. With Russia talking about their “near abroad” and China about the “near sea” and the “outer island belt”. Not sure India would buy that geopolitics no longer exists if China secures air and naval bases in Sri Lanka and the Bay of Bengal.

    ALL of the factors play in, which is why it is the “Great Game” (where I remember you making an appearance). Dismissing one critical foundation stone because the language and concept is no longer in vogue is both very stupid and very American.

    Great discussion, though, and I suspect we have more complementary than conflicting viewpoints. Your approach, without mine, can lead to fatal vulnerability. Mine, without yours, tends toward destructive recklessness.

  • Flashman

    URR –

    We have complementary approaches, for sure, and I would never argue for an analysis that fails to account for capability or relegates it to the dustbin. I definitely appreciate your points on geopolitics and culture. If anything, I think our discussion – for the sake of the author’s question – highlights how difficult the calculus of strategy can be and why it may seem “broken.”


  • Flashman and URR –

    Thank you for the vigorous and enlightening discussion. I’ll try to hit all the key points I can here. I fully agree that clearheaded, well-reasoned strategic and grand strategic thinking is quite difficult. What’s more, it is one thing to think that way when you’re squared off against the Soviet Union for the foreseeable future — that sort of dynamic provides concrete answers to some of the most foundational questions involved in strategic thinking. But today, the United States exists in a world where those most foundational of questions are themselves question marks (though one might argue that ‘terrorism’ and ‘radical extremism’ may have been substituted for those question marks a bit too often).

    I’m undoubtedly outranked here in terms of WWII history prowess, but while we may have gotten some things wrong in the interwar period, my understanding is that we had some amazing strategic and grand strategic leadership guiding our operational choices both before and after Pearl Harbor. But my point is that sound strategic thinking can and has been done. And, at least from a theoretical standpoint, tactics and operations without that sort of grounding can be not only profoundly wasteful but outright dangerous.

    My point here was not to get into whether the surge in Iraq or Afghanistan was the right decision at the point and time at which the decision was taken. Similarly, the larger question of how we ever let it get to that point will be one for history. Rather, I’m attempting to ask if our current disposition seems reflective of a guiding and controlling oversight grounded in clearheaded, well-reasoned strategic and grand strategic thinking? Are our guiding documents — the NSS, etc. — a product of that sort of thinking? Do they make hard choices and provide clear, concise and unambiguous guidance for those making priorities and decisions at lower levels? And then, are those documents read? Do they serve the role they are intended to serve institutionally and are our decisions reflective of their intent?

    Flashman put it well. My question is: is the tail wagging the dog? But I don’t mean it so much in the sense that the National Command Authority is committed to CENTCOM and getting a lid on Iraq and Afghanistan (again, not intended here to question the surge decisions from the time and place they were taken) and therefore that the tail is at least wagging in a way consistent with the dog. Rather, I’m asking if the strategic and grand strategic perspective have been lost? Though the White House may not be micromanaging tactical choices, is the senior leadership in both the Pentagon and the White House spending too much time finding solutions to ever more demanding problems in CENTCOM? Are they overwhelmingly focused on operational demands to the detriment of a wider, more long range and balanced perspective? Have a lack of pressing, immediate challenges elsewhere allowed current operations to subsume strategy and command an ever increasing share of the available (and limited) time, personnel and resources?

    As for my take on Russia and China, where they are headed and in what way I see them as a military challenge, that may be best left for another post all its own.

    From another Iraq veteran, Semper Fi.

  • UltimaRatioReg


    You used the term “Grand Strategy”! Go to your room!

    The salient question of whether the Operational/Tactical wags the Strategic and sometimes the Policy dog must be answered in the affirmative. Not that this is a new thing, because it stretches back over four and a half decades.

    There are several reasons for this.

    1. Instantaneous communications has flattened the information and command hierarchy, which just invites micromanagement. Network centricity has only made things worse in that regard.

    2. A lack of ability to handle the media, to include effective strategic messaging, on the parts of senior Military and DoD leadership leaves a paranoia that someone, somewhere, will do something at the lowest possible level that will upset the mission applecart. Hence, the birth of the stupidest and most telling of all travesties, the Strategic Corporal.

    3. When there aren’t larger things to worry about, NSS/NMS types worry about smaller things. They worry. That is what they do. And it isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but has its down side. During the Cold War, proper perspective on the important was maintained because of the existential threat of the Soviet Union. Events, say, with Pinochet in Chile, certainly were significant, but would not have been nearly as important as the Soviets making a move in Europe or at sea.

    There are some issues in the post above that I would dispute, to include AQ’s potential threat to the US. Non-state actors and Transnationals have access to strategic weapons these days. Which in some ways justifies senior policy makers’ attention to previously less significant issues. But also acts as an excuse for those same people to meddle in everything, losing focus on the higher-level and more significant events that they alone have the authority and resources to manage.

    But you are right, probably fodder for another post.