I’ve had some detailed and enlightening conversations recently about American policy going forward in Afghanistan. So much of what we read and see about the decision-making process is colored by bias, depending on the source journalists rely upon and the agendas of both the source and the journalist. We’ve received an incomplete set of facts; we can’t be certain the Commander in Chief has gotten a complete set of facts, either. All we can do is weed through what we do know and should know, and hope like hell that the unrevealed is disclosed by the outline of the facts around it.
It’s been explained to me that the lengthy and thorough decision-making process has been shaped and stretched by at least four different and competing factions, all of whom the public is only tenuously aware:
- CIA — A group which includes the remainder of intelligence personnel which have not moved to DIA by Department of Defense "power grabs," and contractors within the intelligence industry who want more contract work;
- Military and Special Operations — While Gen. Stanley McChrystal may be the face of this faction, it’s a much larger group of organizations. These folks have hammered out a nebulous truce among their own disparate groups to work together towards the same goal; they are committed to more military operations, seeing reductions in force as threats to work they can do either as military or as contractors;
- Department of State — Hillary Clinton may be its titular head, but the State Department is a body of careerists and contractors, many of whom see State as their chosen avocation. This organization was marginalized during the Bush administration; they want to be restored in political power along with additional money for their function and prestige which State used to have prior to Bush/Cheney. The office of USAID falls under their purview. State doesn’t care if there’s a recently-named newbie leader at the helm of USAID because Hillary Clinton as head of State Department augments the power and cachet they desire;
- Administration officials and political operatives attached to the White House — this group is and has been concerned about the legitimacy of leadership in Afghanistan, and how that make affect any decisions made, and how those in turn affect the rest of the presidency and key congressional races;
Note well the presence of contractors, who move seamlessly from one of these factions to another because of their experience and clearances. One might be working for the intelligence community under CIA today, working under DIA as contractor tomorrow, moving next to a security position with State Department. Their allegiance is fluid.
There are the more obvious players on the outside of the decision-making process, like members of the Cheney family; it’s not clear with which of the factions they are most fully aligned, but perhaps their demand for a rush to judgment says a lot about their loyalties. They may benefit no matter which faction might come out on top, and time is costing them something.
Each of the less-obvious groups have different functions, different marching orders, different agendas. They do not all neatly sync and align, but instead jostle and tug for their own place in the sun. They are constantly working on rationale to validate their raison d’etre.
Within each of these groups are many individuals with issues of their own. There are younger members who are trying to start a career, but afraid that overbroad blowback against their function could damage their prospects or force them out into a line of work which was not their first choice. There are mid-term, mid-level careerists who are worried they won’t make it to retirement but cannot walk away from the time they’ve invested; some have had to keep their heads down and their mouths shut for a long time just to get by. And still others, often at the pinnacle of their organization, are at the end of the career path within their function and are looking towards the next place they should land and park before they retire, trying to fluff their credibility before they make the jumps to retiree and then to executive in the military-industrial complex. Keep in mind that in this mix are potential candidates for public office as well as future cabinet members, like a Secretary of Defense.
Of course much of this could be said about any large enterprise organization; there’s a constant push-pull between departmental interests and budgets as well as career paths. And much of the dynamics pushing-pulling these different factions have nothing to do with the average citizen of Afghanistan’s daily life or the interests of the American tax-paying public — except that all of this will shape the decisions which are and have been made and will soon be announced by the White House.
Each of these groups have serious issues to grapple with, if they haven’t already been doing so.
- The intelligence community’s "white hats" are worried about what may happen to them because of the actions of "black hats" and poor management by the previous administration along with damage by left-behinds. The "black hats" and left-behinds are loyal to themselves and whatever mission they’ve been given, which is not in alignment with larger U.S. interests;
- The State Department’s diplomatic security service, a kind of "Secret Service Lite," should have been scaled up long ago to meet the demands of today’s challenges. Gaps were instead filled by contractors during the Bush years — contractors who did not operate to the same standards or to the same mission as State, more concerned with personal and corporate objectives, sometimes creating more problems than they solved. A scaled-up presence in Afghanistan may well force State to bring on even more contractors;
- The military knows that it is currently stretched thin, and that stop-loss and a reduction in dwell time are on the table in order to scale up a military presence in Afghanistan. This will not ensure buy-in for any form of escalation among troops;
- The administration’s team and political operatives are already well-aware of the lack of support for an escalation without a finite exit, let alone the questionable value of propping up an Afghan government not perceived widely as legitimate.
All of this pushing-pulling towards a final decision will have some unintended consequences, ones we should already be hearing about but aren’t, even though we are going to be asked to fund them.
There will be a need for more contractors, any way it’s sliced; the number will depend on the nature of the mission the escalation is designed to support.
There will be more drones, because they are seen as an appropriate tool to increase firepower without an extensive increase in troops. But there will need to be more intelligence on the ground whether CIA or contracted; there will be more contractors to stage the drones and address their logistics; and drones are not as precise as we are told they are supposed to be. There will be collateral damage which will surely create more friction with the Afghan people.
In short, it’s going to be ugly. This is a split-the-baby moment and no one will be happy with the outcome. None of the factions tugging away in the internecine war out of the sight of the publc are going to get what they want, and yet it will be equitable because each organization will a part of what they want.
And President Obama has now extracted exit strategies from the different groups involved, after kicking back their first submissions a couple of weeks ago. His senior officials and political functionaries will tell progressives to shut up and stay in the pen because there’s an exit plan.
There is additional tool which should be considered in the decision-making process; it would be a stimulus package of sorts, and it would also provide more resources we don’t currently have for the kind of diplomatic and military challenge we are faced with in Afghanistan.
President Obama should consider a call to service, a la Americorps. He should ask for a multi-cultural cross-section of young Americans to serve, but not in military. They should be working within the State Department, as future diplomats in an effort to build soft power resources. They should also be working to flesh out the diplomatic security services, to assure that the people who serve our interests are more fully aligned with the interests of the country and not with the profit-motive of corporations.
In such roles, perhaps the U.S. would be seen as more interested in the outcomes of relations between our country and other nations, rather than as an occupying military force. We could develop more personnel with skills in languages and cultures in areas of the world which will continue to be challenges for the rest of our lifetimes.
Of course the problem will be those groups which perceive any such investment in personnel as a slight to their fiefdom, a loss to their power in a zero-sum game. We should expect to see push back from them if a call to service was ever made.
But there’s always been a lot push back we have could expected; we could have foreseen much of the tensions between the factions cited above, and tensions from outsiders who still have vested interests within these functions and their operations. If only more of the facts and details had been available to us all along.
Let’s hope that the White House policy and strategy announcement this week about Afghanistan provides more of the facts we’ve needed — assuming they’ve gotten all the facts themselves.
[photo: Afghan boy with bikes in Kandahar; lafrancevi via Flickr.]