Don't rush the Afghan debate

History shows that if Washington acts too quickly, it could get it wrong –and hurt relations with the US military.

As the White House deliberates over what to do about the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, some politicians, military officials, and pundits have grown tired of the wait even though President Obama is expected to announce his decision in the coming weeks.

But many want an answer now. Critics of the president, like ex-Vice President Dick Cheney, contend that "signals of indecision out of Washington hurt our allies and embolden our adversaries." The Obama administration, however, has indicated that it believes an intensive and deliberate review is crucial to getting the strategy right.

Recent history indicates the White House is right. If Washington rushes its final decision, not only might it result in the wrong strategy, but it could also cause civil-military relations to deteriorate for the remainder of Mr. Obama's time in office. High troop estimates in the recent past have caused civilian officials to completely shy away from strategically prudent decisions and have deepened civil-military misunderstandings.

Consider what happened in 1992: Concerned about the deteriorating situation in the former Yugoslavia, civilian officials in the administration of George H.W. Bush strongly considered using ground troops to assure the delivery of humanitarian aid and deter Serbian aggression.

Testifying before the Senate, then-Lt. Gen. Barry McCaffrey offered an estimate of "around 400,000 troops" to end the violence throughout Bosnia-Herzegovina, and what some called "a seat-of-the-pants answer," consisting of 60,000 to 120,000 troops to secure a humanitarian corridor to Sarajevo. Such large estimates deterred the deployment of any US soldiers at all, causing NATO instead to attempt what became a failed three-year strategy utilizing intermittent airstrikes and European peacekeepers parceled out around United Nations-declared safe areas.

Six years later in 1998, the Clinton administration considered using military power to enforce the Bush administration's "Christmas Warning," which asserted that if Serbia caused a conflict in Kosovo, "the United States would be prepared to employ military force against the Serbians in Kosovo and in Serbia proper." The Pentagon presented a range of military options, with the largest requiring some 200,000 NATO troops.

As a senior administration official recalled: "The numbers came in high. No one said yes, no one said no; it was taken off the table.... a complete eye-roller." Consequently, and perhaps making a decision too quickly, President Clinton made the strategic mistake of ruling out using any US ground forces in Kosovo on the eve of NATO's 79-day bombing campaign.

Finally, in 2002, also testifying before the Senate, Gen. Eric Shinseki offered his famous "several hundred thousand soldiers" response to a question asking for a range of the required forces needed to successfully occupy Iraq.

While many remember that Paul Wolfowitz, the second-ranking Pentagon civilian, decried the Army Chief of Staff's estimate as being "wildly off the mark," the graver effect was the implied message transmitted throughout the ranks that challenging senior civilian officials' planning assumptions could be career suicide.

Civilian officials tend to be wary of military requirements that would be political suicide to consider, yet military officials tend to consider mostly the higher estimates as necessary for force protection and to help ensure success on the battlefield.

The problem is that when civilians assume that military officials are biased they will be skeptical about the soundness of military options offered in the future. Military officials, meanwhile, all too often disregard civilian notions of what military force can accomplish as unreasonable, unnecessarily risky, or logistically impossible. This dichotomy presents frequent difficulty in forging a civil-military consensus.

What is needed to bridge the strategic gap is an extended series of debates – around regionally based strategies, operational plans, and appropriate resources.

Thankfully, that's what Obama seems to be doing. As the last important step in this process – both for the substance debated and symbolism it conveys to the civilian bureaucracy and uniformed ranks – Obama will meet with the Joint Chiefs of Staff today in the White House to discuss Afghanistan.

The open-ended war in Afghanistan carried an immense burden: More than 900 US troops have died, and each month the US government spends $3.6 billion of taxpayer money. A decision that does not take into account multiple views, or a hasty one, could be wrong and needlessly expensive.

It would be unwise to short-circuit the ongoing White House review, which should conclude when the commander in chief has heard from his relevant senior civilian and military advisers and decided on a way ahead, not with the stop-watch running.

To be sure, Obama shouldn't take many more months to make his decision, but his administration must take the time to get it right – both to best assure the correct strategy, and for the future of America's civil-military relations.

Micah Zenko is a fellow in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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