Share this Post
New Year Message to Agamemnon (Don’t Shoot the Messenger)
The Iliad opens with the Greek allies in high dudgeon. The Achaeans have fallen out with the Argives. Apollo has punished Agamemnon with ‘a fatal plague’ and many of his fighters have fallen in battle ‘carrion feast for the dogs and birds’.[i] Achilles is in ‘a rage’ with Agamemnon. ‘The corpse-fires burned, night and day, no end in sight’. The war, it seems, was lost.
Achilles contemplates an exit strategy – ‘so home we sail’ – then changes his mind and decides to consult his assessments cell, or the Bronze Age equivalent, a seer. This is Calchas, who ‘knew all things that are, all things that are past, and all that are to come’.
Calchas is no fool. He agrees to explain the Greeks’ misfortunes (provide the strategic assessment), but on one condition:
‘…I will tell all,
But strike a pact with me, swear you will defend me
With all your heart, with words and strength of hand.
For there is a man I will enrage…A mighty king…
Consider it closely, Achilles. Will you save me?’
The story of Calchas reminds us that the phrase ‘don’t shoot the messenger’ is ancient indeed. The mighty king, Agamemnon, of course, only half accepts Calchas’ wise counsel, which is a cautionary tale in itself.
NATO’s recent wars have not been short of Calchases. Assessment and intelligence production has been prodigious. An offstage chorus of astute critics has been vocal. Yet at times it has seemed that the Agamemnons have only half attended the counsel, or discounted it, or bypassed it, and the West remains mired in a ‘long campaign’ with no end in sight.
This paper examines the relationship between Agamemnon and Calchas. In the necessarily abbreviated length of this paper, three factors are highlighted that have served to fray the relationship: ‘stupid slogans’, spin, and ‘the mysterious calculus’ of decision-makers. The first relates to how we enter wars, the second to what we do once we are in a war and the last how we liquidate wars. The second half of the paper offers ideas how the relationship might be repaired. Realistically, it may be acknowledged at the outset the task is as challenging as the egregious Siege of Troy.
How We Get Into Wars - The Problem of ‘Stupid Slogans’
Charles Sabatier was a twenty-year old from Galveston, Texas when he received his draft card in the summer of 1966. He shipped out to Vietnam willingly, if ‘pretty naïve’.[ii] Two years later, during the Tet Offensive, a bullet struck him in the back and severed his spinal cord. It felt like ‘someone had accidentally kneed me in the back’ but when ‘blood…came flying right out of my throat as if I had a faucet in my mouth’ he realized something more serious had happened. Paralyzed and lying on a hospital gurney, he became an angry man: ‘I'm laying here and gonna die for…[a ]stupid slogan…we died for the domino theory…’ Charles Sabatier would surely have agreed that a bar room game is not a good guide for wise strategy, still less justification for his life-changed circumstances.
A view may be taken that the West is once again in the thrall of a ‘stupid slogan’, a modern domino theory. This is the jihadist domino theory. It may be summarized thus. Out there are people ‘who want to do us harm’ (a phrase coined by a Bush speech writer).[iii] To pre-empt and forestall this harm, military action must be taken against proscribed militias, insurgencies, rebels, guerrillas, and paramilitaries – now all classified as ‘terrorists’ and as weighted a term as ‘communists’ in the 1950s. Failure to do so will result in the dominos tumbling all the way back to Madrid, London or Paris. In this reincarnated domino theory, the ‘safeness’ of citizens (a quite different idea to ‘national security’, NATO’s true purpose) has assumed totemic proportions.
Whether or not one agrees with this characterization, or believes that the ‘Global War on Terror’ is another ‘stupid slogan’, wars based on abstract theories do pose problems to staffs providing assessments and intelligence in support of those setting the strategic goals for such conflicts.
Thanks to the leaking and subsequent full publication of the Vietnam ‘Pentagon Papers’ (47 volumes and over 7,000 pages) we are in the fortunate position of being able to dissect government folly with an almost unique, forensic precision. The slide to war can be traced through the National Security Council (NSC) records, National Security Action Memoranda (NSAMs), and associated documents. These marry assessment and intelligence (what is our understanding of the situation) with corresponding strategy (what are we going to do about it), or should.
What is arresting about this body of literature is that virtually every document begins with a restatement of the domino theory.[iv] The 8 November 1961 memo to Kennedy (following the second Taylor visit to South Vietnam of that year) is typical. It opens with a dramatic chord:
‘The Secretary of State, the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff agree:
1. The fall of South Viet-Nam to Communism would lead to the fairly rapid extension of Communist control, or complete accommodation to Communism, in the rest of mainland Southeast Asia and in Indonesia. The strategic implications worldwide, particularly in the Orient, would be extremely serious.’
The intellectual straightjacket this represents can hardly be exaggerated. There is no assessment or intelligence. There is simply assertion of a gross assumption, as if it were an inviolable law of physics. Every word and proposition that follows must travel down the narrow rails laid by this single, monolithic and constricting postulation. It should not surprise that the first policy recommendation of the 8 November memo was the ultimately disastrous:
‘In the light of the foregoing, it is recommended that:
1. We now take the decision to commit ourselves to the objective of preventing the fall of South Viet Nam to Communism and the willingness to commit whatever United States combat forces may be necessary to achieve this objective.’
In his 1995 book In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, Robert McNamara lamented: ‘Our misjudgments of friend and foe, alike, reflected our profound ignorance of the history, culture, and politics of the people in the area, and the personalities and habits of their leaders’. He was right. This assessment and intelligence was entirely absent from the NSC records or NSAMs which crossed his desk. There was no need for this understanding. A domino theory had solved all the equations.
Will historians in fifty years’ time find the same suffocation of clear strategic thought in the ‘Global War on Terror’? Will a judgement be made that the necessary assessments, intelligence and understanding were present, but that these documents – the work of honest and insightful analysts - were somewhat shoved to one side by the locomotive of war on terror?
What We Do Once We Are In a War - The Problem of Spin
Towards the end of the ISAF mission, Anthony Cordesman, Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Centre for Security and International Studies took to describing Afghanistan as a ‘Liar’s Contest’. Was he right?
The quotes below were all made in public by senior NATO officers between 2007 and 2011 (the worst years of the Afghanistan War). The identities of these officers are not revealed– the point is not to ridicule individuals.
‘So in summary, I'm pretty optimistic what's going on here. I had the unique opportunity to be here in 2002, and I'm here again five years later, and I'm seeing some significant progress. You look at the institutional development; it's been phenomenal… overall, I'm incredibly optimistic on what the possibility here is in Afghanistan.’
‘Our long-term progress -- from my point of view, we are making progress. Construction is challenging there… but we are very steadily making progress in a wide variety of areas… it's a clear, absolutely unequivocal demonstration of how we are making progress.’
‘The truth is that we've actually received a fair amount of all of that, and I think that when you add all that together and you look at what we're achieving on the ground with our Afghan partners, that we're actually making real progress at the district and the village level, and also at the provincial level.’
‘First, we are steadily making deliberate progress across Afghanistan, and we are on an upward trajectory.’
‘I visited on the ground, and I took a look at the -- how it was progressing. And I can report good progress.’
‘And I'm also struck by the incredible amount of progress, in particular in the last 11 months…and in my case in particular the police.’
‘So we're definitely making huge progress. ..We continue to provide feedback …you know, how to continue their success and provide security to the people, and messaging with them on how to connect with the population and having tremendous -tremendous effect there.’
‘Yes, I do think we'll be able to defeat the Taliban.’
‘As I travel around the country, I'm amazed by the success stories…’
‘‘So you're seeing a lot of positives here … So in my opinion, we've seen increased progress over the past 12 to 18 months.’
‘Well, we've been here about 11 months, and we have made -- we've made a lot of progress. We've made a lot of progress because we are currently, right now, in some decisive terrain…’
‘So I am very optimistic. Our challenge this winter is to continue to build on the momentum we’ve gained…I’m exceptionally proud of our efforts to date, I feel like we are clearly winning here….’
‘Now, we have made great progress with our civilian counterparts, both in the Afghan government and the international community … Evidence of our progress is clear.’
‘ISAF has achieved undisputable progress over the last 12 to 18 months.’
‘It's my assessment that a lot has changed during our 10 months out there on the ground and that we have made -- we have made progress.’
‘But my feeling is we are doing very well. Possibly we are reaching something, what I would like to call the "culmination point."
Plainly, NATO generals are not a club of liars. But it is also the case that none of the above statements is true. They were not true at the time, and with the confidence of hindsight, we can say they are not true now. This presents problems.
A view may be taken that the speakers sincerely believed what they were saying at the time. But this invites the charge that NATO generals appear to manifest a capacity for not unimpressive self-delusion and misjudgement. Or one can argue that the speakers were being ‘politic’ – they were spinning. But this also leads down an uncomfortable road. Nobody has ever won a war by spinning and nobody ever will. Spinning does not honour the dead and the maimed, it insults them. In this characterization, arguments may be made that senior officers put careers ahead of truth telling. Either way, we are in choppy waters.
There is some way out of these distressing conclusions. A principal reason why NATO generals set their elbows to the turntable of spin was because they had little or no choice. A political ‘narrative’ – the message offered to electorates – asserted that ‘progress’ was being made. Short of resigning – which none saw fit to do and is a matter of personal conscience – NATO generals had little choice but to repeat this ‘positive spin’ message, notwithstanding that every intelligent commentator was reporting exactly the opposite message. It was, to misquote Kennedy, as if the two parties were talking about a completely different country.
Lest the breast-beating be overdone, it may also be acknowledged that the modern generals were following in a well-trodden path. MacArthur deliberately downplayed the threat of a Chinese intervention in Korea (when Truman posed the question, ‘What are the chances for Chinese or Soviet interference?’ MacArthur could not have offered a more useless answer: ‘Very little…We are no longer fearful of their intervention…); Paul Harkins deliberately removed red acetates indicating Viet Cong controlled areas when visitors from Washington arrived at the MACV HQ[v]; Maxwell Taylor in the Saigon Embassy censored reports that did not suggest the war was being won; and Westmoreland famously became embroiled in body count controversies. Most recently there has been a public spat in Washington over whether pessimistic intelligence assessments on the effects of the air campaign in Syria are being massaged for political reasons. There is a history here and ‘the credibility gap’ is not a thing of the past.
How We Liquidate Wars - The ‘Mysterious Calculus’ of Decision-makers
The arch-rationalist Robert McNamara observed that rationality will not save us (he was also an individual who quoted from TS Eliot’s Four Quartets so the ‘numbers man’ epithet is not fully deserved). An anonymous author in the ‘Pentagon Papers’ expressed the same idea at greater length:
‘Only upon the basis of interpretations (judgments) of the importance, meaning and relevance of things could policy be made. And that judgment or interpretation was seldom or never inescapably inherent in the measurable, sharply definable, completely unarguable concrete detail. It might be derived from or directly reflect such data, but its form would be determined equally, or even more, from the perspective in which it was viewed. And this perspective was comprised of the whole context of incompletely described, not fully identified values, and imperfectly described priorities, that determined the weight and place given to the factual detail in the mysterious calculus of the decision-maker. If this were not the case, any bright college boy given the same set of ‘facts’ would inevitably derive from them the same judgements of what national policy should be, as the canniest, most generally knowledgeable and experienced veteran’.[vi]
The point is well made. If it were just a matter of getting all the facts – and there is hardly a paucity of fact-getting in NATO assessments and intelligence staffs – then we could, theoretically, present all these amassed facts, the metrics, to a school boy, and they would be equally capable of offering credible strategic decision-making as a secretary of state. This does not happen for many reasons, some described in the above quote, but a more fundamental question may be asked: is the calculus of the decision-maker really all that mysterious?
ISAF’s exit from Afghanistan (all exit and no strategy, as Kissinger quipped) was not especially enigmatic, any more than the war itself. It was driven by electoral considerations and electoral cycles. The notion that ‘Inteqal’ (the strategy of ‘Transition’) was conditions-based was bunkum. All the many collected metrics, at operational or tactical levels, demonstrating ‘progress’ in the war and hence readiness for Transition, were irrelevant. NATO was liquidating the war, no matter what. It would be unfair to single out any particular NATO government, but it was plain that announcements on withdrawal and the actual withdrawals were being timed to coincide with elections or other domestic political considerations. The media of the respective countries were hardly going to fail to notice this, any more than intelligent commentators.
This raises the problem of the charge that NATO is only prepared to engage in military operations to the extent that they cause no political damage to incumbent governments. At the first whiff of lost votes, the game is over. If this is the case, all the prescriptive studies, essays and articles churned out in the defence world – hundreds every year, and some very good – are likely to serve little purpose. No metrics need to be collected in this world, other than voting intentions.
Getting Out of The Hole
British diplomat and head of the Lashkar Gah PRT, Hugh Powell, memorably quipped that the British Task Force in Helmand dug a very deep hole then spent eight years building a ladder trying to get out. The metaphor may have served as an epitaph for the entire ISAF mission. On the premise that NATO has no wish to dig itself into more holes, below are some ideas.
Drop ‘GWOT’ (And Every Other ‘Stupid Slogan’)
Whether or not one subscribes to the argument that NATO is entrapped in a jihadist domino theory, there may be agreement that orthodoxies are the enemy of lucid thought and ultimately clear strategic goal-setting. The Devil’s Advocate is not an irritant. It is the indispensable voice in any organization.
While wishing to avoid a potted history of the Middle East, the recent instability in the Arab world is just one of three bouts of turmoil in the last century. The first happened following the end of the First World War with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and emergence of Islamic awakening movements (a period which gave birth to ideas which are the ultimate roots of al-Qaeda). The second took place following the Second World War, in the post-colonial period, with the rise of pan-Arabism, secular ideologies like Ba’athism, the Arab-Israeli wars, and super power rivalry. And the most recent has been fermented by a wide range of causes, including injudicious Western interventions.
A most basic factor has simply been demographics, or the youth bulge. When the British handed over their Iraq mandate to King Faisal II, the population numbered some 5 million. Today there are roughly 30 million Iraqis, many young, angry, disenfranchised and unemployed. Special force raids have no answer to this. Other factors sapping social cohesion and challenging governments across the Arab world include lousy governance, endemic corruption, cultures of cronyism, inadequate education systems, a lack of opportunities, under-investment, a dreadful record on human rights, poor medical services, flaky infrastructure, and poverty. Drone strikes are mute when faced with this daunting range of problems. In a country like Yemen, the recent round of fighting is a continuation of a centuries’ old struggle between rival tribal and religious groups. Attempting to understand this complexity by peering down the narrow straw of ‘terrorism’ is barely adequate. The chances that sensible strategy will follow do not appear strong.
This is not to deny that there is an Islamist terrorism problem, but some perspective is necessary. Before the summer 2014 decision to intervene in Iraq and Syria, which has inevitably provoked retaliatory attacks (notably the Charlie Hebdo and Paris attacks), there were eleven deaths recorded in Europe from Islamist terrorism in that year.[vii] The British Home Office police alone kill more citizens in any one year (in 2013-14 there were 139 ‘deaths during or following police contact’).[viii] In the special case of the United States, some 12,000 Americans kill each other annually, with firearms, and without the intervention of Islamist terrorists. If ‘safeness’ really is NATO’s new mission there are many greater and contentious issues that may be addressed.
Each of the Muslim countries in conflict is different. Lumping all this complexity under the single tag ‘GWOT’ or any other label is unhelpful. From the perspective of the Arab street, the West is on a trajectory to a hundred year war against Islam. This is in nobody’s interest.
Base National Strategy on the Intelligence, Not the Other Way Round
This point seems obvious, if not insulting. Yet recent events suggest the dictum should be inscribed in stone and set on a plinth.
We know that within one week of the September 11 attacks, two senior members of the Bush cabinet recommended attacking Iraq, on no intelligence whatsoever. A more catastrophic example of the complete breakdown between the fundamental relationship between national strategic policy and intelligence would be hard to find. The moment, in the end, was only delayed by eighteen months. It would be too painful to rehearse the arguments around the flawed case for attacking Iraq on the grounds that the regime was secretly developing WMD. One may point to the British ‘September Dossier’ – a monumental national embarrassment – as an example of what happens when a strategic national decision is taken, and an intelligence community is subsequently asked to provide the ‘proof’ that the strategy is justified and correct.
We can suppose, from recent evidence to the UK Foreign Affairs Select Committee, that the NATO decision to intervene in Libya was similarly dubious. Again, it appears ‘the intelligence’ was pushed aside, if it was even generated and reflected on (a Western government declared that Ghaddafi ‘must go’ within a matter of days following the 17 February Tripoli riots, suggesting there was barely any reflection at all). In this campaign, testimony indicates the intervention was propelled by some effective lobby groups, domestic French politics, and a desire ‘to get him [Ghaddafi]’.[ix] None of these reasons - alone or together - justified toppling a foreign government, however unpleasant.
In tandem with this (reckless) strategic decision-making, a Western habit of demonising enemies, with the corollary angelization of ‘good rebels’, has been evident. This is proving a costly addiction. Characters like Saddam Hussein or Muammar Ghaddafi were hardly role models (North Koreas with palm trees as one journalist joked). Assad is not a saint. But nor were they the cartoon villains portrayed by Western politicians to justify military action. Until recently, Assad was lauded by the West as the man who ushered in ‘the Damascus spring’ and liberalisation of Syria, following the dour thirty year rule of his father. Today, he is one notch above Beelzebub. ‘The massacre of the Libyan people’ and ‘the butcher Assad’ belong in the same category as ‘GWOT’: these are chants, not reliable guides to wise foreign policy. The demonization somewhat passes over that the next lot may be a bunch of power-seeking crooks, and focusing on one individual barely addresses the myriad problems in the Arab world.
Champion a Culture of Honesty
It is not NATO’s function to act as a public relations firm in failing wars. At times, in the recent past, a jaundiced observer at press conferences may have wondered if this was so. The ‘credibility gap’ was not imagined. This is of course a euphemistic way of saying dishonesty seemed evident.
Donald Rumsfeld remarked, ‘Today we lack metrics to know if we are winning or losing the global war on terror’.[x] This isn’t true. There has never been a better time for anyone working in the field. There are numerous doctrinal pamphlets on the subject (for example, the 156 page ‘Commander’s Handbook for Assessment Planning and Execution’ J-7, 11 September 2011). The taxonomy has become baroque: Measures of Policy Effectiveness (MOPE), Measures of Operational Effectiveness (MOOE), Measures of Force Effectiveness (MOFE), Measures of Effectiveness (MOE), Measures of Performance (MOP), and Dimensional Parameters (DP).[xi] The literature on the subject is extensive. There is no shortage of measures, or people collecting data, or people writing about how to do it better. The problem with all this effort is that the official metrics always strangely point in one direction. They indicate that the policy, operations and tactics are being effective – even when it is plain to any outsider that they are not.
You cannot cheat your way to winning a war, any more than you can cheat the markets. You can certainly indulge in dodgy practices, hide losses, or deploy creative accounting techniques. But eventually you are caught. Nobody has succeeded in winning a war by pretence, or will.
Don’t Avoid ‘The Avoided Questions’
In the winter of 2002, a small team of UK scientists from the government-run Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) was despatched to the fledgling ISAF HQ in the old sports club in Kabul. Their mission was to come up with some measures of success for the nascent campaign. They eventually generated nineteen such parameters. Historically and with hindsight, there is a certain fascination over their mandate. Unbeknown to the team, they were the pioneers of a small army of such analysts who would generate metrics over the course of the fourteen year war. The total output would fill a long library shelf (the Asia Foundation annual survey on Afghanistan alone typically totalled some 150 pages dense with data). The interesting point about this output was that it was largely irrelevant to forecasting the success or failure of the mission (in the case of official metrics, of course, only success was ever going to be forecast anyway). The reason is that the factors determining the success or failure of the ISAF mission were both immeasurable (in the sense of significant), and not measurable.
Pakistani resentment and a desire to revenge itself by thwarting the ISAF mission could not be measured. Pashtun nationalism could not be measured. A visceral and traditional resistance to foreign armies in Afghanistan could not be measured. The will to win, manifested by the insurgents, could not be measured. The absence of a will to win, manifested by ISAF, could not be measured. Cultural and religious beliefs and the defence of those beliefs at any cost, could not be measured. A willingness to endure and outlast your enemies could not be measured. A centuries’ old history of fissiparous, internecine conflicts could not be measured. These were the ‘avoided questions’ that were always going to decide the course of the Afghanistan War, not metrics on whether the residents of Nad-e Ali District judged local governance very good, somewhat good, not good at all, poor, or don’t know.
There were certainly metrics that could be measured and which also pointed in the same unhappy direction – corruption and opium poppy cultivation, for example, in which categories Afghanistan is a champion nation – but these were somewhat downplayed. Metrics of violence – the number of insurgent attacks, IEDs, or combatant and non-combatant casualties, all showed consistent upward trends – but these numbers experienced a form of transubstantiation and were presented to Western electorates as ‘progress’. Quarterly, the British Foreign Secretary presented an Afghanistan progress report to Parliament. What else could it be but a ‘progress report’?
For half a century NATO was a dormant giant. At the beginning of this century, the sleep ended. The daylight has been harsh. This paper has made the argument that NATO has entered wars driven by ‘stupid slogans’. It has resorted to spin when the wars unravelled; and it has quit the same wars without strategic logic. At the core of this unhappy experience has been a breakdown in the relationship between strategic goal-setting and intelligence assessment, or our understanding of the strategic landscape. No amount of intelligence, historical understanding, metrics or assessments will make much of a difference if these are bypassed, manipulated, abused, downplayed or sacrificed on political altars. Warfare is an arena of honesty. You will be found out. If we persist down this road we are likely to experience more campaigns veering - as Vietnam historian Donald Mrozek unimpeachably put it - between ‘pathetic self-deception and the ache of irresolution’.
[i] Homer, The Iliad, Penguin Classics, translated by Robert Fagles, 1990.
[ii] WGBH Open Vault, Interview with Charles Sabatier, 1982.
[iv] For example, the list of important documents that cite the domino theory from 1961 to the Tonkin Gulf Incident include: Lansdale’s January 1961 status of Vietnam report; Gilpatric’s April 1961 Vietnam Task Force report; the 11 May 1961 NSAM 52; Johnson’s May 1961 South-East Asia visit report; Taylor’s 3 November 1961 report; McNamara’s 11 November 1961 memorandum to Kennedy; the 22 1961 November NSAM 111, 26 November 1963 NSAM 273, McNamara visit report March 1963, 16 March 1965 NSAM 288.
[v] Allen, George W., None So Blind, Ivan R. Dee, 2001, p.142.
[vi] Pentagon Papers, Part IV-C-1, p. 54.
[vii] http://csis.org/files/publication/151217_cordesman_keytrends_metrics_terrorism_0_0.pdf citing Vision of Humanity. Global terrorism Index Report, 2014 50-5148.
[x] Donald Rumsfeld, 16 October 2003.
[xi] From ‘Approach to Measures of Merit: Where does science end and art begin?’ Adam Siegel, Senior Analyst, Northrop Grumman Analyst Center.