Journal: Afghanistan, Sun Tzu, State, & “Intelligence”

Methods & Process, Policy, Strategy
Chuck Spinney

This post has four parts:  1)  Chuck Spinney's long commentary; 2)  The original article with attachments from TruthDig; 3)  a ripost making three points about Chuck's comments; 4) Chuck's answer and a short comment from Robert Steele

The Eikenberry Cables Turn Sun Tzu on His Head: Domestic Politics and the Art of Asymmetrical Bureaucratic War

In the opening line of Book 1 of Sun Tzu's classic, The Art of War (circa 400 BC), the first treatise ever written on the subject, the Chinese master said,”War is a matter of vital importance to the State; the province of life and death; the road to survival or ruin.  It is mandatory that it be thoroughly studied.” [1]  He then goes on to describe a systematic method for assembling the information needed to make a rational decision to go to war.   Today, in Pentagonese, we would call his method a “net assessment,” that is to say Sun Tzu described a very thoughtful way to perform a comparative analysis of one's own strengths and weaknesses with those of the adversary.

Sun Tzu's strategic outlook is amazingly relevant to contemporary circumstances; indeed, it is timeless, and I submit it provides the gold standard for for evaluating our own efforts to grapple with the question of going to war or to escalate a war — basically, his advice was simple: know your enemy and know yourself before plunging into war.

When the wisdom of Sun Tzu's gold standard is compared to the crude domestic political machinations used to steamroller President Obama into escalating the war in Afghanistan, a horrifying picture emerges at the most basic of level decision making.  The public debate concentrated on only one side of that net assessment — the side advocating escalation, and even the argument for that side was conceptually flawed in that it did not examine its own strengths and weaknesses.

The recently leaked cables by Ambassador Karl Eikenberry (attached below or here) bring this imbalance into sharp relief.  Eikenberry raised some thoughtful objections to the McChrystal/Petraeus/Gates/Clinton escalation plan from the perspective of its limitations on “knowing ourselves” (US, Karzai government, and the Afghan security forces).  He did not really address the strengths and weaknesses on other side of the net assessment–i.e., those of our adversaries.  But his analysis is damning enough.   Eikenberry's objections were sent to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in secret cables.  Presumably President Obama studied them prior to his decision to accede to the escalation pressures.  Eikenberry's analyses are both an interesting and important counterpoints to what I still believe was an ill advised decision.

Bear in mind, as far as public awareness is concerned, the McChrystal plan, which was also secret, was leaked in redacted form to the Washington Post well before Mr. Obama caved into the domestic political pressures for escalation — in fact, that leak was part of a carefully orchestrated public political steamroller to pressure Mr. Obama to accede to the escalation.  Yet McChrystal's escalation plan was by no means a self evident winner.   In fact, it was conceptually flawed in its own terms — — namely that McChrystal failed to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of the Afghan National Security Forces, yet his whole strategy depended depended on a rapid increase in the effectiveness of those forces.  My discussion of this flaw, as well as the raw political character of the escalation steamroller, can found herehere, and here.   In short, there is very little evidence that the proponents of escalation on our side did the kind of systematic analysis advocated by Sun Tzu to really “know ourselves,” let alone know the enemy.

On the other hand, Amb. Eikenberry's thoughtful objections to that escalation plan at least provided some first order information to redress one side of this conceptual disaster.  While his objections were reported in very general terms prior to the escalation decision, they were not leaked to the press (NYT) until well after Mr. Obama's decision.  So, given the asymmetric leaking tactics in the bureaucratic war, the net result was that the public and the Congress were presented with a one-sided picture of the debate over a vital question of state — and this lopsided picture was then pounded into the people, the Congress, and the President by the thumping echo chamber of hysterical warmongers in the mainstream electronic media and talk radio.

So, I pose a question: Read the Eikenberry cables and then ask yourself whether we the people and our representatives in Congress would have had a more constructive political debate over this most vital of questions if the details of Ambassador Eikenberry's objections were known and understood to the same extent as the details of the escalation plan were understood prior to Mr. Obama's decision.

[1] Samuel B. Griffith, Sun Tzu: The Art of War, Oxford University Press, 1963, p. 63.

Full Documentation Online

The Eikenberry Cables

The now-famous Eikenberry Cables of November 2009 outline the opposition of Karl Eikenberry, U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, to sending more troops to that country. They were recently leaked to the New York Times, and you can read them in full below.

Below the fold:   three exchanges with some links.

I received the following three reservations concerning the subject email, and the writer, who must remain anonymous, makes good points  … Indeed, I thought about point 1 before I sent, but decided not to get into that … in retrospect, that was clearly a mistake. Point 2 is important and I wish I had thought of it.   With regard to point 3, the writer is correct, but I would counter by saying a more open debate might lead to more salutary political debate by all parties. … perhaps that is naive.


The only reservations I have with respect to your assessment is the following:

1.      You are making an a priori assumption that Obama was “steamrollered” into the escalation decision. He may have been, but it may also have involved his own independently developed domestic political calculation. After all, Obama the politician had already established the dichotomy of “Iraq, the bad war versus Afghanistan, the good war” in the campaign. A lot of his followers only heard about Iraq being the bad war and tuned out the implications of the rest. And after his election, he made numerous statements fully consistent with the possibility he would escalate. McChrystal and others no doubt lobbied heavily for the escalation, but they may have simply been pushing him in the direction he wanted to go. In a sense, the myth that Obama was “pushed” into the escalation by the evil Military-Industrial Complex may be an alibi Obama might like his base to think.

2.      It’s Machiavellian, but why assume the McChrystal leaks were the sole responsibility of McChrystal? He may simply have had the approval of the West Wing to leak them. Likewise the bottling up of the Eikenberry memos. All White Houses play games with selective leaks to reinforce their predetermined policy direction.

3.      The significance of the delay in publication of the Eikenberry memos until after the decision had been announced may be overstated. Presumably, as you stated, Obama would have had access to them before he announced the decision. In that case, he obviously did not heed them, and their public non-existence at that time was only marginally relevant. Congress didn’t know about them: really, so what? These days, Congress only functions in national security matters as a kind of Greek Chorus or “noises off.” They emphatically do not make (or even significantly influence) decision-making before the fact. The idea that had a group of skeptical Congressional Democrats known of the memo, they would have marched into the Oval Office and dissuaded Obama, is possible but unlikely. The dynamics of Washington don’t seem to work that way.

Robert Steele comments:

Chuck, the BIG FLAW in #3 is the assumption that the President was given access to all the facts.  I am quite sure the President was not well served by his intelligence community or his personal (partisan) staff of loyalits.  Mort Halperin wroteBureaucratic Politics and Foreign Policy to outline the rules of the game, and the rule that got my attention was “lie to the President if you think you can get away with it.”  State is not a major player, as best I can see.  What Obama SHOULD have been reading was the UN memorandum on the whole mess.  Obama is NOT making decisions based on full unbiased reporting.  I am also reminding of David Ellsberg's remarks to Heniry Hissinger,as found in Secrets–A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers

The danger is, you’ll become like a moron. You’ll become incapable of learning from most people in the world, no matter how much experience they have in their particular areas that may be much greater than yours” [because of your blind faith in the value of your narrow and often incorrect secret information].

We do not have a national security or national governance system in place–nothing such as Senator Sam Nunn (D-GA) understood was needed: understand ALL the threats, create a strategy that addresses ALL the threats, then create a force structure and campaign plans that address ALL the threats, and do all of this WITHIN YOUR MEANS.  Not even close.  Using the Director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) as a prime example, I am stunned by the number of dilletants and paper pushers we have in decision positions, all severely lacking in real world knowledge.

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