How Short-Term Thinking Makes the U.S. Worse at Fighting Wars

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From Vietnam to Afghanistan, 12-month deployments and institutional norms have made long-term planning more difficult.

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U.S. Army soldiers inspect the scene after an IED blast during a road clearance patrol in Logar province, Afghanistan. Reuters

In 2010, the U.S. adopted a new tactic in southern Afghanistan: it began to bulldoze entire villages to clear them of IEDs. The policy -- reminiscent of Vietnam, of destroying villages to save them -- spoke to a deeper issue with how the war was being fought. Short-term objectives were emphasized over long term planning or consequence management. Destroying villages carries enormous long-term costs for a region, and the U.S. military just wasn't paying attention to what those would be.

Soldiers, from the bottom of the ranks to the very top, are rarely sent into combat for longer than 12 months at a time. Thus, when they think about what they need to accomplish, they're thinking 12 months into the future. It's rare one can find even a four-star general who makes a campaign plan that reaches three or four years ahead.

In Vietnam, the short deployment cycle brought us the cliche that it wasn't a ten-year war, but a one year war fought ten times. This is also true in Afghanistan, where a dogged inability to learn from past mistakes defines military policy there: continued calls to build up tribal militias, create a separate local police, and repeatedly "sweep" areas of insurgents. The war effort has been spinning its wheels for years, in other words, which is why it seems to go nowhere despite all the public declarations of progress and turning points.

Is there a way to break out of this destructive spiral? This past week I was out at the Command General Staff College at Ft. Leavenworth, speaking with some majors who are studying how future small wars can be made better and smarter. They were an impressive bunch, grappling with huge issues in how both Afghanistan and Iraq failed to work out the way proponents or supporters thought it would. We discussed how we can better plan for operations and management in future stability operations or even counterinsurgencies (should one come about any time soon).

We arrived at an early consensus: the U.S. government is terrible at identifying and managing consequences in foreign conflicts. Bulldozing a village in Afghanistan creates enormous dependencies -- homeless people who need to be housed and fed, the reassignment of land rights in an area where they were never formalized, the destruction and then restarting of economic activity, and the possible reassignment of power relationships are just a few of the serious problems that are created by destroying a village in rural Afghanistan.

Luckily, not many villages have been bulldozed. Still, the U.S. government has made other, smaller missteps. Something as simple as giving a poor, small community the money to build things and buy food can create enormous ripple effects. That community had established relationships with nearby communities, and a settled hierarchy for self-government; adding money into that mix -- in some cases hundreds of millions of dollars a month -- destroys that fragile equilibrium. Now, that may not always be a bad thing, especially if the equilibrium is abusive, but upending it has long-term costs that need to be accounted for but currently aren't.

Is there a way to plan for such a thing? In a direct way, there is not -- humans are not very good at predicting the precise consequences of our behavior. But what can happen is for us to change our perspective. For example, why not assume that sending troops somewhere constitutes a long-term commitment? 

Think of this way: when have ground troops been committed for a short-term project? It happens in some places -- Somalia in 1992, Haiti in 1994 -- but for the most part, when boots are put on the ground, they stay there for a long time. There are still 6,000 NATO troops in Kosovo, 13 years after intervening there. They still face some attacks, and Kosovar troops depend on NATO for resupply. This intervention was initially sold as a limited thing, lasting just a few months and using only air power. It has lasted well over a decade in part because, in the initial stages of the intervention, few thought there would need to be a long term presence there, and fewer still ever planned for it.

In 2002, few thought there would be 80,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan in 2012, to say nothing of 2014. As a result, the war never benefited from long-term planning or sufficient efforts to grapple with the long-term consequences of short-term U.S. and NATO decisions. If a commander didn't assume soldiers a decade later would still be dealing with the consequences of his decisions, he wouldn't make decisions that accounted for things in a decade's time -- hence, he'd make decisions with an eye only on short term gain and wouldn't keep track of consequences down the line (and future commanders might not have enough information to trace current problems back to earlier decisions).

I put this question to the majors in the classroom: what if you just assume there will still be troops there in five years? What if you assume there will be political, social, and economic consequences to your tactical decisions, and what if you assume you won't always know when they'll strike or how they'll affect future units?

It was like a lightbulb went off. This matched so much of what they'd experienced on multiple combat tours -- a confusing mixture of actions and consequences that happened so often, and with such confusing regularity (given how often units rotated in and out of the warzones) that they had an extremely difficult time keeping up.

Unfortunately, there is no easy solution once you realize a problem like this. Deployments are limited to 12 months or less because of the severe strain deploying puts on soldiers and their families. In a small, messy war that relies on commanders being politicians as often as military leaders, handing over relationships from one rotation to the next is no simple task, and often requires more time than the usual RIP/TOA process. 

Still, small changes to perspective can at least help commanders get better advice from their subordinates. Asking what happens two years after a troop movement or an air assault into somewhere, for example, can yield a dramatically different sense of what an operation will accomplish instead of thinking about three weeks down the road. Similarly, gauging success shouldn't happen at the end of a deployment, but at the end of the effects of that deployment's decisions -- which can sometimes be years later.

The military bureaucracy is unlikely to adopt a more long-term perspective on the conflicts it fights or in how it rewards the soldiers who fight them. Waiting for years to evaluate a commander's decisions is just not practical, and it's rare that a commander will even be in place long enough to see through a years-long campaign plan. I'm not sure yet if there even is a practical way to start making better plans for future conflicts. But even just thinking about them a bit differently -- assuming they will be long-term, and assuming there will be long-term consequences to every action and decision -- would go a long way toward making us smarter the next time we go to war.

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Joshua Foust is a fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. He is also a member of the Young Atlanticist Working Group. More

Joshua's research focuses on the role of market-oriented development strategies in post-conflict environments, and on the development of metrics in understanding national security policy. He has written on strategic design for humanitarian interventions, decision-making in counterinsurgency, and the intelligence community's place in the national security discussion. Previous to joining ASP, Joshua worked for the U.S. intelligence community, where he focused on studying the non-militant socio-cultural environment in Afghanistan at the U.S. Army Human Terrain System, then the socio-cultural dynamics of irregular warfare movements at the National Ground Intelligence Center, and later on political violence in Yemen for the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Joshua is a columnist for PBS Need to Know, and blogs about Central and South Asia at the influential blog Registan.net. A frequent commentator for American and global media, Joshua appears regularly on BBC World, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua is also a regular contributor to Foreign Policy's AfPak Channel, and his writing has appeared in the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor.

 

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