Today's Sobering Reading on the Afghanistan Disaster

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Over the decades I've often quoted the analyses and judgments of Franklin "Chuck" Spinney. In the late 1970s and early 1980s he was part of an influential group of defense analysts (along with John Boyd, Pierre Sprey, Tom Amlie, Tom Christie, and others) whose work I described in National Defense. That is him, on the cover of Time magazine 30 years ago, at the right.

Then during the 2008 campaign he made a number of calls and projections that seem obviously true in retrospect but were at odds with "savvy" political wisdom at the time. You can see samples here, here, and here.

Spinney is back on the geo-strategic beat, with a dispatch arguing that the situation in Afghanistan is turning into an all-fronts disaster for the United States, and that the only positive outcome would involve (a) recognizing that fact, and (b) looking honestly at the sources of failure so as to reduce chances of their repetition. He is experienced enough to know that it often is impossible to draw honest lessons from failure, or even to admit or recognize it. But just after an election, at a time when the Afghan issue is less politicized than it has been (and perhaps should be), and when a new secretary of defense is about to take charge, is a good time to try.

Please read Spinney's entire dispatch. But here is a central part of his argument, which involves the logic of the Afghan "surge" that Gen. Stanley McChrystal and others persuaded a new President Obama to support in 2009:

The problem is not just a strategic one of extracting our forces with dignity; nor is it a political one of fingering who is to blame, although there is plenty of blame to go around. It stems from deep institutional roots that reveal a need for reform in our military bureaucracies and particularly our leadership selection policies.

That is because the next Secretary of Defense must deal with the consequences of a strategic oversight that was made by and approved at the highest professional levels of the American military establishment -- a plan which it then imposed on its weak and insecure political leaders.  This suggests a question: Will the new defense secretary succumb to business as usual by sweeping the dysfunctional institutional causes of the Afghan debacle under the rug or have the courage and wisdom to use this sorry affair as a reason to clean out the Pentagon's Augean Stables?
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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