Do We Want Our ‘Government in a Box’?

You know things are going badly overseas when the military starts complaining that it’s taking on too much of the burden.

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in prepared remarks given at Kansas State University on March 3, all but suggested that the military’s vaunted "Government in a Box" strategy was missing a bunch of pieces, and that the "Whole of Government" approach (that’s Government in a Box 1.0, coined last year by Gen. David Petraeus) was falling short of its goals in Afghanistan.

"My fear, quite frankly, is that we aren’t moving fast enough in this regard," Mullen said. "U.S. foreign policy is still too dominated by the military, too dependent on the generals and admirals who lead our major overseas commands, and not enough on the State Department."

So it’s the State Department’s fault. One wonders if things aren’t going so well in Marjah, Afghanistan – that is, Operation Moshtarak – after all.

The full-on PR apparatus, including Defense Secretary Bob Gates (who gave his interviews last week, curiously, from the virtual ghost town of Zad in Kandahar province, not Marjah), assures us that the Marjah campaign is a "good start." But signs indicate that Moshtarak hasn’t exactly been a game-changer, and may just end up mooring two U.S. Marine battalions there unnecessarily through the summer, according to critics in a Washington Post analysis published on Sunday.

First of all, the "city," a Taliban "stronghold" of 600 insurgents was "cleared" by 10,000 International Security Forces (ISAF) in a few days, though no one really knows how many Taliban beat feet when NATO announced its attack weeks before. Despite the hype, curious reporters and bloggers soon got wise to the fact that Marjah wasn’t a teeming metropolis at all. In fact, "senior officials" at the White House and Pentagon are now openly wondering why the Marines went to Marjah in the first place.

"Some senior officials at the White House, at the Pentagon, and in McChrystal’s headquarters would rather have many of the 20,000 Marines who will be in Afghanistan by summer deploy around Kandahar, the country’s second-largest city, to assist in a U.S. campaign to wrest the area from Taliban control instead of concentrating in neighboring Helmand province and points west. According to an analysis conducted by the National Security Council, fewer than 1 percent of the country’s population lives in the Marine area of operations.

“‘What the hell are we doing?’ the senior official said. ‘Why aren’t all 20,000 Marines in the population belts around Kandahar city right now? It’s [Taliban leader] Mullah Omar’s capital. If you want to stuff it to Mullah Omar, you make progress in Kandahar. If you want to communicate to the Taliban that there’s no way they’re returning, you show progress in Kandahar.'”

The real news to come out of last week, however, is that the civilian administrator they’re installing in Marjah was once jailed for stabbing his 18-year-old stepson with a kitchen knife, and the so-called Government in a Box that was supposed to spring into action seems to be stalled in customs. Scratch that – there are fantastic blueprints, $500 million in available funding, and a district support team made up of two Brits and four Americans civilians in place to start delivering services to the rattled people there (who, by the way, were so grateful for the invasion that they proceeded to bawl out a visiting Hamid Karzai last week).

According to this report, upward of 4,275 predominantly farming families may have fled ahead of the fighting. Those who are left remain mired in poverty, surrounded by buried land mines and IEDs. There are even reports that Taliban who were supposed to be "cleared" are beheading residents suspected of collaborating with the Americans.

Possibly the most telling international response to the campaign was from the Russian ambassador to NATO, who, noting the big ISAF hammer brought in to hit the tiny Taliban nail in Marjah, shared his skepticism with reporters over the operation’s "success."

”So the result [of the Marjah offensive] was that the mountain shook, but only a mouse was born,” he said citing a Russian proverb no doubt popular when the Russians got their own dupas kicked in Afghanistan 20 years ago.

So I am betting that by the end of the week, despite a shaken mountain, a still unknown number of insurgents killed, and a new, albeit temperamentally-challenged administrator in place, the window of opportunity for Marjah to serve as the shining ratification of the Petraeus- McChrystal Long War strategy will have closed, with the focus then shifting guilelessly to brighter PR opportunities (and bigger challenges) in Kandahar.

Pentagon vs. Foggy Bottom

Back to Adm. Mullen. As Long War antagonist and journalist Gareth Porter suggested to me, "Nothing Mike Mullen says is off the cuff." Mullen’s veiled rebuke of the non-defense federal agencies in relation to national security overseas was part of his prepared remarks, leading Porter to suggest that the Pentagon "is always worried about taking the blame … there is always a great sensitivity (to this) and so they’re making sure they will not be de-legitimated."

This of course is not new. And besides the blame game, the cajoling, reprimanding, and sometimes outright bullying of the State Department specifically – not to mention the special condescension and disdain military types typically reserve for Foreign Service officers in the field – has been pretty consistent since 9/11, rendering State pretty ineffective in budget and policy battles and looking impotent overall.

Ironically, it was the complete domination of senior civilians at the Pentagon and, no matter how much Frederick Kagan denies it today, an over-reliance on American Enterprise Institute fellows and associates (who detested the State Department) in the Iraq War planning that led to the disastrous post-invasion phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

From Knight-Ridder, July 12, 2003:

"The small circle of senior civilians in the Defense Department who dominated planning for postwar Iraq failed to prepare for the setbacks that have erupted over the past two months.

"The officials didn’t develop any real postwar plans because they believed that Iraqis would welcome U.S. troops with open arms and Washington could install a favored Iraqi exile leader as the country’s leader. The Pentagon civilians ignored CIA and State Department experts who disputed them, resisted White House pressure to back off from their favored exile leader and when their scenario collapsed amid increasing violence and disorder, they had no backup plan. …

"The Pentagon group insisted on doing it its way because it had a visionary strategy that it hoped would transform Iraq into an ally of Israel, remove a potential threat to the Persian Gulf oil trade, and encircle Iran with U.S. friends and allies. The problem was that officials at the State Department and CIA thought the vision was badly flawed and impractical, so the Pentagon planners simply excluded their rivals from involvement."

Despite these widely accepted charges and Donald Rumsfeld’s disgraced exit as secretary of defense in 2006, the military continued to dominate every aspect of the U.S. presence in Iraq, including traditionally non-military functions, such as humanitarian aid, reconstruction, and public diplomacy. But officials continue to spin this as a "burden" on the military.

Take public diplomacy, for example. The military continues to say that State is incapable of carrying it out on its own. For sure – the military continues to blow away its increasingly weak sister agency with bigger appropriations and staff, and has long been happy to roll public diplomacy into its own gargantuan Strategic Communications matrix, forcing Foggy Bottom to busy itself at the margins.

From my own report, "Spinning Out of Control" in January’s American Conservative magazine:

"[Sources] insist the DOD was forced to take over public diplomacy because the State Department was unable to step up. Indeed, defense spending dwarfs international-affairs outlays by a ratio of 17 to 1, according to national-security expert Lawrence Korb. So while the military says it does not want to bear the brunt, public diplomacy in its many forms will become a permanent part of the Armed Forces within the expanding StratComm enterprise. ‘We have some formal processes in place and we’re starting to pour cement into them,’ said the IO (information operations) defense official who spoke with TAC.

"Not everyone is comfortable with this. The House Armed Services and Appropriations Committees have been teasing apart the shadowy StratComm budget, which includes an eye-popping $626 million for IO in fiscal year 2010."

The standard complaint is that Foggy Bottom doesn’t fight for resources and programs. The numbers don’t lie: The proposed DOD FY 2010 budget is $708 billion, and that doesn’t include war expenses. Compare this with $52 billion over at State – and that does include all USAID assistance and all U.S. embassy programs and services in Afghanistan and Iraq today.

But it’s not just the funding, it’s what is done with the funding, and there are many examples of the DOD getting its way and belly-bumping weaker agencies to the sidelines. For all of Mullen’s talk about the State Department sharing the burden, the Pentagon has routinely fought for and won more influence in how money is spent in the war. The most recent fight was only two months ago:

From The Cable, Jan. 20:

"DOD and State have been fighting vigorously over who would be in charge of large swaths of the foreign assistance budget, billions of dollars in total that are used to aid and work with governments all over the world. Both Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have emphasized the need to rebalance national security spending away from the military and toward the diplomatic core, but behind the scenes their offices have struggled to determine where the lines should be drawn. …

"One big chunk of funding at issue is in foreign security assistance, known as the ‘1206’ account, which could total about $500 million next year. This is money used to do things like military training and joint operations with countries outside of Iraq and Afghanistan, such as Indonesia and Somalia.

"Since the military doesn’t have the lead in those countries, the funding should flow through State, right? Well, not in 2011. The president’s budget will keep those funds in the Pentagon’s purse in its Feb. 1 budget release, following a pitched internal battle in which the State Department eventually conceded."

One wonders about all of the bureaucratic arm wrestling. Much of it is the timeless turf war. But I think it may be more than that.

Tucked away in the Christian Science Monitor‘s analysis of the admiral’s aforementioned remarks, is a brief quote from John Nagl, former senior aide to Rumsfeld, who post-Rummy became not only a civilian, but a COIN devotee and eager spokesman. He now resides as president of the Center for a New American Security, house organ of the Long War enterprise.

On the issue of federal agencies –including State, the FBI, even the Department of Agriculture – someday transforming to become more "expeditionary in nature," with a greater willingness to operate in the world’s conflict zones, Nagl said, "The scope and scale of the change required is probably generational. That doesn’t mean we don’t start now."

That’s it – this is less about affixing blame for the uninspiring progress on the ground than it is about the military not getting its way. In other words, it’s fed up with the non-military agencies’ failure to get with the Long War program because of some "antiquated view of how the U.S engages overseas," or to find enough volunteers to leap into a warzone half a world away for a cause no one seems able to agree upon.

It started with the Iraq war, with that yawning divide between the neoconservative war planners at the Pentagon and the State Department, which saw much of the plan as folly. After the Surge Myth was firmly established, things seemed to perk up, and an "Interagency Counterinsurgency Manual" was quickly shoved at the agencies before President Bush hit the road in January 2009.

But try as it may, the State Department just isn’t coming through for the team. Even with more funds and hawk Hillary Clinton at the helm, the U.S. embassy in Afghanistan is a top-heavy bureaucratic disaster in the making (not far from its Iraqi counterpart), the "civilian surge" is barely hobbling forward, and USAID is struggling to promote development against one of the most corrupt governments in the world.

Maybe it’s very simple; maybe it’s not supposed to work.

That doesn’t seem to occur to Mullen and Gates, not to mention surrogates like Nagl, whose vision of the future involves many boxes packed with federal-agencies-on-the-go parachuting into the next "conflict zone" in order to "change entire societies" [.pdf]. Perhaps not in Marjah or Kandahar, but they’ll find some place to make it work. In the meantime, just blame the State Department.

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.