Friday, May 15, 2009

Fort Palooka

The recent announcement of General David McKiernan’s permanent transfer to Fort Palooka is the latest punch line in our Bananastan farce. Defense secretary Robert Gates claims that McKiernan’s relief as commander in Afghanistan merely reflected a need for “fresh thinking,” but even the war mongrels on the rabid right can see it was a stratagem to make McKiernan the fall guy for all the collateral damage caused by the air strikes that President Obama authorized.

Ironically, Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal, McKiernan’s replacement, has a proven record of executing just the kinds of strikes McKiernan got fired for. On top of that, Obama still intends to send the 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan that McKiernan requested for no apparent reason. (When Obama asked him how he’d use the extra troops, McKiernan made the sound of sandbags forming a levee.)

So we’re on track to escalate a war for which the administration admits there is no military solution and continuing to employ attrition tactics that make more new bad guys than they attrite. It's enough to make Clausewitz claw at his coffin lid.

Here’s how you’re supposed to plan and execute a military strategy. You look at a situation and you decide what kind of political end state you want to achieve. Then you decide if you can formulate a feasible military objective that can accomplish the policy aim. Next you determine the adversary’s center of gravity, which is the thing (or collection of things) he can use to thwart your military plan, and the thing you have to defeat. Only when you’ve done those things do you begin to calculate how many troops you need to accomplish the mission, and after that you start working details like logistics.

But with our Bananastan strategy, we started with logistics and worked our way backwards. In January 2009, the Washington Post reported that the Army was already building $1.1 billion worth of Fort Palookas in Afghanistan to accommodate additional troops, and planned to begin spending an additional $1.3 billion on construction in 2010. That money started queuing up at the hopper well before McKiernan’s request for 30,000 additional troops became public. It’s a cherished military stratagem: throw bad seed money at whatever hooliganism you want; then Congress has to throw good money after it or be labeled as “weak on national security.”

Gates’s bull feather merchants had been making a show of working on a Bananastan strategy when they decided to let the stink roll uphill for a change. As the Post reported, they began “looking for Obama to resolve critical internal debates.” That’s a traditional military leadership technique known in the trenches as “the buck stops there.”

The White House national security team—laughably described by Robert Dreyfus in a recent Rolling Stone article as “Obama’s chess masters”—unveiled a white paper describing its new Bananastan strategy in late March. National Security Adviser James Jones and the rest of the chess club based their plan on “realistic and achievable” objectives that are fantastic and unattainable. We cannot, as they suggest, make stable governments in Afghanistan or Pakistan. “Increasingly self-reliant Afghan security forces” is a pipe dream that, even if it comes true, would simply give us one more armed outfit in the region that we can’t control. Their initiative for “involving the international community” makes one wonder if they’ve been paying attention at all. To hear Gates tell it, everything that’s gone wrong in the Bananastans is NATO’s fault, so why would we want more international involvement?

The most delusional aspect of the new strategy is its “core goal,” which is to “disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda and its safe havens.” Modern terrorists need safe havens like dolphins need power tools. The only sanctuary they need to plan and coordinate their operations is a pocket large enough to conceal an iPhone.

The white paper makes no mention of centers of gravity, critical strengths and vulnerabilities, measures of effectiveness, decisive points, courses of action, lines of operations, or any other term that belongs in a proper strategy involving military action. It contains a host of trendy platitudes about a “new way of thinking” and “building a clear consensus.” The paper even has talk of bringing non-military forms of power to bear, as if that’s something new. Information, diplomacy and economy were key elements of warfare long before Thucydides and Sun Tsu wrote on the subject around 400 BCE. And make no mistake; when a foreign policy action involves shooting people and blowing things up, it’s not “economic assistance” or “education and training.” It’s “war.”

When a strategy’s aphorisms morph into non-sequiturs, you know none of the think tankers involved with the project was doing any thinking, new or otherwise. “A strategic communications program must be created, made more effective, and resourced,” the chess set tells us in its white paper. I wonder which they’ll do first: create the program or make it more effective.

I’ve said before that in order to put an end to the American security state, Obama needs to order every military officer from the full bird level up to retire. It is now clear that he also needs to purge the defense apparatus of its thundering flock of foreign policy wonks. It may be that the generals and tank thinkers driving our ship of state will drop dead from brain hemorrhage before they make America the latest superpower to embalm itself in Afghanistan, but don't count on it.

I doubt if Obama will do what needs to be done. Look on the bright side, though. Athens produced most of the art and philosophy that defined western civilization only after it lost its wars with Persia and Sparta, so maybe America can still become Ronald Reagan's "shining city upon a hill.”

If we do, we’ll need a new generation of strategists who know that it’s better to charge down a hill than up one.

Commander Jeff Huber, U.S. Navy (Retired) writes at Pen and Sword. Jeff's novel Bathtub Admirals (Kunati Books), a lampoon on America's rise to global dominance, is on sale now.


  1. What on earth is Obama trying to achieve in Afghanistan? To be the first to win a war over the Afghans since Alexander the Great?

    And why are Americans there at all? Still hunting Usama bin Laden, or what? Working hard to create caos in Pakistan?

  2. We're there because there's a war to be had that justifies more than 50 percent of the Federal budget.


  3. Historically, conquering Afghanistan is easy. Surviving the experience, not so much.

    Why would Obama want to dismantle the National Security State? Why would any politician wish to diminish the power of government?

    Doesn't the "logistics-first" approach to the expanding Afghan debacle suggest the real aim of the whole project is wealth transfer to governmentally favored contractors?

  4. Sure, Victor, it's a military industrial revolution all the way.

  5. Hey Jeff, where have you been lately?

    We have been missing you, and hope to get you back on the radio soon.

    I fixed the link problem at wwl, and your adoring fans miss you badly. I've been caught up with my Mother in Law's dire illness, so haven;t been around as much.

    Great essay, as always!

  6. Jeff-
    We're looking for bloggers who write about Hampton Roads as well as those who can share a regional perspective of national issues as per the topics listed in our Call to Bloggers post: and as per our comment/post policy: .

    Our national affiliation project with PBS' NewsHour is looking for those “citizen journalists” who focus on the region’s economy. Please read through both links and see if your blog is a “fit” and send me an email.


  7. "It’s a cherished military stratagem: throw bad seed money at whatever hooliganism you want; then Congress has to throw good money after it or be labeled as “weak on national security.”"

    I never knew that before.

    Also. . .

    "It's enough to make Clausewitz claw at his coffin lid."

    Great line.

  8. Excellent article. I am going to post a link back to here over at Left Edge North. More should read this.

  9. Jeff,

    I found the NYT article on 5/13/09 about Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, "A General Steps From the Shadows", creepy and fawning. It was almost exactly the same myth making treatment Petreaus got when he was anointed the new golden boy. The Uber poet warrior scholar thing.

    The general "usually eats just one meal a day, in the evening, to avoid sluggishness..."? "He is known for operating on a few hours’ sleep and for running to and from work while listening to audio books on an iPod." According to Maj. Gen. William Nash, a retired officer, “He’s got all the Special Ops attributes, plus an intellect.” “He’s lanky, smart, tough, a sneaky stealth soldier.” Pat Tilliman's family can certainly attest to the sneaky part. "Most of what General McChrystal has done over a 33-year career remains classified, including service between 2003 and 2008 as commander of the Joint Special Operations Command, an elite unit so clandestine that the Pentagon for years refused to acknowledge its existence." "Most of his operations were conducted at night, but General McChrystal, described nearly universally as a driven workaholic, was up for most of the day as well." "General Stanley McChrystal was the fourth child in a family of five boys and one girl; all of them grew up to serve in the military or marry into it. They’re all pretty intense,” said Judy McChrystal, one of General McChrystal’s sisters-in-law."

    If the article is true, never a certainty with the NYT, I am sure he will fit in great with the Afghans. Just what we need if one ignores the fact that according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) published by the American Psychiatric Association, the General qualifies as a text book case for a half a dozen severe mental illnesses. That this is the kind of man selected to solve "our" problems in Afghanistan is all you need to know about what is wrong with US foreign policy.

  10. Yeah, Andy, he's a mental illness poster boy. I'd guess he's been going on three hours of sleep for decades. That will do strange things to you.


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