Patricia DeGennaro Headshot

President Obama: Afghanistan Needs More Than a Military Solution

Posted: Updated:

The news media has an annoying tendency to focus on the symptoms, not the disease.

This is especially obvious in its coverage of the "rift" in President Obama's national security team, as illustrated by General Stanley McChrystal's decision to lobby Europe for increased troop levels in Afghanistan.

This effort by the commander of the US military and NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), does not merely signify a rift. It signifies that our civilian leadership is in danger of abdicating its authority over the military.

Because the military has become the "go-to" choice for conducting US foreign policy, it's no wonder General McChrystal felt he could (and should) go directly to the Europeans to plead the case for his Afghanistan plan. The civil service no longer has the capacity to perform its national security duties, so the military has stepped up to the plate. It no longer has the capacity because, during the early '90s, our infinitely wise Congress outsourced foreign policy decision-making to various think tanks. These "idea centers," many highly partisan and faith-based, have elevated bickering, bias and bullheaded resistance to critical analysis to an art form. They have replaced constructive dialog with petty debates, putting our nation in jeopardy.

Congress counts on others to ask the hard questions about foreign policy -- questions rarely answered by the State Department (which makes little effort to demonstrate its value). Meanwhile, having done its homework, the military usually makes an expert case to justify additional allocations of money, influence and power from Congress.

Defense Secretary Gates' call to "focus our energies beyond the guns and steel of the military" was apparently lost on the legislators. When the Obama Administration asked for a $53 billion (27%) increase in the international affairs budget, both the House and Senate reduced it considerably. Instead, they added $23 billion to the Defense Department's $533 billion request. This DOD increase represents almost the entire amount given to USAID annually.

Secretary Gates notes that there are more people on an aircraft carrier than "seasoned diplomats" in the State department. State has about 6,600 people, not all of them professional attachés, while the DOD oversees more than 2 million soldiers -- all of them professionals.

The men who designed our Constitution to ensure civilian control of the armed forces would find this alarming, as do some military professionals. General John Abizaid, former Central Commander of the US Army, believes it challenges the parameters of the US Constitution.

Conversely, General Anthony Zinni (Abizaid's predecessor) has no problem with military-led teams that contain some civilian personnel. He believes that State and USAID do not need to demonstrate strategic foresight, recommending that the military spearhead all planning and strategic measures. In places like Afghanistan and Iraq, this is already happening.

As he said in a speech to the New American Foundation, "the Department of State and USAID [are not able] to change their operational dynamics to confront the realities of state-building in conflict areas and to embrace 'smart power' in substance rather than rhetoric." General Zinni does have a point. It's hard to find anyone in State or AID who's scrambling to plan for the next set of national security challenges.

To make matters worse, Congress has systematically ignored the weakening of the civilian foreign policy sector. Instead of pushing to keep the US civilian force agile and strong, many congressmen are fine with having the military hire, train and mobilize their own forces.

Therefore, the real question is, Will the US commit to bolstering its civil service needs or continue to maintain the current trend toward increased military authority over foreign policy? (I wouldn't bet on the former.)

Obama's team must put the civilian-military issue in the forefront of discussions. They are now facing some controversial decisions regarding a troop buildup in Afghanistan, a place that seems to defy a military solution. How will Obama's team fill the civilian gap? The US needs a robust civilian counterpart to the military to help Afghanistan move beyond war.

It's time for our civilian departments to make some changes. Since the Secretaries of State and Defense seem to be pretty inseparable these days, it would behoove them to chart a cooperative course for the future -- one that makes clear distinctions between civilian and military authority.

The Department of State must create a new structure for the world's future foreign policy challenges. Thoughtful planning and sufficient allocations from Congress are a must.

Civilian recruitment efforts must focus on locating individuals who are dedicated to the national interests -- not those of a political party or ideology. It is essential to tap a wide variety of experts to produce well-rounded policy options. These recruits must be as comfortable donning a pair of jeans, to work hand-in-hand with the locals, as they are stepping into suits. And all of them must be fluent in the cultures, history and languages of the countries where they operate.

Our civilian and military servants must train together, learning how to communicate across their own cultures. There should be teams that integrate civilian and military personnel, as well as "sector-segregated" teams that work parallel to one another.

The balance between civilian and military leadership must be restored, and restored soon. Otherwise Generals other than McChrystal -- possibly some self-styled Douglas MacArthur -- may step out further of bounds, endangering America's democratic form of government.