Why Have the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan Been So Corrosive of Civil-Military Relations?

October 18, 2010

By Michael Desch

The title of Bob Woodward's new book Obama's Wars is ambiguous: Is he referring to the two on-going wars the United States is waging in Iraq or Afghanistan? But only Afghanistan can fairly be called "Obama's war," and Iraq gets very short shrift here. Why then the plural
"wars?"

Like Woodward's previous series of books Bush at War, Obama's Wars is as much, if not more, about the political war at home as it is about the war in Afghanistan itself. Of course, every war involves lots of domestic debate and struggle, and bureaucratic politics hardly wane when the balloon goes up, but the United States' most recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been notable in that they have sparked more civil-military conflict on the home front than we've seen since the Vietnam War.

Low-intensity conflict between the Obama administration and the key elements of the U.S.
military charged with conducting the war in Afghanistan (ISAF Commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal, CENTCOM commander Gen. David Petraeus, and Chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen) is such a constant theme in Woodward's account that the president feels the need in his valedictory interview to deny that civil-military conflict over the strategy and force-levels of the Afghanistan war is as bad as it had been during the Vietnam War (p. 377).

If civil-military relations aren't that bad, then why even mention them? The answer is clear: The Iraq and Afghan wars have seriously frayed the fabric civil-military in the United States, perhaps not yet at the level of the Vietnam War, but certainly heading in that direction.

Beginning with the pre-Iraq war debate between Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz over the appropriate force levels for the Phase IV operation in Iraq, continuing through the so-called "revolt of the generals" over Iraq strategy as the situation there deteriorated, and culminating in the contentious fall 2009 Afghan strategy review, these wars have divided civilian leaders and important segments of the military in a way not seen since the rancorous civil-military debates about the conduct of the Vietnam War of the late 1960s.

These battles are for high stakes. Witness the spectacles of a civilian official like Wolfowitz with no military experience publicly dismissing as "widely off the mark" the Army Chief of Staff's estimates of appropriate force levels (which the latter calculated based on his direct experience in peace-keeping operations in the Balkans) to the former ISAF commander and his staff popping-off to Rolling Stone magazine about the foibles of some of the key national security players in the Obama White House. For those who might take comfort in the fact that Obama fired the ham-handed McChrystal and replaced him with the much smoother (but also far more politically engaged Gen. David Petraeus, Woodward's book offers small comfort. If anything, Petreaus presents a far more difficult challenge for the commander-in-chief precisely because of his political acumen and close ties with Republicans like Senator Lindsey Graham, which Woodward amply documents.

Read the rest here.

Posted by coalition at October 18, 2010 03:33 PM

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