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 December 2009 

Lt. Gen. Lawrence P. Farrell, Jr., USAF (Ret)Before War Strategy Is Settled, Political Aims Must Be Defined

December 2009

by Lt. Gen. Lawrence P. Farrell, Jr., USAF (Ret) 

Amid uncertainty and unease about the future of the U.S. military in Afghanistan, it may be worth looking back at how the nation coped with similar circumstances in decades past.

In "The American Way of War: A History of United States Military Strategy and Policy," Russell F. Weigley cites nine "Principles of War" that date back to 1921, when the War Department published training regulations No. 10-5.

The first of these was the "principle of the objective," which is defined as a clear, decisive, and attainable target. Today, the U.S. Army field manual FM-3 has the same list. Although some of the terms were slightly changed, the focus on having a clear objective remains remarkably consistent with the 1921 version.

Military operations always must start with a clearly stated goal. That sounds simple enough, but it is not, because the objective also must be based on a larger political goal that may be tough to define.

In his classic military treatise, "On War," Carl von Clausewitz says that conflict is merely the continuation of policy by other means. Further, he states that the "political objective is the goal, war is the means of reaching it, and means can never be considered in isolation from their purposes."

Today, it is common to hear TV pundits and newspaper columnists opining on the U.S. military strategy for Afghanistan: What tactics should be pursued, what troop levels are appropriate, what is the proper mix of forces, what rules of engagement should be in place, what military capabilities should or could be employed, and so on. Seldom do we hear or read a discussion of what the "political objective" should be or even whether anyone has articulated the political aims for the use of military force in that country.

The importance of clear political objectives can't be overstated. It is not possible in the first instance to set up achievable military objectives, lacking clear political objectives, since the success of the military strategy and objectives can only be judged on whether they help to achieve the political ends. Lacking precise political goals, military operations will drift, lose focus and more importantly, lose the public’s support.

In a recent edition of The Washington Post, Bob Woodward and Gordon Goldstein wrote "The Anguish of Decision," based on the final interviews with Robert McNamara and McGeorge Bundy, and their thoughts on the lessons of Vietnam. The major focus was on internal politics, not strategy. They never reviewed or questioned the political objectives for the war — whether they were clear from the outset, morphed as the war went on, or even whether they were understood by the American public. One quote is telling. Bundy said, "LBJ isn’t deeply concerned about … who governs South Vietnam … he’s deeply concerned with what the average American voter is going to think about how he did in the ballgame of the Cold War."

The United States backed into the Vietnam War with unclear political objectives, and with military objectives that were at times disconnected from political realities. U.S. objectives, as opaque as they were, tended to evolve over time, and the American people, who at first supported the war, started to back away after the Tet offensive in 1968. 

It is almost axiomatic that long wars without clearly articulated objectives, and engagement that fails to show progress, will eventually lose public support. A political strategy tightly coupled with achievable military objectives is the only way for the public to be able to judge progress. People want to know when it will be over and how they will know when it's over.

This is the position in which the United States finds itself in now. Our political objectives for entering the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were never clear from the beginning. Weapons of mass destruction never materialized in Iraq. Al-Qaida in Afghanistan was supposed to have been beat. And we have found ourselves combating foes that are unconnected to Al-Qaida. The public is wondering why we are still there.

So the current debate over force levels and military strategy in Afghanistan puts the military cart before the political horse. What would be helpful at this point is a reexamination of our political objectives and political strategy.

The resulting military strategy should be explained as it relates to and supports precisely defined political objectives. Recall that the role of the armed forces is to put forth the military strategy that supports political objectives. Poorly stated political objectives will result in a military strategy that is vague and perhaps even unachievable.

I should point out that these dilemmas are by no means partisan. Leaders from both parties have struggled with these issues over the course of history.

The political goal of the first Gulf War was to remove the Iraqi army from Kuwait. The supporting military objective was the same. Both were clear, decisive, and attainable. It was easy to tell what we were there for and when it was over. We need that level of clarity now. 

Please e-mail your comments to lfarrell@ndia.org.

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