My first real experience with government bureaucracy was 60 years ago when I joined the U.S. Army Reserve. We were hustled into a room at old Fort Dix to be given our uniforms. Half of the troops were handed decade-old Korean War combat boots.
The sergeant admitted that the old boots could not be shined to current standards but that those who were lucky enough to receive them would be held accountable to the requirements anyway. Fortunately, I received new boots. But this prefaced similar snafus throughout my six years, including battalion units pulling full duty with merely a dozen soldiers and artillery miscalculations landing in downtown Lawton, Oklahoma.
So, the botched Afghanistan troop withdrawal did not come as a complete surprise. The U.S. military is filled with courageous and patriotic Americans, but they are trapped in what is often called the world’s largest and most bureaucratic organization.
Consider the top institution, the Department of Defense. It consists of the Office of the Secretary. Then the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Space Force all report to the Secretary of Defense, but so do 17 Defense Agency heads and 10 Field Activities chiefs, as well as the actual fighting forces organized under nine military commanders who report through the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
New York University public administration expert Paul Light notes that within those organizations, the top five layers of Department of Defense leaders increased from 363 people in 1998 to 870 in 2020. Additionally, the number of key assistant secretaries has increased from 193 to 629. In theory, the White House National Security Council is supposed to coordinate all of this for the president. But CNN host Fareed Zakaria reports that staff has grown too, from 50 under Henry Kissinger to 100 by the century’s end. It doubled again under George W. Bush and doubled again under Barack Obama. It was cut by Donald Trump, and increased back again under Joe Biden to 350.
Zakaria concludes that since the National Security Council is composed of Department of Defense leadership, the State Department, and intelligence agencies, it actually adds to that enormous decision complexity in a further centralized bureaucratic process that mainly debates matters rather than accomplishes things. The National Security Council debated the Afghanistan withdrawal 36 times between April and the Taliban victory in August, creating a “process [that] has become [de facto] policy.”
Throughout it all, military leaders such as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley claimed progress was constantly being made. It took a special inspector general for Afghanistan, created outside of the bureaucracy, to finally show that attrition rates for the Afghan military forces were actually in the 20-30 percent range and that the true size, if not strength, of the Afghan military forces was half of what the official military figures showed.
Even after the fall of Kabul, longtime media favorite Gen. David Petraeus still defended U.S. troops in Afghanistan as the “best equipped, best trained.” But it is not our troops who were the issue, but the Afghan ones he trained. He specifically rejected the theory that “it all went wrong when we started to nation-build” but claimed we actually had successfully turned security over to Afghan troops, blaming Pakistan for controlling access to supplies and new troops sent into landlocked Afghanistan — and Trump and Biden for not staying with the program. Was Pakistan responsible for setting the short rotations for U.S. troops processed through their country or was Pakistan being the only supplies access point a surprise to us? Was it a president who closed the Bagram Air Base to rely on the indefensible municipal airport, or a military officer?
As an extensive Rand Corporation study of today’s military leaders for the secretary of defense found, cooperative friendship relationships within the services are one of the most important attributes for promotion to top general and flag officer status. Today’s bureaucratic complexity and centralization and the resulting increased importance of social networking means that leadership success in such an institution must depend more on social skills than military courage. Even historically, social skills in peacetime armies had to be replaced in the Civil War and World War II by nonconformist warriors like Ulysses Grant and George Patton.
Many retired military officers have noted that today’s top brass seem obsessed with procedure and more concerned about politically correct “wokeness” than military matters. Almost 90 of them demanded the secretary and joints chief chairman resign over the bungled “retreat” in Afghanistan, although no one expects accountability. But the problem is even more fundamental. It is simply impossible for the secretary, much less the president, to even know his critical leadership team when it is so large and dispersed. As State Department and intelligence agencies also report to the chief executive, it is a bureaucratic morass impenetrable from outside or internal control.
Still, at bottom, the problem was not military but political. In fact, it was nation-building that led to the Afghanistan defeat. Years ago, I wrote what Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had told me and others: that it would be a mistake for the U.S. to be involved in nation-building. He and the Department of Defense were overruled by President George Bush, actually after pressure from Sen. Joe Biden. In an extremely important Wall Street Journal piece, Robert Nicholson has best explained the mindset that led to this decision and the policies that flowed from it: the dominant progressive internationalist and neoconservative elite ideologies both ignored the importance of cultural realities in peacemaking and believed that sufficient power and right could achieve anything,
Soon, we turned into apostles of universal civilization and promoted the idea that human beings everywhere would make the same basic decisions we made in building political community. We set out to establish a liberal democratic state, not realizing that politics lies downstream of culture, and culture downstream of religion. It never occurred to us that America was what it was because of Christianity, and Afghanistan was what it was because of Islam. The political scientist Samuel Huntington was right: Islamic societies belong to a distinctive civilization that resists the imposition of foreign values through power. We may believe that argument or not, but trillions of dollars, tens of thousands of lives, and two decades of warfare have not proved otherwise.
Neither Iraq, nor Syria, or Lebanon, Palestinians, Yemen, Libya, or Nigeria, Nicholson argued, could change our “blindness, driven by a noble desire to see humans as equal, interchangeable beings for whom faith and culture are accidents of birth.” In fact, he continued, “these accidents are non-negotiable truths for hundreds of millions of people who would rather die than concede them. Failure to comprehend this is a symptom of spiritual emptiness: Alienated from America’s Christian origins, millions cannot fathom how faith could play a vital role in binding humans together.” He continued:
The Quran is Allah’s final revelation, binding on all humanity; faith is a matter of private devotion as well as public law, best lived out in a state that blends religion and politics; and Muslims should, where possible, hold power over non-Muslims to ensure that Allah’s law is rightly enforced. It is doctrines like these that cause the Taliban, al-Qaida, and Hamas to fight the “Jews and Crusaders” who tread on land that historically belonged to Islam. But their commitments are far from radical; most Muslims see them as normative even if they fail to act on them. The Islamic world may not change, or maybe it will — but it was never our job to decide. Our focus must be on curing the spiritual sickness that blinded us in the first place, recovering our own sense of civilizational self and reorienting our priorities accordingly.
As preeminent war strategist Angelo Codevilla made clear, it was essential for America to make al-Qaida and the Taliban pay dearly for 9/11, but nation-building, especially among believing Muslim populations, is both the height of arrogance and foolishly ends up making the homeland pay for the crimes committed by its opponents, measured by the deaths and disabilities suffered by the brave U.S. men and women who actually have to bear the burden.
Donald Devine is senior scholar at the Fund for American Studies. He is the author of The Enduring Tension: Capitalism and the Moral Order, new from Encounter Books, America’s Way Back: Reclaiming Freedom, Tradition, and Constitution, and Political Management of the Bureaucracy. He served as President Reagan’s director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management during his first term and can be followed on Twitter @donalddevineco1.
Notice to Readers: The American Spectator and Spectator World are marks used by independent publishing companies that are not affiliated in any way. If you are looking for The Spectator World please click on the following link: https://thespectator.com/world.