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Col. Charles D. Allen
Military scholar

Col. Charles D. Allen

Colonel Charles D. Allen (U.S. Army, Ret.) is the Professor of Cultural Science in the Department of Command, Leadership, and Management at the U.S. Army War College.

The right way to engage military leaders

Q: Bob Woodward's new book on the Obama White House portrays a president so frustrated with top military advisers for their refusal to provide what he considered a reasonable exit strategy from Afghanistan that he devised one himself. How should leaders reconcile the laudable instinct to rely on the advice of experts with the sometimes urgent need to force them to think outside the box?

While it may be newsy to focus on today's headlines on Afghanistan, we can look at strategic decisions for Iraq in 2006 made by another US president. Two Washington Post journalists, Tom Ricks with The Gamble and Bob Woodward with The War Within, provided accounts of how the "clear-hold-build" strategy for Iraq emerged through a process that included the necessary engagement of military leaders to provide their professional advice. Ricks' and Woodward's separate accounts explored the disconnect between two specific fields of thought within the Army.

The 2005 to 2006 strategy of US Central Command's General John Abizaid, endorsed by Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, was to reduce US military presence and transition as quickly as possible to Iraqi security forces. That strategy was balanced against the actions that evolved from the successful measures taken by then-Colonel H. R. McMaster's 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Tal Afar and developed further by the commander of Multi-National Corps-Iraq, Lieutenant General Ray Odierno.

It is this type of "out of the box" thinking and the willingness to try something different that we need from military leaders. The resultant strategy emerged based on the application of the new tactics on the ground. The successful operations in Iraq were noticed by a State Department representative who brought the ideas back to Secretary Condoleezza Rice who, in turn, coined the phrase, "clear-hold-build." The need for an effective strategy required experts from several domains (in the national security apparatus: Defense Department, State Department, etc.) to wrestle with the issues and present their arguments to the ultimate decision maker, President George W. Bush. The new strategy required an increase of military forces with a "surge" to establish security and stability before turning responsibility over to Iraqi forces.

The fact that a debate on the strategic direction occurred, allowing for conflicting and dissenting points of view within the Bush administration, is characteristic of healthy civil-military relations. Senior military officers--the theater and operational commanders as well as the Joint Chiefs of Staff--were engaged in discourse with the goal of developing a winning strategy. The military as institution supported the process and the outcome as just. Other key players (i.e., Secretary Rice) provided expert input.

Department of Defense advocates of the former strategy had their "voice" heard and the opportunity to exercise "loyalty." Secretary Rumsfeld resigned following the 2006 mid-term elections. General Abizaid retired after a full command tour (and is still held in high regard), and the Multi-National Forces-Iraq commander, General George Casey, was appointed as the Army Chief of Staff. General Casey would later reflect that he suffered from a disconnect from the strategic intent of senior civilian leaders, especially President George W. Bush.

While it is too soon to tell if the success attributed to the surge in Iraq is sustainable, it is clear that engagement of the military voice with other informed stakeholders resulted in a more effective strategy, at least in the short term.

By Col. Charles D. Allen

 |  September 28, 2010; 3:19 PM ET
Category:  A leader's team , Accomplishing Goals , Government leadership , Military Leadership , Presidential leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Out of the box thinking is needed? Bah, that can't happen because it is structurally impeded. The corporate culture of the US military at high levels is all about how to be joint and get-along with brethren services and that often means subordinating creativity which is automatically a boat-rocker.
Commanders who act as care takers, acting not so aggressively as to attact undesired attention but just enough to make it seem like some real progress is being made, are routinely rewarded by continuing their regular career paths. Act too aggressively and the new keepers of the flame (bean counters, lawyers, and politically correct) take notice and begin to extend their influence.
The fact is every battlefield is a laboratory, filled with experimentation by those actually in the fight. As everyone knows, most experiments do not lead to breakthroughs but that doesn't mean they don't result in usable data. The problem with the US military is that it still has a check-box mentality and there is no box on the list which has "takes risks when warrented" and that makes the process rewarding to those who are cautious and use the operational play book as written, no matter how out of place.
Oh, sure, we pat ourselves on our collective backs for "the Surge" of 2007 and its success, but the tactics allowed by the surge were obvious from the beginning of the insurgency in 2003. That's only four years of beating our brains against the wall by ignoring the previous history of counter-insurgency warfare.
"Out of the box" thinking, indeed. That won't happen because inside the box is always warm and comfortable and nobody ever has to excell.

Posted by: observer57 | September 29, 2010 12:53 PM
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