The Role of Independent Civilian Consultants and Think Tanks in the Afghan and Iraq Wars

  • afghanistan flickr/us army
    Dec 26, 2012

    Note: A shorter version of this commentary appeared in the Taking Exception section of the Washington Post on December 22, 2012

    I have long admired Rajiv Chandrasekaran's war reporting, which has consistently provided balance to the relentless "good news" line of public affairs officers and has shown the reality in the field. I was, however, disturbed by his Dec. 19 front-page article "Civilians held Petraeus's ear in the war zone," and how it questioned the role of independent civilian advisers to U.S. military commanders.

    As a civilian who has acted as an informal adviser on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, I think it is critical to stress that a wide range of commanders as well as senior Defense and State Department advisers sought advice from a wide range of civilians - many of whom did not support the campaign plans then in use, call for more troops or emphasize military options over civilian options.

    The commanders in the field did so because they realized they needed different perspectives, challenges to conventional wisdom, and help in looking at the political, civil, and economic aspects of the war. They realized they needed constant challenges and outside criticism to avoid becoming trapped into fixed strategies, tactics, and ways of assessing the threat and progress in the war.

    Fred and Kim Kagan may have spent more time in Afghanistan than the rest of us, and may have focused more on military planning and options, but that reflected their deep concern for the U.S. military - whose members they had once taught at West Point - as well as their concern for their country and the Afghans. I have often disagreed with one or both over particular issues, but I never saw them act as ideologues, exploit their role as outside analysts or misuse their access for personal advancement. Nor did I see either exploit their relationship with Gen. David Petreaus or any other senior officer or official.

    They also were only two of a wide range of independent civilian consultants who were invited to come to Iraq and Afghanistan, assess the situation in the field, and provide independent advice. Many others were chosen specifically to focus on the civil side of the war, provide independent assessments of the course of the fighting and the intelligence effort, or challenge the metric and analyses being use by given commands.

    Moreover, I know of no cases where such advisors abused security or released sensitive data. All of us who visited Iraq and Afghanistan and who were given access to classified information had to go through clearance procedures. At a NATO meeting this past spring, I asked a senior officer with special access to security issues about the end result. He told me that he knew of no leak or compromise from any of the civilians given theater clearance during the previous decade.

    Providing such advice scarcely meant uncritical acceptance, but few officer and career civilians criticism bringing outside advisors. On many occasions I asked the military and career civilians on the scene - some of whom I had known for years and who were frank on every issue we discussed - whether they found our presence and views to be useful. In most cases, the answer was yes, and in many cases they took our advice. There were critics, but more were civilians than military.

    General  Petreaus and every other senior officer and official I have dealt with during both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars has sought such advice from a mix of outside advisors with wide range of positions on the conflict. Each has consulted civilians, retired military and retired diplomats to provide the equivalent of "red teams" to provide outside perspective and criticism.

    I believe Fred and Kim Kagan made a major contribution during their time in Afghanistan, and deserve thanks and respect for their efforts. At the same time, many other civilian consultants I worked with  -- and who were in the theater with me at the same time as the Kagans -- had very different views from the Kagans. They all and received the same "access" to air their views to the senior commander and ambassador.

    Speaking personally, I have often been deeply critical of our country's tactics and strategy, have challenged aspects of our classified and public analysis of the war, and have criticized the conduct of the campaign at both the civilian and military level. This did not prevent Petreaus, several ambassadors, and numerous other officers and officials from giving me the same access the Kagans had, nor from seeking out a different and critical perspective.

    It is equally important to understand that most of us were acting on a pro bono basis. In the vast majority of cases where such civilians acted as advisers, none of us acted as paid consultants. Many of us had to pay our airfares out of our think tank’s budget. While we sometimes got “VIP” treatment in the field, “VIP” could sometimes mean six civilian and officers to a room, sleeping in a tents with a dozen other “VIPs” or officers, and using the same limited bath and shower facilities as enlisted and everyone else. Most of us also went on patrols and visited active combat areas. The Kagans, for example, took real risks in the field as part of their research.

    This also is only part of the story at a time there has been so much media coverage of command scandals and so little coverage of the real role of women in both wars. Some of the most important civilian advisors at the senior command were women who had nothing to do with the current scandals.

    During the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, I saw this generation of U.S. military leadership bring three women into key roles as senior advisers. In each case, the woman's background was civilian or NGO.  These women were all deeply professional, as were the many female officers and intelligence experts I was honored to work with. They also were constant critics of a military-only approach and challenged conventional wisdom. At least two served the United States in the field for years at a time when most other civilians rarely spent even a year in Afghanistan or Iraq. In each case I felt it was a tribute to this generation of senior military leaders that they deliberately reached out to ensure they heard alternative views and did so from women as well as men.

    To my mind, this use of civilians of both sexes reflects exactly the kind of military professionalism the nation needs. Drawing on outside experts with a range of views, providing those experts with enough access to understand the changing flow of events in the field, and allowing them to work directly with the teams in charge of key aspects of planning and analysis all ensure that no single view inside the command comes to dominate without constant challenge. That the U.S. military is so open to outside and often contrary views at the highest levels is both a tribute to our military and clearly serves the national interest.

    The writer holds the Burke chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He has served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the State Department and has been awarded the Distinguished Service Medal by the Defense Department.

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Anthony H. Cordesman