A failure of command

US military top brass has escaped scrutiny for mistakes in Iraq and Afghanistan
THOMAS E. RICKS

OVER the last 11 years, as we fought an unnecessary war in Iraq and an unnecessarily long one in Afghanistan, the civilian American leadership has been thoroughly — and justly — criticised for showing poor judgement and lacking strategies for victory. But even as those conflicts dragged on, our uniformed leaders have escaped almost any scrutiny from the public. Our generals actually bear much of the blame for the mistakes in the wars. They especially failed to understand the conflicts they were fighting — and then failed to adjust their strategies to the situations they faced so that they might fight more effectively.

Even now, as our wars wind down, the errors of our generals continue to escape public investigation, or even much internal review. As the Vietnam War drew to an end, the army carried out a soul-searching study of the state of its officer corps. To my knowledge, no such no-holds-barred examination is under way now. Instead, the military's internal analyses continue to laud the Pentagon's top brass while placing almost all of the blame for what went wrong in our wars on civilian leaders.

In the past, Congressional oversight hearings might have produced some evidence that challenged the military's self-satisfied conclusions. But today, politicians are so fearful of being accused of "criticising our troops" that they fail to scrutinise the performance of those who lead them.

In the meantime, too many important questions remain unanswered. Why, for example, do we serially rotate our top war commanders? Earlier this month, General Joseph F. Dunford Jr was selected to replace General John R. Allen as the American commander in Afghanistan. He will be the 11th officer to lead our war there in 11 years. Rotating troops is appropriate, especially when entire units are moved in and out. But rotating top commanders on an annual basis makes no management sense. Imagine trying to run a corporation by swapping the senior executives every year. Or imagine if, at the beginning of 1944, six months before D-Day, General George C. Marshall, the Army Chief of Staff, told General Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, that it was time to give someone else a chance to lead.

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