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A Classic Analysis
on October 5, 2010
I've only read three case histories of bureaucratic failure which are essential works for all thoughtful people. Andrew Gordon's Rules of the Game, a study of the Royal Navy from Trafalgar to Jutland, showed how minor changes in such things as promotion policy and communications altered the entire character of the organization. Peter Rodman's Presidential Command, a study of the State Department under each President from Nixon through Bush 43, showed how a bureaucracy can undermine its Constitutional leadership.
Finally, Colonel Rothstein's study of special operations forces during the War in Afghanistan (with a brief history of special forces since World War II) shows how, even when an organization develops an exquisite tool, it will misuse that tool when it doesn't fit into the general preconceptions of the bureaucracy at large. Of the three studies, Colonel Rothstein's is perhaps the most useful to the general reader since it ties his study most clearly to organizational theory (the chapter summarizing the various studies of organizational theory is alone worth the price of the book).
Afghanistan is the perfect case study since it has served as a model of the "new kind of war." Americans love the image of a handful of Green Berets on horseback with laptops winning a war. It is not so much that the image is wrong, just imcomplete. As Colonel Rothstein clearly demonstrates, special operations forces have always been used as commandos in conventional warfare instead of the leading edge in unconventional war.
The concept of elite troops has always been with us. From Roger's Rangers and Berdan's Sharpshooters to the Green Beret and Navy SEALs, elite troops have always been respected as a weapon of war, but the theory and stategy of unconventional warfare, their natural milieu, is not well understood. In fact, one gets the impression that the military bureaucracy does not want to understand unconventional warfare, so we are not facing the situation the world faced in World War One, when a plethora of new weapons altered the nature of conventional warfare, requiring years for tactics to evolve to deal with them. There really IS a "new kind of war" that the US now has to face and current bureaucracies, neither military nor civilian, public nor private, can deal with it.
Although Colonel Rothstein's book is five years old, it holds up remarkably well and is, in fact, prescient in his forecasts of the future of Afghanistan. There are only two minor points which could be updated. At one point, he suggests that the Taliban had halted opium production, but when I was in Afghanistan with the State Department in 2005, it was becoming clear that the Taliban had created a sophisticated form of narco-state, warehousing the opium production each year to create shortages worldwide, so that they could sell their supply at the highest prices. Colonel Rothstein also doesn't discuss special operations in The Philippines, where reports seem to suggest that the forces there are able to perform truly unconventional warfare. It would be useful to know whether this is just more "men on horseback with laptops" wishful thinking or reality.
My only objection, but for a slightly different reason than the previous reviewer, is Seymour Hersh's preface. Seymour Hersh is an intelligent man some of whose books can be read profitably by people of all political stripes, but he has a political mind without an ability to transcend politics. A political mind tends to shoehorn the facts to meet its prejudices and to find a person to blame instead of a system to fix. And, indeed, Hersh does not disappoint here: he spends the bulk of his essay attacking aspects of the war that have nothing to do with the author's thesis and then ends his piece by blaming the Bush Administration when Colonel Rothstein has clearly shown that the entire military establishment is incapable of understanding unconventional war and never has. This is not a reflection on Hersh: we are all political animals and few of us can completely transcend our prejudices and an even smaller fraction of the population has the strength of intellect and character to write a book like this.
Interestingly, Peter Rodman's Presidential Command makes the same mistake. Even though the book is quite harsh on Henry Kissinger, Kissinger's introduction provided an excuse for the decisionmakers on the Left to ignore Rodman's book and as a result, President Obama's foreign policy borders on the incoherent. If the decisionmakers on the Right make the same mistake with Colonel Rothstein's book, the 21st century will be even nastier than it is shaping up to be.
Colonel Rothstein's recommendations are the crucial first step towards meeting the challenges we will be facing.