Magazine article National Defense

Before War Strategy Is Settled, Political Aims Must Be Defined

Magazine article National Defense

Before War Strategy Is Settled, Political Aims Must Be Defined

Article excerpt

Amid uncertainty and unease about the future of the U.S. military in Afghanistan, it may be worth looking back at how the nation coped with similar circumstances in decades past.

In "The American Way of War: A History of United States Military Strategy and Policy," Russell F. Weigley cites nine "Principles of War" that date back to 1921, when the War Department published training regulations No. 10-5.

The first of these was the "principle of the objective," which is defined as a clear, decisive and attainable target. Today, the U.S. Army field manual FM-3 has the same list. Although some of the terms were slightly changed, the focus on having a clear objective remains remarkably consistent with the 1921 version.

Military operations always must start with a clearly stated goal. That sounds simple enough, but it is not, because the objective also must be based on a larger political goal that may be tough to define.

In his classic military treatise, "On War," Carl von Clausewitz says that conflict is merely the continuation of policy by other means. Further, he states that the "political objective is the goal, war is the means of reaching it, and means can never be considered in isolation from their purposes."

Today, it is common to hear TV pundits and newspaper columnists opining on the U.S. military strategy for Afghanistan: What tactics should be pursued, what troop levels are appropriate, what is the proper mix of forces, what rules of engagement should be in place, what military capabilities should or could be employed, and so on. Seldom do we hear or read a discussion of what the "political objective" should be or even whether anyone has articulated the political aims for the use of military force in that country.

The importance of clear political objectives can't be overstated. It is not possible in the first instance to set up achievable military objectives, lacking clear political objectives, since the success of the military strategy and objectives can only be judged on whether they help to achieve the political ends. Lacking precise political goals, military operations will drift, lose focus and more importantly, lose the public's support.

In a recent edition of The Washington Post, Bob Woodward and Gordon Goldstein wrote "The Anguish of Decision," based on the final interviews with Robert McNamara and McGeorge Bundy, and their thoughts on the lessons of Vietnam. The major focus was on internal politics, not strategy. They never reviewed or questioned the political objectives for the war--whether they were clear from the outset, morphed as the war went on, or even whether they were understood by the American public. …

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