From Small Unit Leaders to Rugged Diplomats

Overcoming the Tactical-Strategic Divide in U.S. Foreign Policy
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American foreign policy and its current generation of practitioners suffer from an almost complete lack of understanding of the critical concept of “feasibility” as it relates to statecraft in conflict zones. Broadly speaking, the people who shape foreign policy are highly educated, can speak the languages associated with their area of expertise, and have spent many years living abroad. Unfortunately, in state-building scenarios such as Iraq and Afghanistan, the professional experience of most policymakers is limited to brief tours in the Green Zone or Bagram. These places, while technically in-country, have absolutely no resemblance to the larger situation on the ground.

The problem, stated simply, is a massive disconnect between the tactical reality and the strategic objective. From my perspective in Afghanistan in 2010, there were some really fine foreign policy ideas being promulgated down to the tactical level. Unfortunately, no one had bothered to ask about the feasibility of implementation.

An example of such an effort is the District Reinforcement Program in Khost Province, Afghanistan. This is a great idea in theory: place USAID and State Department representatives on the ground for 72 hours to walk local Afghan officials through bureaucratic processes in order to facilitate governance and development. Setting aside the fact that the processes put in place were opaque and wholly alien to most sub-governors and district officials, the program was doomed because State and USAID weren’t invested in its success at the tactical level. With only one State Department and one USAID representative, the onus for conducting these operations was left to the person who has become the face of American statecraft the last ten years: the 23-year old platoon leader.

The platoon leader is not formally trained in international development, except for perhaps a short brief on Commanders Emergency Relief Program (CERP) funds. Unless his degree is in political science, he’s not initially prepared to have in-depth conversations about any of the governmental challenges facing the district either. Yet, for a decade or more, local officials in Iraq and Afghanistan have looked to these leaders and their experienced platoon sergeants for justice, arbitration, and advice on how to rule in lawless lands. Company Commanders have hosted large shuras and met with sheikhs to resolve disputes. Through a brief evolution, Fire Support Officers became the de facto non-lethal targeting gurus of the military, seeking opportunities to exploit development projects to win the loyalty of the local populace. With the formal training to marry with their experiences, junior officers and senior NCOs can be formidable allies for established policymakers, providing real on-ground insight into questions of feasibility.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have produced a small cohort of men and women who have spent their professional lives immersed in the practice of statecraft. Lacking advanced degrees and or political appointments, this cadre has practiced and enforced American foreign policy in a way few others have.

Now is the time for policymakers to try to really understand their value and put them to work solving problems that demand a stringent test of feasibility.

The model that American policy makers should look to for appropriate engagement of foreign governments in conflict zones is the Foreign Internal Defense and irregular warfare conducted by American special operations forces. The ability to gain the trust of local leaders, build their capability and capacity, and provide them with the tools to govern their own spaces with a modicum of justice is the hallmark of American Special Forces. Unfortunately, SOF operates on a limited scope and scale. And American policymakers too often assume that once American conventional forces are deployed en masse, the arrival Jeffersonian democracy is simply a matter of time. Rather, it requires living day-to-day under conditions of significant hardship to forge relationships of trust in order to influence the governance and development models of war-torn nations. This is the kind of mission small unit leaders from Afghanistan and Iraq are well-suited to carry out.

A typical response to these thoughts is that small unit leaders only have a soda-straw view of the world, myopic and perhaps simplistic. They are not experts because they have not studied the topics of governance and development, and because they have not defended a thesis they cannot be trusted to provide sound advice on complex issues. They have, perhaps, negotiated with local leaders to ensure a successful harvest in return for security concessions on the border with Waziristan, but they’ve never published in the Wall Street Journal. To this view, I respond that we need those smart folks with extra letters after their names to guide, to interpret data and ask hard questions. They have a wealth of cultural, historical and political expertise that the local executor of policy does not possess.

But they need to be aware of their own limitations – their own soda-straw. Namely, they typically won’t step foot on the ground that they ask other Americans to secure. Think tanks, policymakers, and professors need the tactical practitioner of American foreign policy – the small unit leader – to tell them with candor whether or not their policy recommendations can be successful in light of the situation on the ground.

As former Army Sergeant Elvis Presley once said: “We’re caught in a trap. I can’t walk out, because I love you too much baby.” Strategic thinkers and tactical implementers need each other in order to successfully address thorny American foreign policy issues with feasible recommendations from a holistic perspective.

Experts in Washington profess to know what’s best in Syria, Crimea, and Somalia. But they don’t seem to understand the actual, visceral consequences to of their policy. At times, it seems they don’t really understand that someone will be sent out at four in the morning to secure a police station, set up a polling station, and try to bring free and fair elections to a place that has never known much freedom or much fairness.

But there is a small group of junior officers and senior NCOs who realize what American foreign policy looks like on the ground. They’re proficient in building relationships, making deals, and incorporating them into a larger operational picture. And it’s time to give these men and women a new assignment.

If the world we live in is one that requires American presence around the globe, we will need civilians in the State Department and USAID who understand the full spectrum of operations, from the strategic to the tactical and who are not afraid to gather ground truth themselves. It is time to build corps of rugged diplomats composed of those with actual experience in wartime statecraft alongside those who have spent their lives in the academic study of these topics. They can form a cohesive team that can link reality and theory, which will result in well-reasoned and rigorously debated policy decisions.

If we can’t overcome the divide between those who write policy and those who execute it, we will forever have a foreign policy that reflects the world as we would like to see it rather than as it really is.

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