You Don’t ALWAYS Have to Escalate

by Joshua Foust on 9/29/2009 · 18 comments

I have a mixed opinion of Kimberly Kagan’s Institute for the Study of War. I certainly appreciate having a war studies think tank, even if it’s long on the advocacy and short on the actual study. But here’s the thing: can she or her think tank ever possibly not advocate more war? I dunno, I would think that actually studying warfare would lead one to the realization that not only are resources not infinite, but that developing a sober sense of when warfare and its expansion is necessary (and just as importantly, when it is not) would lead one to sometimes, in some cases, say “this is enough.”

Instead of a somber, considered case for when war is appropriate and when it is not, we get Mrs. Kagan shouting “SUUUUUUURGE!!!” as loudly as she can in every single place that will have her. She’s become a female Michael O’Hanlon with a PhD—a one note symphony with no nuance or even understanding, just unquenchable thirst for more troops, in all places, at all times.

Even the writers ISW hires can’t help but advocate expanded warfare for all things. Despite the Pentagon insisting it doesn’t have any extra troops to send into battle, they have a report supposedly finagling some brigades to send in. Despite the rather obvious lack of strategic value to the Helmand campaigns—really, have they ever cared about it for anything other than poppy, and have any of the brigades there demonstrated the slightest understanding of COIN?—they have a report demanding we send more troops and have them implement a strategy that doesn’t exist.

I don’t get what use enemy maps are (as but one example) when the Pentagon surely does this job far better than outside researchers. And perhaps understandably, they employ New York Times correspondents who seem only capable of glorifying combat, along with the standard smattering of ex-generals and eager graduate students desperately seeking op-ed space… all in the service of demanding more combat, more troops, more money, more time.

Now, I still believe that the war in Afghanistan remains worth fighting. And I share ISW’s belief that it can and should be fought better. But I also want to fight it with an eye toward its end state—something missing from the ISW reports. Similarly, there are cases where escalating force simply does not make sense—for example, when the premise of all your reports is that soldiers are being deployed with no strategic intent, shouldn’t that indicate that adding more soldiers is not, in fact, the solution?

And thus we see my big confusion at the fawning media space devoted to such blood-lusting. Surely a thank tank composed of experts in warfare could do more than simple monotones about surging troops for whatever problem happens to confront us? Yet that is precisely what they do—and their stature in the punditocracy continues to rise. I don’t get it.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Dan September 30, 2009 at 8:41 am

I approve of the strategy-first, resources-second approach to planning. My worry is shifting towards getting backed in to the reverse. Might wiser strategies go unconsidered because of fears of the political ramifications of increasing or decreasing troop levels? I think I would be on the more hawkish side save for the fact that I don’t like any of the hawks and I’m not sure that they have a clear vision of what victory should mean. It’s easy to be brave with others’ blood. Clear vision has to come first prior to allocating resources in support of the chosen strategy.

In addition, I don’t really see any strategies out there. I see competing buzzwords (COIN, counterterrorism, ink spots, population-centric, etc.). It’s all crap we’ve seen and heard for a century with different titles and any one of the approaches could be correct given the eventual ends we want to achieve!

steve September 30, 2009 at 8:43 am

Great question, Josh. Think tanks like ISW are profiting off this war just as much as manufacturers of body armor or anything else. ISW manufactures ideas, or more accurately, as you point out, rationalizations.

AJK September 30, 2009 at 7:34 pm

Amen, Steve.

Think tanks generally exist to rationalize already-held opinions. Everyone I know who wanted to work for ISW was the sort who listened to Iced Earth and played loads of Call of Duty

M SHANNON September 30, 2009 at 8:51 am

There is no end state because ending the war is in no influential group’s interest (except NATO tax payer’s and the Taliban’s).

I’m not suggesting a conspiracy, simply a generally held belief that things are manageable and profitable the way they are. This reduces any sense of urgency or the need for extraordinary sacrifice by anyone above rifle company level.

US politicians- “self-importance”, “defence” votes
US Military- cash, increasing control of foreign policy, glory
UN- cash, importance
NATO- importance, cash, glory
Think Tanks- cash, visibility, book sales, TV appearances
Defence contractors- cash, jobs
NGOs- donations, advertising
Afghan government- cash, guns and protection
Afghan business and trucking Mafias- cash
Afghan peasantry- cash, infrastructure and jobs
AQ- bleeds the west, glory, recruits
Pakistan- support against India, cash, help fighting it’s own Taliban
Russia- cash and the satisfaction of seeing the US stuck (again)

Bart September 30, 2009 at 11:21 am

The Institute for the Study of War is hardly the only think tank the profits from War. Does anyone really think that the Counter-Insurgents at CNAS aren’t profiting from war? That clowns like Michael O’Hanlon at Brookings aren’t profiting from war?

Without question, more war is a very good thing for the Washington DC think-tanks.

Joshua Foust September 30, 2009 at 11:35 am


That’s a really good point. From CNAS’ list of its primary funding, at least 2/3 by my count profit directly from advocating more warfare:

Alliance of Professional Consultants, Inc.
BAE Systems – North America
BGR Foundation (which is either a lobbying group or a NOLA-based think tank)
The Boeing Company
Chevron Products Company
General Dynamics Corporation
General Electric Aviation
Hunt Consolidated Inc.
Import of Santa Monica [WHAT IS THIS???]
Itochu International, Inc.
Lincoln Group, LLC
Lockheed Martin Corporation
Markle Foundation
National Intelligence Council
New Century Consulting
Northrop Grumman Corporation
Nuclear Threat Initiative
Office of Net Assessment, OSD
Raytheon Company
Renaissance Strategic Advisors
Smith Richardson Foundation, Inc.
United States Air Force
United States Army
United States Marine Corps
United States Navy

Now I’m also curious about the financial stakes of the various hedge funds and charity trusts that also donate substantial money. Hell, and to other think tanks.

Jason September 30, 2009 at 12:04 pm

I think you’re being a little overly dramatic. Think tanks aren’t exactly profit centers, they are places where the side who lost the election goes to wait out until their team is back in office. In the meantime, they have time to snipe the administration. CNAS has good connections into OSD, so they will “profit” with or without a war, for at least the next four years.

Even with that list of corporations, Joshua, you’d do well to remember that they profit during peace – or cold war – just as well as during wartime. It’s an old Ferengi saying: “War is good for business. And Peace is good for business.” They’ll profit on the idea of future wars, if not the current wars.

shingul September 30, 2009 at 12:17 pm

It might not be an issue that CNAS is secretly advocating certain policies with the intention of enriching their private sector funding, thats valid. But their defense sector patrons do have a great idea what they’ll generally advocate/who these guys are, and might use CNAS, et. al unbeknownst, as almost a lobbying arm for more military interventions/surge policies. Many of these think tanks carry the assumption of the transformational ability of military force, so its natural for the defense industry to hitch their wagon.

shingul September 30, 2009 at 12:07 pm

Great post! Rreminded me of Robert Kaplan’s NYT oped last year advocating some kind of US military intervention in Burma – as if we need to be involved in another one of these. Can’t remember if he was at CNAS at that time.

Ahad Abdurahmon September 30, 2009 at 2:20 pm

The military-industrial complex certainly increases inclanation towards wars since the development itself under such conditions necessiates it:
producers ( contractors) ->consumers (fighting parties) ->war (market).
However, moral dualism (us vs. them, good vs. evil, etc) plays a major role in this process.

steve September 30, 2009 at 2:28 pm

@Bart — agreed.
@Jason — I agree that think tanks aren’t ‘profit centers’ akin to big defense contractors. They’re worse. Their currency is ideas, and these ideas grease the wheels of war. They are indispensable to the war machine — e.g., defense contractors, the politicians who sleep with them — because Lockheed Martin or Boeing have to pay for 30-second spots featuring their latest killer drone, or millions to market that drone to the Pentagon; but it costs them nothing to have think tank gurus appear on talk shows and in magazine articles and at conferences advocating for this approach or that approach (never a demilitarized approach). What’s more, the think tankers sell the war to the public through a lazy, shiftless media. If I had to choose, I’d rather be a PR person for a weapons manufacturer tone of these think tank shills. At least everybody would know who paid my mortgage — its says so right on the paycheck.

steve September 30, 2009 at 2:31 pm

that last sentence should read “….weapons manufacturer THAN ONE of these…” not “tone” as it appears.

anan October 1, 2009 at 2:02 am

Joshua, doesn’t COIN fighting mean less fancy new equipment and more cheaper low margin older technology equipment? Isn’t this one reason the international military industry opposes the revolution in COIN? COIN fighting means less tank, fighter aircraft, artillery, missile defense, aircraft carrier, naval, Tomahawk missile procurement.

The main problem I have with some think tanks is their failure to calculate opportunity costs. Many fail to emphasize the cost effectiveness of increasing foreign capacity, and developing better processes for other nations to collaborate together to provide global security services, versus having the US provide these same services more expensively. The think tanks are right that global security services (public goods) are required by America and the world as a whole; but they don’t focus enough on how to get other countries to contribute more of them.

Joshua, why don’t you focus more on what the NDS, ANA, ANP, GIRoA, and Afghan NGOs can do to improve their own performance and capacity, and what the rest of us can do to facilitate that process?

Joshua Foust October 1, 2009 at 5:24 am

Anan, I don’t for the very simple reason that I don’t know much about the ANA. The few units I am familiar with I have advocated replicating, but I’m not expert on the ANSF.

That being said, I actually think the *other* capacity building is more important: in institutions, ministries, economy, and politics. And it’s much harder. And when the debate remains singularly focused only on troop numbers, whether Afghan or American, I think it’s being badly misfocused.

Bart October 1, 2009 at 2:55 am

It’s exaggarated the extent to which DC think tanks are holding tanks for government jobs. If you look at the total number of people employed at the major DC think tanks and then look at the number who might go in and out of government with the change of Presedential administrations, the number is actually very small.

It’s true that CNAS might have contacts, but let’s be honest, a decision not to escalate the war in Afghanistan is not a good thing for CNAS. When you employ lots of people whose expertise is war, if you don’t have wars to analyze, cheer lead for, advocate….

Tom October 2, 2009 at 2:34 pm

Did you intend to call them a “thank tank” in the last paragraph? Or was that a typo? If it was intentional – well done, sir.

DE Teodoru October 2, 2009 at 4:13 pm

Here is a C-SPAN2 “AFTER WORD” video of Kimberley Kagan interviewed by Pete Heseth a propaganda playmate of hers. It was most painful watching them both self-promote, tense as tight-spring about to snap at any moment. It was like more war on methamphetamines:
If you never kept up with the hundreds of analysts of the Iraq “surge” to date, you might have felt crashed and crushed by the staccato of this chorus of the hyper-convinced. But in fact, the case is not that clear. Above all, the “success” of American presence in Iraq may be a sure thing to Odierno (to whom Kagan attributes the whole thing– that makes it now FIVE fathers– the mother of the Surge seeming, per her words, it would seem Kagan thinks it is Kagan) was not convincingly defended by Kagan’s hyperboles. If the surge had been such a success, Obama would not have had to personally plead with Maliki to cancel the plebiscite on the SOFA Accord that was planned for this fall for fear that the Iraqi people would vote to kick us out right away. So far, every proposal for escalation has focused on troops with guns and almost nothing was accomplished at the level of reconstruction. We have satellite photo that raise serious questions about the real effect of America’s kinetic surges in Iraq per the following study by two UCLA geographers:
This issue of hyperkinetics that come too late no doubt in under consideration by Obama relative to McChrystal’s demand for kinetic escalation in Afghanistan.

The Pentagon would do well to reconsider how it increases the stars on the collar of careerists. It has always been low casualties (ours) and high body count (theirs). Given that gung ho generals tend to go for “low-intensity” war intel blind, language deaf and culture dumb, all they can do– AS MCCHRYSTAL HIMSELF ADMITTED IN HIS REPORT…
…is use very well trained soldiers as spotters for air strikes. Can America afford to be remembered as the nation that considered Third World peoples as if Pac men to be smashed to smithereens as if in a video game?

The answer will not come from the Commander’s “consultants” like Kagan who merely serve as a conduit of propaganda graphics that cannot legally be distributed in the USA.

DE Teodoru October 2, 2009 at 4:18 pm

Jason, think thatnks are not exactly profit centers it is true– except for the hand full of neocons that set them up at great profit as so many books expose, but it is hard to imagine the Kagans getting a real job if these outlets were not there to pay the rent. Hey, it ain’t much but you get to see yourself in full chickenhawk plumage sqwaquing away on TV. Never before have I seen so many pear shaped war mongers!

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