Letter to the Editor

Civilians running the Afghan war?

Civilians held Petraeus’s ear in the war zone” [front page, Dec. 19] questioned the access and influence Gen. David H. Petraeus accorded to civilians while he was running the Afghan war.

As a civilian who has acted as an informal adviser on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, I think it is critical to stress that a wide range of commanders, as well as senior Defense and State Department officials, sought advice from a broad range of civilians — many of whom did not support the campaign plans then in use, call for more troops or emphasize military over civilian options. The commanders did so because they realized they needed different perspectives, challenges to conventional wisdom and help in looking at the political, civil and economic aspects of the war.

Frederick and Kimberly Kagan, whom the Post’s article focused on, may have spent more time in Afghanistan than the rest of us and may have focused more on military planning and options, but that reflected their passion for the U.S. military — they once taught at West Point — as well as their concern for their country and for Afghans. I have often disagreed with one or both of them, but I never saw them act as ideologues or misuse their access. Nor did I see them exploit their relationship with Gen. Petraeus or any other senior officer or official.

All of us who were given access to classified information in Iraq and Afghanistan had to go through clearance procedures. At a NATO meeting this spring, I asked a senior officer with special access to security issues about this; he told me that he knew of no leak or compromise from any of the civilians who had theater clearance during the previous decade. On many occasions I asked the military and career civilians on the scene whether they found our presence to be useful. In most cases, the answer was yes, and in many cases they took our advice. Some criticized the use of outside advisers, of course, but more of the critics were civilians than in the military.

Many of those whom I worked with in the theater had different views from the Kagans, and they received the same access to the senior commander and ambassador. I have often been deeply critical of our country’s tactics and strategy and have challenged aspects of our classified and public analysis of the war. This did not prevent Gen. Petraeus and others from giving me the access the Kagans had.

In the vast majority of cases where civilians acted as advisers, none of us acted as paid consultants. Many of us had to pay our airfares, and while we sometimes got VIP treatment in the field, VIP could mean six to a room, sleeping in tents with a dozen other VIPs, going on patrols, and using the same limited bath and shower facilities as enlisted people and everyone else. I know that the Kagans took real risks in the field, and they did so without payment.

To my mind, this use of civilians reflects exactly the kind of military professionalism the nation needs. Drawing on outside experts with a range of views, providing those experts with enough access to understand the changing flow of events in the field and allowing them to work with the teams in charge of key aspects of planning and analysis ensures that no single view comes to dominate without challenge. It is a tribute to the U.S. military that it is so open to outside views at the highest levels.

Anthony H. Cordesman, Washington

The writer holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

 
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