The more meetings you have, the less efficient an organization becomes. “Deputies would be in there for meetings for hours and hours on end. It comes at a cost,” recalled Frances Townsend, who served as Homeland Security adviser to President George W. Bush. People spend precious time in meetings talking rather than executing. Everything gets whittled down to the lowest common denominator. Preparation and memos for meetings become a substitute for effective action. The Wall Street Journal describes the run-up to the Afghanistan withdrawal: “The administration had been holding meetings for months . . . [but] there was little instruction to various government agencies on how to prepare for the transition of power.”
The United States fought the Cold War with a large bureaucracy but one that, especially at the top, was surprisingly lean and effective. The modern National Security Council, for example, created by Henry Kissinger, had no more than 50 people. It stayed around that level for most of the 20th century, though even so, by 2000 it had crept up to about 100. In the eight years of the George W. Bush administration, it doubled again. Under Barack Obama, it doubled yet again. Donald Trump shrunk it some, but President Biden has brought it back to more than 350, with lots of deputies, layers and complexity.
The larger an organization gets, the more layers it develops, and the more layers, the harder it is to navigate them. Consider the Defense Department, which is staggering in its size and complexity. With an annual budget of more than $700 billion, it is probably the fattest bureaucracy on the planet. And it has grown mightily in the past two decades. New York University scholar Paul Light says that the top five tiers of the Pentagon have gone from 363 people in 1998 to 870 in 2020. At the assistant secretary level alone, the numbers have gone from 193 to 629. There are now 33 layers of bureaucracy at the top of the Defense Department.
In large organizations, the challenge of navigating the bureaucracy gets far more attention than actual policymaking. Information is always internally generated; nothing from the outside can seep into the building. This reality might explain perhaps the most startling fact about the Afghanistan intervention — that for 20 years, the U.S. government deluded itself and the world into believing it was making genuine progress, and that the Afghan army, in particular, was growing in strength and effectiveness.
Today, with the policy failure evident, all the bureaucracies in Washington are furiously leaking that they actually got it right. But consider what the Pentagon has been saying for the last two decades. In 2011, Army Lt. Gen. William Caldwell IV, then the head of the training command in Afghanistan, asserted that the Afghan army was “the best-trained, the best-equipped and the best-led,” and added, “they only continue to get better over time.” Two years later, Gen. Mark A. Milley, then the deputy commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said, “I am much more optimistic about the outcome here, as long as the Afghan security forces continue to do what they’ve been doing.” Obama’s troop surge of 2009-2012 was declared a success, even though, by 2015, the Taliban held more territory than at any time since the war began.
Many insiders had come to realize that the mission was doomed, but the information stayed trapped within the bureaucracy. As The Post has documented in its “Afghanistan Papers” reporting project, officials would, when pressed, privately express their skepticism. But the official narrative was always sunny. “Every data point was altered to present the best picture possible,” Bob Crowley, senior counterinsurgency adviser in Afghanistan, told government investigators. Outside information never quite penetrated — such as that of Michael O’Hanlon, a Brookings expert, who found that the Afghan army had annual attrition rates of 20 to 30 percent because of desertions and casualties. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction repeatedly pointed out the problem of “ghost soldiers” and raised alarm over an Associated Press report indicating that despite an official tally of over 300,000 troops, Afghan security forces really numbered only 120,000.
Phase 1 of the Afghanistan withdrawal has been a failure. Phase 2, the evacuation of tens of thousands of Americans and Afghans, could yet be a success. The evidence so far — see David Rohde’s piece in the New Yorker this week — is that the evacuation is still utterly chaotic, lacking urgency and effective action. The administration can still make this happen, but it needs to stop meeting and start doing.