Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

01 November 2009

Military Secrecy: Still Useful After All These Years


One of the most appalling examples of Dubya’s mismanagement of the war in Iraq involved Sheikh Abdul Sattar Abu Risha. He’s hardly a household name today, in part because he’s no longer alive. But he was the father of the Sunni Awakening which allowed our “surge” to succeed and gave Iraq a chance to survive as a pluralistic democracy.

Unfortunately for Sheikh Sattar, he was also the “star” of a command performance during one of Dubya’s brief visits to the theater of war. Dubya ostentatiously shook hands with him, on camera, in a video clip shown round the world. About two weeks later, Sheikh Sattar got blown away by a roadside bomb.

Of all of the outrageous blunders that Dubya and That Idiot Rumsfeld made in Iraq—and there were many—that one infuriated me most. It seemed to epitomize their casual negligence toward the safety of our own troops and our allies. We’ll never know, but I wonder whether Sheikh Sattar might be alive today (and vastly helpful in Iraqi politics) if Dubya had not so flagrantly advertised his helping us.

Thirty-four years after the agony of Vietnam, we seem at last to have learned two vital lessons. We have learned to support and honor our troops no matter how mistaken we think the policy or strategy they are ordered to pursue may be. And when they lay down their lives for us, we have learned to honor their remains. The photo of our President mournfully saluting the flag-draped coffin of a fallen hero at Dover Air Force Base shows us how it should be done.

For eighteen years we treated fallen heroes’ final journeys home as state secrets, whether or not their families wanted privacy. Yet at the same time we published the precise number of troops in our “surge” and the schedule for their deployment and withdrawal. Sometimes we let our media even reveal postings to particular provinces or localities.

Only a PR person could see any sense in that.

When all the internal debate is over and the President has finished his thinking, we shouldn’t know how many more troops he will send to the AfPak theater. Far less should we know what proportion of them will go to Kabul, Kandahar and Helmand Province. Why? Because if we know, the enemy will know too.

One disadvantage of hiding in caves is poor communication. With our spy satellites and ground-based telephone interceptors ever on alert, bin Laden and Mullah Omar have to rely on personal couriers for current information. We have twenty-first-century means of knowing; they use means two centuries old. Why would we want to give up that strategic advantage and let our enemy learn our plans by passively watching the news?

Sometimes making information public can give us an advantage. That may happen, for example, when we wish to divide the enemy and draw part to our side.

Secretary of State Clinton understands this point. Friday night on the Lehrer News Hour, she broadcast that strategy to the world. In an interview on her trip to Pakistan, she never used the word “Taliban” to describe our plans. Instead, she referred repeatedly to Al Qaeda “and their extremist allies.”

The import of her careful choice of words was clear. We have decided (as I suspected) that Al Qaeda and the Taliban are not joined at the hip. General Petraeus himself implied as much eighteen months ago when he spoke of winning some “reconcilable” Taliban to our goals. So we are going to do our best to bring as many of them to our side as possible, just was we did with the awakening Sunni in Iraq. That strategic decision has already been made, apparently at the highest level.

Secretary Clinton’s careful choice of words also had another implication. The word “Taliban” means “students” or “seekers of knowledge ”in Arabic. Apparently many Muslims in the theater view the Taliban as students of a form of Islam. In a world with 1.3 billion Muslims, it makes little sense for us to portray ourselves as an implacable enemy of any form of Islam, even one that we view as extreme. Doing so would play right into the hands of Al Qaeda’s “Crusader” narrative.

We do not want to be seen as “infidels” or enemies of faith. Instead, we want Southwest Asia to see us as the bane of people who blow up innocents in hotels, restaurants, bazaars, universities, mosques and Islamic weddings. So Secretary Clinton’s implicit announcement that the Taliban are no longer generically our enemy may be helpful to our cause, even if it gives away our strategy of reconciliation where possible.

Another possible exception to the need for military secretary involves our own activities in Pakistan. A year ago Pakistan’s military was doing little or nothing to dislodge Al Qaeda from Waziristan. Then it made sense to publicize our drone strikes and isolated special-forces incursions. The publicity made our enemies feel less secure in their sanctuary, thereby constraining their activities. It also may have motivated some of them to flee to Afghanistan and open themselves up to our own forces.

But now that Pakistan has skin and massive forces the game, we should expect news reports of most drone strikes inside Pakistan—let alone any ground assistance by our troops—to cease. Not only might reports reveal important strategic or tactical information. They also might inflame Pakistanis’ sentiments against our “meddling” in their internal affairs and infringing on their national sovereignty.

One thing both our far left and far right can agree on is that we are at war. During the last sixteen years, our enemy in that war has dealt us more devastating blows than all our other adversaries combined. So it behooves us to accept military secrecy not just about day-to-day tactics, but about our strategic objectives and approaches as well, including the number of additional troops we send and where they will go.

During our greatest war, the precise place where we had planned to invade occupied France was one of the best kept secrets in military history. We built row upon row of rubber tanks and planes in southern England, indistinguishable from real ones from the air, to convince the Nazis we were headed for Calais.

Just think how many more gravestones there would be above Omaha Beach at Normandy if military secrecy had broken down. Today, where we send how many troops among Afghanistan’s precarious towns and provinces is just as proper a subject of military secrecy.

David Brooks wants evidence of the President’s “resolve” to “win” in Afghanistan. But a leader doesn’t show resolve by talking. Nor does he show it by chest-thumping antics like Dubya’s “Mission Accomplished” stunt on an aircraft carrier. War is not film-making or public relations, although occasionally propaganda can be helpful. War requires deception and secrecy, things democracies like ours find hard to countenance.

So a democratic leader shows resolve in war by careful thought and planning, and by veiling plans and results in military secrecy when appropriate. He demonstrates personal commitment by making sure our troops have the strategy, training and equipment they need and by sparing the time and bearing the pain to witness fallen heroes’ final journeys home and honor their sacrifice. And he demonstrates strategic vision by, among other things, having been the very first of all the presidential candidates to propose a serious, comprehensive strategy for combating terrorism in the AfPak region.

Our enemies will know our President’s “resolve” when first they see movement in the hills around their sanctuaries. Until then, let them doubt our resolve and grow overconfident.

In the meantime, let Brooks and our insatiable media suck it up and respect military secrecy. And if any general thinks whatever secret decision the President may make is a serious strategic error, let him have the guts and decency to resign and go public.

Our heroes and our taxpayers deserve no less. Except for broad outlines and occasional strategic advantage, neither our strategy nor our tactics should ever appear in our daily news—until they have produced success. War is not a spectator sport.

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