Our country is at war in two distinct theaters and, as President Obama takes office, major decisions about both campaigns must be made soon. U.S. foreign and defense policy have been increasingly shaped in-theater by the immediate knowledge, experience, and objectives of the military rather than by concepts and strategies developed by civilian leadership in Washington. While the field perspective is crucial, the president must also take a broader view that considers each conflict in its regional context and vis-a-vis other national priorities. The next, critical steps for both Iraq and Afghanistan must be part of a well-defined, integrated, grand strategy made at the highest level, defined by the president, his cabinet members, and their civilian and military experts.
The great Prussian strategist von Clausewitz famously argued that war is an extension of policy by other means. Neither Iraq nor Afghanistan is a traditional war of the kind Clausewitz witnessed, but his motto still holds. Both countries now reside in a gray area between war and peace, demanding simultaneous military and civilian action to help create stability for economic and political development. Part of the trend toward the militarization of peace-building reflects violent, rapidly changing realities on the ground.
While a temporary reduction in violence on the ground in Iraq is heartening, the current situation in Iraq is not simply the result of the surge led by General Petraeus. The picture is far more complex, involving the pursuit of multiple political agendas on the part of Sunni and Shiite factions, tribes, and militias. While the U.S. Army is more diligent at "lessons learned" than civilian agencies, the "lessons" of Iraq cannot be fully understood from a purely military perspective. Even though the approach of the Rumsfeld Pentagon was headstrong and isolated, that history does not compel the conclusion that delegation to the military in theater is the corrective.
Moreover, lessons from Iraq do not translate easily to the Afghan context. U.S.-led arming of Afghan militias is not parallel to the Sunni Awakening. It could prove destructive to the enfeebled grasp of a central government that has not been sufficiently pressured nor helped to achieve good governance. Nor will a larger foreign military footprint in Afghanistan necessarily be effective. At a minimum, even a gradual force increase will require local acquiescence and widespread reassurance that civilian casualties will be reduced. To add injury to insult, the military's hunt for Taliban and al Qaeda leadership continues to result in searches, detentions, and civilian casualties, which jeopardize the legitimacy of the American mission and further undermine the weak Kabul government, widely conceived of as incapable of protecting its own population.
Aid tends to be allocated as a function of military priorities—winning "hearts and minds"—not on the basis of a broader state-building and development agenda. Reportedly, more than half the USAID Afghan budget is dispensed in the four most insecure provinces, all in southern and eastern Afghanistan. Less besieged provinces elsewhere receive far less development funding. A prominent governor from the north recently lamented that the lesson seems to be that violence begets more aid. If humanitarian crises occur in other parts of the country as a result of perceived neglect, the credibility of the state and of the United States will fall deeper into disrepair.
Ultimately, state-building, peace-building, stabilization, and reconstruction require highly complex, integrated efforts that have historically involved many organizations, of which the U.S. military is but one. The United Nations has been in the peace operations business for more than half a century and, despite its ravaged reputation, still hosts a cadre of experienced global experts, civil and military, on matters of war and peace. Nongovernmental and foreign donor agencies also have invaluable expertise built over decades serving in war-torn societies.
It is tempting for Americans to skirt the multiple, overlapping, and often antagonistic relationships among these organizations and, instead, to adopt the agenda of the military. The high esteem, enormous budget, and unparalleled capabilities of the military make it easy for politicians to "listen to the generals," thereby inoculating themselves from future blame. The incoming president has shown an inclination to reject this approach. It will take hard work to address the mutual frustration and distrust of international partners, civilian and military, but the effort will restore a needed balance.
The first American-led wars of the new century have not only involved great costs in blood and treasure but they have redefined the boundaries of the civil-military relationship in our government. Today, the generals, willingly or not, seem to be the guiding hand in decisions of broad strategic importance. But, ultimately, U.S. civilian leadership must bear responsibility for charting our strategic course in this rapidly evolving geopolitical landscape. One can only hope that irreversible decisions will not be made in the weeks ahead. President Obama must work through a process that incorporates both military and civilian perspectives. Only then will the United States have a well-considered grand strategy to frame our efforts in the challenging terrains of Iraq and Afghanistan.
Antonia Chayes is a visiting professor of international politics and law at Tufts University's Fletcher School and former Air Force under secretary. Dipali Mukhopadhyay is a doctoral candidate at the Fletcher School and a dissertation peace scholar at the U.S. Institute of Peace.