Can-do attitude

For obvious reasons, military institutions like to have soldiers with a ‘can-do attitude’. When you tell your troops to do something, you don’t want them replying that it all looks a bit too difficult, and they’d rather not, thank you very much. You’d prefer to have people who regard difficulty as a challenge and strive to get the job done however impossible it may seem.

That’s all well and good, but sometimes the job is just plain wrong, and shouldn’t be done at all; or it just can’t be done, no matter how hard you try; or it can only be done at disproportionate cost. In such cases, what you need is not a can-do attitude, but somebody who will say ‘Sorry, boss, but this immoral/stupid/impossible, don’t do it.’

Unfortunately, the military’s can-do attitude doesn’t lend itself very readily to this type of practical wisdom. Psychologists refer to a difference between a ‘deliberative’ and an ‘instrumental’ mindset. The former focuses on what to do, the latter focuses on how to do it. Psychological research indicates that people with an instrumental mindset tend to be much more optimistic about the prospects of success than those who are deliberative. Military people are used to executing policy, not making it. They develop a frame of mind which asks ‘how’ not ‘why’. As such, they view things from an instrumental not a deliberative point of view. This creates a tendency towards over-optimism.

This analysis is, of course, a broad generalization. Still, from my own experience I think that there is something to it, and that this frame of mind can be seen as facilitating unnecessary and even counterproductive military actions. Told to invade Iraq, depose Gaddhafi, or whatever, the soldier doesn’t ask ‘why the hell are we doing such a stupid thing?’, but ‘how do we do it?’. And when he’s then told to tidy up the inevitable mess which follows, he doesn’t say ‘There’s no way on earth we can defeat the Vietcong/Taleban/whoever, no matter what we do’, but ‘Sure, but we need more resources.’ And if it doesn’t work, then it becomes a matter of ‘one more push will do the trick.’

Consequently, it is generally not a good idea to put generals in charge of strategy. Unfortunately, this is what Donald Trump is doing, delegating decisions to his Defence Secretary, James Mattis, and his National Security Advisor, H.R. McMaster, both of whom are former generals. The negative consequences are already becoming clear in terms of American policy in Afghanistan.

As regular readers of this blog will know, I am a big fan of the Special Inspector General for Afganistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), John Sopko. His latest report has just come out, and among other things it declares that:

  • Conflict-related civilian casualties in Afghanistan rose to 11,418 in 2016 – the highest total civilian casualties recorded since UNAMA began documenting them in 2009.
  • Security incidents throughout 2016 and continuing into the first quarter of 2017 reached their highest level since UN reporting began in 2007.
  • Casualties suffered by the ANDSF in the fight against the Taliban and other insurgents continue to be shockingly high: 807 were killed in the first six weeks of the year; 1,328 wounded between Jan. 1 and Feb. 24.
  • Domestic revenues are expected to pay for 38% of the Afghan budget this year, with donor assistance covering the rest. Without donor assistance, the IMF estimated Afghanistan’s current-account deficit equivalent to 36.6% of GDP ($6.7 billion) in 2016.

Things, in other words, aren’t going so well, and while the Afghan government is not on the point of collapse, it’s surviving only because foreign powers are providing it with 63% of its money.

All this gives the Americans four options:

  1. End all support for the Afghan government.
  2. Continue roughly on the current path – i.e. subsidize the Afghan government and get it to do most of the fighting.
  3. Increase military and financial support for the Afghan government, and get more directly involved in military operations, but not to the extent required to destroy the Taleban. Rather, increase support just enough to stabilize the situation, so as to persuade the Taleban to negotiate a peace settlement.
  4. Large scale increase in military and financial support in order to destroy the Taleban.

Option 1 means accepting defeat, but Option 2 isn’t working, and there is no appetite for Option 4, which in any case didn’t work last time it was tried. According to Bloomberg, the US government is therefore about to choose option 3. The US will increase its troops numbers in Afghanistan and carry out more military strikes against the Taleban. It will also commit an additional $23 billion to fund ‘anti-corruption programs and other priorities’. This is a clear victory for the interventionists.

Not everybody in the Trump administration supports this decision. As Bloomberg reports, ‘some officials raised concern that the plan would be throwing good money after bad.’  ‘Some officials’, in my opinion, are entirely right, but they have been overruled by General McMaster. The military view has triumphed. According to Bloomberg, ‘McMaster argued … that Trump should not make the same mistake Obama made by exiting Iraq too soon and allowing the Islamic State the room to regenerate.’

This concern is understandable, but it is hardly a good argument if it can’t be shown that the proposed policy can produce better results. The belief that it can is, I think, pure wishful thinking, a product of the military can-do attitude. After all, if in the past 100,000+ troops couldn’t stabilize the situation and force the Taleban to agree to a peace settlement, why does McMaster think that a smaller number of troops could do so now? And, if SIGAR’s reports are anything to go by, providing financial and development aid hasn’t actually helped ‘fight corruption’, improved the Afghan economy, or won hearts and minds, but done the opposite, and accentuated the problems of corruption which help drive Afghans into the hands of the insurgents. Pumping even more money into the country is hardly going to improve matters.

In short, practical wisdom dictates that this is one of those battles which just can’t be won. A can-do attitude doesn’t help in this regard. What one needs is a can’t-do attitude. Rather than escalating up from Option 2 to Option 3, the US needs to be thinking about how to shift down from Option 2 to Option 1. During his electoral campaign, Trump said occasional things which made anti-interventionists think that he understood this. Since then, however, he has surrendered to the demands of the generals. It’s unlikely that anything positive will come out of it.


11 thoughts on “Can-do attitude”

  1. “As Bloomberg reports, ‘some officials raised concern that the plan would be throwing good money after bad.’ ‘Some officials’, in my opinion, are entirely right, but they have been overruled by General McMaster”.

    The important question is, “where will the thrown money wind up?”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Some in the palms of US contractors, some in the palms of corrupt Afghan officials, and some in the palms of the Taleban. Very little in the hands of ordinary Afghan citizens.


  2. Option 3 is the best one, and not from generals’ point of view, but as a solid imperial strategy. You maintain enough instability to make the government strong enough yet under a constant existential threat and thus completely dependent on you. If the government gets too uppity, you pull some resources and make them suffer. If they are perfectly obedient, you reward them a little. This is how you control a country, simple as that. See also Ukraine.


    1. But what does this get you? A not too manageable puppet government in an impoverished country with no obvious geostrategic value, which costs you tens of billions a year. Doesn’t seem like a very good return on the investment.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I don’t know, I’m not an imperial planner. But if we go by ‘location. location, location’, it clearly does have geostrategic value. It’s no New Zealand, it’s right in the middle of the chessboard. I might want to place military installations there, nuclear missiles or intercepts. Or I may have plans to flood some place with heroin or something. Who the hell knows.


      2. Afghanistan does have significant geostrategic and economic value: to its west and east and southeast it borders Iran and Pakistan, to its north it borders Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. If the US has plans to destabilise those countries, Afghanistan is a good base from which to spy on these nations and headquarter drone operations facilities. Once these countries are destabilised, the next in the firing line is Kazakhstan and after Kazakhstan, you’ve got … a sparsely populated Russian Siberia.

        There were several news articles back in 2014 extolling Afghanistan’s wealth of rare earth minerals, estimated by the US Defense Department to be worth US$1 trillion at the time.

        Hanging onto Afghanistan in spite of the billions wasted looks more understandable once you realise that if the country can be broken, its natural resources are a virtual goldmine for US mining and energy companies to plunder.


      3. The Chinese have the rights to the most valuable resource – the Aynak copper deposits, the largest in the world. If by some miracle, the Americans manage to stabilize the place enough to allow mining to take place, it will be a case of the USA investing hundreds of billions to make the world safe for Chinese economic exploitation.

        No wonder the Chinese will inherit the earth!


      4. I should add that the USA has so far spent about one trillion dollars in Afghanistan. No matter how valuable Afghanistan’s natural resources, there is no way the Americans could ever get more than a tiny fragment of that money back. In purely financial terms, this is a terrible investment. The American presence in Afghanistan can’t be explained in terms of trade, investment, natural resources, money etc.


  3. I think, it’s more to do with “Looking Imperial” and maintaining the Perception of the being a self proclaimed “Indispensible Nation”. This, inevitable leads to the attitude to “Do Something!” about just about anything in the world. And when you are constantly demanded to “Do Something (Already/Before It’s Too Late/No Time to Explain!)”, surely enough you, being all mighty and Imperial, ought to develop a “Can-Do” attitude.

    But Can-doism is just a method and a form – the essence and a reason for its existence are perceptions and, previously discussed here, urge to look like Baboon-in-Chief.


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