The Turf War Brewing Inside the White House
Obama's pick for national security adviser—Gen. James L. Jones—has a strong independent streak and a well-attuned moral compass that could trigger clashes with other Defense officials.
It is no surprise that Barack Obama reportedly overruled some of his transition aides to choose retired Gen. James L. Jones as his national security adviser. Like Obama, Jones—a military liaison to the Senate in the 1970s, a friend of John McCain, and later a close friend and aide to Clinton Defense Secretary William Cohen, a Republican—has called the Iraq war “a debacle.” In August 2002, as commandant of the Marine Corps, Jones blasted the Iraq war plans of the neoconservatives around Donald Rumsfeld in the Pentagon as “foolish.” He added, “You better have a Plan B in your hip pocket…”
Like Obama, Jones, as NATO commander in 2006, warned that the Bush preoccupation with Iraq had caused the U.S. “to take its eye off the ball” in Afghanistan. A year later, he declared, “Make no mistake, NATO is not winning in Afghanistan.” Also like Obama, he warned that Afghanistan was “the epicenter of terrorism” and that the consequences of failure for the United States and Europe were “serious.” Jones now strongly backs a phased withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Iraq and emphasizes increasing U.S. and NATO troop strength and political and economic development aid in Afghanistan to defeat a resurgent Taliban and al Qaeda.
“This has the potential makings of a monumental interagency turf war.”
Yet the same qualities that attracted the President-elect to the former NATO chief may prove discomfiting to his senior clients in the Pentagon and the U.S. military command. Jones has a reputation for a strong independent streak and a well-attuned moral compass that in the past has set him at oddswith fellow generals and defense officials.
In 2001, during the run-up to the Iraq war, Jones was put off by Rumsfeld’s lack of interest in the views of his generals and rebuffed a bid that would have made Jones Joint Chiefs chairman. He clashed with Gen. Tommy Franks, the CENTCOM commander, before the invasion of Afghanistan, and four years later had a dust-up with Gen. David Petraeus, now the CENTCOM commander of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, over Iraqi police behavior during the surge. In September 2007, a commission headed by Gen. Jones, then retired from his NATO post, found that the predominantly Shiite Iraqi national police, directed by a corrupt ministry of the interior, were often used by the government of President Nouri al-Maliki as a sectarian militia against the Sunni population.
Jones recommended dissolving the national police and restoring the crack Iraqi special forces—taking orders from Maliki’s political cronies—to Iraqi military control. The Jones commission estimated that the Iraqi armed forces and police would not be able to conduct operations independently for another year to 18 months, and then only with U.S. support.
But disbanding the national police ran counter to Petraeus’s surge strategy, which relied heavily on winning over cooperative police officials. As U.S. commander in Iraq, Petraeus refused to order the recommended change for the Iraqi special forces and instead brought in his top counterinsurgency expert to study the problems of Maliki’s interior ministry.
Further confrontation between Jones and the Pentagon, with Petraeus playing a cameo role, may come sooner rather than later, as State and Defense sort out how to execute Obama’s policies in Afghanistan. Jones has strong and well-informed strategic views of Afghanistan, and he, not Petraeus or Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, will have constant access to Obama at the White House. Gen. Jones chaired a study earlier this year for the Atlantic Council, a Washington international affairs group, that concluded the U.S. and European nations must take “urgent” action “to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a failed state.” The Jones report came out foursquare for an ambitious plan of action that includes a major effort to curb Afghanistan’s heroin-producing industry, training the Afghan police and armed forces, development of effective national government and judicial system, and well-coordinated reconstruction and economic development projects. In addition to calling for a reexamination of the U.S.-led, NATO- dominated military campaign, the report called for a comprehensive strategy to coordinate and integrate these international efforts under a U.N. high commissioner who would work closely with the Kabul government.
In effect, the Jones plan is a partially demilitarized version of the counterinsurgency strategy Petraeus and his planners have envisioned for Afghanistan. U.S. commanders understand that local political and economic development operations are central to an effective counterinsurgency strategy. They also know non-military, civilian-run operations are also the most expensive and difficult to mount and coordinate with military operations in a conventional command-and-control system.
It is increasingly clear that Obama buys into robust political and economic development programs for Afghanistan, using provincial reconstruction teams and a corps of civilian aid workers. It is also clear that the natural lead agency to provide political, economic, and diplomatic expertise for Afghanistan will be Hillary Clinton’s State Department, perhaps with the aid of non-governmental organizations such as the United Nations. Even so, Defense Secretary Gates and Gen. Petraeus are likely to argue with good reason that the military command-and-control system is already in place for a full-blown counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan.
This has the potential makings of a monumental interagency turf war. How it will play out is uncertain. Gen. Jones' first major test as national security advisor may well be hammering out a budget plan with Gates and Clinton to shift development funds from Defense to State to field non-military government development programs. Simultaneously, the new national security adviser will face the daunting task of cobbling together a working command-and-control system that Gates, Clinton, and Obama can live with to coordinate the complicated moving parts of an effective Afghan policy.
“The war in Afghanistan will be won or lost in the next fighting season, i.e., by the time of the September [Afghan] elections,” recently warned David Kilcullen, a top Washington counterinsurgency strategist and military adviser. Jones will have to play hardball with the generals as well as the diplomats and soft-power advocates. Worse, he will have to carry it out at warp speed. That is a tall order.
Russ Hoyle is the author of Going to War (Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin's Press, 2008), a detailed account of the18-month run-up to the Iraq war. He is a former senior editor at the New York Daily News, Time, and The New Republic. Hoyle is at work on a new book about counterinsurgency and the U.S. military.