Burning the Steak

Last fall I met up with an old friend in the security consulting business. We met for breakfast at an upscale hotel in the DC area. As he was having a second cup of coffee he leaned forward and said, “I’m going to say something crazy, but I can be frank with you.” He paused and added, “what we need is a new East India company.”


“Go on,” I said, mildly surprised.  And he continued in a lowered tone, but not without looking first to the left and right.

He went on to say that one of the problems in the US response to terror has been in the conduct of stabilization operations — the critical task of building up a country after the kinetic battles have been largely won.  These operations have been costly, prolonged and have largely failed. Billions of dollars spent on traditional aid approaches in Iraq and Afghanistan; and in countries changed by the ‘Arab Spring’ have yielded but little result. Often they have ended in abject disaster.

Part of the reason for the failure, he explained, was that ‘nation building’ is not a good approach in countries which are not nations, but tribes. The nation state is a modern, largely Western concept, the ideal to which many post-colonial countries are supposed to conform. But in reality the world is still very much a collection of tribes.  We can’t admit this, however, and continue to act as if Afghanistan were a Pashtun equivalent of Belgium and laws meant the same thing there as in Brussels.

Yet in some cases the tribal structure has been transformed by the imposition of a “Pax” — a peace imposed by an imperium, the best known of which were the Pax Romana, Pax Britannica and the Pax Americana.  Our methods for imposing the Pax were to use either of two idiotic methods. Either by using US Armed Forces for nation-building or employing United Nations and similar agencies for a similar purpose.  Nobody in his right mind would do this, but since those were the only two choices on the menu, they were givens.


However things were not always thus. A few hundred years ago the British Empire recognized that the best way to deal with tribal societies was not by imposing the nation-state structure on them but to take them as they were and to impose the Pax via the far more flexible structure of enterprise. This was possible through structures such as the British East India Company — a private company whose freedom of action far surpassed that of any modern bureaucrat. The officers of the Company actually became part of the social fabric of places India and acted to improve certain outcomes without direct reference to a ‘nation-state’ as such, limited only by British foreign policy and their ability to convince the inhabitants with whom they worked.

So what we needed was a new version of the old Company because that had a far bigger chance of working at stabilization than the methods to which we were currently wedded. I realized why he had looked both ways. His idea was so likely to work, so politically incorrect, so outre that one feared that the people in the neighboring tables might at any time spring up and denounce us for a thought crime.

The key, he went on to say in sotto voce,  was to allow such a Company to profit from stabilization. To align the incentives of the stabilization agent with the success of the country. The only people who could make Iraq or Syria or Afghanistan a success were those who were willing to make those countries rich.  The incentives of aid agencies, he said, were exactly the opposite; to keep the country poor so that the parade of victims would remain unabated and hence the fund-raising from the West would continue.


Now he’s really done it, I thought to myself. He wants to make the world better by using private enterprise. Even I looked from side to side.

“It all makes perfect sense,” I told him. “But you realize,” I added, “that this idea is so politically incorrect that we would do well to avoid being burned at the stake.” He snorted and asked for the bill.  And so it lay. That conversation lay dormant in my mind for months until I came across an article today in Time Magazine.  “A General Writes the First After-Action Report on the Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq: Why We Lost”.

Recently retired Army lieutenant general Daniel Bolger, who played key roles in Afghanistan and Iraq in his 35-year career, wasn’t coy when it came time to titling his upcoming book Why We Lost. …

“By next Memorial Day, who’s going to say that we won these two wars?” Bolger said in an interview Thursday. “We committed ourselves to counterinsurgency without having a real discussion between the military and civilian leadership, and the American population —’Hey, are you good with this? Do you want to stay here for 30 or 40 years like the Korean peninsula, or are you going to run out of energy?’ It’s obvious: we ran out of energy.”

The military fumbled the ball by not making clear how long it would take to prevail in both nations. “Once you get past that initial knockout shot, and decide you’re going to stay awhile, you’d better define ‘a while,’ because in counter-insurgency you’re talking decades,” Bolger says. “Neither [the Bush nor the Obama] Administration was going to do that, yet I was in a military that was planning for deployments forever, basically. An all-volunteer force made it easy to commit the military to a long-term operation because they were volunteers.” …

“They should have been limited incursions and [then] pull out — basically like Desert Storm,” he adds, referring to the 1991 Gulf War that forced Saddam Hussein’s forces out of neighboring Kuwait after an air campaign and 100-hour ground war. The U.S. wasn’t up to perpetual war, even post-9/11. “This enemy wasn’t amenable to the type of war we’re good at fighting, which is a Desert Storm or a Kosovo.”…

Bolger said his views on the wars grew more sour during his three tours. “My guilt is not having earlier figured out what was going wrong, and making a more forceful case and working with my peer generals to make a better military recommendation,” he says. “What eats at me the most is the 80 dead people I had in my command over my three tours, that eats at me a hell of a lot.”


I realized at once that Bolger was talking about the same problem I had discussed over breakfast with my friend last fall. But whereas Bolger has only identified the problem, my friend had actually made a start on a solution.  My guess is that a lot of people in DC have had similarly blasphemous thoughts about stabilization operations but are even now looking over their shoulders to check if anyone is watching them read the Belmont Club because they too fear being burned at the stake.

Maybe Bolger’s book will bring the problem out in the open without starting a pyre of heretics.

As it happened, I spent 3 hours last night reading Hill 488, a nearly forgotten engagement of the Vietnam War. Sixteen guys with M-14s who held off the better part of 3 NVA companies over the course of a whole night. It brought home the fact that while American troops had won almost every tactical engagement in that conflict, it had failed in the end because the strategy in Washington was wrong.  The failure was strategic, rather than tactical.

This is even more true of Iraq and Afghanistan. The military almost never loses a fight, but the mission fails notwithstanding not because the tool fails to do its job but because it’s the wrong tool for the job. Bolger might well ask himself: “why did we lose”. But the answer is not his to give. That’s the point. The failure lies above his pay grade. It is Washington itself that must ask: is our strategy really rational?


And the answer is probably that even they know the strategy is irrational, but they stick to it as the only political course possible. It’s the old story of the drunk seeking his lost watch by the lamp-post. He didn’t lose it near the lamp-post but the lamp is the only place with light enough to look.  “Losing” is the inevitable result of pursuing certain immutable agendas in which Washington and business have a deep vested interest.  It’s constrained. America can’t beat its foes without stepping on a lot of toes. In the end it is politically cheaper to “lose” rather than win.

And so the system chooses in effect, to lose, because winning cannot be put on the menu. As the world lurches towards a new era of uncertainty, there will be many proposals to buy new weapons, acquire whiz-bang technologies or invent gizmos as the answer. But these will be of only marginal value, because none of our failures have ever been tactical, they have always been strategic.

The key to victory lies in changing the politics of the thing. Our defeats are rooted in a lack of mental honesty and and a poverty imagination.  And that of course is a Hill 48,800. Too high to climb.

Recent items of interest by Belmont readers based on Amazon click-throughs.

The Greatest Trade Ever: The Behind-the-Scenes Story of How John Paulson Defied Wall Street and Made Financial History
Hill 488
How to Debate Leftists and Destroy Them: 11 Rules for Winning the Argument
One Second After
The New Physics
Wilson Electronics Sleek 4G – Vehicle Cellular Signal Booster for Single User
To Lose a Battle: France 1940


Did you know that you can purchase some of these books and pamphlets by Richard Fernandez and share them with you friends? They will receive a link in their email and it will automatically give them access to a Kindle reader on their smartphone, computer or even as a web-readable document.

The War of the Words for $3.99, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
Rebranding Christianity for $3.99, or why the truth shall make you free
The Three Conjectures at Amazon Kindle for $1.99, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age
Storming the Castle at Amazon Kindle for $3.99, why government should get small
No Way In at Amazon Kindle $8.95, print $9.99. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.
Storm Over the South China Sea $0.99, how China is restarting history in the Pacific
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