Belmont Club

The Logic of Logistics

One quote all  military historians know is “amateurs talk about tactics, but professionals study logistics.”  Logistics are both the servant and master of military operations.  Its power to compel was nowhere more dramatically illustrated than the German mobilization on the eve of World War 1, when the sheer momentum of logistics made it impossible for even the Kaiser to cancel the clash of arms. Everyone knows the the famous story of how the Kaiser was helpless to overcome his army’s own impetus.

Once the mobilization button was pushed, the whole vast machinery for calling up, equipping, and transporting two million men began turning automatically. Reservists went to their designated depots, were issued uniforms, equipment, and arms, formed into companies and companies into battalions, were joined by cavalry, cyclists, artillery, medical units, cook wagons, blacksmith wagons, even postal wagons, moved according to prepared railway timetables to concentration points near the frontier where they would be formed into divisions, divisions into corps, and corps into armies ready to advance and fight. One army corps alone—out of the total of 40 in the German forces—required 170 railway cars for of officers, 965 for infantry, 2,960 for cavalry, 1,915 for artillery and supply wagons, 6,010 in all, grouped in 140 trains and an equal number again for their supplies. From the moment the order was given, everything was to move at fixed times according to a schedule precise down to the number of train axles that would pass over a given bridge within a given time. …

Now, on the climactic night of August 1, Moltke was in no mood for any more of the Kaiser’s meddling with serious military matters, or with meddling of any kind with the fixed arrangements. To turn around the deployment of a million men from west to east at the very moment of departure would have taken a more iron nerve than Moltke disposed of. He saw a vision of the deployment crumbling apart in confusion, supplies here, soldiers there, ammunition lost in the middle, companies without officers, divisions without staffs, and those 11,000 trains, each exquisitely scheduled to click over specified tracks at specified intervals of ten minutes, tangled in a grotesque ruin of the most perfectly planned military movement in history.

‘Your Majesty,’ Moltke said to him now, ‘it cannot be done. The deployment of millions cannot be improvised. If Your Majesty insists on leading the whole army to the East it will not be an army ready for battle but a disorganised mob of armed men with no arrangements for supply. Those arrangements took a whole year of intricate labour to complete’— and Moltke closed upon that rigid phrase, the basis for every major German mistake, the phrase that launched the invasion of Belgium and the submarine war against the United States, the inevitable phrase when military plans dictate policy – ’and once settled, it cannot be altered.’

The momentum of logistics is equally compelling in withdrawal as on the attack.  The Afghan government is now under mortal threat from and Islamic army.  What can America do? As the Taliban rolls into the Warduj district after taking Kunduz, the fundamental limits to any US counterattack are imposed by the fact the Obama administration has already pulled the supply plug on the forces there.   The iron momentum of logistics is now in play.

Last May the Northern Supply route was shut down. The Stars and Stripes reported at the time: “A logistics route through Russia that carried as much as 40 percent of the supplies for NATO’s coalition at the height of military operations in Afghanistan has finally shut down.”

Using sea, rail and truck transport, the Northern Distribution Network connected Baltic and Caspian Sea ports with Afghanistan through Russia, Central Asia and the Caucuses.

The northern routes were more expensive than bringing supplies through Pakistan, but complicated relations between Washington and Islamabad often led to the shutdown of Pakistan routes for periods of time….

With the U.N. mandate expired and the coalition’s transition to the new training-focused Resolute Support mission, the remaining forces are relying on other supply routes, Lungescu said.

“In light of that, NATO has not sought to extend transit arrangements with Russia … or to negotiate new arrangements for Resolute Support,” she said.

The Pakistani routes have been downsized also. The Indian Express notes that the bribe money which kept the roads open has dried up. “As drawdown progresses in Afghanistan, US draws its Pak purse strings.”

Coalition Support Fund (CSF) … in theory, was meant to reimburse Pakistan for its military operations against militants in tribal areas on the Afghanistan border, which would help NATO forces in their operations against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. In practice, CSF came to be seen as a payout to Pakistan for allowing US military supplies from Karachi to travel through its territory into Afghanistan. This was established after Pakistan closed the supply routes after a US airstrike on Salala border post in November 2011 — the Americans did not pay any CSF until July 2012, when the routes were reopened following an expression of regret by the US.

Now that NATO military operations are drawing down in Afghanistan, the rationale of paying for supply routes no longer exists.

Once the Obama administration had taken the decision to pull out certain things were inevitable. Although there were some efforts by the Afghan government to slow down the pace of withdrawal, the general direction of things was fixed.

U.S. officials don’t want to alter the drawdown policy set by President Barack Obama, according to defense officials. That policy anticipates cutting the number of active-duty troops in the country from 9,800 to 5,500 by the end of 2015. By the end of 2016, the force is supposed to shrink to just a few hundred at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

American officials think that staying longer would undermine efforts to have the Afghan military do more on its own and build its independence and ability to operate without American assistance.

Some things are as irreversible as Moltke’s mobilization timetable. The cost and energy of putting the US Armed Forces in reverse is titanic, nobody would dream of disrupting it now. “Serious planning for the withdrawal began in 2011 and ended up costing nearly $30 billion.”

The United States had the biggest job because they had most of the bases (500), vehicles (nearly 25,000) and shipping containers (over 60,000) to deal with. Many of the bases were turned over to the Afghans although facilities the Afghans could not use had to be destroyed, especially bases, lest the Taliban or drug gangs take them over. Some heavy equipment that the Afghans did not need (or could not use), like the older MRAPs, were destroyed (disassembled) in Afghanistan.

Originally the plan was to move 60 percent of the cargo containers out via roads through Pakistan to the port of Karachi where it would move by sea back to the United States and other NATO countries. That proved more difficult than expected because Afghans and Pakistanis saw this as a splendid opportunity to make money. Rather than pay more bribes to get the trucks to Karachi, a lot more of the stuff was moved out via air freight. Some was flown to the Persian Gulf where it was transferred to ships for the long voyage home. That was more expensive than paying more bribes but was seen as a better way to go as the cash goes to Western air freight companies and not some tribal outlaws.

However threatening the Taliban offensive becomes, the avalanche of logistics now has a momentum all of its own. The timing of the Islamic assault was probably no coincidence. The Taliban have been watching the Obama policy for years. All they had to do was wait till things passed the point of no return and then strike.

This is not to say that rushing troops back is a good idea. Afghanistan was a strategic dead end from the beginning and deserved only to be a holding action. But it was Obama himself who redefined Afghanistan as the “war of necessity” as contrasted to his predecessor’s Middle Eastern “war of choice”. Current events are ironically turning his strategy on its head. The underlying strategic importance of the Middle East is fast transforming it once again into a theater of necessity — which it always was — while his Afghan “war of necessity” is turning into a defeat — and an unnecessary one at that.

Perhaps the most tragic thing about Afghanistan is that the president picked a useless objective and made the decision to lose it at the greatest possible cost.

But if debacle it becomes, it is  necessary to qualify it by noting that  the Armed Forces did not lose the fight. The men in uniform thrashed the Taliban every single time they met. It is the men in the suits who appear to have been beaten like a drum. Political leadership, not military prowess, is America’s Achilles’ Heel. Keith Nightingale writing in War on the Rocks tried to examine the question of why America keeps losing at the end of a unbroken string of tactical successes.  “Why is America tactically terrific but strategically slipshod?”

This is a puzzle I have always wondered about since I was a lieutenant on my first Vietnam tour and experienced consistent strategic failures through the several desert wars. How come the finest fighting force on the planet seems to be strategically bereft? In retrospect, we are always tactically overwhelming and strategically underwhelming.

One obvious answer is that strategy is the province of politicians.  But there is more than ineptitude behind any answer to Nightingale’s question.  It’s a question of incentives. Politicians often decide at some point it is wiser and indeed often “virtuous” to lose. Losing is their ticket to office, their qualification for a Nobel Peace Prize.  It is a pathway to media sainthood.

Once they embrace those incentives operations are defunded, the logistics trail  is taken apart, a “decent interval” is negotiated and things are allowed to run their course.  Defeat follows not as defeat but as the successful outcome of strategy, however perverse that may sound.

To understand how defeat can be winning  recall the old principal-agent problem. “The dilemma exists because sometimes the agent is motivated to act in his own best interests rather than those of the principal.” Even though the people might gain more by “winning” if the political class can do better by “losing” then they lose.

Common examples of this relationship include corporate management (agent) and shareholders (principal), or politicians (agent) and voters (principal). …

The problem arises where the two parties have different interests and asymmetric information (the agent having more information), such that the principal cannot directly ensure that the agent is always acting in its (the principal’s) best interests, particularly when activities that are useful to the principal are costly to the agent, and where elements of what the agent does are costly for the principal to observe. Moral hazard and conflict of interest may arise. Indeed, the principal may be sufficiently concerned at the possibility of being exploited by the agent that he chooses not to enter into a transaction at all, when that deal would have actually been in both parties’ best interests: a suboptimal outcome that lowers welfare overall. The deviation from the principal’s interest by the agent is called “agency costs”.

“Agency costs” in this context, are the risk of betrayal.  The growing gap between the political class and the voters mean agency costs have risen so high that voters are rightly skeptical of supporting any military conflict whatsoever.  There is no assurance the political class won’t decide to “lose”, that is to maximize the agent’s interests over the principal’s.

In this respect, the tell-tale of what the agent has decided is logistics.  The agent prepares the budget.  The agent sets timetables. When the US government defunded South Vietnam in 1975 and began the process of dismantling ops in Afghanistan back in 2011, whatever they said it was what they did that mattered.

While the New York Times was reporting on president Obama disquisition on his “war of necessity” the enemy was more profitably observing the logistics. They knew the truth was not to be found in words but in numbers of trucks and containers on the ground. They saw no “war of necessity”, only a political exercise.

The Special Forces might beat back the Taliban in Kunduz.  But they’re not getting with the program.   “Amateurs talk about tactics, but professionals study the federal budget.”

Who said the Taliban were stupid?

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