Amateurs talk tactics, Professionals study logistics: The Surge, Afghanistan, Bush, McCain edition

The running theme of this blog is the importance of being able to count. Genuinely elementary arithmetic, if actually applied, is the foundation of scientific thinking, and scientific thinking is how we arrive, however imperfectly, at reliable guides to experience in the world.

That said, this post is another in my informal series arguing that because John McCain can’t count, can’t take advantage of the tools of analytical thinking, he is unfit to be President. A corollary of the argument I’m about to make is that the latest news out of our multiply mismanaged foreign wars provides independent support for General Wesley Clark’s argument that Senator McCain’s military career has not given him the experience needed by a President.

What’s the news?

This: the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, yesterday told reporters that the US military has run out of troops, that it cannot dispatch more units to Afghanistan, where the Taliban is on the rise, unless and until the US draws down its forces in Iraq.

What does this have to do with counting, with analytical thinking? Here is John McCain, from his campaign website, on the”success” of what he calls “The McCain Surge” of US troops in Iraq:

Today, our new counterinsurgency campaign is showing signs of success, and John McCain believes we can still prevail in Iraq if Washington politicians exercise resolve not panic.

Remember: Amateurs talk tactics, professionals study logistics (a quote attributed to General Omar Bradley).

Leave aside the question of whether or not the surge is working even in its own limited sphere. (There is, sadly, a very strong argument that its primary accomplishment has been to prop up an unpopular, inept, Iranian-leaning government, leading to a decrease in US power, and an increase in that of our primary regional rival. See Michael Massing’s latest from Baghdad for the depressing details.

(As an aside: I don’t usually link to David Brooks, who I regard as a fact-deprived, innumerate writer, but his column of June 24 illustrates the problem of punditry without a grasp of the details. Massing’s on the ground report demonstrates why just about everything Brooks says is wrong in this particularly empty bit of triumphalism. (Find one actual testable claim in it, and I’ll give you a lollipop.)

Back on track: the question isn’t just whether or not the surge can work in a local sense, but whether it does now or ever did make sense in the context of the larger war in which we were and are engaged.

The answer was and is no — because the ground forces at our disposal were insufficient for the task of fighting in Afghanistan at the level of intensity required even before the surge began, and more or less everyone in a responsible position knew it.

The military equivalent of the green-eyeshade folks knew in in 2004, as Sy Hersh documented way back then, that the diversion of resources to Iraq threatened operations in that first theater of engagement — the one that actually hosted those who did us harm on 9/11, the ones whose presence on the border was disrupting a key ally, which also happened to be a genuinely nuclear armed Muslim-majority state.

They certainly knew in late 2006 that John McCain and the rest of the armchair generals, those daring knights of the keyboard (h/t Ted Williams) who called for winning in Iraq by shoving a brigade here and a battalion there, were talking tactics, and ignoring logistics.

At that moment, Afghanistan was already receiving scant attention. The Taliban and its allies were already resurgent. Pakistan was already spiraling into political turmoil. The war we failed to finish was and is now in danger of being lost — and no professional, no one who understood the hard data of what it takes to keep boots on the ground, had any reason to doubt what would follow a further starving of this campaign to pour more resources down the sump of Iraq.

This isn’t higher math; this is arithmetic.

And what of McCain? He has focused his claim on the Presidency on the assertion that he has more experience than his rival, especially in military matters, which is certainly true. But General Clark raised in public the issue that a lot of folks have wondered about for a long time: what is the impact of that experience on McCain’s judgment and decision-making.

Now, Admiral Mullen has given us the sadly obvious answer: not much good. It helps to be able to count.

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Explore posts in the same categories: Afghanistan, Arithmetic, bad ideas, Bush follies, Iraq, Journalism and its discontents, McCain, Politics, War

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2 Comments on “Amateurs talk tactics, Professionals study logistics: The Surge, Afghanistan, Bush, McCain edition”


  1. Great post. Another thing McCain is not counting on, nor even very worried about, is the mental and physical exhaustion of the troops and their families. Rarely before have so many sacrificed so much for so little.


  2. I poach on your (non-exclusive) terrain a little here.


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