Bureaucracy Keeps Doing Its Thing

On the weekend, The New York Times ran an interesting story about how U.S. Army Major General Michael Nagata, the commander of our Special Operations Forces (SOF) in the Middle East, has been reaching out to experts far beyond the Pentagon, the Intelligence Community (IC), and the U.S. Government altogether, to better understand what drives the Islamic State. Since that war is clearly not going very well, and MG Nagata’s elite forces form the point of the spear there, listening to alternative voices is always commendable. As NYT noted:

Business professors, for example, are examining the Islamic State’s marketing and branding strategies. “We do not understand the movement, and until we do, we are not going to defeat it,” [Nagata] said, according to the confidential minutes of a conference call he held with the experts. “We have not defeated the idea. We do not even understand the idea.”

Who is we, General?  This is not to pick on Nagata, whom I’ve never met but who possesses a fine reputation in the snake-eater community, but in the more than thirteen years since the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, DC, the Pentagon and the IC have spent shocking sums of money trying to understand the enemy, what is properly termed Salafi jihadism. They have consulted experts, inside and outside the Beltway, constantly, for years, hiring them for every imaginable sort of briefing, roundtable, seminar, and professorial BS-session.

I know, because I’ve had a front-row seat. Before I left the IC in 2005, I was an inside expert on what used to be termed “Al-Qa’ida and Associated Movements,” and since then I’ve been an outside expert, and I’ve been called upon to offer counsel on numerous aspects of the Salafi jihad. Many and diverse are the voices that have proffered their advice to the U.S. Government since 9/11. Over the years, I’ve offered my views to various IC agencies and the Pentagon, plus Special Operations Command (SOCOM), which is charged with waging whatever we’re calling the Global War on Terrorism this week. Expert advice is one thing SOCOM cannot claim there has been any shortage of.

Frankly, if MG Nagata thinks “we” don’t understand Salafi jihadism, he’s the one who’s not been paying attention. To be fair, he’s spent the last dozen years kicking in doors rather than reading books and listening to lectures on Salafi jihadism, but this begs the question why he’s been given such an important task, heading up SOF in Central Command, when the defeat of the Islamic State is urgently required, if he’s not clear who the enemy is and what makes him tick.

Salafi jihadism is not an especially complex ideology — see my book on Al-Qa’ida’s strategic and operational thinking, and throw in my book on its development in the 1990’s for a chaser — and the Islamic State variant, which is simply a particularly virulent strain of the Salafi jihadist bacillus, is so dumbed-down for the Internet age that its barbaric essentials can be clearly enunciated in a half-hour. There are dozens of fine books, covering every aspect of the enemy’s worldview, that I can recommend to anybody who would like to read them.

You don’t get to be general in today’s U.S. Army by being a scholar or bookworm, not even in the SOF world, which is a bit more tolerant of oddballs than the regular combat arms. Acting like a scholar-warrior is sometimes beneficial — see David Petraeus, who knew how to act like one, despite because of his shake-n-bake Ph.D. and lack of scholarly output; Dan Bolger, who recently retired as a three-star, did less well as an actual scholar-warrior who wrote books and had real ideas.

The Army — the same is true, to varying degrees, of all our armed services — promotes officers on their ability to command, not their ability to know things. Whether this is wise, in the 21st century, is an open question. It seems to have gotten us nothing but strategic defeat in Iraq and Afghanistan, as LTG (ret) Bolger has recently explained, painfully and accurately.

Why the U.S. military cannot process and “weaponize” the often excellent outside advice it pays large sums of money for is also an important question. Gigantism is a serious problem: DoD and the IC are so huge and sprawling that getting the right message out in a coherent fashion seems impossible. Neither do personnel policies help. The military’s professional development and assignments process makes developing serious expertise in anything challenging in the extreme, unless an officer is willing to commit career suicide. Short tours “in country” likewise prevent the development of necessary knowledge on the ground. Simply put, the Pentagon and the spooks have assembled a “kill chain” without precedent in military history, between drones, related technology, and SOF that are the envy of the world, but such tactical prowess does not strategic success make.

None of these problems can be said to be new. We have repeated many of the identical shortcomings that plagued the Pentagon in Vietnam, where knowledge of how to do counterinsurgency was never the problem: actually doing it successfully was. A key role was played by the CIA officer Robert Komer, known universally as “Blowtorch Bob” for his intellectual tactlessness; it says something that Komer relished the nickname. Komer was a very smart man whose unstated role in Saigon was that of professional gadfly/asshole.

A Harvard man with the vanity to match, after Army service in World War II Komer joined the newly established CIA and made a successful career untangling knotty problems. In Vietnam, he became the dog who caught the car, being appointed the counterinsurgency “czar” in 1967, charged with heading the multi-agency effort to defeat the insurgent Viet Cong. This he was unable to do, despite enormous energy and self-confidence, plus having the ear of President Lyndon Johnson. In the end, bureaucratic dysfunction, civilian and military, proved too great a challenge for Komer’s indefatigable energy. The Pentagon system was as much an adversary as the Viet Cong, despite — or perhaps because of — the huge sums spent on counterinsurgency in Vietnam.

As payback in the guise of analysis, he authored an epic study for RAND of what went wrong, memorably titled Bureaucracy Does Its Thing. It is required reading for anybody who wants to understand what befell American-led pacification in Vietnam, while for veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan it will be an uncomfortably “living document.” To be fair to Komer, the bureaucratic mess he could not untangle in Vietnam may appear a paragon of efficiency compared to the literally incomprehensible disaster the Pentagon has made of reconstruction in Afghanistan.

American politics are often a hindrance to success too. Admiral Bill McRaven, who headed SOCOM from 2011 to 2014, representing the rare four-star man of action with a vision to match, proved unable to overcome Congress, despite having the huge cachet of being the SEAL who oversaw the killing of Osama bin Laden. McRaven’s vision was to develop SOCOM into a Combatant Command actually capable of waging the war on terrorism strategically, templating what worked in the Greater Middle East globally. That admirable vision, however, broke up on the rocks of Congress.

The problem is that, thanks to an accident of history, SOCOM is headquartered in Tampa, far from the Beltway and therefore is “out of the loop” on a lot of important discussions: nothing beats face-time, as any spook will tell you. To make matters worse, SOCOM has long been a dumping ground for DoD civilians who prefer the easy life of Florida’s Suncoast to Beltway games, with the result that most of its permanent staff, its institutional memory, can be charitably termed second-rate, with a more than minor element comprised of what the Pentagon terms ROJ: Retired on the Job. It does not help matters that no snake-eater worth his salt wants to be in Tampa, thousands of miles from the action that makes careers.

To remedy this, McRaven established a Washington, DC, beachhead for SOCOM, to work seamlessly with the alphabet soup of agencies that enables its top secret mission, plus Congress too. If the Command could not be moved from Tampa, a little bit of it could move inside the Beltway. This Congress would not allow. Despite the fact that no jobs would be transferred from Tampa — the DC office would be new positions, and only a few dozen of them — Congress balked and killed the idea over the usual petty concerns. Thus does SOCOM remain out of the game on many important issues, which may partially explain why General Nagata does not know things he really should.

The problem of not knowing things they need to extends far below the general officer ranks, however. Nobody knowing anything is a broader problem, as I’ve explained before, that plagues the entire U.S. Government. The military’s version, however, is caused in large part by personnel policies that rotate officers out before they can learn much about the job and its particular problems. The old wag that America did not fight a ten-year war in Vietnam, it fought ten one-year wars, has been more or less repeated in Iraq and Afghanistan.

To provide a concrete example, a few years ago I paid a visit to a four-star “in theater” who was having problems getting a handle on the local Islamic radical network which, in customary fashion, was entangled with tribalism, organized crime, and opaque personal politics. This was a country and network I knew well so I became the small-scale Komeresque dog who caught the car, being tasked with untangling a bona fide mess.

Unlike many four-stars, this was one who, frustrated with a lack of answers to his questions from his own staff, was eager to listen to what a mere civilian/reservist had to say. He wanted to be an intelligence analyst, deep down — this is less uncommon in the top ranks than one might imagine — so we spread out a vast chart, bigger than the biggest table his command had, poring over the line-and-block diagrams elaborating various radical networks (this is the sort of thing the IC loves, an impressive-looking layout to compensate for lack of vital information). The command’s intel shop (the Two or Deuce in local parlance), a couple dozen people with reachback to all the IC agencies back home, with their vast databases, had pulled together an “order of battle” of the local radical network based on all the Top Secret SIGINT and HUMINT they could find.

While they knew who the top half-dozen radicals in-country were, there was simply nothing to link them; based on reams of most classified U.S. and Allied intelligence, obtained at vast sums of money, there was no connection: their sub-networks, of myriad thug-groups and fronts, did not touch. What was going on here, our four-star wanted to know. So I told him.

These half-dozen Islamist baddies had served together in military intelligence under the previous regime; half of them had served in the very same unit. They were old comrades.

The four-star’s face went ashen. Then a stream of expletives burst forth, beginning with “Why the f*** did you not tell me this?” aimed at his intelligence chief, and going downhill from there.

“Um, we didn’t know, sir,” was the unsatisfactory reply. The four-star pointed at me, asking: “How the hell did you know this?”

“Everybody knows this, sir,” I answered, truthfully. I explained that these connections were well known to locals, they were anything but secret. They had even been discussed in the local media. But nobody in the command bothered to read the local media in detail, or even could, so they missed what the average fruit vendor on the streets of the city was aware of.

As usual, we had a whole command full of generalists, people skilled at writing intelligence assessments but incapable of grasping how the country there were in actually functioned. In a few months, every single officer who got yelled at in that SCIF would move on, to be replaced by equally smart yet uninformed staffers who can send countless RFIs (Requests For Information) back to DIA, NSA, and CIA, but don’t actually know much about the country they’re standing in.

This is the American system. This is how we wage war. This is why we keep losing.

The U.S. military is superbly equipped and magnificently trained, at great expense. Its special operators represent a secret killing machine without equal. Our troops are intelligent and well educated. They are, however, not always informed.

Eschewing genuine expertise and knowledge is a choice. One the Pentagon keeps making. We will keep losing wars until we make different choices. In the meantime, there are platoons of outside experts willing to share their expertise, at princely sums, to generals and their staffs…over and over again. Bureaucracy will keep doing its thing.

P.S. I am aware that this piece will result in me being pronounced persona non grata at the Pentagon, but if this plea saves one American life, much less prevents a winnable war from being lost, I am happy.


20 comments on “Bureaucracy Keeps Doing Its Thing”
  1. califax says:

    Reblogged this on Mannstopwirkung.

  2. Jim A. says:

    So frustrating, so true. It’s both cheaper in the short term and more profitable, literally and figuratively to generate social science-based methodologies and matrices than to take the time to learn cultures and languages. Back in The Day, when I was training young watchstanders, I likened it to training London cabbies, “Doing the Knowledge” versus MapQuest, or I guess, Siri nowadays. Doing The Knowledge took a lot of homework, a lot of time and did not yield immediate results. But when it was completed, The Knowledge produced a London cabbie who would never get lost, thus ensuring the customer’s interests were always met, reliably and at the least expense. MapQuest or Siri will give you an immediate answer, but you may wind up miles from your intended destination. There are a lot of reasons we keep choosing Siri over The Knowledge. I won’t belabor the political side, but in the military, it’s our personnel management system, which values generalists over specialists, ticket-punching and career gateways. I suppose I should be happy that all those generalists generating RFIs would equal job security, but all that just detracts from actually increasing the body of knowledge. And in any case, leadership says analysts are fungible, and so I don’t need specialized knowledge either. All those social science tradecraft methodologies will take care of that for us.

    1. 20committee says:

      All true, shipmate, all true. This could all be fixed, largely with changes to military personnel management….but it wasn’t fixed after Vietnam, so likely won’t be now. 😦

  3. Ryback says:

    I work in law enforcement and a lot of this seems strangely familiar to how things are run in a large metro police department. Sadly, it seems that some of the “higher ups” want to give the appearance of handling a problem, as opposed to actually fixing the problem. Fixing the problem is all well and good, but if it creates unrest or makes someone looks incompetent, use misdirection, smoke, and mirrors.

    The reasons are the usual, “we don’t have enough time, money, or manpower”. Some of that rings true with state, county, and city budgets being what they are these days. It’s scary that the US government can keep throwing money at “outside experts” to tell us what to do, while the personnel on the front line, who may have actionable or reliable intel, are ignored or their information is lost in a talking points memo.

    1. 20committee says:

      Thanks, I’ve heard similar things from others in LE — it’s going around.

  4. Venya says:

    Reblogged this on Sigspace and commented:
    I don’t reblog, but you should read this.

  5. “There are dozens of fine books, covering every aspect of the enemy’s worldview, that I can recommend to anybody who would like to read them.”
    I would like some recommendations, on this and any other relating topic. Hint: a future post, perhaps?

    This was an outstanding post, btw. Time and time again, this admin, the last, the one before…seem to rely on metrics, think tanks, cronyism…everything except old fashioned leg work: talking to people, learning local customs/language/politics/etc. Know your enemy? Perhaps as simple as that. How far we’ve gone away from common sense and experience.

    1. 20committee says:

      I’ll do my best — thanks, as ever, for the kind feedback.

  6. carl says:

    Over the years I have come to the ineffably sad conclusion there is nothing you or anybody else (to include God himself) can say or do that will change things. Nothing. It will take a severe defeat with all death and suffering that entails to force a change. When I contemplate this and look at a middle school playground and see the people who will pay the price it twists me up inside but I don’t see any other end to this.

    In a way we are Prussia before 1806.

    1. 20committee says:

      “The situation is desperate but not serious.”

  7. DensityDuck says:

    Seems that what you’re suggesting is that there should be DoD civilian roles for all the intelligence work, rather than having these be uniformed military members, because the uniformed military isn’t expected to be one’s lifetime career. You don’t expect to see someone saying “yeah I was in the Army for forty-five years”. Thus the emphasis on up-or-out and constant moves. Beyond that, you’d put the people into intelligence who actually wanted to be there, instead of requiring them to pretend they wanted to be soldiers first and intelligence second (and, moreover, you wouldn’t be forcing soldiers who wanted aggressive combat positions to take intelligence posts they have neither the desire nor the aptitude for.)

    The problem is that you end up putting civilians into harm’s way. Which was what the CIA was supposed to be for, until they decided that they didn’t want to do that anymore.

    1. 20committee says:

      I am not suggesting that in any way.

    2. MMcGannon says:

      Just having civilians in Intel roles wouldn’t have fixed the problem either . In fact it doesn’t matter who is deployed, military, civilian or contractor, what does matter is that you have a means to tap into to the local knowledge base. We’re great at producing jack of all trades analysts (All Source) or Imagery Analysts or SIGINT analysts, etc, but when it comes down to having experts, we fail miserably at least we have since we haven’t been focused on a single adversary e.g. the Soviet Union.

      Every staff in theater should have had several linguists, hopefully several who were actually from the area originally as well as a some CI/HUMINT folks with language skills (and local language skills, not hey I was a korean linguist, so I get orders to Iraq/Afghanistan) that could actually get out there and collect data first hand. I don’t care what country you’re in, if you don’t have people that understand the local language and dialects, understand the regional differences, can’t read the local papers or listen to the local broadcasts including social media and/or can’t go out an talk to people, then you’re setting yourself up for failure And that’s typically been the case for us since 2001.

      When you have to rely on reachback from translations and open source and can’t do it yourself, the above scenario is exactly what happens, you get some nice shiny network diagram that looks fantastic as a powerpoint or even better when printed out large format, but has gaping holes, lacking local intel. I saw it myself first my entire career, you have analysts working on problems like analysing a network and doing leadership profiles and they can’t read, write or speak a single word of that person’s language. That’s bad enough when your sitting back in a SCIF stateside, let alone deployed.

      Also why couldn’t the military be someone’s life time career? It is possible to stay in 20-30 years, assuming you’re still meeting the standards and are getting promoted . I don’t know about you, but 30 years is a lifetime career for most professions. I would say 45 years is the exception not the norm in most professions. You don’t see too many in civil service reaching that milestone, not starting as a civil servant, maybe if they were prior military, that’s typical in intel. Military and/or contractor first and then move into a civil service position or retire from the military/civil service and then move into a contractor position.

      1. DensityDuck says:

        “why couldn’t the military be someone’s life time career?”

        Because America is not Imperial Rome.

        Unless you mean “military” to include “civilian affiliated with or working for the military”, which is what I suggested (and I thought XX was suggesting, but apparently I’m wrong? Even though there was a big rant about up-or-out making it impossible for intel officers to get experience?)

  8. MarqueG says:

    Ah, the familiar formula: Too many chiefs, not enough Injuns. The dichotomy expressed in German between Theorie und Praxis.

    I’ve so enjoyed your blog since finding it this year, I thought I’d post what I think to be the last word on understanding bureaucracy, from C. Northcote Parkinson’s book Parkinson’s Law, Chapter 8:


    WE FIND everywhere a type of organization (administrative, commercial,
    or academic) in which the higher officials are plodding and dull, those less
    senior are active only in intrigue against each other, and the junior men
    are frustrated or frivolous. Little is being attempted. Nothing is being
    achieved. And in contemplating this sorry picture, we conclude that those in
    control have done their best, struggled against adversity, and have finally
    admitted defeat. It now appears from the results of recent investigation,
    that no such failure need be assumed. In a high percentage of the moribund
    institutions so far examined the final state of coma is something gained of
    set purpose and after prolonged effort. It is the result, admittedly, of a
    disease, but of a disease that is largely self-induced. From the first signs
    of the condition, the progress of the disease has been encouraged, the
    causes aggravated, and the symptoms welcomed. It is the disease of induced
    inferiority, called Injelititis. It is a commoner ailment than is often
    supposed, and the diagnosis is far easier than the cure.

    Our study of this organizational paralysis begins, logically, with a
    description of the course of the disease from the first signs to the
    final coma. The second stage of our inquiry concerns symptoms and diagnosis.
    The third stage should properly include some reference to treatment, but
    little is known about this. Nor is much likely to be discovered in the
    immediate future, for the tradition of British medical research is entirely
    opposed to any emphasis on this part of the subject. British medical
    specialists are usually quite content to trace the symptoms and define the
    cause. It is the French, by contrast, who begin by describing the treatment
    and discuss the diagnosis later, if at all. We feel bound to adhere in this
    to the British method, which may not help the patient but which is
    unquestionably more scientific. To travel hopefully is better than to

    The first sign of danger is represented by the appearance in the
    organization’s hierarchy of an individual who combines in himself a high
    concentration of incompetence and jealousy. Neither quality is significant
    in itself and most people have a certain proportion of each. But when these
    two qualities reach a certain concentration– represented at present by the
    formula I3J5– there is a chemical reaction. The two
    elements fuse, producing a new substance that we have termed “injelitance.”
    The presence of this substance can be safely inferred from the actions of
    any individual who, having failed to make anything of his own department,
    tries constantly to interfere with other departments and gain control of the
    central administration. The specialist who observes this particular mixture
    of failure and ambition will at once shake his head and murmur, “Primary or
    idiopathic injelitance.” The symptoms, as we shall see, are quite

    The next or secondary stage in the progress of the disease is reached
    when the infected individual gains complete or partial control of the
    central organization. In many instances this stage is reached without any
    period of primary infection, the individual having actually entered the
    organization at that level. The injelitant individual is easily recognizable
    at this stage from the persistence with which he struggles to eject all
    those abler than himself, as also from his resistance to the appointment or
    promotion of anyone who might prove abler in course of time. He dare not
    say, “Mr. Asterisk is too able,” so he says, “Asterisk? Clever perhaps– but
    is he sound? I incline to prefer Mr. Cypher.” He dare not say, “Mr. Asterisk
    makes me feel small,” so he says, “Mr. Cypher appears to me to have the
    better judgment.” Judgment is an interesting word that signifies in this
    context the opposite of intelligence; it means, in fact, doing what was done
    last time. So Mr. Cypher is promoted and Mr. Asterisk goes elsewhere. The
    central administration gradually fills up with people stupider than the
    chairman, director, or manager. If the head of the organization is
    second-rate, he will see to it that his immediate staff are all third-rate;
    and they will, in turn, see to it that their subordinates are fourth-rate.
    There will soon be an actual competition in stupidity, people pretending to
    be even more brainless than they are.

    For each of your posts on reforming defense and intelligence, I’ve wanted to recommend this classic of highly insightful and humorous analysis. One might even find it out there on the web somewhere

    Happy New Year, John, and thanks for the great read you regularly provide.

  9. Ryan says:

    I am of the opinion that the military shouldn’t be making strategic decisions or engaging in diplomacy. That should be left to the state department, who spend their lives learning about cultures, etc. A soldier sitting down with an imam on a regular basis is probably not an ideal allocation of talents.

    1. 20committee says:

      Read up on UCP & get back to me.

  10. J.Mullally says:

    Thank you Lord for making me 6’10” tall and therefore unrecruitable in 1977 when I tried to enlist. I’m not sure I could survive in an environment that requires blinders to be worn at all times

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