Max Boot Interview (2006): Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley
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As we talk about what the information offers and the new organizational structures require, you're suggesting that other kinds of skills become very important once you get into conflict, for example: languages, understanding of a particular region or particular people, understanding the tactics that the other side is using to draw on their support for the people. Talk a little about that.
What we've been seeing in the last two years in places like Iraq and Afghanistan is the limitations of our technology. We have all these wonderful weapon systems, but F-22s or nuclear powered aircraft carriers are not going to pacify Baghdad or Fallujah. For those kinds of tasks smart bombs aren't all that effective. What you need is smart people and lots of people, lots of boots on the ground and the right kind of boots. You need people who understand the local culture and language, who understand how to wage counter-insurgency, how to engage in state building and policing and military intelligence, and all these other functions which have been in short supply in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. In other words, you need the right kind of organizational structure to produce the right kind of people to wage this war, because machines aren't going to be enough. Machines are helpful but they're not going to be enough. We need to have the right kind of people to take on these tasks.
And these are resources and training that come from places like universities, so where you might find the most resistance to war is also creating the kinds of skills that are absolutely essential, unless the military does it itself.
Right. The military does not do a great job of education itself. They need to rely on civilian universities. When you look, for example, at where the officer corps comes from, almost all of it comes from ROTC programs, not from the military academies, and a lot of the higher training comes from sending officers to get advanced degrees at civilian universities, as well.
So, that becomes tremendously important, and I think what we need now is what we had in the early days of the Cold War, when you had kind of a crash program to teach Russian, to understand the communist system, Marxism, Leninism, to understand Chinese culture and the culture of other communist nations. We have to expand our understanding of our adversaries, which is still in many ways in the very early stages. We haven't done nearly enough, over the course of the last five years since 9/11. I was struck – there was a story in the Washington Post a few weeks ago about how five years after 9/11 the FBI still, out of 12,000 special agents, has only 33 who speak Arabic -- 33 out of 12,000! That's mind boggling! Why haven't they done more on that front? And the military hasn't done any better either.
Those are the kinds of skills we need to develop. There's no shortage of folks in our military who know how to fly jets or steer ships or command tanks. Those skills we're on top of, but these other skills of cultural understanding and knowledge of our enemies, we're woefully deficient. We have to do something to correct those deficiencies, because the high-end skills are not going to save us.
Let's look at recent wars. There has been an effort in Afghanistan and in Iraq to implement an information revolution. Let's talk a little first about Afghanistan, where initially we seemed to be more successful – well, I guess that's also true of Iraq. But talk about those two conflicts and to what extent our success or failures reflect some of the insights that you're offering us.
Afghanistan was kind of presented as a showcase of warfare in the information age and in many ways it was, at least in the early part of the war, in the fall of 2001. It's important to be clear about what was unique and different about the way we fought in Afghanistan. What got a lot of attention, at least initially, was this weird juxtaposition of new and old technologies, because you had special forces operatives riding on horses and carrying satellite radios and laser designators to call in precision air strikes, which was a tremendously effective combination, no question about it. So, it was like this combination of the Flintstones and the Jetsons which had everybody kind of scratching their heads in awe.
But there was another element to the campaign which hasn't gotten as much attention, but which came through when I talked to some of the Green Berets who participated in this initial campaign. What they pointed out to me was the lack of bureaucracy and the fact that it was such a big advantage to them that the military didn't have any off-the-shelf plans for invading Afghanistan. They had to make it up on the spot. I remember talking to one of these captains who led a special forces A team, and he said basically, "We were called for a briefing after 9/11 and we were given five PowerPoint slides that said, okay, your job is to go out and coup the Taliban and get al Qaeda. How you do it is up to you. " So, then they were infiltrated in there and they had to figure it out on the fly, and they didn't know what they were doing initially but they were tremendously smart, tremendously educated, and in fact, these Green Berets are some of the most culturally aware people in the entire U.S. armed forces. They do get language training, they do get cultural training, so they knew how to operate with foreign cultures. They were tremendously effective because they had the freedom to be effective.
Of course, the technology was an important part of it. The fact that they could call in these smart bombs and help their Northern Alliance allies was important, but the key was this improvisational, freewheeling nature of war. There's one story that I thought really captured this, where one of these Green Berets who was fighting near Bagram airfield outside of Kabul. They were calling in air strikes on the Taliban positions which were very close by, but they were having trouble figuring out [if] these air strikes [were] being effective or not. So, what this Green Beret did was, he had one of his Northern Alliance allies get on the radio and pretend to be a Taliban and say, "Hey, Ahmed, I see that the Americans were dropping their bombs. Are you okay? Were you hit?" And Ahmed comes back and says, "No, we're fine. Don't worry about it. They hit the car next to our house which is burning, but we're fine." And so, then the Green Beret says, "Okay, got ya," and calls in the air power and says, "Okay, see that burning car down there? Hit the house right next to it."
That's an example of this freewheeling improvisation that occurred, but unfortunately it didn't last very long. It didn't last much beyond the fall of the Taliban in November and December of 2001. Before long, the regular army arrived with its PXs and its paperwork and everything kind of slowed down. You couldn't maintain this very frenetic pace of operations that the Green Berets were carrying out and pretty soon you had the regular army with their procedures, layers of command, and we started losing ground against the Taliban. By now, I would say the Taliban are more effective, more freewheeling, more improvisational than we are. That's the challenge we face: how do we break through our bureaucracy and adapt to change as well as our enemy?
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