Trying to Understand Influence, the US Military Can’t See Past a Line and Block Chart

Much of the US Military is based on a fairly simple rule: if you want to get something done, go to the man in charge. Following the rule usually works efficiently. To preserve the rule, military service-members learn the chain of command and learn to be sticklers for abiding by it. So when it comes to the US military, you can generally expect if a General tells a bunch of Colonels to do something, it gets done, and so on down the ranks. Graphed, this process becomes a line and block chart (see Figure 3). Since the military is so big, these charts can be very helpful for using the rule. If a certain block is causing trouble, you follow the line to the next block above it and you tell that block to tell the block below it to fall back in line and do it quick.

This kind of order is something of an amazing accomplishment for so large a human society as the US military, so you can’t necessarily blame military leaders for growing so dependent on it that they can’t seem to recognize when it doesn’t apply. But at some point you have to, especially when they make the mistake over and over, and when they do it so publicly. For the last eleven years the military has been making precisely this mistake over and over again in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In trying to understand how social influence works in those countries, US military leaders can’t seem to see past a line and block chart.

Just yesterday Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told reporters that the government of Pakistan has to stop “allowing terrorists to use their country as a safety net in order to conduct their attacks on our forces.” Today, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Dempsey, said the US military is “extraordinarily dissatisfied” with Pakistan’s continued toleration of Afghan insurgents. Last year, former Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen claimed that Pakistani Intelligence was sponsoring terrorists in the Haqqani Network. And a senator on the Senate Armed Forces Committee claimed that the government of Pakistan “is engaging in hostile acts against the United States and our ally Afghanistan that must cease.” 

All of these statements operate under the same basic assumption: if bad stuff in Pakistan is happening that we don’t like, the way to stop it is to find the top block in the Pakistan line and block chart, and tell it to get all the blocks below it to do what it says. It’s the same assumption that underlies most of the way the US military has operated in Afghanistan (see Key Leader Engagements, or incessant complaints about Karzai failing to stop corruption in the Afghan government). The military’s use of the assumption in Afghanistan has been as problematic there as it has been for its attempts to understand influence (and use it) in Pakistan.

Just because insurgents are operating in a part of Pakistan doesn’t mean that the government of Pakistan can do anything about it. Why should we expect their military to be able to do what the combined militaries of ISAF and NATO so clearly can’t in the country next door? Nor should it be expected that it can stop its own military and intelligence officers from helping insurgents. Who is going to force those officers to stop doing what they consider the appropriate thing to do? Other officers? Without the widespread acceptance of the chain of command among the service-members themselves, influence-on-demand requires force. But force requires soldiers to impose it, and if enough of those soldiers are the ones that are in disagreement with the top block in the first place, then the imposition of force isn’t possible. And if the leaders are interested in preserving the appearance of authority, and in preserving as much actual authority as they can manage, they probably won’t risk losing that by attempting to impose force.

The continued public reliance on organizational hierarchy in nascent organizations  like the Pakistani government and military (yes nascent, it’s only a little more than 50 years old and the government in Afghanistan is even younger) is disappointing given the fact that so many scholars and analysts have pointed out that such hierarchy doesn’t hold in most of either country. As this review of Noah Coburn’s book Bazaar Politics put it: “Local power brokers might possess wealth, honor, a reputation for piety, abundant weaponry or powerful allies, but they lacked the means or the will to convert those gifts into decisive authority.” 

The self-enforced chain of command in the US military is a relatively new and impressive accomplishment for a human society. It’s taken a couple hundred years of relative internal peace to produce it. Pakistan hasn’t had that, and they don’t have that kind of chain of command. That’s something I really wish at least the analysts of the US military and intelligence community could learn and help US military leaders learn. But as plenty of US military leaders have pointed out, they haven’t.

The US military is supposed to be led by hard-nosed realists. But hard-nosed realists wouldn’t complain about the ineffectiveness of line-and-block-style influence when they already know that kind of influence doesn’t exist. Moreover, public reliance on organizational hierarchy in Pakistan might actually be harmful to that hierarchy, since publicly pointing out its weakness might reinforce the autonomy of subordinate units within the hierarchy. In any event, continuing to blame the government of Pakistan for not being able to control everyone within its territory, or even everyone within the ranks of its military, just continues to show how little the US military understands how influence operates in Pakistan. It’d be bad enough if that just indicated poor understanding, but such public displays don’t bode well for their attempts to use influence either.

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4 thoughts on “Trying to Understand Influence, the US Military Can’t See Past a Line and Block Chart

  1. This is an excellent analysis of the weak political institutions of such states as Pakistan and Afghanistan. Still, if the U.S. military has developed such an effective hierarchical management system, then why has it been so seemingly helpless in addressing its sexual-assault crisis?

  2. That’s a great question and I think it’s one that military leaders and analysts should be constantly asking. The US military’s command structure and hierarchical management system is incredibly effective when you compare it to most other organizations and societies in the world. I called it effective in the post because I was conceding that US military leaders might be assuming the structure of the Pakistani government and military was like the structure they themselves are used to operating within. That perhaps helps us understand part of why they might make the mistake I was pointing out.

    But I think pointing out the very real limitations and constraints on hierarchical influence within the US military (despite its relative effectiveness) is also helpful. Hierarchical influence is most effective when it runs in the same direction as the preferences and habits of the subordinates being influenced (eg – telling a subordinate officer to “get it done!” in reference to a battlefield operation runs in the same direction as the “hooah” social values the subordinate officer typically already habitually embraces). But usually when we’re talking about behavioral change we’re talking about it because habit does not run in the direction we want (otherwise we wouldn’t need to do much influencing) and in those areas hierarchical influence within the US military is very limited (attitudes and behavior towards sexual assault against women and men being one of them). And that is probably much more like the kind of influence we’re expecting Pakistani and Afghan officials to exert.

    In other words, getting some Pakistani military and intelligence officers to not interact with and help some insurgents is more like the problem of getting US military service-members to respect women and refrain from sexually aggressive behavior than it is simply a matter of getting a US combat unit to “get it done!”. But I’m not sure how many senior US military leaders recognize that.

  3. I think the issue here is that both the US military and the Pakistan Army have both evolved to solved some rather specific problems, like detering the Soviet Union (within the strong constraints of the US constitution) and India (within a society of weak political institutions), respectively. The problem comes when they have to solve entirely different problems. That is were you see serious breakdowns in hierarchical management. So, it is simply not accurate to say that the US Armed Forces are extremely effective in solving problems in general, Just look at how inefficient their managment of their acquisition process has been over the years (yes, Congress shares some of the blame for that) or how counterproductive their initial occupation was of Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention the current sexual-assault epidemic.. But look at what they did to enemy forces that stood and fough conventionally, like the Iraqis in Kuwait and the Viet Cong during the Tet Offensive.

  4. I don’t want to put words in Paul’s mouth, but when he suggested that the military worked effectively, it seemed to me that he was talking more (but not entirely) about logistical effectiveness and things like that. Yes, the overall direction of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars has been less than impressive, but when you think about the sheer act of moving all of those people and all that equipment, of building those bases, of getting stuff to where it’s supposed to be when it’s supposed to be there…it seems the military is pretty darn good at that. It could be argued that a lot of the unsuccessful outcomes the military has suffered in recent conflicts is less the result of the military being bad at pursuing its objectives, but at being good at pursuing objectives that it shouldn’t have been ordered to pursue in the first place. An undesirable outcome doesn’t necessarily mean the job was done ineffectively or poorly. It could be that the nature of the job itself increased the probability of an undesirable outcome.

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