This News Item courtesy of The Guardian 'What A Mess Our Military Has Made' Tuesday, December 29, 2009 Just as in 1914-18, the handling of the Afghanistan conflict reflects a failure to understand modern society's impact on war. The US Senate report blasting President Bush's administration for what is going on in Afghanistan provides covering fire for Barack Obama's speech on his Afghan strategy. The report is also a good opportunity to address far deeper failings in the military effort these last eight years. The continued incompetence of the military operation indicates that the generals and the political elites in our societies are no more "fit for purpose" than those that led the disasters of the 1914-18 war. Then as now there was a social-psychological failure to understand the impact of modern society on war. If I had to choose one piece of evidence, and the silence about it, to substantiate this charge then it is this. There is no one in charge of the western military operations in Afghanistan. The US-only and Nato forces each have separate generals in charge, and neither is able to give orders to the other. One US general, Stanley McChrystal, commands the Nato force organised from Belgium, where there is a plethora of US and Nato commanders and committees with their fingers in the operational pie. Another US general â David Petraeus â commands US national operations in the country. Afghanistan's woes are compounded by the fact that it is part of this private bureaucratic turf war within the US military. For the US military, Afghanistan is part of Central Command's area of control, although the Nato force is, for the US, part of its European command. At a lower level the different European militaries, especially the Dutch, Germans and Italians, have their own mini-empires â provincial reconstruction teams, which operate with eclectic styles. As the website of US Central Command says of US national operations in Afghanistan, they operate in "co-ordination" with the Nato international security force. In the military, "co-ordination" is usually a woolly-minded civilian notion not to be confused with command and control. It is a shame that the self-defeating dual command imposed on the Afghan operation by the Pentagon is never mentioned by the many talented correspondents, Robert Fox among them, with extensive on-the-ground experience. According to some, the result is a confusion that needs an Evelyn Waugh (Sword of Honour), Joseph Heller (Catch-22) or George MacDonald Fraser (Flashman) to do it justice. The second example of more than usual blindness is the failure in the west to consider that al-Qaida probably lured the US into Afghanistan with the 9/11 attacks, envisaging that the resulting war with the Pashtun areas would enable them to repeat the empire-destroying victory over the Soviets. The rhetoric of attacking the "far enemy" and the action of killing a key Northern Alliance leader just prior to the attacks support this. Whether or not it was the case is not quite the point. The point is that among the Arab diplomatic corps the idea is almost a given, while in the west it cannot even be discussed. The vulnerability of western supply lines to being cut by the Taliban accentuates the point. The third example of cultural failure is that neither the US nor Nato has ever seriously studied the Russian campaign, although the same ground is being fought over with similar tactics. Nevertheless a similar pattern is being played out now as in the 1980s. Mines/IED attacks lead to the call for more helicopters; and the public distress of bereaved mothers characterised the Soviet campaign. The "overconfidence" or "complacency" that these issues demonstrate points to deeper cultural and psychological problems. Prior to the first world war, the European military was obsessed with cavalry. It failed to learn from the use of machine guns and barbed wire in the American civil war of the 1860s or the increasingly devastating battlefield casualties of the Franco-Prussian and Austro-Italian wars of the later 19th century. Although cars were being used as taxis in Edwardian London, by 1914 only the Royal Navy was using armed cars with machine guns, in place of horses. Today, the idea that a political adversary might lay a military trap is incomprehensible to an ostensibly rational military establishment, as is the west's inability to take the Afghan war seriously enough to ensure unity of military command. A few writers provide a guide to understanding and updating our analysis. On the Psychology of Military Incompetence, by Norman Dixon, provides an insight into the problems of authoritarian personalities in authoritarian institutions being unable to "see" the obvious. The Mass Psychology of Fascism, by Wilhelm Reich, explains to a degree why western civilians, especially the liberal interventionists who have become infatuated with the military since the end of the cold war, have such an adulatory and uncritical fixation on the military, to the point that independent analysis is marginal. And of course, Edward Said's Orientalism tells us much of our insistence on portraying often superior strategists as inferior barbarians. I have lost count of the number of western strategy advisers who say Osama bin Laden is not smart enough to have used 9/11 as a lure. But then, if Robert Fox's report is to be taken at face value, there is no loss of operational effectiveness when US soldiers wear T-shirts bearing the name of their next target, and for him to report that. Presumably the Taliban can't read, or it is a cunning wheeze to mislead them. Finally, there is a cultural problem of vassal states such as the UK and its European partners losing the ability for rigorous analysis speaking frankly in public. Chinese and Russian analysis tends to be sharper than in the west. In Britain, we are still cursed with an official secrecy that denies the public an analysis as insightful as that in the Senate report. For example, were Britain's SAS the "handful" of other special forces at Tora Bora? Who was the senior British officer? And what job does he hold today? There are two hopeful signs. First, western power is so great that as with the Victorians, a series of minor disasters can be absorbed by the power structures. Second, within the military and intelligence community in the UK and the US, including the White House, there are some â such as the US national security adviser, General James Jones â who do understand these problems. If we are lucky, any statement by Obama on more troops will be a smokescreen enabling withdrawal. As one of Fox's "metropolitan commentators", I will consider taking the western military's operation seriously when the US military does so itself.