I am not deeply familiar with Michele Flournoy’s record at the Defense Department or with her overall qualifications to be Secretary of Defense, but I know about one aspect of her work as Undersecretary of Defense for Policy that weighs heavily on the plus scale in considering her credentials for that important post.
When a new commander, Lt. Gen. William Caldwell, was sent to Afghanistan in November of 2009 to take charge of the mission of training and organizing Afghan Security Forces, Flournoy told him – very correctly – that the success of his mission was the key to US success in Afghanistan and she didn’t think we were doing it very well. “I’m not sure what it takes to do better, but we must do better and I hope you will tell me what we need to do.”
In fact, the training mission was on the brink of failure. In the previous month, more personnel had left the Afghan Security Forces than had joined it. Caldwell was given only 1,200 US personnel under his command, whereas he quickly concluded that the minimum requirement was for 3-4,000. But coming just months after a surge of combat troops, his requests for trainer support fell on deaf ears.
The story might have ended there. But fortunately, Flournoy kept her finger on the pulse of “the details” and – working with Caldwell and other military officers – was able to get the Pentagon to move with a speed that is rare in a place that is affectionately dubbed “the five-sided puzzle palace” by those who work in it. Admiral Mike Mullen, then the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, directed that the next battalion arriving in Afghanistan be reassigned from a combat mission to a training mission.
Over the next two years, under Caldwell’s leadership and with Flournoy’s strong support, Afghan Security Forces grew from just under 200,000 to 305,000 when Caldwell left and reached 352,000 this October.
And the quality improved as well, although it still leaves much to be desired. Again, Flournoy played an important role, backing up Caldwell when he pushed for basic literacy education for Afghan recruits, an initiative that wasn’t part of the typical mission statement.
The resulting training in minimal basic literacy – and in other “civilian” skills such as driver education – has improved both the effectiveness and the morale of Afghan soldiers.
None of this would have happened if one three-star general hadn’t had the moral courage to challenge bureaucratic inertia, and if a senior civilian named Michele Flournoy hadn’t encouraged him to do so even before he took command. Flournoy understood the importance of empowering Afghans to fight for their own country. By insisting that Caldwell report problems to her, she enabled him to say – when challenged for “taking complaints outside the chain of command” – that he was merely answering his civilian superiors honestly, as he was obliged to do.
Flournoy grasped the fundamental strategic point: That the only way to win in Afghanistan is to empower friendly Afghans to take on most of the burden of keeping their country out of the hands of the Taliban. And the numbers of Afghan casualties suggest that they are doing so. Estimates of casualties for Afghan Security Forces this year alone total roughly 3,400 killed (1,200 Army and 2,200 National Police), which is more than ten times the number of Americans killed this year and more than the total of all coalition fatalities – hostile and non-hostile, US and non-US – during the eleven years of this long and difficult war.
Those are grim numbers, but they show that Afghans are bearing an increasing share of the war’s burden. As they should. After all, it’s their own country that they’re fighting for. But it’s also vital for the US to prevent the Taliban from returning to power in Afghanistan, so we have a huge stake in the Afghan Security Forces.
Flournoy not only grasped the centrality of that strategic point, but she pursued it skillfully and without seeking credit for what she did. As far as I know, none of this has been reported before. But it deserves to be.
It leads me to think that Flournoy might be the best possible candidate for the top Pentagon job during the coming difficult years in Afghanistan. She does not seem to be someone who would comfortably let that war be lost.