The Best Defense

Two former Marine officers: Hey generals, stop whining about budget cuts and start to improvise, adapt, and overcome!

By Michael Haft and Harrison Suarez

Best Defense guest columnists

The inspector general's sign said to contact him in case of fraud, waste, or abuse. We laughed cynically about which issue he might find most egregious.

Would it be the non-alcoholic beer shipped around the world into Afghanistan? The civilian contractors who slept all day in their hootches and ignored the war going on around them? The ostentatious Post Exchange at the Marine Corps's headquarters in Helmand Province, with its aisles lined by televisions, air conditioners, and stereos?

Or maybe it would be the money-losing commissaries back in the United States, a system of grocery stores receiving $1.5 billion in federal subsidies every year? Or perhaps the Semper Fit girls in Camp Lejeune, who acted like personal trainers but seemed like little more than beneficiaries of a welfare program for Marine dependents?

Our brainstorming went on, but we never did find out. At the time it wasn't our place. We had to pick our battles, and we weren't military planners, we weren't financial management officers, we weren't whatever military occupational specialty handles budgeting. We were just two infantry officers looking around every day at all the bloat and wondering how it had come to this.

If we've seen such excess in the Marine Corps -- traditionally the most frugal service and one that receives just 4 percent of the defense budget -- we can only imagine the extent to which it takes place in the other branches. And as sequestration slowly comes into effect, it's worth asking: Might a budget cut actually be a good thing for our military?

It could be, if our generals can make smart fiscal choices. And although our top military leaders have spent months decrying the potential effects of sequestration, it's worth noting that the Department of Defense budget has just about doubled in the years since 9/11, that this figure doesn't include money spent conducting the wars, and that what our leaders are bemoaning is just a 7 percent cutback on the baseline budget.

As former Marines and members of the service that has always prided itself on doing more with less, the discussion thus far has been frustrating to watch. Very few people seem willing to question whether America has gotten its money's worth from the ever-expanding military-industrial complex.

Meanwhile, we aren't convinced. It's just too easy to call to mind examples of questionable spending or hours of productivity lost due to outdated systems. Meals at the dining facilities in Afghanistan cost more than $25 per plate. Back in America, many of our computers still had floppy drives. And all of these examples don't even get at the murky process of weapons procurement and acquisition, in which no-bid contracts have become all too common.

No question, when we were deployed we enjoyed those meals tremendously on the rare occasions we visited large bases, and we were the beneficiaries of new gear and weapons that came from some of those contracts. But it is simply unbelievable that there isn't money to cut, that every dollar spent goes to a worthwhile program.

Leaving Camp Lejeune for the last time a few months ago, we drove by a series of newly-constructed LED billboards. On the screens, a digital version of the American Flag waved in an imaginary wind. It felt obscene, and as we passed each caricature, we couldn't help reflecting on all the times our junior Marines had been forced to scrounge for necessary supplies or to pay for better gear out of their own pockets.

Why was it that we had money for such frivolities, but sometimes not the slings for our rifles? Why was it that every contractor we talked to bragged about his six-figure income? Why was it that the new two-story chow hall had a Mongolian barbecue, but there were never enough spots to attend humvee training?

How did it come to this?

Our military leaders can do better. We believe that the budget cuts will instill some much-needed fiscal discipline. We believe it's possible to cut back without hollowing out the force. And we believe that it's time for our generals to prioritize, something that has fallen by the wayside in this era of military-industrial excess.

In the end, all we are asking is that our senior leaders take some of the advice we were given as young lieutenants: Stop pointing fingers elsewhere. Figure it out. Improvise, adapt, and overcome.

Michael Haft and Harrison Suarez are former infantry officers in the United States Marine Corps. They served together in Helmand Province, Afghanistan during the summer of 2011, where they embedded with the Afghan Uniformed Police and the Afghan National Army. The views presented here are their own and do not reflect those of the Department of Defense or the United States Marine Corps.

Pfc. Crystal Druery/DVIDS

The Best Defense

The FP transcript (VI): What will Afghanistan look like in the long run?

[Here are Parts IIIIII, IV, and V]

Glasser: Afghanistan is a very interesting question. Aside from the very early days of pushing the Taliban out, which obviously was a military operation, or the battle of Tora Bora or Shah-i-Kot, since then there have been military operations certainly, but how would we characterize in terms of as a war and then also what do we think of how the U.S. military presence there will be remembered as? Is it going be "we lost this war," or is it that it was a violent political conflict that lasted for more than a decade and was unresolved?

Ricks: I'd like to start by asking the historian and the Marine.

Crist: I agree with General Dubik. We backed into this. That is the fundamental problem, is the long-term strategy for a host of different reasons. I think we'll be remembered as in some cases of duplicating a lot of the problems we've made in our earlier wars, and then when we were faced with a crisis our natural inclination, particularly in the U.S. military, is to fall back on doctrine. We have a counterinsurgency doctrine -- if it worked in Iraq then it's going to work in Afghanistan. And so you just sort of take that and transplant it as if it's sort of a manual on how you're going to do that. And the problem with all these wars is that they are all dependent on the dynamics, and they're completely different. And so our response is a huge surge. Maybe it was the right or wrong answer. I tend to think that it really ultimately didn't solve much in Afghanistan, nothing like it did in Iraq, because the conditions were different.

Alford: First off, I think that we can look back in the future and say we succeeded. Not win but. . . . . Because I do believe that we've spent enough time there, and the transition we are getting ready to make is viable, I believe, from a partnered operational design to an advisory piece and really get out of the way and let them do it. I believe that their army -- in particular their army -- will be able to keep it stable enough for this new government to muddle its way through over the next few years. I think this third election -- a lot of people say the second election in a new democracy is the most important -- it's the third election here. And if it goes and people look at it as somewhat legitimate, then they have a real chance, because the Taliban are not going to come together as an army and take Kabul.

Ricks: Rajiv?

Chandrasekaran: I think this in my view is going to likely wind up as some form of barely satisfactory arrangement of sort of mildly unsatisfactory stalemate that will not be seen as having been anywhere near worth the cost in dollars, and in lives, and in limbs.

Look, I spent a lot of time in places where we surged troops over the last several years. There is discrete impact. I've seen districts where security has improved. It's incontrovertible. When you send in additional numbers of U.S. troops, good things generally follow -- but for a discrete period of time. We didn't achieve the sort of aggregate impact that we saw in Iraq. And we all know the reasons why. Ultimately, I step back and say it was not a wise expenditure of resources.

Stepping back even further, we fundamentally failed to grasp the politics of that country [Afghanistan]. Our solutions were simply not tailored to the environment. And ultimately I think in many parts of the country -- it's already happening -- things will essentially revert back to their natural order. And a natural order that may well in many parts of the country be simply good enough for us. But could we have gotten to that natural order without having spent as many hundreds of billions of dollars and as many years as it has taken us to get there?

Alford: If we had had the courage to make the shift four or five years ago? Absolutely. We took some of the most decentralized people in the entire world and imposed one of the most centralized constitutions on them. It's ludicrous that President Karzai appoints a district governor and a district police chief. I'm telling you, the people where I come from -- Rome, Georgia -- would rise up if the president appointed the county commissioner. It's crazy.

Chandrasekaran: Look, look, people criticize the United States for going around the world and imposing democracy, and I think to myself, well only if we shared with people the sort of democracy that made our country great. The Afghan Constitution on paper centralizes power like no other state -- I suppose like North Korea. I mean, it's crazy.

(More to come-first, about Syria and Libya)