Warrior Diplomat takes the reader from corridors of power in the White House and the Pentagon to mud brick qalats and bullet-scarred abandoned schoolhouses in Afghanistan and back again.
There is an old and now mostly forgotten American tradition in time of war of politicians and government officials abandoning their civilian posts to serve in the military and if possible, get into the fight. Theodore Roosevelt, resigning as Assistant Secretary of the Navy to form his own unit, “The Rough Riders”, to fight in the Spanish-American War, is only the most famous example. This was common practice during the 19th century and fell into disuse only in WWII when the Roosevelt administration, alarmed by the numerous headaches created by sitting Congressmen and state government officials fighting in Europe and the Pacific in all ranks, instituted a rule that required resignation of political offices while in uniform, after which the practice faded away. Author Michael G Waltz, a lieutenant colonel in the elite Green Beret Special Forces (Res.), is the rare exception; During America’s long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he moved repeatedly from shaping war policy to deployment leading soldiers in combat and back again. This makes Warrior Diplomat a memoir of unique insight into the hope and tragedy of America’s war in Afghanistan.
Waltz, now the president of Metis Solutions, brings to the table a powerful juxtaposition of perspectives on the Afghan war. As a Department of Defense civilian official, he served variously as an Interagency Counter narcotics Coordinator in the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) developing strategies to combat opium trafficking in Pashtun regions, as the Pentagon’s Afghanistan Country Director, as the Special Adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney on South Asia and Counterterrorism and finally, as an adviser on negotiations with the Taliban to the deputy assistant secretary of defense in the Obama administration.
This is “making policy at 50,000 feet”, briefing and advising senior administration officials on national policy formulation and implementation. No contrast could be more dramatic with Waltz’s alternate role as a Green Beret company commander living among Pashtun tribal villagers, drinking tea with tribal elders, working with village police chiefs, engaging in brutal firefights with Haqqani network insurgents, disarming IEDs and delivering medical care to remote Afghan districts. Like few other officers, Waltz could see the life or death impact of policy he had helped craft on his own soldiers, Afghan farmers, and the Taliban enemy; but at other times, the blindness of policy or its complete irrelevance to the often ugly ground truth of counterinsurgency warfare.
Though the story of Waltz’s gritty experience in combat looms large in Warrior Diplomat, he also lays out a hard analysis regarding the self-created problems that impaired the American war in Afghanistan, including a paucity of resources, the incapacity of NATO partners, a muddled strategy, bureaucratic and political risk aversion and micromanagement of military operations down to the smallest units, a stubborn refusal to confront Pakistan over Taliban sanctuaries and announcing an early withdrawal date from Afghanistan. There is an additional subtext to Waltz’s story; the transformation of the legendary Green Beret Special Forces, intended to work autonomously in small groups training and fighting with indigenous forces, to ‘conventionalised’ units of ‘door-kickers’ who spend enormous amounts of time on powerpoint slides, making fruitless requests for helicopters or artillery support and fighting the timidity and capriciousness of Waltz’s own chain of command.
Originally created in the early years of the Vietnam War under the aegis of President Kennedy, whose ideas on counterinsurgency were influenced by counter-guerrilla expert Colonel Edward Lansdale, the U.S. Army Special Forces were intended to be different from normal Army units. Foreign language fluency and cultural knowledge were primary skills of Green Berets and the mission focus would not be main theater combat operations but partnering, training and fighting with foreign military units and irregulars, often independently, in foreign internal defence, counterinsurgency and unconventional warfare. Kennedy, who personally bestowed the “green beret” headgear as an organisational symbol, intended the Special Forces to be wholly “non-bureaucratic” soldiers, in marked contrast to the regular Army. Waltz endeavored to live up to this ideal in his deployments to Afghanistan, but Warrior Diplomat illustrates the depth of the current that Waltz was struggling to swim against.
One anecdote by Waltz makes the enormity of runaway bureaucracy and micromanagement of company and battalion commanders in Afghanistan by ISAF crystal clear. Concerned about ISAF’s glacial progress with Pashtun tribal engagement, Michael Vickers, then the powerful Assistant Secretary for Defense for Special Operations (essentially, the civilian boss of Waltz’s entire SOF community) visited Afghanistan. Waltz, explained his frustration with trying to get approval merely to search for one mid level Taliban commander, which required levels of command approvals, staffing at each level and a 30- 40 PowerPoint slide brief that was certified to be in compliance with a 102 point checklist. Any level could refuse or impose delays for any reason. “What the hell are we doing here?” was Vickers astounded response, but even Vickers, one of the most influential officials in the US government on counterterrorism and counterinsurgency was unable to untangle what Waltz termed “… a systematic and self-inflicted retardation of the most capable military in the world… we were defeating ourselves”. It was if Gulliver had tied down himself for good measure instead of the Lilliputians.
The smothering, strangling embrace of military bureaucracy outlined in Warrior Diplomat came with a set of real-world consequences. Waltz’s efforts to extend security or meet obligations to Afghan officials or tribal elders were often thwarted or countermanded by superiors. For example, an Afghan elder in Khost who had been promised protection for relaying information on an extremely dangerous Haqqani operative was left twisting in the wind when Waltz was prevented from raiding the Haqqani. The reason being Waltz’s superiors decided his mission required Chinook helicopter support – and then that the Chinook needed an Apache attack helicopter to guard it – and then that the Apache in turn required a predator drone. The only one not being guarded was unfortunately, the Afghan elder, whose village thereafter broke off relations with ISAF and threw in with the Haqqanis. Broken promises are anathema in counterinsurgency. Waltz was forced to worry about his Afghan drivers getting beheaded if they went into town and one wary Mangal leader, Mullah Ghafoorzai, candidly told Waltz during the latter’s effort to enlist him as an ally, that once “the bearded ones” (Special Forces) had brought him supplies and pay for his tribal militia “But now I never see any Americans, and the Mangal are on our own”.
The consequences were no less serious for Waltz’s men, who planned patrol operations without the needed helicopter support, simply in order to receive approval to conduct operations. Combat helicopter pilots were constrained by risk-averse rules from landing under fire while Waltz was being ambushed in Sangrin. Waltz’s company also endured daily shelling from a Taliban group that enjoyed the protection of a Pakistani border guard outpost because the local American artillery commander had decided providing any fire support to the Green Berets and ANA would risk possible civilian casualties and therefore his own chances for promotion. Waltz ultimately had to get help from United States Air Force bombers to be able to go out and destroy the Taliban field pieces shelling his camp. Waltz, the Green Beret and “non-bureaucratic” soldier found himself in a supremely bureaucratised war where the Taliban enemies were at best only a tertiary concern.
Warrior Diplomat takes the reader from corridors of power in the White House and the Pentagon to mud brick qalats and bullet-scarred abandoned schoolhouses in Afghanistan and back again. Throughout, Waltz is a judicious and careful narrator of herculean, sometimes heroic, efforts at both the highest and most granular levels of the Afghan war to make a difference in stabilising Afghanistan and defeating the Taliban. There is an almost surreal quality in the memoir of a man who briefed and wrote policy proposals for the powerful Vice-President one month, and in the next, shared meals with Afghan farmers or scrambled over walls in the dark of night to grab a Taliban commander, visiting relatives. More than most, Michael Waltz was acutely aware of the numerous contradictions in ISAF’s prosecution of counterinsurgency and attempted the impossible in trying to bridge them making Warrior Diplomat a must read book to understand how America’s war in Afghanistan was fought so hard, for so long to so few measurable results.
Warrior Diplomat, by Michael G Waltz (2015)
Potomac Books Inc, 440 pages.