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American Militancy

American Militancy

“I keep wondering what will be the feeling of home to those children, like the one in the picture, trying perhaps to fly, or to stop the wind there, in Nadir Khan’s area, where boys chase falling kites running through the graveyard of their fathers. What will be the home they remembered? And have we tried to make their memories be better ones?” (December 2010 by Michal Przedlacki, an aid worker in Afghanistan whose works can be seen this Summer at a joint exhibition organized by the Italian Center for Fine Art Photograpy in Bibbiena, Toscany.)

Anyone that knows me very well can attest to my poor memory. One of my first memories, though, is of America’s 40th president, Ronald Reagan, while he fielded journalists’ questions from the presidential podium and I sat watching him on a television in a predominately white area of Ohio, where my family and I lived. Looking back, you could probably say that I looked up to him, as most Americans did. I grew up somewhat similar to other Americans (my mother reminded me how I once planned to be an astronaut, President of the United States, and the Director of the FBI, all in that order), and I considered myself to be cut from the same fabric, minus the few occasions I was reminded of my differences (e.g., being told to leave America during US-Iraq hostilities in 1990; and no, I’m not Iraqi).

My upbringing wasn’t political in any way that I can recall; for instance, I don’t remember any discussions about social policies, war, or gun rights, albeit some surely occurred. After graduating from high school I entered the US Marine Corps (something I had wanted to do for a long time), and stuck with that for eight years, meeting some outstanding people that I am still great friends with till this day.

The only reason that I provide this background is, at some point, I was instilled with ideas about what America was, and I thought that these ideas weren’t any different from any other American’s. They are now stowed away in a dusty closet which I seldom open, but recently a new friend reminded me of one of them: American leadership is foremost civilian and, second, it is accountable. Why is this important? The US war effort in Afghanistan is lacking true civilian leadership, and the existing leadership (military) is avoiding accountability through obfuscation, self-aggrandizement,  and attempts to overly intellectualize the conflict.

I even question whether civilian leadership of the war exists? Richard Holbrooke, representing the closest thing to it, recognized that he did not have the clout to effect true change there because of the inordinate amount of authority, resources, and funding dedicated to the military effort in Afghanistan. With this, I do not imply that civilian leaders are not attempting to assert control of the effort; rather, that they are stymied by a confluence of factors; for example, some of the civilian leaders there are likely blinded by their closeness to the military – exasperated by the need to support the military war effort – while others are more importantly frustrated in their inability to drive policy and operations. In sum, civilian leadership of the war – ambassadors, DoS, USAID, and DoD – is emasculated by the massive tacit and manifest support lent to the military.

You may wonder why civilian leadership should even be in charge of a war; after all, it is a war, right? The answer lies in the decision-making role it is supposed to play: coordinating the civilian-military effort, serving as a check on violence, ensuring that the effects are properly measured, adjusting course when needed, accounting for humanitarian needs, and driving diplomacy. The reason that the military cannot be relied upon for these actions is that the civilian side is expected to be open to external critique, oversight, and democratic processes, in addition to being less vested in the success of one military strategy over another and possessing the ability to address touchy transnational issues (e.g, Pakistan). If civilian leaders determine that either the counter-insurgency approach or the peace and reconciliation process, for instance, is ineffectual for whatever reason, then leadership should alter course.

Civilian leadership is necessary in all war efforts, but enabling it is harder than we may think. American culture seems more often to be in contravention of American ideals, whether it is expected unequivocal support for self-determination, equality and freedom for all, etc., because of developed influences that are abstract or may wish to remain unnoticed. America’s reverence of military service is an example of these developed influences, one which has resulted in unquestionable exaltation of the military and, moreover, American aggression. Involvement in numerous armed conflicts has developed this reverence, but we shouldn’t be so ignorant as not to see the role that the military industrial complex has played in this relationship.

The price we have to pay for the erosion of American civilian leadership in war is the possible utter wasting of US efforts, not to mention the countless lives of those who we impact. The details about the nature of the Afghanistan-Pakistan conflict, for example, have been obfuscated – due to either intent or incompetence – through ISAF’s (aka the US’) erroneous recording or reporting of incident levels (for the most accurate read on the conflict check an organization I previously worked with, ANSO). Likewise, the complexity of the conflict is continually and uncouthly underplayed in an attempt to provide for hope in a hopeless war that ignores severe policy shortcomings. Is self-aggrandizement part of the problem military leaders are displaying in Afghanistan? Unquestionably, US military leadership has wholeheartedly tied itself to its counter-insurgency doctrine, and any deviation at this point would be seen as a deathblow to a massive effort. Every attempt is being made to intellectualize the war by ignoring its context and reinforcing its ‘rationality’. And contractors and experts thus abound with the labels of naiveté: counter-insurgency and stability operations.

Some may see the abovementioned points as an attack upon the military; instead, though, they should recognize it for what it is: an attack on all of us through the shameful recognition that we – not America’s military – are not doing our job. For certain, the military is complicit in that it lacks the institutional courage to question its own leadership and tactics, and isolated and disillusioned civilian leadership is equally guilty in that it continues to kowtow to abstract and manifest factors: American aggression and its military industrial complex, politico-linguistic manipulation, and pure bullying. Will things change? I’m willing to wager on a firm ‘no’.



Ali A. Riazi

Ali is an independent advisor on conflict and foreign affairs and an advocate for civilian protection. He has advised the Office of the Secretary of Defense, US military, NGOs, and intelligence oversight staff on topics, such as Afghanistan, civilian protection, irregular warfare, and civil-military affairs. His 13+ years of career experience have spanned humanitarian and national security circles and involved extensive experience throughout the Near East and Central Asia.

Ali earned a BA in Government & Politics (summa cum laude) and a Minor in International Development & Conflict Management from the University of Maryland, College Park. Additionally, he served as an Undergraduate Teaching Assistant in International Political Economy. He is currently pursuing an MLitt in Terrorism Studies through the University of St. Andrews.

Ali's other blog interests can be followed at, and he can be found on Twitter at!/ali_riazi.