Most Americans assume that the president, as commander in chief, and military leaders decide how to fight wars and when and where to put our soldiers' lives at stake. Now it turns out that in Afghanistan, civilian consultants Frederick and Kimberly Kagan were active members of Gen. David Petraeus' inner circle and had top-level security clearances, access to classified reports and seats in meetings with top military leaders. Military strategy sessions in the heat of combat should not include private consultants who are extensions of the top commander, and the revelation reported by the Washington Post further tarnishes Petraeus' reputation.
It's not uncommon in times of war for journalists, politicians and others — including those who work for think tanks — to visit the front lines. Those visits can help inform Americans' understanding of military challenges and keep military leaders from becoming too isolated.
But the access granted to the Kagans — two little-known think-tank researchers with a reputation as hawkish neoconservatives — was extraordinary for its duration and its depth. And, following revelations earlier this year that Petraeus had an affair with his biographer, it sheds more light on his fast rise as a military commander and eventual director of the CIA.
As the Washington Post reported this week, during monthslong visits to Kabul that began in 2010, the Kagans were given top secret clearance, provided priority travel access, read intercepted Taliban communications and participated in senior-level strategy sessions. They probed the assessments of field officers, shared their views with Petraeus' subordinates and had numerous private meetings with the general. The couple was not paid with tax dollars, but the ultimate payoff was clear. The symbiotic relationship further burnished Petraeus' reputation and support for the war with political leaders, particularly Republicans. Kimberly Kagan also could count on leveraging the relationship to draw donors — notably defense contractors — to the think tank she founded, the Institute for the Study of War.
It's bad enough that the military-industrial complex's army of lobbyists exerts so much influence over defense spending. Now it's clear that those with ties to the industry have also gained purchase on the ground, in the midst of war, when lives are at stake. Military lawyers are investigating the relationship, but President Barack Obama should also make clear that a general's job is to serve the country and the soldiers he or she commands, and no one else. The president and military leaders — not private consultants playing generals — should be the only ones responsible for military strategy in a war zone.