e are now just past the tenth anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq War, and we can hardly be surprised that the occasion brought forth a torrent of retrospectives and evaluations. A few have been balanced, judicious and thoughtful.1 Most have been about as successful as the war itself and have sorted along tediously familiar partisan lines. Just as the most popular question of the punditocracy during the war was “Are we winning?” so too a decade later does that same punditocracy ponder the question “Did we win?” The problem then and now is roughly the same: Few have bothered to think through what winning actually means in a war of this kind, namely a war in which total and perpetual control over a target territory is either unattainable or impractical.
This problem has been on my mind for a long time, dating back to some of the darkest and most ambiguous episodes of the Iraq War itself. Through the writings of others, I supplied one of the first “official” accounts of the war’s progress, and possibly the first acknowledgement of the lack of a workable operational plan for winning the peace—what at the time was referred to as Phase-IV (stability and reconstruction) operations in Iraq. I was in a position to do so: From early June 2003 through March 2004, I served as Chief of Plans of the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault). I was responsible for Multi-National Division-North (MND-N) operational planning in Northern Iraq during the first year of Operation Iraqi Freedom under the command of then-Major General David Petraeus. My first Iraq deployment involved serving as researcher and deputy team leader of then-Chief of Staff of the Army Eric Shinseki’s Operation Iraqi Freedom Study Group from April 1 to June 1, 2003.
Following these personal experiences during the war, I decided to remain relatively silent in the public debates that followed. I focused instead on studying how—and more importantly why—America intervenes abroad, and on teaching future national security professionals, cadets and officers at West Point and elsewhere about the wider meaning of war and peace. I emphasized the importance of determining, as Clausewitz emphasized, the kind of war one is embarking upon before one actually does so. My writing focused on a critical appraisal of the plans behind the U.S. war in Iraq at arguably the most challenging time of America’s effort: 2006–07. I argued then for new organizational and operational approaches to disabuse the U.S. military of its narrow focus on only winning battles, and to get it to think more broadly about how to convert battlefield success into long-term political victory.
We are still struggling with that narrow focus. U.S. military leaders, and most of their civilian masters too, have been haunted by a conception of war that has doomed most American interventions abroad and diminished policy debates at home. We still conceive of a war as the sum of its battles, and battles are still imagined to consist only of rival forces closing with and attempting to destroy one another. We largely fail to understand war as having continuity with policy; thus we fail to see that war derives its logic and meaning from the sort of peace it is striving to produce. We have been tormented by a stubborn paradox, certainly central in the Vietnam experience but really no less so in Iraq and Afghanistan: We could win every battle and still lose the war. And this somehow puzzles us.
The United States is now undergoing a series of challenging transitions. Domestically, a renewed national leadership is confronting the aftershocks of a deep structural recession; internationally, the nation is drawing down from a decade of war in one region and “pivoting”, supposedly, to a new theater. Taken together, these policy dilemmas describe a grand strategic inflection point. In the coming years, the United States seems likely to reform its fighting forces, its diplomatic approaches and its finances in light of anticipated threats to national security. If our understanding of these threats is limited by parochial preferences for one or more sorts of conflict over others, we risk misjudging our strategic priorities and misaligning our forces to meet them. In short, if we do not come to think in more sophisticated ways about war, we will continue to be haunted by the same ghosts that have undermined our earlier attempts to secure a durable peace.
Priestly exorcisms summon God’s help to banish unclean spirits. Sadly, even if (as Bismarck put it) a “special providence” watches over the United States, we cannot count on divine assistance to exorcise our demons; we have to do it ourselves. The first step is to understand just what we are thinking about when we think about war. Our confusion on that important point was dramatized with piercing clarity on May 1, 2003, aboard an aircraft carrier idling in the Pacific Ocean. Everyone knows now that when President George W. Bush landed on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln and stood in front of that infamous banner, the mission in Iraq had not been accomplished.
For the most part, we still don’t know why it was not accomplished. Some say the problem was that counterinsurgency doctrine (COIN) had yet to become the Army’s guiding strategy. According to this narrative, the publication of the Army’s new field manual in late 2006 and the announcement of the “surge” in early 2007 turned the tide. Others say that COIN was never the answer its advocates pretended it was. The success they claimed for it had as much or more to do with other factors, such as the Anbar Awakening or emerging ethnic and religious segregation (and even this success was limited and ephemeral). If this objection is right, then the very decision to launch a war whose aims could not be accomplished in a reasonable time and at a reasonable cost was what ultimately doomed the Iraq mission.
Still others say the fundamental problem was more the particular “decider” in this war than the decision; this is a variation on the argument that implementation flaws were the real problems. The Iraq War, in this version, was no more than a brief fling with unilateral democratization occasioned by the merest misfortune: When airplanes struck the Twin Towers and Pentagon, a President who had once foresworn nation-building happened to be surrounded by advisers who considered it possible (even desirable) to use the U.S. military to impose democratization. In this account, the problem started with the November 2000 presidential election.
I choose none of the above. The problem is not at bottom caused by one particular military doctrine, nor by one particular war, nor by one particular presidency; rather, the problem is the Manichean, either/or conception of war and peace that increasingly pervades a wide range of U.S. doctrines, wars and presidencies. The origins of this problem take us all the way back to 1832.
t was in 1832 that Carl von Clausewitz’s On War first appeared. This foundational work contained a theory of war and an application of that theory to the recently terminated Napoleonic campaigns. Unfortunately, the application of that theory proved vastly more influential in the West, and especially in the young United States, than the theory itself. Rather than developing the core Clausewitzian insight—war as politics by the advent of other means—Western militaries, focused as they were on the immediate problem of winning battles, developed only Clausewitz’s varied tactical and merely military insights.
As Clausewitz’s work was being received and reinterpreted in this cramped fashion, the enterprise of war was growing increasingly complex. By the end of the 19th century, the division of labor—the same process that had produced prodigious gains in efficiency within private enterprise—also came increasingly to characterize large-scale public enterprises, including war.
These two broad trends intersected in the institutions and organizational cultures with which Western nations went to war in the 20th century: Foreign Offices and Departments of State separated from military institutions and Departments of Defense. Defense in turn divvied itself conceptually into strategy, operations and tactics; military instruments themselves divided according to operational domains and combat functions as each military branch articulated further into distinct combat and support functions. The resulting machine was wondrous in its complexity and, in a certain sense, its efficiency. But it was efficient primarily with respect to the end that oriented its construction: success in combat rather than true victory. It was as if Clausewitz’s inattentive students had mistranslated his 1832 masterpiece. They read “On War” as “On Battle.”
When conditions for success in combat diverged from conditions for victory in war, Western military machines seemed considerably less impressive. In the United States, this happened on a number of occasions, most searingly in Vietnam. After that conflict the U.S. military was organized yet again along faux-Clausewitzian lines. As a result the sins of the fathers were visited upon their sons in Iraq. At bottom, it was our tendency to see war as a sum of battles rather than as an enterprise in which battle is one of many means placed in service of political ends that lost these wars. It was this same misunderstanding of war that led President Bush to stand on the deck of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln and declare as accomplished a mission that had hardly even begun.
hen President Bush spoke on the deck of that aircraft carrier, I was on the ground in Iraq. I was there on my initial tour of duty as a kind of soldier-scholar, interviewing senior leaders and enlisted men to compile their accounts into an early history of Operation Iraqi Freedom. What I discovered is now common knowledge, but at the time it came as quite a shock: The U.S. Army lacked any operational plan to stabilize the country it had just summarily conquered. Indeed, it wasn’t until November 2003, seven months after the fall of Baghdad, that such a plan materialized.
The post hoc recriminations of many Army leaders notwithstanding, top Pentagon civilians did not bear the sole responsibility for this failure. Senior Army leaders and commanders had themselves failed to grasp the strategic situation in Iraq and, as a result, did not plan properly at the operational level for victory. As Paul Yingling put it, the Army’s “failure of generalship” stemmed from its “stunted learning and a reluctance to adapt.”2
Later that same year, I joined the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault) in Northern Iraq and saw what military success might look like. The key was a fuller, more integrated understanding of the kind of war in which we were involved. Such an understanding promised a greater chance at success than the willful shortsightedness that animated the campaign as a whole. I not only witnessed and recorded; as the 101st Airborne Division’s chief of plans, I had a direct hand in planning and preparing some of the first experiments with the counterinsurgency concepts and techniques that would later contribute to the new field manual (FM 3-24) and, in its wake, the 2007 shift in Iraq strategy and the 2009 shift in Afghanistan strategy.
At the time, I and others hoped that experiments like those conducted in Mosul, once codified and captured in doctrine, might help rescue what seemed increasingly like lost causes in both Iraq and Afghanistan. In part, and for a time, they seemed to do just that. But now, in 2013, I am as inclined to pessimism as I am to hope.
In the case of Iraq, a pessimist did not have to wait until 2013. Ten years earlier General Shinseki had warned Congress that “something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers . . . are probably, you know, a figure that would be required” to stabilize Iraq after an invasion.3 By late 2006, General John Abizaid had acknowledged that Shinseki had been more prescient than his critics allowed, and in 2007 President Bush’s “surge” vindicated the retired general.
Nevertheless, it is still debatable whether the surge contributed to anything that could meaningfully be described as victory in Iraq. At best it provided what Frank Snepp famously called, in the Vietnam context, “a decent interval” to escape obvious obloquy for failure. The truth is that we suffered a massive intelligence failure (to use the broad definition of intelligence). We profoundly misunderstood Iraqi society, which was not as secular and middle-class—and far more tribal, brittle and riven by sectarian conflict—than we had been led to believe. The complete lack of planning for an occupation multiplied the sheer difficulty of succeeding at counterinsurgency, especially in a manner that respected human rights, war crime conventions and other restrictions on an occupying power. When the last U.S. troops left Iraq in December 2011, what success had come, even at such vast expense in money and men, seemed premised on a still-fragile political détente. And that political détente may now be rapidly unraveling.
In Afghanistan, political détente was itself illusory in most of the country. In 2009 I helped translate President Obama’s new strategy toward the region into the new strategic and tactical directives guiding the ISAF military campaign plan under General Stanley McChrystal’s command, and I assisted in establishing the Administration’s Integrated Civil-Military Campaign Plan. I saw first-hand the strenuous efforts the United States and its allies were making to leave the country with something like a victory.
Whereas our understanding of Iraqi society prior to the March 2003 invasion proved limited, in Afghanistan it proved almost completely absent. ABC News correspondent Jake Tapper reported in The Outpost that Pashtun villagers would regularly ask U.S. soldiers whether they were Soviets. In Iraq, urban density proved both a curse and a blessing, insofar as it allowed U.S. forces to be concentrated in a handful of pivotal points; in Afghanistan the dispersed population presented nearly insurmountable problems. And when forces on the ground asked civilian leaders to increase the resources at their disposal, they found their leaders as reluctant to expand the mission as they were to limit it. A wide gap opened between the military and the civilian authorities directing it. Even more daunting, perhaps, was the American public’s sheer indifference to the cause carried out in its name.
As a result of all of these challenges, the stubborn war in Afghanistan, having spanned a decade and cost more than 2,000 American lives, wound down to one diminutive dilemma: How many U.S. troops would remain after 2014, presumably for counter-terrorism, not counterinsurgency? As of mid-2013, at least, it seems not many—possibly none at all.
he twin wars that rose up from the ashes of the Twin Towers may both be destined to end in a whimper, but the doctrinal debates they gave rise to rage on. The most poignant of these disputes concerns counterinsurgency.
Within military circles the heady post-“surge” days, when General Petraeus bestrode Baghdad like a colossus and every soldier brandished his FM 3-24 like a Bible, are long past. COIN is generally considered to have met with less success in Afghanistan than in Iraq, and many now question even COIN’s Iraqi success, crediting local factors rather than American efforts with the decline in violence following 2007. Even if COIN could be made to work, critics contend, fiscal constraints prevent the United States from committing the vast resources it demands. (Also, the fall of COIN’s standard-bearer from his post atop the CIA has not helped to bolster COIN’s cause.) All of these concerns, but particularly the apparent failure of COIN in Afghanistan, have swelled the anti-COIN chorus.
Although rearguard defenders of COIN rightly counter that counterinsurgency sometimes succeeds, the greatest danger of the COIN debates lies not in the possibility that “big Army” traditionalists might win but in the possibility that the way both sides erroneously frame the question might ultimately prevail. Both parties to this debate frequently lose sight of a simple fact: Counterinsurgency is not a strategy. COIN is rather a collection of insights and guidelines collected from past operations that can succeed when properly adapted to a given local context and can fail when improperly adapted (as in Afghanistan). The key is the adaptation, the selection of the right set of tools for the task at hand, properly understood in context. COIN debaters resemble carpenters arguing over whether a generic cabinet can be constructed with a toolbox. Both would do better to consider more precisely what they intend to build in the first place. Only when you know the goal can you open the box and select the best tools for the job.
The current COIN debate in military circles pits “traditionalists”, who envision a future American way of war based on so-called conventional doctrine (read: modern combined-arms warfare), against “COINdinistas”, who favor the heavy boots-on-ground, protect-the-population premises of counterinsurgency. But, again, since not all counterinsurgency campaigns are created equal, this is a distinctly artificial and even dangerous way to carry on a debate. As Brigadier General (Ret.) Huba Wass de Czege argues, “it hardly matters how good your COIN practices are if you have two huge disadvantages: 1) you are a stranger to the people, and 2) you cannot affect “what is seen as good governance.”4
It follows that, in cases where occupying powers manage to overcome their foreignness and create at least the impression of good governance, COIN can succeed. British success in Malaya demonstrates the affirmative case as clearly as American failure in Vietnam (and perhaps in Iraq and Afghanistan) demonstrates the negative case. There are, in short, conditions in which COIN can work and cases where it is doomed to fail. Both sides of the current COIN debate conceive of war too narrowly. We would therefore do well to assume Mercutio’s stance toward the debaters: A plague on both their houses!
Counterinsurgency doctrine will have served a valuable purpose, however, if it manages to truly integrate, especially in U.S. Army thinking, what were once called “operations other than war” (peacekeeping, humanitarian interventions, stability operations) within a more ecumenical (and accurate) notion of “war.” We need to move not just “beyond war” but also “beyond COIN.”
nfortunately, as things look now, future U.S. strategy seems likely to be dominated by fiscal austerity and the “pivot” (rebalance) to Asia. The first promises a reduction in U.S. military force, while the second seems to augur a rebalancing within the U.S. military from the Army to the Air Force and Navy. The Army is thus left with the prospect of a smaller piece of a smaller pie, and with this prospect comes an identity crisis. Without land wars in the Middle East, without COIN as an authoritative truth and without a Fulda Gap to defend, just what is the Army for? The Army has so far been frustrated in its ability to grapple with these questions of future military strategy and future force development, redesign and rebalancing largely because it remains haunted by ghosts of wars past, present and future.
In many ways, these ghosts now seem more wraithlike than they did ten years ago at the start of the Iraq War. Then, we were mired in two wars; now, we are beginning to sense again the bracing freedom of strategic choice. Then, war offered the military near-limitless resources; now, austerity enables far-reaching reforms. The American nation and its military seem suddenly, surprisingly eager to explore the fundamental questions of arms and men. It is a rare moment, one whose promise we should not miss. We should revisit the fundamental question with greater urgency than ever: If one can win all the battles and still lose the wars, what is a “war”?
We could do a lot worse than to start an answer by relearning what Clausewitz knew: A nation’s military object is inseparable from its political object. The meaning of war is not sui generis; it is borne of our notion of the peace we seek. Put a little less grandly, it flows from what it is we are trying to accomplish politically. The place to start is to specify the ultimate aspirations of the United States in the wider world. What, to take a current case, do we want Syria to look like when the shooting stops, and how is that objective related to our goals in the region and beyond?
There are relevant questions of strategy on both the grandest scale and on lesser scales, but they are the kinds of questions we, both warriors and citizens, must confront in order to understand war. Until we confront these questions and break out of our inherited Manichean habits, our ghosts will continue to haunt. If we cannot get beyond them, we might as well call for an exorcism, for all the good it will do us.
1See Meghan L. O’Sullivan, “The Iraq War at Ten”, The American Interest (May/June 2013).
2Yingling, “A Failure in Generalship”, Armed Forces Journal (May 2007).
3Eric Schmitt, “Threats and Responses: Military Spending; Pentagon Contradicts General on Iraq Occupation Force’s Size”, New York Times, February 28, 2003.
4Email conversation, February 2013.