- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.
By Col. Jason Brown, USAF
Best Defense guest columnist
In years to come, historians will ask important questions about the role of power in the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns. Specifically, they will ask how Afghanistan became America’s longest war, and how we were able to invade and leave Iraq within the bookends of the Afghan conflict. It is especially hard to understand how we recovered power in Iraq after Abu Ghraib and a fractious civil war. Although arguments over what we accomplished in Iraq will endure for years, we regained enough power to leave Iraq without a debate. We subsequently attempted to carry the momentum of the Iraq counterinsurgency campaign to Afghanistan in 2009, but still struggle to achieve something resembling the ambiguous success in Iraq. The disappointment in Afghanistan goes beyond a misapplication of what worked in Iraq; the power equation between Iraq and Afghanistan was altogether different.
In war, power wins. Individuals often confuse military might with power, but in reality, there are many power factors relevant to the outcome of war. Power flows from diplomatic, political, and economic strength as well as strategic, operational, and tactical effectiveness. Sound analysis of warfare will avoid focusing on any one of these sources, and will instead examine relevant power, which accounts for the interplay of power sources within the context of conditions and rivals in a war.
In both Iraq and Afghanistan, our relevant power ebbed and flowed due to changes in our power sources. We did not have adequate power to influence conditions in Iraq before 2007 due to limitations across the power spectrum, from diplomacy to military tactics. Changes in leadership and an effective counterinsurgency campaign adjusted our relevant power to influence the human terrain, the adversary, and the diplomatic and political environment. While many credit the increase in U.S. troops as the key factor in the Iraq campaign, in reality political settlements with the Sunni population, a counterproductive terror campaign by Al Qaeda, and the decision by Iran to no longer incite Shia resistance had greater impacts on stability and thus increased the coalition’s relevant power. As conditions changed in Iraq, military coercion became relevant when we coupled it with an acceptable political alternative. In contrast, increasing economic pressures, tensions with Iran and Pakistan, and corruption within the Karzai government have likely created insurmountable conditions for a similar outcome in Afghanistan. Consequently, our military-centric Afghanistan "surge" lacked the political component which boosted our relevant power in Iraq.
Additionally, the Taliban affected the power equation in Afghanistan by using available time and space, provided by our shift in focus to Iraq, to mitigate our counterinsurgency campaign. The Taliban attacked our strategy directly by weathering drone strikes in their Pakistan safe havens, and adopting tactics with strategic payoff-namely IED, high profile, and insider attacks. They understand the parameters of our relevant power in Afghanistan, and to some degree, they learned how to leverage their own power to counter ours.
To understand the relevant power equation between Iraq and Afghanistan, we must keep two things in mind. First, we cannot assume political, economic, or military strength will translate from one conflict to another or will even endure throughout a war. Because power fluctuates between and within wars, the conditions that define a conflict provide the first measuring stick for relevant power. Conditions in Iraq were eventually ripe for our power to influence the political and security situation. Not so in Afghanistan. Second, we cannot always compensate for deficiencies in one source of power by increasing strength in another. War is a duel, and any ability to adjust or adapt depends on the capability of our adversary to do the same. The Taliban exploited conditions to evolve into a strategically savvy opponent, whereas Al Qaeda in Iraq diminished due to their own strategic ineffectiveness. Our relevant power depends on internal factors as well as the external ability of our opponent to counter our strengths, exploit our weaknesses, and adapt and influence at a faster rate.
Power plays the leading role in war, but assessing power is not straightforward. Iraq and Afghanistan proved power in war is neither broadly applicable nor enduring, it is relevant to changes in conditions, our opponents, and ourselves. Good strategy must account for the give-and-take between power sources, and their changing value within and between conflicts. It is far easier for strategists to measure strength in isolation and assume it translates to power, but that shortcut does not serve them well when preparing for war. Success in war requires an understanding of when and how to expend or preserve power — and when and how to end a war in order to retain future freedom of action. The consequences for misunderstanding relevant power could cause a nation with considerable military might to lose a war by stubbornly pursuing an unrealistic end state, significantly draining its power in the process. Avoiding that outcome requires asking two simple questions. When told our nation inherently possesses power due to military, political and economic strength, our military strategists and the policymakers they serve should ask, "power to do what … to whom?"
Colonel Jason Brown is an active duty Air Force officer attending the Air War College. He is a graduate of the Marine Corps School of Advanced Warfighting. He commanded the 13th Intelligence Squadron and has deployed to multiple locations including Iraq and Afghanistan. The conclusions and opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force, or Air University.