Best Defense

What you’ll find in a new book I co-edited about lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan

In short form, here are the strategic lessons identified in the book.

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By Joseph J. Collins
Best Defense guest columnist

Lessons Encountered: Learning from the Long War, began in the summer of 2014 with two questions from General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs: What were the costs and benefits of the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, and what were the strategic lessons of these campaigns? The National Defense University’s Institute of National Strategic Studies was tasked to answer them within a year. The book’s primary audience is senior officers, their senior advisors, and the students in Joint Professional Military Education courses — the future leaders of the Armed Forces.

The introduction addresses the difficulty of learning strategic lessons and previews the major lessons identified in the study. The first chapters analyze the early campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, and then surge operations in both campaigns. The next segment addresses decision-making, implementation, and unity of effort. The book then turns to the all-important issue of raising and mentoring indigenous security forces, the basis for the U.S. exit strategy in both campaigns. That chapter is followed by one on legal issues. The final chapter analyzes costs and benefits, dissects decision-making in both campaigns, and summarizes the lessons encountered.

The significant costs of these two campaigns include: over 8,000 coalition soldiers dead; 52,000 U.S. wounded; 180,000 to 230,000 host-nation civilians and security forces dead; and $1.6 trillion dollars in direct costs. Using either estimates of direct or extended costs, the Long War is the second most expensive war in American history. On the political end, the costs attached to the Long War appear to exceed the benefits by a wide margin, but perceptions vary with the time of the estimate. The costs are also here now, and many of the benefits will accrue in the future.

In short form, here are the strategic lessons identified in the book:

National Security Decision-Making

Military participation in national decision-making is both necessary and problematic. Many instances in the Long War also show unnecessary misunderstandings. Both civilian and military planners should cultivate the art of backward planning, starting with the desired political end-state and working back toward the present.

Generals and admirals have mastered Service and joint war fighting, but other attributes are necessary interagency acumen; media savvy; a detailed understanding of congressional relations, programming, budgeting; and skill in multinational environments. In a number of cases in the Long War, gaps in these skill sets contributed to poor outcomes that might have been prevented.

Senior military planners must pay more attention to the linkage between political and military objectives.

Civil and military planning for post-conflict stability operations was inadequate, and set back operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Unity of Effort/Unity of Command

The campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq suffered from significant problems in both the military and the interagency aspects of operations.

Continuous monitoring of strategy implementation and the development of performance metrics is essential to manage the conflict.

Intelligence and Understanding the Operational Environment

Neither national nor military intelligence in Iraq and Afghanistan was a success in supporting decision-makers. In Iraq, pre-war intelligence was wrong about weapons of mass destruction, the Iraqi police, and the state of Iraqi infrastructure. U.S. forces had little information on tribal dynamics and the potential role of Iran. The effects of these shortcomings were grave.

Neither national-level figures nor field commanders fully understood the operational environment, including the human aspects of military operations.

Policymakers and joint force commanders must sort out the complex legal and practical issues, such as detention planning, in advance of deployment.

There is no substitute for excellent joint professional military education and dedicated self-study. For senior officers and advisors, every dollar spent on civilian graduate education in policy sciences and history is returned many times over.

Character of Contemporary Conflict

When conventional warfare or logistical skills were called for in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Armed Forces generally achieved excellent results. At the same time, the military was insensitive to needs of the post-conflict environment and not prepared well for insurgency in either country. Military performance improved over time. Indeed, field-level innovation on counterinsurgency showed an admirable capacity for learning and innovation.

With a great deal of managerial attention, the acquisition system of the Department of Defense was able to create, field, and deploy the equipment needed to turn the military we had into the military we needed.

A prudent great power should avoid being a third party in a large-scale counterinsurgency effort. Foreign expeditionary forces in another country’s insurgency have almost always failed. It should also be remembered that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan did not begin as insurgencies, but evolved in that direction.

In a counterinsurgency, success will depend in part on the political development of the host government. There are few assets in the State Department or USAID inventory to mentor and assist a host government in political development. In humanitarian assistance and reconstruction, State and USAID have more assets, but far fewer than large-scale contingencies require. Strategic communications was a weak point in our performance in Washington, D.C., and in the field.

Security Force Assistance

Security force assistance was also an area where successes followed a painful process of trial and error; coalition approaches were often mismatched with the local population and circumstances.

Where possible, the host nation must take ownership of the training effort and associated architecture.

Before they deploy, advisors must be educated culturally and politically to organize ministries and/or train forces that fit the operational environment and local needs.

This book will be posted on the NDU Press website; readers can download it as a PDF or directly to their e-reader.

To further whet your appetite, here’s the table of contents:

Chapter 1

Initial Planning and Execution in Afghanistan and Iraq. . . 21

Joseph J. Collins

Chapter 2

Strategic Assessment and Adaptation: The Surges in

Afghanistan and Iraq. . . 89

Frank G. Hoffman and G. Alexander Crowther

Chapter 3

National-Level Coordination and Implementation:

How System Attributes Trumped Leadership. . . 165

Christopher J. Lamb with Megan Franco

Chapter 4

Raising and Mentoring Security Forces. . . 277

T.X. Hammes

Chapter 5

9/11 and After: Legal Issues, Lessons, and Irregular Conflict. . . 345

Nicholas Rostow and Harvey Rishikof

Chapter 6

Reflections on Lessons Encountered. . . 401

Richard D. Hooker, Jr., and Joseph J. Collins

About the Contributors. . . 421

Annexes

  1. The Human and Financial Costs of

Operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. . . 429

Sara Thannhauser and Christoff Luehrs

Image credit: National Defense University Press

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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