Best Defense

The Joint Staff study of the post-9/11 wars: What they were really trying to say

My friend John Nagl raved about the new study, by the Joint and Coalition Operational Analysis (JCOA) division of the J-7 department of the staff of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, titled "Decade of War, Volume 1: Enduring Lessons from the Past Decade of Operations." That surprised me, because I found the report very cautious, ...


My friend John Nagl raved about the new study, by the Joint and Coalition Operational Analysis (JCOA) division of the J-7 department of the staff of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, titled "Decade of War, Volume 1: Enduring Lessons from the Past Decade of Operations."

That surprised me, because I found the report very cautious, kind of treading warily around some real problems. Then the light bulb came on, and I realized what Nagl was seeing that I wasn’t: The report was written in Pentagonese. You have to read between its lines.

As a public service, here I offer a translation into basic readable English:

"Lesson One: Understanding the Environment"

Unlike most of their lessons, they just get this one flat wrong. Missed the target entirely. They take the easy road and basically say that the military was right and the rest of the government didn’t show up in Iraq. What they can’t say: The military was at odds with the Bush administration over the mission there. The Bush administration’s ambitions for Iraq were revolutionary, as demonstrated by Bremer’s sweeping orders. The U.S. military, without asking permission, re-defined the mission as stability, which undercut the civilian objective. So the real lesson here is that senior civilian and military officials need to bring to the surface their differences and examine their strategic assumptions. If you can’t agree on strategy going in, you’ve got a problem.

"Lesson Two: Conventional Warfare Paradigm"

They recommend a bunch of bureaucratic steps to encourage adaptability. What they should have said: You want the system to adapt? Then reward success and punish failure. People will sit up and take notice. Publicize these actions, and you soon will have an adaptive system. You know what is most conventional? An approach to leadership that discourages people from taking risks and doesn’t punish them for passivity. You can’t win a war if success is defined as keeping your guys as much on the FOB as possible.   

"Lesson Three: Battle for the Narrative"

Again, they call for a series of small but complex steps that tinker with the machine. It’s all lipstick on a pig. What they should have said: You won’t be successful in media and information operations as long as the consequences for U.S. military officers of "allowing a bad story" to appear are worse than for not engaging the media at all. Once they are encouraged to take risks they can experiment with the enemy formulation that information operations shape kinetic operations, not the opposite.

"Lesson Four: Transitions"

They want transitions better planned and managed. But of course. What they don’t say: If you don’t have commanders and key staff engaged for the duration, you always will be falling behind the enemy in understanding. And adjusting. We need to get away from one-year unit rotations. Some of the possible alternatives have been discussed on this blog.

"Lesson Five: Adaptation"

See Lesson Two. Repeat as needed.

"Lesson Six: SOF-GPF Integration"

They want to establish relationships, train together, and institutionalize best practices in collaboration. What they were trying to say: "We’re all on the same side. Act like it, and instead of holding pissing contests, find ways to help each other. Senior commanders should have the discipline to counsel and even remove subordinates who don’t get this." A couple of removals will get the message across.

"Lesson Seven: Interagency Coordination"

They want to "operationalize" interagency work. The real problem here is that the military tends to act like "the interagency" is a one-way street. That is, it gives orders to civilians but is very wary of accepting them. The rest of the government will be more willing to show up and play nice when regimental commanders are able to take orders from State Department officials.

"Lesson Eight: Coalition Operations"

More tinkering and better training recommended. The real lesson here is that it is only a genuine coalition if non-American members have a voice. Americans tend to be hubristic in assuming that our way is the best way. We really need to re-examine our whole approach to coalition operations. The best way to begin is by studying Eisenhower’s handling of the coalition in World War II. ("I didn’t fire you because you called him a son of a bitch. I fired you because you called him an English son of a bitch.")

"Lesson Nine: Host-Nation Partnering"

Their basic conclusion: We need to do better. What they don’t say: We need to shut up and listen to our host nation partners. Direct U.S. intervention should be the last resort. The best model often is indirect action. That is, instead of the U.S. trying to help Mexico with its drug war, the U.S. can help the Colombians help Mexico. Generally, we should do things the host nation way — which, if we ever want to leave, is the only sustainable way.

"Lesson Ten: State Use of Surrogates and Proxies"

They say we should worry about people doing this. What they don’t say: Over the last decade in Iraq, we established a whole bunch of nasty precedents about the use of force by mercenaries that could come back and bite us on the butt. Just wait until Chinese mercenary companies start operating in Africa.   

"Lesson Eleven: Super-Empowered Threats"

They say we should worry about individuals and small groups having a long reach because of the internet and other information technologies. What they don’t say: Americans invented the internet and much of this other stuff. If the U.S. government isn’t using these tools well, that probably is because it isn’t using the right people. Bureaucracies can never react as swiftly as small groups. So it probably is time to establish an Army Reserve information operations unit in Silicon Valley. In fact, way past time. Maybe even a Joint infowar group?


"This report," they write, "describes the eleven strategic themes derived from the enduring, joint lessons of the past decade of war, as culled from the 46 studies conducted by the JCOA since its inception in 2003." Tom’s conclusion: There is indeed a lot in this report if you read between the lines and decode it into English. 

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 Twitter: @tomricks1

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