Gen. Allen’s lessons from Iraq
Looking back on his time in Iraq and Afghanistan, Gen. John Allen believes the United States is not going to jump into another big land war anytime soon — and neither will its NATO allies. Speaking yesterday at a four-hour, invitation-only roundtable on the 10th anniversary of the Iraq War — held at FP‘s offices, ...
Looking back on his time in Iraq and Afghanistan, Gen. John Allen believes the United States is not going to jump into another big land war anytime soon -- and neither will its NATO allies.
Looking back on his time in Iraq and Afghanistan, Gen. John Allen believes the United States is not going to jump into another big land war anytime soon — and neither will its NATO allies.
Speaking yesterday at a four-hour, invitation-only roundtable on the 10th anniversary of the Iraq War — held at FP‘s offices, in conjunction with RAND — the former ISAF commander said, "My guess is…that it’ll be 20 years before we undertake something like this again. It’s going to be a long time before NATO is going to be interested probably in undertaking something that could look like this again." He added: "Coalition development and coalition management is going to be extraordinarily important in the future. I’m not sure that we’ve put enough emphasis on that."
If Western allies do embark on another massive counterinsurgency effort, Allen argued, the development side of the affair must be done better.
"Something I worry about increasingly as time goes on is the sense that the development strategies in Iraq and now Afghanistan have failed," Allen said. "And that the development dimension of what we have attempted to undertake was either the wrong approach or was just flawed from the beginning…and I think that really deservers some rigorous testing."
"Development with a little ‘d’ that was wielded day-to-day" by company commanders, Allen contended, was "enormously successful." It was the larger planning and implementation of aid and civilian governance that troubled him. Allen, who retires on April 1, said he worried about people drawing the "wrong conclusions" on development during the counterinsurgencies.
Allen recently turned down President Obama’s nomination to lead NATO as supreme allied commander.
Allen was a deputy brigadier commander in Anbar province and played a key role in the so-called Awakening there. Still wearing his 4-starred Marine Corps uniform on Wednesday, he credited the military’s effort to learn about local culture for its success in winning local support.
"We spent an extraordinary amount of time preparing ourselves for what we would face in the Anbar province," he said. Understanding the local tribes, where there was "complete absence of governance," he said, gave the military "entree to the tribes" and helped his forces recognize "the potential value of the Awakening when it occurred. We really sensed something was changing in the battle space."
Allen said he is concerned about how the military will retain the lesson of learning local culture as the military services refocus on other types of warfare after Iraq and Afghanistan.
"We’re really at a critical moment here, right now," he said.
"The challenge I think for the future for us is how to best prepare our forces for irregular warfare….We must always have a fundamental understanding of the social fabric of the environment in which we’re going to be serving. We spent a great deal of time before going to the Anbar province studying the tribes. Tribe by tribe, from the Syrian border right down to Baghdad. I don’t think anybody spent more time with the sheikhs than I did. I could tell the sheikhs stories about their grandfathers. Because we spent the time learning about the tribes, thus we were able to operate within the tribes.
"I can remember the day Ken Pollack was sitting with Michael O’Hanlon and Tony Cordesman in the D1 in Fallujah, where we had the sheikhs assembled and we were talking about how, then, do we do the next thing, which is more important, and that’s the outlying government with the central government. And that was for us the challenge.
"I remember the sheikh reaching over and patting my thigh and saying here is my government. Well, I couldn’t be his government, it had to be al Maliki."
Allen said he was most successful in connecting a local government to the national government.
"That doesn’t come naturally. That kind of capacity within our military does not come naturally," he stressed.
"For the future, the intellectual preparation of our officers — we cannot lose these intellectual qualities that we purchased so dearly over the last 10 or 11 years. As we reset our forces for the future, and our service seeks to re-grasp what makes them essential to the national security of the United States…we’ve got to maintain our faithfulness to the basic intellectual principles of irregular warfare, the components of which are such things as the proper deployment of development, understanding the relations of subnational and national governance, the social fabric in which you’re going to operate. These are Ph.D.-level intellectual demands on our officers, we cannot permit that to go."
Kevin Baron is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy, covering defense and military issues in Washington. He is also vice president of the Pentagon Press Association. Baron previously was a national security staff writer for National Journal, covering the "business of war." Prior to that, Baron worked in the resident daily Pentagon press corps as a reporter/photographer for Stars and Stripes. For three years with Stripes, Baron covered the building and traveled overseas extensively with the secretary of defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, covering official visits to Afghanistan and Iraq, the Middle East and Europe, China, Japan and South Korea, in more than a dozen countries. From 2004 to 2009, Baron was the Boston Globe Washington bureau's investigative projects reporter, covering defense, international affairs, lobbying and other issues. Before that, he muckraked at the Center for Public Integrity. Baron has reported on assignment from Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, the Middle East and the South Pacific. He was won two Polk Awards, among other honors. He has a B.A. in international studies from the University of Richmond and M.A. in media and public affairs from George Washington University. Originally from Orlando, Fla., Baron has lived in the Washington area since 1998 and currently resides in Northern Virginia with his wife, three sons, and the family dog, The Edge. Twitter: @FPBaron
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