Rational Security

Why Iraq Was America’s Best-Run War

But that doesn't make it a model.

Petty Officer 3rd Class Brandon Wilson/DVIDS
Petty Officer 3rd Class Brandon Wilson/DVIDS

It is an axiom that generals tend to fight the last war, but the truth is that, as often as not, they would like to forget the last war. Witness Vietnam, in the wake of which it took more than three decades for a new counterinsurgency manual to be written by General David Petraeus and others. Happily, the military waited only five years to commence work on an update of the Petraeus version. As this new effort unfolds, based on the latest experience in Afghanistan, it might prove useful to incorporate the kind of analysis that the late Harry Summers, a soldier and strategist par excellence, employed in his study of the debacle in Vietnam, published a scant seven years after the fall of Saigon. Given the fresh attention being focused on military options in Syria, as outlined in General Martin Dempsey’s letter to the Senate on Monday, there is even more reason to remember Harry Summers.

His study, On Strategy, was inspired by the German philosopher of war Carl von Clausewitz’s ideas about how difficult it is to know what is really happening and to take effective action because of factors like the omnipresent "fog of war" and "friction." As Clausewitz put it: "Everything in war is simple, but the simplest thing is difficult." Harry Summers accepted this, but persisted, using as reference points for analysis classical notions of the principles of war as elucidated by the Baron Antoine Jomini, a Napoleonic officer, and later codified in U.S. Army field manuals. The principles are, in the order he used them: the objective, the offensive, mass, economy of force, maneuver, unity of command, security, surprise, and simplicity. What Summers concluded in his analysis of the Vietnam War was that the U.S. military’s performance, viewed in light of these principles, was problematic. Indeed, he found that it was the North Vietnamese who may have employed them more effectively.

What would a Summers-like analysis of the U.S. military’s role in three wars of the past decade — Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya — conclude? Category by category, on a notional, worst-to-best 1-10 rating scale (intended not as holy writ, but to spark discourse), a review of six of the nine principles — the ones that he examined most closely — might go something like this:

The objective. In Afghanistan, the goal of toppling the Taliban was easily achieved, but damaging the al Qaeda network — much less getting bin Laden — took a long time. Further, nation-building has proved complicated, to say the least. In Iraq, regime change was effected, but there were no weapons of mass destruction, and whatever ties there were to al Qaeda arose only in the wake of the U.S. invasion. The establishment of democracy resulted in the victory of a political movement more aligned with Tehran than with Washington. In Libya, Muammar al-Qaddafi was defeated and killed, but al Qaeda now prospers there and radical Islamists struck a humiliating blow against the United States in Benghazi. Scores: Afghanistan, 6; Iraq, 4; Libya, 5.

The offensive. The intervention in Afghanistan began with a striking, swarming attack on Taliban and al Qaeda forces; then there was much strategic drift for several years, with the resurgent Taliban eventually seizing the initiative. They still hold it as American and NATO forces are leaving. The Iraq War was also begun with an impressive offensive, but insurgents soon began to dictate the course of events, and did so through late 2006. Thereafter, however, U.S. forces found a way to shift the momentum and the situation improved markedly — before they simply left at the end of 2011. In Libya, Qaddafi’s forces clearly held the upper hand until NATO’s intervention, after which they were almost completely on the defensive. Scores: Afghanistan, 4; Iraq, 7; Libya, 9.

Mass. Troop levels started out quite low in Afghanistan, but eventually built up substantially, including a "surge" that had little material effect on the insurgency. Now numbers are dwindling, despite a resurgent Taliban. In Iraq, the size of the initial invading force was far greater than that used in Afghanistan, and was augmented by a surge in 2007 that saw improved results in its wake — though not necessarily caused by increased numbers, as new tactics and concepts of operations were employed. In Libya, the notion of massing can be applied to the use of concentrated air power, and perhaps to the "massing of information" that American intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets provided. Scores: Afghanistan, 7; Iraq, 8; Libya, 2.

Economy of force. In some respects, this category is the reverse of mass. In Afghanistan, early operations were very lean — just 200 sets of "boots on the ground" in the form of 11 Special Forces A-teams. But eventually numbers grew to around 200,000 in the International Security Assistance Force. About 100,000 are still there; after 2014, perhaps just a few thousand will remain. The total cost to date is about $800 billion. In Iraq, numbers started out in the 150,000+ range, and stayed in six-figures for some seven years — at a cost of over a trillion dollars. In Libya, there may have been a handful of NATO operatives on the ground, and some hundreds of aircraft were employed, at a total cost of a billion dollars or so. Scores: Afghanistan, 5; Iraq, 2; Libya, 10.

Maneuver. The opening phase in Afghanistan was remarkable, striking at the Taliban and al Qaeda swiftly, in many places simultaneously, like a swarm. Later on, though, more centralized, predictable actions became — and have largely remained — the rule. Now the focus on "village stability" means more hunkering down than maneuvering. In Iraq, the initial "thunder run" to Baghdad was a powerful display of modern mobile warfare. The ensuing battles of Fallujah were less about maneuver and far more about firepower. But in 2007, a very skillful swarming attack was mounted against al Qaeda in Anbar Province and elsewhere. In Libya, there was very little that could be described, on either side, in terms of skillful maneuver. Scores: Afghanistan, 5; Iraq, 7; Libya, 1.

Unity of command. The coalition forces engaged in Afghanistan operated under perhaps the most Byzantine control system in the annals of modern warfare. Theater commanders only "commanded" small portions of total forces in country, with Marine and Army troops often going their own ways — and special operations forces generally on their own, too. Allied forces marched to their own drummers much of the time as well. In Iraq, there was far more central control, perhaps a function of the fact that, beyond the United States and Britain, there were few allies with staying power. In Libya, it was almost impossible even to think in terms of unified leadership of the rebels — a persistent problem there — but NATO command and control was reasonably smooth. Scores: Afghanistan, 2; Iraq, 8; Libya, 6.

How to interpret this analysis? Well, a numerical average of the scores would reflect the following: Afghanistan, 4.8; Iraq, 6; Libya, 5.5. This suggests to me that the results achieved in the conduct of the war in Iraq — despite the debatable context of the conflict — may prove of great future value to soldiers and strategists. But this sort of analysis can also be usefully deconstructed, beginning with questions about whether all these principles are of equal weight. For example, if "mass" means less in the future, and "economy of force" grows more important, then clearly Libya is the case to study. As to Afghanistan, one can only leave this analysis with a sense of irony that a campaign begun so well now teeters on the brink of a losing endgame. But even here lies a deep lesson — albeit about a principle poorly followed — regarding unity of command.

All in all, this approach to strategic assessment can help distill much of the educational value from our most recent conflicts, and may suggest a way of thinking about the Syrian civil war. For example, any U.S. intervention would probably focus more on economy of force than the application of sheer mass. This worked out well in Libya, at least in terms of taking down Qaddafi with just air power and some arming of the rebels, and would likely succeed against the Assad regime. But the strategic principle of the objective, which Harry Summers considered of crucial importance, suggests something murkier, especially given that an al Qaeda affiliate might be empowered in Syria by U.S. action — just as jihadists prospered in Libya after Qaddafi’s fall. An additional concern would be that, in response to American intervention, Iran, Hezbollah, and even Russia might step up their support, escalating the violence both inside and outside of Syria.

As the intervention debate unfolds — with some in Congress urging action and the Pentagon calling for caution — Harry Summers would no doubt remind senior decision-makers about the primacy of the objective. Once this was clarified, he would surely insist that the other key principles be addressed as well — before we decide to enshroud ourselves in a fresh fog of war.

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