Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Losing is as losing does (1): Gen. Dubik, I don’t think we won that many big battles

Jim Gourley reponds to James Dubik's December essay in ARMY Magazine.

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By Jim Gourley

Best Defense respondent to General Dubik

Has our infatuation with counterinsurgency made us too counterintuitive for our own good?

Lt. Gen. James Dubik’s recent essay makes a strong case for the American national security establishment to assess its failure to adequately coordinate efforts in achieving strategic goals over the last decade. He clearly articulates the problem about halfway through the piece: “In sum, our ways and means — military, nonmilitary, U.S. and coalition forces, strategies, policies and campaigns — have not been properly aligned with aims or with reality.” This is an accurate assessment of a weakness that continues to plague us today. However, as important as the meat of his argument is, equally critical is dealing with a flawed assumption underlying it. According to him, “In fighting our post-9/11 wars, we have won nearly every battle but are far from winning the war. How can this be? The answer lies largely in the civil-military nexus that underpins how America wages war.”

Dubik cannot be more wrong in such a statement. The United States hardly accrued any decisive victories in its battles over the last 13 years, and our numerous losses absolutely contributed to the loss of the overall campaigns. To believe otherwise, one would have to consider every IED, drone strike, special operations raid, and ambush as a “battle.” This would hardly suit the definition of battle laid forth by John Keegan, who wrote that it is “a mutual and sustained act of will by two contending parties, and if it is to result in a decision, the moral collapse of one of them… the achievement of some aim over which other men are ready to kill them.” Even the loosest interpretation of this definition leads us to the realization that the United States won few battles in the last 13 years, and that more importantly it avoided such confrontations as a matter of course. The latter revelation is the most potent, for it necessarily indicts the military on the same crimes for which Dubik accuses the greater American governmental bureaucracy — namely, failing to establish objectives and further failing to pursue them with decisive action.

It’s debatable if any battles in Afghanistan yielded a decisive point that favored the United States and its allies. Along with an unknown number of Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters, it is widely believed that Osama Bin Laden managed to escape coalition forces in the battle of Tora Bora. Reports indicate he evaded capture again during Operation Anaconda. If the enemy can only claim avoiding defeat in that accomplishment, then the flip side of the coin is necessarily that they prevented us from achieving our objective, and therefore victory. It would be similarly problematic to equate the number of enemy killed with victory. In the immediate scope of the operations, casualty estimates are highly debatable. But the claim of victory rings hollow even if one accepts the higher estimates. If as many as 200 Taliban fighters were killed in the battle of Takur Ghar, the seven special operations forces killed and two Chinook helicopters destroyed seem an extraordinarily poor trade. Conversely, the battles of Wanat and Camp Bastion clearly ended in American defeats.

The same circumstances appear in Iraq. The battle of Ramadi in 2004 was a costly one for American Marines, and enemy casualty figures are as sketchy as in Afghanistan. But again, even if the Americans “won” in the body count, the best evidence that the enemy won the overall battle is that the Marines had to fight a second bloody battle for the city in 2006. The same can be said of the first and second battles of Fallujah. Today, both cities rest firmly in the grip of ISIS, a group populated by veterans of those battles. What better example is there that American military action never produced a battle that yielded a decisive moral collapse on the enemy’s part?

General Stanley McChrystal once quipped that you can’t kill your way out of Afghanistan. This reflected the pervading mantra of the COIN-centric military, which was profoundly influenced by the charismatic leadership of General Petraeus. The military became so enamored with Petraeus’s philosophy that it began accepting his tactical koans such as “people are the decisive terrain” and “money is a weapon” as holy writ. On an institutional level, the military confused not putting a premium on killing with putting a premium on not killing. Yet enemy deaths can have a great influence on a war’s outcome if their nature and scope are appropriately framed. As with most conflicts in the 19th century, more soldiers died of sickness in the Civil War than direct combat. Yet it was the casualties from the battle of Gettysburg that catalyzed a military and political turning point in the war. Failure to consider its utility and necessity led modern strategists to alternately neglect or dismiss the idea of forcing the enemy into battle. Consequently, we neither sought nor showed preparedness for it. Instead, the entire military organization in Afghanistan and Iraq floundered from one IED to the next ambush as it tried one futile course of action after the next for several years. In short, the American military orchestrated its own moral collapse.

Adversaries in both countries seemed most acutely aware of this, and took advantage of our inability to dictate terms by striking at American and indigenous forces, laying IEDs, and intimidating local governments and populations at will. A frequent important outcome of battle is that the victor gains or holds the initiative. If we were to analyze the initiative in these wars like a football game, our opponents in Iraq and Afghanistan spent a substantially greater amount of time in possession of the ball. These considerations are uncomfortable because they confront our very perception of the wars. It’s that very offensive nature that makes the proposition so critical, because it forces us to reexamine our enemies’ point of view. One of the most insightful pieces ever written on the topic comes from a 2010 piece in The British Army Review titled “Donkeys Led by Lions“: “It is just getting light when ten smelly men and one smelly woman set off from their Patrol Base… Today they’re going to be patrolling around and through a hamlet a thousand meters north of the patrol base… Presence has been shown; a small tick will be made in the hearts and minds spreadsheet.”

The authors then give an account of the patrol being ambushed by four insurgent fighters with small arms. After an hour of exchanging fire and the arrival of close air support, the enemy breaks contact with no casualties on either side. At this point the authors explain the vast disparity between our 21st-century Western mindset and that of our opponents from a tribal warrior society.

“Both sides claim a small victory. In the patrol debrief our people can say they have shown presence as requested and assume that all the rounds expended must have hit a few of the enemy. Unlike some of their patrols this one wasn’t forced to end early because they ran out of ammunition or water. The patrol wasn’t stalled by the ambush and it forced the enemy to withdraw under pressure. There were no friendly casualties.

“Back in their boss’s house, the wiry men know they won’t get a bonus for injuring any British because no helicopter came and the plane didn’t drop any bombs. But they know the patrol was lucky when it crossed the open ground, got the quick reaction help and missed the mines by the knocked-down wall. A few tweaks and their ambush technique might pay a bonus. Their boss is happy though — he spent a hundred dollars to occupy half a company for most of a day and he knows that this one ambush cost the British maybe a hundred thousand dollars. He has drained a little money and resolve; on a good day he will drain blood.”

What we typically think of as mundane subtleties in the daily battle rhythm become startling realizations about our approach to battle when put in relief against our enemies’ concept of warfare. We send people out onto the battlefield not to secure the front line or seize initiative, but to establish baselines and gather metrics. We often look more like census-takers than soldiers. This creates an intellectual crutch in after-action reviews. We lean on our data points and limp around the matter of the fight itself. Coming full circle, we determine that since we are in the same place we started, nothing has gotten worse. Somehow this equates to progress. It does not matter whether the enemy was vanquished or lived to attempt to kill us again tomorrow. We won the day because the tick on the hearts and minds spreadsheet says so. No one ever questions whether that green-shaded cell meets Keegan’s criteria as an aim worth killing over. The battalion will order another patrol sent out tomorrow to fight for the human terrain, without once considering how easy it would be to win that fight if only it would kill the enemy on the physical terrain. This process of rationalization manufactures a belief that we have achieved victory where none exists. It’s the new “seven P’s” of combat: Power Point and Positive Psychology Produce Pathetic Pipedreams. Leaders from the company level all the way up to the Pentagon briefing room have used this exact method for years to keep from admitting to setbacks. Remarkably, Dubik’s faith in our near-perfect record in battle suggests he himself has fallen victim to this data-driven method of rewriting history. In this way, the military commits one of the very sins he accuses our highest political and military leaders of: sending people into combat without a plan and then trying to gin up a way to explain what happened after things go pear-shaped.

By contrast, the above anecdote makes the enemy’s point of view clear. He never has to justify or rationalize the outcome of an engagement. His mission began without spreadsheets or ambiguous principles like “showing presence.” His objectives were clear, simple, and few– find the enemy, fight him, and kill him if possible. To scoff at our enemy’s approach as unsophisticated is to take its potency for granted. For countless days in Iraq and Afghanistan, our forces started the morning not knowing what they were doing and ended the night doubting if they’d accomplished it. Our enemies woke up knowing exactly what they were going out to achieve and went to bed secure in the knowledge that they hadn’t lost. Our military leaders committed a grievous error when they assessed our enemies’ reluctance to fight pitched battles as a sign that we would have to find a new way to fight them. On the contrary, we should have realized that it meant the enemy knew he would be vulnerable in battle, and that success lay in forcing the enemy into battle time and again.

To an extent, this actually validates Dubik’s argument. The military was so overwhelmed with the tasks of establishing governance and repairing infrastructure in Iraq and Afghanistan that it could not collectively focus on pursuing and defeating the enemy. As Dubik asks, “Are we waging a war, fighting criminals, or doing some hybrid of the two?” This is a matter that only our top policy makers can untangle, but there are a few things of which we can be certain. Since 2001, we have not committed the necessary strategic and operational thought, let alone tactical resources, to forcing and winning battles. General Dubik is correct that military gains must be rapidly consolidated by political forces. As Vietnam proved, you can win battles and still lose a war. This happens when political forces fail to capitalize on military victories. But neither can you can lose all the battles and still win the war. For what can even the most well organized political forces accomplish if there are no military victories to capitalize on in the first place?

Jim Gourley is an author, journalist, and former military intelligence officer. He tweets at @jim_gourley.

via Cheng Shing Yan/flickr
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. Twitter: @tomricks1