Best Defense

Edgar on Strategy (Part IX): To what end? The frequently missing ‘why’ of strategy

Policymakers must articulate the “why” informing a strategy and periodically revaluate whether it is achievable and what ought to come next.

A U.S. Marine stands guard Apr. 14, 1993 from his position on an armored personnel carrier at a check-point in Mogadishu. (Eric Cabanis/AFP/GettyImages)
A U.S. Marine stands guard Apr. 14, 1993 from his position on an armored personnel carrier at a check-point in Mogadishu. (Eric Cabanis/AFP/GettyImages)


From the series editor: What is it that makes this fundamental component of strategy so elusive? Let us know in the comments or at

— Paul Edgar

By Lieutenant Colonel Mark Battjes, U.S. Army
Best Defense office of strategic affairs

Historians and political scientists often observe that presidents do not struggle much to identify what to do when confronted with a problem. Presidents select actions from finite options, which are limited both by the capabilities available and social context, domestically and internationally. So in many instances, what ought to be done is clear-— narrowly speaking. However, the why of policy and action, the new situation created or shaped by intervention, is what determines strategic success. It is this element that we either miss, underestimate, or severely under-resource.

For example, when the Islamic State began to seize territory in Iraq, President Barack Obama knew that we needed to intervene. To do so, he authorized the use of various tools, most of them predictable. But the broader purpose, the characteristics of the new situation we sought to create, have never been entirely clear, not under Obama and not under President Donald Trump. Because our broader purpose is not consistent or clear, it cannot be assessed or resourced. This is a consistent theme.

In 1982 it seemed obvious that the United States, alongside Western European countries, should send forces to Lebanon to separate the belligerents and protect civilian life. Protecting civilian life is a noble purpose for the use of military forces. Ostensibly, the United States had a larger purpose in mind: establish conditions for the withdrawal of Israeli troops from southern Lebanon and a transition of power that could end a civil war. But that objective, that “why,” required much more than just the dispatch of Marines.

Similarly, in 1993, it appeared essential to deploy the United States military to Somalia to capture the worst of the local warlords and thereby assist the United Nations peacekeeping force in the country. The United States wanted to capture Mohammed Farah Aidid. Why? We believed that with Aidid captured, the Somali civil war would come to an end, relief work would succeed, and a functioning government would develop. But here, again, the presumptive “why” of the operation required far more than Task Force Ranger and the other meager resources we threw at the problem.

Of course, both of these deployments ended with a precipitate American withdrawal after our forces suffered numerous casualties. Moreover, they did not accomplish their specific tasks or the nation’s larger purposes. The Marines struggled to know whom to protect and became targets themselves. The Lebanese civil war dragged on for nearly a decade. Task Force Ranger suffered dozens of casualties in Mogadishu and failed to capture Mohammed Farah Aidid. Somalia remained largely unstable and ungoverned.

Returning to our efforts today, we find precisely the same component missing from our strategy. What comes next in Iraq? Are we where we had hoped to be, when we began our intervention against the Islamic State? We knew that we should provide military assistance to the Iraqi government in order to recapture Mosul. We did so. Now we are struggling with the bigger question.

There are many ostensible answers. But have we, or will we, clearly state which one is primary? Is it merely to reduce the area under Islamic-State control? Is it to bolster Iraqi sovereignty? Is it to demonstrate the Iraqi government’s commitment to the security and well-being of the Sunni and Kurd populations? Or is it to assuage American domestic angst over the most recent manifestation of radical Islam?

All of those are reasonable purposes. But what does each of those “whys” require? Which one are we thoughtfully resourcing? If we seek merely to reduce the amount of territory under the Islamic State’s control, then we are largely successful. We can leave soon. But if our objective is to improve the Iraqi government’s ability to control its sovereign territory, to maintain that territory as a unified state, then restoring Mosul to Iraqi control is only one of many efforts that ought to be resourced.

I would argue that it is not precisely clear why we helped the Iraqis recapture Mosul, at least not beyond the fact that in doing so we were intervening against the Islamic State. In order to make authentic strategic progress, the United States must articulate its larger purpose in Iraq.

Remember, strategy does not end when the president decides upon a particular policy or military action, like sending Task Force Ranger to Somalia or increasing the number of advisors in Iraq. Policymakers must articulate the “why” and periodically revaluate whether it is still achievable or what ought to come next. Articulation and evaluation help us decide whether to commit additional resources, select an alternate way for the same end, or choose a different end altogether. If we do not articulate the “why,” we cannot assess it. If we cannot assess it, we will continue pouring resources into ill-defined holes, so many of which are bottomless.

This would appear to be what happened in Somalia. The larger purpose of the operation, end to conflict and the establishment of an effective civilian government in Somalia, was beyond the capacity of Task Force Ranger to effect. Moreover, it was not clear how the removal of Mohammad Farah Aidid would set in motion a series of events that would accomplish the U.S. objective. The president decided what should be done, but the why remained ambiguous. When the force encountered substantive resistance, the United States withdrew.

The withdrawal of Task Force Ranger highlights the last and perhaps most important reason that the process of strategy must include a public discussion of America’s larger purpose — the why. Ultimately, the American public decides which purposes it is willing to support with money and lives. If the purpose of an action is not clear then the public cannot debate the importance of that purpose or decide whether to support executive policy. A failure to secure at least tacit support from the population undermines the administration and may even encourage Congress to pass legislation that hampers an administration’s execution of its policies.

Strategy is a process which functions best when leaders articulate both the narrow tasks and broader purposes associated with military and diplomatic activities. Articulated purpose, the why of strategy, helps planners and operators determine the actions and resources necessary for success. Articulated purpose helps the American people evaluate what they will continue to support. Given the crucial role of strategic purpose, it is surprising how often it is missing.

Lieutenant Colonel Mark Battjes is currently commanding 1st Battalion, 8th Infantry of the 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team in support of Operation Atlantic Resolve. The opinions expressed in this article are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army or the Department of Defense.  

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

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola