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April 27, 2007

Lessons From The Iraq Experience

Allow me to recommend two essential articles from Armed Forces Journal that I think are necessary reading for those of us not on the fringes, who strive to understand rather than shout slogans back and forth. I find little to disagree with in either piece.

The first is "A Failure In Generalship," by Lt. Col. Paul Yingling. Colonel Yingling places blame squarely on Rumsfeld and his generals, for the failure to achieve our goals in Iraq.

The intellectual and moral failures common to America's general officer corps in Vietnam and Iraq constitute a crisis in American generalship. Any explanation that fixes culpability on individuals is insufficient. No one leader, civilian or military, caused failure in Vietnam or Iraq. Different military and civilian leaders in the two conflicts produced similar results. In both conflicts, the general officer corps designed to advise policymakers, prepare forces and conduct operations failed to perform its intended functions. To understand how the U.S. could face defeat at the hands of a weaker insurgent enemy for the second time in a generation, we must look at the structural influences that produce our general officer corps.
My only criticism of Yingling's article would be against his proposal that Congress assert more control over the selection and promotion of general officers. On the contrary, while Congress has a role, it's the executive's job to select military leaders who can get the job done. I believe Yingling is correct to criticize the culture of conformity that produced sub-par generals at the war's outset. But that's common in every major conflict. War is a results-oriented game, and typically the dross is burned away after the first few months of battle.

In the case of Iraq, we had an unusual tendency towards inertia that can only be blamed on Bush and Rumsfeld's management styles. Whether you want to call it admirable loyalty or excessive stubbornness, neither Bush nor the SecDef were willing to change horses when necessary to get results. Of what other successful wartime administration can this be said? Not Lincoln's, not FDR's, not Truman's.

To be fair, one reason for this President's inertia was the withering and omnipresent criticism from the left, whether by Democrats or internationally. Bush, rightly or wrongly, made the decision that sticking to his original plan and personnel was better than adapting midstream to the changing situation on the battlefield. His enemies so vehemently accused him of being wrong, that he overcompensated in an effort to prove that he was right.

I don't give Bush a pass on this. It's no excuse to say that he did what he did because the left made him do it. It's the commander-in-chief's job to husband the souls of those men and women serving our country as wisely as possible. I'll grant him the best of intentions; I know the President feels every loss of life personally and deeply. But, good intentions are not enough. As I've said many times before, what we need is results, and the responsibility for getting results lies ultimately with the president. If Franks, Casey and Abizaid were not getting the job done and I don't think they were Bush should have been quick with the hook. (Bush knows baseball; he should have taken a lesson from old Sparky Anderson.)

The essential constraint that the entire war team missed is the constraint of time and patience. In a democracy, this constraint is strict and onerous, especially now in our hyper-political environment where the opposing party turns every issue into a power-play. Time and patience are part of the battlefield, and Bush's advisors were negligent in failing to stress that fact. Success in Iraq, if it was/is to be had, must be had quickly, with sufficient force and resources to get it quickly. Unfortunately, Bush and Company acted like they had all day long. Instead, time has now nearly run out.

The second article, by Lt. Col. Ralph Peters (ret.), is called "Wanted: Occupation Doctrine." His point of view is decidedly Machiavellian, but in a good way. Peters catalogues some lessons we should take heed of when planning for the next counterinsurgency campaign.

Consider just a few essential rules for successful occupations all of which we violated in Iraq:

Plan for the worst case. Pleasant surprises are better than ugly ones.

All else flows from security. Martial law, even if imposed under a less-provocative name, must be declared immediately it's far easier to loosen restrictions later on than to tighten them in the wake of anarchy. This is one aspect of a general principle: Take the pain up front.

Unity of command is essential.

The occupier's troop strength should be perceived as overwhelming and his forces ever-present.

Key military leaders, staff officers, intelligence personnel and vital civilian advisers must be committed to initial tours of duty of not less than two years for the sake of continuity.

Control external borders immediately.

Don't isolate troops and their leaders from the local population.

Whenever possible, existing host-country institutions should be retained and co-opted. After formal warfare ends, don't disband organizations you can use to your advantage.

Give local opinion-makers a stake in your success, avoid penalizing midlevel and low-level officials (except war criminals), and get young men off the streets and into jobs.

Don't make development promises you can't keep, and war-game reconstruction efforts to test their necessity, viability and indirect costs (an occupation must not turn into a looting orgy for U.S. or allied contractors).

Devolve responsibility onto local leaders as quickly as possible while retaining ultimate authority.

Do not empower returned expatriates until you are certain they have robust local support.

The purpose of cultural understanding is to facilitate the mission, not to paralyze our operations. Establish immediately that violent actors and seditious demagogues will not be permitted to hide behind cultural or religious symbols.

Establish flexible guidelines for the expenditure of funds by tactical commanders and for issuing local reconstruction contracts. Peacetime accountability requirements do not work under occupation conditions and attempts to satisfy them only play into the hands of the domestic political opposition in the U.S. while crippling our efforts in the zone of occupation.

Rigorously control private security forces, domestic or foreign. In lieu of a functioning state, we must have a monopoly on violence.

Many of the above precepts have been adopted by Gen. Petraeus and his staff, now in charge of the war effort. For that reason, I'm hopeful that success is not yet beyond our grasp.

In the article, Peters uses the word "occupation," but he doesn't apologize for it.

The first step in formulating usable doctrine is to sweep aside the politically correct myths that have appeared about occupations. Occupations are military activities. Period. An Army general must be in charge, at least until the security environment can be declared benign with full confidence. Historically, the occupations that worked often brilliantly, as in the Philippines, Germany and Japan were run by generals, not diplomats. This is another mission the Army doesn't want, but no other organization has the wherewithal to do it.
It's obvious that Colonel Peters has a distinct pro-military, anti-Foggy Bottom bias. I share that bias.
Consider the prevailing claim that an occupation is a team effort involving all relevant branches of government: The problem is that the rest of the team doesn't show up. The State Department, as ambitious for power as it is incompetent to wield it, insists that it should have the lead in any occupation, yet has neither the leadership and management expertise, the institutional resources nor the personnel required (among the many State-induced debacles in Iraq, look at its appetite for developing Iraqi police forces and its total failure to deliver).

The military is the default occupier, since its personnel can be ordered into hostile environments for unlimited periods; State and other agencies rely on volunteers and, in Iraq, the volunteers have not been forthcoming even when the tours for junior diplomats were limited to a useless 90 days and dire warnings were issued about the importance of Iraq duty to careers.

These two articles deserve wide readership. Print them out and read them on your lunch hour.

Posted by annika, Apr. 27, 2007 | TrackBack (0)
Rubric: annikapunditry


Sobering, but good articles and commentary.

Posted by: reagan80 on Apr. 27, 2007

On Yingling, Neptunus Lex has it right:


Ralph Peters is right as usual, but with the benefit of hindsight. Until Petreus, we had the COTS solution in the CentCom Unified Commander du jour. Read Lex's analysis.

Posted by: Casca on Apr. 27, 2007

Casca, he says at the end "Time and patience. Virtues in short supply, unfortunately." GMTA again!

Posted by: annika on Apr. 28, 2007

Not to diminish my respect for both of your intellectual abilities, that's a firm grasp of the obvious.

Posted by: Casca on Apr. 28, 2007

I read the first few paragraphs of the Ralph Peters article (need to follow up later) and caught a nuance that you didn't highlight. Peters starts off by talking about the real war - not the one between the U.S. and the terrorists, not the one between the Department of Defense and the other departments, but the one between the military services. Peters basically says that the ARMY needs to figure out what to do during the next occupation. Montezuma, Schmontezuma.

For me, the biggest lesson of the war is at a much more basic level. When comparing this war with the 1991 war, it's clear to see that the 1991 war had a clear objective (get Iraq out of Kuwait) from which we did not deviate.

Will the next President of the United States, whoever he or she may be, be able to enunciate what our Iraq policy is?

Posted by: Ontario Emperor on Apr. 29, 2007

Jeez, there's nothing new here folks, except the players. In WWI, the Brits had to fight off their homegrown peaceniks, including some exhausted soldiers like Siegfried Sassoon, who demanded that the government publish it's "War Aims". Evidently "victory" is an insufficient concept.

Six months ago Anbar was written off as lost. Today huge steps toward pacification have been made. To borrow from a great lady, now is not the time to "go wobbly".

Posted by: Casca on Apr. 29, 2007

Generals like Wes Clark and John Abizaid had the educational and cultural pedigrees Yingling recommends. Clark didn't exactly distinguish himself in the Balkans (almost expanding the conflict against the Russians). While I have great admiration for Gen Abizaid, he was ultimately responsible as the CENTCOM CDR for most of the "Phase IV" campaigns in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Yingling's right in that one of the "fall on your sword" perogatives of Service Chiefs is control over the selection of 1 star flag officers. Just like it took the debacle over Iran in 1980 to get momentum for the Goldwater-Nichols Act, the current campaigns are setting the foundation for a GNA sequel -- hopefully both dealing with senior military leader selection and larger interagency problems. Congress doesn't need to micromanage, but breaking the service cultures requires new approaches (joint promotion boards for example).

A better work on wartime promotion was done by a very bright Army LTC a few years ago --


Ralph Peters is right as usual, but with the benefit of hindsight -- you got it Casca... and I add "without much consideration for realistic implementation"

Posted by: Col Steve on May. 1, 2007

I find the idea of breaking the service cultures in a word, disconcerting. If you're talking about the sailors, I'm all for it. They haven't corporately fought a war since WWII, and they're a hodgepodge of at least a half-dozen intramurally waring cultures to begin with.

How about we create a promotion process that doesn't reward ass-kissing? How would one do that? I don't know how you divorce the process from the relationships that people have, even if those relationships elevate those averse to risk. There's that great scene in Lawrence of Arabia where Olivia says, "Young men make wars, and the virtues of war are the virtues of young men: courage, and hope for the future. Then old men make the peace, and the vices of peace are the vices of old men: mistrust and caution."

Posted by: Casca on May. 1, 2007

Olivia was a great actress. Loved her in all those Errol Flynn movies.

Posted by: annika on May. 2, 2007


Posted by: Casca on May. 2, 2007