The Lessons of Iraq

I agree with Greg Scoblete’s comments at RCW Blog regarding Col. H.R. McMaster’s World Affairs article on the lessons of Vietnam and Iraq. McMAsters is known as the “brain behind Petraeus” (which is kind of like saying the “muscle behind Tyson” circa 1985), and he argues that in both wars, Pentagon planners intoxicated by technological advances misjudged the nature of the war they were entering. Here’s Scoblete:

If we collectively decide that the problem with the Iraq war was thatDonald Rumsfeld and company were insufficiently mindful of populationsecurity and overly optimistic about high-tech warfare, then we haven’tactually learned anything. . . .

. . .If the war was a strategic mistake, as people such as Brent Scowcroft argued atthe time, then the flaws that it exposed in our defense establishmentare actually not flaws of force structure or doctrine, etc. but flawsin the strategic decision making of our civilian policy makers. Thelesson we should learn from Iraq is not that we need to do a better job”next time” but that there should be no next time.

To be fair to McMasters, although he is a vocal advocate of developing counterinsurgency capacity and participated in preparing the Army’s COIN doctrine field manual, I’m not sure he’s arguing in this particular article that the only problem with the Iraq War was that we didn’t deploy the right army to it. In other words, I think both McMasters and Scoblete can be right here.

McMasters, because we do need to develop the army’s COIN capacity, a process that is already under way. Scoblete, because we also need to resist the temptation to believe that the problems of warfare can be “solved” neatly in a Pentagon planning room. The path to the solutions will almost always be messy, and revealed through blood spilled on the battlefield, which makes raising the decision-making barriers to intervention such a necessity.

McMasters faults the strategic planning for the Iraq War for having failed to foresee the aftermath of the initial invasion. (In fact, the aftermath was predicted by civilian agency planners, but ignored by the Pentagon.) But the high-tech invasion, it’s important to remember, worked almost to perfection. Had it been followed with an adequate constabulary force to address the long, hard slog of counterinsurgency, we might now be talking about a brilliant intervention that, as Scoblete correctly points out, was strategically unjustified.

But we might also now be talking about some other costly aftermath, unforeseen due to a different failure in planning. Because the truth is that we can never know with any degree of certainty the kind of war we’re entering.

As for Scoblete’s argument that America’s responsibility for stabilizing Iraq — and hence its need for a COIN capacity — results from the unilateral and selective nature of the war, I’m not so sure. I think that’s just a consequence of the evolving global consensus towards a generalized “You broke it, you fix it” approach to war, especially in the case of a war that results in the invading force occupying the defeated country. So a constabulary capacity, while it shoudn’t be the exclusive function of the U.S. Army, should play an important role in strategic planning, because it will be a major component of all military interventions in the future.

One last point about COIN, which hasn’t gotten a lot of attention in this debate, for various reasons. It’s very likely that future American military interventions will be conducted under the auspices of a multilateral coalition. And one of the most stubborn problems of multilateral coalitions is interoperability. But while most of the focus on interoperability goes to technological compatability, many of the problems encountered begin with doctrinal compatibility, as can be seen in Afghanistan. And the lessons that the U.S. Army has drawn from the Iraq War have put it more squarely in the doctrinal mainstream of its most likely European partners.

So if the likely wars of the future are indeed the stability and reconstruction operations that most Western strategic thinkers predict, and if the necessity of those interventions is credibly demonstrated to the level needed to generate a multilateral force (two very big “ifs”), the likelihood for success are only increased by enhanced American COIN capacity.

Until, of course, our adversaires reveal the tactical or strategic element we failed to plan for.

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