July 13, 2006

Please Insert COIN

Eric and the Armchair Generalist have beat me to the punch on the Army's new counterinsurgency doctrine, but if I may risk a bit of redundancy, I'd like to finish off this draft on the subject that I've been kicking around for about the past week.

Cobra II

For starters, I recently (actually about two weeks back by this point) finished Cobra II, by New York Times reporter Michael Gordon and retired Gen. Bernard Trainor. Despite being over 600 pages, it moves along at a fast pace, giving a thorough accounting of the planning and execution of the military's campaign for Baghdad from vantage points both on high and close to the ground. (This NYT article from last March contains a number of the highlights; the authors also spoke about their work at the Council on Foreign Relations.) Some of the episodes therein have already been related at book-length detail by other embedded reporters — Rick Atkinson with the 101st, David Zucchino on the "Thunder Run" through Baghdad — but Cobra II does seem to cover the whole length and breadth of the invasion, from initial planning cycles to the regime's fall (Gordon and Trainor make use of the Iraqi Perspectives Project to add details of Saddam's egregiously misdirected war planning) and finally Bremer's arrival and disbanding of the Iraqi army (-- I'd like to see an equally dense overview of the Coalition Provisional Authority's actions in Iraq, but I guess we'll have to wait a while for all of it to come out).

The book is packed with operational details — if anything, the addition of a cast list to the several pages of maps at the front would've been a helpful aid for readers like me who sometimes have trouble keeping straight the many characters and units involved in a big military ensemble like this. Gordon, who was embedded with land war commander Gen. David McKiernan's command during the conflict, provides plenty of perspective from the halls of the Pentagon and CENTCOM's Tampa headquarters, although White House decisionmakers (save Rumsfeld) are generally absent from this DOD-centered narrative. Of course, that absence from the Iraq mission is probably in no small part due to Rumsfeld's insistence that he and he alone would be in command for the Iraq operation; his famous bureaucratic power player's skills for seizing control are amply on display in the book's early pages as he shuts out State and CIA, and wears down his generals (viewed as too conservative and risk-averse to accept the new logic of "transformation") into producing a plan that conforms to the SecDef's vision of modern war. As much as Rumsfeld might like to deflect responsibility, understanding as he did "that there was political value in being able to stand at the Pentagon podium and say that the Bush administration was implementing the military’s plan," his fingerprints are quite clearly present throughout the entire process, from discussions of initial force size to the raw logistics of deployment to the forces advancing on Baghdad ("Blue Force Tracker" and other revolution-in-military affairs network technology allowed the SecDef to closely track the war's execution, but with no corresponding icons for the fedayeen irregulars that would prove the main center of enemy resistance, it produced a distorted view of the conditions on the ground that reinforced Rumsfeld's view of his generals as overly conservative and cautious) through to the premature "off-ramping" of units not yet deployed as soon as Saddam's collapse appeared assured.

As for Gen. Tommy Franks, who Andrew Bacevich slammed in a review of the CENTCOM commander's autobiography American Soldier (which I'll confess to not having read), Gordon and Trainor's portrayal of him is if anything even less flattering than that of Rumsfeld. Franks might've been a fine artillery officer and no doubt has some real skills in directing fire, maneuver, and military logistics, but in Cobra II's pages the overall commander of Operation Iraqi Freedom displays a dismissive attitude towards the political future of post-invasion Iraq and a lack of responsiveness to his junior officers' ground situations. Having reached Baghdad and toppled the regime, he and his civilian superiors in Rumsfeld's office are already quite ready to congratulate themselves on a job well done, pack up US forces, and leave, expecting (and hinging their planning on) a "'Wizard of Oz moment' ... After the wicked dictator was deposed, throngs of cheering Iraqis would hail their liberators and go back to work under the tutelage of Garner's postwar organization and it teams of advisers attached to Iraqi ministries — in some cases, no more than a single individual." Well, things didn't quite work out that way.

Impediments to Innovation

After finishing Cobra II I next picked up John Nagl's Learning to Eat Soup With a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam. While Nagl does discuss the techniques of counterinsurgency employed in both those conflicts, the real focus of his study is the extent to which the British and American armies who fought in those two wars were learning institutions. In order to process individual-level innovation into organization-wide changes in behavior, successful learning institutions must promote suggestions from the field; encourage subordinates to question superiors and policies; question the basic assumptions of the organization at regular intervals; bring high-ranking officials into close contact with those on the ground; and developing standard operating procedures from local innovation rather than central dictate.
The questions aim at determining not just whether an army is interested in the collection of data — promoting suggestions from those engaged in combat — but, far more important, whether the institution is willing and able to apply the information to create change in procedures, organization, training, and thinking about conflict. ...

The most critical aspect of the learning process is not the innovator ... [t]he key to organizational learning is getting the decision-making authority to allow such innovation, monitor its effectiveness, and then transmit new doctrine with strict requirements that it be followed throughout the organization. (my emphasis)

Nagl's assessment is that, despite some bright spots (such as the Marines' Combined Action Platoons) the US Army was not an effective learning institution during either its early advisor phase or later combat phase in Vietnam. Its strong organizational culture — Nagl quotes Eliot Cohen describing its core as "[t]he preference for massing a large number of men and machines and the predilection for direct and violent assualt" — prevailed in the war's aftermath as well, as counterinsurgency lessons were shunned in favor of a reorientation towards the Fulda Gap and conventional AirLand Battle against the Soviets. Conventional warfare continued to define the Army's institutional identity post-Cold War as well, with the majority of the officer corps embracing the Powell Doctrine of overwhelming force, rather than a mixed political-military counterinsurgency doctrine of minimum force. Having failed to prepare as an organization for this kind of war, the results are not entirely surprising: "For Franks," Bacevich concluded in his review of American Soldier, "war is a matter of engineering—and generalship the business of organizing and coordinating materiel". By and large Gordon and Trainor's portrayal in Cobra II accords with this. Their narrative stops shortly after the fall of Baghdad, but in the book's epilogue they offer a retrospective on the errors of commission and omission that served to produce the deteriorating situation we face in Iraq today:
American troops themselves were quick to identify the nature of their [unconventional] enemy... [b]ut the American war plan was never adjusted on high. Tommy Franks never acknowledged the enemy he faced nor did he comprehend the nature of the war he was directing. He denigrated the Fedayeen as little more than a speed bump on the way ot Baghadad and never appreciated their resilience or determination. ... Once Baghdad was taken, Franks turned his attention elsewhere in the belief that victory was his, never realizing the irregulars he maligned constituted the real military center of gravity, on that had not surrendered.

More important, Rumsfeld failed to heed his own counsel on defense planning. From the day he returned to the Pentagon as George W. Bush's defense secretary, Rumsfeld unscored the need to be prepared for the unexpected. ... Success depended on agility: the ability to adjust the battle plan in the face of threats that could be neither predicted nor forseen. Yet Rumsfeld was so confident of the validity of the prewar plan that he questioned the need to deploy the 1st Cavalry before Baghdad fell. Just a week after Baghdad was seized, the White House, Defense Department, and CENTCOM were focused on withdrawing troops and replacing them with less capable foreign troops instead of deploying the assets that would be needed to hedge against new threats.

With these impediments to innovation at the highest levels of command, an analysis using Nagl's methodology would, I think, have to conclude that the US military's learning abilities during the Iraq invasion and early occupation period were, at best, mixed.

Lessons Learned?

Nagl's book does make clear that there is always a learning curve in counterinsurgency operations, even for militaries accustomed to small wars, like the British in Malaya were — every such conflict is different, and policy can't begin to adapt until errors are first recognized, which will take time even under optimum circumstances. Three years into Iraq, it does appear that the U.S. military establishment is beginning to seriously develop a counterinsurgency program. The biggest sign of this is the recent redrafting of the Army's 20-year old doctrine for counterinsurgency, willfully abandoned after Vietnam but now approaching completion under the guidance of Lt. General David Petraeus (whose conduct in this regard was highly praised during his time in Iraq) and Lt. Gen. James Mattis, who commanded the 1st Marine Division in the invasion. Although the work has yet to be published officially, the Federation of American Scientists' Secrecy News has a copy of the advance draft, and Fred Kaplan gave it a run-down in Slate this past weekend.

I haven't had time to read through the thing but expect to do so during my summer vacation here sitting around the Karatsu City Board of Education. It's not the only sign of an increased attention towards counterinsurgency, either, as there have been a number of articles in the past week or so on the military's efforts to apply lessons from Iraq to the development of counterinsurgency capabilities. There's a story from the Christian Science Monitor and a similar piece in the LA Times describing a two Marine training simulations, one at Quantico and another out in the California desert. David Axe relates the operations of the Center for Army Lessons Learned (CALL) at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas, whose staff has increased more than three times over (to 130) since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The FAS Secrecy News blog offered a handful of recent Marine Corps publications on counterinsurgency as well.

Assuming for the moment these reports accurately reflect a real shift in the organizational culture of the military (and more specifically the Army, as the Marine Corps has always been much more comfortable with this stuff, since its early organizational culture was greatly influenced by the "small wars" it was tasked to fight) and a new appreciation for the difficulties and importance of effective counterinsurgency, the question I suppose is whether this is all too late to make an effective difference in Iraq. Lt. General Peter W. Chiarelli, currently the number two American commander in Iraq and who overseer of the Haditha investigations, recognizing the importance of relations with the civilian population, is increasing scrutiny over damage and deaths inflicted by coalition forces. But the Post article again emphasizes the cost of these belated changes in the way the military conducts itself in Iraq:

Chiarelli long has been concerned that the U.S. military was inadequately prepared to conduct an effective counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq. He also included thoughts about how better to prepare troops and commanders, the official added.

"You've got to prepare for the fight you're in today," said a second defense official, summarizing Chiarelli's findings on the military's inadequate training for counterinsurgency operations. "It's totally different" than fighting in Iraq two or three years ago, he said.

The Army, for example, tends in its training to emphasize using heavy firepower against the enemy, although classic counterinsurgency doctrine teaches that soldiers should use the minimal amount of force necessary to accomplish the mission.

Also, the Army early in Iraq tended to focus on killing or capturing insurgents, although counterinsurgency doctrine teaches that the best way to deal with an insurgent is to persuade him to change sides or to desert. Also, in contrast to a spate of cases of the abuse of detainees, counterinsurgency theorists recommend treating captured fighters well, to encourage them to desert and to persuade others to give themselves up. Above all, people are seen as the prize in the war, not as its playing field.

It took the British over four years to turn around their conduct of the war in Malaya towards a successful counterinsurgency campaign. They are hardly parallel cases, but perhaps the appointment of more generals like Lt. Gen. Chiarelli and the development of new doctrines and training methods will have a positive effect on operations in Iraq. I think there is little doubt, though, that the cumulated errors of their predecessors have left them with quite a hole to dig back out of.

Don't Wanna Study Counterinsurgency No More

As Eric and Armchair Generalist both noted, Kaplan's review of the new counterinsurgency docs suggested that one of the main questions we should take away is whether the US can ever successfully wage counterinsurgency warfare, and therefore whether we should really even try. Matthew Yglesias picks up Kaplan's question, and concludes that no, we probably shouldn't. He might well be right that the "incompetence dodge" is a distraction from the overwhelming difficulty of these operations but like Robert Farley at Lawyers, Guns, and Money and my two fellow bloggers here at American Footprints I find it hard to totally buy into. Administration incompetence is on ready display in Cobra II (and appears to be the focus of Thomas Ricks' forthcoming Fiasco), and I think one of the book's clear messages was that the results of the Iraq invasion were not necessarily guaranteed from the start, that there were points very early in the operations and the post-war transition where choices were made. Even given the tremendous difficulty of successful counterinsurgency, I don't think that failure was inevitable from the start (whether things can truly be turned around at this late stage, when figures like Rumsfeld continue to exert sway over the process, I really can't pretend to know). And even were it inevitable based on the military we had assembled in the spring of 2003, I think that Iraq is no more likely to be the last insurgency the U.S. military will ever face than Vietnam was. To end then, I'll conclude by agreeing with the Armchair Generalist, quoting Farley:
"Whether we're just bad at counter-insurgency or the task is impossible doesn't matter all that much, because we shouldn't fight wars we're unlikely to win. But this strikes me as an unproductive and potentially disastrous way to argue against intervention. " That's the point here. Like it or not, counterinsurgency operations are going to be a facet of current and future wars, just as they have been in the past. It's vital that we master this kind of military warfare, if only to avoid the many mistakes ("thousands" according to SecState Rice...) that we've seen in Iraq over the past few years.


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