US military strategy must transform or face failure

Involved in protracted conflicts and so-called 'stability operations' in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon has called for a new US approach to take greater account of the shortcomings in its prior strategy. More specifically, the Pentagon urges:

  • a heightened and deeper understanding of the need to wage counter-insurgency operations and conduct stability or peace building (or post-conflict situations as they are variously called);
  • greater inter-agency co-ordination in planning such operations; and
  • the acquisition of new intelligence and combat capabilities to deal with these contingencies.
  • The call by US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the Pentagon for a new approach is tantamount to an admission that they have failed to provide an adequate post-conflict political dimension in Iraq. As a result, Iraq stands on the verge of civil war as an insurgency against US forces shows every sign of becoming uncontrollable.

    Articles in US professional military journals feature admonitions to their readers - the professional officer corps and its civilian leaders - that US forces must quickly develop a deeper and subtler cultural understanding of the environments within which they operate. This advocacy of a new and enhanced cultural requirement for commanders and troops reflects several factors that have shown how inadequate the US approach to Afghanistan and Iraq was.

    Previous US strategy had divorced operations from strategic objectives. It shunned ‘nation-building’, a term redolent of US support for South Vietnam but one that reflects the need to build stability into hitherto war-torn states. In the case of Afghanistan and Iraq, US commanders expected to be able to shift responsibility for that supposedly non-military task - either to within the US government or to the international community - and then reduce their forces until they could depart.

    The notion that war and its political outcome could be separated by a bureaucratic decree would have seemed ridiculous and incomprehensible to the Prussian military theorist von Clausewitz. Certainly it belies the notion, as advanced by the UK military theorist Liddell Hart, that the objective of war is a better peace; that is to say, a positively transformed political situation that allows for a stable, enduring and legitimate post-war order.

    A further shortcoming of US strategy is the overwhelming - and by now universally conceded - fact that the US intelligence system is gravely deficient, not only as regards Muslim-majority countries but also in assessing threats to US interests in ways that provide an accurate and unbiased picture of strategic realities. While intelligence failures are not confined to the US or the UK, which also experienced an intelligence failure in Iraq, they are no less dangerous because of their potential for occurring in other countries. Such failures are dangerous for many reasons, most obviously because flawed policies may result from inaccurate threat assessments. It is also universally acknowledged that sound intelligence, be it tactical, operational or strategic, is an essential prerequisite for victory over the insurgents that the US is fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.

    Whereas the US was able to make a successful mid-course correction of its Afghan policies in 2002-03, by enlisting tangible support from NATO and Pakistan and implementing new tactics and policies, in Iraq such support has not been forthcoming. Due to the political acrimony between the US and most of its allies before the 2003 Iraq war, the US is fighting largely on its own in that country. More worrying still, to judge from numerous accounts from Iraq, it is all too often in the dark about its enemies.

    More effective, intelligence-driven warfighting

    Given the domestic clamour for intelligence reform in the US, it is hardly surprising that the Pentagon, led by that veteran bureaucratic player Rumsfeld, would use this crisis not only to enhance the military’s capabilities but also to shield its own intelligence capabilities from other potentially encroaching institutions.

    It is hardly surprising, therefore, to learn that the Pentagon’s new directives call upon the US Army, which is the service of choice and necessity for these stability or post-conflict operations, to transform itself further. In a similar vein, Rumsfeld has directed the other services and the US Department of Defense to develop and acquire wider intelligence and warfighting capabilities in the name of fighting terrorism and preparing for stability operations such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan. The need for change is made all the more pressing because senior defence officials are aware that the army is approaching the limits of its existing manpower capabilities. The US has kept around 130,000 troops in Iraq for more than 18 months and there is no end in sight to their service.

    In any future contingency it is almost certain that the US Army (and the US Marine Corps to a lesser degree) will have to adopt not only an enhanced cultural sensitivity to their theatre but also gain new political and organisational-administrative capacities to enable a transition to a stable long-term and legitimate political order. Such missions are necessarily protracted and would tie down large numbers of soldiers. If the warfighters are cognitively unprepared for such missions, there is no chance that these wars would end sooner rather than later - and a high probability that they will spread or worsen.

    Such outcomes would place insupportable material, manpower, political and strategic burdens upon a US military that has deliberately sought to substitute technology and firepower for manpower in the belief that its civilian population would not tolerate high casualties or prolonged warfare. This is the main reason behind the Pentagon’s newly found awareness that it must invest heavily in the technological, intellectual and physical training of its soldiers for a version of what the British Army used to call ‘imperial policing’.

    Modern war cannot be successfully prosecuted without understanding that the aftermath of major operations requires the victorious forces to remain as state-builders (a more appropriate term than nation-builders). Indeed, a willingness to transform operational and tactical success into lasting strategic victory teaches us that ‘shock and awe’ count for little in the long term; such effects will dissipate and the war will degenerate into a protracted insurgency where the psychological burden is increasingly transferred to the occupier.

    Although the Bush administration interprets its re-election as a seal of approval for its current policies in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is clear that the transformation of US strategy has arisen from the recognition that the previous strategy has failed to deliver and has landed the US forces in a potential quagmire. As any chess player knows, once one is ‘out of the books’ and cannot rely upon prepared variations or a quasi-mechanical transposition from other remembered games, it is a much harder and disorienting task to find one’s way and achieve the upper hand.

    The Bush administration remains determined to gain the upper hand in its global war on terrorism. Meanwhile, in Iraq, although probably less so in Afghanistan, the US and its forces are now very much ‘out of the books’. This does not mean that their situation in Iraq is irretrievably lost; however, it does signify that the environment in which they are operating has been transformed beyond their previous ability to change it. Therefore they must make a corresponding transformation of potentially epochal significance.

    Only the promulgation of new policies, such as those now advocated by Rumsfeld and the congressionally mandated Quadrennial Defense Review of 2005, will determine the degree to which this transformation in strategy and capabilities will be effected. However, there can be no doubt of the urgent necessity for making this transformation now - before it is too late.

    Professor Stephen Blank is Research Professor of National Security Affairs with the Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College. The views expressed in this article do not in any way represent those of the US Army, US Department of Defense or the US government

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