How not to win the Long War

Hat tip to the Duck of Minerva for highlighting the David Brooks op-ed reminding readers of two important articles on how to fight modern conflict. Both are by George Packer of The New Yorker. The first, The Lesson of Tal Afar, contains some lessons from one of America’s current premier counter-insurgency minds, Col. H. R. McMaster (who also wrote the outstanding book Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam). The second article, Knowing the Enemy, is “about freethinkers in the Pentagon and elsewhere who were studying how Hezbollah and the Iraqi insurgents create narratives that demoralize their enemies, energize believers and create a sense of historical momentum.” (See my post on the election of Hamas for related comments.)

The rest of the Duck’s post is interesting and I suggest you read it however I can’t help but pick some nits with his logic. First, the Duck makes the too common mistake of ignoring the distinction between the civilian and military leadership. Second, he overlooks the building blocks of the present reality. Admittedly this isn’t a fatal problem since he ends the piece with the right note, but when looking at root causes and grand strategy we need to understand the dynamics. A couple of points:

  • Rajiv Chandrasekaran does a masterful job in just the beginning of his book, Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone, going through how the civilian masters of the military set the stage for the insurgency.
  • Knowing the enemy is a critical factor that many in the Pentagon get (for more on this see my post Of Information Operations, DIME, and America’s Ambassadors or shorter version based on the “Afghan Road Rage Memo” here), but not enough. John Nagl, in Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam, argues the major cause of the the US military’s inability to adapt to COIN today is the fact it isn’t a learning organization. This is clear by the products and recommendations coming out of the many war colleges and centers of excellence of the military this is true that understand the value of SWET (sewage, water, electricity, and trash). See John Nagl’s presentation at JHU/APL Rethinking War Series earlier this year.
    • In my Of Info Ops linked above is a collection of other essays the Duck may be interested in about working with and understanding the “mysterious animal” that is another society and culture. Robert Scales (Culture-Centric Warfare, Clausewitz and World War IV), George W. Smith (Avoiding a Napoleonic Ulcer: Bridging the Gap of Cultural Intelligence), Montgomery McFate (Anthropology and Counterinsurgency, Military Utility of Understanding Adversary Culture), Robert Pape (Dying to Win), Marc Sageman (Understanding Terrorist Networks), and others have essentially written about using soft power to “get” what Newt Gingrich observed: “The real key is not how many enemy do I kill. The real key is how many allies do I grow.”
  • The first bullet above is about the civilian leadership and how it short-circuited Phase IV, or stability and reconstruction operations (S&R) in Iraq before they even got off the ground. Once “Mission Accomplished” was declared and the President basked in his halo by the perfectly timed camera shot with the intentionally staged background on the carrier barely out of the dock, the story of Thomas Ricks’ Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq will show fatal flaws that are beyond the scope of Nagl. For example, Ricks gets into the raids by the military on homes and their impact on the creating and fueling the insurgency. He also gets inside one of the major turning points in the war: the Battles for Fallujah. In this example, you have the intentional obfuscation of security failures and window dressing that brought private security contracting to an endemic level in Iraq coupled with a civilian leadership in DC that a) rejected local military commanders suggesting a low-key response (Washington wanted big retribution) and b) a delay in responding because DoS was moving in and didn’t want this action to happen at the same time.
  • The Duck is right to not buy into the “more troops means victory” slogan because numbers do not equal effect.

At the heart of it, as the Duck correctly points out, is the need for public diplomacy. The Duck also appropriately questions where is Karen Hughes in all of this. As a student of public diplomacy myself, I’ll tell you she clearly doesn’t get it and she does very little to help us in this Long War that is, as Marc Lynch, among others, ably points out, is about ideas. The military are our best public diplomats today.

When a Muslim was elected to Congress, some thought this would be promoted through the Embassies. Apparently it wasn’t.

The Bush Administration doesn’t get it. SoS Rice doesn’t get it. Now former SecDef Rumsfeld didn’t get it. While many in the military don’t get it, there are many that do. Let’s just remember to separate the military from the civilian leadership and not allow the buck to stop before it hits the right desk.  

That said, I think the Duck gets to the right end point. End of nit pick…

Also see Draconian Observation’s post last week on S&R