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HOME • Lessons Encountered • Introduction
By Richard D. Hooker, Jr., and Joseph J. Collins
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
—T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”
Not learning from wars can be catastrophic. The next cohort of national security leaders may not achieve the sublime mental state envisioned by T.S. Eliot, but they must make every effort to learn the lessons of the Long War. For that reason, in his second term’s Strategic Direction to the Joint Force, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin E. Dempsey charged senior officers “to apply wartime lessons learned to provide best military advice and inform U.S. policy objectives and strategic guidance.”1 Major General Gregg F. Martin, USA, then–President of National Defense University (NDU), wrote:
In addition to continuing to analyze and teach the lessons of past conflicts, [NDU] must research, disseminate, and teach the strategic and operational lessons of over 10 years of war. These efforts will play an important role in both improving the quality of strategic leadership and performance of our graduates and contributing to new national and military security strategies and innovative operational concepts to meet emerging needs.2
This volume represents an early attempt at assessing the Long War, now in its 14th year. Forged in the fires of the 9/11 attacks, the war includes campaigns against al Qaeda, major conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and operations in the Horn of Africa, the Republic of the Philippines, and globally, in the air and on the sea. The authors herein treat only the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq, the largest U.S. efforts. It is intended for future senior officers, their advisors, and other national security decisionmakers. By derivation, it is also a book for students in joint professional military education courses, which will qualify them to work in the field of strategy. While the book tends to focus on strategic decisions and developments of land wars among the people, it acknowledges that the status of the United States as a great power and the strength of its ground forces depend in large measure on the dominance of the U.S. Navy and U.S. Air Force in their respective domains.
This assessment proceeds from two guiding sets of questions about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The core set of questions was suggested by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs: What did we gain? What did we lose? What costs did the United States pay for its response to 9/11, particularly from operations in Afghanistan and Iraq? How should the answers to these questions inform senior military leaders’ contributions to future national security and national military strategy? The second set of questions proceeds from the first: what are the strategic “lessons learned” (or “lessons encountered,” as the British and the authors of this work prefer) of our experience in Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) in Afghanistan, and Operations Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and New Dawn in Iraq.
This inquiry is constrained by a number of factors. First, the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq continue. Our combat forces withdrew from Iraq in 2011 and that campaign was formally brought to a close, but it was reopened because of the advances by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) since 2014. Thus, this book reviews two incomplete stories. Second, focusing on the primary operations in Iraq and Afghanistan leaves the lessons of secondary, but still important, operations for another day. For example, the advisory and assistance experience in the Republic of the Philippines may well provide important lessons for the future. Indeed, future U.S. operations in this war are much more likely to resemble what our trainers and advisors did in the Philippines than what their comrades did in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Third, in asking the questions posed above, the book may pay inadequate attention to the nearly 50 nations that have been involved with the United States as coalition partners in various theaters. Warfare today is coalition warfare. While this book focuses on the United States, nothing here should be seen as devaluing the contributions of host nations or coalition partners. Finally, our primary audience is future senior military officers who will work at the strategic level in peace and war: the Chairman, Service chiefs, combatant commanders, their senior staff officers, and all those—military and civilian—who interact with interagency partners, the National Security Council, and the President. Given its focus and audience, this study does not include an examination of the tactical and operational levels of these conflicts.3
This inquiry must also contend with the difficulties of learning from history, an arduous task under any circumstances. Great effort is no guarantee of learning the right lessons. There are numerous cases of great powers making significant efforts to learn—only to fail. The French had one of the greatest armies of the 19th and 20th centuries but twice learned the wrong lessons from wars against Germany, including a world war in which they were part of the victorious alliance. The causes of faulty learning are varied but include lack of imagination, poor information, misperception, stress, organizational preferences, bureaucratic politics, and inflexible military doctrine.4 Ideology and personal experience may enlighten or blind the observer to lessons.5 As noted by military historian Jay Luvaas:
We should understand the reasons why military men in the past have failed sometimes to heed the correct lessons. Often it has been the result of an inability to understand local conditions or to accept another army or society on its own terms. Sometimes the guidance to observers has been so specific that the major lessons of the war went unheeded simply because observers had not been instructed to look in different directions. . . . Sometimes, doctrine has narrowed the vision or directed the search, as in the case of the French army after World War I. Often, there has been a failure to appreciate that once removed from its context, a specific lesson loses much of its usefulness.6
Henry Kissinger has reminded us that “the study of history offers no manual of instruction that can be applied automatically; history teaches by analogy, shedding light on the likely consequences of comparable situations. But each generation must determine for itself which circumstances are in fact comparable.”7 Strategic lessons from comparable cases can appear to present the student with conflicting advice. Adam Gopnick, comparing the onset of the two world wars, wrote:
The last century, through its great cataclysms, offers two clear, ringing, and, unfortunately, contradictory lessons. The First World War teaches that territorial compromise is better than full-scale war, that an “honor-bound” allegiance of the great powers to small nations is a recipe for mass killing, and that it is crazy to let the blind mechanism of armies and alliances trump common sense. The Second teaches that searching for an accommodation with tyranny by selling out small nations only encourages the tyrant, that refusing to fight now leads to a worse fight later on, and that only the steadfast rejection of compromise can prevent the natural tendency to rush to a bad peace with worse men. The First teaches us never to rush into a fight, the Second never to back down from a bully.8
At the strategic level, there are no cookie-cutter lessons that can be pressed onto every batch of future situational dough. A lesson from one era or locale may not fit another. The only safe posture is to know many historical cases and to be constantly reexamining the strategic context, questioning assumptions, and testing the appropriateness of analogies. The lessons of OIF and OEF will join those of other wars, competing for the attention of future decisionmakers and, no doubt, at times confounding them. The difficulty of learning lessons from history, however, should not stop us from trying to learn. Indeed, the rewards of successful learning—think Franklin D. Roosevelt in the run-up to World War II or John F. Kennedy in the Cuban missile crisis—cannot be overestimated. A final caveat: one’s enemies can learn faster and better. The defeated will often learn better than the victors.
For national security professionals, technical and tactical lessons are relatively easy to digest, but operational and strategic lessons are much more difficult, though not impossible, to capture. Lessons for military or national security strategy are the most important lessons of all, and the ones that military observers often ignore. In the Armed Forces, one often hears, even from senior officers, that certain strategic subjects are “above my pay grade.” That is sometimes true, but at the highest levels of command, the larger strategic lessons must be the focal point of study and education. Carl von Clausewitz reminded his readers that policy, politics, statecraft, and military affairs come together at the highest levels:
To bring a war or one of its campaigns to a successful close requires a thorough grasp of national policy. On that level, strategy and policy coalesce: [the general who] is commander in chief, is simultaneously a statesman . . . but he must not cease to be a general. On the one hand, he is aware of the entire political situation; on the other, he knows exactly how much he can achieve with the means at his disposal.9
President Kennedy covered similar themes in his 1961 instructions to the Joint Chiefs. Disappointed by senior officers who looked narrowly at issues during the Bay of Pigs crisis, he wrote, “While I look to the Chiefs to present the military factor without reserve or hesitation, I regard them to be more than military men and expect their help in fitting military requirements into the over-all context of any situation, recognizing that the most difficult problem in Government is to combine all assets in a unified, effective pattern.”10
Finally, for senior officers and their civilian masters, learning from history is complicated by the nature of organizational life. It is one thing for an individual to experience a phenomenon, learn from it, and apply lessons to a subsequent experience. When generals and admirals talk about learning, however, they are talking about distilling experience, drawing complex conclusions, debating them, resolving differences, packaging lessons, and then inculcating them into the force through doctrine, training, exercises, and joint professional military education.11 The Armed Forces can forget lessons that are not institutionalized, that lose bureaucratic sponsorship, or that are misapplied in the future. The retention, nurturing, and propagation of relevant lessons are difficult at the tactical and operational levels but even more so at the context-sensitive strategic level.
In a similar vein, the failure to inculcate lessons can cause the apparent repetition of national security disasters, commonly referred to as history repeating itself. For example, the decisionmaking pathologies associated with Athens’ Sicilian expedition in the Peloponnesian Wars, the introduction of U.S. combat troops into Vietnam in 1965, and the invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003 all demonstrate the difficulties of learning, institutionalizing, and consistently applying even well-known or obvious strategic lessons. Sadly, faulty learning and poor decisionmaking echo throughout the ages, but so do the cases of accurate learning, adaptation, and innovation.
Encountering lessons is relatively easy; understanding and institutionalizing them over time is more difficult, especially in the realm of national strategy. The ultimate value of this volume should be determined by the future senior officers and national security decisionmakers who refine and internalize its strategic lessons. Those leaders must then ensure that the lessons are passed down to succeeding generations and applied under appropriate circumstances. If this book assists future military and civilian decisionmakers, it will have achieved its goal.
This book is an edited volume but not a collage of independent efforts. The authors worked together for 10 months and twice met in conference along with expert commentators. At the same time, the authors do not necessarily agree on all the key assessments.
The book is divided in this manner: chapter one focuses on the early, pre-Surge years in both campaigns. Chapter two continues the chronological thread but focuses on assessment and adaptation in the Surges in Iraq and Afghanistan. Chapter three examines decisionmaking at the national level and implementation. Chapter four discusses security force assistance, the coalition’s development of indigenous armies, and police forces. Chapter five analyzes the complex set of legal issues attendant to irregular conflict, including detention and interrogation policy. Chapter six develops the capstone conclusions of the study and isolates the most important lessons. Supporting these chapters are three annexes: one on the human and financial costs of war, and, for reference, two others on the key events in both campaigns.
To orient the reader, the lessons encountered in these chapters are divided into a few functional areas: national-level decisionmaking, unity of effort/unity of command, intelligence and understanding the operational environment, character of contemporary conflict, and security force assistance. Clearly, each observer of the Long War would characterize his lessons in a different manner, but the following observations are what the contributors of this volume thought to be most important.12
Strategic lessons begin with decisionmaking, which here entails efforts at shaping goals, developing strategies, crafting plans at the national and departmental levels, and developing ways to carry out those plans. Every chapter in this book raises observations and lessons on these complex processes. Here are the lessons encountered in this study:
Unity of Effort/Unity of Command
The best strategic decisions exemplify unity of command on the military side and unity of effort in all areas. The campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq suffered from significant problems in this regard, both in the military and in the interagency aspects of the operations.
Intelligence and Understanding the Operational Environment
Intelligence in war is always problematic. Not only are understanding, analysis, and prediction difficult, but the thinking enemy also attempts to deceive us at every twist and turn. In these two campaigns, the difficult mission of intelligence agencies has been compounded by the need for additional intelligence on the indigenous population.
Character of Contemporary Conflict
The analysis of these two campaigns reinforced a number of lessons about the nature of war and the character of contemporary conflict. Again, few of these lessons are new.
Security Force Assistance
Security force assistance—especially the building of indigenous police and military forces—is a key strategic activity, which in Iraq and Afghanistan was the centerpiece of the coalition exit strategy. It was also an area where successes followed a painful process of trial and error, and coalition approaches were often mismatched with the local population and circumstances.
In conclusion, this book is an assessment of two unfinished campaigns, written for future senior officers, their key advisors, and other national security professionals. The lessons identified here emerged from a study rich in strategic context and immediate circumstances. Any application of these lessons must be done with an understanding of situational context, particular circumstances, and mission at hand. The lessons identified here will be theirs to debate, accept or reject, refine, and institutionalize. They will have to mix them generously with the lessons of other wars and apply them appropriately, guided by their mission and the situation at hand. Learning strategic lessons will be difficult but not impossible. In the future, the national interest and the lives of our men and women in uniform will be hostage to how well we have learned and institutionalized these strategic lessons.
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