Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Third Iraq War and Military Transformation

A U. S. Army paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team fires his M4 carbine at insurgents during a firefight June 30, 2012, Ghazni province, Afghanistan. The vehicle he is using for cover is a Navistar MaxxPro mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicle, one of a number of different "MRAP" platforms from several different manufacturers.

Few are content, however, to attribute the shortcomings in planning to mere political calculation or mistakenly rosy assessments of Iraqi politics. Most see something deeper at work. The more common explanation is that the administration was led astray not by political expediency or ignorance but by misguided notions of military transformation and the RMA. Lewis, for example, claims that "the insurgency war was primarily a function of Rumsfeld's flawed vision of war." In Kagan's view, "transformation is not at all separate from the problems that U. S. has encountered . . . It is, on the contrary, one of the most basic causes of those problems." Max Boots asks, "Why did the Defense Department not invest in more linguists, more MPs, more civil affairs specialists, more soldiers in general, rather than more JDAMs and JSTARS?" "The answer," he argues, "is that senior leaders, such as Donald Rumsfeld, believed that the future of warfare lay in high-tech informational systems, not in lowly infantrymen." And John Mearsheimer sees an administration guided by a "faith in the so-called revolution in military affairs" that would allow the United States to "rely on stealth technology, airdelivered precision-guided weapons, and small but highly mobile ground forces . . . [to] swoop down out of the sky, finish off a regime, pull back and reload the shotgun for the next target." "A large-scale occupation of Iraq" was anathema because it "would undermine the Bush administration's plan to rely on the RMA to win quick and decisive victories."

The basic argument here is that transformation, and the underlying vision of the RMA that drove it, left the American military unprepared for the challenges it faced after the fall of Saddam. Fixated on technology, it was unable to conceive of wars and missions that were not primarily about guiding munitions to targets with incredible precision from great distances, and the military was ill-equipped and poorly trained for anything other than high-intensity inter-state warfare. According to Kagan, the United States' difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan were rooted in a conception of military transformation that "defines the basic problem of war as identifying and destroying the correct targets to force the enemy to capitulate." 

Unfortunately, this "misses the point of war entirely . . . War is not about killing people and blowing things up. It is purposeful violence to achieve a political goal . . . The focus on controlled destruction helped blind military and political leaders to a serious focus on the political objective of the war." As a result, the moment the military mission in Iraq shifted to something that was not fundamentally about targeting and destruction, the problems began. The American military was unable and/or unwilling to engage in postwar stabilization or implement an effective counterinsurgency strategy because it was in the grips of a technological spell that reduced war to nothing but controlled destruction. The perfected reconnaissance-strike complex that decimated the Iraqi military proved decidedly less useful for stopping looters, preventing foreign fighters from crossing the border, or making the people of Iraq feel safe and secure from insurgents, terrorists and religious zealots. And it was completely useless for rebuilding Iraq's political and economic infrastructure. 

Kagan identifies the war plan's crucial shortcoming correctly - the failure to relate military plans to political objectives. He traces this failure to a transformational agenda derived from NCW and other variants of the RMA that were based on a narrow conceptualization of war as a targeting drill, thus blinding American leaders to the essentially political nature of warfare. The problem with this explanation is that the inclination to divorce military and political issues seems to be a long-standing, if regrettable, feature of American military history. In his study of American counterinsurgency policy in Vietnam, for example, Shafer notes that "the armed forces, long-resistant to involvement in politics, believe in drawing a clear boundary between military and political affairs. As an explicitly politico-military doctrine, counterinsurgency violated this distinction." John Nagl sees this as deeply ingrained in the American military culture. Again with reference to Vietnam, he explains that "the focus on large wars, fought with the American advantages of high technology and firepower, but without an appreciation for the political context in which they were fought, would not work in the favor of the United States Army when it faced a revolutionary insurgency." And Jeffrey Record refers to "the American tendency to separate war and politics - to view military victory as an end in itself, ignoring war's function as an instrument of policy." 

Interestingly, Kagan recognizes that this trend "was already present in the military even before transformation." But if this is so, in what sense can transformation be singled out as "one of the most basic causes" of the failures in Iraq? The answer for Kagan is that while the tendency to separate war and politics may have been present, "transformation made it dominant." This is the critical move in Kagan's argument that allows him to focus on transformation as the source of American woes in Iraq. There is, however, no reason to believe that the tendency to pursue military actions unconnected to political objectives was any more dominant in 2003 than in 1965 or 1939. A more persuasive argument is that prevailing concepts of transformation and the RMA reflected and reinforced this preexisting tendency. 

The military's reluctance to conduct stability operations and fight counterinsurgencies, after all, was evident long before anyone heard of the RMA, net-centric warfare or military transformation. "The U. S. military," Ucko explains, "has typically paid little attention to the nature and requirements of counterinsurgency and stability operations." It has always focused on decisive military campaigns emphasizing maneuver and firepower in high-intensity wars against other states. "Lesser" tasks and missions have consistently been a low priority. So rather than seeing the major failures in Iraq as the result of a narrow and apolitical view of warfare inherent in relatively recent notions of an RMA, NCW or transformation, it makes more sense to focus on a long-standing and very restrictive vision of the military's role and missions. Such a vision was reflected in Bush's 2000 presidential campaign. Asked in his foreign policy debate with Al Gore whether he supported the intervention in Somalia, Bush noted that what "started off as a humanitarian mission . . . changed into a nation-building mission, and that's where the mission went wrong. The mission was changed. And as a result, our nation paid a price." Bush then used Somalia as an opportunity to express his general approach to the use of military power: "I don't think our troops ought to be used for what's called nation-building. I think our troops ought to be used to fight and win wars. . . . Our military's meant to fight and win war. That's what it's meant to do." According to Brooks, Bush's stance resonated with prevailing sentiment within the military: "The Bush administration's pledges to `stop nation-building,' in particular, were well received by many in the uniformed services who questioned Clinton's interventions in Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo and Haiti in the 1990s."

One need only look to the parallels between American counterinsurgency efforts in Iraq and Vietnam to see an enduring historical pattern, not a recent phenomenon. Krepinevich explains that "the Army's attitude on Vietnam was one of general disinterest in applying counterinsurgency principles, particularly when they conflicted with more traditional military operations . . . priority was given to the destruction of guerrilla forces through large scale operations." Fast-forward a few decades, and one sees the same lack of interest. Ricks observes that "McMaster's successful campaign in Tall Afar in late 2005 . . . seemed to be largely ignored by top commanders, or dismissed as irrelevant. Despite the attention given to Tall Afar by the media, there seemed to be no concerted effort in the Army to discern if the success there might be replicated elsewhere." A change in strategy was eventually brought about by retired officers and civilian analysts lobbying the administration directly in Washington. As in Vietnam, "the DoD leadership largely opposed applying counterinsurgency methods in Iraq in the first place. This change was driven by the White House and imposed upon the Pentagon . . . The commanders of both CENTCOM and of MNF-I opposed this change in strategy, pushing instead for a reduction in the presence and visibility of U. S. troops." The transformational agenda may have done nothing to challenge or lessen this resistance to counterinsurgency operations, but it can hardly be blamed for creating it.

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