By H. R. McMASTER JULY 20, 2013 - The Pipe Dream of Easy War
FORT BENNING, Ga. — “A GREAT deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep,” the novelist Saul Bellow once wrote. We should keep that in mind when we consider the lessons from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — lessons of supreme importance as we plan the military of the future.
Our record of learning from previous experience is poor; one reason is that we apply history simplistically, or ignore it altogether, as a result of wishful thinking that makes the future appear easier and fundamentally different from the past.
We engaged in such thinking in the years before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001; many accepted the conceit that lightning victories could be achieved by small numbers of technologically sophisticated American forces capable of launching precision strikes against enemy targets from safe distances.
These defense theories, associated with the belief that new technology had ushered in a whole new era of war, were then applied to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; in both, they clouded our understanding of the conflicts and delayed the development of effective strategies.
Today, budget pressures and the desire to avoid new conflicts have resurrected arguments that emerging technologies — or geopolitical shifts — have ushered in a new era of warfare. Some defense theorists dismiss the difficulties we ran into in Afghanistan and Iraq as aberrations. But they were not aberrations. The best way to guard against a new version of wishful thinking is to understand three age-old truths about war and how our experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq validated their importance.
First, war is political. As the 19th-century Prussian philosopher of war Carl von Clausewitz said, “war should never be thought of as something autonomous, but always as an instrument of policy.”
In the years leading up to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, thinking about defense was driven by ideas that regarded successful military operations as ends in themselves, rather than just one instrument of power that must be coordinated with others to achieve, and sustain, political goals. Believers in the theory known as the “Revolution in Military Affairs” misinterpreted the American-led coalition’s lopsided victory in the 1991 gulf war and predicted that further advances in military technology would deliver dominance over any opponent. Potential adversaries, they suggested, would not dare to threaten vital American interests.
The theory was hubristic. Yet it became orthodoxy and complicated our efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, where underdeveloped war plans encountered unanticipated political problems. In Afghanistan, proxy forces helped topple the Taliban, but many of those militias and leaders then undermined efforts to rebuild an Afghan nation as they pursued narrow personal or political agendas. In Iraq, from 2003 to 2007, coalition strategy failed to address adequately the political grievances of minority populations, most notably Sunni Arabs and Turkmen.
In both wars, insurgent and terrorist groups capitalized on these grievances, recruiting new members and gaining support from a portion of the population. Over time, ethnic, tribal and sectarian polarization drove new violence, weakened both states, strengthened insurgents and magnified civilian suffering. The lesson: Be skeptical of concepts that divorce war from its political nature, particularly those that promise fast, cheap victory through technology.
Second, war is human. People fight today for the same fundamental reasons the Greek historian Thucydides identified nearly 2,500 years ago: fear, honor and interest. But in the years preceding our last two wars, thinking about defense undervalued the human as well as the political aspects of war. Although combat operations unseated the Taliban and the Saddam Hussein regime, a poor understanding of the recent histories of the Afghan and Iraqi peoples undermined efforts to consolidate early battlefield gains into lasting security.
Over time, American forces learned that an appreciation of the fears, interests and sense of honor among Afghanistan’s and Iraq’s citizens was critical to breaking cycles of violence and helping to move their communities toward making political accommodations that isolated extremists. Reinforced security efforts, in Iraq after 2007 and Afghanistan after 2010, tried to allay fears of minorities, preserve each group’s sense of honor and convince communities that they could best protect and advance their interests through politics rather than through violence.
The hard-learned lesson: Defense concepts must consider social, economic and historical factors that constitute the human dimension of war. - Read More