Small Wars Journal

War Fighting Factors in Iraq and Afghanistan

Sat, 03/21/2009 - 5:50pm
An Address at the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation Museum on 5 March 2009

General Christmas, General Gardner, Fellow Marines. It is an honor to be asked to speak about war-fighting in this magnificent museum. General Christmas, a legend for his fight at Hue City, has accomplished the impossible as president of the Heritage Foundation. This museum soars skyward in testimony to generations of fighting Marines. General Gardner, former Vietnam recon leader par excellence and now President of the Marine Corps University, has built a curriculum that focuses upon war fighting, not upon academic theories. The epitaphs on the walls around us bear witness that every Marine is a rifleman.

Permit me to make six points. Then we'll spend the rest of the evening in Q & A. My first point is that the mistakes -- and corrections -- in Iraq were jointly made by military and civilian officials. To scapegoat the prior administration and excuse the military ignores the record and leads us along a divisive path. In my book, The Strongest Tribe, I quote at length from the semi-annual military assessments. The record shows systemic, excessive optimism on the part to the senior military staffs. One looks in vain for requests for more troops. At every level - including the battalion command chronologies -progress was routinely reported until mid-2006.

That leads to my second point. The greatest defect in the Iraq war was the lack of objective risk assessment. The CentCom commander, General Abizaid, philosophically agreed with his Iraq commander, General Casey, that American soldiers on the streets were an antibody in an Arab culture, as much the cause as the cure of the insurgency. In the fall of 2005, Casey ordered a study by a general officer that confirmed the antibody thesis. This underlay the gradual pull back in the east to the Forward Operating Bases, or FOBs.

In wars, especially irregular conflicts with so many variables, the president requires a military expert who assesses risk independently from the operational commander. In Iraq, the NSC Adviser, Stephen Hadley, emerged as that assessor in 2006 and manipulated a change in strategy while the Pentagon dawdled.

Watch Afghanistan. The assessor can be the Chairman -- (General Pace did not perform that role in 2006) -- or it can be the theater commander. The appointment of General Jim Jones as the NSC Adviser may signal that the assessor is residing inside the White House. It's too soon to tell. But the president would be well advised to make it explicit to one senior general that he is so designated. If risk is assessed by committee, it gets watered down.

My third point is that the 2007 surge strategy in Iraq has gained mythic status that endangers clear thinking about Afghanistan. In Iraq, the Sunni tribes came over to the American side - to the strongest tribe - starting in late 2006 in Anbar. That change in attitude, called the "Awakening", provided the bedrock upon which General Petraeus anchored his winning strategy. Had the Sunnis remained as uncooperative in 2007 as they had been in 2004, the situation would have been dire. Shortly before al Qaeda killed him, I asked Sheik Abu Risha Sattar, who led the Awakening, why the tribes hadn't awakened earlier and saved bloodshed on both sides. "You Americans couldn't convince us," he replied. "We Sunnis had to convince ourselves."

Sattar's words are a warning about predicting when and why the tide of insurgent battle begins to ebb. Yes, sending 17,000 more American soldiers and marines to Afghanistan is necessary. But we don't know what dynamic, if any, will cause the Pashtun sub-tribes on the Afghan side of the border to band together decisively against the Taliban gangs of Pashtuns attacking from Pakistan. We know the example set by staunch American soldiers makes a huge difference. Americans can provide temporary glue, but eventually the Afghanis must bind together their own tribal dynamics.

My fourth point is that a unified command for the new strategy for Afghanistan/Pakistan is problematic. President Obama will announce the strategy at the NATO summit in Strasbourg next month. It must be a NATO strategy. In Iraq, Ambassador Ryan Crocker and General Petraeus co-authored a strategic Campaign Plan specifying their respective responsibilities. Afghanistan will be considerably more complicated and diffuse.

My fifth point is that I do not believe nation-building is necessary to reach a satisfactory conclusion in Afghanistan. In the March edition of Military Review, I argued why I think our counterinsurgency theories are well-meaning liberal principles, but not explanatory of actual events in Iraq. I much prefer Galula's book on Algeria to his thesis at Harvard. Concerning the Afghan strategy, there are two broad choices: fulsome nation-building, or nation-building lite. Senator Lieberman favors the former, calling for "a nationwide, civil-military campaign plan", including sending more American civilians in the field for jump-starting governmental services, plus stiff anti-corruption and anti-drug trafficking measures.

On the other hand, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has suggested what sounds like nation-building lite. "If we set ourselves the objective of creating some sort of Central Asian Valhalla over there," he said, "we will lose." That seemed in line with the view of Britain's senior commander in Afghanistan. "We're not going to win this war," Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith said last October. 'It's about reducing it to a manageable level of insurgency that's not a strategic threat and can be managed by the Afghan army."

The basic objective, according to Gates, is to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a haven and a launching pad for extremists. That is less ambitious than nation-building. To achieve that minimalist end state requires three tasks: 1) provide security in the rural areas, 2) link that security system to the government in Kabul and 3) prevent enervating raids from Pakistan.

My sixth point is that adequate resources and presidential leadership will be essential as Afghanistan heats up. Obama proposed a budget that reduced the costs of Iraq and Afghanistan from $140 billion in FY 2009 to $50 billion in FY2011. That's not possible if there's serious fighting in Afghanistan. In addition, Obama intends to hold military spending constant through 2016. That reduces Defense from four to three percent of GNP.

The president has said he intends to win in Afghanistan. It is the role of the commander-in-chief to provide both the resources and the leadership to keep the Congress and the people in support of the war until it is won.

Again, I thank Generals Christmas and Gardner for inviting me. It is an honor. Thank you all and I will take your questions.

About the Author(s)

Bing West served as Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs in the Reagan administration. A graduate of Georgetown and Princeton Universities, he served in the Marine infantry. He was a member of the Force Recon team that initiated attacks behind North Vietnamese lines.

He wrote the counterinsurgency classic, The Village, that has been on the Commandant's Reading List for 40 years. His books have won the Marine Corps Heritage Prize, the Colby Award for Military History, the VFW Media Award and the General Goodpaster Soldier-scholar Award. He has been on hundreds of patrols and operations throughout Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Bing is a member of St. Crispin's Order of the Infantry and the Council on Foreign Relations.



Tue, 03/24/2009 - 11:47pm

I agree with the premise of the article, however, I have been trying to get a tactical tribal engagement plan to try and use in Afghanistan. First, I am biased because I do believe that 'Tribal Engagement' is a strategy that could help to turn the recent trends in Afghanistan. I have spent several rotations in Afghanistan in both the Helmond and Konar Province. The tribal engagement we did in Konar was extremely successful there. I am redeploying in three months and would like any input as I have been working on this plan for several months.

Is tribal engagement a viable strategy?
If so, what criteria should be used to determine which tribe to 'support'?

What are the major 2nd and 3rd order effects of conducting full scale tribal engagement strategies?

Excellent post,

point 1: We all remember GEN Shinseki's assessment of the requirement for several thousand more troops, and the public ridicule that assessment received. IMHO that created a perceived sense of political pressure not to ask for more troops.

point 2: There were assessors that were pretty close to the mark on their risk assessments, but they didn't influence policy. The question isn't who will the assessor be, but what assessor will the administration listen to?

point 3: I like to see Bing's argument that the surge didn't empower the Sunni's to awaken. There had to be a higher degree of security to permit the Awakening to organize politically, and until shown facts to the contrary, I think the surge provided that sense of U.S. commitment that permitted the Sunnis to stand up against AQ.

point 5: This is a point that needs to be debated at length with as little emotion as possible. I think we're putting the cart before the horse when we attempt to conduct extensive nation building versus setting and then acting on realistic expectations. A family lives in a mud hut and you promise them a castle and college for their kids, you set yourself up for failure when you don't deliver. You promise them windows for their mud hut and fertilizer for their crops and then follow through you will have then established credibility. Credibility is the currency we use to enable the host nation to wage effective COIN.