American strategy — strategy, the idea that in war the ways and means to carry it out should be employed considering alternatives and with the least cost of blood and treasure to achieve policy goals — is dead. The slayer of American strategy is counterinsurgency tactics. Thanks to the American Army’s embrace of counterinsurgency, what we are left with is a strategy of tactics.
History shows what happens to nations when they allow the actual doing of war—its tactics—to bury strategy or blinker strategic thinking. The German Army in World War II was pound for pound probably the finest mechanized fighting force the world had ever seen. Yet its tactical excellence through methods such as lightening war or “blitzkrieg” could not rescue Nazi Germany’s bankrupt strategy and morally perverse policy.
The United States suffered a similar fate in its war in Vietnam. Strategy should have discerned that the war was not winnable based on the moral and material cost that the American people were willing to pay relative to a communist enemy who was willing to pay everything. Instead the American military became mired in the hope that battlefield tactics of search and destroy would in itself rescue failed strategy. It could not and the United States lost its first war in modern history.
Counterinsurgency has defined a new American Way of War. More than that, the doctrine of counterinsurgency has become the language and grammar of the current American war in Afghanistan. American Generals and politicians speak in the language of counterinsurgency tactics. Phrases like “protecting” or “shielding the Afghan people,” or “clear, hold, build” are all drawn from the tactics of counterinsurgency.
Imagine in history how General Dwight D. Eisenhower would have sounded in the summer of 1944 giving a speech on American grand strategy for the defeat of Nazi Germany by mostly talking about American infantry squads clearing German dugouts in the hedgerows of northern France. People would have thought it curious for a four star general to be talking at the level of small unit, tactical action. Yet today in Afghanistan four star generals and politicians routinely use the language of counterinsurgency tactics to explain strategy and policy. What’s more, they usually won’t mention its exceedingly high cost and historical instances of such tactics producing less than decisive results.
Identifying the death of strategy
The death of American strategy is manifested in the mismatch of national resources to achieve policy aims in Afghanistan. President Obama’s core political aim for the American military in Afghanistan is to “disrupt, disable and eventually defeat al Qaeda.” Nowhere in that core political aim is there mention of building an Afghan nation. Yet the American Army and its generals offered up only one method for achieving the President’s political aim: long term nation building in Afghanistan, often referred to as a comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy. It is like using a sledgehammer to drive a small nail through a piece of soft, pine wood when a smaller, carpenter’s hammer would do the trick.
There are more limited alternatives to achieving US aims in Afghanistan such as focusing primarily on killing the few remaining al Qaeda fighters left. However, the dominance of the doctrine of American counterinsurgency has prevented serious considerations of other alternatives, killing strategy in the process. Why?
After four plus years of battlefield use of its current doctrine on Counterinsurgency (codified in Field Manual 3-24) the American Army has yet to revise it, and there does not seem to be any serious effort to do so anytime soon. This is hard to understand. The American Army has gained a great deal of experience at fighting wars of counterinsurgency since Field Manual 3-24 first hit the scene in December 2006. Moreover, FM 3-24 has as its highest principle the need to have an army as a “learning and adapting organization.” Well we have learned, and perhaps are ready to adapt those lessons in revisions to the manual. The contradiction of American counterinsurgency is that it has as an imperative to learn and adapt to do better population centric counterinsurgency, but by rule an army cannot learn and adapt its way out of doing that very kind of counterinsurgency. The American Army is trapped by it.
Herein lays the rub: in fundamentally revising the doctrine, strategy might be resurrected from the dead. For example, a revised counterinsurgency manual might offer operational alternatives to the countering of insurgency. As the manual is written now, the only way for the United States to counter insurgencies and deal with instability in the world is through long term state building. The thinking goes that to defeat an insurgency state institutions must be built, alongside government and security forces. In so doing the local populations will be won over to the government’s side and turn on the insurgent enemy.
There are other operational alternatives to countering insurgencies that the manual does not consider. An insurgency can be defeated or at least suppressed by focusing on the killing of the insurgents without the addition of an expeditionary army doing nation building. Moreover the United States can deal with insurgencies by using its special forces to train and assist host notion forces.
However, the American Army’s current doctrine for counterinsurgency is trapped within the framework of armed nation building; there are simply no other options. Until the Army breaks out of this straightjacket, American strategy in Afghanistan will remain in the grave because simple operational doctrine, which should never determine strategy, is doing exactly that. It is excluding the consideration of better and more limited alternatives to achieve political aims.
The myth of the successful surge
In highlighting the relative value of tactics and strategy, the Chinese philosopher of war Sun Tzu said thousands of years ago that “strategy without tactics is the slow road to victory” but “tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” With the new American way of war through counterinsurgency, when Generals and politicians speak of “holding Marja” or “shielding” civilians in Kandahar, one hears only the silence of dead American strategy in Afghanistan.
Sadly, though, Sun Tzu’s noise of tactics without strategy continues today as the United States looks to Libya and what to do there in the months ahead. Policy makers and many generals seem to have been seduced by the idea that better state building tactics during the Surge of troops in Iraq in 2007 worked. But the Iraq Surge in 2007 did not work, it failed.
This basic fact needs to be understood as the United States looks to Libya and the prospect of increased American military action there, especially the potential use of ground troops to occupy and rebuild. Unfortunately a narrative has been constructed by popular writers, participants of the Iraq Surge both government and military, and selective think tank punditry that the Surge was a triumph of American military power. General David Petraeus has said that the Surge “saved Iraq from a desperate situation.”
This flawed narrative, however, promises to view Benghazi through the perverted prism of the success of the Iraq Surge.
Iraq was not “saved” and the Surge was not a triumph of American Arms. The ongoing violence in Iraq signified by an ongoing stream of Al Queda attacks in which scores of civilians are routinely killed or wounded, the divisiveness of the Kurdish situation, are just a few examples that the civil war in Iraq is far from over. The fundamental issues that divide the country have yet to be resolved.
It is true that violence in Iraq did start to lower toward the end of 2007 and after only about six months of the implementation of the Surge. But the reasons for the lowered violence had more to do with other conditions that conspired to lower violence. The spread of the Anbar Awakening and the buying off with US dollars of Sunni tribes and fighters to stop killing Americans and join in the fight against Al Queda was one important condition. This condition combined with the Shia militia decision to stand down its attacks against Sunnis and the fact that Baghdad had become physically separated by sect through civil war in 2005 and 2006 largely accounts for the reduced violence.
To be sure the increased number of American combat brigades played a role in the lowering of violence, but through combat action against Al Queda which furthered its reduction. The Surge did not, as the narrative argues, vindicate a new American approach to nation building which won the trust of the local Iraqi population.
Bringing strategy back from the dead
American armed nation building at the barrel of a gun simply does not work and strategy should discern this basic truth. It didn’t work for the United States in Vietnam. The idea that a “savior” general named Creighton Abrams came on board, reinvented his field army, and won the war in the South is fiction. Neither did it work in Iraq, nor is it working today in Afghanistan, nor will it work in Libya. The idea that the United States can put men and women on the ground with guns and bring about societal transformation through armed nation building is a chimera.
Yet there is the persistent belief, partly due to the construction of the “surge triumph” narrative that the allegiance of local populations can be won over to a friendly government’s side (supported by the US) as long as the United States military is carrying out the correct methods of armed nation building.
It is not to say that armed nation building by the United States can’t work, it can as long as the United States is willing to commit to a generational effort to make it succeed. But then that is where strategy comes into play which should, if done correctly, measure the costs and benefits and the level of effort relative to policy aims. It may be that there are places in the world where the United States should commit to long term nation building; but strategy should make such determinations.
Unfortunately the seduction with the notion of successful American nation building campaigns and “savior generals” who lead them seems to have convinced some folks and policy makers that the US Army has finally figured out how to do the mechanics of nation building and that they can succeed relatively quickly. The Surge triumph narrative has gone a long way to contribute to this flawed thinking. But as the United States looks to Benghazi and the use of American military power in the future, it should have a clear eye on what actually happened in Baghdad.
More importantly, strategy must be brought back from the dead and given a new life in the pursuit of American security.