Friday, April 27, 2007

... and it's botched execution

In the post before this one, I discuss George Tenet's book outlining the administration's rush to invade Iraq.

As a companion piece, an Army light colonel, Paul Yingling, has an article in Armed Forces Journal that essentially accuses our generals as a group of committing incompetence in Iraq.

As far as describing history and current conditions, there's not a whole lot in the article that hasn't been said elsewhere. What makes it powerful is the person saying it and the venue he's saying it in (Go here for a military interview with him on his experiences in Iraq. The link takes you to an abstract; click "access item" to read the pdf of the interview).

For the second time in a generation, the United States faces the prospect of defeat at the hands of an insurgency. In April 1975, the U.S. fled the Republic of Vietnam, abandoning our allies to their fate at the hands of North Vietnamese communists. In 2007, Iraq's grave and deteriorating condition offers diminishing hope for an American victory and portends risk of an even wider and more destructive regional war.

These debacles are not attributable to individual failures, but rather to a crisis in an entire institution: America's general officer corps. America's generals have failed to prepare our armed forces for war and advise civilian authorities on the application of force to achieve the aims of policy. The argument that follows consists of three elements. First, generals have a responsibility to society to provide policymakers with a correct estimate of strategic probabilities. Second, America's generals in Vietnam and Iraq failed to perform this responsibility. Third, remedying the crisis in American generalship requires the intervention of Congress.

On Iraq specifically, he argues that the generals failed to "transform" the military in the 1990s, as they said they would, continuing to pursue a Cold War model of interstate warfare even as they were increasingly embroiled in counterinsurgency and stability operations.

Then, having built the wrong military, they used it badly. Here Yingling echos (and actually cites) Gen. Eric Shinseki, in noting that we committed far fewer troops to the occupation than we knew were needed based on prior experience. He castigates the generals for expressing reservations about those troop levels privately but not publicly.

They then made it worse.

inept planning for postwar Iraq took the crisis caused by a lack of troops and quickly transformed it into a debacle. In 1997, the U.S. Central Command exercise "Desert Crossing" demonstrated that many postwar stabilization tasks would fall to the military. The other branches of the U.S. government lacked sufficient capability to do such work on the scale required in Iraq. Despite these results, CENTCOM accepted the assumption that the State Department would administer postwar Iraq. The military never explained to the president the magnitude of the challenges inherent in stabilizing postwar Iraq.

After failing to visualize the conditions of combat in Iraq, America's generals failed to adapt to the demands of counterinsurgency. Counterinsurgency theory prescribes providing continuous security to the population. However, for most of the war American forces in Iraq have been concentrated on large forward-operating bases, isolated from the Iraqi people and focused on capturing or killing insurgents. Counterinsurgency theory requires strengthening the capability of host-nation institutions to provide security and other essential services to the population. America's generals treated efforts to create transition teams to develop local security forces and provincial reconstruction teams to improve essential services as afterthoughts, never providing the quantity or quality of personnel necessary for success.

After going into Iraq with too few troops and no coherent plan for postwar stabilization, America's general officer corps did not accurately portray the intensity of the insurgency to the American public. The Iraq Study Group concluded that "there is significant underreporting of the violence in Iraq."

There's more, including outlining a process to find and promote the generals we need, not the generals we have. Read the article, and then go to the second link above to add some context. For instance, Yingling's article is merely a public example of a sharp split between younger and older officers in the military:

Many majors and lieutenant colonels have privately expressed anger and frustration with the performance of Gen. Tommy R. Franks, Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno and other top commanders in the war, calling them slow to grasp the realities of the war and overly optimistic in their assessments.

Some younger officers have stated privately that more generals should have been taken to task for their handling of the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison, news of which broke in 2004. The young officers also note that the Army's elaborate "lessons learned" process does not criticize generals and that no generals in Iraq have been replaced for poor battlefield performance, a contrast to other U.S. wars.

Top Army officials are also worried by the number of captains and majors choosing to leave the service. "We do have attrition in those grade slots above our average," acting Army Secretary Pete Geren noted in congressional testimony this week. In order to curtail the number of captains leaving, he said, the Army is planning a $20,000 bonus for those who agree to stay in, plus choices of where to be posted and other incentives.

This is why the military cannot afford to protect generals that don't deserve it: because doing so will prompt many of their most competent officers to leave, the military equivalent of eating your seed corn.

An interesting question is whether Iraq should be blamed or thanked for exposing this schism. On the one hand, if Yingling's viewpoint is the accurate one, the war has been disastrously mismanaged. On the other hand, if the problem is structural we can be glad that we found out about it through a relatively minor entanglement like Iraq and not something more serious, giving us a chance to fix the problem before we face a truly existential test.

Me, I tend to take a sanguine view of such things. We had the same problem in World War II: an officer corps that had evolved for success in peacetime, which usually demands different skills (like, say, a talent for bureaucratic infighting) than those needed for success in wartime. In World War II, the problem was handled through a combination of cashiering incompetents and the simple math of ballooning the military from a few hundred thousand souls to multiple millions, thus diluting the influence of the desktop warriors.

While I think the modern military is more professional and combat-oriented than the pre-World War II version, it still suffers from many of the same problems. On top of that, with Iraq there was no massive expansion, so we fought the war with the existing officer corps; and it was overseen by the Bush administration, so there was no serious accountability. Plus there was no sense of urgency, as I've noted in previous screeds here and here.

Yingling's article is part of the standard learning curve for the military. We prepare for the last war, get surprised by the next one, muddle through in denial for a while, and then partway through start hammering the new reality home. It may be too late to apply the lessons to Iraq itself, but they should be heeded in order to prepare us for the war after that.

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5 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the problem is more deeper than the standard learning curve.
I thought it was well captured by the quote from the article I read in the Wa-po, something like...."a low level officer is punished more for losing a gun than a general losing a war."
I think it has to do with the competency of the generals and the politicians who promote them.
GK

4/27/2007 4:32 PM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

I agree that the Bush administration has imposed very limited accountability on those prosecuting the war.

Bush also chose the senior leadership largely because they were the generals who shared the administration's (and Rumsfeld's) views on how to handle Iraq. That's not unusual -- you tend to pick players that share your view on how the game should be played -- but in this case it was detrimental.

But other than that, what you describe is the standard learning curve in the American military. We start out with politically connected peacetime generals, and eventually weed them out and replace them with actual warriors.

I think Petraeus is an example of the latter. It's just taken Bush a lot longer to get to that point than his predecessors.

4/27/2007 5:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A "light Colonel" condemning his General superiors! This is not unusual that the underlings would think they could do better. Everyone has an opinion and it's called "Monday morning quarterbacking."

JP5

4/29/2007 11:00 AM  
Blogger Not Your Mama said...

Mixed feelings about the whole thing but um, yes...those "superiors" have done such a bang-up job, yes???

Thing is when the person doing the selecting is a) not overly bright and b) incompetent, guess what you end up with.

I actually feel a bit sorry for Petraeus, he's inherited a disaster I hope his career can survive because when things do not play out the way anyone would like he's likely to be the person they try to blame.

4/29/2007 5:58 PM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

JP5: It's actually highly unusual in this context. You almost never see public criticism like this from within the military during an active war -- unless that war is going very badly.

We're talking about a highly regarded Lt. Colonel who would like to make full colonel -- one of the hardest cuts to survive in the Army. You don't anger the brass in that situation without a good reason.

4/30/2007 12:19 PM  

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