5 February 2016

Voice Why haven’t we done the serious thinking we need to do about our recent wars?

A recent article in Parameters is zipping around the Internet. The issue is whether Army officers have sufficient intellectual/educational training to conduct skillful operational campaigns. To determine the answer, the Army and Marines should begin by conducting a dispassionate analysis of the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns over the past decade. Both campaigns were miserable failures.

The Army/Marine doctrine for both campaigns stated, “Soldiers and Marines are nation-builders.” The campaign intent was to persuade the people to support their governments rather than insurgents or militias. In neither country was there a culture with the values and roots to engender democracy. Today, Iraq is a broken nation with a Shiite government in Iran’s orbit. In Afghanistan, the Taliban have reclaimed huge chunks of the countryside. Since 2001, more than two dozen three and four star American generals have rotated through those two countries. All claimed progress; none challenged a counterinsurgency doctrine that was a fantasy. After Vietnam, we vowed no more sanctuaries; yet Syria and Pakistan provided vast sanctuaries. We permitted ‘elected’ host nation officials whom we knew to be serpentine to select and promote the officers in their armed forces. In Iraq, we paid the Sunnis to come over to our side — the American side — then we abandoned them. In Afghanistan, we never made serious inroads among the fractious, insular Pashtun tribes submissive to the Taliban zealotry.

After Vietnam, the services never analyzed their grievous errors — putting aside the terrible political decisions. Instead, the services shifted to an entirely different type of war — maneuver campaigns against Soviet armor. Today, we face another decade of the same type of war we have failed to fight adequately for the past 15 years. We can’t run away to another battlefield on another continent. But how can we do better, if we refuse to analyze why we have done so poorly?

Bing West, a former assistant secretary of defense and combat Marine, has written six books about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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