America’s ‘strategic learning disability’

A retired Army general laments Washington's inability to think clearly and learn important lessons, even after 10 years of war.

Via one of the most reliable conduits of truth about the Army — the mysterious stick figure known only as Doctrine Man — here’s a very interesting writeup: Retired Army Lt. Gen. James Dubik has a piece in this month’s Army magazine called ‘A National Strategic Learning Disability?‘ in which he wonders whether the United States has what it takes at the top leadership level in order to prosecute its national goals.

“Our national strategies and policies have dragged out operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, costing more in lives, sacrifices, money and political will than was necessary,” Dubik writes. The U.S. did not finish key jobs in Iraq or Afghanistan, he argues, because it mistakenly thought it had accomplished goals it hadn’t and didn’t have a full understanding of what it wanted. This leads him to ask four key questions: “Do we have the ability to construct and execute a coherent national strategy? Have we lost the ability to use force decisively? Do we confuse ending a war with an ‘exit strategy’ to leave a war? Do we lack strategic imagination?” Quick answers: Yes; yes; no; yes.

Still there? All right. If you want to keep reading, here’s much more elaboration: Dubik’s assessment about the American ability to contemplate and execute a master strategy is succinct but devastating, and it’s worth quoting in its entirety:

With respect to the war against al Qaeda, we have been out of balance from the start by not really deciding whether to treat al Qaeda as a war enemy or international criminals (it has elements of both) and overmilitarizing, at least initially, the strategy that we did execute. Finally, we have been out of balance from the start in that we have never figured out a way to pay for our operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and against al Qaeda—a key element of any national strategy.

In sum, for a decade our national strategy has been ineffective. Two strategically important results have emerged. First, American military forces have been at war, but for much of this period neither the government nor the nation has been at war. Second, we have spent blood, money and national reputation to not accomplish our strategic aims.

Nearly 10 years later, nobody remembers the voices after Sept. 11 that argued you can’t have a ‘war on terrorism,’ i.e., a tactic, and that cited examples in Europe and elsewhere where terrorists were treated as criminals, with a reactive, law enforcement-style approach, as opposed to an aggressive military campaign. But Americans were in payback mode and wanted revenge, so they did not want to just sit idle and settle for trying evildoers in court. (Many still don’t.) So the U.S. may have chosen the wrong strategy, but it can still build and execute one. Then again, there’s a case to be made that the current strategy of eliminating the threat posed by radical, anti-American Islam is flawed because it requires the impossible: eliminating an idea. At least in the Cold War, ‘containment’ was achievable. In fact, the West fared pretty well, even if there are a few stragglers here and there.

As for force, Dubik argues the U.S. has fallen into a trap of using the least amount possible, requiring commanders to re-learn the painful lesson that doing so doesn’t actually save you anything. “This apparent economy protracts war because it yields the strategic initiative to the enemy. They get to choose whether to ‘up the ante.’ In war, force should be applied in ways that reduce the options of one’s enemies and increase one’s own.” Presidents Bush and Obama eventually had no choice but to resort to “surges,” which appeared to help turn the tide in their respective wars.

This is the critical point: Wars are started by politicians, and the more troops in harm’s way, the more of a political risk to them. Sending more troops means there’s more of a chance average Americans might pay attention to what’s happening, also increasing the risk they might decide they oppose it. It’s just more effective politically to use the least you can of a comparatively small, volunteer force, especially when people ‘support the troops’ no matter what — just so long as they don’t have to do anything else, including sacrifice or serve.

As to Dubik’s next question, it’s difficult to confuse an ‘exit strategy’ with a legitimate end to a war. To return to his first point, the U.S. began its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan without a specific, achievable end state in mind — a flawed strategy. Compare the state of Iraq today to 1991, when President George H.W. Bush set a discrete goal — eject Iraqi forces from Kuwait and eliminate them as a threat to their neighbors — and accomplished it deftly. It meant he endured slings and arrows from neoconservatives who wanted Saddam deposed, but in retrospect we can see its elegance: Iraq remained a stable, if hollow, version of its former self and a check on Iranian adventurism.

The current American withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan is about cutting losses and crossing fingers — both countries could devolve into violent anarchy within six months of the pullouts. But America is sick of war, broke and becoming resigned to the reality that after a decade and some $4 trillion, Iraq and Afghanistan are as good as they’re going to get. What stops insurgents from just hiding out until American troops are gone? How will both countries afford and maintain their U.S.-trained militaries over the long term? That would require perpetual commitments in both places, which some people support, but most Americans don’t.

Dubik’s final point is that commanders’ lack of ‘strategic imagination’ has continued to trip up military campaigns over the past decade, and will keep doing so unless the brass overcomes it. He writes:

Ten years of evidence that war has more than one form seems to have been insufficient to prompt adequate adaptation—domestically or internationally. Current discussions often find adherents claiming that the conflict in Libya isn’t a war, for example, or that war cannot be waged in cyberspace. Without adequate strategic imagination, America perpetually risks not only applying a strategy that does not match the specific enemy and situation of a given case, but also having a set of institutions and procedures equivalent to attempting to fit a round peg into a square hole. Thus we risk more examples of spending our strategic capital— lives, sacrifice, money and will—in not attaining our strategic aims.

This might be the toughest point of all — can you change culture? And can you change it quickly enough to respond to all of today’s threats?

What do you think?