Peter Mansoor, Oliver Leaman, and others.

The War in Iraq

I enjoyed reading John Nagl’s excellent review (“Ending the Neverending War,” AZURE 35, Winter 2009) of three books that tell the story of the debacle and re-birth of American strategy in the Iraq war. It is a cautionary tale for any number of nations in the twenty-first century, Israel included. Nagl mentions that the U.S. Army was thoroughly unprepared for counterinsurgency warfare in 2003, but since the reasons for that lapse fell outside the purview of the books he was reviewing, he doesn’t state why. Simply put, the United States military has a love affair with technology and, during the decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, developed concepts that substituted technological prowess for strategic relevance. The future American way of war, according to certain defense intellectuals, was summed up in the phrase “Rapid Decisive Operations,” otherwise known as “shock and awe.” Using sophisticated intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platforms, American forces would be able to find and distinguish all relevant targets on the battlefield and then, using precision-guided munitions, destroy them. Wars would be quick and relatively bloodless.
What the proponents of this approach failed to realize is that military operations are neither rapid nor decisive unless they lead to a more enduring peace. In this regard, the United States was guilty of trying to replace strategy with tactical and operational concepts that had marginal relevance to the kinds of wars that the nation would face after 9/11. We were guilty of becoming the Germans of the twenty-first century—a nation that used brilliant tactical and operational concepts but lost two world wars on account of strategic incompetence. What the proponents of Rapid Decisive Operations failed to do was to understand the true nature of war, not just in the post-Cold War era, but in any era.
In Iraq, the United States military learned that we cannot kill our way to victory in a counterinsurgency conflict. As the executive officer to General David Petraeus, the commanding general of the Multi-National ForceIraq, during the “Surge” of 2007 and 2008, I witnessed firsthand how the Coalition and its Iraqi partners were able to separate the reconcilable elements of the Sunni insurgency and Shi’ite militias from the irreconcilable elements that had to be killed or captured. Hundreds of thousands of armed men were brought in to support the Iraqi government and, as security took hold, Iraqi politicians were slowly able to forge a new way forward. Success in Iraq is not certain, but there is now at least a chance for progress in a war that was all but lost at the end of 2006. The key was not reinforcements, or tactical and operational brilliance, but the adoption of a strategy that focused on the Iraqi people as the decisive element and placed its well-being and protection at the top of a long list of priorities for American and Iraqi security forces.
The lessons for Israel today are clear, if unpalatable. The root causes of Palestinian terrorism will not be solved by periodic incursions into Gaza or the West Bank. The targeting of terrorist operatives will in the best case bring a temporary reprieve to the citizens of Israel, and in the worst case simply create more support for the terrorists among the Palestinian people. In the end, the only successful strategy is one that places the Palestinian people first and seeks to separate and support the reconcilable elements of that population against the extremists who seek Israel’s destruction. Moving down that strategic path will be a long and hard journey, but in the end, it will be a journey worth undertaking.
Peter R. Mansoor
Ohio State University

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