This is an article in the Armed Forces Journal. It discusses what I have tried to articulate in the last 2 1/2 years.
A better war in Iraq
By Lt. Col. John A. Nagl
“Fighting an irregular war is an extremely difficult conversion for any regular army, even a superpower.”
— Maj. Gen. William G. Webster, commander, Task Force Baghdad, November 2005
General Webster could have said, “Especially a superpower.” One of the hardest challenges the U.S. Army faces is finding the proper balance between improving its ability to defeat an insurgency and maintaining the ability to fight a conventional war. Insurgencies and conventional combat differ so fundamentally that many of the things that help to ensure success in one can be liabilities in the other. In particular, the ability to mass fires at a particular point in time and space on the battlefield — the essence of conventional combat — is extremely unhelpful if misapplied in a counterinsurgency. Success in counterinsurgency instead demands the precise application of force after dedicated and exacting intelligence work — not the core competencies of conventional armies.
The Army’s historical experience with counterinsurgency is marked by cases of success and failure. Although the Army overcame an insurgency in the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century, it was less successful in Vietnam. Unprepared for the demands of counterinsurgency at the beginning of the Vietnam conflict, the Army was slow in adapting during the course of the conflict. Gen. Peter Schoomaker recently wrote that in Vietnam, “the U.S. Army, predisposed to fight a conventional enemy that fought using conventional tactics, overpowered innovative ideas from within the Army and from outside it. As a result, the U.S. Army was not as effective at learning as it should have been, and its failures in Vietnam had grave implications for both the Army and the nation.”
Although the Army did adapt to the demands of counterinsurgency in Vietnam, these impressive changes largely occurred after America’s will to win that war had been exhausted.
One result of America’s defeat in Vietnam was a decision by the Army to avoid counterinsurgency campaigns in the future. The United States would prepare for conventional wars and swiftly depart after defeating its enemies in major combat operations. Unfortunately, the enemy has a vote, and our adversaries worldwide learned from Desert Storm that fighting the United States conventionally is a recipe for self-destruction. However, successful attacks in Lebanon, Somalia, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf of Aden demonstrated that fighting the U.S. asymmetrically offers a much better chance for success. The endurance of the insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq has underlined the truth of this lesson for those who wish to do us harm to further their objectives. Insurgencies are the types of conflict we are most likely to face for the foreseeable future, and therefore we must learn how to defeat enemies who practice this kind of war. (more…)