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Col. Robert B. Killebrew, U.S. Army retired

Army Magazine
April 2005

Col. Robert B. Killebrew, USA Ret., was an infantryman for more than 30 years and now writes and consults on defense issues.

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Winning Wars

More than two years into the war in Iraq, the Army finds itself fighting a stubborn and murderous insurgency. This is familiar ground. Insurgencies, or what another age would have called "irregular warfare," are a part of the Army's DNA, going all the way back to Concord Bridge and beyond.

Of course the Iraqi insurgency is different, just as all wars are different from their predecessors. Despite the mountains of paper expended in recent decades on theories about asymmetric enemies, the Department of Defense and the Armed Forces by and large saw only the war they wanted to fight in Iraq, and did not anticipate that the enemy might not cooperate. A DoD committed to transforming the armed services orchestrated a conventional attack into Baghdad and other Iraqi cities that, however brilliantly executed, in retrospect looks like a strategy out of the 19th century-seize the enemy's capitol and the nation falls into one's hands like a ripe fruit. As we know, the present insurgency took root in the instability that followed the conventional campaign, threatening not only the rebuilding of Iraq but the success of the U.S.-led war itself. There is reason to believe that part of the insurgency was either preplanned or improvised by the previous government as their conventional forces were defeated, but confirmation awaits historical inquiry. At present, hard fighting by troops on the ground, the success of the Iraqi elections and the accelerating organization of Iraqi security forces have swung the tide. While the eventual outcome of the war is still not assured, strategic momentum in the theater seems to be shifting back toward the accomplishment of U.S. war aims. What lessons can we draw thus far from the Army's counterinsurgency experience in Operation Iraqi Freedom? Five candidates appear below.

First, though, a short historical note about self-criticism: In 1982 an Army colonel named Harry Summers published at the Army War College his On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War. While many of Summer's conclusions are still controversial, his basic argument-that the U.S. Army was intellectually and hence doctrinally unprepared for the strategic challenge of war in Vietnam-remains generally unassailable. In writing critically about Vietnam, Summers had to confront the Army's understandable reluctance to admit that institutional shortcomings had played a role in losing the war. Senior military leaders who had led courageous men in the rice paddies of the Delta and the jagged hillsides of the Central Highlands correctly objected to any thesis that appeared to diminish the valor and sacrifices of American soldiers. But Summers was aiming higher. He grasped that the Army of the Vietnam era had become a battle-focused army, racking up successes in the field that were unconnected to any plan to win the war as a whole. It had been the Army's inability to link battlefield success to strategic victory-the absence of operational art-that played a major role in the loss of South Vietnam. In an exchange after the U.S. withdrawal that has become apocryphal, a U.S. officer said to a North Vietnamese colonel, "Remember, you never defeated us on the battlefield." The NVA officer considered for a moment. "That may be so," he said, "but it is also irrelevant."

Lesson One: Winning wars is more than winning battles. This is not to suggest that we are on the losing end of the fight in Iraq-far from it. As previously mentioned, strategic trends in the region and in Iraq itself are hopeful. But to win the war that Operation Iraqi Freedom has become, and probably to win future wars as well, planners and commanders have to learn to think beyond the campaign level to war winning-to the actual mechanics of achieving strategic objectives-which are almost always stated in political, not military, terms. In the case of Iraq, for example, the strategic objective would not have been to seize Baghdad or to destroy the Iraqi army, but to destroy the Saddam Hussein regime and, to paraphrase adminis- tration statements, to support the emergence of a democratic Iraqi state. The catchphrase popular after the opening campaign, "We've won the war, now we have to win the peace," is a dead giveaway for muddled thinking about strategy.

Historically, winning wars is more complicated than one campaign. Even the U.S. coup de main in Panama found a prolonged-and largely unanticipated-civil affairs campaign necessary to pacify the countryside and extend the authority of the new Panamanian government. An analysis of Vietnam and Operation Desert Storm shows the futility of trying for strategic victory-to win a war-when the true enemy center of gravity is misjudged or out of reach. In the case of Vietnam, the war was lost. In the case of Operation Desert Storm, we hedged that the Republican Guard was the military center of gravity, because the true enemy center of gravity-Saddam Hussein's regime-was ruled out of bounds. As a result, the victory in Kuwait now shows up only as the first campaign against Saddam Hussein's Iraq, after which the United States shifted to equally indecisive air campaigns, ultimately culminating with Operation Iraqi Freedom. In a real sense, the war that began in 1990 has not yet been won.

Insurgencies present a particular challenge to war winning for a number of reasons. They are not neat-the defeat of the enemy's conventional forces does not tie everything up in a bow. The U.S. experience has been that successful counterinsurgency wars are much more complex, with more immediate political overtones: supporting and reforming the local government where necessary, rebuilding security forces and, at the same time, fighting inconclusive tactical battles until reforming and rebuilding can take hold. Looking back over the previous decade at the Army's focus in war games and doctrinal debates, it is at least arguable that the service has concentrated so much on operational-level battles-new brigade organizations, theories about rapid deployment and air-mechanized operations-that attention to winning wars, particularly insurgencies, has gotten short shrift. Perhaps instead of a campaign-quality Army, a war-winning one would be a more appropriate aim.

Lesson Two: The true revolution in military affairs is the social revolution of the modern information age. Technology is only a supporting actor. The second lesson to emerge thus far from the Iraq war is that civil populations can no longer be overlooked or disregarded in war strategy. Civil uprisings against corrupt governments or invading armies are an old story in war, but modern conditions empower populations to play a more central role in warfare for a number of reasons. First, most of the world is awash in arms anyway, and technologies and techniques that are adequate to offset much of America's technological advantage on the tactical battlefield are available in the shops and bazaars of the developing world. Second, national, ethnic and religious forces are proving to be more powerful than anticipated in the modern 21st century. Nationalistic or religious fervor is proving as effective as communism ever was in inspiring insurgents against Western forces or civil populations, while modern transportation and communications networks open up vulnerabilities in interdependent societies like ours. Finally, the unstable masses of unemployed young men throughout the Middle East and elsewhere with no prospects and weapons readily at hand provide a volatile mix for agents of destabilization and chaos. In many parts of the world, war is a business. In countries or regions where life is insecure anyway, looting and fighting are more profitable, and in many ways more secure, than peaceable coexistence. In many cases, open-source media like Al Jazzeera serve as rough intelligence assets that are not easily nullified in the age of satellite dishes. In these conditions, conflict is likely to be widespread, chaotic and decentralized, carried out by cellularlike structures that are not vulnerable, at the operational level, to long-range precision fires or elegant maneuver.

While getting around rapidly on the tactical battlefield is a desirable and necessary capability, and shooting straight will be required for the killing required in counterinsurgency operations, neither will be decisive against 21st-century insurgents, who will have to be killed, captured or ultimately discouraged-or encouraged-enough to stop fighting. History teaches us that decision in counterinsurgencies is achieved by political and social change, not by military operations.

The information revolution's most significant impact on war is not network-centric warfare or the more rapid transmission of intelligence data. With the possible exception of nuclear wars of annihilation, modern communications make populations full participants in war-in the buildup, the opening moves and the aftermath. Forces of religion and nationalism can be rapidly mobilized by governments, however unsavory, against even well-intended invaders. This implies that controlling the enemy's population, even in cases when the U.S. believes itself to be a liberating power, will necessarily be the focus of future war-winning strategies. If so, it further hints that planning quick incursions of the type played in recent war games-technologically brilliant lightning campaigns to unseat a government or destroy the enemy's war-making arsenals-will not be war winners, but will achieve limited goals at the cost of inflaming native populations, disrupting alliances and becoming tar babies for American policy. Perhaps those limited goals would be worth the cost; each situation is different. Recent history, though, shows us that strategic blitzkreig operations have their downsides.

Lesson Three: Counterinsurgencies are long wars. The direction in Defense Department thinking over the past decade has been generally oriented toward high-tech "splendid little wars" of rapid movement, precision strike and limited duration. American superiority in weaponry and in highly trained soldiers has been convincingly demonstrated in the Persian Gulf, the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq. Potential opponents, many of whom maintain sizable conventional forces for reasons of local or regional security, should have no illusions about their ability to stand chest to chest against U.S. power, and can only confront American military forces in one of two ways, neither of which has easy solutions. The first is by acquiring nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass effect. The second is by mobilizing popular support against invading U.S.-led forces, as mentioned above. In addition, U.S. superiority will encourage states or movements with aggressive ambitions against their neighbors to prefer subversion and insurgency to outright invasion, to avoid or delay involving the United States and its allies. Twenty-first century wars are liable to contain various versions of Mao's three phases of insurgency-building political strength, insurgency and conventional war-in various orders, with conventional war the least favored if there is a chance of U.S. intervention. Current events show that terrorism mixed with insurgency may be a new stage of warfare, offering a short cut to political power by making states ungovernable without insurgents' cooperation-strategy by car-bomb.

The Army's experience is that it takes years to win a counterinsurgency war. In recent history, Vietnam and the wars in Central America took nearly a decade each, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraqi will probably follow suit. Army obligations to those wars will range from the commitment of major combat units to advisory teams, or both, as is presently the case. Army force planners will have to continue to grapple not only with the constant rotation of units and soldiers, but also with the below line costs of maintaining the force-training, maintenance backlogs, family care, professional education and so on.

Effective advisory efforts in counterinsurgency wars have their own costs in the overhead of officer and senior NCOs required to mount a credible effort, the language and cultural training required and the turnover of the one-year advisory tour.

Lesson Four: The locals have to win their own war. Nothing is so important in counterinsurgency as to understand that, eventually, local forces have to beat their own insurgents. In the Army's most recent experiences in counterinsurgency, local forces bore the weight of the war, either ultimately losing (as in Vietnam) or winning after reforms admitted the guerrillas into a political process (El Salvador). As stated above, the goal of any insurgency or counterinsurgency campaign, or multiple campaigns, is always political. If U.S. forces are introduced at all, an early strategic goal must be the emergence of a new government friendly to U.S. objectives. The emergence of that government, with competent security forces, will probably be the final requirement for the successful conclusion of the war, as well. In between, U.S. tactical operations focus on defeat of the insurgents and support for the emergence of local security forces.

As a consequence, war planners must consider the recruiting, training and fielding of local security forces as essential for the attainment of strategic objectives, and the links between the two efforts-operations conducted by U.S. forces and the stand-up of host-nation security forces-must be clearly understood and complementary. This implies that even shock and awe campaigns have to be strictly modulated at some level to ensure that provisions are made for the treatment of refugees, prisoners of war and bystanders with dignity and restraint. This is obviously a very tough point, as restraint must balance an unreasonable danger to U.S. or allied troops with acceptance by the civil population-grudging acceptance at best, since whatever the cause, U.S. troops will be defeating the national army and killing local boys.

As a consequence, U.S. planning must envision-from the first-a top-priority effort to replace U.S. troops with local security forces, whether they can be simply reflagged from the previous regime, disbanded and raised again, as is the case today in Iraq, or started from scratch. We seem to have a hard time with this lesson. In the Army's four most recent counterinsurgency wars-Vietnam, El Salvador, Afghanistan and Iraq-the record is mixed. In Vietnam, Vietnamization was too late and ultimately too little. El Salvador was won by a mixture of low-key advisors and U.S.-sponsored political reform. Afghanistan is still a mixed bag of NATO and U.S.-sponsored training programs, and the retraining and reequipping of Iraqi security forces started late, albeit under a superb U.S. general, after experiments with contractors and locally raised forces failed.

If, as this article suggests, the course of future wars will depend on our success in raising and training local security forces, then Defense Department resource planning should take into account the Army's requirements to do so, as well as the requirements of other services. Standing up local battalions and brigades, as is the case today in Iraq, is not a specialized Special Forces mission, but one that should increasingly fall into the mainstream of the Army's future missions, where before it has been an afterthought. This implies-in addition to all the other jobs that fall to the Army today-a greater emphasis at senior levels across the board on cultural outreach, on foreign area expertise and on language training-at this point in our history, we should be able to deploy more general officers who speak Arabic, for example.

It also implies that DoD acknowledge the necessity for some degree of overstrength in commissioned and senior noncommissioned ranks, so that establishment of theaterlevel advisory efforts can begin on the heels of conventional campaigns. Further, these provisions should be made now, while the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan are fresh, so that in the future, funding and equipping of local forces can go forward with minimal delay. The specter of Iraqi security forces in pickup trucks, without body armor or even radios, fighting next to superbly equipped U.S. forces reflects a fundamental failure in U.S. war planning -as it was in Vietnam in 1967, when Vietnamese troops with World War II gear fought alongside betterequipped U.S. forces. As with many other things, seeing the problem and its solution is only part of the issue-getting it through the budget wickets and into law and practice is the hard part; but we should start.

Lesson Five: Army education is more, not less, important as the 21st century advances. For the past decade, and probably even longer, the best minds in the Army have been focused on developing the Army of the future and particular new divisional and brigade organizations. That the new outfits will eventually be equipped with multibillion dollar Future Combat Systems bodes well for the continued success of Army units on future battlefields and its ability to function smoothly as part of the joint team.

Yet in war, the human factor dominates, not organizations. On the battlefield, training and discipline generally trump numbers. It was a U.S. Army officer, after all, who at the conclusion of Operation Desert Storm opined that had the equipment between the U.S. and Saddam Hussein's army been reversed, the outcome would still have been the same because of the superior training on the U.S. side. At a higher level, insight and vision count. Strategic agility in this transformative period requires senior military leaders who are not only wise in tactical experience, but who also have a thorough and broad understanding of their profession -war-and the political environment in which it occurs.

If history is any guide, such an understanding can only be achieved by serious and protracted study, both off-duty and at intervals in a military career. Many officers thus educated may go on to other important assignments at lower levels; some will fill key roles in the Joint Staff, where military strategy is formulated, or to posts elsewhere in the government. And a very few will rise to the apex of their profession, as chiefs of service or commanders of overseas commands. In all these cases, the United States will be well served by soldier-intellectuals who understand not only tactics and operational art, but also the deeper political and military currents that affect, among other things, appropriate counterinsurgency strategies. They will also know, one can hope, the differences between winning battles and wars. This is a priceless strategic resource, and the Army's major contribution today to the formulation of national strategy.

Yet the Army's education system today is in a rough patch. Even before the Iraqi war, instructor assignments at the Command and General Staff College (CGSC) were no longer seen as a ticket to command and further success. (In World War II, 31 of 35 corps commanders had taught at Leavenworth, and the perception that teaching was an essential part of a successful career lasted for decades). Recent retirees have filled manpower shortages for podium instructors at CGSC on contract, while doctrine development offices at the branch schools have been cut to the bone.

Fully funded graduate education programs have dropped from 7,400 after Vietnam to 396 this year, half of them preparing to join the Army's acquisition corps. The recent shift of the Army War College from the purview of the Army Staff to the Training and Doctrine Command-itself bleeding from multiple cuts-has resulted in placing the War College on a potential list of budget cuts to save critical funding for combat operations. The Secretary of Defense has asked for options for cutting back military education during "stress periods," with one unnamed DoD official commenting, "Some of the experiences [officers are] getting today [in Iraq] are better than anything they would get in a classroom." This is hardly an atmosphere that convinces young officers that education is a career-builder.

Whether we educate our future military leaders in the classroom or on the streets of Baghdad, it is first in the minds of men that the success of future counterinsurgency strategies will be decided. Battlefield technologies will come and go, and be almost immediately countered by that adaptive enemy that we rightly recognize is waiting.

To succeed on future battlefields-more correctly, to win wars on future battlefields-the Army has to develop innovative, decisive leaders who can read war at all levels and lead, organize or train armies of both American and indigenous forces to victory.

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