Saturday, April 28, 2007

Failure in generalship

Lt. Colonel Paul Yingling has written a scathing feature article in the US Armed Forces Journal entitled A failure in generalship.

Yingling doesn't discuss the morality or necessity of the Bush administration adventure in Iraq. Instead he takes the position all uniformed officers must take: If it is the will of the democratically elected government, and the people, it is my job to tell the truth about what it will take to achieve the end.

Yingling wastes no time getting straight to the point. US generals have failed to provide a proper assessment of the forces needed to secure Iraq, have failed to adapt to the type of warfare in Iraq and generally don't know enough about the people of Iraq to properly win them over.
For the second time in a generation, the United States faces the prospect of defeat at the hands of an insurgency. In April 1975, the U.S. fled the Republic of Vietnam, abandoning our allies to their fate at the hands of North Vietnamese communists. In 2007, Iraq's grave and deteriorating condition offers diminishing hope for an American victory and portends risk of an even wider and more destructive regional war.

These debacles are not attributable to individual failures, but rather to a crisis in an entire institution: America's general officer corps. America's generals have failed to prepare our armed forces for war and advise civilian authorities on the application of force to achieve the aims of policy. The argument that follows consists of three elements. First, generals have a responsibility to society to provide policymakers with a correct estimate of strategic probabilities. Second, America's generals in Vietnam and Iraq failed to perform this responsibility. Third, remedying the crisis in American generalship requires the intervention of Congress.

Yingling doesn't go so far as to name specific generals, however it doesn't take too much imagination to figure out which characters clearly failed to perform the basic duty of providing the correct estimates on Iraq. While Yingling's article is written in such a way that would not allow it, it would be worth remembering that there was one US general who did provide a proper strategic estimate to the Bush administration: former US army chief-of-staff, General Eric Shinseki. His telling of the truth and his willingness to resist the Rumsfeld/Wolfowitz fantasy view cost him his job. Yingling, without saying as much, suggests that that is exactly what all US generals should have done. It might have injected a second thought into the political cabal that was planning the invasion of Iraq. Instead, they got Tommy Franks who caved to the unqualified demands of Rumsfeld.

Yingling occasionally travels outside the realm of the generals with pointed comments.

Armies do not fight wars; nations fight wars. War is not a military activity conducted by soldiers, but rather a social activity that involves entire nations. Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz noted that passion, probability and policy each play their role in war. Any understanding of war that ignores one of these elements is fundamentally flawed.
And then he seals that compact with this:

If the policymaker desires ends for which the means he provides are insufficient, the general is responsible for advising the statesman of this incongruence. The statesman must then scale back the ends of policy or mobilize popular passions to provide greater means. If the general remains silent while the statesman commits a nation to war with insufficient means, he shares culpability for the results.
That extends in both directions. While the generals may be culpable, the population of a country can be held as much so. One of the things any combatant in a war expects is that her/his sacrifice, whether it be blood or just deprivation, is being shared to some degree by the non-combatant population. In the case of Iraq and Afghanistan, that simply is not happening.

However much it is influenced by passion and probability, war is ultimately an instrument of policy and its conduct is the responsibility of policymakers. War is a social activity undertaken on behalf of the nation; Augustine counsels us that the only purpose of war is to achieve a better peace. The choice of making war to achieve a better peace is inherently a value judgment in which the statesman must decide those interests and beliefs worth killing and dying for. The military man is no better qualified than the common citizen to make such judgments. He must therefore confine his input to his area of expertise — the estimation of strategic probabilities.

Yingling then goes into the area which so many have been saying for so long. The mistakes of Vietnam are being repeated in Iraq. He could easily have added Afghanistan to the mix.
America's generals have repeated the mistakes of Vietnam in Iraq. First, throughout the 1990s our generals failed to envision the conditions of future combat and prepare their forces accordingly. Second, America's generals failed to estimate correctly both the means and the ways necessary to achieve the aims of policy prior to beginning the war in Iraq. Finally, America's generals did not provide Congress and the public with an accurate assessment of the conflict in Iraq.
Although some did try. Even the initial estimates of the size of force required, which were rejected by Rumsfeld, were far too low.
Given the lack of troop strength, not even the most brilliant general could have devised the ways necessary to stabilize post-Saddam Iraq. However, inept planning for postwar Iraq took the crisis caused by a lack of troops and quickly transformed it into a debacle. In 1997, the U.S. Central Command exercise "Desert Crossing" demonstrated that many postwar stabilization tasks would fall to the military. The other branches of the U.S. government lacked sufficient capability to do such work on the scale required in Iraq. Despite these results, CENTCOM accepted the assumption that the State Department would administer postwar Iraq. The military never explained to the president the magnitude of the challenges inherent in stabilizing postwar Iraq.

After failing to visualize the conditions of combat in Iraq, America's generals failed to adapt to the demands of counterinsurgency. Counterinsurgency theory prescribes providing continuous security to the population. However, for most of the war American forces in Iraq have been concentrated on large forward-operating bases, isolated from the Iraqi people and focused on capturing or killing insurgents. Counterinsurgency theory requires strengthening the capability of host-nation institutions to provide security and other essential services to the population. America's generals treated efforts to create transition teams to develop local security forces and provincial reconstruction teams to improve essential services as afterthoughts, never providing the quantity or quality of personnel necessary for success.

Here's were the problem of Rumsfeld's behaviour towards his generals starts to kick back. Each successive general appearing before congressional committees said there were enough troops on the ground to do the job - even though an exercise prior to the coming to power of the Bush administration had proved otherwise. The generals in charge knew perfectly well they were playing Rumsfeld's songs and they knew just as well that they couldn't possibly secure Iraq with the numbers they had been handed.

Finally, Congress must enhance accountability by exercising its little-used authority to confirm the retired rank of general officers. By law, Congress must confirm an officer who retires at three- or four-star rank. In the past this requirement has been pro forma in all but a few cases. A general who presides over a massive human rights scandal or a substantial deterioration in security ought to be retired at a lower rank than one who serves with distinction. A general who fails to provide Congress with an accurate and candid assessment of strategic probabilities ought to suffer the same penalty. As matters stand now, a private who loses a rifle suffers far greater consequences than a general who loses a war. By exercising its powers to confirm the retired ranks of general officers, Congress can restore accountability among senior military leaders.
It's worth reading the whole article to understand the context. I would, however, argue that Yingling fails in one area: Even if the generals had provided proper strategic assessments, as Eric Shinseki did, the neo-cons were not likely to have changed their course of action.

Rumsfeld had fixed in his mind that technology would be the army of the future, today, and did not consider the responsibilities of occupation a defense department mandate. Even though there were exercise results on the shelf and his army chief of staff was stating that occupation would take troops on the order of several hundred thousand, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and Cheney had already decided how it would be done.

The problem was that the generals let it happen. While I think blaming them completely for the failure in Iraq is a little extreme, they certainly had the power, before the invasion of Iraq ever took place, to make it an unpalatable move requiring four times the existing troops and demanding a national program of conscription to fill the ranks of ground forces.

(H/T Canadian Cynic for the WaPo lead)

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