Winning the Battles, Losing the War

A historian, Isaiah (Ike) Wilson III, Ph.D, gave a talk a few months ago at Cornell, entitled “Thinking Beyond War: Civil-Military Operational Planning in Northern Iraq.” His basic thesis seems to be that, in contrast to a carefully planned and executed war campaign, there were no definitive plans for what to do after the Iraqi army collapsed. “In short, there was no operational plan for the post-offensive because the postoffensive phases were viewed as someone else’s mission” is how he summarizes his thesis. This is all made more interesting because he’s not some bleeding-heart peacenik, but a Major in the US Army:

From April to June 2003, this author chronicled the war effort as a researcher and a primary writer for the Chief of Staff of the Army’s (CSA’s) Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) Study Group. This assignment offered great opportunity to view the execution of combat operations from a frontline vantage point, to conduct formal interviews with soldiers of every ground unit (US Army, US Marine Corps, and UK Forces) engaged in the march up country to Baghdad and record their experiences and lessons gathered. From July 2003 to March 2004, this author participated more intimately in the war effort, serving as the chief of plans (chief war planner) for the 101 st Airborne Division (Air Assault). In this capacity, this author participated in and led the planning of combat (offense; csupport, and civil reconstruction efforts in northern Iraq.

He characterizes the state of affairs on the ground today:

The lack of an endstate-driven campaign plan prior to the commitment of combat forces in Iraq has contributed to the present state of civil-military affairs in Iraq: a Coalition Provisional Authority (and now a “sovereign” interim Iraqi government) lacking long-range vision and the know-how to put into action those goals and objectives its has figured out thus far, and a combined and joint military force with the expertise in getting things done – be it destruction or reconstruction – yet hobbled by a lack of resources, a lack of a winning plan and strategy, and an over-abundance of misdirected bureaucratic “assistance.”

His report is in two major parts, the pre-war planning, and the experience of the 101st Airborne division in Northern Iraq. That Northern Iraq hasn’t fallen into disarray is actually impressive: The Kurds would like nothing more than to secede and start their own country. There’s a substantial Baathist regision. Turkish special forces were scattered throughout. He explains why, and proposes ways to improve things, both in the rest of the country, and in US military doctrine and training.

I feel a little bad in that he asks we not cite his work without permission. But these are important policy questions, and the document was on a public web site. The entire report is worth reading if you care about why we are where we are.

Now all of this was drawn to my attention by an article in the Washington Post, Army Historian Cites Lack of Postwar Plan:

Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks, who as chief of the Central Command led the war planning in 2002 and 2003, states in his recent memoir, “American Soldier,” that throughout the planning for the invasion of Iraq, Phase IV stability operations were discussed. Occupation problems “commanded hours and days of discussion and debate among CENTCOM planners and Washington officials,” he adds. At another point, he states, “I was confident in the Phase IV plan.”

A rank amateur in the art of reading statements written by media consultants would think that the Major and the General are contradicting each other. But they’re not. Wilson argues that the planning was insufficient, chaotic, and missed important factors for organizational reasons. Of course Franks, as a participant in the system, didn’t see these flaws at the time. Of course he was confident: If he wasn’t, the plans would be revised until he was. But were the plans critiqued, and did those critiques reach his ears? Wilson says no.

[Update: James Fallows has a long piece in the Altantic on the war, and post-war planning process.]

3 thoughts on “Winning the Battles, Losing the War

  1. His thesis is ‘close enough for government work’. Before the war it was clear that the stated public reasons were wrong, but it wasn’t clear to me what the underlying reasons were. Now that we’ve seen it unfold, we can have a stab at relating plausible missions to the facts as we’ve observed them.
    Unfortunately, the polite result of that was that there was no objective. That is, there was no clear overarching strategic objective that allowed strong planning and decision making to push down to the military level, once the detailed tactical event of the invasion had ben ordained. In principle, the answer to what to do afterwards derives from that objective, or why they went in in the first place. (The impolite version is that the objective was retaliation, which holds pole position due to its good correlation with the events and actions as they unfolded; not the least of which was that it explains why there was no effective plan for post-invasion: you don’t need one if your mission is retaliation.)
    There is one factor that mitigates this somewhat, and that is that the post-invasion phase has not really been experienced in any depth of late, except perhaps in Afghanistan, and I don’t think that’s proved to be a good working example. One has to go pretty much back to WWII where invasions succeeded and countries were post-invasion-processed (some might say rebuilt, but economists dispute that). Hence there are often references to “Marshal Plan” and MacArthur and so forth.
    Oh, and I think Gen. Franks is in agreement with Major Wilson: when he says lots of time was spent on the problem, I read that as far too much time for too little apparent result. The clincher is “I was confident…” which is double speak for “the plan is a crock, but we don’t have anything better, and we need to suppress doubts.”

  2. Having read the Atlantic piece, I’d probably revise my earlier comment! It looks pretty clear that they did have the post-invasion-processing well and truly planned, but that the plans were … scotched.
    Also, the piece adds more weight to the objective of “regime-change.”

  3. I need to get me a pair o them 20-20 hindsight glasses! And does anybody know where I can hire a good Monday morning quaterback?

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