General H.R. McMaster, US Army, best known for his leadership of the spectacularly successful Third Armoured Cavalry Regiment during the Gulf War, has an editorial in the New York Times entitled “The Pipe Dream of Easy War.”
In it, General McMaster argues that the success of the 1991 Gulf War made the Pentagon so enamoured of the easy victories promised by high-technology warfare and the “Revolution in Military Affairs” that they went into Iraq and Afghanistan expecting gadgets and gizmos to confer victory.
It is certainly true that US forces in those conflicts spent far too much time and money on technology when they should have been thinking about people and boots on the ground intelligence. That extra money made those wars some of the most expensive in history- which is a great embarrassment when the opposition consists of guys with AK-47s and RPGs.
It is also true, as McMaster points out, that hubris led to poor planning when it came time to stabilise the newly-conquered nations. He mentions the role of US-allied warlords in destabilising Afghanistan to the point where the Taliban seemed preferable to many, as well as unaddressed minority grievances. One could also mention the politically-driven program of de-Baathification in Iraq, which put the armed forces and the trained civil administration out of a job, with predictable effects. However, then-Secretary Rumsfeld was the driving force in preventing a coherent reconstruction plan from being executed in both countries. At least in the case of Iraq, the Pentagon and the State Department could probably have stabilised the country had that obstruction been removed.
McMaster highlights the human, political and historical aspects of war, which US forces often underappreciated. General McChrystal, former commander in Afghanistan, frequently highlights this one in his talks, pointing out that there was deep history, culture and psychology in Afghanistan that the Americans had difficulty understanding. “Wars like those in Afghanistan and Iraq cannot be waged remotely,” McMaster writes.
On the other hand, I am not sure that General McMaster himself isn’t guilty of some of the muddle that often accompanies strategic thinking at the Pentagon. He speaks of the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan, and many of the lessons he presents are quite important. However, the biggest lesson of those wars must and should be to avoid counterinsurgency situations to begin with. These were preventable insurgencies, and given that the immense human, material and political cost of these wars far outstrips anything the nebulous threat of terrorism could ever have inflicted on American soil, the strategic truth remains that America was a sucker for being drawn into those situations in the first place.
At this point, the US military should be looking ahead to see what they have lost through their ten years of reorientation toward small wars. Air Land Battle, the doctrine that won the 1991 Gulf War, is gone, as is the training and force structure that supported it. Without a solid manoeuvre doctrine, the US Army will not be able to effectively wage conventional war without massive attrition. Many argue that the era of massed tank warfare is finished- but on what facts is this based? Massive tank fleets still exist. The only place where the tank has declined is in the West. Russia, China, Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia and many other countries retain substantial tank forces, and Russia and China remain keen on developing tank warfare technology. Given the right scenario, the US could find itself living 1991, or worse, all over again, but without its manoeuvre forces.
Instead, the US military has attempted to apply manoeuvre warfare to the maritime arena, with the Air Sea Battle doctrine. Air-Sea battle, and its partner the Joint Operational Access Concept (JOAC), are jargon-based doctrines (and man are they swimming in it), designed to enhance cooperation between services and branches in order to overcome area denial and anti-access challenges, kick down the door and start dealing punishment upon the enemy. I’ve written previously about the problems with these concepts. In maritime scenarios which are likely to involve complex factors of nationalism, global economics and the possibility of protracted conflict if handled poorly, an all-out war-winning strategy becomes incredibly counterproductive compared with a more calibrated approach.