Saturday, November 25, 2006

Learning From Iraq

NYT Editorial

While politicians from both parties spin out their versions of Iraqs that should have been, could have been and just maybe still might be, the Army has taken on a far more useful project: figuring out why the Bush administration’s military plans worked out so badly and drawing lessons for future conflicts.

That effort is a welcome sign that despite six years of ideologically driven dictates from Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon, Army leaders remain usefully focused on the real world, where actual soldiers daily put their lives on the line for their country and where the quality of military planning goes a long way toward determining whether their sacrifices help achieve America’s national purposes.

Two hopeful examples are the latest draft of a new Army field manual that will be taught to officers at all levels beginning next year and a series of oral history interviews conducted with Iraqi and American officers involved in the disappointing efforts to establish and train Iraqi security forces. Last week, The Los Angeles Times published details of some of the major changes being incorporated into the new field manual, while The Washington Post reported on some of the lessons learned in the Iraqi training programs.

The field manual, the Army’s basic guidebook for war, peacekeeping and counterinsurgency, quietly jettisons the single most disastrous innovation of the Rumsfeld era. That is the misconceived notion that the size and composition of an American intervention force should be based only on what is needed to defeat the organized armed forces of an enemy government, instead of also taking into account the needs of providing security and stability for the civilian population for which the United States will then be responsible.

Almost every post-invasion problem in Iraq can be directly traced to this one catastrophic planning failure, which left too few troops in Iraq to prevent rampant looting, restore basic services and move decisively against the insurgency before it took root and spread.

Modern innovations in warfare make it possible for America’s technologically proficient forces to vanquish an opposing army quickly and with relatively few troops. But re-establishing order in a defeated, decapitated society demands a much larger force for a much longer time.

The new field manual will rightly call for stabilization efforts to start as soon as American troops arrive. And it will legally require American field commanders to request sufficient forces to successfully carry out these stability operations. That should short-circuit future debates about whether Pentagon policy makers are providing all the troops that the generals on the spot honestly feel they need.

Correcting deficiencies in American military training is also essential, since the biggest reason the United States has not been able to withdraw significant numbers of its own troops over the past three years has been the lack of adequately prepared and reliable Iraqi security forces.

Iraqi officers interviewed for the oral history complained that their American trainers were often junior officers without combat experience. American officers expressed unhappiness about how their own training teams had been selected and prepared. One major tellingly remarked that “I went there with the wrong attitude and I thought I understood Iraq and the history because I had seen PowerPoint slides, but I really didn’t.”

These are useful insights. But they can only go so far when a host government lacks the will to rid its security forces of sectarian militia fighters more intent on waging civil war than achieving national stability. That so far has been the biggest obstacle in Iraq.

Transforming American forces to fight 21st-century conflicts was the ubiquitous but largely empty slogan of the Rumsfeld era. Incorporating the hard lessons learned in Iraq into future military planning and training operations would constitute a far more practical variety of transformation.

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