In what will go down in history as either a bold attempt to reshape the way the Army chooses its general officers, or the world’s longest professional suicide note, LTC Paul Yingling, the Deputy CO of the 3rd ACR, and a veteran of two pumps to Iraq, attributes much of the struggles the coalition now faces in Iraq to failures in “generalship“:
Having spent a decade preparing to fight the wrong war, America’s generals then miscalculated both the means and ways necessary to succeed in Iraq. The most fundamental military miscalculation in Iraq has been the failure to commit sufficient forces to provide security to Iraq’s population. U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) estimated in its 1998 war plan that 380,000 troops would be necessary for an invasion of Iraq. Using operations in Bosnia and Kosovo as a model for predicting troop requirements, one Army study estimated a need for 470,000 troops. Alone among America’s generals, Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki publicly stated that “several hundred thousand soldiers” would be necessary to stabilize post-Saddam Iraq. Prior to the war, President Bush promised to give field commanders everything necessary for victory. Privately, many senior general officers both active and retired expressed serious misgivings about the insufficiency of forces for Iraq. These leaders would later express their concerns in tell-all books such as “Fiasco” and “Cobra II.” However, when the U.S. went to war in Iraq with less than half the strength required to win, these leaders did not make their objections public.
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.
After going into Iraq with too few troops and no coherent plan for postwar stabilization, America’s general officer corps did not accurately portray the intensity of the insurgency to the American public. The Iraq Study Group concluded that “there is significant underreporting of the violence in Iraq.” The ISG noted that “on one day in July 2006 there were 93 attacks or significant acts of violence reported. Yet a careful review of the reports for that single day brought to light 1,100 acts of violence. Good policy is difficult to make when information is systematically collected in a way that minimizes its discrepancy with policy goals.” Population security is the most important measure of effectiveness in counterinsurgency. For more than three years, America’s generals continued to insist that the U.S. was making progress in Iraq. However, for Iraqi civilians, each year from 2003 onward was more deadly than the one preceding it. For reasons that are not yet clear, America’s general officer corps underestimated the strength of the enemy, overestimated the capabilities of Iraq’s government and security forces and failed to provide Congress with an accurate assessment of security conditions in Iraq. Moreover, America’s generals have not explained clearly the larger strategic risks of committing so large a portion of the nation’s deployable land power to a single theater of operations.
The intellectual and moral failures common to America’s general officer corps in Vietnam and Iraq constitute a crisis in American generalship.
To this he attributes a combination of careerism – always a threat to a peacetime force – and the tendency of senior officers to groom subordinates for advancement who are “just like them.” The remedies for what he sees as this tendency towards monochromatic conformity in the upper ranks – where innovation and audacity might better serve – are 360-degree personnel evaluations combined with Congressional oversight of the 3 and 4-star selection process. That oversight should, in LTC Yingling’s view, demonstrate a favorable bias towards advanced degrees in the humanities and fluency in a foreign language. Like LTC Yingling has.
As a naval officer I speak under the risk of correction here, but it seems to me that the colonel is being a trifle hard on those who went before him, and who have faced complexities which are not always apparent to those operating at the tactical level. The “conventional” phases of OIF went brilliantly: The Ba’athist state was quickly dismantled, its legions routed from the field, Saddam sent impotent into a spider hole from which he was eventually rooted out and the threat of WMD – such as it was (and in any case, only one of 21 public reasons for the war) – affirmatively eliminated.
Stabilization and reconstruction has certainly not gone according to plan, nor is it at all clear that the post-hostilities plan was sufficiently robust. But any military operation has assumptions, and at each level in the chain of command a senior’s assumptions are to be treated by his subordinates as “truth.” The strategic assumption that 25 million people would be grateful to be unchained from 35 years of grinding tyranny did not take into account the de-humanizing effect that such a tyranny itself imposes. When those assumptions prove false – and this one certainly did with respect to a sufficient number of Sunni nationalists, Ba’athist rejectionists and irreconcilable jihadists – you get into what is known as “branch” planning. Branch planning can often look like an ad hoc, even chaotic process but it is one which – given time and adequate resources – generally stumbles on to a solution.
It has also become commonly accepted wisdom that US forces in Baghdad did not respond with sufficient vigor during the initial rioting that took place when the Ba’athist regime was decapitated, and that it was a mistake to disband the Iraqi Army. But front line combat troops dealing vigorously with rioting will appear much to the uneducated but all-seeing media eye as mere butchery, while preserving an institution like the old Iraqi Army – an institution that was used more than anything else as an instrument of state repression – could have been problematical for that majority of the civilian population inclined however skeptically to view our forces as liberators. Even if the old army hadn’t mostly changed into civilian slops and wandered off at the end of major combat operations.
These are interesting points that LTC Yingling raises, even as his references to Frederick the Great’s 18th century condemnation of his own general staff demonstrates – perhaps ironically – that such issues tend to be endemic to the military. We do tend to be a conservative institution in peacetime – using that term in the sense of “sticking to what has been proven to work” – even as we have been adaptive in times of conflict: viz General Petraeus current strategy of counter-insurgency vice repeated raids and operations from cantonment. This a strategy that has a chance of actually rescuing both ourselves and the 25 million or so Iraqi people whose fate is chained to ours, for better or worse.
It takes time to settle on a new strategy, and while this strategic shift took arguably too long a time, the increased casualties our troops are suffering to go along with their increased exposure among the populace demonstrates that once again, this was not a “no-brainer.” Especially if it was true that the officer caste had been encouraged, and in fact selected to be as risk averse as LTC Yingling implies.
Just as it took time to develop a new strategy – or really, to conform our strategic view to the reality on the ground – it will take time to see it through, or at least, to see if it will work.
Time and patience. Virtues in short supply, unfortunately.
Update: Interesting. The WaPo got an advance look at LTC Yingling’s text and labels it a “blistering attack.”
Is that the way it reads to you, or does it just sound cooler if you call it that?
Update 2: There’s a great deal more (and better informed) commentary on this over at Milblogs, by the way. Check it all out.