war on the rocks

Observations on the Long War

September 10, 2014

For more than a decade, I have been recording reflections about the course of the so-called “Long War” launched after the tragic events of 9/11. These are based on many unique experiences: being the recorder for the 2002 Army After Action Review on Operations Enduring Freedom and Noble Eagle, developing prewar Army plans to reconstruct Iraq, serving as lead author for the 2006 version of Army/Marine Corps Field Manual 3-24 on counterinsurgency, visiting Iraq in 2007 for General David Petraeus, working on projects analyzing wartime assessment and war termination for the Office of the Secretary of Defense and Army Training and Doctrine Command, and innumerable conversations with insightful civilian and military veterans returned from the field. This commentary has also been shaped by many international travels and my own reading of history. I hope to provoke more critical thought about where the American military has been and where it should be going.

There are two approaches to warfare: asymmetric and stupid. I have been quoted on this topic a few times, and need to expand upon it. All competent belligerents will seek an edge in conflict. Such an edge could be found through new technology, superior numbers, more effective strategy, or innovative tactics. No one has pursued such advantages better than the United States. The American military today is the most asymmetric warfighting machine in the world. All of those so-called “asymmetric warfare” cells and centers scattered throughout DoD are really analyzing how other actors pursue common ways of countering U.S. advantages that are outside our own preferences. These means are often the purview of non-state actors. Perhaps they should be called “uncomfortable warfare” centers, to borrow from Max Manwaring. We are deluding ourselves if we do not recognize the unique ways and means of American warfare, and the fairly commonplace and pervasive application of others’ “asymmetric” approaches to oppose them.

Conflict termination has become even more difficult, and outcomes even more uncertain. I was privileged to be a member of the team called upon by General Dempsey, when he was TRADOC commander, to analyze how the United States ends its wars. The project produced a number of case studies and eventually a book. War aims and desired end states always change over time because wars always take on dynamics of their own, and both sides must agree on final conditions if hostilities are really going to cease. Sometimes vague objectives like “unconditional surrender” are enough to direct military actions, but even in World War II, the final political end states for defeated enemies were not determined until the gunfire stopped. As the United States enters contemporary conflicts with more partners, and against adversaries that that are often loose and shifting coalitions of non-state actors, the number of players who can influence termination has expanded, as has the difficulty of enforcing any sort of agreed upon end state. Mosaic wars require a mosaic peace, which can also vary significantly in character from village to village and region to region. Perhaps the best that can be hoped for in contemporary complex conflicts is to reduce violence to a tolerable level, rather than really conclude them.

Precision targeting is not always the answer. America’s airpower is its greatest asymmetric advantage in major combat operations. The U.S. Air Force has doggedly pursued the ideal of precision bombing since the 1930’s and has achieved truly remarkable levels of accuracy. But when military museums of former enemies develop displays portraying American warfighting, the dominant theme is one of massed airpower (Hanoi even has a separate “Museum to the Victory Over the B-52”). Obviously there are certain propaganda angles that can be exploited from that perspective, but discussions with Chinese, Vietnamese, and Iraqi veterans reveal the persistent power of such images. One of the key motivators that drove so much of the Iraqi Army to go home in 2003 was their memory of B-52s in 1991. Leaflets displaying those aircraft dropping scores of bombs were used to intimidate the Serbs during Operation Allied Force. The deterrent impact of such operations should not be ignored. During the writing of FM 3-24 in 2006, the proposed imperative of “Use the Minimum Level of Force” was finalized as “Use the Appropriate Level of Force,” because of the realization that there are times when one really needs to hammer an enemy to make an impression. And that impact may reverberate for many years, and in the minds of many other potential adversaries.

Who controls the ground controls the message. Despite the strength of American airpower, our real and potential adversaries have developed many ways to counter that asymmetric edge, and not just with expensive anti-access technology. These other approaches include so-called “lawfare” – the push for international legal restrictions on uses of force most commonly employed by the United States – as well as deft information campaigns to cause public backlash against perceived atrocities. As the U.S. military found in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, one of the drawbacks of “long-range precision strike,” whether by Special Operations Forces or a drone, is that whoever controls the ground in the aftermath controls how the media spins the results. America’s enemies have become adept at quickly producing images of destroyed mosques and dead children supposedly from such missions, but often from other, unrelated (or fictional) incidents. The results of investigations that may clear American forces of wrongdoing appear too many news cycles later to change the accepted narrative.

SOF have been drawn too much toward the “Dark Side” of direct action. Some of the blame the US Air Force has taken for collateral civilian casualties really belongs to Special Operations Forces from some of their raids. I saw an example of that in Iraq. There has been a reversal of roles during the last decade within the Department of Defense. For counterinsurgency, stability operations, and even most advisory missions, conventional forces have become the primary executors. When some important enemies need to get killed or captured, special operations forces (SOF) get that mission. Before 9/11, SOF were deployed in 84 countries, shaping the security environment as trainers and global scouts. The demands of GWOT have skewed deployments and focus considerably. There are many reasons for the new emphasis on direct action, but SOF must also retain their traditional capabilities in other areas, and shore up their global scouting capabilities.

The future emphasis for the Department of Defense will be Foreign Internal Defense (FID), but nobody wants to do it. If SOF are not going to devote themselves to FID, then that responsibility will fall on conventional forces. The force structure for FID is top-heavy, requiring experienced senior personnel to train and advise, the exact opposite direction of Army plans for “grade-plate reductions” to save money. But all services have a role. Airpower can be an asymmetric advantage for any nation we want to help, but Air Force FID is a very different mission than for ground forces, requiring many special skills and a unique mindset. For many nations, the Coast Guard can provide important FID expertise. But in constrained fiscal times, with increasing threats to our own borders and a perception that conventional capabilities need to be restored, FID commitments are a hard sell.

We need more cyberskeptics. All things cyber have widespread support. I have heard both the Secretary of Defense and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff say that increasing these will compensate for other force reductions. However, I believe we must do better in managing our cyber expectations. From working with the National Security Agency, I have recognized four cyber truths that need to be acknowledged.

  1. The more capabilities that you have, the more vulnerabilities you have.
  2. There is no economy of force concerning abundant electrons in cyberspace.
  3. You cannot defend everything successfully all the time.
  4. Once you have fired a cyberbullet, you have proliferated it.

The implications of these truths, combined with continuing legal and jurisdictional disputes, demand more critical thought. American offensive cyber capabilities, especially against sophisticated enemies, will and should always be centralized and restrained. Defenses will always be vulnerable. Success in the cyber realm will depend upon redundancy and resiliency. And we had better retain the ability to fight unplugged, much more so than we are doing now.

Modern social media can swarm disruption, but not control. Social media has already shown its potential for major impact on states. Social media platforms played an important role in mobilizing dissent during the “Arab Spring.” But swarms can be swatted, and even if that does not happen, the temporary coalitions that proved capable of bringing down governments usually fail to organize to replace them. In Egypt’s case, forces with established political structures in place, like the Muslim Brotherhood, or with guns, like the Egyptian Army, seized control. The course of the Arab Spring also showed increasing adaptations by targeted regimes to deal with the disruptions from such media mobilizations, most notably in the case of Syria. It appears that the new phenomenon will just add another factor to the forces of entropy already in the world.

We have never been able to “never do this again.” Despite the best intentions, those forces of entropy have always been hard to escape for the United States. Woodrow Wilson pledged to keep us out of World War I. Lyndon Johnson said he would limit our involvement in Southeast Asia. Bill Clinton stated that American forces would leave the Balkans within six months. And George W. Bush promised to reduce commitments to peacekeeping and nation building. The 2012 Defense Planning Guidance says the United States will avoid large land force commitments and, by inference, any major military actions in favor of other tools and approaches. History shows that some crisis somewhere will override that desire.

“Mission creep” is a self-inflicted wound. And when the next crisis occurs, the American military will again find itself performing traditionally non-military missions. When I describe the U.S. government to foreign officers at the Army War College, I tell them to envision a fiddler crab with one large claw labeled “Department of Defense” and a small claw labeled “the mythical interagency.” A bit harsh, I admit, but the fact still remains that there are more musicians in the Department of Defense than foreign service officers in the State Department. Civilian agencies do not have the capacity, capability, or culture to meet all their requirements in complex contingency deployments and especially in violent environments. Efforts to make meaningful reform have foundered on bureaucratic and budgetary obstacles. But in “wars amongst the people,” these missions must still get done and only the military can fill in.

People are not terrain. One of the spinoffs from the ideas generated by the efforts to create FM 3-24 was the establishment of human terrain teams, built around special expertise provided by members who were anthropologists or other social scientists. There has been fierce opposition from anthropologists about the creation of a “military-anthropology complex” that threatens to taint the reputation of the apolitical neutrality their research requires. But the military is going to pursue socio-cultural intelligence with or without professional help, and I believe that pioneers like Dr. Montgomery McFate should be commended for their assistance in helping the military do things better. That said, this concept has also made me uneasy. I fear human terrain teams have made anthropologists seem more important than the anthropology. In geography, hills and rivers are standardized enough so any geographer can provide competent intelligence about their form and character. But just because someone has a Ph.D. from studying a particular tribe in Papua, New Guinea does not mean they will understand Pashtuns in Afghanistan better than a soldier or marine who has lived with them for six months. Nor does it mean they will be well-suited to working with the military or communicating their insights in an operationally-relevant fashion. The most adept socio-cultural briefings I heard in Iraq came from just such soldiers and marines, who had probably conducted enough field research of their own (although they wouldn’t call it that) to earn a Ph.D. back at a civilian university. People are much more complex than any terrain feature, and much more changeable. It takes long periods of direct contact to begin to understand them.

We are still fighting one year wars. At a War College Strategy Conference a few years ago, I challenged David Kilcullen when he claimed that unit rotations would solve all the problems individual rotations had caused in Vietnam. (The individual replacement system applied there was blamed for fostering a lack of unit cohesion and continuity, with soldiers constantly flowing in and out on 12 month tours, creating a disjointed unit filled with varying levels of expertise and motivation). I failed to change Kilcullen’s mind, but I remain convinced that we have just exchanged one set of transition problems for another. In stability and counterinsurgency operations, long-term presence is critical to establish the personal relationships necessary for cultural understanding and political influence. I think that the individual rotation policies employed in Vietnam were actually better suited for such conflicts. The Military History Institute of the Army Heritage and Education Center holds a vast collection of after action reports from the war in Southeast Asia. Units established themselves for years in the same zone, getting to know every village, every infiltration route, every key person. There was no need for transitional handovers of intelligence and relationships with local populations, who came to know the unit in their midst very well. Unit rotations may mean better unit cohesion and, perhaps, better performance, but one still sees an arc of capability that peaks in the middle of tours, and rises and declines with learning and fatigue curves. And there can be complete breakdowns in handovers. The worst case I saw was in Iraq in 2007, where a new Joint Special Operations Task Force decided to go back to pursuing the unconventional warfare campaign it had been waging on its last tour there, rather than continue the counterinsurgency of the “surge” its predecessor had been pursuing. And they were really fighting six month wars, since that was their rotation schedule. The Marine Corps appeared to have a better system, deploying smaller units back and forth to the same places in a constant divisional sector, even if tours are only six or seven months.

Concerning headquarters, we are often “playing the Super Bowl with a pickup team.” Another way to provide continuity on the ground is through established headquarters, but no segment of our organizational structure is more abused or less appreciated. The first target for force reductions is always headquarters. Almost invariably, cuts that seem appropriate in peacetime have to be made up quickly in crises, resulting in untrained and poorly coordinated staff teams at multiple levels. For example, when Operation Enduring Freedom was launched in 2001, the CENTCOM staff was authorized 1254 personnel, and manned with 1199. It was quickly augmented with 1246 personnel from all over the military to meet its demanding requirements. Some of those augmentees came from the assigned Army component headquarters for Central Command, which was already at the lowest possible authorized level of organization with an insufficient structure to begin with. That headquarters then reached down for replacements from the subordinate tactical units that would soon be fighting in Afghanistan. Reserve call-ups of very uneven quality also filled holes. The pernicious ripple effect of these grab-bag reinforcements is to create staffs with little experience or cohesion, and prodded a frustrated Central Command participant at an August 2002 after action report for Operation Enduring Freedom to offer the lead-in quote for this section. One reason for the difficulties in handling the growing insurgency in Iraq in 2003 was that the Vth Corps staff that took over responsibilities for Joint Task Force 7 was inadequate for the myriad tasks it faced. The complexity of contemporary warfare requires well-trained and coordinated staffs capable of providing detailed planning and comprehensive intelligence at every level. That aspect of warfighting must be enhanced, not cut.

We should all be COINfused. I am often asked if I am a so-called “COINdinista,” touting the transformational aspects of counterinsurgency. When I reply that I am not, the question then comes whether I consider myself a “COINtra,” someone who believes that COIN (counterinsurgency) was overemphasized and a distraction from more important conventional capabilities. I consider myself “COINfused.” By this, I mean to combine the best of both schools. As we have learned the hard way during the last decade, just because you can do counterinsurgency does not mean that you should, but just because you say that you are executing counterinsurgency does not mean that you are. The ideas of operational campaign design first developed in FM 3-24 have now permeated all American doctrine, reflecting the complexities of contemporary warfare amongst the people, and the necessity to pursue multiple integrated lines of effort in any military operation. At the same time, there is a requirement to maintain the overwhelming conventional capabilities that are the cornerstone of our security, assuring friends and deterring enemies. As the American military moves forward into an uncertain future, it needs to build upon the insights gained from over a decade of war, not discard them or neglect them, and continue the process of learning, adaptation, and anticipation that is the only real guarantee of success in future conflicts.


Conrad Crane is Chief of Historical Services for the Army Heritage and Education Center at the Army War College. A retired Army officer with a Ph.D from Stanford, he is best known as the lead author for the 2006 Army and Marine Corps counterinsurgency manual. He is currently on sabbatical to write a book on his analysis of DoD activities since 9/11, tentatively entitled “Cassandra in Oz.”


Photo credit: The U.S. Army