US strategy in Iraq: an analytical perspective

In a previous post on Strategy(ies), I highlighted the critical importance to both grasp Strategy’s role and function.. If Strategy’s role is to bridge the gap between ends and means, it functions as an effect-generator and is thus an accurate metric for power.

I’d like to advance a few hypothesis on US strategy in Iraq between 2003 and 2008. My aim is to focus on the significance of strategic adjustments made in 2003, 2004, 2005, 2007 and 2008.

It is important to underline the lack of precise and clear objectives between 2003 and 2007. If the objective seems clear in 2003 (to topple Saddam’s regime), it quickly became more confuse once reached. Hence a vague and ambitious endstate: a democratic, allied and stable Iraq.

In order to achieve that goal, it would have necessited to develop and implement a complex strategy with all necessary means needed. Instead, the political leaders decided to maintain a low troop-level and to underline such critical steps as economic reconstruction, a new Constitution and democratic elections.

The main result of that planning was to leave the strategic decision to in-theater Commanders. Even if the Pentagon issued the directive 3000.05 en 2005 (that insisted on the necessity for military institutions to prepare for stability operations and military support to stability operations) and the Quadriennal Defense Review in 2006 (that focused on irregular threats), it was a pressure directed to the services in order they adjust their doctrine and tactics. Put it simply, it was not a reconsideration of the political goals but rather an incentive for the military (and especially general Georges Casey) to seek other means in order to achieve the initial goals.

In both 2004 and 2005, general Casey (and his immediate superior, general John Abizaid) outlined a strategy that struggle to meet those objective with limited means and in front of a growing insurgency (and the incoming civil war). Hence a campaign plan and tactical directives that insisted on building Iraqi institutions through a top-down process.

It is not clear for Historians if the 2006 strategic review consisted in a conscient move by President Bush to lower the political goals. Meanwhile, the product was a significant departure from the previous approach. For the first time, the Administration sought to advance less ambitious goals and, more important, adjusted to domestic political pressure. Hence a strategy that moved goals, ways and means. The goal was to secure Iraq in order to ease the withdrawal process, the way was a political approach to reconciliate the various Iraqi actors and the means were new tactical and operational procedures embodied in the "counterinsurgency" word.

In a sense, the strategy moved from solving the Iraqi "problem" to easing the future withdrawal of troops. By focusing on more coherent, precise and less ambitious goals, the Bush Administration enhanced the strategic approach and allowed a more sophisticated campaign plan that focused on generating effects designed to shape audiences in Iraq and in the US.

The most important point here lies in defining issues: if Iraq was first depicted as an absolute issue, it has become a more realist one (that is, more aligned to real US interests).. Issue is thus a critical point for any strategic analysis that focuses too much on ways and means.

Update: that means that a strategy can be attrited both from above and from below (thanks to Jason Fritz).

  • From above: when issues are raised too high (that is, when they don’t match with real interests. For instance, toppling Saddam Hussein could make sense because of the WMD threats -that wasn’t- and in order to ensure oil flows from Iraq). For "artificial issues" to be met, political leaders must obtain a total mobilization of his Nation’s means. To do that, he must be able to ideologize his audience and ensure his definition of the issues to be credible enough. Another problem is met when artificial issues do not lead to credible ends: that is, issues are deemed as absolute but ends are either too vague or too irrealistic. For instance, "stabilization" means building institutions in the hope that democracy and free market (and all the "liberal" stuff) will emerge like Venus from the sea. Third, in expeditionary operations, it is more difficult to ensure the coherence between issues, their perception by the domestic opinion (and especially the political and military elites) and thus to achieve a sufficient level of means in order to reach the goals. Hence the perpetual dilemma in Iraq between presence and withdrawal into large bases. My hypothesis here is the fact that, in Iraq, issues were raised high in order to ensure public and international support to the invasion, but were not of critical importance for the political elite in the Bush Administration (except the fact that, once in war, it is difficult for any leader to accept defeat, thus leading to maintain the issues at a high level for a long time). Thus, political ends (a democratic Iraq) were left too vague and the military leaders had just to align with that goal with insufficient means.
  • From below: it is the case when political ends are not discussed and taken for granted. The main problem is to define how to meet those goals. If military leaders (as it is the case in expeditionary operations) are left on their own, they would have tendency to craft a strategy starting from the means at their disposal (meaning level of troops of course, but also those tactical procedures that seem to succeed). In Iraq, both military commanders (Casey and Petraeus) sought to design a strategy starting from the collection of tactics and operational procedures we call "population-centric counterinsurgency". If the political leader does not define his ends in a strict and coherent way, then that hypothesis would predict that Tactics (means) will lead the strategic process.

That implies a critical point: as a bridge, Strategy has to reconcile ends, ways and means. Normatively, a real strategy will have to be defined starting from above (the definition of ends). Those ends being the product of a political choice (resulting from a complex political process involving many actors), it’s not sure that they will match interests. More important, once decided, those ends will not be discussed nor criticized. Hence, a tendency to discuss means and ways rather than ends. In addition, in the case of  "limited wars" (that is, with little interests at stake, even if issues have been raised high by the political leader), there would be a tendency to define strategy starting from the context, and then the tactics and procedures available.

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