Unleash Hell!!! « War logic » and the war in Iraq

As far as I can remember, the biblical story of David vs. Goliath has never been to me the story of a bright victory of weakness against strength On the contrary, I’ve always thought that David was the strongest of both opponents. Not only does he rely on the will of God but he also draws upon his cleverness in order to defeat his adversary. It’s not so counter-intuitive as it could appear at a first glance: power doesn’t necessarily imply strength or having much more material capabilities.

From « war » to « logic of war »:

In the last issue of Res Militaris, Laure Bardiès wrote a smart and insightful piece in which she argues to give up descriptive categories  and instead promote analytical ones in order to better explain and understand contemporary wars.

Basically, her arguments draw on weberian sociology to build ideal-types that could account for the logic of actors (by which she means not only the belligerents, but also different actors, pursuing different and sometimes diverging interests, inside a political-military apparatus). The reason is clear: categories we are used to employ in order to depict contemporary conflicts are either too descriptive (i.e. tied to the formal characteristics of wars) or too normative (i.e. shaped by one actor’s perception of the other). « Asymmetric » war (war between a « weak » and a « strong ») falls in the former while « irregular » war (war between state-soldiers and terrorists/insurgents) is clearly typical of the latter.

She proposes to look further: according to Clausewitz, war is waged for political purpose. Means as well as ends are a function of the significance of the fight given by the actor. It could thus be possible to design ideal types that could account for their logic, the dynamic interplay between them and their evolution in time. Accordingly, she offers to transform the categories of « total war » and « limited war » into « total war logic » and « limited war logic ».

In order to build her ideal type, she suggests to analyze the relations between issues, objectives and means.

Thus, a « total war logic » would exist when an actor has absolute issues at stake (like its survival), design accordingly its objectives as imposing its will whatever the costs and thus relies on every means at its disposal in order to do so. On the contrary, a « limited war logic » would be characterized by relative issues, objectives restricted by a threshold beyond whom costs would overcome the expected benefits, and  thus means would be quantitatively restricted.

Eventually, Laure Bardiès concludes by articulating a dynamic interaction between those logic:  what if an actor has a « limited war logic » against his opponent waging (in its own perception) a « total war »? Obviously, the latter has the advantage owing to its greater capacity to abide costs. In addition, she argues that the real difference between both logic lies in two criteria

1) the determination to pursue the armed struggle

2) the proportion of means effectively engaged in comparison to the total amount of means at the actor’s disposal

Applying « war logic » to the US War in Iraq:

Empirically, it is difficult to apply that model. Of course, this is precisely the function that ideal type is supposed to perform: to serve as a reference in order to analyze contingent situations.  No historical configuration would exactly fit with one of the ideal type, the greatest probability being that it would be situated somewhere between both poles of the spectrum (or, more precisely, that it would shift from one to another due to the dynamic characteristic of war). But, if we take the three elements of the model, the Iraq war (as waged by the Bush administration) would fit in the following table:

In that case, issues and objective are congruent with a « total war logic » while means comply more with the « limited war logic ». Indeed, issues were raised at a very high level, with the Bush administration arguing that Saddam Hussein could use weapons of mass destruction or funnel them to terrorist groups in order to wage war on the US soil. Objectives were also designed as absolute: first to destroy the regime and then to transform Iraq in a stable, democratic State allied with the US in its struggle against Al Qaeda. On the contrary, means were mostly limited, both in the invasion phase and in the subsequent stage of occupation (the main strategy during the first years being to withdraw troops as soon as possible).

In order to understand that gap, one should examine the very reasons of the war against Saddam’s regime, which have nothing to do with the real threat it posed to the US (even if Bush and his counselors thought it could be a real threat at the time), but more with several ideologically biased perspectives about  the threat. First, the invasion was supposed to prevent (or preempt in the Bush’s rhetoric) attack from Saddam and second to deter any aggression. Instead of assessing the threat of non state actors, the Bush administration at the time was more concerned by the threat posed by rogue states. Second, that move was a way to fix the problem posed by the the regime of sanctions imposed on Iraq. Third, the war was also a mean to restore the status of the US after 9/11.

That gap could also be explained by the way Donald Rumsfeld and several strategists in the Pentagon thought war should be now waged: with limited, but more lethal and decisive, means. In their view, technological advance coupled with operational excellence would suffice to overthrow the regime.

Eventually, ideology had a vote: neoconservative Weltanschauung – which envisioned democracy as the « natural regime » of any society – coupled with the administration’s reluctance to nation building led to a poorly planned post-Saddam Iraq.

With regards to the means, they were mostly limited both in quantity (troops deployed on the ground were mostly insufficient to perform the task of securing Iraq after the fall of the regime and achieving Bremer’s revolutionary agenda) and in quality (meaning here that the strategy was oriented toward withdrawal).

Incoherent strategy: 

That discrepancy between issues and objectives on the one hand, and means on the other hand led to strategic incoherence.  In order to understand the difficulties encountered by the US military in Iraq, one has to add two critical variables.

  1. the dominant elements of the strategic and military culture insist on the necessity to achieve a decisive victory. In other words, even a « limited war logic » can imply the maximum use of force in order to win a quick victory (and one could add: all the more decisive that issues and objectives are « limited »). In the case of Iraq, that logic implied to deliver the maximum amount of force in order to topple the regime. The problem is that, once Saddam defeated, a much harder challenged emerged, which would have requested a much larger amount of political patience and strategic flexibility. Consequently, in the absence of a decisive victory in the other goal (building a stable and democratic Iraq), the Bush administration shifted to denial. That produced a lowering of the expectations regarding the final stage to achieve before withdrawing and releasing sovereignty to the Iraqi government. Hence, the hope raised by a temporary surge of force in order to achieve a decisive victory against insecurity. The fact that the Bush administration took such a long time to accept the challenge of the task and the reality suggests that the « total war logic » was almost rhetorical. The fact that it accepted to lower its expectations suggests that the logic became less and less « total » and more and more « limited » with time (and especially after Bush secured a second mandate). Nevertheless, the capabilities of the US to endure such a military effort on the long run is tied to both determination (especially regarding the political leaders and the officers deployed on the ground) and endurance (with regards to military capabilities to sustain a high tempo rotation cycle).
  2. given that first element, it is worth to underline the link between that culture of « decisive and quick victory » on the one hand and the reliance on a strategy of annihilation on the other hand. That link is in no way necessary. Insurgents’ strategy suggests that a « total war logic » can instead rely on a strategy of attrition, in order to raise the opponent’s costs until he decides to give up. Facing such a strategy, the Bush administration (and the theater commander) could not longer rely on the sole use of military force in order to win the decision. If the surge achieved several of the objectives set by the administration, it was a consequence of multiple factors, in which the US strategy is only  a part (even if I argue that it is the most important as it benefited from other political dynamics at play which it partially shaped in return). Although eventually that strategy morphed into a « hybrid » form, associating annihilation goals (dismantling « irreconcilable » actors) and attrition means (the use of SOF raids in order to disrupt AQI’s organization and leadership).

Time and interests:

That model is highly significant if one considers the very importance of time and interests. Actually, interests are what shape issues and objectives. Those interests lie in various actors and can take several forms: material as well as ideological, bureaucratic as well as corporate. In some case, they even can affect the whole society (when survival is at stake). But that doesn’t imply those interests to be stable or able to determinate issues and objectives in a strict causal way. A narrower view tends to show how the margin of maneuver for political leaders is more important than one would expect. Notwithstanding, interests play a role in limiting or raising issues.

But that’s also a function of time: the longer a conflict, the more the tendency to shift from one logic to the other. In the case of the war waged by the Bush administration in Iraq, determination and stubbornness was a byproduct of high issues and unrealistic objectives. But determination translated into denial and did not lead to raise the level of means deployed in Iraq, with the very exception of the surge. But Bush’s decision to escalate is not a proof a a « total war logic », it has more to do with the bias toward the need to achieve decisive victory. On issues and objectives, time tended to lower Bush’s expectations and focused his attention on more limited objectives in Iraq.  Quite the opposite, Obama’s narrowing of issues and objectives fit more with the « total war logic »: by elevating the real objective of the US toward dismantling Al Qaeda and escalating drones strikes and SOF raids, the 44th president showed his willingness and determination to achieve victory.

In short, the Iraq war case study suggests that means are not necessarily determined by issues and objectives, but by other factors. Among them is the perception of what military force can achieve in terms of military and political effects. In return, that false perception gave way to a misleading assessment on those effects, leading to the belief that the US should avoid long term commitment on the ground in the near future.

To conclude, the war waged in Iraq by the Bush administration may fit the « war logic » model proposed by Laure Bardies. Indeed,both  determination and the relative level of means are  a function of the duration of the conflict. But, as her model deals more with the coherence between issues, objectives and means, it is worth to complete it with intermediary variables that would help to explain and understand the disjunction between those elements. In short, her work is the first step toward a better understanding of today’s dynamics of conflict. Further researches programs should focus on relevant question as the supposed role of the public opinion – or more accurately, its perception by political elites – in shaping strategic decision; while mine are more focused on the way « war logic » is an important component in the process of shaping political and military effects.. Because not only is strategy a bridge between ends and means, but its function is to generate effects.



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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