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Lions Led By Donkeys?

Visionary leadership will be a critical component of American success in both the war in Iraq as well as the war on terror. In his book, Fiasco, author Thomas E. Ricks revives the phrase “lions led by donkeys” to describe his view of the poor leadership of American soldiers in Iraq during the winter of 2003-4. He borrows the popular use of the phrase from German generals who used it to describe the British army in World War I, when British soldiers were led by their generals into battles that became mass slaughters. In referring to them as “lions led by donkeys” Ricks finds little to fault the front line American soldiers in Iraq but much to criticize about their senior military and civilian leaders. He quotes one un-named general who describes Iraq in the winter of 2003-4 as, “Tactically we were fine. Operationally, we were usually okay. Strategically – we were a basket case.” (1)

The Current Situation

After more than four years of fighting the United States may be on the verge of finding out if its military effort in Iraq remains vulnerable to being characterized as “lions led by donkeys.” On January 10, 2007, President Bush unveiled his administration’s latest strategy for the war in Iraq. The announcement represents both a concession that United States strategy up to now in Iraq has not brought success, as well as acknowledgement that the administration has lost the support of the American public for the war. Key elements of the strategy include the deployment of an additional 20,000 (+) American troops to Baghdad to establish security; new diplomatic initiatives with Iraq’s regional neighbors; doubling the number of Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Iraq; and a set of benchmarks for the Iraqi Government to achieve prior to the beginning of American withdrawal from Iraq by the end of 2007.(2)

To bolster the likelihood of success of his administration’s newest strategy the President selected Army Lieutenant General David Petraeus for promotion to full general, and upon his confirmation by Congress returned him to Iraq as the senior American military commander on the ground to oversee the effort. As the Army’s premier subject matter expert on insurgencies, General Petraeus is known both for his earlier counterinsurgency success as the Commander of the 101st Airborne Division in Mosul, Iraq in 2003, and for leading the effort to draft the Army’s newly released field manual titled Counterinsurgency.(3) Whether his dispatch back to Iraq is simply an example of a good general being handed a bad mission, as has been suggested by Time magazine, remains to be seen.(4)

During his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on January 23, 2007, General Petraeus demonstrated that, perhaps more than any other senior American leader, he understands the nature of the war in Iraq, thus elevating him above Ricks’ “lions led by donkeys” analogy. Among the critical points made by General Petraeus in his testimony:(5)

• The prospect of a failed Iraq is in no one’s interest – globally, regionally, for the United States, nor for the Iraqi people.
• There is no military solution to the current situation in Iraq. Ultimate success will come in the Iraqi political and economic arenas, and will be dependent on the provision of basic services, the establishment of rule of law, and economic development.
• Iraq and its fledgling government are beset by insurgents, international terrorists, sectarian militias, regional meddling, violent criminals, government dysfunction, and corruption. Military action to improve security is necessary to establish the environment necessary for social, political, and economic success.
• The commitment from the United States is both sizeable and long-term, and will require the participation of all the departments of the federal government.

Although the administration’s latest strategy for the war in Iraq may succeed, it has some formidable obstacles to overcome. Even in victory, as Prussian General Carl von Clausewitz noted, the result in war is never final.(6) Nor is it ever certain. An examination of the principles in Counterinsurgency provides insight into the apparent lack of United States progress thus far in Iraq, and reveals the nature of the obstacles to success it faces if it is to reverse course. As corollary to the new strategy for Iraq are the implications it raises for the United States effort against the global insurgency of al Qaeda in the larger war on terror.

Principles Of Counterinsurgency

Insurgency is not a new form of warfare, having been around for as long as war has existed. However, following its experience in Vietnam the United States Army removed virtually all references to fighting insurgencies from its doctrinal manuals, and built an Army centered on high-technology maneuver warfare. After re-learning old counterinsurgency lessons anew in Iraq, these are the principles for fighting insurgencies that General Petraeus prescribes in Counterinsurgency.(7) They are broken into three categories – historical principles, contemporary imperatives, and paradoxes of insurgencies.

Historical Principles For Counterinsurgency

Legitimacy Is The Main Objective: The primary objective of any counterinsurgency operation is to foster development of effective governance by a legitimate government. Counterinsurgents achieve this objective by the balanced application of both military and nonmilitary means.

Unity Of Effort Is Essential: Ideally, a single counterinsurgent leader has authority over all government agencies involved in counterinsurgency operations.

Political Factors Are Primary: Military actions may appear predominant as security forces conduct operations to secure the populace and kill or capture insurgents; however, political objectives must guide the military’s approach.

Counterinsurgents Must Understand The Environment: Counterintelligence operations require a greater emphasis on certain skills, such as language and cultural understanding, than does conventional warfare.

Intelligence Drives Operations: Without good intelligence, counterinsurgents are like blind boxers wasting energy flailing at unseen opponents and perhaps causing unintended harm. Effective operations are shaped by timely, specific, and reliable intelligence.

Insurgents Must Be Isolated From Their Cause And Support: It is easier to separate an insurgency from its resources and let it die than to kill every insurgent. Dynamic insurgencies can replace losses quickly. Skillful counterinsurgents must thus cut off the sources of that recuperative power. Some sources can be reduced by redressing the social, political, and economic grievances that fuel the insurgency.

Security Under The Rule Of Law Is Essential: Without a secure environment, no permanent reforms can be implemented and disorder spreads.

Counterinsurgents Should Prepare For A Long-Term Commitment: Planning and commitments should be based on sustainable operating tempo and personnel tempo limits for the various components of the force. At the strategic level, gaining and maintaining U.S. public support for a protracted deployment is critical.

Contemporary Imperatives Of Counterinsurgency

Manage Information And Expectations: Create and maintain a realistic set of expectations among the populace, friendly military forces, and the international community.

Use The Appropriate Level Of Force: Calculate carefully the type and amount of force to be applied and who wields it for any operation. An operation that kills five insurgents is counterproductive if collateral damage leads to the recruitment of fifty more insurgents.

Learn And Adapt: Insurgents constantly shift between military and political phases and tactics. In addition, networked insurgents constantly exchange information about their enemy’s vulnerabilities—even with insurgents in distant theaters. However, skillful counterinsurgents can adapt at least as fast as insurgents.

Empower The Lowest Levels: Higher commanders empower subordinates to make decisions within the commander’s intent. They leave details of execution to their subordinates and expect them to use initiative and judgment to accomplish the mission.

Support The Host Nation: In the end, the host nation has to win on its own. Achieving this requires development of viable local leaders and institutions.

Paradoxes Of Counterinsurgency Operations

Sometimes, The More You Protect Your Force, The Less Secure You May Be: Ultimate success is gained by protecting the populace, not the counterinsurgency force. If military forces remain in their compounds, they lose touch with the people, appear to be running scared, and cede the initiative to the insurgents.

Sometimes, The More Force Is Used, The Less Effective It Is: The more force applied, the greater the chance of collateral damage and mistakes. Using substantial force also increases the opportunity for insurgent propaganda to portray lethal military activities as brutal. In contrast, using force precisely and discriminately strengthens the rule of law that needs to be established.

The More Successful the Counterinsurgency Is, The Less Force Can Be Used And the More Risk Must Be Accepted: As the level of insurgent violence drops, the requirements of international law and the expectations of the populace lead to a reduction in direct military actions by counterinsurgents. More reliance is placed on police work, rules of engagement may be tightened, and troops may have to exercise increased restraint.

Sometimes Doing Nothing Is The Best Reaction: If an assessment of the effects of a course of action determines that more negative than positive effects may result, an alternative should be considered—potentially including not acting.

Some of the Best Weapons for Counterinsurgents Do Not Shoot: While security is essential to setting the stage for overall progress, lasting victory comes from a vibrant economy, political participation, and restored hope. Particularly after security has been achieved, dollars and ballots will have more important effects than bombs and bullets.

The Host Nation Doing Something Tolerably Is Normally Better Than Us Doing It Well: Long-term success requires establishing viable host nation leaders and institutions that can carry on without significant U.S. support. The longer that process takes, the more U.S. public support will wane and the more the local populace will question the legitimacy of their own forces and government.

If A Tactic Works This Week, It Might Not Work Next Week; If It Works In This Province, It Might Not Work In The Next: Competent insurgents are adaptive. They are often part of a widespread network that communicates constantly and instantly. There is no “silver bullet” set of counterinsurgency procedures. Constantly developing new practices is essential.

Tactical Success Guarantees Nothing: As important as they are in security, military actions by themselves cannot achieve success in counterinsurgency. Insurgents that never defeat counterinsurgents in combat still may achieve their strategic objectives. Tactical actions thus must be linked not only to strategic and operational military objectives but also to the host nation’s essential political goals. Without those connections, lives and resources may be wasted for no real gain.

Many Important Decisions Are Not Made By Generals: Successful counterinsurgency operations require competence and judgment at all levels. Young leaders often make decisions at the tactical level that have strategic consequences. Senior leaders set the proper direction and climate with thorough training and clear guidance; then they trust their subordinates to do the right thing.

Potential Obstacles To Success

Regardless of his formidable intellectual and leadership skills, it is not certain that the counterinsurgency concepts developed by General Petraeus will bring success in Iraq. He has some significant obstacles to overcome, any of which could become a “show stopper” in military parlance. First of all, it has not been clear from that beginning that United States policy understands its tools. This is evident in its nearly exclusive reliance thus far upon military means as its primary tool to establish the necessary social, political, and economic pre-conditions and processes for democracy to flourish in Iraq. The United States government has not engaged all the elements of national power by requiring the full commitment of all its federal departments to the effort.(8) Overall, the result has been a problematic approach that violates the first historical principle of counterinsurgency: Legitimacy is the main objective and is achieved by the balanced application of both military and nonmilitary means.

Second, President Bush’s initiative may be a classic case of too little, too late. The results in Iraq have demonstrated that Army General Eric Shinseki was correct in February, 2003, when he testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee that it would require a peacekeeping force of several hundred thousand soldiers to control the postwar environment in Iraq. Events have proven that General Shinseki’s estimate remains accurate, although the Bush Administration has never accepted it, and Shinseki was essentially sacked as Army Chief of Staff for his public stance. The surge of 20,000 (+) troops will bring force totals in Iraq to somewhere around 170,000 (+) people, hardly 50% of the number estimated by Shinseki as necessary to ensure success. Further, the surge is temporary if the administration maintains its position that it will begin withdrawing American forces whether or not the Iraq government has achieved its benchmark of taking responsibility for security of all its provinces by November, 2007. The signal sent to the Iraq insurgents is one of American short-term commitment. This violates the eighth historical principle of counterinsurgency: Counterinsurgents should prepare for a long-term commitment based on sustainable operating tempo and personnel tempo.

Third, the effort in Iraq must succeed despite a fractured national will. The outcome of the national midterm elections of November 7, 2006, signaled a fracturing of the first element of the American national will – popular support for the war in Iraq. By taking control of the Congress and the Senate from the Republican Party and giving it to the Democratic Party, the public demonstrated that it has withdrawn its support from the Bush Administration in the war in Iraq. The public mood was further revealed in a Washington Post-ABC News public poll conducted December 7-11, 2006, which revealed that 69% of the public support withdrawing most combat forces from Iraq by early 2008, and that 52% believe the United States is losing the war.(9) Declarations by Democratic Party leaders in the 110th Congress of their intent to take budgeting authority for the war in Iraq from the White House, and the follow-on Senate debate over a non-binding resolution condemning the surge of additional troops to Iraq, represent a fracturing of the second element of the national will, the political will. Taken together, these developments are indications that the public no longer supports the government, and that within the government the executive and legislative branches are at odds, over the war in Iraq. In American history, where there is no national will, there can be no sustained war. This also violates the eighth historical principle of counterinsurgency: Counterinsurgents should prepare for a long-term commitment based on sustainable operating tempo and personnel tempo.

Fourth, tactical success does not always equate to strategic success. For example, in Vietnam the United States expended the majority of its tactical efforts against the Viet Cong insurgency in South Vietnam, which it viewed as the main North Vietnamese effort. Although American forces succeeded in destroying the Viet Cong insurgency, they did not thwart North Vietnam’s strategic objective of undermining American public support for the war, thereby causing the United States to withdraw from South Vietnam. This principle is linked to the eighth paradox of counterinsurgency operations: Tactical success, as described by Ricks above, guarantees nothing by itself, but must be linked not only to strategic and operational military objectives but also to essential political goals.

Fifth, the United States Army, which continues to carry the brunt of the war in Iraq, with more than 3,500 soldiers killed and nearly 24,000 wounded since the start of the war, is showing signs of strain not seen since the decade following the end of the Vietnam War. As reported in Time magazine, after extended deployments and engagements over the past four years to fight a type of war in Afghanistan and Iraq for which it was never doctrinally designed, equipped, or trained the signs of stress are apparent in the personnel ranks, as well as in the condition of its equipment.(10) For the first time in modern history the United States is fighting an extended war with a volunteer military. Although the Army appears to be maintaining its all-volunteer force, it is paying a steep cost according to Time. To maintain enlistments it has lowered its percentage of high school graduates from 94% (2003) to 81% (2006); increased the number of waivers for enlistees with criminal records, medical problems, or poor aptitude scores from 4,918 (2003) to 8,129 (2006); increased the maximum age for enlistment from 35 to 42; implemented a measure known as “stop-loss” to involuntarily hold 70,000 soldiers past their enlistment obligations; increased the amount paid in enlistment and retention bonuses from $328 million (2002) to more than $1.09 billion (2006) (11); and has considered opening recruiting offices in foreign countries to fill personnel shortfalls. Within the officer ranks the Army is short about 3,000 mid-level officers (through 2013) as a result of overly-deep personnel cuts made about 10 years ago. It has critical officer shortages in aviation, intelligence, engineering and military police – specialties which are in higher demand for counterinsurgency operations. A shift in attitudes across the ranks is reflected in a December, 2006, poll taken by the Army Times which reflects that the number of troops who think victory is likely in Iraq has fallen from 83% to 50%. After decades of building a smaller, high-tech maneuver force, an inspector general report concluded that in the environment of Iraq service members were not always equipped to effectively complete their missions. On April 12, 2007, standard combat tours for soldiers in Iraq, many of whom are on their third deployments, were increased to 15 months, the longest since the Vietnam War.(12) Taken together, these factors indicate the Army is an institution under stress and run counter to the fourth principal of contemporary imperatives of counterinsurgency: Empower the lowest levels to make decisions within the commander’s intent.

Finally, the enemy has a vote. As Clausewitz noted, “war is not an exercise of the will directed at inanimate matter…In war, the will is directed at an animate object that reacts.” (13) The nature of the continuous and dynamic give-and-take interaction between opponents in war makes its outcome unpredictable. This principle is embodied in the seventh paradox of counterinsurgency operations: If a tactic works this week, it might not work next week; if it works in this province, it might not work in the next. There is no “silver bullet” set of counterinsurgency procedures.

Corollary To The War On Terror

The implications of the American experience in Iraq carry over to the larger war on terror. Today’s homeland security environment consists of networks of complex, interconnected, adaptive threats that extend beyond the domain of historic law enforcement or military operations. They utilize strategies and methods similar to those of both the global insurgency of al Qaeda and the insurgency in Iraq and, thus, require a similar counterinsurgency-like response. The principles for conducting counterinsurgencies outlined above are readily adaptable to the war on terror. The United States has the resources to succeed in the war on terror but no single government department or agency has or will have sufficient resources to conduct homeland security operations unilaterally.

Considerable challenges, bearing resemblance to the obstacles described above, require visionary leadership on the part of America’s homeland security leaders. The solutions in the war on terror are not military in nature. Therefore, homeland security leaders must ensure the social, political, and economic pre-conditions are established for success in the war on terror, both globally as well as domestically. To do so, they must use all the tools of policy available to the nation. They must allocate the necessary resources, in the right way, to develop and maintain a capable force of first responders. In the war on terror first responders are as critical to America’s security as its Army.

Despite the expenditure thus far by the United States of some $843 billion on the war on terror, indicators are that both the threats and incidents of global jihadist terrorism have increased.(14) The application of resources alone to the war on terror will not be enough – new and innovative ways of thinking are needed to defeat adaptive enemies. Similar to Iraq, strategy must extend across agency boundaries and integrate the full range of interagency efforts to most effectively meet current and future homeland security needs. General Petraeus appears to be the right military leader for the war in Iraq; similar visionary leaders are needed in homeland security and the war on terror. It is of paramount importance for homeland security leaders to ensure that first responders, the nation’s first line of domestic defense in the war on terror, are not labeled by future historians as “lions led by donkeys.”

(1) Thomas E. Ricks, Fiasco: The American Military Adventure In Iraq, (The Penguin Press, New York 2006), 308.

(2) George W. Bush, President’s Address To The Nation, Washington, D.C., January 10, 2007. http://www.whitehouse.gov/infocus/iraq/ (accessed 01/15/07)

(3) Department of the Army. Field Manual 3-24, Counterinsurgency, December, 2006. http://www.fas.org/irp/doddir/army/fm3-24.pdf (accessed 01/15/07).

(4) Joe Klein, “When Bad Missions Happen to Good Generals,” Time (January 22, 2007), 25.

(5) Transcript, “General Petraeus’s Opening Statement,” The New York Times (January 23, 2007).
http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/23/world/middleeast/24petraeustextcnd.html?ex=1176177600&en=c5106ff0606df81b&ei=5070 (accessed 4/8/2007).

(6) Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1976), 80.

(7) Field Manual 3-24, Counterinsurgency, 1-20.

(8) The 9/11 Commission Report, Authorized Edition (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2004), 361-398. Chapter 12 of The 9/11 Commission Report lays out a blueprint for a United States global strategy in the War on Terror that calls for employment of all the elements of national power.

(9) Peter Baker and Jon Cohen, “Americans Say U.S. Is Losing War,” Washington Post (December 13, 2006).

(10) Mark Thompson, “Broken Down,” Time (April 16, 2007), 28.

(11) Tom Vanden Brook, “Army Pays $1 Billion To Recruit And Retain Soldiers,” USA TODAY (April 12, 2007), 8A.

(12) Tom Vanden Brook and Greg Zoroya, “Soldiers’ Combat Tours Get Longer,” USA TODAY (April 12, 2007), 1.

(13) Clausewitz, On War, 149, 139, and 253 respectively.

(14) Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, Five Years Later: Funding For Defense, Military Operations, Homeland Security, And Related Activities Since 9/11 (September 7, 2006), 1.

Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank, “Brutal Reality: The War Is Fueling Global Jihad,” New York Daily News (February 21, 2007), 15.


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