Leadership: Lessons Of The Iraq War


July 25, 2008: As the U.S. armed forces have done so many times before, they entered the uncertainty of a new war in 2001, and are now trying to figure out what they gained from it. Most of what went on during this war was unreported or misreported. This is nothing new. The important details, and lessons, of all past American wars were poorly reported, and what the military is trying to avoid is taking away the wrong lessons.

Throughout the current conflict, the military made no secret of what they were doing, and just kept focused on winning. They knew they would be dealing with an unusual enemy, a stateless force based on ideology and religion based hatred. This foe was weak, in the conventional military sense, but was armed with two powerful weapons. First, there was the suicide bomber, and terrorism in general. Against civilian populations, this was a very effective weapon. Against a professional and resourceful military foe, it was much less so. But the enemy had another weapon; the media and political opposition in their opponents homeland. The media is eager to report real or imagined disasters and mistakes. This is how the news business has stayed solvent since the mass media first appeared in the mid 19th century. Al Qaeda was run by people who were aware of this, and knew how to exploit it, both among friendly (Moslem) populations, and in nations they had declared their enemy. This they did by exploiting the proclivities of the political oppositions in the West.

Many in the West considered terrorism a police matter. But al Qaeda believed that if they could turn it into a military campaign, by getting Western nations to use military force, they would trigger an angry reaction among Moslems. Al Qaeda had long preached that the West was the enemy of Islam, and a Western invasion of Moslem nations would prove this. They also knew that many in the West would not approve of military action. These politicians, and their followers, would continue to insist on treating Islamic terrorism as a police matter. This would cause political turmoil in the West, and weaken counter-terror operations.

The invasion of Afghanistan, after September 11, 2001, did indeed enrage many Moslems, even though many of them admitted that the Taliban government there had provided bases for al Qaeda. But the Islamic terrorists also took advantage of the fact that Moslems did not use the same logic as Westerners. Even after the Taliban government quickly fell in late 2001, to an "invasion force" of only 300 Western troops (U.S. Army special forces and CIA agents), many Moslems insisted this was an unwarranted attack on a Moslem nation. This despite the fact that most Afghans wanted to be rid of the Taliban. And then it got worse, as many Moslems insisted that al Qaeda did not carry out the September 11, 2001 attacks. Many Moslems(and some in the West) still believe that the Israelis were behind it, or that the Americans staged an attack on themselves to provide an excuse to make war on Islamic nations. Al Qaeda knew how to exploit fantasies and cultural biases, even while al Qaeda leaders were taking credit for the 911 attacks.

The invasion of Iraq was even more contentious. In hindsight, the Iraq operation was essential to the defeat of al Qaeda, and the shattering of their popular support in the Moslem world. Al Qaeda, true to its own beliefs and tactics, tried to use terror attacks against the Shia Arab majority in Iraq, after 2003, as a way to put the Sunni Arab minority back in control. All this did was kill thousands of Moslem civilians and deflate popular support for al Qaeda. This could be seen, year by year, as opinion polls in Moslem countries revealed declining al Qaeda popularity.

But al Qaeda still had a lot of Support in the West. The political opposition in the United States, true to form (as in all past American wars) found ways to criticize the Iraq operation without actually joining the enemy. The media in the West backed the opposition, as that's where the headlines, and the profits, were.

Out of all this, the American military found other lessons. Their professional and resourceful troops found ways to neutralize enemy weapons (suicide and roadside bombs) while keeping their casualty rate at less than half what it was in Vietnam and pervious wars. The generals got no credit, in the media, for that, but the troops sure appreciated it. This resulted in the volunteer military to maintain its strength in wartime, the first time the U.S. had accomplished that since the American Revolution.

The troops developed a wide array of new techniques for fighting "irregular wars" (where the opponent is not a regular army.) The military adapted many new technologies to this new kind of war (smart bombs, data mining, forensics, persistent surveillance and lots of modern police techniques). The new problem is transferring as much of this new knowledge to future conventional wars. And there will be a transference. Most other major military powers are also trying to figure that out, so they can also profit from the American success.

Finally, the continued hammering the military is taking, for "failing" in this new kind of war, at least makes it less likely that there will be a problem with the victory disease (where winning brings with it complacency and all the ills that follow believing your own press releases.)





Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   Contribute   Close