Many things went wrong in Iraq War II, and many things went right. That makes it like every other war ever fought. War is unpredictable by its nature, and often won by the side that adapts most quickly to the unexpected. For this reason, our military is already deeply engaged in evaluating lessons learned so far and figuring out how to change. Last month I had the opportunity to hear a presentation by military analysts about these issues. Here is my take on several of their more salient observations.
Too much too soon. Sometimes, what goes wrong is everything going right. Training and technology led to an execution of the war and a speed of advance so rapid that it surprised everyone and outstripped planning. The military expected to take seven weeks to reach Baghdad, but it took only two. The rapid sweep left a vacuum in its wake, and politics abhors a vacuum. Backfill put people into power who were sometimes no better than those deposed.
Yet no one would argue that we should have purposely gone slower. The surprising speed was a great help in many ways, but we hadnt adequately prepared for it. Unexpected success brings unique problems, as well as easily missed opportunities. We were not prepared to transition so early into a peacekeeping mode.
Reality TV. Before the war, many military leaders opposed wartime teleconferencing. They feared it would encourage premature decisions and their promulgation before careful review. But now most have changed their minds. Face-to-face discussions convey information that can get lost in carefully composed memos. Remote commanders get a better sense of the battlefield, and troops get a better sense of what the commanders want and expect. So far, teleconferencing has led not only to quicker decisions, but to better ones.
Cities are jungles. Iraq is mostly desert, but that proved mostly irrelevant. Virtually all fighting took place in or near cities, where visibility is low, and the greatest dangers are ambush, snipers, and booby traps more akin to the Vietnam experience than to Iraq War I. Over the past two decades, about 70 percent of U.S. military engagements have been urban for example, in Mogadishu and Panama City so we should have been better prepared. But we have grossly inadequate facilities for urban training, and our soldiers spend little time doing it. That must change.
The city environment also neutralizes many of our high-tech advantages. GPS doesnt work indoors, and often fails outdoors in narrow alleys. Our high tech communications also have problems. Some of our radios use frequency hopping (rapid changes in frequency) to avoid detection and location. But these systems work only when there is good signal propagation at all frequencies, a condition often not met in cities. So after a few weeks of urban fighting, some soldiers (and officers) had their families send them citizen band walkie-talkies from Radio Shack. When you are under fire, it may be more important to be able to call for help immediately than to maintain covert communications. This experience is reminiscent of Gulf War I, when families sent soldiers cheap GPS receivers.
Problems of precision. On D-Day in World War II, we dropped leaflets warning all French citizen who lived within 50 kilometers of the coast to evacuate. Our bombers and artillery demolished entire towns because it was the quickest way to eliminate a handful of entrenched Nazis. We now put a much higher priority on protecting civilians. Minimizing collateral damage has become a major constraint in modern war fighting. Our precision weapons are still not perfect, but they are getting much better; they reduced the number of noncombatant deaths to a much lower level than many predicted. As a result, most Iraqi civilians chose not to evacuate cities, and the massive refugee problem that many feared never materialized. But an unfortunate consequence of precision is that U.S. troops had to fight battles in the midst of innocents the people they were there to save.
The military describes the current situation as a three block war. In block one we are feeding and giving medical care to the Iraqi people. In block two we are patrolling, acting as peacekeepers and policemen. In block three we are engaged in full combat. In Iraq all three blocks are sometimes adjacent and coincident in time. Follow a suspected sniper, but be careful; if you throw a hand grenade into his hiding place, you may kill innocent civilians. Even a flash bang stun grenade is impermissible, because that could hurt a baby. This kind of fighting is so new that abstract planning is of little help. We are learning as we go.