Defining Military Success In Iraq

A vehicle from the U.S.-trained Iraqi Federal Police passes through a checkpoint in Qayara, some 31 miles, 50 km, south of Mosul, Iraq, Oct. 26, 2016.

Marko Drobnjakovic/AP

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A vehicle from the U.S.-trained Iraqi Federal Police passes through a checkpoint in Qayara, some 31 miles, 50 km, south of Mosul, Iraq, Oct. 26, 2016.

The two main critiques of Operation Inherent Resolve are an important part of American political discourse. But they should not be confused for criticism of the Pentagon’s strategy.

Coalition forces in and above Iraq are succeeding against the Islamic State. But what do we mean by “success”, and how do we measure it?

From a purely military standpoint, the answers are fairly straightforward. President Obama set the objectives in the fall of 2014 — degrade IS forces from the air, support Iraqi operations on the ground, and enable local ownership of the overall situation — and U.S. forces are pursuing those effectively. Yet when the American military evaluates its own performance, it often takes heed of public criticism of its political guidance as well.

Indeed, the two-year-old political debate over how to defeat IS provides an important example of how political-military relations work in a democracy and lends insight into what it means to define a military operation as a success.

Shortly after President Obama announced that the U.S.-led Operation Inherent Resolve would “degrade and ultimately destroy ISIS,” two primary criticisms arose that seemed to challenge the military strategy. The first insists that U.S. ground troops should be sent back into Iraq to lead a local coalition and apply the hard-won counterinsurgency lessons of the last 15 years. The second, offered by prominent airpower thinkers, argues that airpower could quickly defeat the Islamic State.

These critiques are an important part of the public debate, but they should not be viewed as challenging the overall military strategy. As Clausewitz wrote:

No major proposal required for war can be worked out in ignorance of political factors; and when people talk, as they often do, about harmful political influence on the management of war, they are not really saying what they mean. Their quarrel should be with the policy itself, not with its influence.

With that in mind, let us look at these critiques in turn.

‘Send in the troops’

About a week before the President laid out his objectives, retired Brig. Gen. Huba Wass de Czege outlined how the Islamic State could be defeated and Iraq stabilized through three lines of effort: transfer legitimacy from IS to an “alternative indigenous regime”; protect the civilian population from intimidation; and mount a “town-by-town” offensive to evict the group. “This mission will take ‘boots on the ground’ and many of them,” concluded Czege, who founded the Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies. “It will be difficult to lead and not commit American ‘boots.’” Czege’s vision of a local force backed by U.S. ground troops has since become a touchstone of the running discussion over how to deal with IS.

The conceptual counterpoint to this perspective is articulated well by Fred Kaplan in his 2013 book The Insurgents. Kaplan argues that no matter how good U.S. forces get at large-scale COIN, it is still a military strategy without an appropriate political context in American foreign policy. Given that the United States is not looking to build an empire and “stay” for the long term, the U.S.-led COIN practices developed in Iraq in the mid-2000s are simply a better way of conducting an operation that does not ultimately fit American expectations or serve American long-term goals. In short, the long-term governance of a given country will always rest in the hands of those who are planning to stay.

Your author, as an active duty officer, will not offer an opinion as to the merits of either side of this politically charged argument. However, what is important for the military and public to understand is that the perspective of COIN advocates should not be viewed as a critique of the American military’s performance over the last two years against the Islamic State.

In President Obama’s initial speech concerning the war, he said that American ground troops in Iraq would not have a combat mission. In his words, the United States would “not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq.” In this respect, avoiding a ground war in Iraq is a central part of the overall political objective. This means success for the U.S. military resides, at least partially, in avoiding direct involvement in the ground fight.

‘Airpower can do it’

The second broad critique is basically the reverse of the first. Last year, retired Lt. Gen.  David Deptula wrote, “The current U.S.-led coalition is following the counterinsurgency model used in Iraq and Afghanistan for more than a decade, but the Islamic State is not an insurgency. The Islamic State is a self-declared sovereign government. We must stop trying to fight the last war and develop a new strategy.”

Deptula argues that this new strategy should adhere to the concept of “parallel warfare,” in which airpower is used to strike at multiple centers of gravity simultaneously, inducing “system paralysis” for the adversary. (For an authoritative description of the concept, read retired Col. John Warden’s chapter in Airpower Reborn.) Somewhat echoing 1991’s operations against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, Deptula says, “The Islamic State can be decomposed through a comprehensive and robust air campaign designed to: (1) terminate its expansion; (2) paralyze and isolate its command-and-control capability; (3) undermine its ability to control the territory it occupies; and (4) eliminate its ability to export ­terror.”

This perspective on the war is just as important to the public debate as that provided by COIN advocates concerning the use of ground troops. It represents the application of hard-earned lessons by our most prominent airpower theorists. The key for assessing this approach is determining whether it is the right airpower strategy for today’s context. As Colin Gray reminds us, “The reality or anticipated possibility of airpower has meaning only within its ever-changing historical situation.”

Again, this active duty officer will resist publishing any private views on this highly political argument. What is important to understand for the sake of our topic is that this airpower-centric critique is also directed primarily at the political objective, not the resulting military strategy.

In his September 2014 speech, President Obama stressed that “we cannot do for the Iraqis what they must do for themselves, nor can we take the place of Arab partners in securing their region.” He further emphasized that airstrikes would be conducted in tandem with Iraqi ground offensives. In short, the objective for U.S. military power, and airpower specifically, in Iraq is to enable Iraqi ground forces to encourage local ownership of local problems.


The two main critiques of OIR are an important part of U.S. political discourse. However, they must not be confused for criticism of the U.S. military’s strategy.

As the retaking of Fallujah in June and the ongoing campaign to retake Mosul symbolize, American and coalition airpower is successfully supporting Iraqi operations on the ground and the Islamic State’s reach in Iraq is gradually receding. That this is happening largely on the terms and timeframes established by the Iraqi government is not cause for viewing U.S.-led efforts less favorably. In many respects, this dynamic represents a success for a strategy ultimately focused on local capacity for what will certainly be a long path to stability in Iraq.

The ultimate success of OIR is a matter of debate for today’s political leaders and tomorrow’s historians. In the meantime, the U.S. military’s role is to quietly advise political leadership on how to best craft overall objectives and to execute a strategy shaped around the guidance laid out by the President. In this regard, the coalition is succeeding and, in the process, offering the overall political approach an opportunity for long-term success.

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