The View From Olympus: Another Operational and Strategic Failure

Once again, the U.S. military has shown it has little grasp of operational art or strategy.  In revenge for a rocket attack on a joint U.S.-Iraqi base that killed one American contractor and wounded four American soldiers, the U.S. launched airstrikes on bases of Kataib Hezbollah, an Iraqi Shiite militia which it blamed for the rocket attack.  The airstrikes in Syria and Iraq killed 24 members of the militia. Kataib Hezbollah denied its forces launched the rockets.

In other words, the U.S., which has about 5,200 soldiers based in Iraq, bombed Iraqi targets on Iraqi soil.  Like other Shiite militias in Iraq, Kataib Hezbollah is part of the Iraqi state’s armed forces, although the state’s control over them is limited.  We did not clear our action beforehand with the Iraqi government.

To put this in perspective, imagine an American soldier had been killed in a terrorist attack in Germany.  In response, the U.S. Air Force bombed targets in Germany, killing two dozen Germans.

The results in Iraq were predictable and they follow a distinctively American pattern.  Tactically, we did what a Second Generation military does: we put ordnance on target and the targets were destroyed.  Operationally, we failed, because Kataib Hezbollah and allied Shiite militias, far from being cowed (which was our operational goal), went on the offensive, assaulted the American embassy in Baghdad, and penetrated into the compound.  An understandably angry Iraqi government let them do it. The militiamen besieged the embassy for two days, withdrawing only when their leaders ordered them to do so. They had made their point: with 5,200 hostages, er, soldiers in Iraq, a corporal’s guard compared to the strength of the Shiite militias, we were the weaker and more vulnerable party.  Operationally, they won.

Strategically, our operation was even more of a botch.  Our opponent of the moment in the Persian Gulf is Iran. Iran had overplayed its hand in Iraq and had become the target of increasingly angry and quite large popular demonstrations.  Mobs burned the Iranian consulate in Basra. Nationalist anger at Iran was in the process of overcoming friendship with fellow Shiites.

By bombing Iraqi targets and killing Iraqi citizens on Iraqi soil, we pulled Iran’s increasingly hot chestnuts out of the fire.  The street protests against Iran stopped, replaced by protests against America. One could almost hear the (non-alcoholic) champagne corks popping in Tehran.

This, then, is the typical American pattern: let the tactical level drive the operational and strategic levels, lose at the higher level because we optimized for the lower, and not understand why or how we lost.  We cannot break out of this pattern because our armed forces have reduced war to putting firepower (preferable aerial) on targets, and, with the exception of a rare commander here or there, can do nothing else. They understand neither operational art nor strategy, so they cannot foresee the operational and strategic consequences of their tactical actions.  If those consequences are unfavorable, their only answer is to put more firepower on more targets. The result is cumulative strategic failure. We are unlikely to see anything else anytime soon.

Postscript:  The above column was written January 2, before I heard of the U.S. (what else) air attack that killed Iran’s top general, Qasem Soleimani, along with prominent Iraqis including Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who was deputy commander of the umbrella group over all Iraqi Shiite militias.  Again, we acted tactically–killing a “bad guy”–with little thought for operational or strategic consequences.

The most obvious Iranian countermove is to use the Iraqi Shiite militias to take as many Americans in Iraq as possible hostage.  Strategically, that would leave us without an effective response, and President Trump would be exactly where President Carter was when Iranian revolutionaries took over the U.S. embassy in Tehran and held the Americans there as hostages.  That was the end of Carter’s presidency, as this would be the end of Mr. Trump’s.

Operationally by responding through the Iraqi militias, Iran would generate a fight between Americans and Iraqis rather than between Americans and Iranians–a smart move that would leave any American response directed against Iran looking like aggression.  If we look at this situation through “the grid” (see the 4GW Handbook) we see, as usual, we win at the physical/tactical level while losing at the operational, strategic, mental, and moral levels.  As President Trump might say, “Not pretty.”

There is only one way the situation could turn out in our favor, and that is if the Iraqi government orders all U.S. forces to leave Iraq.  That would finally get us out of one or even two (Syria) endless, pointless Mideastern conflicts, which is what President Trump promised he would do in 2016.  At this point, anything that brings the boys home should be welcome, even if they arrive with their tails between their legs.

Interested in what Fourth Generation war in America might look like? Read Thomas Hobbes’ new future history, Victoria.

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