It is an axiom that generals tend to fight the last war, but the truth is that, as often as not, they would like to forget the last war. Witness Vietnam, in the wake of which it took more than three decades for a new counterinsurgency manual to be written by General David Petraeus and others. Happily, the military waited only five years to commence work on an update of the Petraeus version. As this new effort unfolds, based on the latest experience in Afghanistan, it might prove useful to incorporate the kind of analysis that the late Harry Summers, a soldier and strategist par excellence, employed in his study of the debacle in Vietnam, published a scant seven years after the fall of Saigon. Given the fresh attention being focused on military options in Syria, as outlined in General Martin Dempsey's letter to the Senate on Monday, there is even more reason to remember Harry Summers.
His study, On Strategy, was inspired by the German philosopher of war Carl von Clausewitz's ideas about how difficult it is to know what is really happening and to take effective action because of factors like the omnipresent "fog of war" and "friction." As Clausewitz put it: "Everything in war is simple, but the simplest thing is difficult." Harry Summers accepted this, but persisted, using as reference points for analysis classical notions of the principles of war as elucidated by the Baron Antoine Jomini, a Napoleonic officer, and later codified in U.S. Army field manuals. The principles are, in the order he used them: the objective, the offensive, mass, economy of force, maneuver, unity of command, security, surprise, and simplicity. What Summers concluded in his analysis of the Vietnam War was that the U.S. military's performance, viewed in light of these principles, was problematic. Indeed, he found that it was the North Vietnamese who may have employed them more effectively.
What would a Summers-like analysis of the U.S. military's role in three wars of the past decade -- Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya -- conclude? Category by category, on a notional, worst-to-best 1-10 rating scale (intended not as holy writ, but to spark discourse), a review of six of the nine principles -- the ones that he examined most closely -- might go something like this:
The objective. In Afghanistan, the goal of toppling the Taliban was easily achieved, but damaging the al Qaeda network -- much less getting bin Laden -- took a long time. Further, nation-building has proved complicated, to say the least. In Iraq, regime change was effected, but there were no weapons of mass destruction, and whatever ties there were to al Qaeda arose only in the wake of the U.S. invasion. The establishment of democracy resulted in the victory of a political movement more aligned with Tehran than with Washington. In Libya, Muammar al-Qaddafi was defeated and killed, but al Qaeda now prospers there and radical Islamists struck a humiliating blow against the United States in Benghazi. Scores: Afghanistan, 6; Iraq, 4; Libya, 5.
The offensive. The intervention in Afghanistan began with a striking, swarming attack on Taliban and al Qaeda forces; then there was much strategic drift for several years, with the resurgent Taliban eventually seizing the initiative. They still hold it as American and NATO forces are leaving. The Iraq War was also begun with an impressive offensive, but insurgents soon began to dictate the course of events, and did so through late 2006. Thereafter, however, U.S. forces found a way to shift the momentum and the situation improved markedly -- before they simply left at the end of 2011. In Libya, Qaddafi's forces clearly held the upper hand until NATO's intervention, after which they were almost completely on the defensive. Scores: Afghanistan, 4; Iraq, 7; Libya, 9.