Analyzing the Afghanistan disaster (Part 3): Do America’s war colleges need to change?

Today’s guest post is the third in a series of essays examining the Afghanistan disaster (Part 1 is here; Part 2 is here).  Today’s author is Adam Oler, a familiar name to those who attend our annual LENS National Security Law Conference as he has been a popular participant on several occasions.  (Some long time attendees may also recall Adam’s wife, Kate Oler, who has also spoken spoke at the conference and contributed to Lawfire® – see here)

With Adam during a 2009 trip to Iraq and other Middle East locations.

As I said in relation to Adam’s earlier post (here), he is no ordinary academic as his views are informed by the more than twenty-four years he spent on active duty as a military lawyer in a very wide variety of assignments – including a tour of duty as my executive officer during which we traveled the world as part of our military responsibilities.

Any serious analysis of the Afghanistan outcome must include an examination of how senior military (and civilian) leaders are educated.  In this post Adam examines an early critique, and adds his own observations.

Thinking about the Future of JPME in the Wake of our Defeat in Afghanistan

by Adam Oler

Early Takes on What Went Wrong 

Barely a week after the last U.S. soldier departed Afghanistan, the postmortems about what went wrong are well underway.  That the U.S. failed to achieve its objectives in Afghanistan is quite clear; what’s left to be seen is the impact of our defeat.  As we wait, an important discussion is underway about how the United States might avoid defeat in the future.

Hopefully, this debate will be robust, honest, and productive.  Last week’s City Journal article, “Putting the ‘War’ Back in War Colleges” continued a valuable conversation about how America’s senior joint professional military education (JPME) programs can be part of the solution. 

Written by Army War College professors Thomas Bruscino and Mitchell G. Klingenberg, the article asserts war colleges no longer teach warfighting.  Per the authors, the solution resides in teaching more battle and campaign histories, and conducting more campaign-level wargames.

Theirs is not a new argument, but they seize on America’s defeat in Afghanistan as proof of concept.  In short, had our war colleges focused more on military history and wargaming, we might not have lost.  For Bruscino and Klingenberg, the role of other tools of national power in JPME, be they diplomatic, economic, informational, legal, or otherwise, are at most supporting instruments, perhaps even collateral distractions.

More History?  More Wargames? 

Bruscino and Klingenberg advocate for greater emphasis on warfighting, to include planning and resourcing, and they are spot on.  Bruscino has certainly been in the vanguard of getting fundamental concepts such as strategy, operational art, and campaigning right, and to the extent this latest piece tackles PME at Carlisle, it’s hard to find a better expert.

However, Bruscino and Klingenberg advocate for curricula changes beyond the service war colleges, and cite the disaster in Afghanistan as justification.  It is here that their piece misses the mark. 

Correlation or Causation?

To begin, the authors do not provide any causal analysis.  While it’s the heart of their argument, there is no explanation of how studying more campaigns and playing more war games might have helped win in Afghanistan.  Their argument thus begs a broader question; was Afghanistan principally a military defeat?  

Last month’s departure fiasco might be assigned to the military, but the loss of the war itself shouldn’t be.  All traditional “Phase III” objectives—the warfighting phase—that were going to be achieved had been by the summer of 2002.

The truth is, America lost in Phase IV and V…again.  Why?  It was not for want of firepower, a failure in maneuver, or poorly executed campaign plans.  Rather, as Nadia Shadlow has so poignantly argued, the U.S. doesn’t fund, resource, or even really want to “do” anything beyond major combat operations.  And so we won the “warfare” part, then lost the post-war.

Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTACs)

If there was a military defeat, the central failure on our part may well have been the withdrawal of JTACs and close air support last year—a decidedly political decision.  The risk of removing JTAC support from Afghan forces was known years ago, and those warnings proved true.  Remember, no U.S. ground force has come under manned fixed-wing air attack since 1953.  Control of the air permits sustained close air support (CAS), which is probably the most important advantage the U.S. and its allies have on the battlefield.

We ceded that advantage to the Taliban.  Until the JTACs were pulled, and the corresponding CAS that went along with them, the situation was more or less stable. As authors Dana Pittard and We Bryant have so vividly demonstrated, .JTAC enabled CAS is one of the keys to winning on the modern battlefield.  But all the wargames and military histories in the world cannot leverage CAS when political leaders decide to withdraw it. And that is, of course, their call.

We’re Teaching War’s Changing Character 

There is one area where the war colleges do need to focus, or the risk of further defeats will remain high.  The schools spend a lot of time on war’s changing character, and appropriately so.  Failing to recognize and adapt to changes in who fights, why, and especially how, can lead to strategic defeat.  As a result, war’s changing character is receiving greater attention.

But We’re Missing War’s Enduring Nature

Where the colleges struggle, however, is in the examination of war’s nature.  Why do wars start?  What facets of war are inevitable?  Given that wars—by their nature—hate off-ramps, how do wars end?  What does the breakdown of order do to society? How do passion, violence, the enemy’s “vote”, and political demands shape war’s overlapping phases?  

From Megiddo to Armageddon, certain aspects of war and warfare will always be present.  Therefore, an early focus in war college curricula on Thucydides, Clausewitz, Sun Tzu, Walzer, and perhaps a few others, would be valuable.

Questions Not Asked 

Had some of these questions been tied into the decision to invade Afghanistan, stay, and then abruptly depart, the outcome may have been different.  In the end, one suspects the U.S. will discover what it learned after Vietnam and Iraq was also true in Afghanistan.  In conflicts viewed by our enemy as wars of national liberation, there is no military solution–at least not one that survives a political cost-risk-benefit analysis.

Put differently, in the fall of 2001, did anyone ask what type of war were we entering?  How much thought did policy makers give to the enemy’s ability to outlast us—and thus preclude a resolution on our schedule?  Did they consider that without a massive occupying force, the prospect of maintaining order across the country was dim? Perhaps above all, had different assumptions been made about what lay ahead, might we have taken a different path, altogether?

Yes to More Military History and Wargames

Studying military history should play a pivotal role in an officer’s professional development.  Leaders across the joint force ought to emphasize the importance of reading about the profession of arms across one’s military career. Wargames also have an important role; here too, opportunities to participate in historically-and contemporary-based wargames should be expanded at all levels of professional military education.  But revamping all war college curricula to focus on military history and wargaming is not the answer.

Another Critical Step

Instead, the most important thing JPME can do right now is ensure the various SDE schools master the principles of joint warfighting, then provide specialization based on each school’s mission.  Let the Service schools build experts in their domains, Eisenhower master resourcing, and National War College train national security strategy specialists.  As importantly, the services should heed the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s call to better leverage this diverse skill set through the assignment process. By building teams with graduates from each of the programs, perhaps then we can do better as a country at wining America’s wars.

About the author

Adam Oler is an associate professor of strategy and department chair at the National War College, National Defense University, in Washington, DC. Professor Oler spent twenty-four years as a judge advocate, serving multiple tours in Europe, Korea, and the Middle East. At the National War College, he instructs on national security design and implementation, the Middle East, and national security law. You can follow him on Twitter at @aonwc11.

The views expressed in this paper are those of the author and are not an official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.  Additionally, the views expressed by guest authors do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security, or Duke University.

Remember what we like to say on Lawfire®: gather the facts, examine the law, evaluate the arguments – and then decide for yourself!



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