Wednesday, July 4, 2012

lessons about our recent wars

Tom Ricks has done a neat job translating the Pentagonese of a major study into plain English. The Joint Staff has a unit called "Joint and Coalition Operational Analysis," typically shortened to JCOA, which is part of the JCS Chairman's "Lessons Learned Program."

Drawing on the major U.S. military operations of the 21st Century, JCOA has produced Decade of War, Volume I: Enduring Lessons from the Past Decade of Operations.  The 50-page unclassified document contains a mix of cliches and valuable insights, like many U.S. government reports. Ricks has an assessment; let me offer a few additional points.

1. I hope that the title signifies a shift away from "lessons learned" by calling them ""enduring lessons." The British army, which also has a long history of analyzing past operations as a learning tool, years ago switched from calling them "lessons learned" studies to the more accurate "lessons identified." We could only wish that presidents generals and admirals would actually learn from the past.

2. The JCOA report's comments on Interagency Coordination are wise and valuable. It softly laments that coordination "was uneven" because of "inconsistent participation in planning, training, and operations; policy gaps; resources; and differences in organizational culture." Quite true, but remember that some of those differences were because of another factor mentioned -- "different levels of resources." The civilian agencies were asked to sail in a speedboat-led convoy with their rowboats.

3. The recommendations for improved interagency coordination echo many of the ideas I and others involved with the Project on National Security Reform urged four years ago. There have been improvements under the Obama administration, but much more still needs to be done.

4. The section on "Host-Nation Partnering" recognizes the American tendency to pressure others to be like us.
The US also had challenges that complicated partnering. One challenge was a propensity for the US to shape host-nation institutions after its own image, rather than allowing the host nation to make such decisions consistent with its own history, culture, and traditions. Another was a lack of strategic patience, where a desire for quick results at times drove the US to lead the partnering relationship, rather than operating by, with, and through host-nation forces to build long-term capacity.
Calling these problems "challenges" understates their importance and their difficulty. Many of our problems with Iraq and Afghanistan today are traceable to American insensitivity to the views of our intended allies.

5. Despite recognizing this problem, the JCOA report -- like Boxer in Animal Farm -- just recommends working harder. Its phrase is "Strengthen existing relationships." Sure, like with Pakistan. Send another four-star.  Lots of luck.

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