As the fighting in Iraq has wound down, the media is increasingly turning to analysis of the "lessons" of the conflict.
Conversations with senior military officers suggest two principal surprises of the war: the relative lack of defensive preparation by the Iraqi armed forces and the relatively advanced organizational efforts of Iraqi Shi'ites. On the former point, Iraqi forces did surprisingly little to prepare to defend their territory. They did not take even the simplest measures, such as destroying key bridges to slow the American advance. Neither did they construct elaborate defensive positions, dig trenches, or make other common preparations. This was a surprise given expectations that the Iraqi regime could realistically take more extreme steps, such as the deliberate destruction of dams to flood river valleys. Though it is difficult at present to understand why the Iraqi military did so little, it is possible that the senior leadership may have made a fundamental strategic miscalculation by assuming that the United States would not attack Iraq without authorization from the United Nations Security Council. On the latter point, Iraq's Shi'ites were more rapidly organized than anticipated and, as a result, have become a potent political force--with strong ties to Iran--earlier than expected. The consequences of this surprise remain to be seen.
A less surprising but still striking lesson of the war is the effectiveness of America‚s new tightly-integrated information-driven military force. The war in Afghanistan demonstrated clearly that intelligence, targeting information, and precision weapons had considerably enhanced U.S. military capabilities and could substantially multiply the effectiveness of limited ground forces. But that war also demonstrated a clear flaw, namely, a weak decision-making process that delayed key actions and resulted in important missed opportunities. In effect, senior-level decision-makers became too absorbed in newly available real-time tactical information--the "opium of the brass"--to operate effectively. This changed fundamentally in Iraq when targeting authority was delegated to lower-level commanders and, as a result, the "kill chain" (the chain of command involved in authorizing particular strikes) was collapsed. Attacks that waited twelve hours from request to action in Afghanistan took place within forty-five minutes in Iraq . This substantially assisted U.S. ground forces in a dramatically new way.
Each of the U.S. military services will draw its own lessons from the war in Iraq ; these lessons will appear in the institutional and programmatic debates continually underway inside the Pentagon. Despite inevitable differences in these areas, however, many senior officers from each of the services share a common fear that the main lesson learned by America‚s political leaders will be that because war looks easy, it is easy--and that war will become a more common instrument of policy. But war is not easy, and its aftermath in a country like Iraq can be even harder.
General Charles Boyd, USAF (ret.) is the president and chief executive officer of Business Executives for National Security.