Stepen D. Biddle Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Military Victory in the Information Age: Conversation with Stephen D. Biddle, Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations; January 27, 2006, by Harry Kreisler

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The Case of the Iraq War

We've recently fought two wars. You've mentioned one. Let's look at the record there. I know you've testified to the Congress on the Iraq war, so let's look at the Afghan war first. What is the record in that conflict? Tell us about the rightness or wrongness of your theory.

The record shows a very different war than the one journalists painted in the immediate aftermath, which was very much the revolution in military affairs version that I described a moment ago. In fact, there was actually a lot of old-fashioned close combat in the course of the Afghan campaign. In the beginning, it went about the way the revolutionists say it did. We were fighting against untrained, essentially amateur indigenous Taliban who didn't have enough military skill to exploit the terrain for cover and concealment. We could find them at long range, we could destroy them at safe distances.

As the campaign progressed though, we increasingly started encountering better-trained foreign allies of the Taliban, and especially al Qaeda fighters who'd been through Osama bin Laden's infamous terrorist camps, which in fact were not so much terrorist camps as they were training grounds for preparing people with an essentially Western infantry syllabus for use on Afghanistan's front lines in the civil war. As we started encountering better trained troops they were much more successful at avoiding our attempts to find them and surviving the strikes that we directed against them. As a result, it became increasingly necessary to come to close quarters with them and drive them out through an old-fashioned process of fire and maneuver very much like the one I describe in the book, in which the relative skills of the two sides of this undertaking have a lot to do with whether you prevail or not.

I guess the failure to deal with that second phase accounts for the loss of Osama bin Laden in the famous battle in the Afghan war, if he was there (we don't know that for a fact). So if we apply your theory, in the second phase the modern system was being used by a ragtag army in which the al Qaeda elements were dominant, and we didn't secure a victory.

The question of victory is a multi-dimensional issue. The book that I wrote deals with victory in battles, not necessarily victory in war. So whether or not we've met our war aims in Afghanistan, I think we don't yet know. Perhaps we will, perhaps we will not, depending on how the Karzai regime's political future shapes up; but we clearly had some war aims in the conduct of this campaign that were not met. We did not net Osama bin Laden and his chief lieutenants, they did get away. Greatly assisting their ultimate getaway was the fact that their combatants had enough military skill to avoid destruction at long stand-off by precision-guided weapons of the United States.

Now let's talk a little about Iraq and that war, and the battles within the war. What does the evidence show us about the facts there as they relate to your theory?

With the respect to the question of why our casualties were so low, which was certainly in the immediate aftermath of the major combat phase one of the big issues, many people believed then and believe now that the reason our casualties were so low was that our technology -- our speed, our precision, our situation awareness -- enabled us to destroy one of the world's largest militaries at radically low cost to us. I've been arguing that you can't adequately explain real military outcomes by looking only at technology. You have to look at how technology interacts with the way the forces are used. An Iraqi force deployment in 2003 was, let us say, remarkably permissive. They didn't do anything remotely like the modern system as I've described it. Their targets were remarkably exposed, remarkably massed and concentrated, very easy to find and easy to destroy at a safe distance.

So in the first phase, or the battles of the first phase of the war -- up until that point that the mission seemed to be accomplished -- we can't say we passed the exam with regard to the question you're posing, because there was no modern system of defense on the other side. So therefore, we're not in a position to say that the revolution in military affairs, to the extent it was being applied, worked.

That's right. There's no evidence that revolutionary technology makes tactics irrelevant and can destroy anything in Iraq, because there were no good tactics seen in Iraq.

On the other side?

On the other side. Our people were extraordinarily good and extraordinarily proficient. The Iraqis were not. By contrast, in Afghanistan we have actual evidence of what happens when a reasonably proficient military organization is engaged by American stand-off precision firepower, and what we observe in the latter phases of the Afghan campaign is that a proficient military organization can get out from under these capabilities. We didn't see that in Iraq because we didn't see that kind of force employment in Iraq.

You make the argument in the book that not all states are in a position to adopt the modern system of warfare. Talk a little about that. What is the problem there, and what does it tell us about the way we measure capability on the other side?

When you look at the particulars of what you have to do in order to exploit the complexity of surface to provide cover and concealment, it requires, for example, a substantial amount of delegation of authority -- individual initiative and willingness to make up your own mind about the nature of the ground in front of you on the part of very junior officers. Thousands of tens of thousands of eighteen- to twenty-nine-year-old junior officers have to have enough military knowledge and enough judgment and ability to see the ground in front of them to pick the best way forward for their troops through the complex ground in front of them. Cultivating a culture of autonomy and initiative in eighteen- to twenty-nine-year-olds with guns isn't such a great idea if, for example, you're Saddam Hussein in, say, 1998, where having a bunch of twenty-nine-year-olds with guns feel like they can do whatever they think is right could very well lead a lot of them to decide that they want a different kind of government in Baghdad and end up shooting Saddam Hussein in a coup d'état. So, states whose internal politics produce radically conflictual civil-military relations between the government and their own officers are going to find it very difficult to master the kinds of techniques required in order to do the modern system as I describe it.

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