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When the Tactical and Operational Overwhelm the Strategic

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This article by Major Niel Smith and Colonel Seth MacFarland on the foundations of the “Anbar Awakening” strategy is a must read. Smith and MacFarland detail how they helped bring a new set of methods to Ramadi in 2006, methods which played a key role in the larger Sunni Awakening strategy and which helped to substantial reduce violence in Iraq in 2007:

The “Anbar Awakening” of Sunni tribal leaders and their supporters that began in September 2006 near Ramadi seemd to come out of nowhere. But the change that led to the defeat of Al-Qaeda in Ramadi- what some have called the “Gettysburg of Iraq”- was not a random event. It was a result of a concerted plan executed by U.S. forces in Ramadi. Tactical victory became a strategic turning point when farsighted senior leaders, both Iraqi and American, replicated the Ramadi model throughout Anbar province, in Baghdad, and other parts of the country.

Read the rest; it goes into detail on Al Qaeda operations in an around Ramadi, on a previous “Awakening” effort that fizzled because of Al Qaeda violence, and of the shifting incentives that moved tribal leaders towards collaboration with the United States.

While reading this piece I was struck by its echoes of a chapter in Peter Paret’s edited volume Makers of Modern Strategy. In his chapter German Strategy in the Age of Machine Warfare 1914-1945, Michael Geyer makes that argument that the German Wehrmacht, an exceptionally effective tactical and operational military organization, allowed those lower levels to overcome strategic considerations. In other words, German officers were quite brilliant at figuring out how to make war “work” at the tactical and operational level, but making it “work” there led to general strategic incoherence, because the means never matched the ends.

The Smith and MacFarland remind me of that chapter because it seems like the same thing is going on; innovative, smart American officers are trying to figure things out at the tactical and operational level, but at the strategic level incoherence reigns. In this particular case, Smith and MacFarland brought peace to Ramadi, but at the cost (in my view) of permanently gutting the capacity of the Iraqi state; arming local groups and politically enabling them is, as I’ve discussed before, a strategy of anti-state building. In this particular story, it was the “farsighted senior leaders” in Iraq and the US who should have understood this. I don’t know whether these leaders misunderstood the implications of arming local tribal groups, or whether they understood but just figured (perhaps accurately) that things couldn’t get any worse.

In any case, Smith and MacFarland came up with an innovative series of tactics for doing their jobs. Unfortunately, the elevation of these tactics to the level of strategy has effectively killed the Iraqi state. Of course, it might have been dead anyway.

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