General Failure

Looking back on the troubled wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, many observers are content to lay blame on the Bush administration. But inept leadership by American generals was also responsible for the failure of those wars. A culture of mediocrity has taken hold within the Army’s leadership rank—if it is not uprooted, the country’s next war is unlikely to unfold any better than the last two.

Yet despite this otherwise magnificent rebuilding effort, the Army did not change its approach to generalship. The generation of leaders trained in the 1980s and ’90s were smart and energetic, but also conformist and relentlessly tactical, conceiving their role narrowly. Relief remained exceedingly rare.

Nor did the relationship between an officer’s battlefield performance and his or her subsequent promotions grow any stronger. As an American civilian official then based in Afghanistan put it in 2007, “The guys who did well didn’t get treated well, and the guys who did badly didn’t get treated badly.” One-year rotations meant officers came and went without seeing the consequences of their actions, enabling almost all to claim that they presided over progress.

Many Americans remember the Iraq War as a string of mistakes by the Bush administration—from overestimating the threat posed by Saddam Hussein to underestimating the difficulty of occupying the country. While that perception is correct, it hardly tells the entire story. In 2007, Philip Zelikow, who had been the State Department’s counselor as the war in Iraq descended into chaos, told me, “I think the situation is worse than people realize, and the problems are primarily with the military.” Discussing American generalship in Iraq over the course of the war, he added: “I don’t think people realized how bad this was … The American people believe the problem is, the civilians didn’t listen to the generals. This is very unhealthy for the Army.” The U.S. Army in Iraq, Zelikow said, reminded him of the French army before World War I: “The military is venerated. It is the inheritor of Napoleon. The general is decorated with gold braid—but there’s no ‘there’ there. There is an aversion to deep thinking.”

The failures of the American military in Iraq and Afghanistan were not the failures of frontline soldiers. American troops deployed to these wars fit and well trained. However, training tends to prepare one for known problems; it is the job of military leaders to prepare for the unknown, the unpredictable, and the unexpected. Many of the generals leading the Army were not mentally prepared for the wars they encountered.

“The troops were good at what they were told to do, from day one,” observed retired Army Colonel Robert Killebrew, a longtime student of strategy and leadership, in a correspondence we had about Iraq. “Had counterinsurgency been invoked on day two, [the soldiers] would have adapted.” For an example, Killebrew pointed to the 101st Airborne Division in Mosul, which in 2003, under General Petraeus, moved quickly to a counterinsurgency strategy and kept Mosul surprisingly quiet for almost a year. The problem everywhere else in Iraq, Killebrew continued, was not the troops but the senior leaders, who were unable to tell their soldiers how to counter an insurgency. “As is often the case in war, the question is not whether the troops can adapt, but whether the leaders can. The troops, as always, paid the price of educating their leaders.” In Iraq, it took more than three years for Army leaders simply to begin listening to units on the subject of what wasn’t working—that is, about as much time as the U.S. military spent fighting World War II.

American generalship in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq was too often a tale of ineptitude exacerbated by a wholesale lack of accountability. Both wars began badly, with General Tommy R. Franks failing to understand what he was wading into. In many ways, Franks is the representative general of the post-9/11 era. He concerned himself principally with tactical matters, refusing to think seriously about what would happen after his forces attacked. “I knew the President and Don Rumsfeld would back me up,” he wrote in his memoir, “so I felt free to pass the message along to the bureaucracy beneath them: You pay attention to the day after and I’ll pay attention to the day of.” Franks fundamentally misunderstood generalship, which at its topmost levels must link military action to political results.

Most generals get the opportunity to lose, at worst, one war. Franks, who from mid-2000 to mid-2003 oversaw the U.S. Central Command, the headquarters for operations in the Middle East, bungled two. Warning signs began flashing in late 2001, with his tepid effort to capture Osama bin Laden in Tora Bora, on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, about 90 miles southeast of the Afghan capital, Kabul. Coming just three months after the stunning attacks of 9/11, the Tora Bora fight provided the best early chance for American forces to kill or capture the al‑Qaeda leader. Yet Franks seemed inattentive, almost as if the battle were someone else’s problem. The Centcom commander did not see bin Laden’s capture as crucial to his campaign, or as a goal for which he should risk casualties and a messy fight. He was content to provide air power, which dropped 700,000 pounds of bombs in the area of Tora Bora over a few days in December 2001.

Ironically, our generals have grown worse as they have been lionized more and more by a society now reflexively deferential to the military.

The CIA officer in charge at Tora Bora was certain he had bin Laden cornered, though his team remained outnumbered on the ground. He repeatedly requested a battalion of Army rangers to help press the attack and seal the escape routes into Pakistan. But Franks declined the requests, citing several reasons, among them his desire not to inject more troops, the time it would take to send them, and his sense that the intelligence on bin Laden’s location was less reliable than the CIA believed. The best evidence indicates that bin Laden walked south into Pakistan in mid-December 2001, perhaps wounded in the shoulder.

Four months later, Franks made a similar mistake during Operation Anaconda, declining to provide adequate artillery support to light-infantry units that had pinned down several hundred al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters in the Shah-i-Kot Valley. Again, the al-Qaeda men escaped into Pakistan. “I thought it was a very successful operation,” the general said afterward. “I thought the planning that was done was very good planning, and I think the result of the operation was also outstanding.” He seemed to believe that it was a net strategic gain to push the Islamic extremists from Afghanistan into neighboring Pakistan, a far more populous country that suffered from a shaky security situation—and possessed a nuclear arsenal estimated to contain scores of warheads.

Not long after the Anaconda battle, Franks spoke at the Naval War College, in Newport, Rhode Island. A student heard his talk and then posed the most basic but most important sort of question: What is the nature of the war you are fighting in Afghanistan? “That’s a great question for historians,” Franks said. He then went on to discuss how U.S. troops cleared cave complexes. It was a sergeant’s answer, not a general’s. Franks “really was comfortable at the tactical level,” concluded an officer who was in the audience that day.

Privately, Army strategists agreed with that verdict, according to an after-action review of the first part of the Afghan War, completed at the Army War College the following summer. Franks’s headquarters suffered from “many disturbing trends,” including “a short-term focus,” the report stated. “The lack of a war plan or theater campaign plan has hindered operations and led to a tactical focus that ignores long-term objectives.”

If Afghanistan hinted at Franks’s shortcomings, Iraq revealed them fully. Historically, thinking about war and then arriving at actionable conclusions has been the core task of generals. Yet Franks seemed to believe that thinking was something others did for generals. In his memoir, he refers to his military planners, with a whiff of good-old-boy contempt, as “the fifty-pound brains.”

Part of the problem was Franks’s personality. He was a military version of Donald Trump, both dull and arrogant. His memoir, with its evasions and omissions, is not reliable as a historical record, but it reveals the man well. In it, for example, Franks claims that the troubled aftermath of the Iraq invasion “was actually going about as I had expected—not as I had hoped, but as I had expected.” Yet this assertion contradicted the formal planning documents produced by his subordinates before the war. For example, one classified PowerPoint briefing given shortly before the invasion stated, under the heading “What to Expect After Regime Change”:

Most tribesmen, including Sunni loyalists, will realize that their lives will be better once Saddam is gone for good. Reporting indicates a growing sense of fatalism, and accepting their fate, among Sunnis. There may be a small group of die hard supporters that [are] willing to rally in the regime’s heartland near Tikrit—but they won’t last long without support.

Not long before the invasion began, General Eric Shinseki, the Army chief of staff, expressed concern that the U.S. force lacked sufficient troops to occupy Iraq. When I asked Franks in August 2004 about Shinseki’s concerns, he dismissed the question, saying that Shinseki “didn’t provide anything that all of us didn’t already know.” Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, who took over the Iraq War from Franks, states in his own memoir that Franks told him in June 2003 that American forces would be out of Iraq later that year.

In his book, published in 2004, Franks dwells on the variety of ways he had devised to start the Iraq War, but he has little to say about how he thought it should end. He insists that he did a lot of hard thinking about post-war Iraq, but a chart he proudly reproduces in the book, outlining his “basic grand strategy,” shows nothing to support that claim—it is all about attacking, nothing more.

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Thomas E. Ricks writes the Best Defense blog for Foreign Policy magazine and is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. This essay is adapted from his new book, The Generals, out this month.

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