Jim Molan

Barbara Tuchman, in her 1984 book The March of Folly, defined folly as governments pursuing policies contrary to their own interests, despite feasible alternatives. Much of the criticism of our ongoing involvement in Iraq is based on a view that what our governments are doing is Tuchman-style folly, especially when it is imagined that the alternative is to do nothing. We all know that governments can commit folly by pursuing the unworkable at the expense of the possible, one of the most common of governmental follies. If Tuchman were alive today, she might examine the First and Second Iraq Wars and the war in Afghanistan since 2001. But for fairness, she should also examine the folly of non-intervention in Syria and the less effective intervention in this, the Third Iraq War.

The best means of avoiding folly is to align strategy with tactics. David Kilcullen reminds us in his essay that strategy ensures that you get to the right place with the right force for the right reasons and in the right war. Victory is about achieving the war aims, but you must be able to both formulate a strategy and implement it.

So, whether or not government actions are considered folly, and whatever the question is, the answer is very likely to be strategy. Kilcullen covers the full, comprehensive scope of national strategy to combat the Islamic State. This is very important, because only a comprehensive strategy will ever produce results.

His essay reminded me that what passed for military strategy in both Iraq and Afghanistan was that we in the Coalition put in an inadequate number of troops initially, contrary to professional advice, found we were being beaten, increased the number of troops to what it should have been to begin with and called it a “Surge,” and achieved the success that we should have achieved to begin with. Then, when things started to look much better, we prematurely reduced the number of troops and set a timetable for final withdrawal. As a result of inadequate strategy in Iraq, we had to create local forces, a process that was prolonged because we were not able to deploy, even initially, the right number of competent troops to create what must always come first: a degree of stability. Our inadequate strategy extended the war and the suffering, we are now back in Iraq, and the US president has accepted that he needs to leave a residual force of 10,000 US troops in Afghanistan so as not to lose everything that we have gained there, as is close to happening in Iraq.

The announcement of additional Australian troops to train Iraqis brought forth the usual suspects in public commentary. What very few addressed is the view that all of those who see ISIS as evil should be prepared, as part of an overall strategy, to commit military and other resources to oppose that evil. This conflict can be successfully concluded, but we need the Iraqis to carry the bulk of the fight. But to do so they need our assistance. 

Our assistance to Iraq might be underdone, but should not at this stage include ground combat units, and definitely not of the previous magnitude. Yet “boots on the ground” should never be ruled out, because, as Kilcullen points out, it is in the interests of the West to win in Iraq and Syria. And we have as much of a moral obligation to assist the Iraqi government to regain sovereignty over areas currently held by ISIS as we had to provide humanitarian assistance on Mount Sinjar.

One of the salient differences between the Third Iraq War and the previous two is that the West is more directly in strategic competition with Iran. At the moment, as has been said, Iran is playing three-dimensional chess while the West is only just starting to play checkers. Iran’s speed and effectiveness in supporting the Iraqis on the battlefield, and its willingness to mentor or advise in battle, may mean Iran will win the peace no matter who wins the war.

It is only eleven years since the invasion, perhaps too soon for a full formal analysis. But the Middle East does not wait, and what you learn will always depend on where you stand. For instance, had Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld listened to military advice on necessary troop levels before the invasion, we might have achieved in two years what it took eight years and two troop surges to achieve.

As Kilcullen points out, by 2011, when the coalition troops left, the US and Iraqi forces had brought about a relatively high level of stability, including a significant degradation of al-Qaeda in Iraq. The US forces that Kilcullen advised be deployed, and that some of us fought with, had fostered an Iraqi military adequate to the task of containing the remaining threat, but this military was never given the chance to mature. The first Maliki government, while the United States was still present and had influence, gave initial promise of governing adequately. The prime minister allowed the Iraqi Army to be developed and led with some degree of military logic and success. But the second Maliki government, especially after the United States left in 2011, proved to be disastrous for the army and for Iraq.

We had a relatively stable country, an acceptable army and a promising government … so what went wrong? First, the Arab Spring led us by diverse means into the depths of the Syrian civil war, which produced ISIS. It is drawing a very long bow to blame that civil war on the US invasion of Iraq. An equally valid argument could be that if the United States had not invaded Iraq today, it would look much more like Syria, which is worse by several orders of magnitude than Iraq.

Second, President Obama did not insist on leaving behind a residual force, contrary to all military advice. For this he was roundly criticised, including by Hillary Clinton, who is reported to have said: “We have residual US forces in Germany, in Japan, in Korea to this day, yet after these awful eight years, with 4500 Americans killed and 100,000 to 150,000 Iraqis killed, we’re prepared to walk away?” Had there been a residual US force in Iraq, there may not have been an ISIS invasion, and even if there had been, the Iraqi Army probably would not have folded. It is interesting that President Obama has now agreed to leave such a force in Afghanistan, and that his administration is even hinting at extending it.

Third, the second Maliki administration proved to be sectarian, corrupt and incompetent. Maliki replaced army commanders with sectarian cronies who stole the pay of the army in Mosul, made the soldiers buy their ammunition, did not fund army training and equipment and destroyed their morale and trust. No wonder they broke, and that the Maliki-installed commanders led the rout.

Kilcullen’s essay was written before the fall of Ramadi in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria, and before the attempts to retake parts of Anbar. His view that we do not yet have the right mix of support for the Iraqis now has added urgency, especially given that the Assad regime is showing signs of cracking. Should Assad fall, ISIS may decide to devote even greater resources to Iraq. We know that ISIS can be defeated militarily in Iraq, if we have the necessary resolve, given what the Kurds are succeeding in doing. Once Iraqi sovereignty is re-established in northern and eastern Iraq, then who knows what might be possible for the Syrian people? But a solution to the Syria problem is far beyond the bounds of feasible planning until we have restored at least a degree of Iraqi sovereignty over the whole of the country.

Like Kilcullen, I am prepared to acknowledge that the invasion of Iraq may not have been a strategically brilliant move. However, there is nothing more stupid than getting yourself into an unnecessary war and then bungling its execution. You can get yourself into the wrong war, but still win. It is not only the grand strategic choice that determines success or failure; it is also how you implement the strategy. Yet our current tepid response runs the risk of seeing Iranian control and influence stretch from the Northern Arabian Gulf to the Mediterranean – true folly indeed.

A Chinese general once said that strategy without tactics is a slow road to victory, but tactics without strategy is noise before defeat. What would he have said of a war in which the strategy is challenged and the tactics are lacking – a slow road to noisy defeat?

When we say that we (Australians) are “training the Iraqis,” the uninitiated assume that we are training them to be fully competent for combat. Nothing could be further from the truth. I don’t know exactly what training our “advise and assist” force is offering today to an Iraqi brigade, but the training will take at best months and more likely weeks, and our advisers are not accompanying the Iraqis into combat.

Back in 2004–05 in Iraq, Australians conducted as much training as possible in a very short time. The Australians and British did not accompany the Iraqis into battle. You cannot train for experience and leadership in only a few weeks. And you can only develop that on a battlefield while you remain alive.

The United States accompanied the Iraqis they trained into battle, at the early stage with only nine advisers per 500-strong battalion, but later with up to thirty advisers. The US ran a “train – fight – train” sequence to build experience. It was tactically successful because they accompanied the troops they trained into battle, whereas the British and the Australians did not accompany them and were not successful. Non-accompanied units were either intimidated out of existence once they were on their own, or they failed in combat and the troops were killed or deserted, or, as at Basra, were suborned to support the Sadrists.

Both Australia and the United Kingdom implicitly admitted their error in Iraq by accompanying the units they trained into battle in Afghanistan and, on a very long road to vague victory, they were tactically successful. When accompanied, the local soldiers will be paid, intelligence can be brought into the unit, fire support is accessed, and the soldiers receive ammunition, food and fuel. Local commanders make better tactical decisions and don’t get their soldiers killed as carelessly. The Iraqi soldiers are not fools. They know that they will not be abandoned – as happened at Mosul – if there are advisers with them. Any veteran of the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam will tell you that.

Kilcullen points out that the greatest tactical tool in Iraq at the moment is air power, but it must be correctly applied. To do this, two changes are needed. First, the rules of engagement must be appropriate to the battlefield. Iraq now is not Afghanistan. Inappropriate rules of engagement are restricting the targets that can be attacked. This is being exploited by ISIS. The strategic price that we are paying is that we are not winning. The law of armed conflict will not be transgressed if there is more freedom in what aircraft can attack. More innocents will be killed, but this must be balanced morally against a much longer road to victory. Tighter rules of engagement do not necessarily deliver a more humanitarian result. They may just prolong the agony.

Second, the effectiveness of airpower will be greatly enhanced if the bombs dropped against certain targets are controlled from the ground by what is called a “joint terminal attack controller” (JTAC). Better targets can be chosen and better results achieved. The tactical ability of even the smallest unit is magnified, as is the confidence of the soldiers on the ground. Terminal control of bombs, even through a sandstorm as at Ramadi, could have delivered a strategic effect.

JTACs need to be protected and supported while they are supporting and protecting units. Thus, we must combine training with accompanying Iraqi units into battle, realistic rules of engagement and the deployment of JTACs. Of course there is a risk of adviser casualties. But there is also a distinct risk of winning without having to put boots on the ground: a strategic imperative. No guarantee, just an increased probability. It is not panic time in Iraq, even though it has not been a good few months. But the longer we do not defeat ISIS decisively within Iraq, the higher the chance of external events which totally dislocate our Iraq operational strategy, and what price any grand strategy then?

We should be acting now to avoid a slow road to noisy defeat. If we are committed, we take responsibility for the outcome. We do not just go through the motions and conduct training. As one of the many great Australian soldiers of the Vietnam era reminded me, the Vietnamese would say, “Either protect us and be with us, or leave us alone.” David Kilcullen’s essay reminds us that certain lessons are immutable over time: political resolve is essential to victory, and victory is what we should be aiming for. 


Jim Molan served as chief of operations of the Headquarters Multinational Force in Iraq. He is the author of Running the War in Iraq.


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 58, Blood Year. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 59, Faction Man.


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