Reflections on the Modern Battlefield: A Discussion with General Anthony Zinni
Small Wars Journal Interview by Octavian Manea
Together with Tony Koltz General Zinni co-authored the just released book “Before the First Shots are Fired. How America Can Win or Lose Off the Battlefield”, published by Palgrave Macmillan, September 2014.
Anthony Zinni is a retired United States Marine Corps general and a former Commander in Chief of the United States Central Command (CENTCOM). In 2002, he was selected to be a special envoy for the United States to Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
The modern general must not only be expert in his military profession of arms, he must also be part anthropologist, part economist, part sociologist, part political scientist, part everything else that brings expertise to the structuring of a stable and viable society capable of thriving in the twenty-first century. When he exits the battlefield, he is now expected not only to leave behind a vanquished enemy, but a functioning, stable society. A president can no longer just look for a good fighter to plot the operational scheme that leads to victory in arms. He must also find a person who can reconstruct a society.
SWJ: You open your book with a blunt statement: “that wars are not always decided entirely on the battlefield”. Having in mind the post 9/11 decade, what are the other variables, the off the battlefield components that must be in sync in order to wage war successfully?
General Zinni: I think that one of the things that are important off battlefield is the political context. Clausewitz said that a war is basically just an instrument of politics so you have to be clear why the decision has been made, what interests are being protected or promoted, what threats you are dealing with, and how significant are those threats to require the use of military force. The way you decide to approach it is also very important. In Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam we went in there to try to rebuild nations - remodel governance systems, social programs and economic systems. Is this feasible, what is the cost? Do you have the support of the American people, of the international community for what you do? And how do you correlate the strategic and political goals? What do you want to achieve? Before that first soldier puts his boots on the ground you may have already created through all these decisions I mentioned the environment that helps him succeed or handicaps to a point failure. People, especially the Americans, when they look at these interventions look only on the battlefield to determine whether we succeed or fail by the performance of the military on the ground when there are so many other conditions and variables that go on off the battlefield - mainly at the level of political leadership, civilian and military leadership that could shape whether we are going to win or lose.
SWJ: What does it take for the US to produce good civilian strategic leadership schooled in the Clausewitzian art of understanding that war is a political instrument and a political responsibility? What does it take to produce good civilian strategic leadership, more Marshalls, more Kennans?
General Zinni: You hit the problem right on the head. We don’t put enough emphasis on the need for a strong and viable strategy. Often times we launch these interventions without an understanding of what the strategic goals are, what the approaches we are going to use are. Just look at what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan. Part way through we declared mission accomplished, than it’s not, than we add more troops and the surge, we never understood how this is going to pan out in terms of the governance of Iraq, our future relationships and our sustained military presence. We were making it up as we went along. I would say the same thing happened in Afghanistan as happened in Vietnam. Without a clear strategy you have this problem. In our system every 4 years we turn over an administration. And we are fascinated with bringing in people outside Washington that desire to change Washington. The problem is that they come with no experience on the international scene or in understanding the implications in using the military. We don’t talk in terms of strategy, we talk in terms of military programs, we put budgets together, and provide funding. It is almost as if our political leadership sees no relationship between their political responsibilities and their military responsibilities. They miss Clausewitz’s most important point. War is a political act from start to finish. The political leadership, the policy developers and the operational commanders must be in sync. We should never fail to align policy, politics, strategy, operational design and the tactics in the field.
All those things lead to not having the Marshalls that we need. One of the reasons that we were so successful in WWII and in the first decade after it because it set us up for success in the Cold War and we wanted people like Marshall and Kennan in the positions where they provided the strategic underpinnings that could think through what we needed to do. The greatest period in the US in terms of strategic thinking was the period from the WWII to 1950. We had the Marshall Plan, the 1947 National Security Act to restructure our government for a new world, we created the National Security Council, the Joint Chief of Staff, we developed the IMF, the containment doctrine and NATO. There was a whole series of things that we did in recognition that the world has changed as the result of the war. There were new threats, new conditions and it prepared us and set the stage to get us through almost 50 years of Cold War. When the Cold War ended none of that thinking went on. We were talking about peace dividends and new world order, but nobody was out there rethinking the strategy. We have a strategy and a government structure that hasn’t really been rethought and no one values developing and certainly putting into position people who could perform like a Marshall or like a Kennan and that is part of the problem.
SWJ: Looking back what was wrong with how the President Bush initially approached the war in Iraq? What should he have done in order to set up the right process to build the right strategy?
General Zinni: There were a number of things wrong.
Firstly, it was the wrong war, at the wrong time and the wrong place. The real enemy that we had to deal with was Al-Qaeda and they were in Afghanistan. We should have focused on that as a priority. Al-Qaeda got away at Tora Bora because we treated this as a secondary military mission. We didn’t put in enough troops and we relied too much on the Northern Alliance. The first mistake was that we lost focus on who the true enemy was and what the priority was.
Secondly, Saddam has been contained and we were doing it with fewer troops every day. And with the funding and support of the countries in the region like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait he was a threat only to some of his people, the Shia. But there were steps that we could have in the no fly zone in the South - we could have implemented a no drive zone in order to continue the pressure. But taking down Saddam Hussein clearly meant that we were going to inherit a country that was going to come apart like a cheap suitcase. Everybody predicted it - all our intelligence agencies. We ran a war-game in 1998/99 called Desert Crossing where we brought in intelligence experts to see what would happen if the Iraqi regime fell. They predicted all the chaos and disorder that happened. But the Bush Administration said that none of that was going to happen - that were going to be treated as liberators. The war plan I left at CENTCOM had 380.000 troops necessary for winning - not to take down the regime - but to seal the borders and to control the population after the fall of the regime. And remember the first decisions that we made - we dissolved the Iraqi Army which meant alienating people on the streets that had uniforms and guns. Moreover, we closed state owned factories and put people out of work. In the end there were too few troops on the ground to handle an insurgency. Look what happened as we rolled back the regime.
Also, one of the most important mistakes was to use the WMD as an excuse. I knew the intelligence. There was never any credible evidence that Saddam had an ongoing program. The WMD intelligence to support a war in Iraq was manufactured.
These were mistakes made by a political leadership that did not understand the region, the culture, the situation, the military requirements and other threats that they had to deal with.
SWJ: I think another big mistake was to keep a failed leadership in the Pentagon for years, unprepared to deal with the post’ Saddam instability and even make decisions that would trigger an insurgency.
General Zinni: I agree. If this would have been a sports team we would have changed the manager and the coach. In my own view, I don’t know this for a fact, but I think President Bush was looking for a strategic stroke. I think he looked at the broader picture, the Middle East, extremism and what we could do at a strategic level to change the equation. He got sold a bill of goods by the neo-cons. Everybody with experience in that part of the world should have been able to tell him that it is not that easy and that in the end you will create more chaos if you are not careful.
SWJ: When you look back at these wars - Iraq, Afghanistan – a very important part is the political will of the local actor. But how do you influence that? As you said, this can break or make a successful outcome in the end.
General Zinni: We had a good model after WWII. When you think of the aftermath of WWII when MacArthur was in Japan he didn’t sit back and let the Japanese decide how they want to govern themselves. We put in place the kind of government that worked with the people. We let the Emperor stay, but he was not going to have imperial God-like status. So we shaped the governance system like a democratic institution. In Germany we did the same thing. The whole purpose of the Marshall Plan was to influence that. But we would not accept leadership that could not deal with this.
What we did wrong in places like Vietnam, we fighting for 10 years and in that time the Vietnamese people were looking back at Saigon and only to see generals conducting regular coups. There was no credible government. And our answer to all of that was - well it is not up to us - it is up to the Vietnamese people. But it wasn’t the Vietnamese people that put the generals in place it was the military coups. If we are going to invest our troops in a protracted war we ought to have something to say about how that governance system is established. We need to be able to shape and influence how they govern themselves.
SWJ: You see Vietnam as a formative experience. Which are your personal takeaways that influenced how you think about modern war and warfare?
General Zinni: My first role in Vietnam was as a young lieutenant advising the Vietnamese Marines. I was wearing their uniform, I rarely saw other Americans, I lived in their villages. When I came back from that tour and I talked with my friends that were in American it was apparent the war they experienced was very different from the one I did. I saw it through the eyes of the people. I learned that understanding the context, the culture, understanding the real roots of the problem through the eyes of the local people is essential. The people in the villages were telling me that they didn’t want to die for the government in Saigon - that was corrupt and not responsive to their needs. Moreover, I saw in the people a war fatigue. They were in war for a lifetime - WWII, the French Indochina War and now the American war. They were tired and burnt out with the violence. It was hard for them to think beyond surviving through all this, let alone looking at some lofty political objectives and end state. I don’t think we had an appreciation for that. We never understood the culture, the people and the nature of that conflict. I remember being in the Middle East when George W. Bush made a speech for war in Iraq and he was talking as this being all about the forces of democracy against the forces of the evil and authoritarianisms. One of the Arabs sitting next to me said that this is about Persians vs. Arabs, you are unleashing the devil. Another Arab said to me this was really about Sunni vs. Shia and that this could lead to a religious war. At the end of the day they were right. I don’t think President Bush understood the implications of those other two dimensions in the region.
SWJ: Was Vietnam War in any way winnable?
General Zinni: I think Vietnam should have taught us a few lessons. Why we made that war unwinnable from the beginning.
Number one, we allowed the enemy to have a sanctuary, a safe haven. We never really did anything about North Vietnam - the enemy could resupply, regroup, re-plan. Anytime you have a sanctuary you have a problem. Look at Pakistan in the case of Afghanistan and Syria in case of Iraq. To give sanctuary is a political decision. Because of this we have never been able to defeat insurgents.
The second thing concerns the people. If the people look toward their government and they see a Karzai or a Maliki why should they fight for them? You need to give them something to fight for. I think we could have prevailed in Vietnam, if the people had a government in Saigon they could believe in, that was there to meet their needs.
The third thing is that you cannot win this for them, they need to want to win it for themselves. You cannot want it more than they want it. A key variable is the willingness of the people. These were people that were tired of fighting, tired of violence and they don’t see it as important for them as we see it.
SWJ: Many of today’s conflicts have a strong insurgent component. What does it take to prevail?
General Zinni: When I was a young lieutenant we began to write a doctrine for counterinsurgency. In my mind the original doctrine gives a very simple answer to that question. There were three things you had to do.
The first thing was to effectively fight the guerilla or the insurgents on their terms. Again if you have a sanctuary you have a problem.
The second thing you had to do was to control the resources and the population. The insurgents wants to make you look weak, blow up your bridges, attack your power-plants, bomb your cities because it wants the people to see that you are weak and you cannot protect them. That takes a lot of investment in security forces and host nation capacities. If you cannot control the population and resources you have lost credibility.
The third thing was called environmental improvement. You need to change the conditions and deal with the issues that fueled the insurgency and gained the support of the people. You had to look at why the insurgency was becoming powerful? What were the causes? If the causes were that the people didn’t trust the government, they didn’t like the government, there is chaos, the people will look to somebody else. You have to change the (societal) environment.
Those were the three things. You’ve got to effectively fight the insurgency on his terms. Sometimes I don’t think that we are doing that. We construct conventional militaries to fight insurgents and I think is a big mistake. And often we don’t have enough troops on the ground or security forces to protect the people and the resources, and show them we can prevail in that respect. Defeating insurgencies takes a lot of time and I don’t think any American politician is willing to invest that kind of treasure. The mistake of the Bush Administration was that they thought that they could do this relatively quickly.
SWJ: Do you have in mind as a successful precedent in terms of prevailing over an insurgency?
General Zinni: We should look at how we handled the Philippines. When the Spanish-American war ended there was a big move to give them independence right away. But our assessment on the ground was that they were not capable of handling it. We had the Army and the Marines fighting an insurgency for a long time but we also had US civilians there - President Taft understood that this had no military solution so you had to give the people something to fight for. So it was Taft that changed the approach, less of the military emphasis in defeating the insurgents and more of working with the local leadership in order in to creating a government that reached out to the villages. This was about changing the environment and also about educating the population that they needed to learn to be a democratic society. And that took a lot of time. That was years and decades in the making but we invested in. This proves the point I am emphasizing that it is not just enough to try to win it at the barrel of a gun. These other things, the governmental, governance, administrative parts should go on.
This is another contemporary problem. If you go on the battlefield of Iraq and Afghanistan how many people are experts in rebuilding governance systems, economic systems and social programs on the ground? You don’t see too many. As a matter of fact you see the military doing this business. We in the military are not experts in this either. It’s appalling when the military runs everything from recreational pools to agricultural, social programs and governance systems. We don’t have a real whole of government approach. Where is the State Department? USAID? Department of Agriculture? Where are all the others that are needed? They don’t have the resources and they are not prepared culturally in terms of planning to handle this.
SWJ: General Mike Flynn recently emphasized that “nation states around the world are being challenged. We are in this period of prolonged societal conflict, where we see a failure of governance and stability is only temporary without good governance.” How prepared are civilian agencies to engage all-in approaches in violent environments?
General Zinni: They are not prepared. They don’t have the people, the resources, they don’t have the ability to operate at scale. USAID can do wonderful work in a village, but it cannot rebuild a nation in a large society. Ultimately they don’t have the culture. The military does all this planning, has deployable forces ready to go around the world. The civilian part doesn’t have the logistic, administrative and planning capability to do that sort of things. If you look at this mighty military machine, it doesn’t have the counterparts that can deal with the governance, diplomatic, informational, economic and social issues that are part of the kind of conflicts that we might find ourselves in the future. That’s been missing. There is no will in Congress to provide for that. I would even say institutions like the State Department has no motivation to do that. Look at what happened when State was trying to man-up the CPA in Iraq. They were bringing people with no experience in the region, pull them from bureaus around the world - , they did not have the expertise, they did not have a plan, they certainly didn’t understand the region. The concept of whole of government approach is good, but it can’t be a pick-up ad-hoc organization..
SWJ: What does it mean by winning in a hybrid war? When do we know we are winning?
General Zinni: The mistake we make is to look to one answer in the metrics that we use. In Vietnam we went for the body count, everything was about how many of the enemy we killed. General Westmoreland thought that if you reached a tipping point and kill so many then the war bends in your favor. He didn’t understand the culture and the environment. Our generals saw the conflict in conventional military terms. Their priority was winning it all on the battlefield by shooting our way to victory. But clearly the American victories on the battlefield weren’t enough to win the war - the war won or lost in the hearts of people.
SWJ: What should be the American Way of War after the post 9/11 decade, after Iraq, Afghanistan even Vietnam? Should it be transformed in the light of their legacies?
General Zinni: The current American Way of War is more about technology and firepower. We like high intensity short wars that we can dominate. We do not like casualties or wars that go on for years and years - we can’t handle long term wars. We can fight the big wars well. It has to have unconditional surrender, total defeat of the enemy, reach down and pick-up the enemy and plant Jeffersonian democracy and free market economy. The model we have is WWII, the good war. In fact that was an aberration.
SWJ: Is the Weinberger-Powell Doctrine still a good fit for our times where we have less a conventional battlefield and a more hybrid one “combining conventional military operations with a heavy dose of other objectives like winning hearts and minds and reconstructing societies while fighting”?
General Zinni: Parts of it yes. Colin Powell talked about the use of overwhelming force. That is one of our strengths. He didn’t just mean military force. The perfect application of the Powell Doctrine was the first Gulf War. We went in with overwhelming force and resolved it in a short period of time. In addition, the Bush Administration went to UN and got a resolution that authorized the use of force, to give us legitimacy in what we were doing. If we would have gone into 2003 Iraq with 400.000 troops, as we rolled-back the regime, the whole trajectory might have been different - we could control the population, we would not permit looting, we would not allow Sunnis to attack Shia and we would have been more forceful about the kind of government that had to be in place. The Weinberger-Powell Doctrine is a good recipe to refight WWII, but where the Weinberger-Powell doctrine fails is that it isn’t a good recipe for the conflicts that we are inclined to be today that are more along the lines of what I call simultaneous wars where you need to build and fight at the same time. Simultaneity is the rule. You can’t make fighting the battle your first priority, then pick up the pieces. You need to take care of everything at the same time - humanitarian assistance, building governance system, repairing infrastructure, improving the economy, and starting social programs.