Small Wars Journal

lessons learned

Searching for a Baker’s Dozen: Consolidating the Post 9-11 Strategic Lessons Learned

Mon, 09/17/2012 - 7:32pm

As the U.S., NATO, and the UN move forward toward the 2014 ISAF responsible troop withdrawal from Afghanistan; strategists, policy makers, and warfighters should ponder the past twelve years.  What critical lessons have we learned since the attacks of 9-11?   Often in warfare and business, the team that can adapt to the new reality fastest wins the next battle.  This piece seeks to better grasp the new reality.

In an attempt to spark discussion and gain insights from a broader audience, we have provided twelve lessons learned while seeking thirteen, a baker’s dozen.  As you read below, consider what lessons have been left off, which should be consolidated, and which should be dropped as an incorrect lesson.  The lessons proposed below are meant to be contentious, worthy of critical thinking and debate. 

After teaching Afghanistan-Pakistan Fellows for two years at the National Defense University, this is an attempt to bring the seminar discussions from senior military and civilian officers sent to Fort McNair to reflect on their multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.  This is their product, and it has been a privilege to engage “Socratically” on a conflict that has dominated our generation.  We look forward to reading proposals for Number 13 rounding out the Baker’s Dozen..

The Proposed Post 9-11 Strategic Lessons Learned.

  1.  The U.S. invasion of Iraq enabled the Taliban to regroup in Pakistan and avoid defeat.
  2. The U.S. government as a whole failed to adequately plan for Phase 3-5 of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq resulting in policy-operations-infrastructure-resourcing mismatches that stalled momentum and drained public confidence.
  3. The U.S. failed to adequately predict actions of other states acting in their own interest resulting in failed policies.  Examples include:  Pakistan, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.
  4. Improvised Explosive Devices are the weapon of choice of the modern guerilla.
  5. DoD assumed greater capability from the State Department and USAID than should have been expected in a combat environment, exposing the Achilles heel of the Clear, Hold, Build and Transfer counterinsurgency model.  Similarly, State is shackled by too restrictive security regulations.
  6. Other nations funded just enough support to allow the U.S. to over extend and slowly bleed down their lone super power lead.
  7. U.S. Policy planners failed to adequately plan and mitigate for the reality that you cannot defeat an insurgency if the insurgents have a safe haven in a short duration conflict.
  8. CERP funds helped reduce military casualties, but often resulted in a strategic loss of legitimacy for the host nation and the overall U.S. Whole of Government effort.
  9. The U.S.  Policy planners used large military footprint operations that delegitimized the local leaders strengthening the insurgents’ position.
  10. Focusing large numbers of U.S. forces in a few countries to fight the war on terror is a poor strategy because of the large number of ungoverned areas that will harbor terrorists.  The ends do not justify the means, nor the costs of the means.
  11. By taking rapid action, the U.S. forced al Qaeda to fight on their own soil, preventing further attacks on the U.S. that would have had extreme economic global consequences.
  12. The toll of multiple repeat deployments will have long-term impacts on the Armed Forces, particularly in DoD and the Veterans Administration as the departments struggle to get ahead of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder impacts on our service members. 


Note:  The statements of fact, opinion, or analysis expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.    

Analysis of a Decade at War

Mon, 06/25/2012 - 9:56am

On 15 June, the Joint and Coalition Operational Analysis division of the Joint Staff J-7 published a report titled, "A Decade at War."  This report came in response to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen Dempsey's guidance that we should make sure we "actually learn the lessons from the last decade at war."  The report can be downloaded in PDF format here.  An excerpt follows:


In the decade following 9/11, it became evident that the Cold War model that had guided foreign policy for the previous 50 years no longer fit the emerging global environment. Key changes included: 

  • A shift from US hegemony toward national pluralism 
  • The erosion of sovereignty and the impact of weak states 
  • The empowerment of small groups or individuals 
  • An increasing need to fight and win in the information domain 

In the midst of these changes, the US employed its military in a wide range of operations to address perceived threats from both nation-state and terrorist groups; to strengthen partner nation militaries; to conduct humanitarian assistance operations; and to provide defense support of civil authorities in catastrophic incidents such as Hurricane Katrina. This wide range of operations aimed to promote and protect national interests in the changing global environment. 

In general, operations during the first half of the decade were often marked by numerous missteps and challenges as the US government and military applied a strategy and force suited for a different threat and environment. Operations in the second half of the decade often featured successful adaptation to overcome these challenges. From its study of these operations, JCOA identified overarching, enduring lessons for the joint force that present opportunities for the US to learn and improve, best practices that the US can sustain, and emerging risk factors that the US should address. 

The report broke down lessons into eleven strategic themes, analyzing each one in brief and providing a way ahead on each.  These were:


  • Understanding the Environment: A failure to recognize, acknowledge, and accurately define the operational environment led to a mismatch between forces, capabilities, missions, and goals. 
  • Conventional Warfare Paradigm: Conventional warfare approaches often were ineffective when applied to operations other than major combat, forcing leaders to realign the ways and means of achieving effects. 
  • Battle for the Narrative: The US was slow to recognize the importance of information and the battle for the narrative in achieving objectives at all levels; it was often ineffective in applying and aligning the narrative to goals and desired end states. 
  • Transitions: Failure to adequately plan and resource strategic and operational transitions endangered accomplishment of the overall mission. 
  • Adaptation: Department of Defense (DOD) policies, doctrine, training and equipment were often poorly suited to operations other than major combat, forcing widespread and costly adaptation. 
  • Special Operations Forces (SOF) – General Purpose Forces (GPF) Integration: Multiple, simultaneous, large-scale operations executed in dynamic environments required the integration of general purpose and special operations forces, creating a force-multiplying effect for both. 
  • Interagency Coordination: Interagency coordination was uneven due to inconsistent participation in planning, training, and operations; policy gaps; resources; and differences in organizational culture. 
  • Coalition Operations: Establishing and sustaining coalition unity of effort was a challenge due to competing national interests, cultures, resources, and policies. 
  • Host-Nation Partnering: Partnering was a key enabler and force multiplier, and aided in host-nation capacity building. However, it was not always approached effectively nor adequately prioritized and resourced. 
  • State Use of Surrogates and Proxies: States sponsored and exploited surrogates and proxies to generate asymmetric challenges. 
  • Super-Empowered Threats: Individuals and small groups exploited globalized technology and information to expand influence and approach state-like disruptive capacity.