What If? Strategic Techniques in a Decade of Conflict

The Bridge is proud to host this week’s installment of CCLKOW, a weekly conversation on military affairs jointly hosted by the Center for Company-Level Leaders at the US Military Academy at West Point and the Kings of War, A blog of the Department of War Studies, King’s College London.

Here’s a note from one of the moderators, Jill S. Russell: “This week we are talking strategy. Considering the recent experience of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, Echevarria posits a critical deficit in linking strategic techniques and military operations. Unfortunately, the weakness he identifies rings true. However, the good news is that every error is an opportunity to learn. Read the post and join the discussion on Twitter #CCLKOW.”

When the campaign in Afghanistan began in late 2001, coalition military strategy was essentially one of ‘decapitation’ in that it aimed at capturing or killing bin Laden and other high-ranking al Qaeda and Taliban figures. It also had a ‘divide-and-conquer’ or ‘enemy-of-my-enemy’ character in the sense that CIA and special forces personnel, armed with ‘drones and dollars,’ worked to leverage Northern Alliance and various Pashtun tribes against bands of al Qaeda and Taliban. By the end of December 2001, coalition military strategy had essentially settled into to a ‘search-and-destroy’ pattern, which culminated in the killing of bin Laden on May 2, 2011. It had also acquired a ‘clear-hold-build-and-transfer’ character, particularly after 2010 when a troop-surge took place similar to the one carried out in Iraq in 2007. Meanwhile, ‘decapitation’ and attrition-style ‘targeted killing’ strategies continued, incorporating some areas of Pakistan. In some respects, the constant shifting of coalition military strategy and the concurrent implementation of different strategic techniques that accompanied it were driven by the need to respond to changing situations on the ground.[1] In other respects, this meandering reflects what typically happens when one has no overarching grand strategy in place to keep rising costs in line with anticipated gains. In still other respects, though, it highlights something of crucial importance to the military practitioner — how valuable the knowledge of strategic techniques is.

Coalition forces had to discover the merits and demerits of strategic techniques like ‘divide-and-conquer’ or ‘enemy-of-my-enemy’ through costly and time-consuming trial and error. That they did so is a credit to their skill and adaptability. However, the loss of time and the rising costs involved in learning by trial and error played into the hands of what might loosely be called a ‘strategy of exhaustion’ on the part of al Qaeda and the Taliban. In such cases, the frictions and inefficiencies in one’s own system can play as important a role, if not more, as the strategic efforts of one’s foe.

While learning by trial-and-error is part of adapting to the conditions of war, coalition military doctrine, and in particular that of the US military, missed an ideal opportunity in the 1990s to help practitioners expedite that process. By the beginning of that decade, the Cold War had ended and Western militaries were in what some analysts referred to at the time as a ‘strategic pause,’ meaning there was time to conduct seminars and ‘war games’ to forecast and prepare for the new future security environment. These efforts had their problems, but the deductions and insights drawn from them were not ‘so far wrong’ (to borrow from Sir Michael Howard’s famous advice) as to leave doctrine writers off the hook.

In 1995, the US military’s joint operational doctrine (JP 3–0), which also set the tone for NATO’s doctrine, stated operational art was:

the use of military forces to achieve strategic goals through the design, organization, integration, and conduct of strategies, campaigns, major operations, and battles.[2]

The pity is, while most aspects of operational art — such as design, organization, and integration — were vigorously explored through experimentation and war games, few of the ‘strategies’ or strategic techniques outside annihilation and attrition ever were. Ample time and other resources were available to examine the challenges of implementing such techniques as decapitation, for instance, and to explore what trade-offs to expect when one tries to pair it with a divide-and-conquer or an enemy-of-my-enemy approach, or the proverbial ‘carrots-and-sticks,’ and so on. Some of these strategic techniques are inherently incompatible with others, and a few basic rules of thumb might have facilitated the process of de-conflicting these. Instead, such rules had to be discovered the hard way, and at a strategic cost.

The problem was not the forecasts of the future, imperfect though they were. Rather, it is that Western military practitioners have come to think of military strategy as something that makes use of operations for the purpose of the war. What they have lost sight of, and need to rediscover, are the strategic techniques that make those operations more than just pushing steel across the battlefield.

Question for discussion: Suppose contemporary US military doctrine had expounded upon strategic techniques rather than merely how to conduct operations? How would this have altered the choices and decisions in Iraq and Afghanistan?


Have a response or an idea for your own article? Follow the logo below, and you too can contribute to The Bridge:

Enjoy what you just read? Please help spread the word to new readers by sharing it on social media.


[1] For more detail, see Antulio J. Echevarria II, Reconsidering the American Way of War: US Military Practice from the Revolution to Afghanistan (Washington DC: Georgetown UP, 2014), 150–53; and ‘After Afghanistan: Lessons for NATO’s Future Wars,’ RUSI 159, no. 3 (June/July 2014): 20–23.

[2] Joint Publication 3–0, Operations (1995), II-2; emphasis added; compare non-doctrinal definitions: ‘If strategy is the art of war and tactics the art of battle, then operations is the art of campaigning.’ John A. English ‘The Operational Art: Developments in the Theories of War,’ in B. J. C. McKercher and Michael A. Hennessy, eds., The Operational Art: Developments in the Theories of War (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1996), 7–28.