The end of the Cold War, the stunning victory over Iraq in Operation Desert Storm, and numerous peacekeeping missions in the 1990s had, in many ways, set Army doctrine adrift, unsure if the next war would be an armored slugfest or a fight against Third World street militias. Combined with a lack of a clear future threat, the Army was also undergoing a major technological shift and its implications on doctrine, strategy, and training was still not understood. This left the Army unprepared for the multiple types of warfare it would face in Afghanistan and Iraq.
When the Army was called out to conduct operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, the current doctrine was not really suitable for the mission at hand. Consequently, the Army was not ready for any of the three types of conflicts it would face. In Afghanistan, the logistical requirements for conducting force projection would have been daunting. Fortunately, there was a viable Afghan resistance force in the Northern Alliance and the Army was able to quickly adapt to the situation by deploying Special Forces in a classic low-intensity conflict scenario for special operations forces. These highly trained troops were able to work with the Afghan resistance and provide targeting for close air support missions in support of these fighters. Although a successful raid by a Ranger battalion was conducted during the early part of the war as a show of force, conventional Army forces played virtually no role in the initial overthrow of the Taliban.
Iraq would be another matter and would ultimately show not only the limitations of the Army’s conventional warfighting strategy but the eventual need to rewrite the Army’s counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine and relearn many hard lessons from Vietnam that the Army had institutionally lost. During the planning stages of Operation Iraqi Freedom during 2002, Central Command (CENTCOM), the American joint command charged with running both the ongoing war in Afghanistan and the Iraq invasion planning, tried to fall back to the tried and true planning scenario from Operation Desert Storm-weeks of a massive air campaign, followed up by an overwhelming multi-corps armored thrust into Iraq. Unfortunately, the operational and strategic circumstances had changed and that plan was no longer feasible. The additional armored corps that had been shipped from Germany to Saudi Arabia in 1990 no longer existed after the Clinton budget cuts, and CENTCOM now had available less than half the maneuver battalions available in Desert Storm. The plan that eventually emerged was a significant change in operational thinking that involved more risk, but played to traditional American strengths of decentralized command and control combined with rapid maneuver. However, even though the revised strategy of a simultaneous air-ground campaign proved successful, the extremely long flanks and exposed supply lines of the American forces, combined with bad weather, nearly brought the offensive to a halt after the first four or five days. The two additional two divisions were required to reduce bypassed cities and root out Iraqi fedayeen irregular fighters that had been attacking supply convoys. The initial phase of the Iraqi invasion revealed a fundamental flaw in American ground doctrine-there was no longer a “rear” area with a well defined forward edge of the battle area (FEBA). Traditional combat support and combat service support units now had to be tracked and protected as an integral part of the maneuver force. This fact would remain a critical factor in military operations throughout the entire Iraqi Campaign.
Once Baghdad fell, the biggest gap in Army doctrine and thinking became apparent and nearly led to the failure of the overall Iraqi campaign. CENTCOM, and indeed the entire American military and foreign policy establishment, expected to transition from combat operations to another Balkans-type peacekeeping scenario, where U.S. troops and coalition allies would administer Iraq and conduct benign nation-building missions until an interim Iraqi government could be established. The insurgency that erupted took American commanders on the ground by surprise and the Army had no suitable doctrine for conducting COIN operations in an urban environment. Most of the MOOTW doctrine had assumed that some sort of cease-fire and negotiated peace was in place prior to a military presence and conducting ‘armed’ nation-building, particularly in an urban environment was not something the Army, or American military in general, was doctrinally prepared. As a result, the Army carried out essentially search and destroy missions reminiscent of the Vietnam era, which achieved about the same results-plenty of dead insurgents and a sullen and hostile population. Combined with an overall lack of understanding of the Sunni-Shia political struggle, this doctrine nearly lost the war by the summer of 2006.
A complete revision of American COIN doctrine was undertaken by a joint Army-Marine Corps group led by senior officers from both services with extensive Iraq experience. FM 3-24, published in December 2006, was a major component in the change of strategy from killing insurgents to protecting the Iraqi population that led to the success of the 2007 surge.
In addition to the changes to doctrine and training, the Army has also reconsidered the need for heavy armor and mechanized units. The ability of both the Army and Marines to operate mechanized units in an urban environment successfully has called into question the wisdom of adapting a smaller, lighter force more vulnerable to the improvised explosive devices (IEDs) used so heavily by insurgent fighters in Iraq. Although the Army continues to integrate lighter units built around the Stryker wheeled armored vehicle, the days of the tank do not appear to be over yet.
The Army was clearly not prepared for the widely varied types of combat encountered from 2001-2009. Although great strides have been made in addressing doctrinal and strategic shortfalls, the Army must again decide what the future land warfare environment will be and how to adapt. As doctrine drives technology and vice versa, the lessons of nearly eight years of warfare have not been fully incorporated into the Army’s strategic thinking and the full influence of the Iraq and Afghanistan Campaigns on Army doctrine has yet to play out.