An army is not just a bunch of people with guns. It is a complex organism that reflects, at a minimum, the political community it represents as well as a social, political, economic and technological period of history.
Simply providing tactical training, arms and equipment will not produce an army. And since U.S. national strategy still requires building and improving the capacities of our allies and partners (as well as our own), there are lessons to be learned from the past 20 years. Using the Iraqi army as my primary example, a good bit of what I say pertains to the Afghan army as well—even given the many significant and relevant differences between the two.
I was commanding general of the Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq (MNSTC-I) and the NATO Training Mission-Iraq (NTM-I) during the Surge of 2007–08. One of our command’s major responsibilities was accelerating the growth of the Iraqi army in size, capability and confidence. As I reflect on my period of command with MNSTC-I/NTM-I, three aspects of building an army emerge: first, an army is a political instrument; second, an army is a moral construct; and third, an army is like a spear. With respect to America’s Army, these aspects are sometimes taken for granted, but they shouldn’t be.
An Army Is a Political Instrument
An army is an instrument of a political community and its governing structure. An army is an organization authorized, trained and equipped to apply lethal force. This is a particularly awesome and dangerous authority that allows any army to engage in what otherwise would be immoral and criminal behavior. The legitimacy of using lethal force derives from the fact that it is used only on behalf and at the behest of the governing structure of the political community it represents and within the limits of international law, convention and recognized moral norms.
The fighting power of an army is affected by both the governing structure and the political community. For example, combat necessarily involves danger and the risks of injury or death. If the governing structure of a political community is so weak that defeat is a realistic possibility, those who must risk their lives every day in the conduct of combat operations become less than motivated to take that risk. No Iraqi soldier, in the 2004–06 period, was really sure that the governing structure put in place after the U.S. invasion and de facto occupation would succeed.
Under these conditions, who could blame a soldier or unit for not fighting strenuously? Fighting at the behest of a government that is losing weakens an army’s resolve. If the enemy took over in Iraq, those who fought for the losing side would suffer, likely be killed in the aftermath, and their families, too, would be in peril. These were the conditions in Iraq during the 2004–06 period; the result: The battlefield performance of the Iraqi army was spotty at best.
By late 2007 and early 2008, it became apparent that the Multi-National Corps-Iraq’s (MNC-I’s) counteroffensive was succeeding—a success in which the Iraqi army played a prominent part, by Gen. Raymond Odierno’s design. It was also clear that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki began acting more as a national than sectarian leader.
Both these developments had an immediate and positive effect on the Iraqi army’s performance. The change was palpable to those of us in theater. The fighting power of the Iraqi army in the late spring/early summer of 2008 was visibly better than it was just a year earlier, and part of its improved performance was linked to increased confidence that the government would win.
To be sure, the assistance the Iraqi army received from the U.S. and other coalition partners was critical, but overemphasis on the impact of this assistance masks the importance of the army’s confidence in its government’s chances of success.
The fighting power of any army is also affected by the political community. Sufficient cohesion within a political community is important. When the political community on whose behalf an army fights diffracts—as the American political community did during the Civil War, for example—army loyalty also splits. Split loyalty can be temporary, as was the case in the U.S., but it also can be permanent.
If permanent, the result will be that one part of the political community is left out of the army. The excluded part may end up as a second army, or some other form of a violent opposition that has to be dealt with over time, politically and militarily.
Again, one can see these dynamics at play in Iraq. The jury is still out as to the nature and cohesiveness of Iraq’s political community; so, too, is the jury out with regard to the composition of Iraq’s army and the relationship between the army and the country’s militia groups.
An Army Is a Moral Construct
An army is a moral construct in at least three dimensions: tactically, institutionally and civil-militarily. The moral coin in each dimension is trust and confidence. That is, an army’s fighting power increases or decreases depending on the degree of trust and confidence, or incompetence and betrayal, in each dimension.
Tactically, trust and confidence result from how confident soldiers are in themselves, their individual and unit training, their equipment, their leaders and—what most observers fail to recognize—the systems designed to increase the probability of their survival and success.
The first four are fairly self-evident. If a soldier knows their training was poor, fellow soldiers are similarly untrained, equipment is old or inoperative, and leaders stink, well, they’re not going to fight hard, if they fight at all (think some units in Vietnam). The systems designed to support soldiers and units—the intelligence, fire support, protection, supply, transport, medical, as well as the command and administrative systems—also affect the willingness and ability to fight. For example, being in a unit where the ammunition resupply rarely arrives on time, or at all, where food is often days late or insufficient, where the intelligence upon which leaders base their plans is commonly wrong, and where commanders skim a soldier’s pay—all this has an effect: it reduces a soldier’s trust and confidence, thus eroding the willingness to fight and risk one’s life. Betrayal and incompetence were too common in the Iraqi army, and it took the coordinated hard work of many—the embedded advisers in MNC-I, those in MNSTC-I and NMT-I, solid leaders in Iraq’s chain of command, as well as determined efforts from the U.S. Embassy and Multi-National Force-Iraq—to begin to turn things around. Later, overreductions of U.S. support guaranteed the turnaround wouldn’t stick.
Tactical support systems also have an institutional side. These systems have their origin in an army’s ministry of defense, or whatever organization fulfills the ministry’s purpose.
A defense ministry has 10 important systemic functions: force management, determining the size and composition of its military forces; acquisition of personnel and materiel; training, which involves the facilities, personnel and programs of instruction necessary for new personnel entering the military as well as the training associated with new equipment; distribution of personnel and materiel according to established authorization levels; deployment of people, units and equipment to approved locations; sustainment of people, capabilities and materiel to established standards; development, the continuous improvement of individuals, units, leaders, facilities and materiel; separation of people when their terms of service end, are injured beyond the ability to serve, or are killed in action, or of materiel when its life cycle is reached or it is damaged beyond repair; fiscal management, securing and proper spending and accounting of funds; and leadership and administration, establishing and using transparent, reliable and accountable processes in each of the functional areas stated above.
In Iraq, too few MNSTC-I advisers, military or civilian, knew or understood these functions. Fewer still understood how they interrelate organizationally to create a sufficiently effective bureaucracy or how they relate to fighting power.
Executing these ministerial functions occurs first through higher military commands and then through each echelon of command from highest to lowest. These functions are the original sources of the systems designed to support soldiers and units in combat. Institutional incompetence or betrayal (promising one thing but delivering much less or nothing at all) ultimately erodes trust and confidence, and therefore fighting power, at the tactical level. It usually takes longer to see the effects of institutional incompetence and betrayal than it does at the tactical level, but the effects will emerge and the result will be the same: reduced fighting power.
The civil-military is the final dimension of an army’s moral construct. This is the dimension that accounts for two unspoken, but very much felt, implicit contracts. The first is between soldiers who fight and risk their lives and the senior political and military leaders who decide to send them to fight, develop high-level strategies and policies, and control available resources. When those exposed to danger and death begin to feel their governmental or senior military leaders are using them callously or have no strategy to succeed, a deep sense of betrayal develops.
A similar sense of betrayal emerges from erosion of the second implicit contract—the one between those who fight and the military commanders who construct and execute campaign and battle plans. When those exposed to danger and death begin to feel that their commanders don’t, or worse, won’t, share danger and risk; or that those drawing up plans and issuing orders don’t understand the realities at the point of battle, the sense of betrayal corrodes fighting power.
When both implicit contracts seem violated, an attitude of “Why should we fight, if they (political or military leaders, or both) don’t care?” or “What are we fighting for, anyway?” begins to develop.
The more such an attitude grows, units will fight less well, if they fight at all. All these civil-military dynamics were at play in Iraq.
An Army Is Like a Spear
In places like Iraq, institutional and civil-military competency is hard to develop—especially given the early decisions concerning de-Baathification and disbanding the army. Recreating institutions and building civil-military competency take a long time and are complex. Without these competencies, however, any improvement at the tactical level is fleeting. Imagining an army as a spear makes this clear.
The tip of the spear is composed of an army’s fighting units. The binding that holds the tip to the shaft of the spear are the systems designed to support soldiers and fighting units. The shaft is more complex. It is made up of the relationship between an army and the governing structure of its political community as well the political community itself, the civil and military institutions as well as the echelons of civil and military command between the ministry of defense and the tip of the spear.
When the U.S. overreduced its efforts in Iraq in 2011, the tip of the spear—the Iraqi army’s fighting units—was relatively sharp. The binding, however, was loose, and the shaft was weak. These conditions prevailed for three years during which the Maliki government’s sectarian predilections emerged, as did its corrosive effects on the Iraqi army. The U.S. Office of Security Cooperation-Iraq during this period had neither the mission nor the staff to continue developing the deficient areas. The result was three years of eroded fighting power the world saw when the Islamic State group invaded, assaulted Mosul, and announced a caliphate in 2014—which, in turn, triggered a return of U.S. forces to help the Iraqis beat back the threat.
As DoD, the Joint Staff and the U.S. Army continue their focus on building partner capacity, future leaders who will end up executing that strategy would do well to remember how an army is a political instrument and a moral construct, and to keep the image of the spear in mind. Building an army is more than sharpening the tip of its spear. The amount of time and attention given to the shaft of an army and the binding that holds the tip to the shaft matters. If a potential partner’s binding and shaft are weak, sharpening the tip produces only temporary advantage—at best.
* * *
Lt. Gen. James Dubik, U.S. Army retired, a former commander of Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq, is a senior fellow of the Association of the U.S. Army. He holds a doctorate in philosophy from Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, and is the author of Just War Reconsidered: Strategy, Ethics, and Theory.