May 26, 2011

Campaign Design and Strategy in Libya

From the New York Times:

WASHINGTON — President
Obama has subtly shifted Washington’s public explanation of its
goals in Libya,
declaring now that he wants to assure the Libyan people are “finally
free of 40 years of tyranny” at the hands of Col. Muammar
el-Qaddafi, after first stating he wanted to protect civilians from


But if regime change is now the goal in Libya, Mr. Obama’s trip through
Europe this week has highlighted significant tensions over how much time
the NATO allies have to finish a job that is now into
its third month.


Mr. Obama has urged strategic patience, expressing confidence that over
time the combination of bombing, sanctions and import cutoffs will force
Colonel Qaddafi from power. “Time
is working against Qaddafi,”’ Mr. Obama said on Tuesday during a
news conference in London with Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain.


But in Europe and in Libya, patience is calculated differently. Many
countries are struggling with the rapid pace of operations, and some,
like Norway, have already said they will sharply reduce their forces
beginning next month.  Colonel Qaddafi, according to NATO officials, has
a calculation of his own under way:  Indicted by the International
Criminal Court, he now has few places to go and nothing to lose from
waiting out NATO and betting that European public opinion will tire of
the bombing campaign and its costs. 

The U.S. and allied military campaign in Libya is an embarassment. From the very beginning, U.S. and allied political and strategic objectives have been unclear, and thus U.S. and allied military forces have been asked to carry out military operations without a clear commander's intent or end state. Out of all the operations orders that have been issued by the U.S. military for operations in Libya, in fact, only one -- the order to carry out the evacuation of non-combatants -- included an end state. None of the other orders issued to and by the U.S. military included an end state, in large part because senior military and civilian leaders either could not or chose not to explicitly articulate what the end state might be. The U.S. and allied military intervention is thus the very definition of an open-ended military intervention -- the kind in which most U.S. decision-makers swore we would never again engage after Iraq and Afghanistan.

The U.S. military, meanwhile, is sadly on familiar territory. The U.S. Army, in response to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (in which the military was asked to operate in a complex environment with often unclear policy guidance), developed commander's appreciation and campaign design (.pdf) to help officers properly frame and understand the problems in front of them. Good campaign design does three things:

  1. It describes, as best as possible, what the intent of the commander might be,
  2. It describes the campaign approach,
  3. And it describes any factors that would force subordinate units and commanders to think differently about the problem.

Campaign design is a great tool for commanders, but it is also the reflection of a bigger problem -- one identified and described most eloquently by Hew Strachan in this essay in Survival. It is what happens when you leave military commanders to figure out strategy and policy for themselves. Speaking of the war in Afghanistan, Strachan writes,

Arguably, strategy has been absent throughout the wars in Iraq and
Afghanistan. In part that is because the political objects have been
unclear, or variable, or defined in terms too broad to be deliverable in
strategic terms. Because there has been no clear relationship between
the ends and the limited (and often inappropriate) means, strategy is
simply not possible. The result has often been war shaped by platoon and
company commanders, a series of ill-coordinated tactical actions, where
killing and casualties define success, rather than the objectives of
securing the population, establishing law and order, and delivering aid
and reconstruction.
Counter-insurgency theory has stepped in to give shape to what has
happened. The US Army's Field Manual 3-24, published in December 2006,
is a clear illustration.
But, while positive in so many ways, counter-insurgency doctrine has
only served further to complicate the relationship between the
operational level of war and strategy. ...


If Obama really is to marshal his generals (not to mention his allies),
he must have a policy which meets and channels operational effects.
True, this is only one facet of the challenges which he confronts, and
he will not be able to give his operational commanders clear and
consistent guidance without significant opportunity costs - costs which
will be borne in both regional and domestic politics. These are the
issues which the McChrystal affair has brought into sharp relief.
Resolving the latter has not removed the pressures of the former. As
Henry Kissinger observed of McChrystal's dismissal, 'America needs a
strategy, not an alibi'.

Truer words, etc.

I am in part frustrated because the difficulties of Libya were so painfully easy to predict. But I am also frustrated because the United States has now been applying force in Libya for over two months without explaining why. What is the political end we are trying to achieve? The United States needs to be honest with both its allies and its military. Because we should expect the U.S. military to go to great lengths to understand the environment and the enemy, but what makes the military intervention in Libya so embarassing is that the U.S. military is once again in the position of laboring to divine the intent of its own elected and appointed leaders.

P.S. That New York Times article also includes this gem: "[The Europeans would] like the war to be over, and have it done properly with no
allied casualties or collateral damage to civilians." In related news, I want a winged unicorn for my birthday.