Academic journal article Prism : a Journal of the Center for Complex Operations

Decade of War: Enduring Lessons from a Decade of Operations

Academic journal article Prism : a Journal of the Center for Complex Operations

Decade of War: Enduring Lessons from a Decade of Operations

Article excerpt

The year 2001 began with the inauguration of a U.S. President deliberately aiming to shift the use of the military away from the numerous humanitarian and peacekeeping interventions of the 1990s toward responding to and defeating conventional threats from nation-states. The mood was optimistic, with the new U.S. National Security Strategy, recently put in place by the departing Clinton administration, citing widespread financial prosperity and conveying no sense of an imminent threat to the homeland.2 But this situation proved fragile: the events of a single day, September 11, 2001, altered the trajectory of the United States and the way it used its military over the next decade. A nation focused on countering conventional threats was now confronted by an enemy that attacked the homeland with low-tech means in asymmetric and unexpected ways-individuals armed with box-cutters using hijacked civilian aircraft.

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 U.S. 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 United States 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 marked by numerous missteps and challenges as the U.S. Government and military applied a strategy and force best suited for a different threat and environment. Operations in the second half of the decade often featured successful adaptations to overcome these challenges. From our study of this "decade of war," we identified 11 overarching, enduring themes that present opportunities for the nation to continue to learn and improve. In this article, we briefly summarize each of these themes.

Lesson l: Understanding the Environment

In operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, a failure to recognize, acknowledge, and accurately define the operational environment led to a mismatch between forces, capabilities, missions, and goals. The operational environment encompassed not only the threat but also the physical, informational, social, cultural, religious, and economic elements of the environment; each of these elements was important to understanding the root causes of conflicts, developing an appropriate approach, and anticipating second-order effects.3 Despite the importance of the operational environment, the U.S. approach often did not reflect the actual operational environment, with different components of the government undertaking different approaches. In addition, a nuanced understanding of the environment was often hindered by an intelligence apparatus focused on traditional adversaries rather than the host nation population.

There were a number of examples where separate elements of the U.S. Government undertook different approaches based on their views of the nature of the conflict and operational environment. In Iraq in 2003, military plans included assumptions regarding the rapid reconstitution of Iraqi institutions based on the understanding that national capabilities had to be rebuilt to promote governance and stability. Yet the first two orders issued by the civilian Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) unexpectedly removed both host nation security forces and midlevel government bureaucrats, crippling Iraqi governance capacity and providing fuel for the insurgency. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.