Reflections on the Modern Battlefield: A Discussion with General Anthony Zinni

Anthony_C._ZinniBy Octavian Manea

(Re-Published from Small Wars Journal, Sept. 12, 2014) SWJ: You open your book with a blunt statement: “that wars are not always decided entirely on the battlefield”. Having in mind the post 9/11 decade, what are the other variables, the off-the-battlefield components that must be in sync in order to wage war successfully?

General Zinni: I think that one of the things that are important off battlefield is the political context. Clausewitz said that a war is basically just an instrument of politics so you have to be clear why the decision has been made, what interests are being protected or promoted, what threats you are dealing with, and how significant are those threats to require the use of military force. The way you decide to approach it is also very important. In Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam we went in there to try to rebuild nations –  remodel governance systems, social programs and economic systems. Is this feasible, what is the cost? Do you have the support of the American people, of the international community for what you do? And how do you correlate the strategic and political goals? What do you want to achieve? Before that first soldier puts his boots on the ground you may have already created through all these decisions I mentioned the environment that helps him succeed or handicaps to a point failure. People, especially the Americans, when they look at these interventions look only on the battlefield to determine whether we succeed or fail by the performance of the military on the ground when there are so many other conditions and variables that go on off the battlefield – mainly at the level of political leadership, civilian and military leadership that could shape whether we are going to win or lose.

SWJ: What does it take for the US to produce good civilian strategic leadership schooled in the Clausewitzian art of understanding that war is a political instrument and a political responsibility? What does it take to produce good civilian strategic leadership, more Marshalls, more Kennans?

General Zinni: You hit the problem right on the head. We don’t put enough emphasis on the need for a strong and viable strategy. Often times we launch these interventions without an understanding of what the strategic goals are, what the approaches we are going to use are. Just look at what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan. Part way through we declared mission accomplished, than it’s not, than we add more troops and the surge, we never understood how this is going to pan out in terms of the governance of Iraq, our future relationships and our sustained military presence. We were making it up as we went along. I would say the same thing happened in Afghanistan as happened in Vietnam. Without a clear strategy you have this problem. In our system every 4 years we turn over an administration. And we are fascinated with bringing in people outside Washington that desire to change Washington. The problem is that they come with no experience on the international scene or in understanding the implications in using the military. We don’t talk in terms of strategy, we talk in terms of military programs, we put budgets together, and provide funding. It is almost as if our political leadership sees no relationship between their political responsibilities and their military responsibilities. They miss Clausewitz’s most important point. War is a political act from start to finish.

The political leadership, the policy developers and the operational commanders must be in sync. We should never fail to align policy, politics, strategy, operational design and the tactics in the field.
All those things lead to not having the Marshalls that we need. One of the reasons that we were so successful in WWII and in the first decade after it because it set us up for success in the Cold War and we wanted people like Marshall and Kennan in the positions where they provided the strategic underpinnings that could think through what we needed to do. The greatest period in the US in terms of strategic thinking was the period from the WWII to 1950. We had the Marshall Plan, the 1947 National Security Act to restructure our government for a new world, we created the National Security Council, the Joint Chief of Staff, we developed the IMF, the containment doctrine and NATO. There was a whole series of things that we did in recognition that the world has changed as the result of the war. There were new threats, new conditions and it prepared us and set the stage to get us through almost 50 years of Cold War. When the Cold War ended none of that thinking went on. We were talking about peace dividends and new world order, but nobody was out there rethinking the strategy. We have a strategy and a government structure that hasn’t really been rethought and no one values developing and certainly putting into position people who could perform like a Marshall or like a Kennan and that is part of the problem.

SWJ: Looking back what was wrong with how the President Bush initially approached the war in Iraq? What should he have done in order to set up the right process to build the right strategy?

General Zinni: There were a number of things wrong.
Firstly, it was the wrong war, at the wrong time and the wrong place. The real enemy that we had to deal with was Al-Qaeda and they were in Afghanistan. We should have focused on that as a priority. Al-Qaeda got away at Tora Bora because we treated this as a secondary military mission. We didn’t put in enough troops and we relied too much on the Northern Alliance. The first mistake was that we lost focus on who the true enemy was and what the priority was.

Secondly, Saddam has been contained and we were doing it with fewer troops every day. And with the funding and support of the countries in the region like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait he was a threat only to some of his people, the Shia. But there were steps that we could have in the no fly zone in the South – we could have implemented a no drive zone in order to continue the pressure. But taking down Saddam Hussein clearly meant that we were going to inherit a country that was going to come apart like a cheap suitcase. Everybody predicted it – all our intelligence agencies. We ran a war-game in 1998/99 called Desert Crossing where we brought in intelligence experts to see what would happen if the Iraqi regime fell. They predicted all the chaos and disorder that happened. But the Bush Administration said that none of that was going to happen – that were going to be treated as liberators. The war plan I left at CENTCOM had 380.000 troops necessary for winning –  not to take down the regime –  but to seal the borders and to control the population after the fall of the regime. And remember the first decisions that we made – we dissolved the Iraqi Army which meant alienating people on the streets that had uniforms and guns. Moreover, we closed state owned factories and put people out of work. In the end there were too few troops on the ground to handle an insurgency. Look what happened as we rolled back the regime.

Also, one of the most important mistakes was to use the WMD as an excuse. I knew the intelligence. There was never any credible evidence that Saddam had an ongoing program. The WMD intelligence to support a war in Iraq was manufactured.

These were mistakes made by a political leadership that did not understand the region, the culture, the situation, the military requirements and other threats that they had to deal with …

For the complete article, click here.

Octavian Manea (MAIR ’13) was a Fulbright Junior Scholar at the Maxwell School, where he also received a CAS in Security Studies from INSCT.

Share us!