/ Published March 20, 2017
Cassandra in Oz by Conrad Crane. Naval Institute Press, 2016, 320 pp.
In an effort to avoid large-scale military deployments following the Vietnam War, counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine evolved into a smaller footprint concept that relied heavily on special operation forces that primarily conducted an advisory role. This doctrine was used during the 1980s in both Nicaragua and El Salvador with mixed results but remained unchanged until after our troops were deployed to both Afghanistan and Iraq. Throughout 2003, discussions among our political and military leaders of a pending war in Iraq were becoming ominous. The loudest voices believed that our troops would be greeted as liberators from Saddam Hussein's regime and our military presence would not be required for long. There were other, softer voices that presciently predicted a long-term conflict if we decided to remove the Iraqi dictator. Among these was Dr. Conrad Crane, a retired Army officer and history professor at the US Army War College. Crane's Cassandra in Oz is an enlightening volume that catalogs the expedited evolution of COIN doctrine.
In early 2003, Crane and his colleague Andrew Terrill published "Reconstructing Iraq" while at the US Army War College. The most important conclusions in their article pointed to the difficulties in stabilizing Iraq due to the challenges of a military handover of power and the stabilizing a fragmented society. Due in part to Crane's accurate predictions of the challenges faced at the end of major combat operations in Iraq (in addition to his background in teaching military history at the US Military Academy and Army War College), Lt Gen David Petraeus chose Crane to lead the charge in updating the US Army COIN doctrine (FM 3-24) in 2006. That year, Crane formed a team of military, diplomatic, and academic cadre, among whom was John Nagl, author of How to Eat Soup with a Knife. Additionally, Lt Gen James Mattis of the Marine Combat Development Command advocated for a new approach to modern warfare: operational design.
Crane recognized that no portion of FM 3-24 had more impact on the American military than the chapter dedicated to operational design. Military doctrine typically required an assessment of the battlefield before taking actions. As noted in FM 3-24, Napoleon Bonaparte was victorious at both Austerlitz and Jena before his effort in 1808 to occupy Spain. In these conventional wars leading up to the conflict in Spain, his planning alone was sufficient. However, Napoleon incorrectly analyzed the Spanish population before and during the occupation, which resulted in his slow understanding that the French were not fighting a conventional battle, but rather an insurgency. Instead of sticking to the original concept of operations, according to Crane, design requires a "continuous reassessment of environmental conditions" in complex situations to better understand the problem. This design-learn-redesign is an iterative process that continues until the problem is solved or at least understood to where it can be solved logically through the conventional planning processes. While the concept of operational design created by Crane and his team was revolutionary for COIN operations, it was preceded by USAF Lt Col John Boyd's OODA loop that necessitated repetitious observation, orientation, decision, and action to outwit an adversary. Nevertheless, Crane's team employed operational design to codify military options to counter an insurgency.
The primary recommended approach to achieving success in COIN developed by Crane's team was clear-hold-build, which focused on securing a limited area, preventing insurgent activity, then finally gaining the population's support for their government, the ultimate goal when fighting an insurgency. Two other approaches discussed in FM 3-24 were combined action and limited support. In hindsight, Crane recognized that these two approaches should have been developed further but were not due to the accelerated timeline in delivering doctrine to the front lines. Even so, limited support is the primary approach used throughout our conflict with the Islamic State and has been further codified in the most recent edition of FM 3-24, something for which Crane is thankful.
While Crane outlines several paradoxes of COIN, two related challenges are present throughout his book. The first is the repetitious nature of relearning how to fight insurgencies. At the end of the war in Vietnam, Crane stated that the Army decided to avoid such failures not by figuring out how to fight COIN but "by just not engaging in such conflicts." After our conventional military success in the first Gulf War, Pres. George H. W. Bush proclaimed we had "licked" the Vietnam syndrome, misleading the American military after we quickly won the conventional war in Iraq in 2003. As a result, we were not ready to conduct COIN. This COIN amnesia leads to a second problem Crane discusses: deploying enough troops from the very beginning that are prepared to counter an insurgency. In theory, having enough troops to conduct COIN operations would result in a quicker drawdown once the handover with civilian agencies begins. Deploying too few troops at the onset has the negative results of misleading the American public about the cost and duration of the pending conflict as well as decreasing the efficiencies of those troops who are deploying. As Crane forewarned, "without an overwhelming effort to prepare for an occupation," the threat of Saddam was overshadowed by the next problem. The evolving situation in Iraq continued to deteriorate until the fall of 2006, which coincided with the release of Crane's updated FM 3-24.
General Petraeus stated in early 2007 that for our efforts in Iraq to succeed, we needed four surges: a military surge of troops, an increase in civilian interagency coordination, an increase in America's political will, and Iraqi citizens' increased will to resist the insurgency. While Crane doesn't go so far as to argue that an updated field manual was directly related to these surges, he does discuss the five geographic zones of Iraq in detail following the Anbar Awakening. In doing so, he gives the impression that the focus on countering the insurgency at all levels of the military and civilian enterprise, in combination with large portions of the Sunni Iraqi populace moving their support from al-Qaeda in Iraq to the US effort, brought about three of these four surges.
Crane ends the book with a comparison of our surges in Iraq and Afghanistan and leaves one lasting paradox of COIN. Several "reasons ranging from lack of individual and organizational recognition for irregular warfare to the much larger budgets that can be justified to support conventional requirements" have meant that "even though we have fought more irregular than regular conflicts" our experiences countering insurgencies to this point have not had a lasting impact on the American military. This paradox was evident as US forces withdrew en masse from Iraq and Afghanistan in combination with the rebalance to the Asia-Pacific theater in an apparent desire to focus on conventional conflicts. Only through the repetitive efforts of individuals like Dr. Crane, who succeeded in telling truth to power and being heard, can we hope to not relearn our past lessons. This book deserves to be read by anyone interested in understanding how doctrine can be efficiently updated to make a positive impact on combat operations.
Maj Eric Ringelstetter, USAF
"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."