The Best Defense

Power wins wars, but a lot depends on what kind of power you use and when

By Col. Jason Brown, USAF

Best Defense guest columnist

In years to come, historians will ask important questions about the role of power in the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns. Specifically, they will ask how Afghanistan became America's longest war, and how we were able to invade and leave Iraq within the bookends of the Afghan conflict. It is especially hard to understand how we recovered power in Iraq after Abu Ghraib and a fractious civil war. Although arguments over what we accomplished in Iraq will endure for years, we regained enough power to leave Iraq without a debate. We subsequently attempted to carry the momentum of the Iraq counterinsurgency campaign to Afghanistan in 2009, but still struggle to achieve something resembling the ambiguous success in Iraq. The disappointment in Afghanistan goes beyond a misapplication of what worked in Iraq; the power equation between Iraq and Afghanistan was altogether different.

In war, power wins. Individuals often confuse military might with power, but in reality, there are many power factors relevant to the outcome of war. Power flows from diplomatic, political, and economic strength as well as strategic, operational, and tactical effectiveness. Sound analysis of warfare will avoid focusing on any one of these sources, and will instead examine relevant power, which accounts for the interplay of power sources within the context of conditions and rivals in a war.

In both Iraq and Afghanistan, our relevant power ebbed and flowed due to changes in our power sources. We did not have adequate power to influence conditions in Iraq before 2007 due to limitations across the power spectrum, from diplomacy to military tactics. Changes in leadership and an effective counterinsurgency campaign adjusted our relevant power to influence the human terrain, the adversary, and the diplomatic and political environment. While many credit the increase in U.S. troops as the key factor in the Iraq campaign, in reality political settlements with the Sunni population, a counterproductive terror campaign by Al Qaeda, and the decision by Iran to no longer incite Shia resistance had greater impacts on stability and thus increased the coalition's relevant power. As conditions changed in Iraq, military coercion became relevant when we coupled it with an acceptable political alternative. In contrast, increasing economic pressures, tensions with Iran and Pakistan, and corruption within the Karzai government have likely created insurmountable conditions for a similar outcome in Afghanistan. Consequently, our military-centric Afghanistan "surge" lacked the political component which boosted our relevant power in Iraq.

Additionally, the Taliban affected the power equation in Afghanistan by using available time and space, provided by our shift in focus to Iraq, to mitigate our counterinsurgency campaign. The Taliban attacked our strategy directly by weathering drone strikes in their Pakistan safe havens, and adopting tactics with strategic payoff-namely IED, high profile, and insider attacks. They understand the parameters of our relevant power in Afghanistan, and to some degree, they learned how to leverage their own power to counter ours.

To understand the relevant power equation between Iraq and Afghanistan, we must keep two things in mind. First, we cannot assume political, economic, or military strength will translate from one conflict to another or will even endure throughout a war. Because power fluctuates between and within wars, the conditions that define a conflict provide the first measuring stick for relevant power. Conditions in Iraq were eventually ripe for our power to influence the political and security situation. Not so in Afghanistan. Second, we cannot always compensate for deficiencies in one source of power by increasing strength in another. War is a duel, and any ability to adjust or adapt depends on the capability of our adversary to do the same. The Taliban exploited conditions to evolve into a strategically savvy opponent, whereas Al Qaeda in Iraq diminished due to their own strategic ineffectiveness. Our relevant power depends on internal factors as well as the external ability of our opponent to counter our strengths, exploit our weaknesses, and adapt and influence at a faster rate.

Power plays the leading role in war, but assessing power is not straightforward. Iraq and Afghanistan proved power in war is neither broadly applicable nor enduring, it is relevant to changes in conditions, our opponents, and ourselves. Good strategy must account for the give-and-take between power sources, and their changing value within and between conflicts. It is far easier for strategists to measure strength in isolation and assume it translates to power, but that shortcut does not serve them well when preparing for war. Success in war requires an understanding of when and how to expend or preserve power -- and when and how to end a war in order to retain future freedom of action. The consequences for misunderstanding relevant power could cause a nation with considerable military might to lose a war by stubbornly pursuing an unrealistic end state, significantly draining its power in the process. Avoiding that outcome requires asking two simple questions. When told our nation inherently possesses power due to military, political and economic strength, our military strategists and the policymakers they serve should ask, "power to do what ... to whom?"

Colonel Jason Brown is an active duty Air Force officer attending the Air War College. He is a graduate of the Marine Corps School of Advanced Warfighting. He commanded the 13th Intelligence Squadron and has deployed to multiple locations including Iraq and Afghanistan. The conclusions and opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force, or Air University.


The Best Defense

A quantitative study of my military library shows Vietnam hot on the heels of Iraq

A spell of lousy weather recently enabled me to finish putting together bookcases and then unpack the remaining boxes of military-related books I had in the basement. Now I have all books on military affairs in one place, and shelved, except for perhaps 50 volumes at my office at CNAS, and about 16 feet of military reference books I also have in DC. 

There were a few surprises to me in shelving the books. First, how many books I now have on the Iraq war. Second, how few I have on the American Civil War -- a surprise in part because I feel like I've read too much about it, compared to the rest of American and global military history.

So I got out a tape measure to begin comparing the sections by size, measured in terms to shelf space occupied.  

Major sections

The big winner was World War II, with 32 feet of books. This is not a surprise because I just finished writing a book that begins with eight chapters on American generals in World War II. I've read almost all of these except a couple of fairly recent books on Churchill. The case is similar for most sections, except as noted.

The second biggest section was the U.S. war in Iraq, with a total of 31 feet.  But the Vietnam War was surprisingly close behind, with 27 feet. This surprised me because I went to Iraq 14 times but have only made one, short trip to Vietnam, decades after the war there ended. The Vietnam section likely will grow in the next year and pass the Iraq section, because I am thinking about writing a book on the Vietnam War.

The next biggest section isn't really a section -- it is an overarching "general U.S. military history from all over the place," like Russell Weigley's classic The American Way of War. It came in at 12 feet. 

That's also about the size of the section on the American Revolution, but I have read very few of those. I assembled the collection because I thought I might write a book on George Washington's early military career, and how it shaped his approach to the Revolution, but no one seems much interested in having me do such a book.

In sixth place was the Korean War, with 9 feet. I feel like I have read pretty much everything worthwhile on that one.

Just behind that was the "literature of war" section, which is novels, plays, poetry and literary memoirs, which came in at just under 9 feet.  (One-third of that was WWII, one-third was stuff from the last 30 years, and one third was other, such as World War I poetry and John Masters' Bugles and a Tiger.)

The intelligence section measured 7 feet, but that overstates my interest. I have only read about half of this section. Also, about 2 feet of it is old congressional reports on intelligence from the 1970s I saved because I once thought I might write about that someday. But with the passage of time the subject seems less compelling 

Next was World War I, at 5 feet long. That surprised me because I don't feel I know that much about that war.

At 4 feet


--Terrorism, of which one foot is "getting bin Laden."

--American Civil War. As I say, I thought it would be more.

--"Other '90s section: Haiti, Somalia, etc": 4 feet

3 feet

--Ancient military history, general military theory/strategy


--Middle Eastern military history, from Crusades to the present.

2.5 feet

--U.S. Navy, general history

--Air Force, ditto

--Special operations. If I included the "getting bin Laden" section here, it would be 3.5 feet-that is, bigger than my collections on the Navy and Air Force. The American public loves reading about Special Operators, and so publishers churn out these books and mail them to me. I haven't read a lot of these books.   

2 feet

--Pakistan/India (haven't read many of them)

--U.S. military personnel issues (manning the force, women in military, gays in military)

--U.S. wars in Balkans in '90s

--Military transformation (no one remembers but this was a hot issue in the '90s)

--Civil-military relations

--Pre-20th century British military history, excluding wars with U.S.:  2 feet


--Marine Corps, general history : 1.5 feet. I thought there would be more, but I guess many of the Marine books are in the war sections, especially World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

--Nuclear weapons: 1.5 feet, but haven't read most of them. I always have found the subject kind of boring.

--Military-media relations: 1 foot