This Adelphi book examines the military evolution of the US-led interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, and their implications for the future character of war.

Adelphi 461

Launched in the wake of 9/11, the US-led interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq forced painful transformations in Western militaries. As successful regime-change operations gave way to prolonged insurgencies, these forces confronted wars whose character rapidly developed in unanticipated directions. The US and its allies repeatedly failed to align national ends, ways and means to achieve stabilisation, reconstruction and political progress in Afghanistan and Iraq, before rediscovering counter-insurgency principles established in previous conflicts. The lessons of the wars are likely to continue shaping Western states’ approach to intervention and warfare for years to come.

This Adelphi book examines the military evolution of the conflicts, and their implications for the future character of war. It shows why combat remains the core military capability, and explains successful and unsuccessful adaptation by armed forces, especially the essential roles of leadership, culture and organisational agility in promoting ‘learning under fire’. Written by the author of the British Army’s report on post-conflict stabilisation in Iraq, the book is a valuable guide for policymakers, government officials, military officers and scholars seeking to understand the military legacy of a contentious and unpopular chapter in Western strategy.

‘The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan contain many lessons on how, and how not, to wage war in the modern era. Ben Barry’s focus on how to optimise strategic direction, or often the lack of it, and the need to get military command and control right is especially important. Together with the “battle for the narrative” and the political dimension of military operations, this book contains some invaluable insights. Capturing lessons from past wars so we don’t repeat the mistakes is something we are not good at. Before every future war, let it be the norm for generals, and their political masters, to dust off Ben Barry’s invaluable book!’
General (Retd) Lord David Richards, former UK Chief of the Defence Staff

‘What Western nations learn from their experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq may prove to be as important as the outcomes of those long, ongoing wars. Ben Barry has produced an invaluable study which should serve as a starting point for those charged with understanding recent experience as the foundation for thinking about future armed conflict and how best to advance national and international security.’
H.R. McMaster, author of Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies that Led to Vietnam

‘The military lessons from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are salutary, but neither the American army nor the British has been particularly good at learning them. While he was still serving, Ben Barry was tasked with writing the report on those which the British Army should draw from Iraq, but it was not published. His book is therefore well informed as well as important. “Harsh Lessons”, and indeed the whole process of lesson learning, is not just about raking over the coals of the past; it is also about digesting their implications for the future.’
Professor Sir Hew Strachan, Emeritus Fellow, All Souls College, Oxford University, and Professor of International Relations, University of St Andrews

‘Ben Barry has very aptly brought out the dynamics of the complexities and the changing character of conflict in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The “harsh lesson” that all armies need to learn is that inadequate leadership – be it at the national or military level – coupled with the failure to expeditiously adapt to unforeseen circumstances can lead to defeat. To win future wars – be they hybrid, asymmetric, intra-state or inter-state, or fighting cross-border terrorism – a successful politico-military strategy will be one that harmonises all elements of national power and which is regularly assessed and reviewed.’
Lieutenant-General (Retd) P.K. Singh, former General Officer Commanding-in-Chief, South Western Command, Indian Army

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  • Introduction

    Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz outlined two facets of war: its nature, which remains constant under all circumstances; and its character, which encompasses the varying ways and means by which war is fought. War’s nature is inherently human, often chaotic. Waging war is an act or expression of policy, undertaken to maintain a position of advantage, create a more advantageous situation or influence the attitudes or behaviour of another...
  • Chapter 1: The changing character of the conflicts

    As the character of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq shifted from regime change to prolonged counter-insurgency campaigns, they became increasingly political, even at the tactical level. Sometimes described as ‘armed politics’, these dynamics were heavily influenced by the battle of the narrative. This contest focused on influencing attitudes and involved insurgent and militia propaganda, international forces’ information operations and statements by a wide variety of political and military leaders. In...
  • Chapter 2: Direction of operations

    If strategy is the national alignment of ends, ways and means to achieve strategic objectives, the United States failed to achieve this in the first half of both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The conflicts showed that strategy and strategic leadership matter, as does military command at all levels. The challenges of strategic leadership and military command in Iraq and Afghanistan were compounded by the growing unpopularity of the conflicts...
  • Chapter 3: Military capability, tactics and operations

    Although the United States and its allies achieved regime change in Iraq and Afghanistan, the unforeseen demands of stabilisation and counter-insurgency operations meant the character of the conflicts was much more violent than anticipated. Indeed, many of these operations involved sustained heavy fighting and extensive use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) by insurgents and militias. Thus, international forces had to make far greater use of combat capabilities than they had...
  • Chapter 4: Learning under fire: military adaptation

    The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan illuminate the enduring challenges of military adaptation in war. As Williamson Murray puts it: War is a contest, a complex, interactive duel between two opponents … which presents the opportunity for the contestants to adapt to their enemy’s strategy, operations, and tactical approach. But because it is interactive, both sides have the potential to adapt to the conflict at every level, from the tactical to...
  • Chapter 5: The utility of force in Afghanistan, Iraq and beyond

    While it would be foolhardy to expect future wars to be repeats of Iraq and Afghanistan, the campaigns there provide pointers to the potential future character of conflict, many of which were identified in previous chapters. This chapter takes a wider view, assessing what the wars tell us about the utility of force and the conduct and character of contemporary war, identifying areas in which the United States and its...
  • Conclusion

    The experience of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan suggests that, unless regime change is followed by successful stabilisation, the resulting conditions can be as bad as, if not worse than, those that preceded the campaign. During post-conflict operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US and its allies struggled to align ends, ways and means for stabilisation, reconstruction and efforts to achieve the political progress crucial to their strategic objectives...

Brigadier (Retired) Ben Barry, OBE is Senior Fellow for Land Warfare at the IISS.

Table of Contents

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