- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 2, 2005

Now that the election is over, the military will turn its attention to the mission of creating an advisory effort intended to transform newly minted Iraqi soldiers into effective fighting units. We have been here before. Long-term security on the Korean Peninsula was achieved in large measure with the creation of KMAG, the Korean Military Advisory Group in 1951. In spite of opinions to the contrary, the American advisory effort in Vietnam, MACV, did a very credible job of professionalizing the Vietnamese army. The American advisory effort in El Salvador gave the Salvadorans enough breathing room to begin the process of democratization.

Immediately after the liberation of Baghdad, I e-mailed an old friend who informed me that what he needed most to carry on the war was “interpreters I can trust.” His concerns proved prophetic. The advisory period of the war in Iraq will continue to teach the lesson taught by this officer nearly two years ago. In an age of shock and awe, the American military’s greatest shortcomings have been human rather than technological — cultural awareness, civil affairs, civic action, information operations (military-speak for our effort to gain the moral high ground from Al Jazeera) and, most importantly, intelligence.

Intimate knowledge of the enemy’s motivation, intent, will, tactical method and cultural environment will prove to be far more important for success in the advisory phase than smart bombs, aircraft and expansive bandwidth. A successful advisory effort depends on the ability to think and adapt faster than the enemy. Soldiers must be prepared to thrive in an environment of uncertainty, ambiguity and unfamiliar cultural circumstances. This war will be won by fostering personal relationships, leveraging non-military advantages, reading intentions, building trust, converting opinions and managing perceptions, all tasks that demand an exceptional ability to understand people, their culture and their motivations.

Yet even after nearly three years of evidence to the contrary the Department of Defense still pins its efforts to fight this war in large measure on the concept of “net-centric warfare.” Military theorists in the Pentagon claim that new information and computing technologies will allow U.S. military forces to “lift the fog of war.” According to this view, a vast array of sensors and computers, tied together, can work symbiotically to see and comprehend the entire battle space and remove ambiguity, uncertainty and contradiction from the military equation, or at least reduce these factors tomanageable and controllable levels.

Such theories, however, rest on a profound ahistoricism that entirely misses the lessons of the past, much less the lessons learned in Iraq. The painful truth is that the enemy has a vote. He adapts and seeks to mitigate our technology because he wants to win. He has learned to counter our electronic networks by “unplugging” to create nets of his own, made up of tribal connections to brutal thugs who rely on dispersed forces commanded by nothing more than a common ideology and the unity of a single purpose — to kill Americans and Iraqi loyalists.

In Iraq, reform in the human dimension is being driven from the combat zone, not from in the Pentagon. Commanders are teaching their soldiers how to be street-savvy fighters as well as how to gain the trust of the locals while on patrol. Any soldier or Marine in the field will tell you that he gets virtually all of his useful intelligence by walking the beat and talking to citizens in order to build trust (and occasionally making a back-alley payoff to find and kill terrorists). I asked one brigade commander what sort of intelligence he received from high-level “networked” products and he replied succinctly: “week-old powerpoint slides.”

Information technology is a not a bad thing. Technologically advanced sensors are useful even in the most primitive combat zones. But this war clearly shows that the military has evolved a technology culture that all too often fields information systems with scant regard to their utility for saving lives of soldiers and Marines. Net-centric technologies give generals and admirals an unprecedented view of the sea and air battle. We need instead to gain “culture-centric” advantages that will give soldiers an unprecedented view of the enemy lying in wait across an alleyway.

We must learn from those who have learned from the tough school of real war. We must begin now to change the techno-net-centric culture that has so influenced the way this nation fights its wars. The Department of Defense must get serious about fighting using people as well as machines. The debate over future defense policies and programs must be joined by those with a record of proven performance in fighting the kind of unplugged, human-centered, unconventional campaign that will most certainly confront us generations into the future.

Retired Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales is a former commander of the Army War College.

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