Failing to Plan is Planning to Fail Against the Islamic State

NOTE: Today’s post was graciously submitted by Sooner Grunt (aka @soonergrunt on Twitter), a retired Army and Army National Guard Infantry NCO with two tours in Afghanistan and two tours in Iraq.  He may one day go back to college to finish his degree in Political Science, but says he’ll probably just play computer games and make stuff in his shop because it’s more rewarding. Either way, he has a wealth of real-world experience, and I’m certainly happy to have him contribute! Enjoy!

When I was a Private in Infantry OSUT back in the dark ages of 1988, my Drill Sergeants had these pithy sayings that they would sling around, usually while smoking some troop, usually me, for some infraction or mistake. “Don’t assume, son. It makes an ass out of u and me!”

The two that really stuck with me, and have actual application in the career of the Infantryman are “Piss poor prior planning prevents proper performance,” and “Failing to plan is planning to fail!” These two maxims are pretty useful in many situations, both in and out of the service, but in the military, the mistakes of failure to plan or to plan properly before a mission are almost always a prime ingredient in mission failure, with all that entails. The most glaringly obvious example of this was the preparation for the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The entry into Iraq, routes through the country, the isolation and destruction in detail of Saddam Hussein’s military, and the logistical support necessary to accomplish this goal were planned in detail, down to the minute that individual units were to cross the Line of Departure. But there was no planning for the aftermath. Then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously banned Pentagon and CENTCOM planners from planning for the days and weeks after the invasion, or even asking questions about it, under the threat of relief. His idea, if one can call it that, was that the whole thing would be over in a few months with a pre-fabricated pro-western government installed in Baghdad and the troops home in time for Thanksgiving dinner. We ended up fighting multiple factions over more than a decade and losing almost 4,500 KIA and over 32,000 WIA, with Iraqi casualties estimated around 100K to 300K killed.

This brings me to our current situation in the Middle East. With Syria engaged in a multi-way civil war, and Dictator Bashar Al Assad engaged against “moderate” Sunnis and an organization variously called the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) or simply, Islamic State (IS.) We want to see Assad go away, but his strongest adversary is IS. The “moderates” are the weakest and least organized of these factions. They are fighting Assad’s government and IS, who is fighting them and Assad, who is fighting pretty much everybody who isn’t a member of Assad’s Alawhite sect. IS is every bit as brutal and heinous as Assad if not more so, and they aren’t our friends either.

IS, having brutally murdered two American Journalists and posting the graphic imagery of these beheadings on social media, seems to be itching for a fight with the West, and the US in particular. Recently, media pundits and politicians have been clamoring for the US to take a more active role in attacking IS, and demanding that the President do something. The question I’d like to see the television pundits and politicians ask, and they never ask, by the way is this: “There are any number of things we CAN do, but is this something we OUGHT TO do?” The answer just might be “no.”

What bothers the shit out of me, as a former Infantry NCO who’s lead squads and platoons in Iraq and Afghanistan and spent a couple of sentences in Battalion and Brigade S-3 (Plans, Operations, and Training, for those who don’t know) shops, is this demand to do something, as if our simply dropping bombs will suddenly make things better. The people who clamor most loudly for this are, in many cases the same people who led cheers from the sidelines for the aforementioned Iraq disaster. These are frequently people who have little to no experience planning or leading combat operations of any sort and very few of whom had any skin in the game then and don’t have any now.

Successful armies plan the things they do, whether it’s conducting squad PT or invading a sovereign nation. Very successful armies constantly update those plans whenever the relevant factors change. I don’t know what, if anything, the Pentagon is planning for IS. I know that they’re planning something. The President may not have any specific intent at this time, but the J-3’s primary mission is to provide him with options should he choose to do something.

One of the biggest problems dealing with the Syrian situation is this: if we do something that hurts IS, that thing will most likely accrue positive benefits to Assad, and vice-versa. This is one case where the enemy of my enemy is not my friend. If we choose to elevate the “moderates” in the Syrian resistance (assuming that such people actually exist,) that will make things better for Assad or IS, depending on whichever of them is positioned to take advantage of the fact, at least for a short period, because they’re all fighting each other.

One of the most important questions to ask when planning an operation is “what happens next?” We can make some assumptions about what the enemy or the local population will do, based on historical precedent, but that is of relatively limited usefulness. We have to begin with the end-state in mind. What do we want the situation to look like when the last US troop is back safely at home drinking beer and playing with the kids? That’s the Strategic level of planning, and it’s damned hard to do. The enemy has a way of doing what he wants to achieve his goals regardless of what you want him to do. At the Operational level, the planning is generally aimed at creating the environment for the Strategic plans to come to fruition. It’s a smaller scale, generally with a shorter timeframe, with multiple contingency plans based on the enemy’s most likely course of action and the enemy’s most dangerous course of action. This is the domain of Theater headquarters, Corps, Divisions, and to some extent, Brigade-level mission planning. From Brigade level and below, the planning is at the Tactical level, down through Battalions and Squadrons to Companies, Troops, and Batteries, to the Platoon and finally to the Squad and Section. This is where the rubber meets the road.

At every level, planning begins with the Commander’s Intent—what does the higher Commander’s Desired End-State look like? We use the acronym MET-TC to determine what we are going to try to do and how we are going to try to do it. Mission, Enemy, Terrain and weather, Troops and support available, Time available, Civil considerations describe generally the planning considerations to take into account before the first Soldier hits the Line of Departure. And this planning has to take place at every level from the Pentagon J-3 working from the President’s intent down to the Infantry Platoon and Squads out in the middle of bad-guy country. At each level, the timeframe, area of operations, and scope of action are shrunk down to levels that are theoretically achievable by the unit responsible.

While plans at the Strategic and Operational level are frequently thought up and drafted by people with advanced degrees and decades of experience, with access to all sorts of high-tech information systems and the latest intelligence in air-conditioned facilities with nice amenities, the guys and gals who attempt to make those plans a reality are usually High School graduates and recent College graduates, in many cases doing this for the first time in the real world, and they’re running on bad food, little sleep, too much caffeine and adrenaline, using equipment that’s often unsuitable and in varying states of disrepair, and possessing very little knowledge of the outside world and their part in it. Things can go sideways very quickly at the tactical level with repercussions all the way up to the White House. All of the previous paragraphs should have led you to the realization that this shit is hard to do.

Ed: Overall, a fantastic take on why we shouldn’t rush to failure in the Middle East! If you have comments or want to continue the discussion, feel free to get at us on Twitter (@CombatCavScout & @SoonerGrunt) or leave a comment below!


2 thoughts on “Failing to Plan is Planning to Fail Against the Islamic State

  1. Pingback: Failing to plan is planning to fail against the Islamic State » Balloon Juice
  2. @SoonerGrunt posted some similar excellent thoughts on the EU and Ukraine and the burden we ask the military to shoulder on twitter the other day that would be nice to to have collected here if you have time. This comment/question refers mostly to that but fits here too.

    Strategically, isn’t it better for the US to do the heavy lifting rather than have our “friends” feel they can’t depend on US and start to build up their own forces (even nuclear) to provide for their own protection?

    The other problem I see that’s related is that the public and therefore congress doesn’t really have much “skin in the game” these days when deciding to go to war, unlike say when there was a draft. Somehow that has to change, otherwise it’s too easy to send off the 1% in the military to fight while the 99% go shopping.


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