Retaking Ramadi and the “Afghan Model”: Stephen Biddle, Air Power, and Maneuver Warfare

By Greg Mercer
On December 29, 2015, Iraqi forces recaptured the city of Ramadi, which was controlled by ISIS. While there remains resistance (in up to 25% of Ramadi), the victory is being hailed by some as a sign that ISIS is in retreat and losing momentum. An editorial in the New York Times lays out the situation and addresses where the US stands in the fight.

Many questions remain about the conflict- where it will go, how it will resolve, the political effort it will require from intervening forces, and ultimately what kind of conflict this is.

Twitter speculation is prescient, as always:

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That’s NPR’s defense writer Phil Ewing.

To assess this question of COIN-or-conventional, consider the theories of security studies hero and frequent commentator Stephen Biddle.

I have no interest in (mis)representing Biddle’s own opinions on ISIS, which have appeared in the Washington Post’s excellent Monkey Cage blogthe Atlantic, and the Council on Foreign Relations. Instead, I’m interested in two of his works addressing recent US conflicts- his seminal Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Battle and his paper, Afghanistan and the Future of Warfare: Implications for Army and Defense Policy, wherein he spent a great deal of effort arguing against the idea of a Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA in Pentagonese).[1]

Military Power sees Biddle arguing that war hasn’t really changed all that much since artillery-aided maneuver warfare (Biddle calls this the “Modern System”) emerged in the First World War. This style of combat sees offenses where entrenched enemies are softened up with artillery barrages[2] and then overrun by infantry, using fire-and-maneuver tactics. Biddle supports this claim with a combination of case studies, statistical analysis of conflicts, and computer simulations. It’s something of a methodological cornerstone.

Afghanistan and the Future of Warfare takes on the dueling ideas that early American involvement in Northern Afghanistan, characterized by a Special Forces-Air Power-local allies triumvirate, is either so revolutionary as to herald a new “Afghan Model” of warfare or that it’s a complete topographical fluke unlikely to be repeated elsewhere. Biddle argues it was neither of these, but rather a fairly conventional war between two land forces characterized by its use of Special Forces to target precision guided munitions.

The Afghan Model, if it existed, would allow American air power dominance to “make conquerors” of local allies. Biddle’s test for whether Afghanistan represents a new model (the way some have said that it does) consists of three features:

  • Special Operations Forces and standoff sensors must have been able to find key targets for precision engagement;
  • PGMs must have been able to kill the targets found, at standoff ranges; and,
  • The indigenous allies’ role must have been undemanding.[3]

Basically, the aggregate of these features is a war wherein the US can take care of all of the actual finding and killing of targets with precision munitions targeted from the air, from orbit, or by small Special Forces teams, causing the enemy force structure to collapse, thus allowing local allies to take care of a few remnants and capture the territory. Biddle finds that initial operations in Afghanistan didn’t meet this standard.

These features are also a useful test for the war against ISIS. Again, the best-case-scenario is one where the 630 air strikes conducted by the US and its allies pave the way for local forces (in this case, the Iraqi Army[4]) to retake ISIS-held territory. This has been partially successful, and the Iraqis probably wouldn’t have been nearly as successful if not for friendly skies. But by Biddle’s conditions above, it would be premature to call this a new way of war. The US certainly hasn’t been able to conduct an entirely removed air war, opting to place forces on the ground. Identifying targets hasn’t been easy—ISIS occupies cities and villages populated by the civilians that the US and Iraqis seek to protect. Further complications arise from the proliferation of independent groups and actors on the ground (just look at the debate over what constitutes a Western-friendly moderate worth arming). The role of the allies on the ground has been anything but undemanding. So when we apply Biddle’s reasoning on the 2003 Iraq War and the 2002 Afghanistan War, the war against ISIS begins to look much more like a technologically advanced shade of good old maneuver warfare than a new type of conflict.

The idea of conducting an entire war from the air is compelling, though. What would it take to identify every enemy target and deliver precise munitions? The US already possesses some of the best[5] remote sensing equipment and military hardware out there, but it still requires targeting from allies on the ground or American Special Forces (as we saw in the case of the bombing of the Doctors Without Borders Hospital in Afghanistan, this is not a perfect system). To advance the art of air power to the point where it displaces land war requires near-omniscience and the ability to strike targets anywhere in the world in real time. Technologically or doctrinally, this just doesn’t exist.

Russia is simultaneously conducting airstrikes against ISIS and providing military assistance to allies on the ground. We’ve seen Russian airstrikes kill US-backed rebels and more recently, the leader of an insurgent group resisting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s control in Damascus. This begs the question of whether the Russian military sees itself following a conventional model of warfare, an Afghan Model, or some other model entirely. Following this, what happens when two powers try to “make conquerors” of their own local forces?

Finally, what of political solutions? The Times editorial notes that defeating ISIS militarily can’t alone solve the power vacuum and sense of Sunni disenfranchisement in Iraq that ISIS uses to build power. It’s widely understood that this requires a stable political solution, whether from within or without. Carl von Clausewitz tells us that war is an extension of politics, and in this case too we’ll have to see a military resolution and a political one.

[1] More explicitly in the former, but the latter certainly has shades of this.

[2] Biddle says that in WWI, this could mean firepower in the magnitude of nuclear weapons, dispelling the notion of boring-old-conventional-weapons.

[3] Biddle, Afghanistan and the Future of Warfare, 24

[4] And with regards to Ramadi, just the Iraqi Army. The Kurds and Iran-backed Shiites were excluded in favor of US-trained local Sunnis.

[5] Ok, the best.


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