SWJ Book Review – Planning to Fail: The American Wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq


SWJ Book Review – Planning for Failure: The American Wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq

Nathan P. Jones

James H. Lebovic. Planning for Failure: The American Wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. New York: Oxford University Press. 2019. [ISBN: 978-0-19-093532-0, Hardcover, 246 pages]

As we revel in the shock of the United States’ hasty and disorderly withdrawal from Afghanistan, there is no better time to look back on the little-known works that predicted this possibility years ago and assess further lessons from. these works. One of these works is that of Lebovic Planning for failure; a premonitory practical / academic treatise on three of the great mistakes of US foreign policy. I say prescient because he predicted many failures of the Afghanistan campaign and is a testament to the pain and analysis we all went through in August and September 2021. Certainly Biden bears the blame at first. Then, looking back, we put the blame on Trump, Obama, Bush. Regardless of the party, there was a structural rot at the founding of the company. Lebovic explains exactly what it was and in doing so provides a framework for reflection which, if properly applied, could help us avoid the quagmires that have become hallmarks (not bugs) of foreign policy interventions. the United States.

I met Professor James Lebovic of George Washington University as a PhD candidate in 2009 at the University of California, Irvine where I was a discussant for a Spring 2009 Research in International Global Studies (RIGS) talks about his previous book The Limits of US Military Capacity: Lessons from Vietnam and Iraq.[1] The chapter we focused on dealt with the limits of the United States to “taking advantage” of host governments. As a graduate student studying Counterinsurgency (COIN) in the mid-2000s, I found this example of the principal-agent problem useful in my reflection on the failures and successes of US COIN. Full Disclosure: I am thanked in Acknowledgments for his 2010 book. In 2019 Lebovic published Planning for failure building on its previous work.

Planning for failure is a well-structured comparison of three cases: Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan with summative introductory and concluding chapters. This book is particularly well suited to Small Wars Journal readers given their familiarity with the case studies that are the bread and butter of US COIN studies. The cases are analyzed with a unified structure assessing useful, but insufficient explanations of cognitive bias in the literature, and Lebovic’s four phases which include: Step 1: (The decision to intervene) with a ‘fixation’ on the objectives of the mission, stage 2: disjunction “between military means and ends, stage 3:” limitation of resources “or” constriction “(war has become expensive and expenditure ceilings are necessary) and stage 4: disengagement of military forces (“Time constraints” for the exit). In each case study chapter, he guides us through the insufficiency of other explanations, and through the four phases. The chapters are long, ranging from about 47 pages (Vietnam) to 62 pages (Afghanistan), with the middle chapter on Iraq dividing the difference. This weakness is both exacerbated and mitigated by careful summaries of the overall argument in the conclusion of each chapter, which allows the book to be skimmed over by those in a hurry (doctoral students).


Lebovic argues that President Johnson could have taken any position on Vietnam and that a plausible argument for rationality could have been made ex post facto. This clarity demonstrated the insufficiency of rationality arguments explaining the entry of the United States into Vietnam.

In the “stage 1 fixation”, the Johnson administration focused on a military solution first by air (Operation Rolling Thunder) and then by a ground invasion. He did not rigorously question his own goals by focusing on tactics rather than strategy. In the Stage 2 “disjunction”, the administration intended to use “bombardment” for “coercive effect”, but the signaling was lost in the “noise” of “unintentional messages sent by the constraints. military and bombing practices. (Pp. 61-62) The administration limited the bombardments to prevent the entry of the Chinese or the Soviets into the conflict.

At stage 3, limitation and constriction “Johnson ruled out an increase in numbers and an escalation or expansion of the conflict”. Johnson focused on the “middle option” without escalation or withdrawal. In Stage IV, “extrication” or “disengagement” became the goal. Under the Nixon administration, the war spread, but with the goal of a stronger American negotiating position, de-Americanization and Vietnamization of the war effort. The goal of “peace in honor” was set to respond to the desire of the Nixon administration to emerge from the conflict. Saigon finally fell in 1975 as the South Vietnamese military and government, without US funding or support, finally collapsed. “The neglected political dimension of the war will ultimately prove to be decisive. “(Pp. 62-63)


The Bush administration has focused on regime change in Iraq, but has not planned for the consequences, including the insurgency and the provision of public safety. In Stage 2, the Bush administration refused to acknowledge the problem of militias and insurgency in the country. He has not given thought to policies such as the debaasification and dismantling of the Iraqi army.

In Stage III, resources were “tight,” although Lebovic had some explanation for it in that it was the period of the troop surge in 2007 and the backbone of the counterinsurgency. He describes this as actually consistent with the constriction phase because it was “the cheapest option” and it was small and “short term”. effectively guaranteed an exit in 2011. Lebovic rightly argues that it was more about getting the US out of Iraq by pointing out that when the US returned to Iraq later in the fight against the state Islamic in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Iraqi government readily accepted the status of US forces not being legally subject to Iraqi law.


Planning for failure reserves its longest substantive chapter for Afghanistan, the most recent large-scale American intervention. When I say Lebovic’s work is prescient, consider the following was published in 2019 and probably written long before that given academic timetables:

The risk, of course, was that the Afghan security forces, despite their infusions of funds, would become a “work in decline”. They may well disintegrate or collapse, perhaps in a slow but accelerating downward spiral. As security conditions deteriorated, everyone involved could fend for themselves – cutting and running, grabbing whatever advantages they could or making deals – allowing the Taliban to assert their advantages. Building on their playbook (now more than two decades old), the Taliban could establish themselves in the hospital parts of the south and east of the country and possibly move to envelop the rest. (p. 172)

Does this sound familiar to you given the events of 2021? I am interested in the “doing business” aspect of fall. There was a lot of talk about the “intelligence failure” in the fall, but the problem was not that the Afghan government and army would fall as many predicted, but how fast. One day we woke up and the police chief in Kabul was working with the Taliban and, as contemporary reports claimed, this could not have happened without prior planning. It reminded me of my own research on Mexican drug trafficking organizations and how they are taking over new territory. They send emissaries to meet the local cell leaders and force the inhabitants to join the invasion organization.[2] On the pitch, it has the effect of an overnight takeover with surprising speed and is reminiscent of Sun Tzu’s quote “Because winning a hundred victories in a hundred battles is not the height of skill. Subduing the enemy without fighting is supreme excellence.[3]

Recommendations for future decision-makers

Lebovic Planning for failure, provides eight recommendations centered on a clear reflection on the initiation of interventions and the decision-making process. They include: 1) recognizing that “evaluation is an ongoing process; 2) avoid ad hoc vague argumentation such as the US credibility argument in Vietnam; 3) to put the whole government on the same wavelength, lest there be a drift of the mission; 4) avoiding “procrastination” delay decisions may limit options; 5) “regularize” contingency planning in the event of potential failure, 6) the United States must understand limitations, including the ability to leverage host governments through backstopping or threats of withdrawal , 7) reverse the decision-making process by considering alternative futures; 8) “decision-makers should beware of non-decision”. (p. 192) This is a useful checklist for policy makers to assess foreign intervention decisions. Two of them have significant overlap (6) procrastination and (8) non-decision are both related to the timing of decision making and the desire to avoid painful decisions. Recommendation 7 on considering alternatives futures needed to be fleshed out a bit more as there are many forecasting methodologies that could be recommended, although this may require its own treatise.[4] Lebovic Planning for failure provides its readers with clear case studies, a useful four-phase framework and policy recommendations to explain how decision-makers approach these decisions.

End Notes

[1] James H. Lebovic. The Limits of US Military Capacity: Lessons from Vietnam and Iraq. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010.

[2] Nathan P. Jones. “Bacterial conjugation as a framework for the homogenization of tactics in Mexican organized crime”. Conflict and Terrorism Studies. Flight. 44, no. 10. 2021: 855-884, https://doi.org/10.1080/1057610X.2019.1586356.

[3] Tao Hanzhang, Sun Tzu’s Art of War: The Modern Chinese Interpretation, trad. Yuan Shibing. New York: Sterling Publishing Company, 2000, p. 33.

[4] See Sarah Miller Beebe and Randolph H. Pherson, Intelligence Analysis Case: Structured Analysis Techniques in Action. Mille Chênes: CQ Press, 2014; Andy Hines and Peter C. Bishop, “Framework Foresight: Exploring Futures the Houston Way”, Futures contracts Flight. 51. 2013 May 29: 31-49; Randolph H. Pherson and Richards J. Heuer Jr. Structured Analysis Techniques for Intelligence Analysis, 3rd ed. Thousand Oaks: Sage, 2019.

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