Section 4. Strategic Lessons from Complex Operations
Any decent surgeon will tell you that all operations are complex; none are simple, routine or risk-free. Any doctor who would say otherwise is ignorant or arrogant and, in either case, potentially lethal. A successful surgical operation requires competent, experienced leadership, strong staff work, training and experience, an understanding of the risks and possible complications, and the necessary back up and a willingness to call it in when the situation warrants. It also begins with a proper diagnosis of the problem. And so it is with complex operations.
There were four major decision points on Iraq: whether to go in, how to go in, what to do the Day After and, in 2006, how to change course significantly to pull Iraq back from the brink of the abyss. This is not the place to debate whether there was good and sufficient cause to invade Iraq in 2003. Most of the rationales and excuses are threadbare by now. The merits of the Rumsfeld Doctrine, "shock and awe" and the size of the force General Franks ultimately had at his disposal, and related issues of martial law all played in the debacle of the Day After, and the need to create (or recreate) counterinsurgency doctrine.
These also have been examined in great depth by others.
Much has been made of the revolutionary nature of the new COIN doctrine, often called the Petraeus Doctrine: the maxim that force can lose a counterinsurgency but not win one; the primacy of the political over the military; the centrality of protection of the population over the killing of the enemy; and, the unity-of-effort or whole-of-government approach.1 What is revolutionary is not that these lessons were new, that they were unique to Iraq, or to 21st century conflict. What is revolutionary was that these lessons had been learned, known, and consciously forgotten - ghosts of conflicts past and lost. What is revolutionary about the COIN doctrine is that it reached into the past, brought it forward, and updated it. It was not the reinvention of the wheel, but a rediscovery that the principles of the wheel still applied. A core element is not the demilitarization of broader counterinsurgency operations, but the de-civilianization of the military. It is a recognition that the complexity of an operation and the broad scope of an operation - interagency, civilian-military, and multilateral - are potential strengths, not inherent weaknesses.
After leaving the State Department, I was fortunate to land as a fellow at the Kennedy School of Government's Institute of Politics. Early on, I gave a lecture entitled "Ad hoc'ing our way to Baghdad," about how our refusal to plan, to draw on the work of the 18-month interagency Future of Iraq Project, to adequately staff (we had about 120 civilians to run a shattered country of 25 million), and our lack of a clear mandate or authority made a mockery of our vaulted political rhetoric. Regime change in Iraq was not a repudiation of President Bush's pledge not to do nation-building but its manifestation.
The Rumsfeldian version of unity of effort through not only unilateral military action, but also uni-agency operations (both covered by fig leafs of coalition partnerships and interagency participation) was seductively simple and streamlined on the surface, but ultimately counterproductive. It forfeited the expertise, legitimacy, and checks and balances of multiple players. Over time, it became insular, isolated, and detached. The costs were evident as Iraq spun out of control and we lacked not only the doctrine and the tools to respond, but also the expertise to properly understand and diagnose the problem.
The working assumption was that we would go in, dust off the Iraqi bureaucracy (which would be in its offices as if on "pause"), patch up the infrastructure, install a government (the famously oxymoronic concept of "imposed democracy"), and be gone by the end of summer. General Jay Garner, the head of the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA), precursor to Paul Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), missed few opportunities to remind his staff of the short tenure of his contract, which turned out to be even shorter than advertised.
To the extent there was a plan, it was drafted in Kuwait (by a British officer), was no more than an inch thick, explicitly was not shared interagency, reflected a grudging acceptance of coalition civilian contributions, had little apparent Iraqi contribution beyond OSD's chosen few, and was not systematically coordinated prior to or after our arrival with the U.S. military. An insurgency may have been inevitable in Iraq, but the size and intensity of the conflagration was not. The Future of Iraq Project, even if fully implemented, was no silver bullet, but to ignore Eisenhower's dictum that the value of a plan is in the planning - and the planners - and to go in without either evidenced a fatal combination of arrogance and idiocy.
Many have asked when we knew we had a train wreck on our hands. It was clear in April 2003 in Baghdad, late March in Kuwait, and even early March in the Pentagon. The Presidential mandate giving DOD the lead on reconstruction of post-invasion Iraq was not bestowed until late January 2003. The Coordinator for Reconstruction for Baghdad and the Central Governorates was not recruited until the end of February 2003, and started on March 2, 2003. There was no staff, no structure, no recruiting process, and no resources. The pretense that ORHA was a civilian organization was perhaps more palatable to the American public, but the effect of the policy was obscure to those within ORHA, ambiguous to the U.S. military, and befuddling to the Iraqis. Donning a suit does not make one civilian anymore than my donning desert cammies made me military. The top ORHA leadership and the coordinators for two of the three regions were retired Army generals. All lacked sustained regional expertise and broad post-conflict credentials, and all evidenced minimum interagency or multilateral experience. The 120 or so civilians in ORHA to manage a shattered country of 25 million were dwarfed by the military and nearly crippled by a leadership culture that denied interagency and coalition experts the communications, transportation, and translation resources necessary to get outside the Green Zone to do our jobs.
This last point was brought home tellingly at the conclusion of my ad-hoc'ery lecture. A young man came up afterwards, a former Army officer and West Point graduate who had been in Baghdad the same time as I. He had been assigned to the Dura neighborhood, later one of the bloodiest districts in the city. He recounted his frustration and anger at the reconstruction tasks he faced, the expectations of the Iraqis in his charge, and the lack of any tools with which to work. How was he to fix the electrical grid, the sewage problem, the water, or any of the other challenges his district faced? Who could he turn to for advice, assistance, or access to city plans? Were there any city plans?
The irony is that, as he was coping as best he could at the district level with no guidance, just a mandate to get it done, my small team and I were meeting daily with the mayoralty, the deputy mayors and director generals who ran the city before the invasion and had stayed after liberation to keep it running. Most were dedicated technocrats who had operated under the radar of the Ba'ath Party. In a sense, they were those Iraqi bureaucrats we had counted on to run the city, the ministries, and the country on our behalf. We had access to the officials with the knowledge, the plans, and the experience to fix many of that Army major's problems. The tragedy is that our structure was set up in such a way that neither my team and I nor the Baghdad technocrats had any way of knowing what the major and his neighborhood needed, or any way to get it to him, and he had no way to communicate with us. In fact, until we met in Boston, he did not even know there was an American operation in the city he could turn to. The firewalls between the reconstruction effort and the military effort were impenetrable. The cost to our mission and to the Iraqis is incalculable.
The tectonic shift in approach under the COIN doctrine, the creation of provincial reconstruction teams, the establishment of State's Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization Office (S/CRS), and the Center for Complex Operations make manifest the necessity of thinking through and planning for complex operations, of breaking through that firewall we faced in Iraq in 2003. They leave open the critical question of how to avoid the next Iraq, the Iraq of the Day After. It is not just a question of complex post-conflict operations, but complex pre-conflict intervention and planning.
What is the lesson we are trying to learn here? How to do the next Iraq better? How to do Afghanistan? Or how not to have to do Iraq or Afghanistan again? If our focus is simply on post-conflict operations, or counterinsurgency, we may consign ourselves to an endless round of low-grade conflicts. The principle threats to our national security, global economic interests, and national values will not come from rival superpowers, but rather from weak, failing, or failed states. Of the countless lessons of 9/11, an important one is that to ignore the remote is to invite disaster. We walked away from post-Soviet Afghanistan and paid the price. We refused to plan for a post-Saddam Iraq and paid a price. And, given the scourge du jour - piracy - we may have ignored Somalia long enough to pay a price. If our lessons learned are how to better respond to a Taliban, an anti-occupation insurgency, or the Barbary Pirates redux, then keep a copy of the FM 3-24 handy and learn its basic lessons well. Internalize whole-of-government and unity-of-effort approaches, protection of the population, the primacy of the political, the centrality of legitimacy, and the requirement for sustainable economic development. Those are good lessons and the right lessons, and if used as touchstones rather than a template, we will do the next Iraq and the next Afghanistan well. (I would strongly encourage we resist the temptation to try this in Somalia.)
Option B to managing the next post-conflict operation well is to take these principles of counterinsurgency and post-conflict stabilization and front load them. This is not a plea for the hoary matrices that seek to predict the next failed state with the same degree of accuracy as predictions of California earthquakes. This is not an endorsement of the concept of responsibility to protect, which has much to recommend it, but also significant drawbacks. But short of an over-quantification of the problem, or an over-internationalization of the response, most decent analysts and practitioners know which states and governments are fraying around the edges but have not yet disintegrated.
I would propose Yemen as an example. Yemen is the always almost failing state. In the late 1970s there was a famous if now forgotten series of cables from the Embassy entitled "Yemen at the Crossroads." Yemen is still at the crossroads. It remains impoverished, with a capacity-deficit governing structure, an illiterate population, inadequate health and medical care, and neighbors who wish it no good. It has had to deal with every flavor of insurgent threat, from Marxist-inspired, to Saudi-funded, to al-Qaeda wannabes, and, possibly, Iranian provocateurs. It has no resource base and no exportable commodity of any quantity, other than migrant workers.
What is remarkable is not Yemen's fragility but its durability. It is held together not by rentier largesse or police-state controls. Rather, it sits somewhere between viable if emerging democracy and liberal autocracy. It holds together largely because the Yemenis want it to and see no credible alternative to the current arrangement - the primordial federalism practiced deftly by the central government and the tribal leaders. Centrifugal and centripetal forces act as checks and balances on the power and aspirations of both sides. There is no viable secessionist movement, and neither the regionalism nor the clan structure rise to a level that would presage another Somalia or Iraq, or even the warlordism of Afghanistan. A strong Yemeni identity predates any artificiality of the colonial period and trumps but does not replace tribal/clan identities. Yemenis, like the rest of us, can and do hold multiple identities simultaneously and comfortably.
But not failing is not the same as succeeding. It is as dangerous for us to overvalue subsidiary identities, such as regionalism or clans, as it is to undervalue legitimate grievances of income distribution and corruption, or the willingness of outside players to meddle in the affairs of state. I was in Yemen in January 2009. U.S. policy toward Yemen has become singularly focused, to the point of distortion, on security and counterterrorism, and al-Qaeda specifically. And the dialogue has become increasingly narcissistic - what has Yemen done for us today? How does it support our game plan and our priorities? The embassy looks like a mini-Green Zone.
No serious Yemeni suggests that al-Qaeda and its followers are not a problem and a legitimate issue for the United States, or that there are not serious security issues in the country that the government needs to address. Their lament is that U.S. policy is focused solely on the short-term and security - the military and the police. The United States is no longer seen as being willing to engage with the Yemeni government and to seek to address chronic problems of education, health, development, and, yes, corruption. The Yemenis suggest rebalancing the relationship in terms of a balance between security, development and core diplomacy, and also a balance through a broader dialogue.
What would a policy of preemptive stabilization and reconstruction look like, of playing the lessons of complex operations forward, in a place like Yemen?
Security first becomes security only. In most weak states, the military and the police are very weak links, but an over-reliance on building these two sectors prior to strengthening the broader state capacity can distort the civilian-military balance, send mixed signals on the primacy of civilian control, undermine efforts at governance reform and liberalization, and fail to build the core pillars of the state, including a competent judiciary, not just competent cops. An over-reliance on catching or killing the bad guys without equal commitment to the structures of justice and state services is as hollow and self-defeating as the conflation of democratic processes (elections) with democratic governance.
The military and the police are instruments of state legitimacy, not substitutes for or precursors of the state. State legitimacy is critical to state security but reflects a broader sense of social contract through equitable provision of services, accountability, transparency, and rule of law.
Extension of the authority of the state must be done in parallel with, if not on the heels of, expansion of the legitimacy of the state. This means education, health, rule of law, and structures of trade and commerce. The same investment in teachers, clinic workers and midwives, local judges, and the like as in police and military; the same investment in the building of schools, hospitals, and courts as in police stations and equipment; the same attention to an education system, health system and judicial system. This is not social engineering, or "nation-building" but state capacity-building. This also need not be a U.S.-only endeavor but should be broadly multilateral.
Diplomats and development officers need to get outside the comfort (and confines) of the embassy. We need to understand and work within the realities of pragmatic "risk management" and not cling to the fantasy of "risk avoidance."
The Department of State needs to regain its footing as the coordinator for the formulation and implementation of foreign policy writ large - not just the validation of the Chief of Mission authorities, but recognition that, as a properly functioning NSC staff coordinates the policies of the President and acts as honest broker to the many department and agency stakeholders, both the embassy country team and the Department of State need to get comfortable again with the obligations and responsibilities as policy coordinators in Washington and in the field.
We need to approach failing states, or potentially failing states, with the same unity-of-effort/whole-of-government policies and programs we now recognize are critical for success in failed states and post-conflict environments. We need to recognize it will take the same commitment of time but, if done properly, need not demand the same commitment of resources as we now understand are required for post-conflict operations or for counterinsurgency. While it may be useful to have a corps of professionals and reservists who can deploy quickly to a crisis or post-conflict situation, we must be wary of creating too insular a corps, however interagency it may be. The tools and mindset needed to work complex operations, and the discipline to go when called, should be encouraged, supported, rewarded, and expected throughout the civilian interagency. Creating too narrow a community would let everyone else off the hook.
1. See Field Manual 3-24, Counterinsurgency (Washington, DC: Department of the Army, December 2006), available at "http://www.usgcoin.org/library/doctrine/COIN-FM3-24.pdf".
Last Reviewed: May 18, 2012