Embracing Evolution Post-Iraq

A response to ‘Counterinsurgency Concepts: What we learned in Iraq‘
General David Petraeus*


  • *

    Petraeus, D. (2010) ‘Counterinsurgency Concepts: What We Learned in Iraq’, Global Policy, Vol. 1, No. 1, pp. 116-117.

People who create, acquire and transfer knowledge, and are given the freedom to use their initiative and experiment with new ideas, characterise learning organisations. These organisations understand and respond to their environment, are open, candid and flexible, have smart leaders and continually adapt. Over six years in Iraq, the US Military has become a learning organisation, making sizeable changes in order to succeed. This has not been without cost, but, as General Petraeus justifiably asserts, the gains have been substantial.

That statement is based on my own experiences, working in the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad in 2003, and recently as one of General Petraeus’ Divisional Commanders based in Basra, between August 2008 and April 2009. I wanted to touch on two areas in which, if the learning continuum is to lead to evolution, a significant shift might be necessary: first, looking through the lens of the people, rather than through the enemy; and second, whole-of-government approaches towards security and stability challenges.

The lens of the people

General McCrystal has identified the need to change the way NATO forces operate among the people in Afghanistan: reduce collateral damage and minimise kinetic operations, protect and connect with the people, and live among them.

Despite the focus on the people, militaries find it difficult to shift from looking through the lens of the enemy. Resources and capabilities are targeted at defeating the enemy, using rules of engagement based on the law of armed conflict. The people can be inadvertently ignored; they coexist alongside combatants and we struggle to understand their needs. Collateral damage is justifiable if the military target is important enough, or when the threat from insurgents in a firefight warrants it. This is understandable and legal, based on jus in bello, but in campaigns among the people, reliance on kinetics can be clumsy and counterproductive, exacerbating the security situation, creating more enemies and alienating the population. A shift could be considered where a legal framework exists, based on international or domestic law. Initially, this might appear unacceptably restrictive because due judicial process requires evidence and patience in court – as in Iraq now. But as General Petraeus states, you cannot kill or capture your way out of industrial-strength insurgencies.

Connecting with people also means listening and respecting them, putting their needs first. This requires time and understanding, cultural sensitivity and empathy. It means building close relationships and developing working partnerships. Linguistic and communications skills are at a premium. This extends to working with indigenous security forces. We learned, in Basra, that deeply embedding our mentors and advisers with Iraqis in their vehicles and bases and enabling connections with the people paid dividends. We supported and operated with Iraqis, ensuring they were in the lead. There was an Iraqi face on everything and we planned together. A teach, coach and mentor approach was required to develop our hosts. All of this does not come easily to young soldiers conventionally schooled to war-fight. It requires additional training and skill sets normally found in mature and seasoned operators. It needs open minds, and amounts to a behavioural and cultural shift for militaries operating in this environment.

Whole-of-government approaches

General Petraeus highlights the need for a joined-up and integrated agency, or whole-of-government, approach. One of the defining moments in a campaign is when the military ceases to be in the lead and assumes a supporting role. This depends on adequate capacity and resources in the other agency sectors (indigenous also) both in planning and delivery, and a willingness to let go and allow civilians to lead when the focus shifts to politics and economics. If the environment is over-militarised or semi-permissive, the military reluctant, or if there is no civilian appetite to lead, this transition is problematic: the focus on security continues, the military remain in charge, and development vacuums continue to be filled by security challenges. The security situation then oscillates and the opportunity to shift towards stability remains elusive; we outstay our welcome and the military/security problem endures.

That might appear rather bleak, but we were acutely aware of this in Basra. Gaining consensus and agreement, we established a Joint Inter-Agency Task Force. We created and worked off the same plan, formed hybrid military–civilian multi-agency teams (e.g. Joint Reconstruction Action Teams), shared resources and agreed roles and responsibilities. This was challenging and imperfect. It required much patience, a lack of ego, mutual respect and understanding. But we learned huge amounts through rolling up our sleeves together. We shifted from a military to a civilian lead, when it was clear that the security tool needed to support and enable politics, governance and economic development. In the end, this is what builds stability and allows people to stop worrying about security. It is essentially civilian activity. Civilians ought to be in the lead.

Our learning led to second- and third-order issues. Hybrid civilian–military endeavours require better delivery skills, teamwork and leadership. Resolving short- and longer-term priorities needs compromise and realistic joined-up development plans. Our learning sessions led to even more shared and common practices, to improve unity and economy of effort. But institutional, cultural and behavioural challenges remain which can only be addressed by joint training, education and the creation of hybrid civilian–military structures both in theatre and at home.

By extension, the third-order issue concerns the architecture of ministries and departments to manage multifaceted challenges. Political, diplomatic, development, economic and security (not just defence) levers have to be harmonised – just as in theatre. It is important to avoid national responses, by default, being seen through just a military rather than a wider security prism. This can affect the coherency of joint agency efforts on the ground. A shift to optimise or establish national inter-agency structures and mechanisms might be required.

Learn to evolve

General Petraeus’ final ‘shout out’ reminds us that the better learning organisation usually wins. An evolutionary shift to consider our campaigns through the lens of the people and improve whole-of-government approaches might help. How this can be done will require more learning and a willingness to evolve. The future globalised and hybrid security environment demands it.