What the Iraq War can teach you about strategic planning

Just as optimism reigns in the US, I've been reading about arguably its darkest days of recent times in the Iraq War. Fiasco by Thomas Ricks (a US journalist on the Washington Post) details the build-up to the war, the invasion, the insurgency, and the reconstruction efforts in fascinating detail. It's not an easy read and has left me, by turns, angry, frustrated, depressed but also uplifted, inspired and amazed. So what relevance to this blog and the world of social entrepreneurs? Well, a couple of things really stood out to me:

1) The first is the emphasis the military in the US places on learning (from mistakes). That may sound a bit bizarre, given that Iraq is largely viewed as a Vietnam repeat and, at least to start with, a case study in how not to carry out a counterinsurgency. Time and again, though, senior military figures give realistic assessments of what is happening / going wrong, and highlight what needs to be done to change this: and much of this is done publicly in workshops / publications / speeches and so forth. This happens throughout the first five years of the war, and the military's ability to be honest with itself, to highlight errors (and successes) and incorporate those into its future operations has been crucial in improving (eventually) its performance there. This doesn't apply to all, of course; some of the most senior figures involved consistently made out that Iraq was in a better state than it was, and continue to delude (or contradict) themselves to this day.

2) The second was about strategic planning. Ricks argues that the failure in Iraq was primarily one of strategic planning (or the lack of therein). Firstly, there was a lack of realism (if only their goals had been SMART) and a lack of consistency: their grounds for going to war were based on a worst-case scenario (i.e. Iraq has loads of WMD, Saddam works with Al-Qaeda, the US is under threat) while their plans for the occupation / reconstruction were based on a best-case scenario (we'll be welcomed as liberators, and the country's in an alright state etc).

Secondly, there was a lack of clarity over the actual objective of the invasion: was it about finding WMDs, was it about removing Saddam, was it about regime change, was it about introducing democracy to Iraq, or to the wider Middle East? (some would add, of course, was it about oil?) and so on; and it shifted as the politics demanded it. This was hugely confusing and bewildering for the troops on the ground, because each of these goals requires different operational activity, different tactics and so on. If you are unclear about your mission, how can you decide how you are going to get there and achieve it? How can you make decisions between where you apply resources (and how many are needed)?

Thirdly, there was a lack of planning in and of itself. Phase IV (the reconstruction) didn't have an overall plan in place when people arrived in Baghdad to start, whereas Phase III (the invasion) had been planned and war-gamed to within an inch of its life. 

Fourthly, the US Army had not done its homework on insurgency and counterinsurgency as a whole (though individual commanders had knowledge of, say, Vietnam or Algeria, and applied it appropriately), nor on experiences of occupation. They only started to bring in this learning 2-3 years in, in a formalised way (via pre-Iraq training etc).

Finally, there was also confused leadership / ownership between the State Department (Rumsfeld et al) and the military in Washington, and between the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and the Army in Iraq. From Ricks' account, this caused untold problems at every level of operations.

So, lessons from the Iraq disaster?

– do your research (it may not involve Vietnam or Algeria, but is necessary)
– a plan is important (entrepreneurs are prone to action, but a thought-through plan is crucial)
– get clear on your overall objective / vision and ensure it is clear to everyone else involved
– be realistic in your planning, rather than overly pessimistic or optimistic
– be clear about leadership and autonomy over particular areas (and who has the final say over what)
– be open to learning, honest about mistakes and constantly try to improve

Not a bad checklist for a social entrepreneur, or for the new US President to insist on the next time someone suggests a military invasion…..

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