Thursday, June 16, 2011

How the Iraq War was Won... sort of

I was reading this post by Tim Harford where he mentioned Travis Patriquin who came up with the strategy in Al Anbar province which turned the tide of war and finally subdued the insurgents. I've bolded the key bits:
My military case study was the turnaround in the War in Iraq. I didn’t want to go over the post-invasion fiasco, the mysteriously elusive weapons of mass destruction, or the timing of the withdrawal: that’s for other writers and other books. But I was horribly fascinated by the initial refusal to learn from what was going on, and later at the military’s ability to learn and to adapt.

The key lesson is that this adaptation was a bottom-up phenomenon. (Perhaps it’s more accurate to call it “middle-management”: some of the key actors were colonels.)

At the time Donald Rumsfeld, then Defense Secretary, was holding press conferences and announcing that he didn’t even want to hear the word “insurgent” being used, troops on the ground were fighting a vicious three-sided insurgency. (To pick one horrifying incident amongst many, police recruits in the town of Tal Afar were murdered when somebody with explosives strapped all over their body walked into their midst. It wasn’t a suicide bomber, but a mentally disabled 13-year old girl, accompanied by a toddler whose hand she had been asked to hold as she walked towards the line of recruits.)

The soldiers on the front line had to figure out their response without calling their superiors’ attention to the fact that they were doing anything of note. Tips were circulated via email or even PowerPoint presentations, such as the wonderful “How to win the war in Al Anbar by CPT. Trav.” which used stick-figure drawings to convey vital information that the men at the top seemed to be ignoring.

All this, of course, was decision-making at far higher stakes than those we economists usually study. The creator of the “CPT. Trav.” slide deck, Captain Travis Patriquin, was killed in 2006 three weeks before Christmas, leaving behind his wife and three children. He was so respected in Al Anbar that the local sheiks turned out in force at his funeral.

So this is partly a story about how quickly good ideas spread when they have to: one British general told me, with an air of resignation, that the junior ranks quickly adapted to new challenges and new lessons because doing so saved lives, but the most senior officers tended to learn very slowly.

It is also a story about the role of technology in decision-making. The U.S. military placed increasing emphasis on the use of “effects based analysis of operations” – using massive amounts of data and computing power to allow commanders at headquarters to absorb information and react quickly, moving units around like chess pieces. Such techniques are hugely useful in some circumstances – a “shock and awe” campaign – but even then they do not always perform as advertised. We’re now discovering that in many campaigns, it is the decision maker on the ground – a captain or even a regular soldier – who has the information that counts and the ability to use it.

We’re also discovering that communications technology can be more effective at distributing information than at collating and centralizing it. This isn’t just a lesson for counterinsurgency campaigns but for businesses. The economists Julie Wulf and Raghuram Rajan have found evidence that businesses are increasingly decentralising their decision making, while Lorin Hitt and Erik Brynjolfsson showed a decade ago that information technology worked much better when combined with this kind of decentralisation.

Meeting some of the soldiers who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan was a sobering experience for me. It was fascinating to discover how the U.S. military adapts. It was awful to read and hear about some of the atrocities committed in Iraq, and wonder about how things might have gone differently. And it was hard to forget the conversations with these soldiers. Experimenting, learning, and adapting is inescapable in a complex world. But rarely has it mattered so much to find the right answers as quickly as possible.
Click here to read Travis Patriquin's PDF containing the PowerPoint slide show with stick figures that explaining how to win the Iraq war. It truly is wonderful. Please read it.

Of course, everybody knows that the wonderful lessons learned by Travis Patriquin were lost when American officials handed over control of Al Anbar to the central government in Iraq and these Shiites didn't like the fact that the sheiks with their local Sunni "policemen" were a threat to their central power, so that was all disbanded and chaos has again returned to Al Anbar. So much for "progress". So much for the illusion that rational people control government or that humans are fundamentally "rational".

Sadly, the Wikipedia account doesn't present it this way. It presents it as a "successful" handover to central authority... and everybody lived happily ever after... amen.

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