February 16, 2013


 It is brilliantly researched and written and is searing in its assessment of the human and systemic frailties surrounding the prosecution of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. What is also so striking and sadly meaningful- and it is why I have committed my learnings to this blog is how these "frailties" characterize and explain the biggest failures of effort in every walk of life: business, non-profit, personal.
The essence of the narrative is the coming together of a group of men and women who, drawing on past conflicts (Malaysia, Philippines, Algeria), advanced the concept of Counter Insurgency (COIN) as the doctrine which the US should follow to achieve our goals in Iraq and Afghanistan. In shorthand, it advocated "clearing, holding and building;" winning the hearts and minds of the people. While there were local, compelling demonstrations of this working in both Iraq and Afghanistan (Mosul and Anwar Province, for example)...enough to encourage its proponents that it was a winning course, it failed to prove to be the winning "way of war" which General Petraeus and the others felt it would be.

 As we now draw down our troops in Afghanistan as we already have in Iraq, COIN has to be declared a failure, I believe, even though lessons from it, ones learned again and again in history, will hopefully not again be forgotten. What were these lessons? Why did the ultimate vision of Petraeus and all the believers in the concept of "COIN" never materialize? I choose those lessons in particular which apply to life more broadly:

 1. The doctrine of "COIN" was advanced as a universal principal and strategy, a manifesto, a way in which the US would engage in future conflicts, in all times and places--rather than what it was: an approach that could be the right one in a specific setting but not all settings. There were conditions which if not present made the success of this approach most unlikely. For it to work, it is vital that the interests and desired outcome of the intervening power and the foreign government be aligned; they were not in Afghanistan or Iraq. Karzai was not at all aligned with the US on our goals and means of achieving them. Furthermore, the insurgents needed to be containable within a relatively small area. Not achievable in Afghanistan. Of prime importance, history showed that the time to make COIN work would be long. You needed to be prepared for the long haul. You needed to be patient. And yet, as Vice President Joe Biden recognized, the American people would not stand for this; nor should they have in the circumstances given the cost of doing so and the likelihood (dim) of eventual success.

 The broad lesson here, it seems to me, is the need for realism and good judgment in assessing whether an idea or goal--inherently good and true--can lead to a successful outcome or be achieved in the specific situation: is it achievable; are the required resources to achieve it commensurate with the gain? If there is doubt, as there often will be, do you keep a low profile until you know with more certainty? Do you approach the goal with a sufficient sense of modesty? Do you avoid the trap of arrogance, of assuming, of hoping you know more than you do? Do you learn from and act on the lessons of history? Do you distinguish the circumstances under which an approach worked and did not? I wish Motorola had answered these questions better when they considered what to invest behind Iridium; that we had done this at the Freedom Center when we assessed how large an investment we should make in the facility as opposed to program; or how we at P&G decided to enter the Southern Cone of Latin America in the laundry category as we did initially; or entered tissue-towel in Western Europe.

 2. The rapid turnover of leaders in the primary leadership roles led to constant shifts of strategy and focus. The policy of rotation proved injurious. It is mind opening to read how leaders in the State Department and military changed almost annually and, more often than not, with conflicting views on the role of COIN. It led to one more think tank and planning session after another. Intramural fights. Lack of a decisive conclusion. The authority was so dispersed: field commanders; sector commanders; Chiefs of Staff, Joint Chiefs, cabinet officials, ambassadors. No one small group, let alone person, seemed to be in charge, as was the case in WWII, at least in my eyes. There you had Marshall and FDR, laying out a strategy, not without debate (with the British and Soviets and internally); but we reached conclusions. People were put in charge, overall and in different theaters of the war. If we had not done that, could we say today that we entered and won WWII in less than five years--half the time we have fought in Afghanistan? I doubt it very much.

 Related to the turnover issue was the lack of alignment among the key leaders. A shocking example was the split between General McChrystal and Ambassador Eikenberry in Afghanistan over the Shinwari pact. General McChrystal was supporting a project to invest behind two elders of a local tribe in forming a pact to go after the Taliban. Karzai, supported eventually by the State Department, objected strenuously to the US supporting a local tribe, undercutting Karzai's national control (of patronage among other things). The decision was unwound. Earlier, in 2002-03, Eikenberry, then in the role of military commander in Afghanistan, came in and dismantled the joint embassy and military structure aimed at achieving COIN which had just been established by his predecessor, General David Barno. Another flagrant example of the damage done by lack of agreed strategic focus and discontinuity. This statement from an Army officer in Afghanistan said it all: "We haven't been fighting in Afghanistan for eight years; we've been fighting there for one year, eight years in a row".

 Again and again, I have experienced the lack of clear-cut alignment on goals and strategies and tactics in corporate and NGO settings. We cannot allow misalignment like this to be swept under the rug. If important, and they almost always are, they must be resolved. For example, how many major new investments can we afford to take on at once? What is the right organizational structure at this point in history? What are the non-negotiable top priorities in your organization?

 3. There were points along the way when people who should have known better were unwilling to call the card when they did not speak up, or perhaps did not push hard enough on something they believed in strongly. No moment of this happening was as striking as that in November, 2010, when Obama asked each of his top defense advisers--Gates, Mullen and Petreus--whether with the surge forces they would be able within 18 months to clear, hold and transfer to the point where Afghan forces could take the lead in the fights. Each of them replied "yes". Yet, all the literature and history indicated that no campaign of this sort could succeed so rapidly, especially in Afghanistan.

 The lesson is clear. Never fail to speak up on a matter of the greatest consequence. To the end, Biden disagreed with this course of action. I am sure he advocated his position strongly (pretty much what we will now do I suspect: targeting the bad guys, Al Qaeda)--but not successfully.

 4. The story brings a caution for individuals and all of us. Beware of being carried away with your own press. Don't translate an anecdotal or short-term success into a much broader right to succeed or formula for success than is warranted. Don't lose your sense of common sense and discrimination of the particular circumstances and risk/benefit ratio.

 Despite all of this, we should not lose sight of the long established truths embedded in COIN doctrine: the need to understand and respect the cultural and local political circumstances, the reality that, in the end, the battle has to be won by the people and government of the indigenous country; that no matter how "noble" the Mission, ultimately after many years you become the "occupier;" above all, that containment of insurgencies and civil wars are almost always long-haul propositions of uncertain length  and if you begin your eyes need to be open to that reality.


  1. Hey sir - good comments on my former bosses Stan McChrystal and Dave Petraeus. Not enough space here to give you ground truth, but I could fill volumes.
    BTW, I enjoyed working with you at Boston Scientific - you were one of the few who took their board positions seriously - diligently doing the pre- and post- board work for your committee. I learned much from you... that I apply now in my position as a CEO in the UAE.
    Take care,
    Andy Milani


  2. Andy,

    Just saw this. Thanks for the generous comment. Hope all goes well with you.