Insufficient psyops. Psyops, for psychological operations, is the modern version of propaganda war. The important aspects of current doctrine include: talk the local language, know the local culture, and speak the truth. This last requirement surprises some people, but the military wisely makes the assumption that truth is our ally and the enemy of our enemies. If you never lie, you have hope of winning the trust of the civilians. Psyops worked remarkably well in Afghanistan. Our Special Operations Forces could speak local languages, and they could leverage the help of local people. The remarkable result: Afghans saw themselves liberated by fellow Muslims – their own countrymen.
But skill at psyops is largely a specialty of the Army Special Operation Forces, and their role in Iraq was important but limited. With the much larger force deployed in Iraq, psyops failed. The average Army soldier has virtually no knowledge of Arabic, and only superficial understanding of local culture. The Marines and the other forces have even less preparation in psyops.
Knowledge of culture goes well beyond being familiar with Muslim customs such as not passing food with your left hand, or not showing the bottoms of your feet. For example, if a soldier chases a terrorist into a building, he is expected to knock before entering. I found this requirement astonishing, but I spoke to several soldiers who had recently been in Iraq, and they confirmed this practice. It sounds ludicrous, but if you dont knock, and as a result you see a woman uncovered (maybe just her face) you could capture your terrorist but create several new ones. A husband or brother or both may feel obliged to take revenge for the insult in order to restore family honorregardless of their political beliefs.
Decentralized intelligence. In the continuing conflict, a surprise success is “Dragon Eyes,” a GPS-guided, remotely piloted vehicle that can be carried in a backpack. It looks like a model airplane, with a wingspan of only 1.2 meters and weight of 2.5 kilograms. It can be launched with a toss, or with a bungee cord. It flies quietly at an altitude of 150 meters using a zinc-air battery for power, and can transmit 18 frames per second of visible or infrared video from a range up to 10 kilometers. If spotted by the enemy, it is easily mistaken for a bird.
What makes Dragon Eyes so valuable is that it is easy to use (training takes less than a week), and it provides actionable intelligence information needed immediately. Soldiers deploy it when they need to know what lies behind that building, or near that bridge. Its cost is so low (soon to come down to $50,000) that it can be owned at the platoon level. (Generals dont waste time with things that cheap.) In the next two years, the Marines are slated to get 342 of these little marvels.
Despite the rise of the dragon, the most important source of actionable intelligence remains humint, short for human intelligence. Humint exploitation teams (HETs) get reports from sympathetic Iraqis, not only for big news items (where is Saddam Hussein?), but more frequently for less newsworthy (yet crucial) information such as the location of a roadside bomb. We now find a large number of these before they are set off.
Good news. It is important to learn from success too. The oil fields in Iraq were saved, even though Saddam had loaded them with explosives. His troops arrived at the huge Mosul dam to blow it up but our military (with decisive help from local Iraqis) prevented them from doing so. A great sandstorm, the kind that had foiled President Carters hostage rescue attempt in Iran in 1980, was endured without major problems. Most of the Iraqi infrastructure was preserved, so the post war recovery could proceed at a slow but measurable pace.
Some say the military is always fighting the last war. That is not my impression. We are far from mastering the new kind of urban war in which we do battle in the midst of innocents and demand extremely low collateral damage. But our armed services do a better job of learning from their mistakes than any other large organization I know. I wish that the rest of government, and scientific establishments, could learn with similar speed. Our strength is enormous – but, just as in biological evolution, it is often more important to be adaptable than to be strong.