against the powell doctrine – iraq war lessons & organizational learning


The New York Times has an article on the lessons of the Iraq war for the US army.  The take home point is that the army has learned that you can’t rely solely on tactical superiority, one must also help local communities so you can build trust that’s useful in for counter insurgency efforts. A key quote:

The doctrine warns against some of the practices used early in the war, when the military operated without an effective counterinsurgency playbook. It cautions against overly aggressive raids and mistreatment of detainees. Instead it emphasizes the importance of safeguarding civilians and restoring essential services, and the rapid development of local security forces.

For an organizational theorist, there’s a broader lesson about group learning – things go bad when managers prepare for situations where it is easy to prepare, rather than prepare for situations they are likely to face.

The reason that the US armed forces relied on the Powell doctrine of overwhelming numbers and superiority of force was that they allowed political concerns to drive the kinds of situations they analyze and train for. Specifically, the Powell doctrine was a response to the post-Vietnam desire to avoid ill defined, long term conflicts with guerillas. Here’s another key quote:

The military generally turned its back on counterinsurgency operations after the Vietnam War. The Army concentrated on defending Europe against a Soviet attack. The Marines were focused on expeditionary operations in the third world.

“Basically, after Vietnam, the general attitude of the American military was that we don’t want to fight that kind of war again,” said Conrad C. Crane, the director of the military history institute at the Army War College, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and one of the principal drafters of the new doctrine. “The Army’s idea was to fight the big war against the Russians and ignore these other things.”

This is like corporate managers preparing for competitors that are easy to understand and that they have experienced already, instead of preparing for competitors they are likely to encounter. The Powell doctrine essentially says: “We only become involved in cases where we can decisively win and thus our preparations will be geared towards these situations.” Instead, the doctrine should probably be “we’ll cultivate tools for the situations we’ll likely encounter and develop capacities for improvisation and learning in vague and ill defined environments.”

This is not to say that the current conflict is to be laid at the feet of Colin Powell. Far from it! History will assign praise or blame to Bush, the architects of war and the future president with the unenviable job of bringing this conflict to a close. However, we can be assured that when the final accounting is done,  the problems stemming from an army ill-equipped for counter insurgency will be blamed on the doctrine of overwhelming force and its tendency to gloss over the undeniable fact that the US armed services must face the challenges of the moment and not the challenges they have prepared for.

Written by fabiorojas

October 5, 2006 at 9:37 pm

3 Responses

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  1. Nice post Fabio. I noticed a paper in the recent Strategic Management Journal discussing managerial choice under conditions of high uncertainty (exactly the kind of conditions militaries face when starting a war). The authors of “What to do next? The case for non-predictive strategy,” emphasize that predicting outcomes and possible risks is almost always impossible to do. Therefore, a predictive strategy involving extensive planning and risk-assessment is also difficult to implement.
    Rather than trying to create predictive strategies, the authors argue that managers should be worried about control and using one’s existing stakeholders to search for new opportunities. Beginning with identity (who are we? what are we good at?), managers should then talk to their immediate stakeholders and get a sense of what the opportunities for the future are. If change takes place, it should be change initiated through this search process. Do what you do well and follow your most trusted stakeholders when seeking to make real changes.
    Applying this strategy model to the Iraq situation might have proven useful for the U.S. military. Of course, if we had followed this model, we likely would never have gone to war in the first place. Assuming we’d gone to war anyway, following this strategy would have meant relying more on external stakeholders (e.g. long-time allies) when confronting surprises. Before we’d ever gone into Iraq, we should have had commitments from various constituencies that would have allowed us to get better feedback about the emerging difficulties in fighting an insurgent base.



    October 5, 2006 at 10:25 pm

  2. I should add that any comment I make today should be read skeptically. I just had knee surgery and am suffering from a bit of Lortab fuzziness.



    October 5, 2006 at 10:36 pm

  3. Brayden – we need a creative, Lortab-induced post from you.



    October 5, 2006 at 11:00 pm

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