General Casey at Senate confirmation hearing for Army chief of staff, February 2007
AP Photo (Susan Walsh)
I have thought a great deal about my experiences in Iraq. I believe that some of the insights that I developed during that time can benefit future military leaders as they are thrust into senior leadership positions in new and different missions in this era of persistent conflict. As always, some lessons are new; others are old ones relearned. I began to share these insights with the Army general officer corps and joint flag officers attending CAPSTONE shortly after I assumed the position of Army chief of staff.
Perhaps the greatest lesson I took from my time in Iraq was that senior leaders are most effective when they stay at the right level and focus their time and intellectual energy in the areas that will yield the highest payoff for their organizations. That sounds easy, but it is not because the things with the highest payoff are the hardest to do—for example, getting the strategy right in very uncertain environments; instilling the strategy in the organization; driving organizational change; influencing organizational culture; sustaining momentum; and influencing key partners not under your direct control. By their nature, these things are complex and difficult and do not lend themselves to simple solutions. They require the time, energy, and experience of the senior leaders in the organization to be done effectively. What follows are some insights in those areas for future leaders.
Developing Vision and Strategy
The question that I asked most in Iraq, and, interestingly, the one I asked most as Army chief of staff, is, “What are we really trying to accomplish?” I found that this question was hard to answer clearly and succinctly in the complex and uncertain environment of Iraq. Yet it was imperative that I clearly articulated to my subordinates what it was I wanted them to do if we were going to be successful. A fuzzy idea coming out of the four-star headquarters did not get clearer as it was transmitted through the chain of command. Accordingly, we spent a lot of time and intellectual effort sharpening our views of what we wanted to accomplish in Iraq and for major operations, for example, Fallujah, elections, the western Euphrates campaign, and Baghdad.
The Army’s primary doctrinal manual, Field Manual 3-0, Operations, offers a construct to assist commanders in framing solutions to difficult problems—understand, visualize, describe, direct—and, although we did not think of what we did in those terms at the time, that is what Ambassador Negroponte and I did initially as we grappled with the mission. We both felt that we needed to establish a clear vision for what we were to accomplish in Iraq, so we began discussing it before we left Washington. The consultations that we conducted in Washington, the Red Team assessment, and the on-the-ground consultations in Iraq in the early days after our arrival were all part of building our understanding of the mission. As our understanding grew, we began to sharpen our thinking on what we wanted to accomplish and how we wanted to accomplish it—we began visualizing the endstate and design for the mission. In interactive discussions with Washington, the Red Team, the Iraqis, and our staffs, we began describing how we saw the mission unfolding and received their insights. In dealing with the complexity and uncertainty of Iraq, I found that building a level of understanding sufficient to visualize the problem and to describe the solution effectively was an iterative process—that my thinking got sharper over time. I found that the sharper the disagreements, the greater the clarity we achieved.
We gave ourselves 30 days to produce a joint mission statement and campaign plan, the means by which we would direct the tasks required to accomplish the mission. We felt strongly that we owed our subordinates as much clarity as possible to shape a common path to success. I found it particularly important to be clear on the nature of the war we were fighting—counterinsurgency—and the nature of the enemy—primarily Sunni Arab rejectionists—and to clearly spell out the mission and the risks. I felt that the 30-day timeframe was important because I had seen too many draft campaign plans that were continuously being polished and never published. In complex situations, commanders must force themselves to get clarity in their own minds and transmit that clarity to their subordinates in writing. I found that writing things out caused me to think more clearly about issues, so I personally wrote several of the key segments of the first campaign plan (for example, mission, intent, risks).
We built a deliberate assessment process into the campaign plan because we knew the plan would require continuous adjustment. As part of this process, we forced ourselves to challenge our assumptions and ask ourselves hard questions about the efficacy of the plan. The assessments proved useful in adapting our efforts to changing realities. I also found there was constant tension between retaining focus on the broader campaign and adapting to short-term changes in the environment. One of the ways that we used to mitigate this tension was to publish annual campaign action plans that allowed us to retain the focus on our broad counterinsurgency campaign while dealing with shorter term issues. The annual action plans also proved helpful in maintaining continuity through the transition of subordinate units and staffs.
I am convinced that one of the hardest things for leaders to do in complex and uncertain environments is to get clarity in their minds on what it is they want their subordinates to accomplish to achieve success. Because it is so hard, it takes the full involvement and commitment of the senior leader to accomplish it successfully.
Creating Unity of Effort
Another difficult challenge for senior leaders is to create unity of effort among organizations whose cooperation is necessary for their success, but that are not under their direct control. The National Security Presidential Directive issued in May of 2004 established the division of labor between the Departments of State and Defense for the mission and directed “the closest cooperation and mutual support” between the Ambassador and the USCENTCOM commander. United Nations Security Council Resolution 1546 described my relationship with the soon-to-be sovereign government of Iraq as a “security partnership.” If we were to successfully prosecute a counterinsurgency campaign inside a sovereign country, I was going to have to rely heavily on the Embassy and Iraqi government to deliver the political, economic, communications, and, in the case of the Iraqis, security effects to support coalition efforts. The keys to my success were outside of my direct control, so I was forced to create the required unity of effort with successive Ambassadors, Iraqi prime ministers, and cabinet ministers.
Ambassador Negroponte and I recognized this early on and agreed before we left Washington on the One Team/One Mission concept—the Embassy and MNF-I would work as one team to accomplish the U.S. mission. Because of different organizational cultures and different reporting and budget chains, implementing the concept took the direct intervention of the Ambassador and me. Conscious of the need to bring the missions together intellectually, we established a Red Team composed of key leaders from both organizations to tell us what they thought about the mission and the threat. Putting a key advisor to the Ambassador as the leader of the effort and giving him a strong military deputy allowed us to get a balanced output from the group. The Red Team report led to the joint mission statement by the Ambassador and me that was a key step in establishing One Mission. The essence of the statement was dutifully incorporated into the campaign plan so that it penetrated MNF-I. The Ambassadors and I issued joint mission statements three times during my time in Iraq as the mission evolved.
Building the “One Team” was equally challenging. The old adage that “Defense is from Mars and State is from Venus” just scratches the surface of the cultural differences between two professional communities. Given human nature, major institutional and cultural differences do not disappear in a war zone, and working through them requires the continuous involvement of senior leaders. The Ambassadors and I went to great lengths to bring the two organizations together and keep them moving in the same direction to accomplish our national goals in Iraq. We used the Red Team concept frequently to keep us intellectually aligned. We collocated our offices, traveled together, and consulted regularly and visibly to ensure our subordinates saw us linked together. We integrated our headquarters with the Embassy to provide the physical proximity necessary for effective coordination. Sustaining the One Team/One Mission concept between the Embassy and MNF-I took a lot of the personal time and effort of the Ambassadors and me, particularly with the annual rotation of staffs and two changes of Ambassador.
Over our initial weeks on the ground, the Ambassador and I wrestled with the implications of Iraqi sovereignty on our efforts. The United States had returned sovereignty to the Interim Iraqi Government on June 28 and the Coalition Provisional Authority had appointed Ayad Allawi as the interim prime minister. We recognized that unless we shared our vision and plans with the Iraqi leadership, we would not only generate unproductive friction between us, but also be unable to leverage the influence of the government in support of our efforts. While the Iraqi government had publicly accepted MNF-I presence, the modalities of coordinating our operations had to be worked out. We set out to establish them in a way that respected Iraqi sovereignty but that retained our freedom of action. Sovereignty meant that the Iraqis had a vote and that things would not necessarily get done the way we wanted when we wanted. The Ambassador and I would have to balance Washington’s directives and timelines with the needs and desires of the sovereign Iraqi government. It was a delicate balancing act, and one that required our almost constant attention. I cannot overstate the benefit we got from spending the time to establish strong personal relations with Iraqi leaders. Strong personal relationships can help bridge the frictions that will always be encountered.
My staff and I found that we spent a lot of time integrating the efforts of the Embassy, three Iraqi governments, and MNF-I. There were frustrating days when I asked myself whether this was the best use of our time. In the end, I saw it as my headquarters’ responsibility to work with the Embassy and the Iraqi government to deliver the political, economic, and communications effects that would make MNC-I security operations successful and sustainable. Just generating these effects in a postconflict state, let alone integrating them at the required time, was very hard work. In the end, I believe that creating unity of effort among diverse entities beyond your control is, and will continue to be, one of the key tasks that will require the attention of senior leaders in 21st-century warfare.
Continuous Assessment and Adaptation
In long missions such as Operation Iraqi Freedom where leaders are intensely immersed in difficult issues daily, it is easy to lose your perspective on the larger mission. I found that we had to create opportunities to get leadership to take a step back and look broadly at the mission. We built an assessment process into the campaign plan to do this, but it took some time to get it to the point where it was producing meaningful insights.
We began with a monthly assessment called the Commander’s Assessment and Synchronization Board. It was designed to help us see how the staff was accomplishing the objectives assigned to them in the campaign plan so that we could make short-term adjustments. It was highly detailed. It quickly became clear to us that what we were measuring did not change that much in a month and that the staff was expending a great deal of energy developing the product, so we went to campaign assessments every 2 months.
The greatest challenge we found was determining what to measure. Staffs will tend to measure what they can, not necessarily what you need. It was not until I forced the staff to answer three questions about each of the effects we were tracking that we began getting good value out of our assessment sessions. The three questions were: What are we trying to accomplish? What will tell us if we are accomplishing it? How do we measure that?
Initially, the assessments were produced by the MNF-I staff and attended by the Embassy and MNF-I leadership. Over time, the Embassy staff got more and more involved until the assessment became a joint, and better, product. We would periodically invite representatives from the Joint Staff to attend to facilitate transparency in sharing information.
We also instituted semiannual assessments called Campaign Progress Reviews to give us a broader perspective. These reviews looked back over the past 6 to 12 months and offered recommendations for the next 12 months. They were essential to driving long-range planning. As it is a constant struggle for senior leaders to get their subordinates to share their doubts with them, I left the development of this assessment to the staff and the writing to the gifted colonels in our plans and assessment shop. I found the anonymity of the staff process produced greater candor. I found this process and product most helpful in seeing broad changes required in the mission and in developing our annual action plans. We used these assessments to adapt the mission over time. For example, the need to get better visibility on and performance from Iraqi security forces that led to the development of the transition team and partnership programs came from the December 2004 assessment. A shift in the nature of the most significant threat from former regime elements to Islamic extremists that took place in the spring and summer of 2005 and led to the western Euphrates and Tal Afar operations later that year was identified in the June 2005 assessment. The significant shift in the nature of the conflict that took place after the Samarra bombing in 2006 and that led to an increased focus on Baghdad and operations to lessen sectarian tensions later that year came from the June 2006 assessment.
There were three other forums that also enhanced our ability to adapt. The first was the monthly intelligence update where our intelligence officer reviewed intelligence trends with the staff and me. I found this forum most useful for putting the insights and thoughts that I had accumulated over the month into perspective. It allowed me to better assess the impact of individual incidents in a broader context. The second was the monthly commanders’ conference where I sought to balance the MNF-I view of the mission with the views of the division and corps commanders. While I generally visited each of the divisions once or twice a month, having them share their views in a common forum proved invaluable. The third was the use of an almost continuous Red Team process to focus the attention of experienced individuals on hard topics outside of the normal staff process. I often asked the intelligence agencies to take the lead and usually included individuals from the UK embassy and intelligence services on the Red Teams. I found this process especially helpful in looking ahead (for example, I asked teams to tell me the likely outcome of elections and the implications for the mission). I found Red Teaming an excellent way to get fresh ideas and to avoid the “group think” that can often come from the staff process.
Leaders at every level must see themselves and see their enemy, and recognize that the action-reaction-counteraction cycle of war requires constant assessment and adaptation. At the theater level, I tried to focus on adjustments that would have a high payoff at my level.
Influencing Organizational Culture
At the strategic level, leaders need to be attuned not only to the culture of the country they are operating in, but also to the impacts that the cultures of their own organizations can have on their ability to accomplish their missions. I entered Iraq with views about aspects of Army and Marine Corps organizational cultures that I felt could hamper our ability to accomplish the mission if we did not address them. First, both Services are very well trained in conducting conventional war, as they demonstrated during the ground war. I knew that they would be very good at applying force against their enemies. Unfortunately, success in counterinsurgency operations requires much more than the effective application of force. I knew that it would be tough to change this mindset, but in an environment where distinguishing the enemy was very difficult and civilian casualties bred additional enemies, we would have to do it. Second, I worried that our “can-do” attitude would make it harder for us to get the Iraqis trained and responsible for their own security—the precondition of our ultimate success. I saw the impact of this attitude myself in Bosnia and Kosovo. In complex environments, it is very difficult to get even simple things done, so the natural tendency is to do them yourself. I had to find a way to get our troops to focus on Iraqi solutions without damaging the can-do spirit that sets U.S. Servicemembers apart, and that we would need to succeed.
To do this, I realized that I was attempting to change deeply embedded Service culture and that I would have to change the mindset of the force. I greatly underestimated how long this would take. We began by clearly stating in our campaign plan mission statement that we were conducting counterinsurgency operations to send the message to the force that we were doing something different than they had been trained for. I reinforced this in my discussions with leaders during their campaign plan backbriefs.
But that was hardly enough, and shortly thereafter we took measures to improve our understanding and application of counterinsurgency doctrine. We had MNF-I staff take a historical look at successful and unsuccessful counterinsurgency practices in the 20th century, and disseminated their work to the force and to Service trainers who were preparing the next rotation.
Our efforts continued with the implementation of the transition team and partnership concepts in early 2005. For the first time since Vietnam, we were asking conventional forces to be involved in the training of indigenous forces during a war—another significant cultural change. The establishment of Phoenix Academy to train all of the incoming transition team members, use of Special Forces to train conventional forces in the art of working with indigenous forces, and development of the “flat-assed rules” to communicate the new mindset to every member of the command played key roles in driving cultural change in our forces. This was a start, but we slowly began to realize that changing the organizational culture embedded in the Services for decades was not going to happen overnight.
In the summer of 2005, I chartered a survey of how we were applying counterinsurgency doctrine across the force. The study found that, while we generally knew the doctrine, it was being applied unevenly across the command, and the application was very dependent on the local commander’s knowledge and initiative. It recommended that we establish a COIN Academy to augment the training that they were getting at home station to ensure that entering commanders started with a common view of how to conduct counterinsurgency operations in Iraq. We conducted the first class in November of 2005 and began to see an appreciable change in the conduct of our operations throughout 2006 as all company, battalion, and brigade commanders began to rotate through the weeklong course before they began their tours in Iraq. Continuing change was facilitated with the publishing of the joint Army–Marine Corps counterinsurgency manual in December 2006, an essential element of driving cultural change within the Services.
In the end, I found that as our lessons learned were continuously incorporated into Service training programs and more soldiers came back for second and third tours, I saw continuous improvement in the preparedness of the forces to conduct counterinsurgency operations and work with the Iraqi forces. Recognizing the impacts of organizational culture comes from the experience of growing up in the culture. Recognizing the potential impacts in new situations requires a broader perspective and is intuitive work. It is the work of senior leaders.
Civil-military interaction around matters of policy and strategy is inherently challenging. The issues are complex, the stakes are high, and the backgrounds of the people involved can vary widely. The interaction only gets more difficult in war, and is particularly difficult with leaders from other cultures. Developing plans and strategies, reporting, managing expectations, and developing and providing military advice to civilian leaders all require the senior leader’s full attention.
My previous experience at the policy level in Washington taught me not to expect written direction from civilian leaders, and that proved the case in Iraq. We developed the initial campaign plan based upon my verbal discussions with the President, Secretary of Defense, and Chairman, the direction provided in the President’s Army War College speech, UNSCR 1546 and its attached letters, written guidance from the USCENTCOM commander, and my interactions on the ground in Iraq with Iraqi and coalition leaders. The Ambassador and I developed our strategy and campaign plan to accomplish the endstate that we created from this guidance and presented it for approval by the Secretary of Defense and President in August of 2004.
Throughout the mission, I had interaction with Washington several times a week usually in the form of secure conference calls and video teleconferences, most with the Secretary of Defense, Chairman, and USCENTCOM commander, and weekly in a National Security Council meeting chaired by the President. These sessions were designed to keep Washington up to date on the situation in Iraq. In them, I would usually present a short update and highlight upcoming events to avoid surprises. I would then answer questions. Periodically, about every 4 to 6 months, I would return to Washington for face-to-face discussions. This was essential because it is difficult to have substantive discussions on a video teleconference that includes a dozen Cabinet-level leaders with staff often operating from multiple sites. It is also much easier to get a sense of how your presentation is being received in person. The Secretary of Defense and Chairman would also visit several times a year, presenting the best opportunity for discussion and interaction. I had almost daily interaction with General Abizaid by secure telephone and face-to-face contact several times a month during his visits to Iraq or my visits to his headquarters in Qatar. His broader perspective was invaluable in seeing the Iraq mission in the context of the larger war and region.
It is difficult for subordinates to communicate to their superiors the depth of the complexity that they are dealing with. It is no different at the strategic level. I worked hard to provide a balanced view of what was occurring in Iraq—the bad with the good. I realized early on that, as I had the direct interactions with civilian leaders, I had the best understanding of what they needed, so I found that I spent a lot of my time and intellectual energy preparing properly balanced presentations for Washington. I felt that it was very important to convey the right balance in the presentations to avoid creating false expectations. I was not uniformly successful. I found it difficult to keep the discussions at a level that would provide civilian leaders with the insights they required to develop the strategies and policies essential for success. Even at the strategic level, leaders can get captivated by tactical actions.
Setting common expectations is another difficult but essential task. In any military campaign plan, it is important to set objectives and make judgments on when they will be accomplished. As senior military leaders, we owe our civilian leaders our best views on how long things will take. When we offer our views, we need to be clear that in war things will change and assumptions will prove invalid. I would often conclude a briefing in which I made key projections with a slide entitled “Bad Things That Could Happen” to make this point. When I was conveying timelines, I was very conscious that precious little in Iraq got accomplished right on time, so I would often convey projections to Washington “seasonally”—for example, we would complete a certain task by “the summer of 2006”—to give them a perspective on time without getting unnecessarily specific.
A key expectation to resolve is how to measure progress at the strategic level. Going into Iraq, we made a conscious decision not to use enemy casualties—body count—to measure strategic progress. I believe that was the right decision, but the unintended consequence was that our casualties were reported and the enemy’s were not. It appeared to some domestic audiences that the enemy had the upper hand—which was not at all true. Over time, I began selectively reporting enemy losses to give a more balanced picture of the situation to our home audiences.
We looked at a variety of ways to measure progress at the strategic level, primarily focusing on significant events and milestones that, linked together, would demonstrate steady progress toward our ultimate endstate (for example, elimination of terrorist safe havens, success in major military operations, successful elections, completion of the UN timeline, seating of governments, meeting developmental gates for the ISF, transferring security responsibility to Iraqis). As these major events took months and even years to accomplish, I found that they did not compete with the daily reports of casualties and violence as a means of expressing our progress. While I disagreed with using daily casualty and violence levels as the measures of our strategic progress (they were measures of the enemy’s tactical capacity and a measure of our overall progress), in retrospect, I believe that, over time, casualties and violence became the de facto measure of strategic progress in Iraq, and I should have forced a more in-depth discussion with my civilian leadership about their strategic expectations.
I had civil-military interaction with three Iraqi prime ministers and three different sets of cabinet ministers. I treated the Iraqi leaders with the respect due civilian political leaders, and worked to provide them with the key elements of military advice necessary for their decisionmaking. The list I provided Prime Minister al-Maliki when I departed was a compilation of the key areas I had come to believe that civilian and military leaders should discuss in preparing for military operations. As with any difficult issue, I found that productive civil-military interaction is an iterative process that requires a continuous dialogue among civil-military principals until a common understanding is reached. I found that this common understanding is heightened by clearly sharpening differences of opinion rather than papering over them to gain consensus.
In the latter months of 2006 and early 2007, I was consumed with civil-military interaction with civilian leaders in both Baghdad and Washington. As we finalized our plan to secure Baghdad, we worked with Iraqi leadership to cement Iraqi political support for the mission and gain their commitment to the plan’s success. The Ambassador and I had long daily sessions with the prime minister and his security ministers, pounding out the details of the plan and ensuring our forces would have freedom of action once they were committed. Once the plan was approved just before Christmas, we turned our attention to the execution of the plan, a phase that required fairly constant interaction with Iraqi leaders that continued through my departure in February.
Simultaneously, we were participating in the Washington review of Iraq policy and strategy that also concluded just before Christmas 2006. The review involved numerous long sessions by video teleconference and had an implementation phase for the announcement and execution of the new policy that continued through January. The transition between Secretary Rumsfeld and Secretary Gates in November and December further complicated the civil-military situation.
Someone told me once that the decisionmaking process at the national level is “idiosyncratic at best.” That is an important lesson for future leaders when providing military advice. Do not look for the Military Decision Making Process at the national level. When it comes to providing military advice, yours is only one part of the President’s decision calculus. Provide your military advice with your rationale and the courage of your convictions and, as with any military decision, stand by to execute the decision.
Political and military actions must be mutually reinforcing, particularly when operating inside other sovereign countries. With Prime Minister al-Maliki, I used the analogy of the two of us rowing a boat. If I pulled on the “military” oar and he did not pull on the “political” oar, the boat went around in circles. If he pulled on the “political” oar and I did not pull on the “military” oar, the boat went around in circles. If we both pulled together, the boat went forward. I had mixed success with three Iraqi prime ministers in “rowing the boat.”
We had our best success integrating political and military actions with the Coalition Provisional Authority–appointed Interim Iraqi Government. We learned early on that Iraqi political support was essential to having the time to bring our military operations to successful conclusion. In the Najaf operations in 2004, careful melding of the political and military efforts yielded the IIG its first success. In the Fallujah operations later that year, actions by the prime minister to disband the Fallujah police force (the terrorists had put on police uniforms) and declare a 24-hour curfew greatly facilitated our tactical operations, and the government’s public support of the operation gave us the time we needed to complete the mission. In both of those operations, Embassy leadership was kept abreast of the planning, to include participation, with ISF leadership in a rehearsal of the operational concept. In providing security for the January 2005 elections, the imposition of last-minute curfews and driving bans by the interior minister at our request helped disrupt the insurgents’ ability to affect the elections. I found that it was not necessary to share tactical details, but giving political and diplomatic leaders a broad idea of what to expect greatly facilitated their ability to support the operation.
Political-military interaction was less productive with both of the elected Iraqi governments that followed. I can only surmise that the greater demand for sovereignty by both subsequent governments affected their ability and willingness to take political risk to support Iraqi and coalition military operations. We had some success with the Iraqi Transitional Government in winning support for the Tal Afar operation in September 2005 and with the agreement the ITG made with Anbar provincial leaders in early 2006 to bring Anbaris into the security forces, to provide money for reconstruction in Anbar, and to release some Anbari prisoners. We were not able to gain their support for weapons and militia bans that would have facilitated our operations to secure Baghdad.
I go into some detail about the political-military integration with the constitutionally elected government of prime minister al-Maliki. The desire of the government for greater say in security actions and a differing view of the threat created frictions that took some months to get through. That said, the Prime Minister’s Army Day speech in January of 2007 is a good example of political leaders building public support for military action.
I believe our efforts in 2006 suffered, at least in part, because of the disagreement between the prime minister and the coalition on the nature of the threat and the lack of a political timeline to drive Iraqi actions to resolve their differences over the division of political and economic power—the issues at the heart of the sectarian violence. Whether it was possible to reach agreement on either of these issues at that time is, I believe, an open question. They were decisions for the sovereign government of Iraq, and our government could only attempt to influence them. We could not impose U.S. solutions. The integration of political-military efforts is always difficult, but it is even more so when operating with another sovereign government. It will remain essential to attaining our national objectives in 21st-century conflict.
Momentum and Transitions
In extended campaigns, transitions and their accompanying loss of momentum are inevitable. This was the case in Iraq as we confronted numerous transitions at every level within MNF-I, the U.S. Embassy, and the Iraqi government. Sustaining momentum is not easy, but it is essential to long-term success.
I found that determining whether we had momentum was more art than science. In long operations, things unfold so slowly that it is often hard to tell whether you are moving at all. Our maxim was, “If you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backward.” Leaders need to develop a way to “feel” momentum. A structured assessment process helps, but I found that I got my best sense from my face-to-face meetings with subordinate commanders and Iraqi leaders on their own turf. I learned to judge whether they were comfortable or uncomfortable answering my questions about progress.
Momentum at the theater level generally comes from big events such as successful elections, the passage of major legislation, decisive military victories, and major agreements. The initial UN timeline offered the opportunity in 2005 to sustain momentum through four major events—the initial elections in January 2005, development of the constitution in August, constitutional referendum in October, and elections for the constitutional government in December. To get there, in the absence of political events, we generated momentum through the military successes in Najaf, Samarra, and Fallujah in 2004 and by energizing the development of the Iraqi security forces. Unfortunately, the protracted government formation processes, limited government experience of most of the appointed ministers, and turbulence of three government transitions in 2 years severely limited our ability to sustain political momentum to complement our military efforts.
On the military side, the terrorists and insurgents learned not to mass against us after our successes in Najaf, Fallujah, Tal Afar, and the western Euphrates. So while we maintained momentum and pressure on the terrorists at the tactical level, we did so through daily small unit actions, and it took time for those successes to gain strategic significance. The exception was the killing of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in June of 2006, a tactical action that had strategic impact.
In an attempt to generate political momentum in 2006, the Ambassador and I developed a series of benchmarks—Iraqi political and security actions that, when taken, would begin to resolve the fundamental tensions over the sharing of political and economic power. By assigning these events a completion date, we hoped to string together a series of political successes that would continue moving the country in a positive direction. By linking these with military operations, we hoped to break the sectarian stalemate that was strangling the county. Unfortunately, the idea never gained the committed support of the newly elected Iraqi leaders.
On the military side, the semiannual and annual transitions of units and staffs affected our momentum, but, largely because of the significant effort made by the Services to prepare their forces, the substantial interaction that took place between units before the new units arrived, and our in-theater training and integration efforts, we were able to somewhat mitigate the impact. I began visiting all newly arrived brigades in early 2005 within 30 days of their arrival to give them a theater overview and to ensure that the leadership clearly understood their mission. With the development of the Phoenix Academy in early 2005 and the COIN Academy in November 2005, I spoke to every class, providing an overview similar to what I provided the brigades. In order to maintain momentum, I felt that it was important incoming leaders heard my expectations directly from me.
I was generally pleased with the unit transition process, but usually I found during my post-transition visits that there was something major that got dropped. For example, the troops that came into an area after a major battle usually did not have the same intensity and commitment to the reconstruction effort as those that had won the victory, and new troops generally seemed to believe that the war began with their arrival. It was human nature at work. The post-transition visits helped with maintaining continuity and momentum.
Maintaining momentum through political and military transitions is another area that is more art than science, and an area of important effort for senior leaders.
One of the toughest challenges for senior leaders in deployed environments is to sustain their physical, mental, and emotional fitness at levels that allow them to deal with the complex challenges confronting them. I watched four corps’s worth of senior leaders come through Iraq. I encouraged each of them to establish a regimen where they got sufficient rest, exercise, and intellectual stimulation so that they could provide their subordinates the direction they needed for success in Iraq. I told them that to sustain themselves for the duration of the mission, they needed to find quality time every day to REST: read-exercise-sleep-think. I had found this a useful formula for myself during my time in Bosnia and began to share it with my subordinate leaders as they entered Kosovo in 2000. I practiced it myself in Iraq.
Read. Sometimes the hardest thing to come by after you have been deployed for a while is a fresh idea. Staffs, especially when there are frequent rotations, tend to fall into repeating “facts” based on shared conventional wisdom. I strongly encouraged leaders to find quiet time daily to read something besides their email, their inbox, or intelligence as a way to stimulate new insights. I read every night before I went to sleep and found that it had the added benefit of slowing a mind that was spinning with the events of the day down to the point I could get to sleep. I read a wide variety of books, from T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom to David McCullough’s 1776 to Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam: A History. All stimulated useful insights.
Exercise. I strongly encouraged my senior leaders to get on an exercise regimen as soon as they could after their transition process was complete. I made the time to exercise four or five times a week and found it a great way not only to avoid fatigue but also to burn off stress and frustration, of which there was plenty. It was also quiet time alone to think.
Sleep. My experience with U.S. officers and noncommissioned officers is that they tend to push themselves too hard and think that they can get by on less sleep than they really need. In long operations, leaders have to force themselves to get the rest that they need to be most effective. The issues they will be confronted with require them to be at their best.
Think. I found that I needed private time to think, daily and periodically, to keep things straight in my own mind and to be able to shape clear guidance for the staff. I organized my day so that every morning I had 30 minutes to review the intelligence and 30 minutes to think about the previous day and organize my thoughts for the days ahead. Once the day began, there was precious little time for reflection. After a few months on the ground, I began taking a day off every month. I would stay at my quarters, exercise, read, and think about the longer term. Because I found that forcing myself to write things out caused me to sharpen my personal thinking on issues, I would often write something at the end of the day to capture my thinking. After a year, I found that 1 day a month was not enough, and I began taking a half-day off every week. I encouraged my subordinate leaders to do the same.
Over time, I learned to watch myself to know when I was not at my best. If I got to the point where I did not feel like I was capable of providing creative inputs to the challenges we were dealing with, I looked for the opportunity to get a short break. I also made it a point to take at least a week off outside of Iraq every year and to ensure that all of my subordinates took advantage of R&R leave. Preserving your physical, mental, and emotional strength is critical to the ability to lead at the strategic level.
Operation Iraqi Freedom is part of the larger story of the United States of America adapting to the security challenges thrust on us by the al Qaeda attacks of September 11, 2001. The world we live in is in a period of continuous and fundamental change as technology’s continuous march ties us closer and closer together and puts the instruments of catastrophic destruction in the hands of nonstate actors. As a result, war in the 21st century will not be like the conventional war that I spent 30 years of a 40-year career training to fight. It will also not be just like Iraq or Afghanistan. At the tactical level, it will be as uncertain and as difficult and as brutal as war has always been. I believe, however, that the complexities of the international security environment will only increase at the operational and strategic levels, bringing greater challenges for senior leaders. We will require agile, adaptive senior leaders to handle the challenges of war in the second decade of the 21st century. It is my hope that this book will contribute to the development of those leaders.