Coordination Could Breed Control in Iraq


Jan 24, 2007

This commentary originally appeared in on January 24, 2007.

Teamwork and coordination are vital for success in all sorts of activities — on the athletic field, in business, in government and in war. Yet too often, the different branches of the U.S. military and the U.S. government in Iraq have failed to effectively coordinate their activities with each other and with their Iraqi counterparts.

Better coordination alone won't solve America's problems in Iraq and guarantee victory. But without it, achieving victory will be a lot harder regardless of the number of troops the U.S. maintains, because successes achieved by one arm of the U.S. effort is too often undone by another.

The Iraq Study Group usefully proposed establishing new command relationships for stability operations and counterinsurgency. Such reorganization is badly needed to reduce the fragmentation of U.S. efforts in Iraq and improve coordination and cooperation between U.S. embassy officials and the military.

There is precedence that this type of organization can help foster success. A RAND Corporation study that I conducted after reviewing five decades of research on counterinsurgency across the world noted the benefits of creating integrated civil-military teams at the national, provincial and possibly neighborhood and village level.

The British effectively employed such teams in their counterinsurgency efforts in Malaya and Oman. The current Provincial Reconstruction Team model being employed by the United States in parts of Iraq and Afghanistan is another potential template.

Whatever model is chosen, it should have the ability to issue directives and plan operations rather than being merely a forum for debate. This will be uncomfortable for all agencies involved, as they will be ceding individual agency autonomy to a committee. But such sacrifice will improve efforts in Iraq at little cost.

The high-level command relationships in use today in Iraq are fundamentally the same as they were in Vietnam: a four-star military officer as regional commander, a four-star officer as country commander, an ambassador, and a CIA chief of station.

The country commander is nominally subordinate to the regional commander and the chief of station is nominally subordinate to the ambassador. But in practice these lines are quite tenuous. There is no command relationship, nominal or otherwise, between the civilian and military sides.

This makes civil-military unity of effort highly dependent on the personality of leaders — an uncertain proposition at best. While the U.S. military and civilian leaders in Iraq have worked well together thus far, the key posts are changing hands this year and the successors may not work nearly so well together.

One area of fragmentation of effort that the Iraq Study Group did not touch upon is the components of the military and intelligence effort within Iraq. Most notably, the counterterrorism operations conducted by elements of Special Operations Command are not always integrated with the counterinsurgency operations of the conventional military and Iraqi security forces. These counterterrorism efforts are conducted by special task forces that do not report to local commanders.

While these special task forces are generally well intentioned, counterterrorism cannot be separated from counterinsurgency in Iraq. A raid that is not coordinated with local commanders can undo painstaking efforts to build rapport with the local population. In order to limit these possibilities, Special Operations Command's task forces should be integrated with the rest of the command structure at both the provincial and national level.

Similarly, all elements of the intelligence effort, both military and non-military, are coordinated only on an ad hoc basis that is dependent on the personalities involved. The CIA, regular military intelligence, and the Special Operations task forces all have information that they often are loathe to share with their fellow agencies. Even when willing to share, it is sometimes inconvenient to do so.

Similar problems in Vietnam lead to creation of the Phoenix/Phung Hoang program. Often portrayed as an assassination program, Phoenix was actually intended to coordinate the myriad streams of intelligence generated in Vietnam. A similar effort is needed in Iraq, and could be incorporated with the provincial and national command structure.

No command structure will guarantee victory, yet it can make significant contributions. How the United States organizes its effort is the sole aspect of counterinsurgency that is completely within its control; the enemy can affect virtually every other facet. Failing to at least get this aspect right will undermine all other efforts, while successful organization will provide benefits at little cost.

Austin Long is an adjunct researcher at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization. He is the author of the 2006 RAND report "On 'Other War:' — Lessons from Five Decades of RAND Counterinsurgency Research."

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