ISIS: The Latest Bean Counter's Folly

The fall of Mosel to ISIS in June, 2014 was not anticipated by the established intelligence experts in the Department of Defense. As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey, stated on PBS Frontline, "There were several things that surprised us about [the Islamic State], the degree to which they were able to form their own coalition both inside of Syria and inside of northwestern Iraq, the military capability they exhibited, the collapse of the Iraqi security forces. Yeah, in those initial days, there were a few surprises."

While this seems like an amazing admission to many analysts, it really shouldn't be. It is symptomatic of a broader problem, one that is harder to admit and has been endemic for decades, if not centuries. That problem is establishing self-reporting systems that only encourage and reward reports that indicate progress is being made and fit the established politically correct scenario. It is the proverbial "Light at the end of the tunnel" that keeps drawing in those who willfully disregard facts that are not deemed good news.

During the early phases of the Vietnam conflict it was a consummate manager, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who emphasized the quantification of war. The premise was that the adversary could be defeated provided we applied resources appropriately. On a larger scale, the assumed victory would demonstrate to the Soviet Union that we would not allow the geographic dominoes to fall to their aggression. Execution of the management scheme was the epitome of analytic programming. On the macroscale every possible aspect was quantified, personnel, logistics, kill ratios, aircraft sorties, naval forces, ground combat engagements, and many more items were the fodder of countless reports.

As a "Green Beret" Special Forces camp commander, I was a guilty as everyone else. Reports always inferred that progress was being made and the local situation improving. There were a host of civic action projects designed to improve the living conditions of civilian populace. Foremost was the medical aid provided to them in areas where health care was nearly nonexistent. Pacification efforts and relocation of civilians to more secure sites we believed generated goodwill and would insure their allegiance to the South Vietnamese Government. Then too there were years of monthly reports based on body-counts that certainly suggested that the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army eventually would run out of soldiers or the will to fight and thus be forced to capitulate.

Servicemembers in American units became ambivalent about the outcome and only focused on their DEROS (departure date). That said, many still had skin in the game and desperately wanted their efforts to mean something--especially those who had lost buddies or body parts. As advisors we lived close to our indigenous soldiers and fought alongside them, sometimes in pitched battles. Naturally we developed personal relationships thus creating a vestige interest in the outcome. We believed the reports, all indicating that we were winning the war because psychologically we wanted that to be so. Even during the U.S. withdrawal of our troops there was the impulse to believe that combat could be handed off to the South Vietnamese forces and they could successfully defend the country. The management analysts and accountants confirmed the reports indicated success was attainable. The problem was that despite all of the positive indicators--we lost the war. The bean-counting analysts had tracked the wrong things and failed to understand or account for the tenacity of the North Vietnamese and fact that the American people had lost the will to support the conflict any further.

Vietnam was hardly an isolated case. On 16 October 2003 Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld sent out a memo to the senior staff asking, "Are we winning or losing the Global War on Terror?" A highly proficient manager then is his second iteration as SECDEF, Rumsfeld wanted a quantitative response. The following year I sat with staffers from the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) as they grappled with that labyrinthine problem. The product I observed being developed was a complex reporting matrix replete with as many factors as they could imagine and all assigned numerical values that could be evaluated on a scheduled basis, possibly monthly. Comprehensive in nature, factors included combat engagement results, economic, social, logistical, environmental, technological escalation and other complex issues. Once completed analysts could quantify changes in any parameter to several decimal points of accuracy. The fundamental flaw was that most of those items were subjective evaluations submitted by a myriad of reporting stations all with rotating staff members. Thus while appearing and assumed to be highly quantifiable, it was in reality an amalgamation of subjective evaluations with no underlying foundation other than intuitively it seemed about right. Headstrong, Rumsfeld was not known to encourage or reward differing opinions. Not surprisingly many of the developers were aware of the shortcomings but also knew they had to come up with an answer, and quite frankly, future assignments and promotions depended on it.

The complexity of the Iraq situation and huge blunders made by the U.S. were major contributing factors in the country's devolution. Setting aside the strategic mistake of invading Iraq under pretext, some errors began early, such as Proconsul Bremer's ill-advised decision to disband the entire Iraqi army and banish anyone who had been associated with the Baathist Party. That proved to be devastating in the long run as years later many of those experienced and skilled military officers became the cadre responsible for the effectiveness of ISIS forces.

Another injudicious decision came in 2006 under President George W. Bush's administration when the U.S. backed Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, as the first post-Saddam prime minister and then the elected president of Iraq. Maliki, it was wrongly believed, would be independent of Iran and that all segments of Iraqi society would partake of the new found freedom. In reality factional infighting began almost immediately as distrust between Sunni, Shiite, and Kurds was both predictable and rampant. Though many military leaders and diplomats recognized the tortuosity of the situation, it did not dampen U.S. overt support for the Maliki government.

Nearly a decade after the invasion, and with a significant change of administration, U.S. combat troops left Iraq with the assumption that the established defense force could maintain stability. All of the management indicators predicted success. Thus the departure goal established by President George W. Bush, with considerable political emphasis by President Barack Obama, was met. As President Obama noted in December 2011, we were leaving behind a "sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq, with a representative government." But again, the bean counters were wrong and soon the easily predictable sectarian violence threatened to bring about civil war.

In both Iraq and Afghanistan the U.S. military has proven that surges can be effective in controlling territory, albeit only as long as the troops remain in the area. Once the pressure brought by overwhelming firepower is diminished, the sociopolitical elements return to influence and eventually dominate the countryside. Pax Americana is not a viable solution for the Middle East (or anywhere else) and multi-trillion dollar price tag for the Global War on Terror is orders of magnitude greater than ever predicted by those same bean counters when projecting the cost for these misadventures. The analyst's initial estimates for the invasion of Iraq, as reported by Secretary Rumsfeld, was under fifty billion dollars, and that to be recouped by post conflict oil sales.

The analytic problem is the models used for predicting outcomes of conflicts are woefully inadequate at best. It may be that geopolitical and socioeconomic parameters are too enigmatic to be quantified. In recent decades there have been a series of analytic failures with gigantic magnitude, the consequences of which have dramatically impacted global foreign affairs. Rather than slow erosion of underlying presumptive facts, these changes occur with the speed and devastation of tsunamis. Through analytic ignorance Western governments were not prepared for the fall of the Shah of Iran, collapse of the Berlin Wall triggering the disintegration of the Soviet Union, or the chaotic disunity following Arab Spring in the Middle East and North Africa. Similarly, domestically, analysts accepted improbable housing market data that lead to the precipitous financial depression in 2008. Willfully they ignored obvious warning signs generally because the wanted the information to be true, and, like the conflicts discussed, the collapse was rapid and catastrophic.

At a more fundamental level, there is a failure to understand the difference between management and leadership, especially for those gifted few with strategic vision. While attributes of both management and leadership are necessary, total reliance on number crunching, no matter the extent of parameters involved or complexity of the algorithms, will never guarantee success. In fact, the examples given indicated they produced failure. Partially to blame is the prevalent materialistic worldview that all problems can be understood by subdividing the elements in smaller and smaller pieces. Once accomplished reassembly of facts is designed to produce viable solutions. In physics this has scientists looking for the God Particle (like the Higgs Boson or now pentaquarks) to understand the basic building block of the universe. As learned in physics, at some point you encounter quantum mechanics, states of being that defy quantification and present seemingly undecipherable paradoxes. Except for a few theoreticians, the easy response is to ignore the problem. Willful blindness that coincides with an endorsed management model often produces failures, but in the interim gains rewards.

Temporal issues are also to blame and have cognitive components. Along with our materialism has come the propensity to desire short-term results. Western educated senior managers almost always focus on immediate goals, an attribute at which the bean counters excel. Rewards (promotions) for managers/leaders are based on obtaining rapid, quantifiable results, not whether or not those solutions have strategic value. Senior leaders sometimes will mention long range requirements, but their actions almost always impact the near-term bottom line.

Thus overreliance on myopic analytic models that support wishful outcomes have brought a litany of historical failures, the emergence of ISIS in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere, and huge territorial gains for the Taliban in Afghanistan. Missing consistently is the strategic vision or thoroughly contemplated endgames. The West is constantly reacting to provocations from nefarious organizations and rarely proactive let alone imaginative or geo-architectural. At best there is a laisse-faire approach to geopolitics that assumes the Western form of capitalism is irresistible and engenders gravity-like attraction qualities for all societies. Perhaps we are inextricably constrained by our materialistic worldview that compels our insufficient analytical methodological modus operandi to solving complex issues. The problem is that approach has failed repeatedly.