Group Think Is Killing Us in Iraq

"Know your enemy."
     Sun Tzu, 6th century BC

"We are having a huge time, still, identifying the enemy."
     Lee Hamilton, Co-Chairman, Iraq Study Group, December 7, 2006
Making a mistake in war can get you killed.  And when you have bad intelligence, military commanders make bad decisions-and many people get killed.

The Iraq Study Group (ISG) found that "our government does not understand very well either the insurgency in Iraq or the role of militias." 

"Know your enemy"-all students of war are taught Sun Tzu's maxim.  But top officials in the U.S. government remain nearly as puzzled today about the enemy in Iraq as they were in March 2003, when Iraq war began.  Astonishing.  Many of the mistakes we are making in Iraq stem from our poor understanding of the enemy.  We admit this deficiency-yet we continue on as before, making the same mistakes again and again.

Answers to basic questions elude us.  Is the main enemy in Iraq al-Qaeda or Sunni Baathists?  Should our focus be on Shia militias?  To what degree are foreign jihadists working with former Baathist regime members?  What is the relationship between the Syrian government and the Sunni insurgents?  Who is coordinating insurgent activity?  Is Iran supporting the insurgency and how?  Is our intelligence getting better over time-or are incorrect assumptions about the enemy we face actually making our understanding of the insurgency worse?

President Bush's latest plan to turn things around in Iraq will certainly fail if we do not focus on the intelligence problems that plague us.  Why are commanders on the ground in Iraq as frustrated over the quality of the intelligence they receive today as they were three and a half years ago?  First, in fairness, the business of intelligence is inherently very difficult.  Intelligence is nearly always ambiguous, contradictory, and hard to assimilate.  Two people, looking at the exact same information, frequently come to different, even opposite, conclusions.  Add to that the fact that intelligence analysis almost always has political implications, and you have a recipe for competing theories about what all the data mean.

This is not necessarily a bad thing.  Asserting that there is a "consensus view" is often nothing more than an indicator that intelligence agencies are suffering from "group think"-which is the last thing we want, especially if the conventional wisdom is wrong.  It often is.  If it were always right, the Soviet Union would still be around.  Saddam Hussein would not have dared to defy the world in 1991.  America would have been hit again after 9/11.

In Iraq, we do not seem to be taking intelligence seriously.  The CIA has many talented and capable agents and analysts, but it has been sending people in for 90-day Iraq assignments who do not even speak Arabic, according to Bob Woodward in his latest book.  Iraq must be a low priority-personnel are rotated in and out of Iraq before having enough time to develop real expertise.  And five years after 9/11, Americans who speak Arabic are still rare.  Proficiency in Arabic is not noticeably widespread in other parts of the government either.

Another problem in Iraq is that we rely heavily on foreign intelligence agencies to provide us with information.  "Friendly" Arab governments have their own agenda, and Arab intelligence services have been known to lead us astray more times than we care to admit.

Equally vexing is the problem of Iraqis who manipulate intelligence officers by providing false or politically motivated information.  Former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq John Negroponte candidly explained why: 
"The human sources the CIA had recruited reflected the politicization of Iraq."
Everyone had taken sides, and it was hard to find unbiased sources, as Woodward reports.  Negroponte admitted that the insurgency was essentially a "mystery." 

A mystery?  Is intelligence simply a matter of divining tea leaves?

There are very specific reasons for our distorted understanding of the different elements of the insurgency, their relative importance, and the nature of their interactions.  Foreign fighters use cell phones and the Internet whereas former regime members involved in the insurgency do not.  Given that our signals intelligence-interception of electronic communications-is often excellent (sorting it all out is another matter) and our human intelligence is often terrible, we are led to believe that al-Qaeda is playing a much greater role in the insurgency than are the Baathists.  What this suggests, in fact, is that the Baathists are much more sophisticated-and capable-than al-Qaeda.  This should not surprise us, especially given their greater numbers, their knowledge of their home turf, their professional military and intelligence training, and their access to high tech military hardware.

Our conclusions about how to prosecute the war are based on intelligence and on our understanding of the Middle East.   But the intelligence is often wrong or misleading, and our understanding of the Middle East, prior to 9/11, did not extend much beyond Arab-Israeli issues and has improved little since.

The key reason behind our misunderstanding of the region is a false concept we have embraced:  that "secular" and "Islamic" entities do not co-operate.  Yet we know that they do.  Syria supports Hezbollah, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.  Qaddafi supported the Abu Sayyaf Group.  Iran supports the PLO.  Lebanon encompasses countless unusual alliances.  For example, Maronite Christian leader Michael Aoun is allied with Hezbollah.  Such alliances make no sense at all to Americans-but they are common in the Middle East.

Indeed, co-operation between "secular" and "Islamic" entities is so common that is rather strange that we dismiss the possibility that "strange bedfellows" could be operating against us.  It should not surprise us that groups and nations form unlikely alliances.  After all, the U.S. allied with Stalin, and Stalin and Hitler entered into a co-operative agreement-until June 1941 anyway.  The whole notion that secular Muslims and Islamic terrorists could not cooperate is as absurd as asserting that rival Mafia families never collaborate against a common enemy.  Terrorist groups cooperate all the time across the ideological divide-as they are doing in Iraq now.

Our obstinate belief in the false idea that secular and Islamist entities must be enemies has had dire consequences.  We have become fixated on Islamic figures, such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and Islamic groups like al-Qaeda, and do not seriously pursue the question of the support they receive from others.  U.S. forces finally killed Zarqawi in June 2006, but his demise has had no noticeable impact on the war.

Those native to the region have a clearer understanding of the war we are in.  Senior Iraqi officials-such as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, and many others-say that the insurgency in Iraq is primarily Baathist.  Nevertheless, we continue to believe that we know better than the Iraqis.  A June National Security Council report that was recently leaked to the New York Times all but declares that the Baathists have given up, convinced that they will not return to power.  This is utter nonsense and an example of a curious phenomenon:  we admit that our intelligence is bad, and yet we continue to hold the same assumptions about the enemy and the war that we did before.

An error in strategic intelligence has plagued us for more than a decade:  the notion that there is a jihadi movement that operates independently of terrorist states.  The idea of a movement separate and apart from Islamic terrorism that we call "Islamism" was basically invented in the early 1990's, and we seem more committed to it than ever.  This is a classic case of "group think."  The current consensus view, however, is the reverse of the conclusion that we reached in the 1980s, when the issue of states and groups was vigorously debated under CIA Director Bill Casey and his deputy-Robert Gates.  The same people who denied that the Soviet Union supported terrorist groups-support which has been demonstrated conclusively by those who have researched the archives of the Soviet Union and other Communist states, and which appears in the VENONA intercepts as well-continue to explain away evidence of state support for Islamic terrorism.  This fundamental misconception is crippling our ability to fight the global war on terror, and it is a violation of Sun Tzu's first, most fundamental rule:  "Know your enemy."   We still do not.

Michael Nyilis recently served in Afghanistan, and now works as a speechwriter in Washington, DC. 
"Know your enemy."
     Sun Tzu, 6th century BC

"We are having a huge time, still, identifying the enemy."
     Lee Hamilton, Co-Chairman, Iraq Study Group, December 7, 2006
Making a mistake in war can get you killed.  And when you have bad intelligence, military commanders make bad decisions-and many people get killed.

The Iraq Study Group (ISG) found that "our government does not understand very well either the insurgency in Iraq or the role of militias." 

"Know your enemy"-all students of war are taught Sun Tzu's maxim.  But top officials in the U.S. government remain nearly as puzzled today about the enemy in Iraq as they were in March 2003, when Iraq war began.  Astonishing.  Many of the mistakes we are making in Iraq stem from our poor understanding of the enemy.  We admit this deficiency-yet we continue on as before, making the same mistakes again and again.

Answers to basic questions elude us.  Is the main enemy in Iraq al-Qaeda or Sunni Baathists?  Should our focus be on Shia militias?  To what degree are foreign jihadists working with former Baathist regime members?  What is the relationship between the Syrian government and the Sunni insurgents?  Who is coordinating insurgent activity?  Is Iran supporting the insurgency and how?  Is our intelligence getting better over time-or are incorrect assumptions about the enemy we face actually making our understanding of the insurgency worse?

President Bush's latest plan to turn things around in Iraq will certainly fail if we do not focus on the intelligence problems that plague us.  Why are commanders on the ground in Iraq as frustrated over the quality of the intelligence they receive today as they were three and a half years ago?  First, in fairness, the business of intelligence is inherently very difficult.  Intelligence is nearly always ambiguous, contradictory, and hard to assimilate.  Two people, looking at the exact same information, frequently come to different, even opposite, conclusions.  Add to that the fact that intelligence analysis almost always has political implications, and you have a recipe for competing theories about what all the data mean.

This is not necessarily a bad thing.  Asserting that there is a "consensus view" is often nothing more than an indicator that intelligence agencies are suffering from "group think"-which is the last thing we want, especially if the conventional wisdom is wrong.  It often is.  If it were always right, the Soviet Union would still be around.  Saddam Hussein would not have dared to defy the world in 1991.  America would have been hit again after 9/11.

In Iraq, we do not seem to be taking intelligence seriously.  The CIA has many talented and capable agents and analysts, but it has been sending people in for 90-day Iraq assignments who do not even speak Arabic, according to Bob Woodward in his latest book.  Iraq must be a low priority-personnel are rotated in and out of Iraq before having enough time to develop real expertise.  And five years after 9/11, Americans who speak Arabic are still rare.  Proficiency in Arabic is not noticeably widespread in other parts of the government either.

Another problem in Iraq is that we rely heavily on foreign intelligence agencies to provide us with information.  "Friendly" Arab governments have their own agenda, and Arab intelligence services have been known to lead us astray more times than we care to admit.

Equally vexing is the problem of Iraqis who manipulate intelligence officers by providing false or politically motivated information.  Former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq John Negroponte candidly explained why: 
"The human sources the CIA had recruited reflected the politicization of Iraq."
Everyone had taken sides, and it was hard to find unbiased sources, as Woodward reports.  Negroponte admitted that the insurgency was essentially a "mystery." 

A mystery?  Is intelligence simply a matter of divining tea leaves?

There are very specific reasons for our distorted understanding of the different elements of the insurgency, their relative importance, and the nature of their interactions.  Foreign fighters use cell phones and the Internet whereas former regime members involved in the insurgency do not.  Given that our signals intelligence-interception of electronic communications-is often excellent (sorting it all out is another matter) and our human intelligence is often terrible, we are led to believe that al-Qaeda is playing a much greater role in the insurgency than are the Baathists.  What this suggests, in fact, is that the Baathists are much more sophisticated-and capable-than al-Qaeda.  This should not surprise us, especially given their greater numbers, their knowledge of their home turf, their professional military and intelligence training, and their access to high tech military hardware.

Our conclusions about how to prosecute the war are based on intelligence and on our understanding of the Middle East.   But the intelligence is often wrong or misleading, and our understanding of the Middle East, prior to 9/11, did not extend much beyond Arab-Israeli issues and has improved little since.

The key reason behind our misunderstanding of the region is a false concept we have embraced:  that "secular" and "Islamic" entities do not co-operate.  Yet we know that they do.  Syria supports Hezbollah, Hamas, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.  Qaddafi supported the Abu Sayyaf Group.  Iran supports the PLO.  Lebanon encompasses countless unusual alliances.  For example, Maronite Christian leader Michael Aoun is allied with Hezbollah.  Such alliances make no sense at all to Americans-but they are common in the Middle East.

Indeed, co-operation between "secular" and "Islamic" entities is so common that is rather strange that we dismiss the possibility that "strange bedfellows" could be operating against us.  It should not surprise us that groups and nations form unlikely alliances.  After all, the U.S. allied with Stalin, and Stalin and Hitler entered into a co-operative agreement-until June 1941 anyway.  The whole notion that secular Muslims and Islamic terrorists could not cooperate is as absurd as asserting that rival Mafia families never collaborate against a common enemy.  Terrorist groups cooperate all the time across the ideological divide-as they are doing in Iraq now.

Our obstinate belief in the false idea that secular and Islamist entities must be enemies has had dire consequences.  We have become fixated on Islamic figures, such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and Islamic groups like al-Qaeda, and do not seriously pursue the question of the support they receive from others.  U.S. forces finally killed Zarqawi in June 2006, but his demise has had no noticeable impact on the war.

Those native to the region have a clearer understanding of the war we are in.  Senior Iraqi officials-such as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, and many others-say that the insurgency in Iraq is primarily Baathist.  Nevertheless, we continue to believe that we know better than the Iraqis.  A June National Security Council report that was recently leaked to the New York Times all but declares that the Baathists have given up, convinced that they will not return to power.  This is utter nonsense and an example of a curious phenomenon:  we admit that our intelligence is bad, and yet we continue to hold the same assumptions about the enemy and the war that we did before.

An error in strategic intelligence has plagued us for more than a decade:  the notion that there is a jihadi movement that operates independently of terrorist states.  The idea of a movement separate and apart from Islamic terrorism that we call "Islamism" was basically invented in the early 1990's, and we seem more committed to it than ever.  This is a classic case of "group think."  The current consensus view, however, is the reverse of the conclusion that we reached in the 1980s, when the issue of states and groups was vigorously debated under CIA Director Bill Casey and his deputy-Robert Gates.  The same people who denied that the Soviet Union supported terrorist groups-support which has been demonstrated conclusively by those who have researched the archives of the Soviet Union and other Communist states, and which appears in the VENONA intercepts as well-continue to explain away evidence of state support for Islamic terrorism.  This fundamental misconception is crippling our ability to fight the global war on terror, and it is a violation of Sun Tzu's first, most fundamental rule:  "Know your enemy."   We still do not.

Michael Nyilis recently served in Afghanistan, and now works as a speechwriter in Washington, DC.