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Mistakes Were Made

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Mistakes Were Made

How Not to Conduct Post-Conflict Management and Counterinsurgency

by Dr. Wm J. Olson

Mistakes Were Made (Full PDF Article)

We are awash in how-to manuals on stability operations, counterinsurgency, and how we should successfully do the next Iraq or Afghanistan, presumably because we got the first attempt wrong. While the various manuals, hints, cheat sheets, doctrines, wiring diagrams, proposals for the reform of the 'whole of government', and all the paraphernalia of post-conflict management pouring forth from every think tank, government research institute, and now-knowledgeable 'expert' are not totally useless, they are virtually impossible to make sense of or implement if one could. If for no other reason than they are mutually exclusive, navel-gazing, self-referential, and voluminous. But they also miss the point, misdirect, misinform, and muddy the waters. They are all after the fact, what we should have done not what we did. So, what follows is a 'How Not To' manual. As such, it will have no audience, no following, no conclusions, and no effect.

The first part of what follows is a quasi-case study of decisions to invade Iraq and to a lesser degree the evolution of responses there and in Afghanistan. It concentrates on the context for war with Iraq and the Bush Administration's arguments for war with Iraq. This is not a study in lessons learned. Partly because I was not involved in the processes leading up to the invasion of Iraq, although on the margins I was one of those voices that questioned the thinking behind the decision making. I am also not a big believer in 'lessons learned'. History is not kind on the subject. Long experience in government in playing in and watching similar efforts as well as a lifetime scholarly interest in how governments screw up guide my thoughts and have 'taught' me that we do not learn lessons. We might identify them, but if they do not coincide with our prejudices and inclinations and skill sets, we discount the lesson or fail to take it into account or enlist the wrong ones. And lastly, there are significant cognitive obstacles to learning lessons from complex events that are inherent and unavoidable and whose operation at a given moment and throughout is beyond awareness before the fact and recondite at best afterwards.

Mistakes Were Made (Full PDF Article)

About the Author(s)


Ken White (not verified)

Fri, 07/17/2009 - 1:45am

When one doesn't sign in, one is named anonymous. Mea culpa. Not so, it was I...

Anonymous (not verified)

Fri, 07/17/2009 - 1:43am

One could quibble with a few specifics but it is a broadly correct assessment, I believe. I'm unsure, for example that Ambassador Bremer and Walter Slocombe are as blameless in the great disbandment of the Iraqi Army and Police as the article implies but that will all become clear someday.

In the interim, Dr. Olson should be happy with this initiative, <a href=; <u>the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review</u></a> which I think is an excellent idea and hope will work. The DoD lead in some aspects of diplomacy is more accidental than not. Regardless, that erroneous primacy should be rectified.