War Against Al-Qaeda in Iraq – A Journey in Science of Management


For us to review a book, it has to be special, it has to be a book that adds to our understanding, a book that  improves our ability to think. Today we write about a book that exceeds all these criteria and does it in a way that is truly remarkable. Frankly, we are at a loss to cogently describe the intelligence revealed in this book, the intelligence that summarizes the transformation of the US Counterinsurgency Task Force in Iraq from the point of view of management science.

The book is “Team of Teams” by General Stanley McChrystal about his long campaign against Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) led by Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi. The book is co-authored by two Navy Seals, David Silverman & Chris Fussell who served with General McCrystal, , and by Tantum Collins, currently a Marshall Scholar & MPhil candidate at University of Cambridge.

1. The challenge of AQI

As Gen. McChrystal writes:

  • “On paper, the confrontation between AQI and our Task Force should have been no contest. We had a large, well-trained, superbly equipped force, while AQI had to recruit locals and smuggle in foreign fighters one by one through dangerous, unreliable ratlines.”    

Yet, as he writes, “Throughout 2004 Iraq steadily and disturbingly unraveled“. So,

  •  “… we also had to ask a deeper, more troubling question: If we were the best of the best, why were such attacks not disappearing, but in fact increasing? Why were we unable to defeat an underresounced insurgency? Why were we losing?”

The answer turned out to be quite simple – “our limiting factor lay in the mundane art of management“. He came to understand that “defeating AQI would necessitate learning from them“.

Learn what?

  • “that AQI and this war were fundamentally different from anything we had seen in the past … AQI displayed a shapeshifting quality … AQI was a daunting foe because it could transform itself at will. AQI’s network was organic and associative, held together by a property we could not identify. … They were decentralized, but they were also coherent. …. Even as AQI metastasized across Iraq, growing in scale and reach, they somehow preserved their agility”.
  • “That AQI was successful was obvious. They steered clear of most icebergs and more remarkably when they hit one, they did not sink; they patched the hole and built a better boat. It was this capability that most frustrated and intrigued us. …  We were stronger, more efficient, more robust. But AQI was agile and resilient
  • “AQI was not concerned with efficiency. Through trial and error, they had evolved a military structure that was not efficient but was adapatablea network that, unlike the structure of our command, could squeeze itself down, spread itself out, and ooze into any necessary shape. There was space between our forces – both geographically and in our communications sharing – that created safe pockets in which the enemy was able to nest, and seams into which they could expand. AQI learned to live and operate in the gaps of our system.”

The above are not just words. The differences between Robust vs. Resilient, Efficiency vs. Effectiveness, Complicated vs. Complex are very significant. Much of General McChrystal’s book discusses these differences in serious detail and explains how his Task Force changed its structure to implement these concepts.

The result? Victory in 2007:

  • By 2007, the task force was winning the fight against AQI. Our thinking had become smarter, and our execution more nimble. We were learning and adapting quicker than the enemy – and finally – hitting them faster that they could regenerate. “.
  • “… we had a structure unlike any force the U.S. military had ever fielded. Gone were the tidy straight lines and right angles of a traditional MECE chart; we were now amorphous and organic, supported by crisscrossing bonds of trust and communication that decades of management might have labeled as inefficient, redundant, or chaotic.”
  • AQI was adaptable. But Zarqawi’a death was a major victory in morale. At long last, we were better. We had become not a well-oiled machine, but an adaptable, complex organism, constantly twisting, turning, and learning to overwhelm our protean adversary. 
  • ” Our performance flowed naturally from the interconnected neural network that our force had become.”

A one-liner –To defeat a network, we had become a network. We had become a team of teams.”

2. Efficiency vs. Effectiveness – Taylor-Sloan-GM to Mulally-Boeing

The concept of efficiency in a large organization is perhaps owed to Frederick Winslow Taylor who turned down Harvard to work in a factory. Simply put, Taylor made more faster with less. His work had such profound impact in so many industries that Historian Jeremy Rifkin believes, “[Taylor] has probably had a greater effect on the private and public lives of the men and women of the twentieth century than any other single individual“.  

Taylor’s concepts naturally led to creation of silos in large corporations to maximize efficiency, a concept made into management doctrine by the success of Alfred Sloan at General Motors.

Fast forward to the 21st century and you see what silos have done to General Motors. The model was failing so badly for America’s car industry that a radical change was necessary. In 2005, Bill Ford brought in Alan Mulalley. As we all know, Mulalley transformed Ford Motor Company. His motto?

  • “Working together always works. It always works. Everybody has to be on the team. They have to be interdependent with one another.” 

In 2004, the US Army boasted of Taylorist efficiency in Iraq. And its contest against neural network based AQI was “a losing battle“. 

Effectiveness comes from adaptability and that is a component of Complex Systems.

3. Complicated vs. Complexity

For a quick review of elements of Complexity Theory, see our December 2011 article titled Avalanches. Nuclear Reactors & Financial Markets. For our purposes today & from the book:

  • “Complicated can be simplified, Complexity cannot. Complicated things are things that can be broken down into series of neat & deterministic relationshipsallowing predictions of relative certainty” .
  • “Complexity occurs when the number of interactions between components increases dramatically – the interdepencies that allow nuclear reactions, viruses and financial contagions to spread … where things quickly become unpredictable ..”

The book tells the story of how Edward Lorenz, MIT mathematician & meteorologist, entered 0.506 instead of 0.506127 into his model in his hurry to get a cup of coffee in 1961. The results were so different that the pair of weather patterns seemed to be “two random weathers out of  a hat“. A few years later, Lorenz published a paper titled “Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?”. This is when, McChrystal tells us, “the phrase “the butterfly effect” entered the world“.

Size & scale of resources don’t help in complex systems. The book quotes the explanation of Science historian James Gleick:

  • “Even if we covered the Earth in a lattice of sensors spaced one foot apart, and even if every one of these sensors provided flawless readings, we would still not know whether it would rain in one month.”

Complex environments are essentially unpredictable. No one knows which noise would trigger an avalanche, which correction would result in a market meltdown. As General McChrystal writes” In Iraq, every day brought with it the unpredictability of an entire war“.

If you cannot predict, how do you plan? Not via traditional strategic planning because, in the words of Henry Mintzberg, quoted in the book”

  • Setting oneself on a predetermined course in unknown waters is the perfect way to sail straight into an iceberg“.  

4.  Resiliency vs. Robustness

Chapter 4 of the Book is an excellent discussion of all these concepts. Simply put, you can design a robust system if you can predict. If you cannot, then even the “most brilliantly engineered fixed solutions are often insignificant or counterproductive“.

General McChrystal’s Task Force in Iraq began with a robust structure. It was efficient. But it kept failing because “pursuit of efficiency is grounded in prediction” and AQI was anything but predictable. As the book explains:

  • Robustness is achieved by strengthening parts of the system; resilience is the result of linking elements that allow them to reconfigure or adapt in response to change or damage. The key lies in shifting our focus from predicting to reconfiguring.” 
  • Resilience thinking” is a burgeoning fied that attempts to deal in new ways with the new challenges of complexity. Resilience thinking is the inverse of predictive hubris. It is based in a humble willingness to “know that we don’t know” and “expect the unexpected’.

The book explains this in detail with the example how the Dutch are “using this thinking to accept the reality that floods are inevitable and now focus on making Netherlands flood resilient than floodproof.”

5. Summary

The above is simply a glimpse into the detailed discussions in the book about how these concepts radically changed the structure and tactics of the US Task Force in Iraq. It is not a theoretical discussion but an actual primer from one of America’s most gifted and iconic generals, a leader who transformed his Task Force and won the war against Al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Get this book, read it. Then read it again & again.


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