Leeroy Jenkins and the American way of advising
The American military has become relatively self-congratulatory of late about our newfound aptitude for counterinsurgency. As the violence in Iraq remains low relative to the charnel house of sectarian cleansing that characterized the peak of their civil war, the military mission in Iraq is shifting decisively toward advising and developing the Iraqi Security Forces. However, just as it took a tremendous shift in mind-set to move from traditional kinetic operations to the more complicated challenges of counterinsurgency, it will take another significant shift to truly master the art of advising.
One of the most important conceptual trends in counterinsurgency in Iraq has been the steady broadening of our intellectual horizons to include tribal leaders, local businesses, infrastructure, demographics, media and more. Sadly, the same cannot be said of our approach to the Iraqi Security Forces. The distance between the two techniques is wonderfully illustrated by a viral YouTube video — a recording of the exploits of a video game player who called himself Leeroy Jenkins. For those of you disinclined to Google “YouTube” and “Leeroy Jenkins,” I will briefly recap.
A group of about 20 people are playing “World of Warcraft,” a popular online game. Players all have separate characters who meet in a virtual world and work cooperatively to accomplish various goals. The video joins this particular group as they are discussing a detailed plan that they will use to advance through the adjacent room. The players geekily discuss their order of attack, spells and probability of success — “32 point three three, uh, repeating of course, percentage of survival” — while one of their party, Jenkins, is briefly away from his computer. Then out of nowhere, Jenkins shouts “Let’s do this! LEEEROOOY JENKINS!!!” and charges in, completely disregarding the planned course of action. Naturally, this approach destroys the meticulous strategy that had been decided upon and the entire party is wiped out in a matter of seconds. Leeroy’s exploits became so popular that he was given his own card in the trading-card iteration of “World of Warcraft.”
The video, which has been viewed more than 10 million times, is analogous to the disparity between the deliberation with which American forces approach counterinsurgency and the blunt ignorance with which they approach advising. There are a number of contributing factors: the rapid turnover of advisers; the mirror imaging built into the evaluation of Iraqi units; and a general ignorance of Iraqi politics, history and culture. For example, I recently participated in a discussion with two senior advisers visiting from southern Iraq, one of whom was on his first tour and had been in country only a matter of weeks. When it was suggested that there were political reasons for resource bottlenecks or historical reasons that explain the lack of a unified Iraqi command structure, they scoffed at the ridiculousness of these concerns and went back to busying themselves with spare parts and requisition forms. It was, to say the least, uninspiring.
These two men are not inarticulate or stupid; rather, they are accomplished professionals who have spent their careers learning how to build and lead Western forces in high-intensity conflict. Thanks to the vagaries of the Army personnel replacement system, they found themselves assigned to the advisory mission with little time to undertake the deep reorientation of worldview that such a mission entails. This is not universally the case, but as a member of the Fort Riley, Kan., training mission, I have worked with hundreds of American advisers and have observed some recurring pathologies.
The first is the Lawrence of Arabia fantasy. While every adviser learns to repeat the phrases that his job is to facilitate “local solutions” and “put Iraqis out front,” the distance between knowing these ideas and implementing them is often immense. Successful military leaders are seldom known for their shy and understated personalities — especially among the combat arms commanders who are chosen to lead advisory organizations. Even though they know the principles captured in “Seven Pillars of Wisdom,” they are much more apt to imagine themselves in the movie version: dashing Peter O’Toole taking center stage and persuading their Arab counterparts to go trekking across the desert to capture eternal glory. Shockingly, egomaniacs tend to make terrible team leaders who torment their subordinates and annoy their counterparts.
For those who do manage to successfully tread the fine line between arrogance and charisma, a second problem emerges. The metrics used to evaluate the progress of the Iraqi Security Forces are the same now as they were three years ago — and they look suspiciously like the status reports used to assess American units. This has the unfortunate effect of encouraging advisers to approach their counterpart units using the same skills that have served them well over their decades of uniformed service. Iraqi politics are Byzantine and frustrating, whereas the challenges of forecasting ammunition requirements and scheduling training are familiar and comforting. Moreover, this has the effect of creating the appearance of “progress” because sending people to schools and fielding certain equipment increases the rating of a unit on their monthly report, regardless of the actual impact on organizational effectiveness.
This is part of a larger challenge known to cognitive scientists as “mirror imaging,” or assuming that your counterpart thinks the same way you do. Thus, the drive to solve the technical problems of fuel distribution or vehicle repair is embedded in a good-faith effort that believes the local leadership views these “problems” and their “solutions” as problems that require a technical solution. Many Americans tend to be deeply chauvinistic and disdain any country that lacks the same amenities, comforts and cultural mores as Western society. In fact, during his in-brief to the newly arrived advisers at the Phoenix Academy in Taji, the commander of the Iraqi Ground Forces specifically told the assembled officers that acting disdainfully towards Iraqi culture would likely inhibit their effectiveness.
The belief that inside of the heart of every Iraqi there is a tiny American dying to get out then reinforces the natural human tendency to project one’s values and priorities onto others. This means that advisers may be pushing technical solutions that are entirely inappropriate for the circumstance, which has two important negative outcomes. First, it reduces the credibility of the adviser in the eyes of their counterpart, as they seem ignorant of basic realities that make their solutions unworkable. Second, it reinforces the negative stereotypes that led to the ill-advised suggestion in the first place. The adviser doesn’t think his ideas failed because the ideas weren’t that great; instead, it must be because Iraqis are stubborn, lazy, cowardly or sub-human. A sterling example of how badly this situation can devolve is easily observed in the profanity-laced diatribe captured on YouTube under the title “Lazy Iraqi Police get motivational speech” (www.youtube.com/watch?v=r1GrdTakvl8).
The key to breaking out of this spiral is to study and understand Iraqi culture and politics — but in the third pathology, even advisers who recognize the need to implement Iraqi solutions are often ill-equipped to understand what those problems are. This is because instruction on Iraqi politics and history is rudimentary at best. The Fort Riley Training Mission recently doubled its instruction in counterinsurgency and culture, which was already the largest single block of instruction and now comprises 20 percent of the days available in the 60-day training model, from six days to 12. This is further augmented with a few hours of instruction in Kuwait and a day or two in Taji. As a result, most American advisers lack a working knowledge of even the most basic facts of Iraqi culture and history.
This ignorance has significant impact on advising strategies. For example, I often hear deep vexation over the lack of cooperation between the Iraqi police, who work for the Ministry of the Interior, and the Iraqi army, which is controlled by the Ministry of Defense. In American doctrine, unity of command is one of the most important principles of war, as it allows the efficient concentration of resources at the most decisive point on the battlefield. However, in Iraq, recent history indicates that when a group of officers is able to amass control over a preponderance of the nation’s military power, they tend to take over the government and execute the current leadership. This is a recurring pattern that significantly predates the Baathist regime and is well-known to any Iraqi politician. Therefore, it is unsurprising that the Iraqi national government would intentionally create two militarily significant organizations that are controlled by separate institutions and don’t particularly like each other or cooperate consistently — think of it as the Mesopotamian system of checks and balances. The current advisory approach to this reality is the creation of joint operating centers, interoperable communication systems and procedures for cooperation. That these solutions don’t ever really seem to work is an incomprehensible mystery for those officers who blithely ignore the sociopolitical context in which they are supposed to be implemented.
There appear to be three possible approaches to these pathologies. One is to continue the status quo, wherein advisers are selected on short notice, given such training as time affords, and then set loose to do their best for a year. Some take to the mission intuitively, others fail spectacularly and most just muddle through. Another technique would be to dramatically increase the quality and extent of cultural instruction, impose more rigid selection criteria for advisers, and enhance the career opportunities and rewards for those who succeed at the mission. While all these would be useful innovations, and are certainly superior to randomly assigning xenophobic social maladroits to small teams with a compressed training timeline, they ultimately fall short. This is because, like Leeroy Jenkins, these solutions substitute individual initiative and ability for meaningful planning. While some advisers might be locally successful, their achievements will not be woven into a meaningful strategic framework that describes the desired outcome of their efforts.
For the advisory effort to succeed, neither the status quo nor better personnel selection and training will be sufficient. The institution itself must fundamentally rethink its approach to advising. Just as doctrinal and strategic innovations reoriented the active counterinsurgency campaign in 2007, new doctrinal and strategic approaches will make the difference between success and failure in 2009.
The most urgent question that must be answered for all advisers is: What are the Iraqi Security Forces meant to do? Until now, we have been able to answer that question relatively ambiguously by simply asserting that they ought to contribute to a safe and secure Iraq because our advisory effort has focused on the development of tactical skills. At this point, however, most Iraqi units are competent in the basic tasks inherent in soldiering or policing, and our effort has shifted to operational and strategic planning. But it is at this level that the disparity between the current technical approaches and the political realities of Iraq are most jarring.
The Western model of civil-military relations, wherein constitutional limits, a strong tradition of civilian control and the small size of the security forces relative to the population mitigate coup attempts, leaves most people relatively sanguine about the monopoly the state has on legitimate violence. This is not a tradition that Iraq shares. Since counterinsurgency is, at its root, about restoring the legitimacy of the state and its ability to control violent resistance by the population, the more effective and centralized the security forces become, the more able they are to seize the power of the state for themselves. Thus there are two competing concerns that exist in tension: the need to create forces that can secure the state — which requires organizational efficiency, local autonomy and unity of effort — and the need to create forces that the state can control — which requires organizational redundancy, centralized control and mechanisms to prevent plotting. The current advisory strategy focuses entirely on the former concern to the exclusion of the latter.
An alternate framework, which accounts for the realities of Iraqi politics, might instead be based around the answers to the following questions: What do Iraqi political leaders want their security forces to look like? Which, if any, of those goals are commensurate with coalition interests and morals? What political concerns are driving security policy, within the security forces and in the country as a whole? How can we engage productively with those concerns? How do we unify political analysis with our technical solutions? How do we measure and report those results? The detailed answers to these questions are beyond the scope of this essay, but I think they highlight some gaps in our current base of knowledge.
First, it is obvious to anyone who cares to look that Iraqi politics is based on patronage networks — people are loyal to a particular leader who then rewards that loyalty with government jobs, opportunities for earning wealth and greater responsibility over others. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the members of his governing coalition split up ministries and then use their positions to enhance the power of their own networks, just as tribal leaders, clerics and local political parties do the same. Thus, in order to understand why things are happening in the Iraqi Security Forces, it is absolutely necessary to map the web of patronage and loyalty that is driving resource allocation, promotions and information sharing within these organizations. Patronage network analysis must begin at the strategic level and be passed down to the lowest level adviser, so every adviser action is embedded in a broad understanding of the overall political context.
Second, Western actions, resources and support have a significant impact on the relative power of Iraqi networks and so advisory decisions must be based on Western strategic interests and morals. The dangers of not accounting for politics can take several forms. The first, and most obvious, is the creation of an organization with an explicitly sectarian focus. One example is the initial form taken by the National Police, which was essentially a Shiite goon squad. The organization became so notorious that retired Marine Corps Gen. James Jones recommended that it be disbanded, and, in fact, many police battalions and brigades were taken off the line, the leadership was fired, and the organization was rebuilt from the ground up. The second danger is the utilization of existing security forces to accomplish the goals of the dominant patronage network. It is incredibly naïve to think that the crackdown on rival Shiite militias in advance of provincial elections was anything but a play by Maliki to shore up his support and disrupt his political opponents. This is not to say that advisers should not support operations that impact Iraqi domestic politics — in fact, that very idea is nonsensical. Rather, it means that advisers must understand their roles within the larger strategic goals of the coalition, which will guide the type and scale of support they provide to their counterparts.
Third, the existing system for evaluating Iraqi units must be scrapped and replaced with a set of tools that better guides the actions of advisory organizations. By requiring reports in a familiar U.S. format that are entirely technical and more or less ignore Iraqi politics, the current system fosters chauvinism and mirror imaging and does nothing to reward cultural fluency. In fact, a suggestion that there is no technical solution to an identified problem often leads to the response that the adviser himself is simply not trying hard enough. By building a new system that forces reporting on network affiliations and appropriate measures of effectiveness, the adviser will be steered toward a more effective approach regardless of his or her personal proclivities.
Finally, the metrics for evaluating the Iraqi Security Forces must be designed in conjunction with the Iraqi government and senior leadership. The institutions we would want to build for the Iraqis may not be the institutions they want. The methods we use to evaluate success or failure may not be their methods. The technical help we want to give may not be the help they require. Ultimately, Iraq belongs to the Iraqis, and we are neither capable nor wise enough to reorder their society on their behalf; therefore, it would make more sense for the Iraqi government to take the lead in terms of describing what they would like their country and their security forces to look like.
The situation in Iraq is changing rapidly, and soon, the coalition presence will consist almost entirely of advise-and-assist brigades devoted to enhancing the capabilities of the Iraqi Security Forces and contributing to a safe and stable Iraq. This presents a unique opportunity to re-evaluate and improve the organizational techniques American forces employ in their advisory effort — to put a stop to the ad hoc, idiosyncratic, Leeroy Jenkins philosophy of advising and replace it with a coherent institutional approach that acknowledges Iraqi politics and is driven by Iraqi concerns. In this new approach, Iraqi leaders will decide what sort of state they want, and we will support that endeavor through our advisory efforts. In the end, we owe it to the Iraqi people to help them have the best possible chance at safe, secure and prosperous lives.
Capt. Robert M. Chamberlain is a Rhodes scholar who has served two tours in Iraq, one as the senior maneuver adviser on an Iraqi Army Battalion Military Transition Team. He is commander of A Battery, 1st Battalion, 5th Field Artillery, at Fort Riley, Kan. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Army or Defense Department.