"No Holy Grails, No Silver Bullets" by LTG James Dubik (ret.)

No Holy Grails, No Silver Bullets

by LTG James Dubik (ret.), ARMY Magazine, February 2009


Since I’ve been back from Iraq (after a tour as commanding general of the Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq from June 2007 to July 2008), one of the questions I’m asked most often is: “What was the thing that made the surge work?” By “the thing,” the questioner really means the one action or decision without which the results achieved in the past 18 months would not have been accomplished. In military language, the questioner is asking about “the decisive action.” Personally, I don’t think there was just one. Moreover, from my perspective, to search for the one thing is to search for a holy grail or a silver bullet. I do believe, however, that there are four categories of actions that, taken together over time, were decisive because they produced set conditions that increased the probability of accelerated improvement.

Intellectual clarity. Ambassador Ryan Crocker, Gen. David H. Petraeus and their primary military and political deputies understood the kind of war they were fighting and what strategy would likely result in “success” in that war. They also understood the complex and dynamic environment in which they would have to succeed. That environment had three parts, each of which was constantly shifting and affected the others: A political dimension—in the United States as well as in the capitals of the other Coalition nations—that provided the “space” that defined not only what was necessary but also what was practically possible; a regional dimension—each of Iraq’s neighbors, on the immediate borders and beyond, affected what was happening in Iraq and therefore outlined the “Iraqi problem” in its broader sense; andan Iraqi dimension—the political, economic, cultural, religious and security aspects within Iraq that formed the immediate ground on which action would unfold and progress be made.


Unity of purpose. The Joint Campaign Plan, signed and published by Ambassador Crocker and Gen. Petreaus, translated their shared understanding into practical language. The process of developing the plan was itself important, for it facilitated a dialogue among the commanders and staffs of the immediate deputies and subordinate elements as well as many others outside the command. That dialogue provided a way to craft the plan’s language and objectives, thus achieving a unity in the minds of those who would be responsible for implementing the plan or the support necessary for it.


Coherence of action. Plans don’t win wars, actions do—a complex set of correctly aimed actions, continuously adapting to the situation on the ground. That complex set of actions also had the following three dimensions. 


Tactical actions. The most visible tactical actions involved military forces—conventional and special operations, U.S. and Coalition, and, perhaps most importantly, Iraqi security forces, military and police. Ultimately, soldiers, sergeants, lieutenants and captains fight and win wars. Military forces are the most visible, but they are not the only tactical forces used. Equally important were the tactical forces of the provincial reconstruction teams, the advisers and trainers of the Iraqi security forces and those embedded in Iraqi security ministries and Joint headquarters, and the diplomatic and economic teams engaging throughout the Iraqi government and the region. The results of the daily actions of this complex set of tactical forces had to stay focused on achieving the objectives set in the Joint Campaign Plan. This kind of coherence can only be achieved by multiple teams of leaders working in tandem at every level of the military and diplomatic organization.


Strategic actions. The strategic dialogue among Coalition senior leaders, military and diplomatic, kept all informed as to the actual situation—good and bad, the resources that were necessary to sustain progress, as well as the risks and associated mitigating strategies—including adjustments to objectives or timelines needed to cover the gap between “required” versus “available” resources. This strategic dialogue resulted in continually updated guidance to Ambassador Crocker, Gen. Petraeus, and their primary military and political deputies.


Operational actions. The strategic dialogue and its resulting guidance was necessary for senior military and diplomatic leaders in Iraq to keep ends and means in proper balance. The “means” in this case were the variety of tactical forces (military and nonmilitary), the actions they had to accomplish and the resources that were available. The “ends” were the operational objectives and associated timelines. Both ends and means shifted constantly. This is natural in war. Successes often expand what is achievable and accelerate when it can be accomplished; setbacks have the opposite effect. Enemy action may open opportunities or require unplanned reaction and counteraction. Resources—whether personnel, equipment or finance—grow and diminish based on a variety of conditions. Political will, vital to the conduct of war, ebbs and flows. The operational-level leaders in Iraq contributed to unity of effort and coherence of action by constantly balancing and rebalancing ends and means.

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