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Dismantling a security force

September 12, 2007

A recent report by an independent commission in the U.S. recommended purging the 26,000-member Iraqi national police to purge it of corrupt officers and Shiite militants. The report decries the sectarianism of the current police force which can only be eliminated by scrapping the current force – basically, starting over.

I have been thinking about this recommendation in connection with a book I’ve been reading “Learning to eat soup with a knife: Counterinsurgency lessons from Malaya and Vietnam” by John Nagl, who was a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army when he wrote the book. He shows how the British were able to revise their strategy in countering the Communist insurgency in Malaya in the 1950s. In contrast, the U.S. Army was unable to make necessary changes in order to respond to the insurgency in Vietnam. Nagl is fairly gloomy about the resistance the Army showed, ignoring advice from the British, ignoring lessons from its own Special Forces and from the U.S. Marines. He demonstrates how the Army may just be incapable of change from its culture of annihilating enemy forces. This mindset worked in the Civil War and during WWII, and in Korea. But it missed the point in Vietnam and in Iraq. Army leaders who tried to change the mindset in Vietnam got nowhere.

Well, if the Army has a dysfunctional mindset and if it is incapable of change, maybe it is time to think about dismantling the U.S. Army and starting over. Perhaps we can use the experience of rebuilding the Iraqi police force as a test case.

And all of this raises the questions of how to know when an organization needs to make fundamental changes in its mental model of how it is supposed to work, and how to know if that organization is capable of making those changes.

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