Iraq War 2003: Background & Lessons

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April 10, 2003

Special Report

The Contribution of Knowledge Management During Times of National Security Crisis: Lessons of the Iraq War

By Gregory R. Copley1

The US-led war against Iraq and terrorism is the first conflict of the Knowledge Management era. And in this war, national security "knowledge management" has provided the network-centric management of information resources to aid in strategic and tactical decisionmaking for warfighting purposes.

Focusing on the Coalition war against Iraq, which is still in progress, there are several key aspects of this premise which must be borne in mind:

  1. "Knowledge management" as an applied practice in US military activities has been successful up to a point, but the concepts are still experimental, and the nature of the Iraqi opposition was such that Coalition military success was guaranteed without it. Therefore, caution should be exercised when analyzing the rôle of knowledge management in the current war, and efforts should focus on finding where the practice failed, and how lessons might be applied in future conflict situations where the correlation of opposing forces might not be so asymmetric.
  2. What was evident in the conflict was that there is a natural convergence of knowledge management with "perception management", as well as a growing difficulty in separating solidly-based intelligence-grade information from beliefs, even in professional analytical and policy circles. The convergence of knowledge management and perception management (PM) highlights the growing importance of psychological and psychopolitical strategies, as well as psychological operations, and the requirement for KM to play perhaps the key dynamic rôle in psystrat and psyops. But this also places greater demands on the management of KM structures and operations.
  3. KM and PM are double-edged swords; they can cut the user as well as the enemy.
  4. KM is not wisdom; nor is it intelligence. What we have seen as the most significant aspect of KM in the current conflict is that "the medium has become the message". Too much reliance has been placed on the system, and insufficient on qualifying the substance of the information within it. KM can equally be an invitation to disaster if it is applied unthinkingly or rigidly, without sound and experienced management.

Knowledge management has always framed around the gathering of known learning, or knowledge, memorialized through writing or imagery, into libraries, dating back to such institutions as the Library of Alexandria, Egypt, or the caches of documentation and scholarship secreted away at Wadi Qumran in the collection now known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. After civilization crumbled with the collapse of the Roman Empire’s eastern and western aspects, an Arab bookseller in the late 10th Century, Abu‘l Faraj Muhammad bin Ishak al-Warrak Ibn Abi Ja‘kub an-Nadin, compiled what he called the "Catalogue of Knowledge" (Fihrist al-‘Ulum) in which he attempted to list the known authors, with a summary of their works. But as history has shown, such knowledge management is of immediate value only if it can be applied. The collective learning of the ascetics at Qumran did not save that clan from extinction, for example.

Indeed, the dark ages, which began with the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the late Fifth Century, provide a salutary comparison for modern knowledge management. The dark ages were an age of secrets; secrets sustained by the control of knowledge of the written word, phrases and myths, tales and maxims, which were eked out by the religious leaderships of communities like precious, life-giving food and light, a morsel at a time, to be used as sustenance, but never in sufficient quantity that they could be collected together to form wisdom and vision needed to view the morrow with courage and clarity.

The saga of the rebirth of Western civilization was embarked upon by courageous leaders, who set out on such acts as the invasion of England in 1066, using scraps of scraps of charts and information as guidance: embers of light in an unimaginable darkness. This was an age when even the priests who controlled the remaining fragments of history and learning had forgotten the significance of their collected repositories of knowledge, and were in the thrall merely of the power of holding secrets. The blind were thus leading the blind.

Today, we have automated the process, but still we find the process of the distribution of information one of the cornerstones of bureaucratic and political power. It remains a challenge for military and political policymakers to find a way to balance the real needs of security and protection both of sources and indications of intentions with the need for the most comprehensive and appropriate information and experience to be provided to decisionmakers.

As we move the information process forward into this new age of "knowledge management", which has been created because of the possibilities presented by new technologies in computerization and communications, we find ourselves equally challenged — because of those same technologies — by a new level of rapidity of events and reactions to events. As well, as we have seen in the war against Iraqi Pres. Saddam Hussein, wars are fought under conditions of strong strategic situational awareness, which places increased demands on KM structures.

By April 10, 2003, Coalition deaths in the war against Iraq were less than 150; Iraqi civilian deaths were reportedly less than 500. We have to compare not only the immense speed with which the present war has progressed, but also the fact that significant strategic change can and now does occur with minimal damage to infrastructure and lives. On the night of May 10, 1941, as the nightly bombing raids by the Lüftwaffe continued against London, some 1,500 people — literally all civilians — were killed, another 1,800 were seriously injured, and 8,000 streets were left impassable because of the rubble of buildings which collapsed from the bombing. There were more than 2,000 fires for the London Fire Brigade to attend that night, nine of which were classified at the highest level, "conflagration". The carpet bombing by the Lüftwaffe was, like retaliatory raids by the Royal Air Force and other allied air forces, aimed against cities, and against their civilian populations.

Because of the different cultural context and situational awareness around the world, these attacks on London, of which the one described represented only a single incident, were reported with less urgency, drama and political repercussion than a single strike from a North American Rockwell/USAF B-1B bomber, with four 2,000lb. JDAM munitions against a single building in Baghdad. Significantly, the loss of life in the B-1B raid against a suspected hardened command bunker did not, reportedly, include any innocent bystanders; nor were neighboring communities wiped out. And yet, because of the new communications technologies, the situational awareness factor has changed dramatically the political impact of military actions.

This, of course, places a new set of demands onto the KM community. What we saw in the build-up toward the US-led military operations in Iraq was also a new operating environment for KM. What we saw was an entirely new approach to viewing operational intelligence within the context of regional political ramifications and the context of political ramifications within the domestic audiences of the target country — Iraq — and the Coalition countries. In one sense, we saw strategic decisionmaking shaped by contextual and perceptional frameworks. In an operational sense, we saw the psychological framework, and a vastly-improved understanding of local social and military contexts, shape the way Coalition commanders prosecuted the war.

What we saw, because of this greater dependence on better and more contextual knowledge, was a Coalition prosecution of combat which was far more efficient, considerate of social outcomes, and dramatically more flexible than we had seen in any recent military confrontations. This was the triumph of knowledge management and strategic context over battlefield expediency. In some profound ways, it changed the way in which war was to be fought, in some senses making it more difficult for field commanders; in other ways limiting collateral and future problems.

In some ways, the hotly-debated decision of the US George W. Bush Administration to take military action against Iraq was vindicated — quite apart from removing a major lynchpin in the terrorist and anti-Western apparatus — because it provided such a starkly contrasting tableau with the 1991 Gulf War. The 1991 war, which was fought with a greater precision in weaponry than any previous war, nonetheless failed to achieve significant, long-term strategic change. Indeed, by appearing to have failed to demonstrate US resolve and a US understanding of the regional issues, the 1991 war — which was won decisively by the Coalition forces — in fact set up a situation in which both radical temporal leaders, such as Saddam Hussein, and radical Islamist leaders, such as Osama bin Laden, were energized into cooperation against the US and the West.

All of this brought the issue into the contextual and perceptional framework, which is very much the ambit of knowledge management. The West was convinced that it had won the 1991 Gulf War; the Muslim Ummah was convinced that the war merely demonstrated Western weakness and lack of resolve. This polarization of perceptions was compounded by the eight years of US rule by the Clinton Administration, a period in which, despite declining US defense budgets in real terms, military systems improved by quantum levels in terms of accuracy, and a period in which knowledge management systems grew to their present levels of capability.

But if we think that technology — both in terms of accuracy and knowledge management — have led us to this present and decisive demonstration of Western military and political success in Iraq today, why, then, did these great advantages fail us in 1999, when Pres. William Clinton caused NATO to go to war against Yugoslavia?

The fact that knowledge management failed completely to bring about balanced decisionmaking in the US military policies of the 1990s, and particularly in the 1999 attacks against Yugoslavia, highlights the reality that knowledge management can only help those who wish to be helped. National level leadership ultimately sets the tone for how KM systems will be used. Suffice it to say that after President Clinton named R. James Woolsey as Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) on January 21, 1993, and until Woolsey left that post on January 10, 1995 — a period of two years — there were only two or three brief meetings between the DCI and the President. The Clinton White House demanded that the Intelligence Community (IC) and the associated defense knowledge management system fit intelligence estimates and policy documents to predetermined policy decisions of the White House. This corruption of the intelligence and information structure led to the virtual ruin of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and the ruin of Yugoslavia and its long-term — and scandalously wrong — damnation in the eyes of the world.

This process also encouraged the rise of al-Qaida’s terrorist activities against the US. But in demonstrating that improvements in the technologies of military accuracy and power projection, as well as in the knowledge management arena, had improved while US military forces and intelligence were simultaneously being abused and mis-used, we should not overlook the fact that the US intelligence community as a whole was in disarray. It had not adapted to the post-Cold War world, and was not encouraged to adapt to new realities.

That situation has changed. So what is critical in achieving a successful use of KM and the associated fields of intelligence and psychological strategy is the provision of an appropriate level of national leadership. So what can we expect now of the KM and Intelligence communities?

Firstly, the KM and Intelligence communities need to be aware that political administrations will vary in their understanding of the rôle of KM and will vary in their inclinations to employ it. With that understanding the KM community, in particular, must constantly battle to embed its capabilities and budgets within the system so that they become integral to it, and are not viewed as luxuries.

Secondly, it is necessary to recognize that some users of KM see the knowledge management technologies and systems as a way to avoid engagement in active collection of sound intelligence and information. There has been a growing tendency to believe that everything can be obtained on-line from existing and indiscriminately-accessed web providers. Rather than raising the quality and validity of information sourced for decisionmakers, the process has often vastly increased the quantity, while lowering the quality and relevance of information provided.

Thirdly, the commitment of funds to KM structures and systems has often diverted funds from information collection and processing, from normal acquisition and utilization of printed materials, and from bringing information users into more frequent, direct contact with human information resources. In a word, KM has often "dehumanized" the information process, at the expense of the nuance and depth which can be gained from specialists who have on-the-ground experience in areas on which information is required. By making the KM process one which primarily focuses in systems, rather than people, there is the strong risk of distorting the value-system of information acquisition and processing. To draw the parallel from Oscar Wilde: It is important that the KM and intelligence process does not become one which "knows the price of everything and the value of nothing".

If we take it as a given that KM by itself is a system or process of potentially immense value, but equally something which can be bypassed, or, worse, mis-used, then we must understand that for knowledge to be managed in such a way that it helps create wisdom, we must value, treasure and upgrade the human core of such systems. That core is represented by the specialist librarian.

The policy and intelligence communities must — like the librarians themselves — see the function of librarian as central to the collection and analytical processes. Clearly, today’s military and intelligence community librarian must be skilled in a great many aspects of remote accessing of databases, as well as in such areas as database security. Equally, however, the specialist librarian should be able to be of sufficient breadth and depth of experience and reading — both electronically and conventionally — to link not only to electronic and documentary resources, but also to human specialists.

There is evidence that the US is once again reshaping its intelligence assets so that human intelligence (HUMINT) collection is achieving recognition and priority. It will, however, take decades to repair the damage done by the Carter and Clinton Administrations’ deliberate destruction not only of the US’ HUMINT officers, but also of the foreign collection networks under them.

The Global Information System (GIS) and Defense & Foreign Affairs network which I began 31 years ago this month never wavered in our commitment to HUMINT, as well as to the collection of documentary materials, clipping files, photographic files, and so on. It has always been our policy to have people in the field around the world; people who have been embedded in the policy and military structures, who quietly ensure that we have a sound contextual understanding of issues and personalities.

Many of our collectors and contacts have been with us for all or most of those three decades. Our methods of moving information have changed, but still there are times when it is necessary for a source to travel on foot for miles; to then catch a bus or a train to the nearest airport; and then to fly to one or more destinations before we establish a meeting. It is often necessary for me, or one of my colleagues, to fly into areas where conflict or unrest is underway or imminent, to get the feel of the place and its leaders.

It is necessary in this process of strategic intelligence collection and processing to be aware of the broadest possible contexts in which to view issues and information; to be aware of the trends of many disciplines, from religion to economics, from business to linguistics, from politics to military training, from historic social patterns to new religious trends, medicine, agriculture, science and so on. Perhaps, in this regard, it is important to stress that while computerization and new communications technologies are a vital part of knowledge management, so, too, is experience and the ability to literally understand the mentalities and geographies of target areas.

At the same time, the knowledge management community needs to impose on itself the kind of disciplines which were once mandatory in the intelligence field. This includes the rigor of evaluating intelligence or information resources over a period of time to determine their credibility. It is valid to subject information resources — even those accessed over the web — to evaluation and questioning. We are, at present, seeing vast amounts of information being made available through the web, and, in a sense being "legitimized" or "blessed" by the KM systems of various defense libraries, but which are, in fact, being written by people who have little or no experience on the ground in the countries or cultures on which they are writing.

The parallel which we see in the consumer world is the dramatic upsurge in the numbers of terrorist experts appearing on television since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the US. It is now quite clear that there are more terrorist experts in the world than there are terrorists, but less clear who is the more dangerous. It is also important that the information resources themselves demonstrate that they impose upon themselves the rigor of introspection and debate into the topics on which they report. If they pursue and study terrorist operations, for example, then, apart from anything else, they need to demonstrate that they understand the origins and psychological phenomena of terrorism. Have the specialists ever gone into the field and met with terrorists on their home ground? It is not good enough just to have operated in a counter-terrorist mode to understand terrorism.

And so on.

At present, the KM community has established a vast network, mostly web-based, of information assets which are accessed on trust by military and intelligence community analysts. The only safeguard in this entire process is the librarian. That makes the librarian one of the most significant aspects of the intelligence and policy analysis process, feeding and inspiring the analysts by offering up and explaining new information resources; prompting and suggesting ways of bringing the analyst (or the sponsor, patron, client, customer: the recipient of the information) — who ultimately shapes the decisions of the field commander — into closer contact with the reality of what he or she must study, understand and interpret usually within very tight time constraints.

The tendrils of a KM network are virtual, rather than hard-wired; they can reach almost anywhere, given the ability of modern communications (and particularly the internet). This makes the librarian the nerve-center of KM, and more central than ever to sound intelligence and policy analysis.

In turn, this means that à priori librarians need to be brought more into the collection and analytical process, so that they can be sufficiently informed to initiate information search procedures which have the flexibility which modern military operations demand. The librarians, whose reach is extended by KM, are the critical interface between a wide, anarchical world of information collectors and the analysts who must, by the strength of their work, influence decisions.

For KM to be effective, librarians, then, need to be able to ask the hard questions of data suppliers; they need to have the authority and budget to make more informed acquisition decisions; and they need to be seen by the analytical community as the stimulus for more comprehensive and meaningful intelligence product. That means, as noted at the beginning of this paper, that there needs to be, within the KM leadership structure, a growing emphasis on strategic situational awareness. Knowledge management leadership must be, by definition, leadership: it must focus on what needs to be achieved, more than on how. The technology is a tool; it is merely an aid to achieving the appropriate information in such proportion that it gradually becomes wisdom.


1. Gregory Copley, President of the International Strategic Studies Association (ISSA), is Editor-in-Chief of Defense & Foreign Affairs Publications, and President and Editor of the Global Information System, a worldwide intelligence collection and processing organization. These institutions are all based in Alexandria, Virginia. Mr Copley is also author of numerous books and several thousand classified and unclassified studies, reports and articles on strategic topics. He is regarded as one of the few authorities on psychological strategy. He is also a founder-director of Australia’s only international strategic policy think-tank, Future Directions International (FDI), based in Perth, Western Australia.