Iraq War Knowns and Unknowns

A little rambling for your morning. But it all ties together by the end; I promise.

First, a trip down memory lane. From Slate’s The Poetry of D.H. Rumsfeld:

The Unknown
As we know,
There are known knowns.
There are things we know we know.
We also know
There are known unknowns.
That is to say
We know there are some things
We do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns,
The ones we don’t know
We don’t know.

–Feb. 12, 2002, Department of Defense news briefing

A similar wisdom is voiced by David Gristwood, in a piece titled 21 rules of thumb — how Microsoft develops its software (courtesy of

1. Don’t know what you don’t know.

It is essential not to profess to know, or seem to know, or accept that someone else knows, that which is unknown. Almost without exception, the things that end up coming back to haunt you are things you pretended to understand but didn’t early on. At virtually every stage of even the most successful software projects, there are large numbers of very important things that are unknown. It is acceptable, even mandatory, to clearly articulate your ignorance, so that no one misunderstands the corporate state of unknowingness. If you do not disseminate this “lucid ignorance,” disaster will surely befall you.

Human nature is such that we dislike not knowing things that are important to our well being. Since there is so much we don’t know in a software project, the nearly universal tendency among developers and their managers is to gloss over or even deny altogether the extent of their ignorance. You should reward and treasure those who consistently make themselves aware of the list of relevant things that are currently unknown. It requires mental and psychological strength to resist the normal human cravings for certainty and order. It is especially difficult to believe in uncertainty when things have a veneer of orderliness, which is often the case. Pseudo-order is a maladapted defense against uncertainty.

The organization surrounding you will undoubtedly abhor uncertainty, would infinitely prefer pseudo-order and will make countless attempts to magically convert your ignorance to knowledge. Your job is to make uncertainty an unshakable fact, and to coerce the reshaping of the surrounding organization to cope with the uncertain situation. The organization must learn to thrive in an uncertain environment for its own well being.

All of which leads me to Iraq. Depending on who you pay attention to, our war against the Sunni insurgency there is either going really, really well, or really, really badly. For example, Michael Williams, in Good news in Iraq 1, links to a StrategyPage discussion titled Something strange in Fallujah. Williams offers this helpful summary:

Time is pretty much up for these dead-enders, and they know it. The incoming Iraqi government won’t be nearly as soft-handed as we Americans have been. Good.

A similar attitude is in evidence over at One Hand Clapping, where Donald Sensing, in a posting titled The winner is the least screwed up, quotes extensively from a posting at The Dignified Rant titled Center of gravity:

In wartime, not screwing up is often just as important as doing things right. Which brings me to Brian Dunn’s exposition of the fundamental screwups of our terrorist enemies in Iraq:

I think the main reason for our success is that the Islamists with their foreign jihadis have screwed things up for the Baathists. That is, if the insurgents (or regime remnants or whatever you want to call them) had been able to target Americans and our allies without other complications, the vast majority of Iraqis might have decided to sit out the war as neutrals and just watch passively to see who will win. Absent a really ruthless American campaign, we would never win if we fought enemies in a sea of apathy that slowly turned against us as the violence continued.

But the jihadis were never able to control the tempo or character of the ensuing battles, except perhaps very early.

This civil war strategy of the Islamists was always going to be a loser for the Baathists. A Sunni-Shia war might have been fine when the Sunnis controlled all the instruments of state power, but in a fight in which the Shias have the numbers and the state, this cannot work. At best, this path could inflame the oil-free Sunni heartland in revolt but this would not gain the entire country back for the Baathists. The Baathists could only win it all back if the Shias joined them against America as a common enemy, as some thought was happening in April at the start of the twin Fallujah and Sadr revolts.

For all the mistakes we have made, our enemy may have made the most critical of them all.

Did you follow that? Dunn’s argument is that the Sunni Baathists are toast, because the presence of foreign jihadis in the mix has left them on the short end of the stick however things turn out. (Or something like that. If you read his entire post it becomes a little more clear than it is in this excerpt.)

So far it’s a pretty consistent picture. But what to make of this article in today’s LA Times, then? From Iraq insurgency showing signs of momentum:

BAGHDAD — As this week’s coordinated violence demonstrates, Iraq’s insurgent movement is increasingly potent, riding a wave of anti-U.S. nationalism and religious extremism. Just days before an Iraqi government takes control of the country, experts and some commanders fear it may be too late to turn back the militant tide.

The much-anticipated wave of strikes preceding Wednesday’s scheduled hand-over could intensify under the new interim government as Sunni Muslim insurgents seek to undermine it, U.S. and Iraqi officials say.

“I think we’re going to continue to see sensational attacks,” said Army Maj. Gen. David H. Petraeus, the 101st Airborne Division commander who will oversee the reshaping of Iraq’s fledgling security forces.

Long gone are the days when the insurgents were dismissed as a finite force ticketed for high-tech annihilation by superior U.S. firepower.

Wreaking havoc and derailing plans for reconstruction of this battered nation, the dominant guerrilla movement — an unlikely Sunni alliance of hard-liners from the former regime, Islamic militants and anti-U.S. nationalists — has taken over towns, blocked highways, bombed police stations, assassinated lawmakers and other “collaborators,” and abducted civilians.

Although Shiite Muslim fighters took U.S. forces by surprise in an April uprising, the Sunni insurgents represent a stronger, long-term threat, experts agree. The fighters, commanders say, are overwhelmingly Iraqis, with a small but important contingent of foreign fighters who specialize in carrying out suicide bombings and other spectacular attacks, possibly including this week’s coordinated strikes that killed more than 100 people.

“They are effective,” said Army Lt. Gen. Thomas F. Metz, operational commander of U.S. troops here.

So, according to politically conservative war-supporters, the Sunni insurgency is on its last legs. We’ve practically defeated it. But according to the officials quoted by this (presumably politically liberal) LA Times reporter, the Sunni insurgency is on a roll, with no signs of slowing down.

Both statements cannot be true. One side or the other (or both) are deluding themselves about the extent of their known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns.

Time will provide evidence of which of the current views is more accurate. But will advocates on either side take time out from whatever issue they are disagreeing about then to look back and hold themselves accountable for their earlier spouting of bullshit?

Um, no. I can safely say no. That much, at least, is a known known.

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