In May 2003, President George W. Bush declared victory in Iraq after a month of major combat operations. Yet, instead of an end, this milestone marked only the beginning of a protracted campaign as the United States transitioned from major combat operations to counterinsurgency—even if the US military was slow to recognize this shift. The nascent insurgency included a number of other disparate groups with al-Qaeda in Iraq being the most disruptive.
A special operations task force, Task Force 714, had the responsibility for a broad geographical expanse throughout the US Central Command’s area of responsibility, which included Iraq. Like most coalition units deployed to combat the unexpected insurgency in Iraq, the task force found itself relatively unprepared for the opponent it faced. Yet, led by its commander, Major General Stanley McChrystal, the task force underwent a remarkable transformation that allowed it to decimate al-Qaeda in Iraq and provide the Iraqi government the time and space it needed to secure itself.
The account of Task Force 714’s innovations in Iraq from 2003 to 2005 provides valuable lessons for future conflicts. History has shown that conflicts rarely play out as anticipated, and this is especially true for irregular warfare. Military organizations must adapt—often rapidly and radically—if they are to succeed.
Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and al-Qaeda in Iraq
When McChrystal assumed command of Task Force 714 in October 2003, he had a highly talented group of operators working for him, but the organization was far from effective. Despite the growing threat posed by al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the task force lacked the intelligence capability necessary to degrade Zarqawi’s network.
Zarqawi believed that if he could isolate the United States from its allies, deter Iraqi cooperation, target rebuilding efforts, and ultimately start a civil war, the US military would leave Iraq. To accomplish this strategy, he embraced a suicide bombing campaign that killed thousands of innocent Iraqis in addition to US and coalition forces. His bombings against the United Nations mission in Iraq in August and September of 2003 prompted UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to pull all but a skeletal staff from Iraq, effectively ending its presence there. Zarqawi’s campaign of bombs and terror targeting police stations, Iraqi politicians, and recruitment centers discouraged Iraqis from cooperating with the US-led coalition. Similarly, his high-profile attacks against contractors and humanitarian workers—including the beheading of Nicholas Berg—discouraged aid workers from supporting the reconstruction effort.
Defeating al-Qaeda in Iraq became the task force’s top priority and Zarqawi became its number one target. Nonetheless, despite the threat that he posed to the coalition effort, the task force conducted a mere ten operations against the Zarqawi network during the month of April 2004. To defeat Zarqawi and his network, the task force would have to undergo a major organizational, cultural, doctrinal, and technological transformation, the results of which were dramatic. Two years later, the task force was conducting as many operations on any given night as it had in an entire month only two years earlier. In 2007, the task force killed Zarqawi, and by 2010, it had destroyed much of al-Qaeda in Iraq’s leadership. Essential to this success was the task force’s ability to rapidly adopt sweeping organizational and cultural changes.
The first major organizational change was the creation of an effective targeting cycle. The task force was extremely efficient at conducting find, fix, and finish (kill/capture) operations, but after capturing terrorists and insurgents, the task force rarely exploited the intelligence that it had acquired. Lacking the means to exploit it, captured electronic media often sat piled in storage rooms. Likewise, interrogations provided little value without an effective supporting intelligence architecture. As a result, operational teams would often sit idle for days at a time waiting on actionable intelligence required to launch an operation.
In the summer of 2004, Colonel Bennet Sacolick, the commander of McChrystal’s subordinate task force in Iraq, presented McChrystal with a PowerPoint slide that read, “FIND-FIX-FINISH-EXPLOIT-ANALYZE,” or F3EA. This acronym formally captured the targeting cycle that Sacolick’s deputy, Colonel Austin “Scott” Miller, had outlined earlier that year. F3EA represented more than just a targeting cycle; ultimately it resulted in a cultural change, with the main effort shifting from the finish phase to the exploit and analyze phases.
Given the decentralized nature of the enemy network, McChrystal concluded that there was “no single person or place” that the United States could strike that would cause al-Qaeda to collapse. A rigid hierarchical task force would be too slow to defeat this networked threat; thus, his subordinate leaders at every level needed to know the broader enemy situation, understand how they contributed to the task force effort, and feel empowered to act without seeking guidance. Over the next two years, McChrystal transformed the task force from a set of disparate nodes into a well synchronized network united by a common strategy.
His first step was to flatten the organization and create a culture where “everyone knows everything . . . all the time.” To accomplish this, McChrystal required all of his forward-deployed teams to participate in daily operations and intelligence briefings, providing them the communications equipment packages to make it possible. He added an online portal that contained the task force’s operations and intelligence information to ensure everyone knew his current priorities. Finally, he flattened email protocols across the organization so that information could get to the right people quickly.
His second step was to expand the task force’s liaison network. McChrystal sent liaison officers to as many units and commands as he could and would soon expand the liaisons to relevant agencies in Washington. These partner organizations all played a valuable role in defeating al-Qaeda in Iraq, but there was no formal mechanism to pull them all together. The liaison officers facilitated, and at times forced, the participation of the organizations they were assigned to in the fight against al-Qaeda. Soon, the various commands and agencies started to attend the daily operations and intelligence video teleconferences. By 2007, the daily meeting was a worldwide forum of thousands of people associated with the mission, with up to seventy-two distinct locations participating daily.
At the recommendation of his deputy, Rear Admiral Bill McRaven, McChrystal formed two Joint Interagency Task Forces (JIATFs). JIATF-East, located in Afghanistan, focused on senior al-Qaeda leadership. JIATF-West, located in Iraq, focused on the foreign fighter network. The JIATF transformed the task force, as McChrystal describes it, “from a collection of niche strike forces into . . . a unified effort.” Having the various intelligence assets all housed under a single roof helped drive down the time required to “connect the dots.”
A fourth step was improving the task force’s interrogation capability. McChrystal built a professional screening facility that provided a clean, sterile environment with the appropriate oversight. He also grew the skeletal staff from roughly one dozen to more than one hundred, with interrogators, analysts, and linguists working in two- to three-person teams. Operators often assisted the interrogation teams to expedite the process.
Another important component was increasing the task force’s intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capability. In 2003, the task force had access to a single Predator and a helicopter augmented with a camera. Over time, the ISR fleet grew to dozens of assets, which included six commercial single-engine planes that US Special Operations Command had purchased, gutted, and installed sensor packages onboard. The task force also developed a signals-intelligence capability that served as an accelerant for the F3EA cycle.
Finally, the task force expanded its media exploitation capability. When McChrystal took command, he found a room filled with captured media that had yet to be exploited. His staff recognized the value it could offer but lacked the ability to exploit the material. He created the Joint Exploitation Team to triage media exploitation and purchased commercial satellite bandwidth to send the data to the National Media Exploitation Center in Washington for exploitation. Soon, “exploitation VTCs” were created so that intelligence specialists in Washington could weigh in on captured material only hours after capture.
A Cultural Change
While these organizational changes were necessary to build an effective network to combat the enemy’s network, they alone were not enough. The bigger change was cultural, and it occurred once the operators embraced and mastered the new targeting cycle and understood the main effort needed to shift from the finish phase to the exploit and analyze phases.
The operators soon became involved in every phase of the targeting cycle. They started watching ISR feeds, directing drones, reading interrogation and other intelligence reports, and mapping the enemy networks on dry-erase boards. As a result of their study, the operators became more effective on target because they could ask more pointed questions during their tactical questioning.
The operators also assisted the interrogation teams when they transferred detainees to the tactical interrogation facility. During their debriefs, they provided the interrogation teams with detailed sketches showing where detainees had been captured and where documents and media had been recovered. This information was necessary to identify the most significant members captured on target and to determine what equipment belonged to whom. It served to jump-start the interrogations. While operators were debriefed by the interrogation team, other members of the task force and its extended network immediately set out to exploit captured documents and media so that they could be analyzed quickly.
As the culture changed and the analytical and technical capabilities expanded, the targeting cycle accelerated. Soon operational teams could immediately exploit captured personnel and material on target and move to subsequent targets during the same period of darkness. The task force became so effective that many al-Qaeda fighters started to sleep with suicide vests to prevent capture.
By the end of 2005, McChrystal had fully transformed the task force. He had flattened the organization and created an environment where situational awareness was centralized but decision making was decentralized. With (1) the expanded ISR; (2) interrogation, document and media exploitation, and intelligence capabilities; and (3) cultural change of the operators, the F3EA cycle had accelerated from a process that took days and weeks into what became hours and minutes.
The massive transformation of Task Force 714 almost certainly contributed to the coalition’s successful withdrawal and transition of power to the Iraqis in 2010. The task force’s pace of operations, which peaked at more than three hundred operations a month, severely degraded the operational capability of al-Qaeda in Iraq. From 2005 to 2007, the task force sent more than two thousand Iraqis to trial. Between January and March of 2010, the task force and its Iraqi counterparts had killed or captured much of al-Qaeda in Iraq’s top leadership. By early 2010, al-Qaeda was a shell of its former self—what had once been a broad terrorist network was now an underground group with a handful of cells.
Killing Zarqawi and degrading his terrorist network was a factor that helped reduce coalition fatalities. Coalition fatalities averaged more than nine hundred annually from 2004 to 2007, but decreased to 322 in 2008, 150 in 2009 and less than one hundred in 2010. General David Petraeus, who served as the Multi-National Force – Iraq commander during the “surge” in 2007-2008, attributes the task force as a significant factor in achieving stability in Iraq.
While the Islamic State was able to seize sizable portions of Iraq in 2014 and 2015, this does not undercut the significant contribution that the task force made to reducing violence and improving stability in Iraq. It is outside the scope of this article to address the rise of the Islamic State, but is safe to say that its rise was due to a number of factors.
Amid the many lessons that should be taken from the experience of Task Force 714 in Iraq, three in particular stand out. First, in irregular warfare, organizational change is often required. Few irregular warfare operations are similar; thus, a cookie-cutter approach is rarely effective. Special operations forces are trained, manned, and equipped for a range of operations, but they are rarely employed as organic assets as a conventional brigade would be. To be effective on the ground, organizations, their commanders, and their people must be flexible enough to adapt to achieve their mission. The recently published Routledge Handbook of U.S. Counterterrorism and Irregular Warfare Operations demonstrates that flexibility, creative thinking, and organization innovation also contributed to irregular warfare success in El Salvador, Colombia, and the Philippines, and for the “horse soldiers” in Afghanistan.
Second, change need not be hard. The military is sometimes accused of being a rigid organization that is resistant to change. But as this article demonstrates, this is not necessarily always the case. Actions speak louder than words: change is rarely achieved by trying to argue a new way is better; rather, it is best achieved by demonstrating it. Operators expedited the transfer of detainees to the tactical interrogation facility only after the interrogation teams started to provide decent intelligence. Interagency partners contributed to the JIATFs and participated in the daily operations and intelligence briefings because they saw value in them. As McChrystal’s chief of staff was fond of saying, “You are either a martyr or a zealot.” He was communicating to everyone in the command that you had to embrace change. If not, you were a martyr and would soon be looking for work elsewhere. There was no middle ground when it came to accepting change.
Third, irregular warfare missions should be assigned to units who own the mission from start to finish. The traditional deployment cycle of units in Afghanistan and Iraq may have impeded change. Conventional units were focused on what they could achieve during their one-year deployments, and as such they had a relatively short time horizon. Thus, they were unlikely to seek changes that would take more than one year to implement. By contrast, many members of McChrystal’s task force had shorter deployments (often three to six months), but when they returned home from each deployment, they knew they would be returning to Iraq three to six months later. This deployment cycle created a mindset within the command that the deployments would not end until the war was over. This created a longer time horizon that encouraged the command not only to seek changes that were quick to implement, but also to invest in changes that would take more time.
Success in irregular warfare—as demonstrated in El Salvador, Colombia, the Philippines, and by the task force in Iraq—is enhanced when a unit is assigned a mission and owns it until complete. Rotating missions between commands every year or sooner is not a recipe for success. This should not come as a surprise given the fact that organizational change results from learning, and effective learning—especially in the types of complex environments in which irregular warfare occurs—may take years.
For a more detailed discussion of the changes that the task force underwent, read the chapter, “Dismantling al-Qaida in Iraq,” from the Routledge Handbook of U.S. Counterterrorism and Irregular Warfare Operations here.
Retired Colonel Liam Collins is a fellow with New America and a permanent member with the Council on Foreign Relations. He was the founding director of the Modern War Institute at West Point and former director of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. He holds a PhD from Princeton University and is coeditor of the Routledge Handbook of U.S. Counterterrorism and Irregular Warfare Operations.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Sgt. Duke Tran, US Army