Small Wars Journal

The US in Afghanistan: Follow Sun Tzu rather than Clausewitz to Victory

Sat, 12/11/2010 - 10:53am

The US in Afghanistan: Follow Sun Tzu rather than Clausewitz to Victory

by Ben Zweibelson

Download the Full Article: The US in Afghanistan: Follow Sun Tzu rather than Clausewitz to Victory

Over the past nine years United States counterinsurgency strategy reflected a reliance on Clausewitzian industrial-era tenets with a faulty emphasis on superior western technology, doctrine fixated on lethal operations, and a western skewed perspective on jus ad bellum (just cause for war). American military culture is largely responsible for the first two contextual biases, while western society is liable for the third in response to September 11, 2001. To turn this operational failure around, the U.S. military instrument of power should replace the teachings of 19th century German military strategist Carl Von Clausewitz with Ancient Chinese strategist Sun Tzu and abandon the aforementioned contextual factors in favor of more appropriate counterinsurgency alternatives. These include an increased emphasis on civil-military relations, jus in bello (just conduct during war) through non-lethal operations, and quantifiable conflict resolution that includes negotiating with moderate Taliban militia groups, as unpalatable as that sounds to military purists. This paper stresses that moderates do not include radical Islamic terrorists or non-native fighters.

Download the Full Article: The US in Afghanistan: Follow Sun Tzu rather than Clausewitz to Victory

Major Ben Zweibelson is an active duty Infantry Officer currently attending the School for Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He has a Masters in Liberal Arts from Louisiana State University and a Masters in Military Arts and Science from the Air Force. He participated in two deployments to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Previously, he published Penny Packets Revisited: How the USAF Should Adapt to 21st Century Irregular Warfare.

About the Author(s)

Ben Zweibelson is the Program Director for Design and Innovation at the Joint Special Operations University and is a doctoral student at Lancaster University. A retired U.S. Army Infantry officer and veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, Ben has provided design education across USSOCOM, the Department of Defense and the U.S. Government, academia and industry as well as internationally. He was named “design conference ambassador” for the second year in a row for the upcoming IMDC, and has recently lectured on design at the Polish and Danish War Colleges, the Canadian Forces College, NATO Schools at Oberammergau, the National Counterterrorism Center, the IBM capstone SPADE conference for NATO in Copenhagen, as well as numerous Special Operations and strategic level defense assets in 2018. He resides in Tampa, Florida with his wife and three children. He can be reached at



Madhu (not verified)

Sat, 10/11/2014 - 4:22pm


I just complained about the Kaganites because I think they contributed to the process I mentioned in my comment below, all sides in the US system stoked fears of selling out despite the tough talk of surges and sticking around because of the way they talked about the larger region. Again, it had to do with the nature of trust and diplomacy, but what's the point? The so-called Kaganites have their mitts on another issue and are busy with that.

I mean, go look at how the Kaganites talked about the larger regional issues in AfPak and realize they stoked fears as much as the Cointras. Didn't understand the region, not well-read in the appropriate ways. They just are not interested in what they are not interested in. It's all smoke and mirrors.

Madhu (not verified)

Sat, 10/11/2014 - 3:40pm

<blockquote>....quantifiable conflict resolution that includes negotiating with moderate Taliban militia groups, as unpalatable as that sounds to military purists. </blockquote>

No, this has nothing to do with military purists. I spend a lot of time being a COINtroll around here, but, instead, I simply should have asked good questions and read original sources, such as the old journals I have been mentioning lately.

The issue is that there are other groups that needed to enter the negotiations within the Afghan system besides the Taliban and they did not trust outside diplomacy given the relationships between various NATO countries and outside supporters of the Taliban. They were afraid they'd be sold out by the Americans and the British on the moderate Taliban and our behavior in the larger context (AfPak) did nothing to dispel those fears. That is some of the problem with the circa 2009 COINTRA stuff, it had to do, not with insurgency, but in the nature of diplomacy and trust. The Americans, British, etc., have a history in that part of the world and there was suspicion from other camps that we couldn't deliver moderate Taliban, would be made fools of, or would sell out others in Afghanistan in order to tend to the Taliban, all while being outmaneuvered. It had very much to do with the fears of various camps, not simply the nature of the Taliban insurgency, much of which was filtered through American domestic lenses, left, right, military and civilian.

A good article though, I really miss the design guys around here even though I disagreed. I just liked the way they were open to the ideas of others. I miss the commentary.

And now we shall see if the government holds, because only the Afghans can do this.

Anonymous wrote, "I really love America and its military(except the Mattel-16) but teaching that doesn't work is allowed to blossom while what works is suppressed by all means is a travesty to all of us especially as Americans"

How true, and sadly much of our senior military leadership is more enamored with development and diplomacy than practicing the art of war. Obviously diplomacy has a huge role, and development will have a key role "after" the enemy is defeated, but forcing the military to fill these roles in lieu of defeating the enemy is borderline criminal. It isn't working, it hasn't worked, and there is no sign that our current kid gloves approach will work. Go back and read what the masters wrote and more importantly put it into practice.

Anon (not verified)

Thu, 02/17/2011 - 10:56pm

There is lots of information here especially the comments. I think that people misunderstand what Sun Tzu and CvC tried to convey in their writings. People seem to rely on America's misinterpretation of CvC and say that Sun Tzu theory of war would be better.

The big problem is the bias the American military has before anyone read either CvC or Sun Tzu. Reliance on technology is seen as what will win the war when its the will of the people back home and the soldiers that win wars not technology. Also to mention air superiority is not technology based but based no opposing forces

Remember Vietnam we lost because the enemy imposed their will on us. We believe that if we grab the balls of the enemy the hearts and minds follow

American military theory emphasizes "Offense is the best defense" both CvC and Sun Tzu have a antithesis that offense and defense are two different things both in balance.

To break the will of the insurgents is not to plead with them or moderate. Its to find what they cherish and to attack it not to patrol around streets but to hide and attack when they don't expect it. if a strategy or tactic doesn't work use something else.

Maybe you should read Sun Tzu more often you obviously don't know your opponent.

I really love America and its military(except the Mattel-16) but teaching that doesn't work is allowed to blossom while what works is suppressed by all means is a travesty to all of us especially as Americans

Backwards Observer

Sun, 12/12/2010 - 3:51am

If I might hazard an uneducated opinion; my impression upon reading Clausewitz, aside from the gaunt solidity of its military aspect, was of a work of troubled genius striking towards a dark and terrifying profundity. In comparison, the Sun character seems more of a savvy tradesman who has been around the (chopping) block a couple few times. Both appear to be fascinatingly useful texts with the potential for dangerous misinterpretation. Just my two bits.

COL Maxwell mentioned Francois Jullien's book, <em>A Treatise On Efficacy - Between Western and Chinese Thinking</em>, on SWJ a while back. I found it very instructive, and not having heard of the author before, appreciate COL Maxwell's calling attention to him. Muchas gracias!

Amazon :…

Google Books :…

slapout9 (not verified)

Sat, 12/11/2010 - 3:17pm

Dave, yea that will work. Godfather II is best they spend a lot of time Cuba just before Castro takes over. Then when you want to find out how to win read Killing Pablo by Mark Bowden. It's kinda the Alabama version of "How to win friends and influence people!"

JMA (not verified)

Sat, 12/11/2010 - 3:11pm

I remain interested in the trend where a crutch is continually sought to guide the conduct of recent insurgencies. Why not study widely and then analyse the current insurgency and create a custom intervention solution?

Early on in this analysis it would become apparent that no matter how much money or how many soldiers lives are thrown at the Afghanistan problem the corrupt and illegitimate Karzai regime will never be acceptable to the majority of Afghan people and therefore making the Afghan intervention a pointless exercise.

And you don't need Sun Tzu or Clausewitz to help you understand that.


Point taken: read CVC, Sun Tzu and watch the Godfather. :-)

slapout9 (not verified)

Sat, 12/11/2010 - 2:33pm

Dave Maxwell, I don't know what Bill Laden reads either but he "acts" more like the old school Mafia than anything in CvC or SunTzu, just my opinion.

I have to respectfully disagree with the author and ask why we persist in these myths that Sun Tzu is somehow superior to Clausewitz? Why do we persist in the myth that Clausewitz is only applicable to industrial age, state on state warfare? This reminds me of the COIN versus CT debate. COIN and CT are not mutually exclusive. Clausewitz and Sun Tzu are not mutually exclusive. You do "follow" Sun Tzu any more than you "follow" Clausewitz. Neither provide a template or cookie cutter solution for strategy or operational art. They both require intensive study (often life long) to gain an appreciation for and understanding of the nature of war and conflict.

Ironically, Mao read and paid more attention to Clausewitz than Sun Tzu. I am sure I will have a follow up comment from one of my analyst friends who has studied Bin Laden more than most and he will point out to me that Bin Laden has spent a lot of time reading both Sun Tzu AND Clausewitz. Which is why I (likely influenced by the late, great Michael Handel and his Masters of War) believe that Sun Tzu and Clausewitz are not mutually exclusive and one should not, and I would submit cannot, study one without the other. But here is a conclusion I reached in a paper I published in Small Wars Journal about 5 years ago called "Timeless Theories of War in the 21st Century":

Warfare today is not radically different than in the 20th Century. Although there are vast technological changes, the nature of war remains fundamentally about influencing people and organizations thus making it a complex political and military problem; not solely a correlation of military force construct. It is a test of wills; an act of forcing ones will on another. Regardless of the type of conflict, from large scale conventional war to insurgency and revolutionary war, this concept holds true. Clausewitz trinity is the basis for understanding the relationships among the participants. Furthermore, war has always had a political dimension; however with rise of the information age; the political aspect is more important than ever particularly when the nature of the conflict involves counter-insurgency and nation-building.

Thorough study of Clausewitz provides insight into the nature of war and allows the strategist to conduct a comprehensive assessment of the problem in order to develop strategies that will satisfy the political objective. To develop effective plans the strategist must follow Sun Tzus direction to know the enemy and know himself. However, the most vital principle of all is the proposition that what is of supreme importance in war is to attack the enemys strategy.

No matter how the nature and character of conflict and war is described today, the fundamental truth is that war continues to be an act to force ones will on the enemy. Conflict remains a war of ideas. Despite the rapid technological advances and the proliferation of advanced weapons and information systems, warfare, as it always has, still takes place on the battlefield of human terrain. There is no simple list of principles that provides a prescription for success. Successful strategies can only be developed by thorough study and understanding of the character of each unique conflict. Strategists must strive to attain Clausewitz coup doiel. This can be done through the study and application of the timeless principles of the great masters. However, solutions to complex political-military problems cannot be found in the works of the great masters, but the study of them will lead to the release of the ideas from strategists and the design of concepts that will become successful strategies. Sun Tzu and Clausewitz remain completely relevant in the 21st Century. Their theories are timeless."

Bob's World

Sun, 12/12/2010 - 4:46am

Concur with Dave in regards to the value of CvC to guide ones thinking on warfare, and also that warfare is forcing one's will on another.

Where we probably part paths is that I don't think that insurgency is war, nor that COIN is warfare. Insurgency is illegal politics, that sometimes rises in violence to a point where it resembles warfare. COIN is governance, and when governance loses touch with the governed, allowing conditions of insurgency to grow, that governance also can come to resemble warfare in response to an insurgent populace. But that does not make "war" and "warfare" the most effective theoretical models for understanding it. I personally believe it is best to track something back to its causation to understand what it is, rather than merely look at its current form. The problem with insurgency is that few tend to notice it until it looks a lot like war, and then as the challenger is always illegal, and the challenged always legal, the analysis of causation is always biased in ways that downplay the role of governance.

Think of how we define genus and species of plants and animals. We know a tomato is a fruit because we to go back to it's causation and see that though the final product looks and is employed like a vegetable, it is not produced in the same way and requires different methods to manage.

So, here is a plug for Sun Tzu over CvC for Insurgency. Sun Tzu has more universal, cross discipline applicability. It helps basketball teams play better, it helps businesses become more profitable, etc. CvC is really more limited. Great for war, not so much for other things. Taking this further, CvC is actually dangerous for dealing with an insurgency as it tends to lead thinking down the path of warfare and enforcing ones will on the insurgent when one should probably be thinking more about governance and better supporting and responding to the will of the populace.

Understanding Maslow, Locke, Jefferson, Mao, etc is probably more appropriate than either; for every book written by a counterinsurgent read one written by an insurgent; but read them all, think about them all, just don't fall too in love with any one perspective as it tends to place limits on ones perspectives.

Bob's World

Sun, 12/12/2010 - 5:14am


Nice work on this paper, it shows a willingness to step back intellectually and look at a problem objectively and offer constructive criticism and recommendations. Remember, this is just a waypoint on a much longer journey, and not the destination. I encourage you to continue your journey. Continue to challenge your own ideas as hard as you challenge those of others.



Vito (not verified)

Sun, 12/12/2010 - 5:21am

The Godfather is vanilla, watch the Sopranos, for what it is worth, it is a better depiction of the "this thing of ours" culture.

William F. Owen

Sun, 12/12/2010 - 9:25am

Dave Maxwell = Good post. I am in strong general agreement.

Anonymous (not verified)

Sun, 12/12/2010 - 12:00pm

Why does it have to be either of these writers when it comes to explaining just how does the begining of an insurgency in 2003 (Iraq)explode into a full blown phase 2 and phase 3 guerrilla war in under three years that would have even surprised Mao with the short development spann especially if recent reporting is correct that foreign fighters (from both sides) are once again moving back into Iraq.

Regardless of all the debate here that question still has not been answered.

So maybe there has been a third way forward that many have not wanted to recognize that would go far further in explaining both iraq and Afghanistan.

The past does not necessarily explain the future and why do we tend to disregard newer developments in complexity science that in fact tend to explain the unexplainable. Is it our comfort zones that inhibit attempts to challenge complex issues that do not fit the old models of thinking and which if discussed in complexity science terms would force us into challenging our own individual thought models?

Am convinced we are seeing a third way forward that while the past helps to explain some of the indicators it cannot provide a total understanding and that is why it seems that everything is going around in a circle.

Think Mao would have be actually surprised at what is occurring.

slapout9 (not verified)

Sun, 12/12/2010 - 10:49am

"read one written by an insurgent" by RC Jones

Definitely, or watch and read the old news reports, such as the ones about Fidel Castro, one of the first prime time Revolutions. Also believe it or not Karl Marx wrote a series of articles form London about the American Civil War that were almost omniscient, of what was going to happen or could happen based upon pure economic analysis.

Backwards Observer

Sun, 12/12/2010 - 12:34pm

Anonymous wrote: <em>Am convinced we are seeing a third way forward</em>.

Nobody expects The Third Way! Can you briefly explain what you mean in simple terms? Thanks.

Hungadunga Thrice (not verified)

Sun, 12/12/2010 - 12:55pm

The Clausewitz versus Sun Tzu debate is interesting, but only part of the argument Ben is making here. I found the discussion on American strategic culture a more useful discourse than which dead military strategist to follow. Ben, are you saying that America has to abandon core principles that worked in previous military conflicts? Didn't we do that after World War II where we abandoned downsizing the military and we did not retreat into isolationism? Finally, it doesnt matter what nation you are, or what values you possess- if you occupy another country for any reason, the locals WILL see you as an occupier; especially if you are from a rival ideological model such as a non-Islamic society operating in an Islamic one.

Bob's World

Sun, 12/12/2010 - 1:11pm


You observe: "just how does the beginning of an insurgency in 2003 (Iraq)explode into a full blown phase 2 and phase 3 guerrilla war in under three years that would have even surprised Mao with the short development span"

Insurgencies often "explode" to high levels when they have been effectively suppressed for years by the very government that gave rise to them. Look at Yugoslavia upon the removal of Tito's heavy hand; Iraq upon the removal of Saddams; and someday, very similar is possible in countries like Saudi Arabia, Lybia and Egypt.

For what it's worth I attempted to capture this dynamic in my insurgency model. Poor Governance can push a populace deep into phase 2/3 conditions of insurgency; but action by a popuulace under these conditions is often effectively suppressed. A proverbial powderkeg awaiting some poor naieve bastard to come along and light the fuse.

In Iraq it was the US invasion that lit that fuse. Our destruction of Saddam's security infrastructure provided the long abused, long suppressed Shia populace the opportunity to act, and act they did. This is natural and this is timeless. Nothing new at all and not surprising at all. (New in Iraq was AQ rushing to the sound of the guns and bringing in foreign fighters to wage their own independent operation against the US and attempt to take a leadership role of the Sunni resistance movement).

As to rumblings of renewed insurgency, I would recommend looking to the factors of causation in the three main populace groups in terms of their relationship with the current government. These are deeply scarred people with generations of bad history to work their way out of. If merely suppressed they will emerge again.

Good COIN fixes governments. Ameture COIN wages war against insurgents, or is overly weighted by external development and security force capacity building. Good enablers, but if the focus is not on making government better one has to be careful of what it is they are enabling.

Anonymous (not verified)

Sun, 12/12/2010 - 3:37pm

Backward Observer:

Third way in simple terms.

While we argue over which version of COIN, which COIN author/researcher/think tank is correct, which version/idea of attack the network is in or out or which link analysis tool to use or social network analysis methodology to use the core issue is and remains exactly what two totally dimetrically opposed individuals have been writing about since 2004---Kilcullen and his "conflict ecosystem" and John Robb with his "open source warfare" theory. Even Mao would approve with his guerrillas swimming in the ocean of the people concept.

What has astounded me since 2005 has been the evolution of insurgency tactics, techniques, and procedures coupled with an evolutionary IED development process that has us playing catch-up since 2003 and to the tune of billions to counter and we still are not ahead of the IED development curve-we are simply playing catchup. Yes the US military has faced a massive IED fight previously in their history ie Vietnam which we seemed to have forgottten about but nowhere has there been any research into the evolutionary process in the development of IEDs in Iraq or Afghanistan. We seemed to have forgotten that IED development is as unlimited as the mind of a human bomb maker can be.

What is different and it is different is the ability of the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan to resist the killing or capturing of critical nodes ie leaders, bombmakers, financiers, suppliers or for that matter entire cells thus in fact bringing our Attack the network concepts to a plus minus zero in successes and the IEDs still keep coming as do the insurgent attacks.In Iraq we must now be in about the third or fourth leadership generation of AQ and they are still in the fight--we are at about the second headed to the third generation on the Taliban side with no impacts to be seen.

I keep going back to a document discovered in 2006 that was written by the leader of the Islamic are of Iraq indicating IED circuit board/cellphone trigger developments only two months after we were in Baghdad--Mao had made the same developments but maybe 5-8 years into his fight. So we are seeing a evolutionary speed factor of about 4-5 times that of previous historical developments thus the comment that the past is not pointing to reasons why things are happening in the future.

We need to truly relook the Robb "open source warfare" theory as now even AQ has accepted and is using virtually the same terminology as Robb uses and we need to rethink the Kilcullen "conflict ecosystem" as the tool for understanding that "open source warfare". what is nice is that both concepts are relatively straightforward and easy to explain--tghe singlew hangup is that it challenges current thinking in the COIN community. It is a sign that Robb might haved gotten it right when you enemy adopts the same terms as they feel it fits perfectly to what they are doing---that is not a good development.

So yes there is a third way forward but it requires a strong rethink on our part and a willingness to challenge previous concepts and admit that maybe we fact have gotten it wrong for seven years.

We are now in the process of shifting back to MCO with a little COIN in what many are calling a hybrid model for the future and that is not going to be pretty as the MCO skills have massively been degraded and how to you mix the two when in theory you have not gotten COIN right in the first place.

Anonymous (not verified)

Mon, 12/13/2010 - 12:16am

Backwards Observer;

This is evidence that the exisiting COIN concepts are simply not providing a way ahead.

Taken from todays' NYTs;

In a three month period ending 11 Nov SOF conducted 1572 operations, resulting in 368 insurgent leaders killed or captured, and 968 lower level insurgents killed and 2477 of them captured.

US SOF have targeted the bomb-laying cells giving the Marines a 3-4 week quiet phase until a new group moves in and attacks. "The SOF guys are getting alot of them, but they are regenerating almost as fast as we can kill or capture them".

1. It does not seem to be making a dent in the insurgency.

2. Open source warfare with the analysis tool "conflict ecosystem" would explain why the kill/capture is not making headway.

3. There is already complexity science research that explains actually the regeneration process in detail but it has been largely ignored until the last few weeks.

Backwards Observer---now do you see what I meant with the statement that I am convinced there is a third way that is occurring?

Backwards Observer

Mon, 12/13/2010 - 1:19am

First off, to follow Hungadunga Thrice's comments, the CVC vs. S. Tzu barn dance aside, I also thought it was a thematically bold article.


Here's one take on what you seem to be saying: The insurgency is composed of decentralised cells whose relatively limited size allows them to adapt faster and perform more creatively than a large, hierarchical, bureaucratic organisation.

The high adaptive nature of the insurgent cells is enabled by current communications and information sharing technology. These cells are also able to recruit from a large pool of motivated talent on their home ground.

The cells cannot perform decisively, but can raise the pain threshold in ways that have the potential to incapacitate the state apparatus, such as it is. Although nimble, if a cell is identified and targeted by the bureaucracy, it's more or less done. Problem is the cells regenerate too quickly.

Does that more or less correlate?

Anonymous (not verified)

Mon, 12/13/2010 - 8:12am

Backwards Observer;

It depends would be a response---your definition is getting to the heart but refer below to how I define it.

I see the Robb theory of open source warfare as the explanation of what we are seeing on the evolution side and the Kilcullen "conflict ecosystem" as the analysis tool to look at OSW.

There was a recent complexity research that in fact validated the OSW theory followed by the recent AQ statements using the exact terminologies so a merge in theories has occurred--it is just the IC is failing to understand the depth of that merger.

My definition

Ecology of an Insurgency:

The scientific study of the way that living "organisms" in this case "organism" is defined as an insurgency cell, group, or organization interact with their environment and predators (the counter insurgent).

Ecosystem of an Insurgency:

An insurgent ecosystem is a system whose members (members defined as being either an insurgent group or groups) benefit from each other's participation via symbiotic (mutually beneficial and self-sustaining) relationships.

The main goal of an insurgency ecosystem is to generate common ventures. It forms when many small and potentially diverse (origin, tribe, religious belief, etc.) insurgent groups join together to fight a common predator (the counter-insurgent or state).

Insurgent ecosystems attract and retain members (groups) due to network effects:

The benefits of the ecosystem (shared ventures) are so great that groups wont leave it (although temporary departures to avoid targeted pressure from counter-insurgents are possible).
The ecosystems features (i.e. immediate access to shared resources) make it easy for new groups to form and participate.
The growth of the ecosystem results in an exponential increase in benefits (i.e. more segmentation and specialization) for all of the member groups. IE Attacks by one group creates opportunities for other groups. The buying of resources (ie small arms, explosives) creates a market for groups to sell into and makes it easier for other groups to get access to the resources.
An ecosystem can have groups directly fighting each other through direct battles - but it can also have indirect fighting (or competition) between groups for access to resources (people, money, strategy etc).
Once an ecosystem is established in a particular region/area, it becomes very difficult for the counter insurgent to eliminate it. The presence of multiple groups means that the counter insurgent must divide its efforts. Operationally, a focus on one group leaves other groups to operate freely and success against one group yields very little overall benefit. Removing leadership does not mean that the group will cease to exist. The leadership may be replaced by other parts from the same group or other groups. Or a new group will move into the space left open by old group. Strategically, the diversity of the groups in the ecosystem (different reasons for fighting) means that it isnt possible to address a single set of issues or grievances at the national level that would reverse the insurgency (via negotiated settlement, repatriation, etc.).

Again sorry for ther wordiness--but actually the NYTs SOF operations article from Afghanistan was in fact verifying this theory in a very telling way.

Question is ---is the IC to late in understanding and can the ship of COIN thinking be turned around to address the reality--doubt it.

Bob's World

Mon, 12/13/2010 - 8:38am


Ok, so you like the "ecosystem" description of a dynamic that is well understood by those of us who study and work in this area. You fail to mention your proposal for actually mitigating the problem of such an ecosystem. Naming a disease is step one in a 100-step process to curing it. I concur that the SOF (a very small slice of highly resourced SOF, btw) efforts to take out key personnel may motivate new recruits as fast as it takes out old ones. Cutting up starfish and throwing them back into the sea, so to speak. Feels good while you do it, the immediate results are objective and satisfying, but in the long run it makes the problem worse.

One must understand WHY the ecosystem exists. What is it about this environment that supports this type of ecosystem? For me, the key to that causation, that essential life support to the ecosystem, is the government itself, its policies and how it emplements those policies upon its populace. I also argue that these insurgent ecosystems exist in low levels in every society; but that it is only when GOVERNMENT causation increases that they grow, not when INSURGENT/UW activity increases. The populace is the medium in which all of this takes place, when the government creates conditions of insurgency in that medium, the ecosystem of insurgency thrives.

DAS (not verified)

Mon, 12/13/2010 - 9:29am

The Dead Carl Society sure jumped en mass to this subject cheering 'Hooray for our side. However they are wrong. The reliance of U.S. strategy based on Clausewitz failed to win in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. North Vietnam relied on Sun Tzu to defeat us. The Afghans have used Sun Tzu to beat both the Russians and us. Maos Little Red book is Sun Tzu Art of War and Maos strategy to win in China versus the Nationalists was pure Sun Tzu. The best thing for the U.S. would be to stop relying on Clausewitz; it is a manual for losers.


This should not be an "either-or" debate. Clausewitz and SunTzu have more in common than they have differences (I am convinced that Clausewitz read the French translation of the Sun Tzu).

Remember what Clausewitz and the Sun Tzu were trying to do. He was wrestling with understanding the nature of war and he was trying to help students of war develop military genius. We do not base strategy on Clausewitz. We try to understand and describe the nature of war (and I would say the trinitarian concept does more to explain the entire spectrum of conflcit and war from insurgency to high intensity state on state war).

Likewise the Sun Tzu was not offering a strategy. It was was offering advice and guidance for Generals and "the sovereign".

As I previously mentioned, Mao based his concepts on Clausewitz (understanding the political nature of conflict) as well as the American Revolution - certainly the greatest insurgency ever conducted.

But to say that any of the people you mention about just follows Clausewtiz or the Sun Tzu or that we should follow one or the other, I think misses the point. Each actor develops strategy based on the desired ends and the capabilities and resources available, developing it in the unique context in which the conflict is taking place, understanding the threats and opportunities that exist. Neither the Sun Tzu nor Clausewtiz offer a template or checklist for strategy but to develop effective strategy both Sun Tzu and Clausewitz (and many other theorists) should be thoroughly studied. The "we-they" "my theorist is better than your theorist" is as counter-productive as the COIN versus CT debate of the Irregular Warfare versus Maneuver Warfare/Conventional War debates.

DAS (not verified)

Mon, 12/13/2010 - 11:04am

Like the Geico Commercial all the Dead Carl Fans should: Maybe chug on over to namby-pamby land where maybe they can find some self confidence. The American Revolution Southern Campaign under Nathaniel Greene and Dan Morgan was Sun Tzu not Mr. Attrition Warfare Clausewitz who was in diapers at the time. The entire Southern Campaign which includes such battles as Cowpens and Kings Mountain are brilliant examples of Sun Tzus strategy and tactics. Clausewitzs warfare is force on force attrition - much like game of checkers versus Sun Tzus tactics and strategy - much like the game of chess.


We will have to agree to disagree. I think we have interpreted the Sun Tzu and Clausewitz differently as we certainly have differing view points. There is much more to Clausewitz than force on force attrition but if you persist in viewing Clausewitz from only that perspective it will be difficult for us to have a discussion. I will stand by my argument that the "we-they" that many perpetuate is unhelpful to the study of war and conflict. I would sugggest deeper study of the classics.

Anonymous (not verified)

Mon, 12/13/2010 - 1:57pm

Robert Jones;

An ecosystem can exist even if the government is a first class loved government---so it is not ncessarily government that is the failure that is causing ecosystems to development that run counter to the existing government.

IE the 9/11 Hamburg cell existed in a country that some might say has an excellent form of governance--the French bomber group that wanted to blow up the main church in Strasbourg was in a country where the majority feel the governance is good---just not so sure the answer lays in good or bad governance.

r.bryan (not verified)

Tue, 12/14/2010 - 4:51pm

All things aside, how can you really defeat an insurgency if they have safe haven, as they do in Pakistan? We are trying to break their backs, but we cannot kill our way out of this. Our enemy is attrition, and the muj know this. Its too tribal, the terrain is hell, human as well as environmental.

Bob's World

Tue, 12/14/2010 - 7:50pm


Do not make the mistake of confusing insurgency and terrorism. Just as only the host nation government can conduct COIN; similarly acts of non-state illegal violence against a state by parties outside of that state is not insurgency.

What we see in today's globalized world is much more activity by insurgents who reach out to deliver a little B**** slap on those external powers perceived as enabling the reign of the government they are rising up against at home. There is also a lot of hometown straphangers getting in the act. 100 years ago there was a lot of this going on as well, with several heads of state, to include a US President, assassinated in the process. Anarchists then, terrorists today, many of the motivations are the same.

BLUF, all violence is not warfare, yet all warfare is violence. Similarly, all illegal violence is not insurgency. All insurgency is not violent. You have to look at the actors involved and the causation for their actions to sort it out.


Wed, 12/15/2010 - 12:46am

I'd certainly agree that not all insurgents are terrorists, and not all terrorists are insurgents. I'm not sure that this:

<i>activity by insurgents who reach out to deliver a little B**** slap on those external powers perceived as enabling the reign of the government they are rising up against at home</i>

is the only explanation for AQ's terrorism: there are other agendas on the table, and AQ is by no means simply reacting to US actions. They have a proactive agenda of their own.

Terrorism often comes about when would-be insurgents fail to generate enough popular support to sustain more conventional insurgent methods. Not everyone who objects to what they perceive as bad government can pull together enough support to generate a viable insurgency: Timothy McVeigh in the US, Baader-Meinhof or the Red Brigades in Europe, AQ in Saudi Arabia never drew enough support for their anti-government agenda to approach a threshold that could be classed as insurgency, either because the rest of the population felt reasonably well governed or because the populace did not see the alternative offered by the would-be insurgent as viable.

AQ has been singularly ineffective at leveraging insurgency. They have managed to find shelter and support in friendly countries (Taliban Afghanistan) or in contested areas with no clear governance (rural Yemen, Somalia, the Af-Pak frontier). They have tried, repeatedly, to exploit resentment toward Muslim governments, but it hasn't worked very well for them. The only narrative that has really worked is that of jihad against the foreign invader in Muslim land, which is why they are so desperate to keep foreigners engaged in Muslim lands.

There is a valid parallel between the Islamists of today and the anarchists of days gone by. Both felt compelled to change government to suit their own views, both found that their own views generally had insufficient popular support to drive actual insurgency. In both cases terrorism - a natural tactic for groups with a committed core but a limited following - was the result.

I'm still trying to grasp the underlying purpose of this article? It seems to be a misrepresentation of Sun Tzu to justify a population centric approach to counter the insurgency in Afghanistan. First, I'm not convinced Sun Tzu would advocate this approach, but rather that the author simply wishes this to be so. Hopefully, Sun Tzu would follow his own advice (but let's face it, who really does?) and study both the enemy and his strategy and then ensure he really understands his won strengths and weaknesses (in this case the Afghan Gov and the coalition). Something along of the lines of the general who understands himself and his enemy is likely to win. Those who like to quote dead folks can put in the correct verbiage.

I don't think it would have took any great intellectual insight on Sun Tzu's part to realize that CMO doesn't have a snow ball's chance in hell of defeating the Taliban. He would realize that we're seen as invaders that are disrupting their way of life and few simple CMO projects doesn't change that perception, and in some cases simply makes it worse. He knows from his time in Shanghai that you can buy a prostitute for 20 minutes, but you can't buy love.

Yes the roads we're building will allow the Chinese to invest in, I mean exploit Aghanistan's natural resources on the cheap and make a few corrupt Afghans even more powerful and harder to remove. Of course since this is all done in the name of development, it should be OK, since it seemed to work in Nigeria (or not so much), and numerous other developing nations (bad term, they're not developed, simply a new status quo has been established).

He would quickly realize that the tribes and villages are only part of the issue, but he also has a troublesome neighbor to deal with called Crackistan, where the majority of the population are addicted to conspiracy theories about the West, so they're compelled by Allah to provide much support to various insurgent groups that will continue to disrupt any perceived progress we may make in Afghanistan. CMO in the villages of Afghanistan will NOT stop their operations. Sun Tzu realizes the both the value and limitations of CMO and realizes he needs to mentor his junior staff on that also.

Sun Tzu would actually listen to the Afghan people, hopefully more than the self-delusional Americans, and hear that the Taliban let some NGOs operate, and even allow some coalition CMO projects to continue, because the people are told in no uncertain terms this is only because the Taliban allows it for their benefit, so the Taliban get half credit. In the end the narrative doesn't change, the invaders must leave. Thank you for the $20.00 and the tip, now you can exit through that pass over there and don't let the door hit your fourth point of contact.

Sun Tzu would probably grasp that CMO will not make an illegimate government legitimate, remember the saying that you can buy a prostitute, but you can't buy love.

He may also hear from some of his junior advisors that you can't defeat the Taliban through an attrition strategy, but being wiser than these junior advisors he would realize they had no basis to make this assessment, because it is only the media that really thinks we're conducting a serious attrition strategy based a few stories and urban legend. He realizes his younger officers haven't actuaally seen a real war and what attrition looks like, so he is patient (to a point). The reality is his junior advisors have been focused on CMO for quite some time, and perhaps CMO would work if done correctly, but it isn't working yet. He has a lot to think about before making any decisions..

Will an attrition strategy work? He doesn't know, but he will actually consider it and balance that approach with others.

He would realize that the Taliban and their ilk actually talk to the Afghan people at night when we're not there, and their narrative is more convincing than ours for many reasons. He may ask the most obvious question, just what the hell are we trying to accomplish here and how are we to go about it?
One young officer would say, well sir we want the people to love us, and they will if we do enough CMO. Another would say sir we simply need to invade Crackistan that is the heart of the problem. Another would say we need 50,000 more Western troops to protect the population.
Sun Tzu would just smile because he realizes maturity takes time to develop, a lot of time.

Sun Tzu would realize a lot of things that the author missed, but most importantly he would point out that our officers are still grasping for straws in history books instead of focusing learning about reality today. He would recommend that they really open your eyes and ears so they could hear and see the people as they are, not as we want them to be. He would remind them that he didn't write a strategy for them, he simply gave them some guidelines for thinking.

Backwards Observer

Wed, 12/15/2010 - 5:20am

Bill M. :

My possibly mistaken impression of the article was that it was written <em>offense a outrance</em> to initiate a discussion on Sun Tzu. Having read your instructive comment, perhaps it was at least partially effective on that score.

As far as your observation, <em>"He would recommend that they really open your eyes and ears so they could hear and see the people as they are, not as we want them to be."</em> Sometimes it seems that "the people as they are" generally exhibit a profound reluctance to open their eyes and ears. Strangely, this reluctance does not extend to their mouths, or perhaps, as in my case, the typing finger.

Also, the one take in reply to Anonymous above is basically what I've gleaned as an interested reader of the gentlemen of SWJ; Mr. White, Clausewitz Guy, et al. Any bumbling misinterpretation, however, is mine alone. <em>Vaya con Dios!</em>

CCT (not verified)

Mon, 12/20/2010 - 6:22pm

Here is an LSE master student's take comparing a Clausewitzian and a Sun Tzu based theoretical framework to understand the war in Afghanistan, entitled "The Enduring Wisdom of Sun Tzu and Clausewitz":

Anonymous (not verified)

Mon, 12/20/2010 - 7:12pm

Backwards Observer and other commenters on this topic;

I have often talked about the evolutionary development of Salafi insurgencies and pointed to John Robb's "open source warfare" as an explanation of the evoluntionary speed in their development and then I coupled it to using Kilcullens' "conflcit ecosystem" as the analysis tool.

I also would often write about a complexity science (quantum physics) research project that was relased about a year ago by the research team around Sean Gourley which if one read thoroughly with their 15 characteristics that they had discovered one would in fact assume that they had indirectly validated "open source warfare".

Needless to say the SWJ comments were never that positive about either concepts --now comes the interesting aspect.

A formal White Paper was submitted to both JIEDDO and DARPA integrating the quantum research with the "eoclogy of an insurgency" in response to several announced BBAs with absolutely no response---now much to my surprise the following article will in fact show a far deeper interest in the research and talk of the acceptance of power laws which had been discovered in 15 different insurgencies by the Gourley research.

If the article is half way accurate then in fact at least JIEDDO and the University of Maryland now have to honestly admit that the Robb theory of "open source warfare" is both valid and the curve has been truly missed since Robb briefed DoD on the theory between 2004-2006. Even worse that the concepts around Attack the Network may in fact have been totally wrong.

NOW can we get a formal discussion going on this topic as it is the third COIN way forward that I have also written about and it would go a long way towards understanding the staying power of AQI and the Taliban and it would go along way in explaining while COIN has basically failed.…

Anonymous (not verified)

Mon, 12/20/2010 - 7:33pm

A short quote taken from the above referenced link is extremely telling.

Like small companies, Clauset says, terrorist groups are made up of highly motivated people looking to make a product -- terror attacks. "Both of these face the problem that they need to grow, or theyre going to die," he says. With small groups, if a key member leaves, its a major blow; with a larger work force, one persons departure doesnt matter as much.

Thats why the U.S. decapitation strategy has failed to subdue insurgent groups, he believes. "Someone was joking a few years back about how weve killed the No. 3 al-Qaeda guy in Iraq 20 times," he says. "They keep replacing him with somebody else. We need to understand the phenomenon, not the network. The network is the manifestation of the phenomenon."

Anonymous (not verified)

Mon, 12/20/2010 - 7:47pm

Just wish JIEDDO/DARPA had paid more attention to their BBA responses as the complexity research project was extremely well based and it did in effect answer/validate "open source warfare". We can laugh at complexity science as a answer to COIN, but in fact Kilcullen openly talked about it in his famous "conflict ecosystem" article from 2004/2005--strange how the world goes around.

"In case it helps understand the scope of this work within physics and beyond: The discussion of how teams of peacekeepers might be deployed, is a conclusion from the model that we developed, and was published in the following peer-reviewed physics journal: "Anomalously slow attrition times for asymmetric populations with internal group dynamics", Physical Review Letters 103, 148701 (2009); by Zhenyuan Zhao, Juan Camilo Bohorquez, Alex Dixon and Neil F. Johnson. The model and analysis for conflict and terrorism, was published in: "Common ecology quantifies human insurgency", Nature (December 17, 2009:); by Juan Camilo Bohorquez, Sean Gourley, Alex Dixon, Mike Spagat and Neil Johnson. Mathematical details of the model are given in the publication "Relating the microscopic rules in coalescence-fragmentation models to the cluster-size distribution", European Physical Journal 72, 289 (2009); Blazej Ruszczycki, Zhenyuan Zhao, Ben Burnett and Neil F. Johnson. Extensions are examined in depth in "Statistical Physics and Modern Human Warfare", in Mathematical Modeling of Collective Behavior in Socio-Economic and Life Sciences, Eds. Naldi et al., Birkhäuser Boston (2010), DOI: 10.1007/978-0-8176-4946-3_14 p.365; Alex Dixon, Zhenyuan Zhao, Juan Camilo Bohorquez, Russell Denney and Neil Johnson. Finally, the possible spread of influence within this model, is examined in the publication "Effect of social group dynamics on contagion", Physical Review E 81, 056107 (2010); Zhenyuan Zhao, J. P. Calderón, Chen Xu, Guannan Zhao, Dan Fenn, Didier Sornette, Riley Crane, Pak Ming Hui, and Neil F. Johnson.

slapout9 (not verified)

Mon, 12/20/2010 - 7:59pm


I will be happy to discuss it with you, but it is not new, watch this 8 part series below. You will here them talk about Chaos,Anarchy,Panic,Racial and religious exploitation and toward the end is an excellent section on System Disruption. I saw this at DOD Contractor sponsored hunting club in the late 1960's. I agree with you that nobody wants to talk about it and Johnn Robb does a great job of how it works but it is NOT new. Some of the technologies are new and the tactics have advanced but the general theory of Revolutionary?Guerrilla war and it's various forms are not new. And as the Title suggest It is "More Deadly Than War"

Adult Warning Label:This is not for faint of heart.

Anonymous (not verified)

Mon, 12/20/2010 - 9:16pm


You are correct guerrilla warfare is not new even newer forms of terrorism and revolution are not new but if we look at the evolutionary processes then in fact they are totally new.

If we go back to say the 70s and start with the BM German group that split into June 2, through the Red Brigades, through say the Nov 17 Greek group and then focus on the Habash/PFPL, Black Sept on to the PKK they all demonstrated similar organizational techiques and they shared their tactics via newpapers and flyers/handouts distributed at major European universities and they were totally political in nature---jump forward 40 years and yes there are new insurgencies, terrorist groups and malcontents, BUT it is the speed at which they respond and the pressure they can bring to bear either on a major country such as the US/UK France/Germany, a semi failed country ie Yemen/Iraq/Afghanistan or a failed country such as Somalia and it is the speed that they share on their successful TTPs that has us constantly in a reactive mode coupled with the ever evolving IED technology that has us spending billions to counter a 600 USD trigger device coupled with a regenerative power not seen previously in the older guerrilla wars. It has reached a point that in the recent FEDEX/UPS bomb shipments that actually failure of the attack is being viewed as a major success by AQ---which is totally opposite of the older guerrilla wars which were all about winning against the state.

That is indicating to at least me that the current COIN and COIN techniques ie attack the network etc. are failing---ie the recent SOF kill/capture stats for Helmand province can only give the Marines a respite of 4 weeks before the next IED cell is in attack mode--that cannot be explained by older guerrilla experiences thus the need to rethink the causes of what is being seen. I experienced first hand the decimation of VC units in VN only to see them backfilled by NVA---that is not the case currently in Afghanistan or Iraq where regeneration is out of dicontented ranks of hundreds if not thousands of willing supporters all kept in the know via modern technologies.

Therefore the third way is actually upon us since 2004-it is open source warfare and I am sorry but many still think it is a crazy concept. Because to actually purport to support an open discussion on OSW would in fact challenge the core elements of 3-24 and our training for the last five years.

slapout9 (not verified)

Mon, 12/20/2010 - 11:15pm

Anonymous, what you are seeing is/was predictable and some did see it coming. Advanced global communications and global transportation systems and global finance are indeed accelerating the effects of private and or non-state guerrilla units. And yes they will regenerate their losses from the population just like a military chain of command except these folks don't wear uniforms.

This network theory that you just shoot the number 3 guy and the whole network will collapse is crazy....who is it that even thought that up? I share your concern but they can be beaten but and again I agree with you not by the general COIN theory as it stands now.

Anonymous (not verified)

Tue, 12/21/2010 - 5:31am


This network theory that you just shoot the number 3 guy and the whole network will collapse is crazy....who is it that even thought that up?

Answer---JIEDDO/COIC and the concept of Attack the Network.

Anonymous (not verified)

Tue, 12/21/2010 - 9:21am

Backwards Observer;

It's not Chinatown---it is Left and Right of the Boom if I recall.

Backwards Observer

Tue, 12/21/2010 - 7:49am

Forget it,'s Chinatown.

slapout9 (not verified)

Tue, 12/21/2010 - 9:31am


There is no number 3 guy IMO. You are dealing with a social/people system not a machine. If you wanted to do it that way it would be more like shoot the number 3 guy and his enitre bllodline all the way around him....would get pretty messy.

Backwards Observer

Tue, 12/21/2010 - 9:36am

<em>it is Left and Right of the Boom if I recall.</em>

Anonymous, ya lost me. That's what I get for being a Mr. Fancypants. You're welcome to explain, but whether I'm able to understand your vision is neither here nor there. As slapout's link to "More Deadly Than War" suggests, you'll probably get more traction these days talking about John Birch than you will sourcing John Robb. Just my pointless opinion.

Anonymous (not verified)

Tue, 12/21/2010 - 10:44am

Backwards Observer;

You are entirely correct---when all commenters who are now starting to really question COIN theories hear the phase "open source warfare" they run for cover using comments like "cussed, discussed, and found of no interest" but then you see the big guns JIEDDO/MITRE/University of Maryland start pouring consulting funding into the quantum research that has in fact validated the theory-then what does make the group of commenters and their fluff off comments?

The issue is serious and it appears that we as a society seem to run lately from responsibility---what ever happened to the old fashion concept of if it is broken then fix it---guess that got in the way of defense contracting greed which in fact would be seriously theatened by a group of University researchers and a former AF SOF/software geek. While Rome burns military personnel/civilians are getting killed because we cannot fix it.

If the theories concerning tank warfare in the 30s had not been published and Patton had not read them and tied them to history we would not have had a Patton if I followed the concept of "cussed, discussed, and found of no interest".

Just my pointless opinion.

Anonymous (not verified)

Tue, 12/21/2010 - 7:01pm

Anyone have anything more on this recent report from Aviation Week;

From Aviation Week (courtesy of Tigerhawk):

Chinese advisers are believed to be working with Afghan Taliban groups who are now in combat with NATO forces, prompting concerns that China might become the conduit for shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, improved communications and additional small arms to the fundamentalist Muslim fighters.

A British military official contends that Chinese specialists have been seen training Taliban fighters in the use of infrared-guided surface-to-air missiles. This is supported by a May 13, 2008, classified U.S. State Department document released by WikiLeaks telling U.S. officials to confront Chinese officials about missile proliferation.

China is developing knock-offs of Russian-designed man-portable air defense missiles (manpads), including the QW-1 and later series models. The QW-1 Vanguard is an all-aspect, 35-lb. launch tube and missile that is reverse-engineered from the U.S. Stinger and the SA-16 Gimlet (9K310 Igla-1). China obtained SA-16s from Unita rebels in then-Zaire who had captured them from Angolan government forces. The 16g missiles have a slant range of 50,000 ft. The QW-1M is a variant that incorporates even more advanced SA-18 Grouse (9K38 Igla) technology.

So far, there has been a curious absence of manpad attacks on NATO aircraft in Afghanistan. One reason is that the Russian equipment still in place is out of date and effectively no longer usable, the British official says. Another may be that the possession of such a weapon is a status symbol, so owners are reluctant to use it. However, the introduction of new manpads could change that equation.

Although there have been no attacks using manpads, "we act as if they exist," notes the British officer. "We know they are out there," he says, alluding to the proliferation of increasingly advanced missiles on the black and gray markets.

In fact, NATO officials know they exist, at least in Iraq, according to the classified U.S. State Department document. U.S. officials were instructed to provide the Chinese government with pictures of QW-1 missiles found in Iraq and ask how such missiles were transferred.

Backwards Observer

Wed, 12/22/2010 - 1:05am


Good find. I think it's possible that there are at least a couple of Taliban divisions, including an armored brigade, comprised mainly of PLA "volunteers" hiding in the hills. Things may get interesting. jmpo

Backwards Observer

Wed, 12/22/2010 - 3:36am


As I think you will agree, the problem is today that people don't read <em>enough</em> into things. As we know from watching television personalities, the important facts are the ones that nobody else can see. If we become adept at divining these, then the conclusions we arrive at don't matter. The results will speak for themselves.

In fact, having given more thought to the direction you seem to be heading, my hunch is that the massive PLA buildup in Af (see my previous post) is being directed by rogue western intelligence assets who were left one chopstick short of a rice bowl in the last defence reshuffle.

These patriots know that the massive US debt is the real problem weakening our efforts to bring peace to the globe. Initiating a war with the PRC is the only way to gracefully default on this debt. jmpo