How does the Army learn? What will we take from Afghanistan? How long before we think we’ll know what we should have done differently? Well, if Vietnam is any guide, then in forty years we will still be arguing amongst ourselves what we should have learned. Is it possible to avoid some of the same pitfalls we did after Vietnam when it comes to Afghanistan? Maybe. Maybe we can agree that what happened in Vietnam was that we supported a government that didn’t really get the support of the populace. But, in the end that might not have mattered, because after Tet we defeated the insurgency. But, of course, that didn’t matter either, since by that time we had lost credibility with our own people. In the end, the ARVN were defeated by a conventional force because we failed to prepare them to fight without our support (and/or we didn’t ensure our people could keep on believing us). That leaves out the explanations that we 1) didn’t do counterinsurgency right, 2) didn’t have the right strategy (although that is possible), or 2) didn’t take the fight to the North. All of those things may or may not have been feasible or important, but those are things that we like to argue about now.
If we cannot agree on the above, then I don’t feel too good about gleaning something important from Afghanistan. But, if we can, then maybe we can avoid the same traps when we look at Afghanistan and prepare better and faster for future conflicts that may look similar (although I would argue that is an illusion) and definitely will “feel” similar, as Afghanistan did to many who were familiar with Vietnam. I plan to do this by first looking at how I perceived the institutional Army “learned” about Vietnam. Next, I will attempt to mirror how we learned about Vietnam and apply that framework to Afghanistan. I will then offer some ideas on what we should learn from Afghanistan, instead of what we most likely will learn, if Vietnam is to be any guide. Lastly I will propose some principles for counterinsurgency based on what we should learn.
I hope to offer with this paper a better understanding of how we in the Army “learn” as an institution and propose some different things to think about than some of the conventional wisdom already forming about our efforts in Afghanistan. In the end I hope that we can avoid some of the simplistic methods of “learning” that might not help us very much the next time we deploy lots of troops (or even a small amount) without a simple, time-constrained, and detailed objective.
How I Think We Learned From Vietnam
COL Harry Summers’ book, On Strategy, was the basis for my first “deeper” understanding of where we went wrong in Vietnam and, as far as I could see, the rest of the Army as well. Until then I had the average American’s idea of what had happened: I really didn’t know. On Strategy, or at least my take on the book, taught me that we simply failed to follow the U.S. Army’s principles of war. COL Summers methodically went through the principles and explained in an easy-to-read manner how we came up short on each one of them. The big takeaway for me from his book was that we did not attack the enemy’s center of gravity: Hanoi. The enemy had a sanctuary and the eventual defeat of the South came from North Vietnam, but our politicians didn’t allow us to attack the enemy’s center of gravity, and so we lost.
That COL Summers’ book seemed to me to be the lesson that the military “learned” from Vietnam interests me more today than it did then. His book’s conclusions were further reinforced when then-Colonel McMaster’s Dereliction of Duty came out. Basically laying the blame for the loss at the feet of the politicians and senior military leaders, my takeaway from his book was that the generals and senior military leaders did not do their duty and refused to prosecute a war in which the hands of the military were basically tied.
It was not until I read LTC John Nagl’s Learning to Eat Soup With a Knife that I found myself questioning what I thought was the conventional wisdom for the military after Vietnam: that we just had not focused on the enemy in the right way. Nagl’s book advocated a different explanation: that the Army had not conducted counterinsurgency properly. That Nagl and his book influenced the writing of FM 3-24 convinced many that the Army’s previous understanding of where we had gone wrong in Vietnam was perhaps flawed. We supposedly “re-learned” the concept that during counterinsurgency the force had to be focused on the people and had to secure them, using governance and development to break the connection with the insurgents and build legitimacy in the government. The British in Malaya was the preferred recipe for doing this sort of stuff, juxtaposed with the way the U.S. handled Vietnam.
Looking back, I should have been more interested in how the military “learned” its lessons. According to James Kitfield’s Prodigal Soldiers, the U.S. Army’s mid-grade leaders in Vietnam, men like Colin Powell, took Summers’ lessons to heart and decided they would not allow any more “Vietnams” and instead they would build a volunteer force, anchor it to the population with a reliance on the Reserves and National Guard, train it in bold maneuver warfare utilizing mechanized and armored forces, and demand from the U.S. politicians a Congressional mandate, a clear objective and enough force to get the job done by attacking the enemy’s center of gravity, forcing capitulation. Operation Desert Storm was the pinnacle of the Army’s transformation and “proved” to many observers that the U.S. had learned its lesson in Vietnam.
Unfortunately, Desert Storm was no Vietnam and we were not guaranteed to avoid conducting a long, drawn-out counterinsurgency campaign again. If anything, Bosnia should have hinted at some of the problems we would have if we decided to attempt to stabilize a country (if all of the UN’s and our attempts in Africa didn’t). So as we faced the chance that we were losing an occupation and attempted stabilization of Iraq in 2003-2006, our Army for some reason didn’t apply Summers’ frame of the principles of war to our struggle there, but instead turned to a relatively new idea, although it was couched in language that made it appear to be as old as warfare: the Americanized preferred narrative of counterinsurgency, hereafter referred to as “COIN”, as opposed to the more broad concept of “counterinsurgency.” COIN offered a perfect narrative with which to push for long-term deployment of American military forces: it was population-centric, humane, deplored collateral damage, built responsive and non-corrupt democratic governments, encouraged human rights, and engaged in getting people jobs. What wasn’t there to like? It was based on a few examples throughout the last forty or fifty years, Malaya as the best example, that purported to show that if one is “population-centric” one can eventually defeat any and all insurgencies.
What may be looked at one day as the most advantageous time for a book to come along, Field Manual 3-24, the Army’s and Marine Corps’ Counterinsurgency manual, hit the book stores (literally) in 2006. In 2007, accompanied by a new general, General David Petraeus, and a surge of troops, this doctrine arrived in the nick of time to save Iraq. As some have argued, this might not have been the way things really happened and in fact two alternative narratives have emerged: one that the surge was one of many other things that all came together at the right time to precipitate a large drop in violence in Iraq that paved the way for the U.S. to leave and claim victory; the other being that the surge had nothing to do with it at all- regardless, neither alternative claims that General Petraeus and his new doctrine had anything to do with the “win.” Instead, many argue that the Army and Marine Corps made many changes in 2005 and on and that in 2007 we were just starting to see the fruits of those changes.
If anything should have shown us that maybe the original narrative for Iraq was troublesome, it should have been the example in nearby Afghanistan. Either the Army and the Marine Corps both failed to apply the same principles as they did in Iraq in Afghanistan (even under the same commander and a similar surge beginning in late 2009 and 2010), or the principles just did not apply universally to all counterinsurgencies. That alone should convince us that we still do not understand counterinsurgencies (or that we don’t understand that they are all different).
Based on Vietnam, “Lessons” we may take from Afghanistan
This is, admittedly, based upon how I understand the Army “learned” from Vietnam: a process that has not ended, is open to interpretation, and my own take on it is limited by my own readings, biases, and ignorance. But, it is possible this will be close to the way the Army “learns” from our experiences in Afghanistan. I put “learns” in quotations to signify that the way an institution learns is at the same time complex and incomplete. In other words, I follow the idea that history is replete with many unique situations and therefore learning about them can provide one with context, but at the strategic level, little else. Unfortunately many study history to learn ways in which to act in the future, in the belief that knowledge of the past can assist one in the future. I posit, as others have before me, that this is a dangerous illusion.
The first way we may learn from Afghanistan is that we may just conclude that we should have used overwhelming force from the start. This will be more of a feeling than something based on a book or an institutional position. We will collectively talk about wishing President Bush had gone in with hundreds of thousands of troops in the beginning, killed as many Taliban and Al-Qaeda before they could have gotten into Pakistan, and trained up an Afghan force much quicker before turning our sights onto Iraq. Special Operations may have a different take on this, more along the lines that we should have kept special operations forces in the lead longer- perhaps for the entire time- and that conventional troops should have been provided in support. The bottom line is that at first many will feel it was a strategic problem that could have been solved with the right force mixture and rules of engagement.
The second way in which we may “learn” from Afghanistan is that we will blame ourselves for not following the principles of war. Similar to Summers’ book, the military will decide we never focused on the center of gravity- that being the Taliban and their sanctuary in Pakistan, and thus we were never going to win. Much like ignoring Hanoi and fighting shadows in South Vietnam, advocates of this view will conclude that the U.S. military fought the shadows of the Afghan Taliban instead of focusing in on their Pakistani sources of strength. Army officers will be taught to go back to the principles of war and forget about trying to adapt to political realities. Unfortunately, principles may be problematic in that they are more easily defined in hindsight and if concentrated solely on warfare, they assume almost total political freedom: something that the absence of “total” war and the current environment of relative peace between nations does not support.
The third way in which the Army may “learn” from our experience in Afghanistan is by blaming the politicians and senior leadership. This, in many ways has already started. Military leaders and even some politicians have long stated that “we didn’t start” in Afghanistan until 2009, that President Bush’s administration was focused on Iraq instead and it wasn’t until a new commander, focus, strategy, and surge in 2009 that enabled us to start doing things right- and therefore if we are seen to have failed in Afghanistan, it will be the Bush administration’s focus on Iraq that failed us. This will be similar to McMasters’ book in that if the senior leadership had been more truthful about what was needed for success, just used overwhelming force from the beginning and maybe somehow attacked into Pakistan we would have been successful. Supporters of this explanation will call for a return to high-intensity conflict and prepare for the next Desert Storm. This position would also hold the secretary of defense and upper-echelon military leaders as culpable because they refused to pressure the politicians into the “right” way (or at least advised them on the implications of not going the right route). The issue here is much like the first “lesson”, many times the military and even the nation do not have the luxury of unleashing total war- however I do appreciate the need for senior leaders to be honest about our limitations in war when we choose to shackle ourselves, and there is an argument to be made that we have not done this in Afghanistan.
The fourth way in which we may learn from Afghanistan is that we will “re-discover” counterinsurgency tactics and/or principles and we will write an updated counterinsurgency manual. This manual will be made appealing to the political sensitivities of the day, only utilize selected (and white-washed) examples of counterinsurgency with which to draw its lessons from, and capture nicely the sociological conventional wisdom of the day. Thus it will find resonance with many cultural elites and think tanks when it is written. It may be written decades after Afghanistan, perhaps after we again find ourselves involved with insurgents. The lessons these advocates will take from Afghanistan is that we did not follow properly the principles of counterinsurgency- whatever we determine them to be at the time, most likely acceptable to the society- and that we fought too much like those whose mission is major combat operations. This way will be one-hundred and eighty degrees different from the ways mentioned above and will cause many in the Army to warn of a danger of getting away from being able to conduct conventional warfare.
A fifth way in which we will learn from Afghanistan is that we may, after re-writing our counterinsurgency doctrine and it not working as well as we thought it would, blame ourselves with being too enamored with whatever example underpins our new doctrine and whatever era in time it emphasizes. We may find that the strategy in Afghanistan was really the culprit and that we did a poor job of matching ends, ways and means, and that the military was at fault, not the political leadership. This will not be an official lesson and will be debated hotly for many years, perhaps not gaining traction except at some mid-grade positions, and then being found to be open too much to interpretation and crystal ball-gazing. Those advocating this view will criticize the military leadership for refusing to offer the political leadership any options other than nation-building and for having the hubris to think that we could do something so nebulous and out of our lane.
What Should We Learn From Afghanistan?
I will caution readers up-front to take these lessons with a few grains of salt. For one, our experience is not over in Afghanistan and it has arguably taken our institution decades to decide on what to learn from Vietnam, and yet we still debate what that should be. Secondly, I undoubtedly have many things wrong in my understanding of what went on at the higher levels in our planning and strategizing. Lastly, any lessons offered should be approached with doubt, since it is always possible that they describe an incident in time that is gone and that anything one faces in the future will be wholly unlike it (no matter how much it might look like something similar).
One possible lesson we should learn in Afghanistan is that we faced some very similar themes in Vietnam and Afghanistan: both were corrupt, terribly divided countries wherein the U.S.-supported government had little legitimacy, there was outside support to the insurgents, corruption was endemic, poor governance was a perceived issue at the local and upper levels, economic aid was deemed necessary, understanding of the people was illusive (very different culture than ours in both cases), domestic politics outweighed foreign policy and national security priorities, both were supported strongly at the beginning by the citizenry but eventually the populace turned against the efforts, and both had military leaders touting success and progress and disagreeing with politicians about what the strategy should be.
One other factor that was similar between the two wars deserves a closer look: both were driven by questionable theories. In Vietnam our efforts were motivated by the Domino Theory: the belief that if one country fell to communism, others around it would as well. In Afghanistan another theory reigned supreme: that if the U.S. did not stay in Afghanistan and eventually establish a stable nation-state, then the Taliban would come back in, take control, and invite Al-Qaeda back in to train and support operations against us. It is possible, although difficult to prove, that neither of these theories was correct, and thus our entire reason for involving ourselves in either country was suspect.
Another lesson to learn about Afghanistan was the differences between our efforts there and our efforts in Vietnam. These consisted of the lack of a threat of conventional force in Afghanistan, the difference between the Cold War pressures (and resultant worldview we had back then) of the Vietnam era and the “GWOT” pressures of post 9-11 (and current worldviews), and the fact that Vietnam was a proxy for many things for many of those involved and, although Afghanistan is being used as a proxy by others, it does not seem to be a proxy in our mind. In addition, there is a very different theory underpinning our involvement in Afghanistan as opposed to the Domino Theory that formed the foundation of our effort in Vietnam. Likewise, our populace did not support the troops as much during Vietnam, especially after Tet, as they do now (assuming there is no Tet-like incident anytime soon) and part of that perhaps lies in the professionalism of the force today, but could also have just as much to do with a certain amount of guilt over how Vietnam vets were treated.
A third way of looking at Afghanistan is what not to do. This, of course, may apply mainly to Afghanistan (and thus the grain of salt), but could also have implications when we choose to do them in other areas as well. Don’t, for instance, try to set up a military based on how the U.S. runs its own military. Base another country’s military on our analysis of their threat, but THEIR idea on how to counter that threat and best means and most likely ways in which to do so. Don’t try drastic social change- to include political, military, and economic systems. Don’t try to fit a square peg into a round hole: if our interests and the host nation’s interests diverge, then we can’t use a universal doctrine that supposedly worked (or would work) when our interests matched the host nation’s. Don’t abandon the group we originally supported and attempt to force them to get along with the groups that spawn the insurgents and/or make up the ruling group we helped overthrow. Don’t deploy troops (or at least not a sizeable force) when national interests are not clear and we do not have the support of the population. Don’t mobilize more troops than is commensurate with the threat we face (if a small SOF presence will suffice, don’t inflate the force because doctrine would seem to call for it or just because commanders call for it). Lastly, don’t get wedded to doctrine when it is confusing to your own forces as well as outsiders (i.e.- FID, UW, COIN, etc. definitions).
Lastly, another way of looking at Afghanistan is what we should do. Let us try building a force that uses what works for the insurgents, especially if that gives them an edge. Prepare a force to operate as insurgents if they get overrun or don’t have control of a certain area. Let the State Department or a civilian representative of the President run things in a country- no matter what the size of the military is. Having a military commander report directly to the President or SECDEF puts military operations as the de facto rule in a country and lends the strategy to one that undercuts political ends and gives the military too much say over what kinds of strategies will best meet political ends. Finally, let the host country dictate operations and strategy for the military side of things. We should be subservient to our civilian masters, but beyond that we should be that way THROUGH our support to the host nation’s strategy and operations. If we cannot support our ends through their ways, then we should depart.
Alternative COIN theory (COIN principles?)
I offer here a bulletized list of ideas that offer an alternative way of looking at conducting counterinsurgency operations. They may be likened to principles, although principles is probably not the right word.
- The key is to notice trends and, if you think you can build on them, then use them to your advantage to support national security policies. Don’t attempt to buck trends or you could end up working against one’s national security.
- Avoid if possible any kind of long-term, nation-building, culture-changing, copying U.S. conventional force ways and means, or multi-disciplined solutions (solutions that require other disciplines, but in reality will be forced onto the military). If a long-term presence is preferred, look to a small amount and SOF.
- Deploy small amounts of forces.
- Work through the host nation. If the host nation is corrupt, don’t operate through them unless the tie-in to U.S. national security is so great that our people are supportive and understand the need for a necessary evil or we can operate covertly or clandestinely.
- If overthrowing a government, be prepared to work with the most effective group available- not the most fair or most internationally pleasing. If legitimacy is a higher priority than effectiveness, then we should recommend a U.N. effort.
- Realism must rule- both in terms of what will be effective and what our population will support. If our population won’t support heavy-handed pragmatic action in the short-term, be sure that they will support “winning hearts and minds” over the long-term if lots of money and lives are involved (because if they don’t support either the pragmatic or the idealistic- then we probably shouldn’t be involved in that area…).
- Theater Special Operations Commands and SOCOM must develop a strategy to work with a key group in order to gain U.S. national security objectives prior to and during the committal of SOF. This means MORE engagement with foreign militaries and NOT tying our deployment of SOF to the current host nation’s government (we have to view it in terms of our future benefit instead- anything short-term for the host nation will be icing).
- Minimal conventional forces should be used- and only to support SOF efforts to reach U.S. national security interests through support to a host nation’s and/or group’s COIN efforts- which can and should- where appropriate- include conventional action, COIN, and UW. We must be able to “learn in action” and develop plans that support learning in action (Learning in action means we have to be adept. Adept to changing politics overseas, changing politics at home, and changes in strategy and tactics that are necessary as we go. If we are dogmatic and don’t constantly question our assumptions and our worldviews, we won’t be able to do COIN or UW well).
- Key to maintaining U.S. domestic support is brutal honesty to our politicians- nothing sugar-coated- no matter what the media reports, what the enemy reports, how you think your honesty will be used (to undermine the “effort” for instance); i.e.- no “STRATCOM”- STRATCOM is viewed as propaganda. We should report our struggles just as we report our successes- and we should NEVER sound like Pravda or some government mouthpiece. We should sound BETTER than the press- covering all sides- no matter how painful. Transparency is not only key, it SHOULD be a virtue. If, however, our politicians decide to propagandize for national security interests- that should not be something the military engages in outside of tactical deception and IO efforts. If we think our populace “can’t handle the truth”- then we shouldn’t be engaged in whatever operation that refers to, unless, again, our politicians decide to go in covertly or clandestinely.
- Shadow governments are not “shadow” if they are operating in the open. Sometimes- no, many times, our Western Westphalian concept of the nation-state only leaves us with operations that work against our strategy. Don’t think that every solution is an election and that should lead to a centralized government apparatus, backed up by a representative forum that is ethnic, tribal, and gender diversified. Democracy many times leads to more instability, and, although perhaps preferable in the long-term, is not always preferable, sustainable, feasible, or linked to our national interests (Democratically-elected Sharia law government, for instance).
- Bottom-up solutions and efforts 95% of the time will be better than top-down-derived efforts in COIN and UW operations. We must figure out how to tailor HQs to support lower level efforts as opposed to them driving operations and strategy and generating massive information requirements and ruling by policy and micromanagement. We can’t utilize what works best in garrison for personnel systems, unit structure, equipment fielding, reporting, planning, etc.- while deployed and conducting COIN.
- You must understand your limitations. You CANNOT ever overstate your abilities. You MUST question your culturally-acquired hubristic assumptions constantly- and never let it be un-PC to do so. Our military culture should learn to crush anyone or any unit that acts hubristic when conducting COIN.
- You cannot use doctrine to run your strategy. Your strategy cannot be manufactured from a manual prior to operations. Your operations cannot be guided by a line of effort template that addresses such things as “economic”, “security”, and “governance”. The military can’t do much beyond security- and that mainly through training and supporting the host nation’s forces. Unilateral action is self-defeating in COIN- unless it is against a clear and present danger to the U.S. (a direct one, not an indirect one) and one that the population supports and understands.
In this paper I attempted to lay out how the U.S. Army might “learn” from its experience in Afghanistan based upon how I thought some of us at the least- if not all of the institution- learned from our military’s experience in Vietnam. Of course, since we are not finished in Afghanistan, this comparison is incomplete at best. What I hope to accomplish is some perspectives on what we thought we had learned and what today we think we have learned with respect to past counterinsurgency efforts and pitfalls to possibly avoid when we start to contemplate (as we already have) what we could have done better in Afghanistan. Although I think there are many similarities with what we faced in both Vietnam and Afghanistan, I submit that many of the similarities are how we acted in both places as opposed to the environments themselves. It follows that what we “learn” from Afghanistan should be different. The question is- will it be?
 Summers, Harry G., On Strategy, Presidio Press, Novato, 1995.
 McMaster, H.R., Dereliction of Duty, Harper Collins, NY, 1997.
 Nagl, John A., Learning to Eat Soup With a Knife, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2005.
 Kitfield, James, Prodigal Soldiers, Simon and Shuster, NY, 1995.
About the Author(s)
Ah Duck my favorite online blog stalker. Better watch out man, my book comes out in April, and i fear if you read it your head will explode like a fembot :)))
As to Vietnam well if you understand what Westmoreland (and Abrams since there really was no change in terms of operations and strategy between the two)was trying to accomplish with his military strategy it consisted of two essential components: a ground war using the American military to fight the NVA and VC main force units in order to push them back and away from the population centers so that the other essential component of his strategy--pacification of the rural countryside by the SVN Gov--could proceed unmolested by the NVA and VC main force. But since Westmoreland had political constraints (rightly so placed i might add) on him that prevented him from taking the ground fight into Laos and North Vietnam and the fact that the NVA and VC avoided major battles with American forces (after late 65) then by default the fighting action that did occur aimed to reduced these main forces through attrition. But saying that is different from saying that the overall strategy was simply one of attrition. Duck dude, I am not saying anything original here, other scholars of the Vietnam War--Birtle, Andrade, Cosmas, Daddis, and many others--have said the same thing.
You should listen to what Bob Jones said that because in the end the operational framework that was put into place in Vietnam was not nearly as important in terms of explaining failure there then higher level things like strategy and as Bob often notes understanding what these revolutions are really about and the limits to what American military power can achieve in them.
I know you dont like the things i have to say but you really ought to lose the bile, e.g., your quip implying that a west point professor like me ought to know better. Well I invite you to introduce yourself to me and i further invite you to attend any of my classes that I teach at West Point.
Multiple tours mean zero, look at the results. I've met, worked with and advised plenty of officers both in the Army and Marine Corps with multiple tours and their knowledge of the profession is limited to conventional ops (although they will brag about their multiple tours and say they understand COIN), again the results say otherwise.
When speaking with them it takes about 30 seconds to realize they do not understand the OE, Phase I, or the balance of forces (force and power ratio). No knowledge of over/under the threshold, the underground, the auxiliary, mass base, clandestine and covert operations and no knowledge of tactical security vs. strategic security. They believe 'whack-a-mole' is a primary weapon because their focus is enemy forces, followed by enemy logistic systems, followed by enemy productive systems (standard conventional war).
They are most similar to the 'Idiots of the Korengal' (Kearney and Ostland-Restrepo) in their knowledge and ability to execute in a complex environment. It is beyond their capability to be successful in a complex environment because of a lack of self-motivation and discipline, a lack of leadership, and thinking is not encouraged within the institution.
Some will give multiple excuses for the current situation in Iraq and Afghanistan, that's all they are...excuses. First, look at the operator for answers to the question. Again, do the results indicate an understanding?
Do not believe that the US military is sacred, they are not. If you do believe the US military is sacred then failure, loss of life, and waste of resources can be explained away and the outcome of any future war of this nature can be easily predicted before it starts. Do not allow yourself to be pulled into the argument of the sacrifice the US military has given in the last decade of war. Sacrifice is equivalent to 'we are trying really, really hard' and any and all results should be disregarded. Kids in the Special Olympics try and should be praised for their efforts to overcome difficult circumstances. Unless the US military is the equivalent of the Special Olympics they can blow the smoke of 'sacrificing' in some other direction where it may be believed.
The US military has successfully pulled the wool over the eyes of the US Congress and the American people are on the sidelines. Army Values consist almost entirely of Protect the Institution. Perhaps, Eisenhower was correct?
The Institution is in a state of denial and has not moved past that point. It encourages and promotes failure as long as the adherents follow and promote the Party Line.
I would encourage conventional forces to move past denial and serve the nation.
Please expound on '..."influence" with critical populaces and governments.'
At the tactical level, can a populace be influenced to support/fight?
I would think that the VC, ISI and Taliban would tend to say yes.
Which begs the question, in the current fight what percentage of the current population are over/under the threshold (i.e. percentage of population willing to take high risk (over the threshold); under the threshold (each side's sympathizers among the population who continue their daily living as ordinary citizens but also serve as 'eyes and ears' and sources of material support)and population neutral (force ratio).
This includes not only the civilian population but also military forces available to each side. Additionally, if we promote a reinforcement strategy along the power ratio (i.e. build-up of ANSF) what percentage of ANSF are over the threshold vs. the percentage of Taliban over the threshold and what are the implications?
No, the American Army, SOF and Conventional alike, as an institution does not understand COIN. I can only judge that by the content of their doctrine and the nature and effectiveness of their operations. Probably due to an over reliance on the thinking of guys like Clausewitz as being applicable to every form of conflict. Napoleon struggled with and was baffled by the resistance insurgencies he created. Spain most famously, but equally in Eqypt and probably every other place he marched his armies. This is a form of war, and Clausewitz applies. Revolutionary insurgency is another matter altogether, and I would argue is not war or warfare at all, and that any application of Clausewitz to such a conflict is likely to produce very negative strategic effects, even in the face of tremendous tactical victories. Which brings us back to the American Army and COIN...
Now, I fully recognize that Clausewitz was very clear that the strategy of the Army to "defeat" the opponents must be shaped by the political objectives, and that those objectives would define what would constitute said defeat. But my comment was about those influenced by Clausewitz in their understanding of what strategy was for the 100 years or so that his writings were widely read prior to the Cold War. In that "Clauswitzian era" Strategy did indeed tend to be defined in terms of the defeat of some foe. What I find intersting is that for America, as we got into the Cold War and Containment operations we came to define strategy in terms of "control." So from "defeat" of some enemey to the "control" of some situation. I simply believe that it is time to evolve yet again to think of our national strategy more in terms of "influence" with critical populaces and governments. It's an opinion, I don't expect all to agree with, but I stand by it.
But I am no Clauswitzian scholar, so forgive me if some of my assessments miss a nuance or two. I'm a fan, but I'm not a fanatic.
Are you really saying that the American Army--namely battle space owning combat outfits--still doesn’t understand Coin? With multiple tours by many of these combat troops in either Iraq or Afghanistan are you really saying we still don’t get it? Such thinking by you seems to be a serious condemnation of the conventional force.
What more do you want them to do, all go to the Q course so that they do?
Oh and your comments on Clausewitz, well Bob you really ought to go back and re-read On War because the book is essentially deeply embedded in a sophisticated understanding of the politics of war, and how military force supports it and always must adapt and be shaped by it. Moreover if there was any a philosopher of war that understood "people’s war" it was Clausewitz. Read the portions in On War where he considers the strength and power of a people in arms defending their home state.
Here are three scenarios:
1. At the sqd-ISAF/USF-I level all units understand this type of war and their actions on the battlefield reflect it. At the GIROA/GOI level it is just the opposite and their actions reflect it.
2. At the sqd-ISAF/USF-I level all units understand this type of war and their actions on the battlefield reflect it. At the GIROA/GOI level they also understand this type of war and their actions reflect it.
3. At the sqd-ISAF/USF-I level all conventional units engage in conventional ops (although they call it COIN) and their actions reflect it; SOF engages in limited actual COIN ops but are predominately used in DA missions. At the GIROA/GOI level there is a tendency to mitigate the effects at the tactical level while consolidating a power base.
Based on the results in Iraq and Afghanistan which scenario has most likely occurred and why?
COL Jones: Hope you can still fit me in.
Considering my comment of Aug 25th at 10:41 AM above, why would we wish to see a government "fix itself," if, in doing so, this provided that the United States would be placed in grave(r) danger?
Herein, I am thinking that we should not get so wrapped around the idea of (1) understanding insurgencies and (2) learning how a local government might avoid or cure them, that we forget our responsibility is to protect our country and its citizenry.
Thanks for checking and correcting. Please note that is why I put question mark there. I suspect I misunderstood his message, he clearly was no slacker since he was also a SAMS student, so perhaps he was comparing the relative level of reading and critical thinking in SAMS compared to CGSC? Perhaps he actually said there were no reading assignments, but that was an intentional exaggeration to highlight the difference between CGSC and SAMS? Can't argue the point that CGSC would most likely lose their accrediation if they didn't meet some level of academic rigor. Although I spoke to another fairly recent graduate today and he didn't feel the course was rigorous. Perhaps both of these guys are exceptional and really weren't challenged, or perhaps like many people I know they tend to downplay the difficulty they had in a particular course. Lots of possibilities, but I trust there are at least reading assignments in the course.
Have to wave a flag on the play regarding readings at Leavenworth. After I read your comment I queried a number of "informed sources" at Leavenworth to include professors and students. Here are a select few comments:
1: Dave: This is patently false - perhaps a misunderstanding of what was actually said.
CGSC is an accredited, degree producing institution, as it has been for a long time. All courses remain "graduate style" with a syllabus, directed learning outcomes, directed readings, and allocated class time for analysis/synthesis.
Nearly all classes if not 100% have directed readings or prep material required. Yes, they still use Paret translation for Clausewitz as well.
2: Dave, I don't know what CGSC course he was taking. There are hundreds if
not thousands of pages of readings.
3: Dave, There are huge amounts of readings required. There are readings required in
every class that I am aware of and we have actually increased the amount of
reading I believe this year. For example, in the two classes that I am the
author for, in the first one there is 28 pages required just for my 2 hour
class, then an optional 11 pages. For my other class there is 32 pages of
required reading for another 2 hour class...that doesn't even come close to
the history department. Whomever said it was I hope pulling their leg.
Concur with all of your comments. I think we all fear that our military leaders and worse our National Security Council have lost the bubble on rigorous thinking about strategy. We are self proclaimed masters of the operational and tactical levels of war, but if success in these areas leads to strategic failure, then are we really masters at the operational level? Seems we have failed repeatedly to design operations to achieve the political objectives set forth.
I was talking to a recent graduate of CGSC and he said there were no reading assignments in the course? If we don't create an environment in our ILE that challenges our people intellectually (and reading and discussing Clausewitz would do that) in CGSC, then it makes me wonder if the term Field Grade Officer really means anything at all other than a pay raise? Obviously some, perhaps many, pursue professional development through self-development, but sadly it does not appear to be the norm. Admittedly I digress, but it is all related.
Thanks for supporting my point on multiple levels. Those who blindly try to apply concepts identified by Clausewitz do more harm than good. Center of Gravity is a perfect case in point. It really illustrates our fruitless quest for the silver bullet - the concept (as well as technology) that will ensure success every time. We want the template, the process, the computer system or weapon that will win the war for us or bring us success in every operation. As you and Bob know better than most there is no single answer - no single theory, no single system or process that is right for every situation or accounts for every condition. We need strategic thinkers who can understand problems, frame problems, and then think through what can or should (or cannot or should not) be done. In essence what Clausewitz was trying to do was understand and frame the problem of war with the information, education, and experience he had at the time. And to add to Bob's point, I think he would have been very comfortable discussing the complex political-military conflicts today as we must remember he began addressing the nascent people's wars late in his book (Chapter 26 in Book 5, The People in Arms) and of course he also discussed limited objectives and limited means. If he were alive today he would be continuing this analysis and would expect us to do so as - again that is his gift to us (though I suspect that he would still believe that the relationship among passion, reason, and chance still remain the most significant influence leading to conflict - across the entire spectrum from insurgency to state on state war). But the bottom line is studying Clausewitz provides the intellectual rigor to help develop the strategic capacity for understanding and framing the problems of today. This is why I do not think he should be discounted. But I think you and Bob would agree that he is not to be applied blindly (as you said) and he does not provide the answer to every problem but he can help us think our way through to discover possible answers as we conduct the intellectual sparring based on his work (and the works of others like the Sun Tzu and other great theorists), That is why I am passionate about not discounting his work.
True only if it reading it leads to discourse versus blind acceptance. The parts of "On War" I have read were not prescriptive at all and were rich in intellectual depth; however, they were written based on the perceived realities of the time. I agree that some of his observations (maybe most) appear to be enduring while others can now be challenged. I agree with Bob that Clausewitz would be greatly disappointed if he thought the evolution of military thought stopped after his writings were compiled into a book, but of course that didn't happen, military thought did continue to evolve.
Had an interesting discussion with a complexity scientist recently who actually admired Clausewitz, but found it comical that the only aspect of Clausewitz's On War that the U.S. military took literally was his center of gravity concept, which as you pointed out in a much earlier post that his thoughts on this concept were not complete, yet many in our ranks use this concept with blind faith (despite the fact it has failed us repeatedly). COG, CC, CV, etc., while not entirely unuseful, it can significantly limit ones imagination when it comes to solving a problem.
While I maintain the freedom to change my mind and suspect I will over time, it has been my observation to date from both experience and study that methods and doctrines from times past still apply in select situations, but are not valid in others. In the military we tend to be too absolute in our views. We shouldn't toss old tools/ideas out of the toolbox, but rather add new tools/ideas to the box, and use the growing number of tools/ideas in the combinations needed to succeed based on situation at hand. All of us need to stop dismissing the lessons of the past and new ideas, they both can be relevant and often can be blended in new ways.
We could agree on a lot. But I am not offering a reflexive defense of Clausewitz. His work is very valuable in helping us to understand the nature of war as it is today not as it was in the 19th Century. Your 2d and 3d paragraphs actually illustrate exactly what Clausewitz was trying to get us to do (think about coup d'oeil). You do not need to dis him because apparently he has had some positive influence of you. His thoughts are not constraining, they are useful in helping to formulate new ways to understand the complex political-military relationships in the modern world. Studying Clausewitz does mean applying the tenets of Napoleonic Warfare by rote to today's world. To think that means one has not studied Clausewitz. The thorough study of On War merely provides a vehicle to try to help us find a way ahead. It does not offer models. It offers critical thought. Most importantly to discuss and develop modern thinking about war and conflict does not require bashing Clausewitz because the study of Clausewitz, along with The Sun Tzu, Mao, McKuen, Sarkesian, Sharp, Brinton, Hoffer, Lacquer, Gurr, Strachan, Gray, and even Alinsky, and many others, helps us to understand the nature of human conflict and helps us to move forward in our thinking. But in the end I guess I am offering a reflexive defense of Clausewitz but not in the way that you allege. I think he can be very useful in developing the most cutting edge new ideas because sparring with his writings makes us intellectually stronger and makes us think more critically which I believe was not only part of his intent but also his greatest gift to strategic thinking.
Come on, you really need to relax. A reflexive defense of the writings of a guy who attempted to extrapolate the campaigns of Napoleon into a comprehensive theory for his time is not that productive to the very different world we live in today. Use of terms like "cherry pick" and "pet theory" for those who dare to think differently than the majority / seniority position is not that helpful either.
I personally find great value in Clausewitz and actually model my own pursuit of greater understanding of the events of our current era on his own pursuit of greater understanding of those events that shaped his own. I suspect he would be shocked by the idea that all future thinking be constrained by his thoughts just as much as he himself refused to be constrained by those who went before him. Informed, yes, constrained, no.
We need to move forward in the spirit of Clausewitz, to do otherwise misses perhaps the greatest contibution he made to the art and science of thinking about conflict.
I fail to see a "model" either in your wikipedia research or in Paret's translation of his two letters. But you do help me to illustrate a point. Anyone can cherry pick Clausewitz to suit their own agenda and of course many do. But I do not think he created a model or even tried to create one. He was trying to figure out for himself the nature of war and to provide us with an understanding to help us think our way through the nature of war. But I guess calling it a model makes it easier to debunk and discount. The irony is that his work could be very useful in supporting your pet theories. You should think about trying to embrace him rather than discard him.
A quick wiki answer, but if you need more I am happy to dig...
"The word "strategy" had only recently come into usage in modern Europe, and Clausewitz's definition is quite narrow: "the use of engagements for the object of war." Some modern readers find this narrow definition disappointing, but his focus was on the conduct of military operations in war, not on the full range of the conduct of politics in war. Nonetheless, Clausewitz conceived of war as a political, social, and military phenomenon which might — depending on circumstances — involve the entire population of a nation at war. In any case, Clausewitz saw military force as an instrument that states and other political actors use to pursue the ends of policy, in a dialectic between opposing wills, each with the aim of imposing his policies and will upon his enemy."
This gives a deeper and broader attachement to the political aspect, however:
Governance really needs to fix itself. Foreign fixes are de facto illegitimate. I don't presecribe that we need to around fixing governments, I only that broken governance is the primary problem. I do think it is ok to point such things out to a friend and offer to help them get back on track, but such efforts must be narrowly tailored to ensure we stay in our lane, as we tend to overreach.
We tend to go around either breaking or propping up governments and then attempting to fix the associated populaces to like what we have made for them. That simply does not work, and is increasingly ineffective as information technology continues to advance.
Strategy under the Clauswitzian model was defined in terms of "defeat." Strategy under the Cold War Containment model came to be defined in terms of "control." I would suggest that strategy in the modern era needs to be thought of in terms of "influence." But we really don't tend to do much strategic thinking in general. We just pull a "defeat" or "control" approach off the shelf and attempt to apply it to what vexes us.
In those instances, wherein, fixing governance -- to better align with the wants, needs and desires of a population -- would tend to place the United States in grave(r) danger (populace wants "death to America" and/or exclusiveness/isolation such as to hinder/endanger free trade), do we not act to ensure that such good governance as this is not achieved?
Herein, the United States preferring the insurgency (dividedness; less cohesiveness and capability) to the much more dangerous alternative (population and government better aligned to and, therefore, more capable of harming the United States).
Perceptions of governance at the village level are critical, but that does not mean the villages need "fixed." Government must understand perceptions of governance at the village level - but the repairs are in the system of governance, not the village. One must follow the ratline of governance upward and fix that.
With tactical COIN we attempt to fix the village and then follow the ratlines of insurgents to go after those who are dissatisfied with governance and dare to act out rather than the governance itself. When we do focus on governance we tend to focus on government and the effectiveness of government at providing services. Easy to measure, but often largely moot. It is how people feel about governance, not how effective is government. But when one creates and protects the aspect of governance that is the largest driver of insurgency as the cornerstone of their going in policy, it leaves one trapped in a strategy of ineffective tactics aimed at the symptoms.
In the law there is a concept of "hold harmless." Governments tend to hold themselves harmless when faced with insurgency, and go after the symptoms and those who dare to complain, rather than understanding that insurgency is the ultimate metric that a system of governance is broken and needs to either recalibrate itself to the people or be replaced by the people.
Tactical success means next to nothing in an unconventional war. If there are units that are having tactical success only then they are doing next to nothing. Trying (i.e military speak - sacrificing) is not good enough. I reserve my applause for those that try for those who compete in the Special Olympics.
Agree for the most part with your comments on C-H-B and NRs. Short-term tactical success (anyone can declare a success and if you don't understand the game it may even look like a success) means nothing without strategic success just as establishing tactical security (Clear-Hold-Build) without the ability to establish strategic security (in a local environment) is worthless.
Agree with your statement on metrics. I do believe the current top-down nation building/ reinforcement strategy (i.e. focus on the power ratio and power-augmenting factors) and enemy-centric approach is historically flawed. Never understood why these types of actions would take place other than to attribute these actions to amateurs... especially when these types of war are primarily won or lost at the village level.
Let me clarify on "successes" as this is a critical point. Many programs in both Afghanistan and Vietnam are or were tactical successes. You can't take that away from the men and women who dedicated their efforts to earn those successes in the face of smart, dangerous and committed opposition.
But because we framed these conflicts on flawed strategic constructs, and because we had a very flawed (IMO) understanding of what insurgency really is in general, what those particular insurgencies were about in particular, and therefore a clear understanding of what type of changes are/were necessary to establish a naturally stable situation, we far too often created negative strategic effects as a by product of those tactical successes.
We need to remeber that all actions and all weapons are tactical; but effects can be tactical or strategic, and often actions produce both types of effects. Tactical effects are usually immediate and objective, and therefore easy to measure and tend to dominate our metrics of how we are doing, particularly if they are positive in that they reinforce our mental framework of the problem and what right looks like. Clear-Hold-Build and Night Raids are both poster child examples of this.
C-H-B and NRs both produce immediate, objective effects that reinforce our image of what right looks like. Both also serve to push many of the critical strategic drivers of the resistance insurgency in the wrong direction. They undermine the perceived sovereignty and legitimacy of the host nation government. They undermine perceptions of justice and respect in the eyes of the populaces they affect. This is hard to measure, and frankly, we just don't think it is very important or can't see how those we "help" can perceive something as negative that we have deemed to be positive.
We need to reframe the problem and re-think our solutions in the context of that new framework. This is the essence of design. Instead we cling to one poltically approved framework and simply hire new generals, poor in new money and adopt new COAs to try to make that frame work. In design one offers leadership multiple frames, each with their own COAs to choose from. This keeps minority positions, such as mine, on the table.
Tend to agree with Ron White...but I also say the 'successes' don't add up (at least all the 'success' (progress) the military said they've achieved).
If this is success I hate to see what failure looks like. Further, Mac's statement has been turned on it's head to 'Yes, there is a substitute for victory'.
I think he answered that fairly clearly; that the campaign was much more comprehensive and diverse in objectives and approaches to bundle under a single, misleading term such as "attrition." Did it have an attrition component? Absolutely, and he conceded that point.
But to understand why we lost in Vietnam and why we are losing in Afghanistan one must look above what the operators did on the ground, look above what operational frameworks were emplaced and implemented by various generals. One must look far beyond the window of time we were actually involved and one must look at the political/policy framework that shaped our understanding of, and involvement in, each of those conflicts.
In both cases we jumped into the middle of an on-going drama for reasons based on OUR interests as we perceived them, and in both cases we bought into the old colonial concept of creating a government that we believed would work to secure said interests, and then dedicated ourselves to the preservation of that regime. It just doesn't work well in the modern era, and most likely never really worked very well.
Once that framework was established, what the generals and the troops did was tragically moot. Kind of like the orchestra playing on the deck of the Titanic as it went down. A bunch of bold bastards, but no matter what music the director picked or how well the musicians performed, the ship was still going to sink. We create these Titanic-like policy problems and then tell the orchestra to play. We need to stop blaming the orchestra, or debating if the director was playing a sonata or a concerto.
Dear gian gentile,
Please explain how "a military strategy that involved fighting the NVA and VC main force to reduce their numbers" not attrition by another name? For your reference the oxford online definition of attrition is: the process of reducing something’s strength or effectiveness through sustained attack or pressure. I respectfully request that you to explain it in laymens terms for dolts like me and not just merely refer us to "original documents". That should be a fairly simple task for a West Point history professor. Thanks.
To use your word and phrasing, do you not think we have our own current batch of "bullshitters" for Afghanistan?
They you say this:
"It is often argued that no amount of effective leadership can overcome poor strategy. In Vietnam they was an abundance of both but it was always going to be a war of attrition. The enemy had a vote and they voted for a strategy to sacrifice millions of men to achieve victory.
This simply is not the case in Afghanistan – where in Vietnam you had hundreds of thousands in Afghanistan you have hundreds. However the lack of candour which one would have hoped Vietnam had expunged from the ranks of US military leadership is apparently alive and well. Some people believe it is as bad if not worse than it was in Vietnam."
Are you kidding me? Do you really think the problem of "bullshitting" in Afghanistan is in the direction of negative reporting instead of Westmoreland-like positive reporting? If so how can you explain the never ending stream of official proclamations that we are steadily making progress in Afghanistan? Or cheerleaders like Paula Broadwell in 2011 saying that it was OK to destroy the village of Tarok Kolache because the build phase of coin would come later and save it.
Moreover, it is really quite incorrect to characterize Westmoreland's strategy as simply one of "attrition." In fact it was much more than that, a military strategy that involved fighting the NVA and VC main force to reduce their numbers but more importantly to push them back from the population centers so that pacification would proceed. This "one war" concept was carried on by Abrams when he took command.
that is a great response. I am glad somebody has finally pointed out that McNamara was a very good statistical analyst NOT a very good systems analyst as he is so often alleged to have been. I agree 100% that the difference in scale is almost beyond comparison. However from a systems analysis point they are almost identical from the standpoint that the real problem is outside the boundaries of the the Target system (country). You could not win in Vietnam without solving the China problem and you cannot win in Afghanistan without solving the Pakistan problem. Despite this difference I still think your response was excellant.
The problem I find with the comparison of lessons not learned from Vietnam and any supposedly similar shortcomings in Afghanistan is the question of scale. The difference in the numbers and quality of the US’s opponent in Vietnam and the Taliban et al is so vast as to make any military and political parallels somewhat tenuous.
After Ia Drang in 1965 McNamara travelled to Vietnam and provided a strategic Butcher’s Bill in a secret memo to President Johnson which explained the strategy Giap had chosen to achieve victory. In the indelible manner he had perfected whilst working for Thorton at Statistical Control in the strategic bombing of Japan McNamara spelled out the attrition strategy Giap had chosen. Plain and simple - the US would have to kill 150,000 NVA every year if the North was to be weakened - not defeated - but weakened to the extent they might sue for peace. At the kill-ratio of 12:1 that went down at Ia Drang he explained to Johnson that it would cost 12,000 US KIA every year for as long as 25 years – or to quote Giap “....forever.”
However there was a kicker.
Mac was one of the finest intellects of his generation and probably the greatest American bean-counter ever and he made it very clear to Johnson that if the US managed to get near that kill-rate of NVA/VC soldiers (he didn’t rate civilian deaths) the Chinese PLA would enter the war and mobilise an army of 10 million down thru the Red River Delta and wipe out any US ground force, the NVA and several million Chinese for good measure. The PLA was furiously boring a 1200 km railway thru the mountains to connect the industrial heart of China to the head of the Kunming-Hanoi railway which was completed in 1970. Consequently, like the Vietnamese, they could sustain a war of attrition indefinitely.
The numbers are staggering and Johnston (who as a ruthless Capitol Hill insider knew the numbers game) realized the war was lost as early as 1966. The war lasted a further 9 years at the cost of another 40,000 US and over a million Vietnamese dead. The futility of the escalating numbers of dead haunted both men and the costs in blood and treasure in continuing a lost cause was in many people’s mind criminal.
Fast-forward to 2012.
The Taliban boasts 10 - 20 thousand part-time soldiers who only fight when it’s hot and sunny. The NVA had 2 million troops and ask any Vietnam Vet about the VC’s attitude to inclement weather. One regular NVA regiment would probably double the fighting capacity of the Taliban. The NVA had 2 million volunteer logistic cadres – the Taliban have less than a thousand porters who insist on being paid to hump supplies. The Taliban would be lucky to have 100 semi-literate Staff (half of whom are more concerned with organising the movement of opium paste to the Costa Nostra) whereas Giap could call upon 10,000 well educated Staff officers and probably a 100,000 Political Commissars.
For those who like the skinny approach to analysis the hardware losses provide a much more succinct measure of the disparity between the two conflicts. Over ten years - 2200 fixed-wing losses in VN and 24 in AF, 6500 helicopters lost in VN and 120 lost in AF. At times the loss of helos in a single day in VN was more than a decade in Af.
As opposed to the possible distorted view the VN experience may cast upon the Taliban there are two major US shortcomings in both conflicts which IMO are essentially identical and neither have anything to do with the enemy. One comes to us via US industry and the other from the US military.
In VN it was best summed up by an USAID official who wryly suggested “DuPont have apparently sold us enough cement to pave all of North and South Vietnam with 2 feet of concrete.” There was a lot of pork to be had in VN and there is a lot of pork in the GWOT. It is often said that the US has spent a trillion dollars fighting the GWOT and despite the efforts of Karzai et al to steal as much as possible 90% of the money has ended back in the coffers of Corporate USA. Nothing wrong with that but $900 billion spent on a failed strategy means any attempt to switch to a light-footed SF approach is going to upset plenty of heavy-weight hogs. Capitol Hill declares itself forever proud of the ground-pounders but there is no near as much money in equipping ‘snake-eaters’ as there was in COIN and Air Sea Battle pork is in a league of its own.
During the Vietnam War Johnson, McNamara & Westmoreland all believed they could bullshit their way out of a war of attrition with money and firepower. Before they died of old age (unlike so many others) the senior leadership during the VN war (with the glaring exception of Westmoreland) admitted that they knew the war was lost by 1966. The author of this essay strongly believes this BS lunacy still prevails within the leadership of the US military and is in fact a perquisite to advancement.
It is often argued that no amount of effective leadership can overcome poor strategy. In Vietnam they was an abundance of both but it was always going to be a war of attrition. The enemy had a vote and they voted for a strategy to sacrifice millions of men to achieve victory.
This simply is not the case in Afghanistan – where in Vietnam you had hundreds of thousands in Afghanistan you have hundreds. However the lack of candour which one would have hoped Vietnam had expunged from the ranks of US military leadership is apparently alive and well. Some people believe it is as bad if not worse than it was in Vietnam.
No amount of money, firepower, Order of Battle, Clausewitz, Sun Tzu, COGs, Design, sanctuary etc. will prevent military disaster if the Bullshitters are running the show. Sun Tzu is supposed to have said something about knowing your enemy and yourself and you need not fear a hundred battles. But I believe we have a much more fundamental problem which imperils the military. Keats said it best:
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou sayst,
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty,"
– that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
excellent article; sorry it took me a bit to catch up! You raise some critical questions on how the Army ought to consider revising the next wave of doctrine on COIN...here are just a few quick thoughts.
1. All of our military doctrine is framed in the preferred logic (or philosophy, or paradigm) that espouses reductionism, positivism, the military hierachical structure of power/control, and the technologically driven "scientific approach" of what Pap likes to term "functionalism." Is there anything we can do to help shape future doctrine such as the next FM 3-24 so that the ORSA-dominant MDMP and functionalist paradigm is at least counter-balanced by alternate conflict paradigms?
2. Does our almost ideological devotion to Clausewitz and Jomini essentially straight-jacket our military planning so that we are unable to ever put down our favorite tools, and explore novel options (or create entirely new ones that function better?)
3. Is the current military institution supportive for creative and critical adaptation in this regard? As in- when a slew of "thinkers and experts" are assembled in some academic setting to craft the next FM 3-24, is there still a heirarchy and the same division of power and control? Can someone offer critical inquiry such as "do we need to apply COGs here? Or can we ignore them? Can we eliminate principles of war? Can we ignore the levels of war (strategic, operational, tactical)? Can we apply western MDMP to our forces (friendly) in the war game of our COAs, but apply non-western paradigms to the rival forces (which would fundamentally change how wargaming is structured and conducted)...
For question 3, I fear that the endeavor will be similar to what I experienced with some other recent doctrine revision; the dominant power in the room (rank, experience, status) directs the subordinates; all discussions explore variations of approved concepts (we use the rest of our existing doctrine to support emergent doctrine), and outlying thinkers are usually abandoned early on.
I always ask, how can we say that previous doctrine was faulty (as our ALC policy states), but when crafting new versions of doctrine, we are not allowed to deviate significantly from the core pheonomeon and concepts of the aforementioned flawed doctrine?
Potential apples (Vietnam) and oranges (Afghanistan) issues, aspects and considerations:
FM 3-24, Chapter One, Para I-21:
.... "While countering an insurgency during the Cold War (i.e., in non-power vacuum environments), the United States normally focused on increasing a threatened but friendly government's ability to defend itself and on encouraging political and economic reforms to undercut support for the insurgency. Today, when countering an insurgency growing from state collapse or failure (or regime changed by force; all these being, per se, "power vacuum" insurgencies) counterinsurgents often face a more daunting task: helping friendly forces reestablish political order and legitimacy where these conditions may no longer exist."
(Items/thoughts in parenthesis taken from earlier parts of this same paragraph.)
Major Martin thanks for the paper.
One aspect that has been overlooked and seems to be a common anomoly by nearly all papers from the US perspective is that Afghanistan has and is not a US only mission. While US led in most ways, the US has required the cooperation of 46 nations all with their own version of COIN. Each contributing nation has confined its mission based on their respective domestic politics. No disrespect to any of the soldiers from these nations, but because of the restrictions placed on them to engage to the full extent it would have been better if these nations confined their contribution to funding or at most focused on the one specialist task they could implement to augment the overall strategic objectives.
The distraction of Iraq is irrelevant if the overall strategy and direction provided by our nation's political leaders and to be implemented by the military commanders in Afghanistan is flawed. It doesnt matter how many more resources are thrown at a problem, nor how good the military is, if the strategy is poor, or at best keeps changing every 12months.
This is not about arguing if only we had more money, or we will do it better next time. That is the strong lure of cognitive dissonance at work suffered by the likes of Nagl et al, who seem to have abandoned the ship on this issue that they so fanatically believed in. What made the dissonance deeper was that Western leaders found a politically correct frame of reference to justify to their electorates the poor strategic approach to the war in Afghanistan. If only we could win the hearts and minds of the population by forcing Western ideals upon them. As I recently wrote in an OpEd about our own Foreign Minister's comments "The statement by Australian Foreign Affairs Minister, Senator Bob Carr, that the public execution of an Afghan woman by the Taliban is why Australia should continue to commit troops is symptomatic of the confusing strategic policy on Afghanistan. Our original mission was to destroy al-Qaeda and remove the Taliban regime that harboured them. This was completed at the end of 2001. Minister Carr’s statement indicates a war on cultural and religious barbarism that would take generations of troops to defeat." This fits with your second dot point.
I was looking for Pakistan or a similar complicit neighbouring state to feature in your bullet point summary. When you have a pipeline of insurgency, funding and support feeding into Afghanistan from Pakistan then many aspects of the COIN approach were doomed.
MAJ Martin, you nail it on the head with your closing argument "...the similarities are how we acted in both places as opposed to the environments...". Many of your lessons/principles also resonate very well.
Am I correct in understanding that your article focused specifically on foreign (not domestic) counterinsurgency? I ask this question because I get the sense that tactically what you are arguing for looks remarkably like a descendant of FID (if not FID by definition). But there is also a strategic level to your discussion, one that has more to do with warfare rather than counterinsurgency per se, and deals with popular support, policy decisions, public and civil-military communication issues etc. In your lessons you run the spectrum from tactics (e.g. force mixture, host-nation partnering), strategy (e.g. national interest), and Army professionalism (learning from trends, strategy's relationship to doctrine).
Ostensibly, in neither Iraq nor Afghanistan did we start fighting a COIN fight. Iraq started as a conventional, if lopsided, war that then degenerated into something more akin to a colonial insurgency than a foreign one where we happened to get involved to help an ally. In Afghanistan we got in the middle of a civil war, picked a side, namely the one opposite Al Qaeda, and then proceeded to assist the side we supported in trying to conquer the rest of the country in order to deny Al Qaeda allies a home, going through periods of quiet and enemy resurgence (no thanks to the same ally being grossly incompetent in the business of governance). If any recent analogue can be found to what we have been doing in Iraq it is in the colonial wars of Africa and Indochina (pre- Gulf of Tonkin). In Afghanistan, we have no western analogue. Neither of these cases is comparable to the anti-FARC actions, myriad of communist rebellions, or what is happening in Mexico, which are immensely closer to what we imagine COIN is, namely a domestic armed rebellion that challenges an established central government for partial or total control of people and territory, regardless of motivation.
I make this distinction because I believe your essay would benefit greatly from defining the COIN environment that you imagine your principles applying. It would also allow for a clearer distinction between the principles that apply to COIN vs. those that apply to conduct of policy and warfare. They are universal and should not be tied to a specific tactical approach to dealing with a specific type of enemy.
RE: Maybe we can agree that what happened in Vietnam was that we supported a government that didn’t really get the support of the populace. But, in the end that might not have mattered, because after Tet we defeated the insurgency.
Lesson 1 Unit 1
Only conventional idiots and other assorted amateurs believe the insurgency was defeated after Tet.
Protracted Popular War - 3 Phases; a gov't can be overthrown in any phase. If failure is experienced at Phase 2 or 3 then fallback a phase (i.e. if you fail at Phase 2 fallback to Phase 1). Conventional forces focus on the enemy (overt forces and actions), logistic systems and productive systems exclusively and disregard Phase 1 entirely. I advise you to review the Special Operations Research Office publications Human Factors Considerations of Undergrounds in Insurgencies and Undergrounds in Insurgent, Revolutionary, and Resistance Warfare. They remain excellent primers on insurgencies.
History is composed of facts and assumptions that are often cherry picked and interpreted to support one's preconceived point of view. I suspect this will always be the case for most of us, so no matter how much we debate history the truth will generally remain elusive. It is hard enough for an individual to learn when it entails overcoming one's bias, but it is at least 10 fold more difficult for an organization to learn when its bias is institutionalized and reinforced with group think, group loyalty, organization mythology, and a reward system that reinforces the status quo.
The “new” COIN doctrine has now become part of the institution, so learning that requires unlearning first will be very difficult. While it is a doctrine still looking for a victory, many in our ranks embrace it based upon faith alone. The doctrine has become a new mythology that can't be challenged in certain circles, those are circles composed of people who think they get it, and if the rest of us would simply give them another decade to clear, hold and build we would start to achieve results. It sure makes it easy to believe we got it right if we have to wait 10-20 years to see results. Fortunately the American people are not that patient, and contrary to what the COINdistas push that is a virtue, not a weakness. To think otherwise is a self-delusional, and free people are quick to smell B.S., and free and brave people step up and put a stop to it.
I think this was a great thought piece, and would propose one more potential lesson. Historical when we intervene in another country, whether we’re invited or invade, and get intractably involved in their politics we often lose. When we get that close to the problem we have normally taken ownership of it, and it puts us in a position where we have less options, and are forced to cling to failed government that we have been backing despite realizing it is a lost cause. It would seem best for all parties involved if we could position ourselves in a way where we provided minimal support and advise, and set expectations with the host nation we’re assisting and our people that our objectives are minimalist and this is an Afghan struggle for their future, not ours, but we will provide limited support. To be clear it is their fight to win or lose. Expectations set all around, and whomever we’re supporting would get the message that if they want to prevail they need to step up and act accordingly. We can withdraw at any time and will do so if the government acts like thugs.
Many disagree, but I think our limited support for the Libyan uprising was perfect (policy issues aside), we provided limited air support, which gave the rebels an opportunity to overthrow the regime. We didn’t get stuck there with thousands of troops in an intractable position trying to build a democracy. The Libyan people can build what they want, and I suspect like the history of most nations following a revolution it will be a bloody affair, but unless there are some exceptional circumstances it shouldn’t be our fight.
There are more creative and effective ways to achieve objectives in most cases than invading, then applying a clear, hold and build model.
Grant, good thoughts that need to be put out for consideration and debate.
Our lessons from the past decade should be at all levels, but the level where we seem the slowest to learn is at the policy/strategy level. I think about this too much perhaps. I know I would be less frustrated if I would simply "shut up and color" like most others. But even in Kindergarten, I struggled to stay inside the lines when told to color...
Lesson One: The post-Cold War addition to our national security strategy of the idea that we have a vital interest in making others more like us is perhaps the greatest driver of the friction we encounter around the world. It is arrogant, it is judgmental, and it fails to recognize that every culture and populace needs to find a form of government and degree of values that works for them. One can enable that journey, but one cannot both determine the destination and force march some foreign populace to that place and expect it to create stability. It more often than not creates the opposite.
Lesson Two: You don't have to do COIN if you don't create an insurgency in the first place.
Lesson Three: (Related to both Lesson One and Two): If you do go to some foreign country to punish their government for some act or position that we deem merits a military response, leave that government in power so that we can actually benefit from our efforts. That government should stop doing what it was doing that provoked our response in the first place (or simply repeat the lesson), and they will remain fully responsible for the governance of their own country and any insurgent challenges to the same.
Lesson Four: Non-state actors such as al Qaeda cannot be contained or defeated in any single place, nor is any single place essential to their continued existence. To attempt to "deny sanctuary" in the physical sense is a futile bit of balloon squeezing.
Lesson Five: Ideology does not create either transnational terrorism or nationalist insurgency. Co-opt the rational part of such messages and make them part of your own, as that leaves these illegal actors with little that actually appeals to their target audiences. Doing so also highlights what aspects of government action have been perceived as most provocative by the populaces involved and provide a guide for a more stable approach to governance.
Lesson Six: The military is always a supporting effort in foreign policy, regardless of how violent of a situation our pursuit of some policy gets us into. Never fall into the trap of thinking that the military must lead until the conflict is over or violence is adequately reduced. That is a trap of flawed logic that leads to the pursuit of threats over the pursuit of policy.
Lesson Seven: Having a warfighting military in the active force in times of peace is both dangerous and unnecessary to our national security. Such a capacity allows the Executive to commit the nation to war without the natural cooling off period of going to Congress and asking them to fund and raise such a force and grant permission to employ it that was very intentionally written into our Constitution. America has a tremendous luxury of possessing the global geo-strategic key terrain. We need to take advantage of that fact. We have a luxury of time, wealth and distance that others nations do not. We also have key "bookend" allies on the flanks of both the European and Asian continents (GB and JPN for those who are geographically challenged) that prevent large forces from being able to reach out easily to us, while at the same time providing us a base to reach out to them from if necessary. We've used both for that in the past, and can again if necessary in the future.
Lesson Eight: Cyber is scary, but for the most part it is not a military mission.
Lesson Nine: Terrorism is scary, but for the most part it is a law enforcement mission.
Lesson Ten: We didn't need to do what we did, it did not make us safer, and in many ways the influence and wealth expended made us weaker in ways that speed our decline from preeminence. Less is often more. Next time do less.
I have no answers but would like to suggest that maybe we need to go deeper and take a look at the fundamental way we do business in COIN? I remain to be convinced that Center of Gravity analysis is relevant for COIN operations. I also fail to see the value of organizing efforts in the framework of Lines of Operation. Targeting does not seem to have achieved anything more than tactical success in Afghanistan, appears to be premised on a rationale of attrition of the male Pashtun population, and sometimes generates second and third order political effects that we have not taken into account. The civilian side of the effort suffers from an apparent approach of pursuing "information dominance" through throwing more bodies and more money at each issue in order to create new bureaucratic structures that our Afghan partners neither understand nor have the capacity to staff. Finally, the cost of our Afghanistan effort appears to demonstrate that DoD has priced itself out of the ability to deploy a large number of troops overseas.
COIN is a long term activity. This is cultural anathema to Americans who want instant gratification. This is especially true of the political class and military leadership that services them. Nobody wants to tell the Command Authority that the involvement will likely extend over 2 or more administrations.
Basic strategy, dictates that if you try to defend everywhere, you essentially defend nowhere. So any plan that tries to define security as how much square miles are assigned to a single 11B with (maybe) 12 months military experience, is doomed to fail. Doesn't anyone read the "Defense of Duffer's Drift" anymore?
Isn't the real lesson to be learned from Afghanistan is that we forget the lessons learned from the prior insurgency war? So many of your conclusions are were the same captured in the 1980s by (then) Vice-President Bush's commission on “Light Intensity Conflict”. I know we all joked back in 1993 that we would be forced to toss those copies of the book/manual in the trash or at least tear off the cover and write in “Missions Other Than War” in permanent marker on the first page. It kinda seems like that became less of a joke after 1997, and they really were tossed in the trash when objectives were mostly met in Bosnia through Air Power and the threat of rolling in Abrams and Bradleys.
For me, the best part about your paper is how it points out the value of Special Ops Forces vs. Conventional in “Small War” scenarios. I still say we saw the inverse with the invasion of Iraq because it wasn’t a “Small War”.
MAJ Martin and COL Gentile,
With al Qaeda and most of the Taliban escaping to Pakistan, how was safe haven removed? It was in waiting, and tenets of Pashtunwali guaranteed that any return to Pashtun areas of Afghanistan would not be resisted with guests welcomed particularly since less radical leadership emerged that Pashtuns and al Qaeda could not support.
If you argue that we should have actively sided with the Northern Alliance and even separated ethnicities into at least two nations I would agree with you. Same applies in Iraq that should have become three nations. Believe this is the unlearned lesson that has nothing to do with the military, and everything to do with why the conflicts in both areas continue. I reverse myself and submit that with separated ethnicities, COIN would have been immensely simplified.
Whatever "build" that occurred, had to occur at the barrel of a gun due to the lack of security. USAID and contractors were not going to venture into the streets without security. Key areas like Basra had to be secured, and the Brits offered a classic example of why FOBs and inadequate force failed and COPs and the surge succeeded. More on that below.
Back to Afghanistan, al Qaeda was not going to go quietly into the night because of a few bombs dropped. Persistent coalition efforts to thwart al Qaeda's return has forced them to focus elsewhere where our counterattacks are simplified and easily supported from the sea and adjacent friendly nations.
While true that there is no need to secure all of Afghanistan, an argument certainly can be made for securing one third of that 652,000 square kilomters in the east and southwest where Pashtuns, and therefore Taliban, are most omnipresent. That simply means having adequate force for one platoon per smaller CoG area with remaining troops performing support functions.
Returning to Basra, examine British attempts to retain Basra with two bases in 2007. One large FOB with 5300 support troops at the airport on the city outskirts, and one with 700 combat troops in the center of Basra's 181 square kilometers. Basra in 2007 was a city that had 1.7 million and now has 3.5 million.
How were 6000 troops going to secure so many Shiites over so large an area from two FOBs with most troops on the outskirts of trouble? What if instead there were 20 COPs throughout the city, each with a platoon of 45 troops. That is 900 troops better dispersed to "hold" the large troubled city without using substantially more troops than the 700 holed up in a single FOB. Cut the 5300 support troops in the FOB, not the combat forces in COPs.
That is the lesson of wide area security and urban warfare turned population centric COIN.
I liked your piece, but to be clear there is no doubt that from the start the core policy objective for the American military in Afghanistan has been the destruction of al Qaeda. I have read hundreds of testimonies to congress by senior civilian and military leaders (e.g., Franks, Eikenberry, Skelton, Hunter, Flournoy, Gates, McKiernan, Petraeus, McChrystal, et al) that affirm this as the core policy goal. It is also quite clear from the record that also from the beginning the assumed operational method to achieve that core goal (which was never really challenged or questioned) was nation building. Initially in 2002 - 2003 it was hoped that nation building could be done with a minimum of military force to support it, but by 2004 it became clear that it would be armed nation building at the barrell of a gun. So in a sense, from the get go, the core policy goal has remain unchanged and so too has the operational framework that strategy employed to achieve it. The Taliban is therefore our operational enemy, but not our stragic enemy.
Obviously it is impossible to prove this, but after the Taliban fell, if our NCA had determined that our objective was to keep AQ from having a safe haven (which I thought was the objective)- then I think we may have been able to do that by building on the partnering with the Northern Alliance by SOF and let the Afghans figure out how to rule their country. To topple the Taliban we didn't need to own every square inch of the country or patrol it- I fail to see why we needed to do that after they were gone- UNLESS, of course- our populace supported wholesale nation-building and the requisite time, money, and troops that that implies.
Since I think that our real objective WAS simply to keep AQ from having a safe haven from which to launch ops against us- and we effectively met that objective very early on- I think we could have strengthened that position by staying away from most internal issues and only providing our Northern Alliance allies with whatever they needed to build upon their successes against the Taliban.
I am proposing that if that had happened we wouldn't have had to worry about the things we are worrying about now and have worried about for some years now- insurgents massing against fixed NATO positions. The only fixed positions would have been those the Northern Alliance deemed necessary and feasible to protect.
And maybe that is naive (and doesn't touch on the probably issues between the Pashtun South and the NA North)- and I acknowledge it is impossible to prove that would have worked, but I am offering it as a possible alternative to what WAS attempted- especially when our political/strategic objectives seem to have been so limited. Instead of only offering the so-called "industrial COIN" option, maybe using limited presence and ways/means would be more palatable and get us where we want more effectively. I think it is entirely possible that in some areas of the world, fixed positions and overwhelming foreign presence actually undermines stability efforts.
MAJ Martin, I was tracking on many of your earlier comments about different lessons that might be learned. However, then you chose to narrow it to one group of lessons that unsurprisingly claim that SOF would have been adequate in Afghanistan.
I've never been to Afghanistan. But thanks to google, I read about a country that has 652,000 square kilometers. If I divide that by say 130,400 ISAF troops it yields 5 square kms per man to cover. But of course we don't put one guy out there by himself so lets stick with the platoon COP concept which means a 45-man platoon must cover 225 square kms or an area 15 kms x 15 kms. That does not seem problematic other than obviously substantial forces must resupply and support these platoon COPs.
Now lets cut that ISAF force to 10% of its size, or 13,040 SOF troops. That now means each man must cover 50 square kms instead of five. But as with the platoon COP concept of a larger force, let's assume an SOF element has only 9 men or about a squad or A-team size. So placing those guys in squad-size COPs now means an area of 450 square kilometers to cover. That is 21 kms x 21 kms, which appears not much larger than the 15 kms x 15 kms of the platoon size COP.
However, one is a platoon and the other is a squad. We know the Taliban have massed in the past and would continue to apply that tactic in 100-250 man offensive forces. Do you want to be the A-team or Ranger/SEAL squad leader fighting off that enemy force? Can you guard your perimeter and operate 24 hours a day with your squad?
We earlier spoke about SOF troops in Somalia and Marines in Lebanon. Obviously these elite forces were not particularly successful and were vulenerable to attack. Why would we assume that airpower alone could save the lives of squad sized units trying to end an insurgency. How can you work with the population during the day and stop infiltrators at night, not to mention guard your perimeter with just 9 men?
No doubt you would argue that SOF would not cover all areas, instead focusing on centers of gravity. So if Hanoi was the North Vietnam CoG as mentioned earlier, would you have advocated attacking and securing it with SOF forces alone. We often read about one year tours being part of the problem. With SOF, don't you get a series of 3-6 month tours to have SOF leaving just as they know the ground and people? If your squad is vulnerable so you can't even establish a fixed COP position, do you plan to wander the countryside that the enemy better understands to try to remain hidden? How will that complicate resupply efforts without giving away your position? Do you plan to hide and walk for years? How will you interact with the population if you are walking and hiding instead of establishing a COP near the population the insurgent seeks to influence/control?