Small Wars Journal

Strategy is a Journey: Thoughts on Strategy and Stability in an Evolving World

Tue, 06/30/2020 - 4:54pm

Strategy is a Journey

Thoughts on Strategy and Stability in an Evolving World

By Robert C. Jones

“Tenet 14 – ‘design in real time,’ because knowledge is durable, but ideas are fleeting.” I looked out across the audience in Jones Auditorium (no relation) at the faculty and students of the 2020 Air War College class.  To my amazement, they were actually listening with interest to my presentation on “Thinking about Thinking.”  This class of Colonels were in their second week of Operational Design, and I appreciated full-well their primary focus was on getting their design products completed in their respective seminar teams, and completing their individual writing assignments.  I held no delusions.  I realized carving out an hour on this rainy morning at Maxwell Air Force Base to listen to some retired Army Special Forces Colonel drone on about his thoughts on design was not something they had been eagerly anticipating.

On the massive screen behind my slowly pacing form (I hate podiums even more than I hate scripts) was a slide built around a photocopy of a page from my notebook. Eyebrows raised as I revealed a mess of sloppily doodled Venn diagrams from my own active listening at the SMA (Strategic Multi-layer Assessment) Conference at Joint Base Andrews the previous year.

Figure 1. “Design in Real Time,” Jones, 2020.[i]

My primary goal as a public speaker is both deceptively simple, and incredibly difficult: “Have something interesting to say, and say it in an interesting way.”  While I don’t always succeed in that goal, I believe I owe it to my audience to at least try.  So here I was, doing my best.

The goal of this particular slide (like this paper) had several layers to it. The first was to encourage these students to not simply listen and record, but to listen and think. The second was to emphasize the importance of capturing ideas as they emerge.  In my experience, few things are easier to forget than a brilliant idea or turn of a phrase not committed to paper.  The third was that design is messy, and that pausing to spell check or polish are unnecessary and detrimental detours from creative thought.  The fourth was the germ of an idea itself.  We are not competing against violent extremist groups like al Qaeda or the Islamic State. Nor are we competing against state actors like Russia or China.  Nor are our interests served by protecting some distant government from the active discontent of their own populations.  We do not compete against, in a contest for control; we compete with, in a contest for influence. The world has changed, and we must change with it.  I hoped this final thought trickle higher…

The real prize of modern competition lies within the perceptions of the populations affected by these overlapping bands of governance and ideologies.  How a population perceives their domestic governance either creates or relieves internal revolutionary energy.  How a population perceives the foreign governance affecting their lives either creates or relieves external resistance energy.  Lastly, when some third party competitor comes along with their ideological narratives they are not “radicalizing” a population with some Odyssey-like Siren song; they are merely exploiting an energy for political instability and conflict already created by the systems of governance affecting this population’s lives.  Polished up a bit, the idea looks more like this:

Figure 2. “Strategic Influence,” Jones, 2019[ii].

As It turns out strategic influence was an “idea too far” (for some), but that is the purpose of ideas, to challenge what makes us comfortable.  Particularly when the ideas lending us comfort fail so completely in generating the durable strategic ends they are intended for.  The strategic journey rarely follows a narrow path.  Instead it wends where it must, following ideas, skirting obstacles, pausing interminably at times, and at other times rushing headlong with renewed energy.  Strategy also spirals, like a military formation on a long run, constantly doubling back to pick up those thoughts and concepts fallen out along the way.  Not every idea makes it to the finish; but then, strategy is a journey, and not a destination.

Which brings us to the here and now.  In Kabul, Afghanistan in June 2020, the enemy at the gate is Covid-19 and a settled peace is within grasp; and my closest friends would tap me gently on the shoulder and tell me to stand down, that the time for strategy is over. Being my closest friends, however, they would not be surprised when I disagree.  If there are two times when strategy is needed most, it is at the beginning of a conflict, and at the finish.  Since we apparently skipped that step on the front end (we were angry, and in a hurry), please humor me, and let me attempt to add a bit here at the end.

To that end I am working on a variety of projects, all aimed at enhancing our efforts for best effect.  In the course of those efforts I have circled back and picked up a few ideas that had fallen out along the way.  Forgotten; unfinished and unpublished; buried in a folder within a folder on my hard drive, I spotted a title that caught my interest.  Nine years old, but still relevant, some thoughts on the thinking that helped carry us to where we are today.  I think now is a good time to bring this straggler back into the formation.  Perhaps here is an idea or two to help us finish strong. (RCJ, Kabul, Afghanistan.)

The Empire Has No Clothes

By Robert C. Jones (March 3, 2011)

     The U.S. Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Manual, FM 3-24, is bad doctrine.  There, someone said it.  Much like the new clothing of Hans Christian Anderson’s fabled Emperor, FM 3-24 (henceforth, “the COIN manual”) was presented with great fanfare and widely proclaimed as brilliant.  In the legend, no one dared say what they truly thought about the Emperor’s new attire, as it was woven from a miraculous new cloth that the weavers proclaimed as “Not only uncommonly fine, but clothes made of this cloth had a wonderful way of becoming invisible to anyone who was unfit for his office, or who was unusually stupid.”[iii]

     So too was the fanfare and implication surrounding the unveiling of the COIN manual.  To criticize the manual (or the family of strategies, plans and campaigns crafted in its image) was to be judged “unfit, or unusually stupid” as well (I have firsthand knowledge, and the scars to prove it).

    To be fair, there is much that is very good in the COIN manual.  However, the margin between success and failure in counterinsurgency is often one of small nuances in how such operations are framed or conducted.  It is in these nuances the COIN manual falls short.  Insurgency itself, however, is a bit of a dark art; illegal by definition and only practiced and studied by a small slice of the special operations community.  It was only the hard realities of an Army mired in a growing Iraqi insurgency that forced a modern revival of COIN within the conventional community; but insurgency itself is still only studied and practiced by us “Green Berets.” 

     The COIN manual, for all its shortcomings, was the right doctrine, at the right time, and the fanfare was well deserved.  It brought the historic lessons of counterinsurgency out from those dark corners and provided a new framework for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Unlike the fabled weavers who conned an Emperor, it was not the fault of the authors of the COIN manual the fanfare was so great as to suppress virtually all critical comment.  The effect, however, was largely the same.  We have placed a naked American Empire on parade, and it is indeed time to acknowledge the hard fact that the Empire has no clothes.

Does “COIN” stand for Counterinsurgency? Or Colonial Intervention…

     A cogent family of definitions is vital to any guiding document.  Good definitions set a tone and framework for everything that follows.  Such definitions guide analysis and shape conclusions.  Bad definitions, however, have an opposite effect, and the problems with the COIN manual begin with the definitions.  Sentence one, paragraph one, chapter one proclaims “Insurgency and counterinsurgency (COIN) are complex subsets of warfare,” introducing two critical assumptions as hard facts and shaping the tone for the remainder of the manual.[iv]  The first questionable fact is that insurgency and COIN are “complex.”  The second questionable fact is that insurgency and COIN are “warfare.”  With this single sentence, we painted ourselves into a small corner of a much larger problem. From the perspective of the manual, the only potential for success is a suppression of the symptoms of insurgency and the emergence of an artificial stability created and sustained through force (E.g., Iraq).  The door to a more natural stability, on the other hand, seems impossibly small and unattainable on the opposite wall.

     What too often makes COIN complex is assuming success lies in the preservation of the current form, manning and general disposition of the challenged government.  Nothing is more detrimental to successful COIN than this assumption government is right because it is official and therefore legal; and that a challenge from the people is wrong because it is unofficial and illegal.  Governance is causation!  Deliberately ignoring the express will of one’s own aggrieved population and creating stability without resorting to the suspension of civil liberties and violent suppression of action is a challenge.  To intervene into such a dispute between some other government and their populace without triggering a natural resistance effect toward your own nation is virtually impossible.  We meddle in problems that are not ours to solve, attempt to implement solutions deemed best for us, and we wonder at why it never seems to work.  (Note: Imagine how Americans would react to a Chinese or Russian intervention today to address current instability in the US on terms they deem best for them…)

     What tends to make COIN warfare is when one is acting to intervene in the relations of some foreign country to preserve a government that answers well to the interests of the intervening power; but is being challenged by some segment of their own population perceiving their own needs irrelevant or of secondary concern.  What begins as a civil emergency for the host nation, too easily becomes counter-guerrilla warfare for the intervening party.  To intervene in some foreign country and effectively suppress symptoms of popular discontent while at the same time building a functional sanctuary of security around the challenged government is indeed a complex challenge, but it is not “COIN” (Note: this is what we did in Iraq, creating the conditions ISIS fed upon to emerge and create an Islamic State. Jury is out on Afghanistan…). 

     Similarly, insurgency may often manifest in violent tactics and grow in scope and intensity to war-like dimensions. But not all combat is warfare, and waging warfare against one’s own populace is rarely the fast path to true peace and natural stability.  Insurgency is best considered in the context of civil emergency; often peaceful, sometimes warlike, always illegal, but rarely, if ever, warfare.  After all, “war” exposes a nation to defeat, while insurgency merely exposes a nation to a potential change of management, albeit forced through illegal politics. Ultimately, the only difference between revolution and democracy is legality. Viewed in that light, revolution is not irregular war at all. It is illegal democracy.

     The assumptions of the complexity and warfare of insurgency and COIN is not solely the fault of modern American writers of COIN doctrine.  The problem finds its roots in the generations of European and U.S. colonial history from which the COIN manual is derived.  This is not, however, a history of COIN; this is a history of establishing and sustaining colonial dominion over the governments, populations, territories and wealth of others.  The manual is not based on English COIN practiced domestically (though insurgency there took the head of a king and paved the road to a modern Great Britain); the manual is based on British colonialism practiced in places like Kenya and Malaya. The manual is not based on French COIN practiced domestically (though royal heads rolled there as well), but rather on French colonialism practiced in places like Algeria and Indo-China. 

    Most importantly, the manual is not based on domestic American COIN practices, such as James Madison’s insistence the Constitution needed a Bill of Rights; or Lyndon Johnson’s sacrifice of his own political career to push through three landmark civil rights acts in the 1960s.  Each served in their eras to help stabilize and preserve a vulnerable nation.  Instead the manual draws from American colonial experiences in Latin America and the Philippines; and updated by interventions in places like Vietnam and Iraq.  Supporting a foreign nation against its own people is not counterinsurgency; that is colonial intervention and counter-guerrilla warfare. COIN is a domestic operation, so the only place the US does COIN is at home. In short, the primary problem with the COIN manual is it is only five years old, but is already 235 years out of date.

A Timeless Moral Compass and Emerging Globalization

     Anytime a person or a nation chooses a course that takes them off azimuth from their moral compass, bad things will happen, no matter how “good” many of their actions might be.  If the overall purpose for action is bad, no amount of good in execution can overcome the handicap.  This is the false promise of population-centric COIN, development and nation building.  All of these are unquestionably good programs, executed by dedicated professionals from all walks of life who are truly as committed to helping others as they are to serving their own nation, people and constitution.

     The tenets of colonial intervention do not square with the principles upon which America was founded.  The principles captured in that trifecta of American governance enshrined at the National Archives in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were born of insurgency, so have little tolerance for the suppression of the insurgencies of others.  Rationalizing our duty to impose our will upon others, as superseding our principles to support self-determination, was the first, and most devastating casualty of the Cold War.

     Yes, these are American principles, American rights, and do not mean the same thing to people everywhere.  True enough, though if adjusted for variations such as history and culture, these natural rights find their roots in our shared human nature.  Regardless of that, they apply to Americans wherever we go, and that is enough.  These principles are the noble rationale we justify our actions by, and they are the yardstick by which our actions are judged by others.  Cold War containment demanded many small compromises to contain a greater threat, and to preserve a greater good.  Now, over 20 years past the fall of the Berlin Wall, similar “walls” are beginning to fall across the greater Middle East, and far too many of those walls have been held in place artificially by the hard efforts of great Americans doing good things for bad purpose. 

     The biggest problem with the COIN manual is not the many lessons, insights and techniques that it contains, the problem is that the authors did not change the context of the problem.  The missed opportunity coming out of Iraq was in not abandoning the context of colonialism in favor for a context more in sync with our national ethos, and more appropriate for the emerging world around us.  The COIN manual missed an opportunity to bring these operations back onto azimuth with the course set by our founders with that great national moral compass.

A Context that Applies from Afghanistan to Arabia

     Not every American intervention is as overt as the invasion of Iraq.  Similarly, not every response to intervention is as violent and war-like as that of the Iraqi people.  In fact, most interventions are far more subtle, such as U.S. efforts over the past 70-odd years to promote and sustain the al-Saud family in power in Saudi Arabia; or 30 years of enabling Hosni Mubarak’s presidency in Egypt; or even the past 10 years committed to elevating and sustaining the presidency of Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan (add Ghani and Abdullah to that list…).

     In all of these places, and a dozen more just like them, U.S. foreign policy has assumed the same colonial context that permeates the COIN Manual.  Then, as friction continues to grow in response to such approaches, the problem is handed to the military to resolve. It is the colonial context of U.S. foreign policy that tends to disenfranchise local populaces from the political process, and that tends to enable a growing sense of entitlement and impunity among the ruling elites in their protected isolation.  It is this colonial context to U.S. foreign policy, far more than the Islamist ideologies employed of late to rally populations to resist, that has given rise to the influence of organizations such as Al Qaeda, or the Muslim Brotherhood (and of course, ISIS).  U.S. foreign policy position is to wage counterterrorism to defeat organizations which in turn employ terrorism to overcome the effects of U.S. foreign policy overly contextualized by colonialism.  This is a treadmill of circular logic that cannot end well for any of the governments or populations involved.  Fortunately the solution is fundamentally simple, and falls in line nicely with moral azimuth established by our founding fathers so long ago.


Our various national strategies are correct that we are in a “competition.”  Where they go astray is in overly characterizing this competition as some inevitable prelude to war, and in not recognizing how changes in the character of the strategic environment demand changes of understanding, theory and practice as well.  It is not enough to know what our manuals say, we must actually understand what they seek to address.  In so many ways, knowledge is both the pathway and the obstacle to understanding.  Never let your knowledge become an obstacle to your understanding. So, I challenge the reader, as I challenged the Air War College Class of 2020.  “Design in real time, and remember the purpose of design is not to prove your case.  The purpose of design is to form a theory of the case.” 

We’ve been trying diligently to prove an old theory for some time; perhaps now, while we can do so on our own terms, it is time to form a new theory.  It’s time for a theory rooted more in the world as it actually is and the principles we profess to adhere to, rather than a flawed vision of what we wish things were and the ideas created to support that obsolete vision.

The contents of this paper are the author’s, and do not reflect the positions of USSOCOM, SOJTF-A or the Government of the United States.

[i] Robert C. Jones, “The Unconventional Strategist: Thinking About Thinking and the Art of Design.” J52 Donovan Group, USSOCOM. Presented to the Air War College, 02/20/2020.

[ii] Robert C. Jones, “The Unconventional Strategist: Thinking about the World as it actually Exists.” J52 Donovan Group, USSOCOM, Presented to Joint Special Operations University, Joint Special Operations Forces Senior Enlisted Advisor Course, 05/29/2019.

[iii] Hans Christian Anderson, “The Emperor’s New Clothes”

[iv] U.S. Army Field Manual 3-24; Marine Corps Warfighting Publication 3-33.5, “Counterinsurgency”.

About the Author(s)

Robert Jones is a retired Army Special Forces Colonel, serving the past ten years as senior strategist at USSOCOM. His focus is understanding the nature of the strategic environment, the evolving character of conflict, and the implications for our Special Operations Forces. He is a core member of the Joint Staff’s Strategic Multilayer Assessment (SMA) network, and a regular lecturer at the Joint Special Operations University and the Air War College. A Cold War and Gulf War vet, he stepped away for a bit to gain experiences as both an emergency manager and a deputy district attorney prior to returning to the Special Operations community post 9/11 to serve from Zamboanga to Kandahar, and places in between.


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Besides our challenges in adapting to the realities of the current strategic environment, and our overly symptomatic responses to VEOs and State challengers in equal measure, is our failure to learn a hard lesson of history:

Great powers are by definition status quo powers. They are slow to see the opportunity in change, but quick to see perceived "threats."  Revisionist challengers, however, are quick to recognize and seize the opportunities these changes present.  Great powers also expand in their rise.  When they fall, it is from trying to control too much, too long, and exhausting themselves in the process.  We risk becoming an exhausted state.  China prays for that day...



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