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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.