Small Wars Journal

The Haunting Rhymes of America’s Wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan: Why Metrics Still Matter

Fri, 06/27/2014 - 12:14am

The Haunting Rhymes of America’s Wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan: Why Metrics Still Matter

James C. Bithorn


The feedback and analysis system along with metrics used by the US and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Afghanistan to quantify measures of success in Afghanistan has been disproportionately focused on enemy related activity. This focus causes senior commanders and strategic level political leadership to inaccurately gauge the success or failure of the enduring OEF campaign plan. Senior commanders and planners should correct this issue by adopting a system similar to the Hamlet Evaluation System, which was used from 1967 and on during the Vietnam War.


History has a haunting way of revealing itself in warfare, and for those who fail to heed its message; a continuance of regret and failure is assured. One undeniable fact that recent history has provided us is that an understanding of the intangible ingredients of warfare will act as a catalyst for success in Counterinsurgency Operations.  Unfortunately this is a critical lesson that has not been applied to operations in Afghanistan over the past 13 years of conflict.

The feedback and analysis system along with metrics used by the US and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Afghanistan to quantify measures of success in Afghanistan has been disproportionately focused on enemy related activity. This focus causes senior commanders and strategic level political leadership to inaccurately gauge the success or failure of the enduring OEF campaign plan. Senior commanders and planners should correct this issue by adopting a system similar to the Hamlet Evaluation System, which was used from 1967 and on during the Vietnam War.

The ability to assess the effectiveness of counterinsurgency operations has plagued the efforts of the United States government along with ISAF since 2001. ISAF and US continue to be unable to “see themselves” despite having executed OEF for nearly 13 years. Despite significant changes in operational and strategic level leadership along with a redesigned enduring campaign plan, we still have not instilled a system to determine whether or not we are meeting our objectives. This deadly practice ultimately leads to tactical level leadership executing the same approach, but expecting change or improvement. The current metrics collected in Afghanistan reflect an overt focus upon enemy initiated IEDs, ambushes and other flavors of enemy-related activity. There is however no system or metrics in use to determine the effects of a population-centric counterinsurgency approach, the accepted focus of the existing OEF campaign plan. A lack of useful metrics in Afghanistan also provides false indicators, causing senior planners and commanders to be disjointed in their understanding of what phase of a campaign they are executing and whether or not a redistribution of effort is required. This will ultimately lead to a situation in which the counterinsurgency effort in Afghanistan will be left defeated and completely unsalvageable.

To assert this paradigm, I will review the existing decision support doctrine and highlight its deficiencies. I will then provide an overview of counterinsurgency, focusing on its unique nature as an aspect of warfare and what is required of decision support tools in a counterinsurgency environment. Finally, I will compare the approach used by the US and ISAF in Afghanistan and the Hamlet Evaluation System, used in Vietnam post 1967 to demonstrate a potential solution to an existing gap in doctrine.


72 hours of battle has raged within the confines of the National Training Center’s (NTC) central corridor and the opposing force, the famed 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, appears to have capitulated. Inside the dusty brigade TOC (Tactical Operations Center) the brigade S-2, the ranking intelligence officer for the brigade, informs an exhausted young Soldier to prepare to send a message to the TAC CP (Tactical Command Post). “Tell the S-3 that the Shadow has identified what appears to be the enemy main body withdrawing from the breach site.” At the TAC CP, the brigade S-3 (the brigade operations officer) acknowledges the message, updates his tracking boards, and consults with his assistant. Based off of an earlier battle damage assessment (BDA) stating that all of the enemy’s breaching equipment had been destroyed, combined with this most recent intelligence report, the S-3 determines that a decision point has been reached and approaches the Brigade Commander. “Sir, as prescribed in the decision support template, we have reached decision point number nine, to commit our operational reserve and transition from defensive to offensive operations.” The sage commander grunts his acknowledgement and asks the younger officer if they have met the appropriate criteria. “Yes sir, based off of reports provided from the maneuver battalions and confirmed by the S-2, we have destroyed two-thirds of the enemy’s armored forces, all of their breaching equipment, and they are withdrawing along avenue of approach two”. The commander praises the young Majoror for his effort, and tells him to issue the fragmentary order and execute the transition from defense to offense, thus bringing the total operation one phase closer to termination.                                                 

The Existing Doctrine

The previously described scenario provides insight into how a staff officer achieves one of the most sacred of his responsibilities, assisting the commander in making decisions. Critical to achieving this task is the creation of decision support tools, such as a template or matrix, which are designed to portray key decisions and potential actions that are likely to arise during the execution of a course of action (COA).1 A well prepared decision support tool should serve as a “playbook” for a commander, helping him to achieve decision points. Not to be confused with a decisive point, decision points are those decisions a commander must make to further the operation towards its planned endstate.2  The skilled planner will use decision support tools to link those decision points with the earliest and latest timing of the decision and the appropriate priority intelligence requirements (PIRs) (those things the commander must know about the enemy to make the decision) and friendly force information requirements (FFIRs) (things the command must know about his forces to make the decision). Each branch from a decision point requires different actions, and each action demands various follow-up actions, such as sequels or potential sequels.3

The science of identifying decision points during an operation and the staff-work required to build decision support tools have been a part of our joint and service specific doctrine for some time, and should be the trademark of any well-seasoned planner. A review of Joint Publication 5-0 or Army Doctrinal Publication 5-0 can provide significant insight into how a planner builds his decision points during COA Development, step three of both the Joint Operation Planning Process (JOPP) and the Army’s Military Decision Making Process (MDMP) and continues the process through step four, COA Analysis and Wargaming. Methods of recording data are provided along with templates for the staff officer to build upon, seemingly making the process foolproof. Where we often find the greatest challenge to the effective use of decision support tools is in their execution, as we attempt to navigate through the fog of war to see if the reality on the ground meets the decision criteria, or those conditions that must exist in space and time, to make a decision. This complexity in warfare is best described by the great Prussian military theorist Carl Von Clausewitz in On War: “Further, every War is rich in particular facts, while at the same time each is an unexplored sea, full of rocks which the General may have a suspicion of, but which he has never seen with his eye, and round which, moreover, he must steer in the night.”4

The establishment of decision criteria in a conventional engagement, more commonly known as Majoror combat operations (MCO), or within the Army as Combined Arms Maneuver (CAM), can come fairly easily once a critical analysis of the enemy and thorough execution of planning has been conducted. As illustrated by our young Majoror earlier, he was able to identify through use of an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) that the 11th ACR had lost two thirds of its combat power along with its breaching equipment, and further, that they were conducting exfiltration from the main battle area. These actions taken by the enemy told him that the opposing force would not be able to continue its attempts to breach the friendly force’s defense, and that a window of opportunity had been opened for a transition to the offense, likely breaking the enemy’s will and capability. What I did not illustrate however, was how and why this decision criteria was established.

During either JOPP or MDMP, a staff will wargame the COA that they have developed in order to ensure the COA is refined and executable. The wargame itself is a disciplined process, with rules and steps that attempt to visualize the flow of the operation, given the forces’ strengths and dispositions, enemy’s capabilities and possible COAs, impact and requirements of civilians in the AO, and other aspects of the situation.5 Once the wargame is complete, the potential impact of variables such as the enemy, terrain, weather, and civilian considerations should become apparent. It is because of these variables that preplanned decision points are integrated into the overall plan as a result of the wargame process. These decision points are then tied to a series of branch plans, which are contingency options built into the base plan and used for changing the mission, orientation, or direction of movement of a force to aid success of the operation based on anticipated events, opportunities, or disruptions caused by enemy actions and reactions.6 Dependent upon where in time and space a decision may be made during the conduct of an operation, a sequel plan may also be an output of a decision point, which is the subsequent Majoror operation or phase based on the possible outcomes (success, stalemate, or defeat) of the current Majoror operation or phase.7 When we look back to the process executed by the friendly force facing the 11th ACR, it is safe to assume that a preplanned decision point of when to commit the friendly reserve based off of the enemy situation was built into the overall base plan as a result of the wargame.

As I stated earlier, MCO or CAM presents fairly logical decision points, most of which can be easily identified during the conduct of the wargame, or can be inferred upon through the study of doctrine. Since 2001 however, the US and its allies have been saturated by the conduct of operations in a counterinsurgency environment, one that truly reflects that Clausewitz based dictum that “everything in war is simple, but the simplest thing is difficult”.8                       


There is perhaps no more difficult subset of warfare than insurgency and counterinsurgency (COIN). Although COIN aligns with the most typical aspect of warfare in that it remains a violent clash of interests between organized groups characterized by the use of force, it exists as an anomaly in that the tactical level of war can often rest upon the operational and strategic levels of war.9 This paradox of warfare exists due to the prominent theme in COIN, which is a population-centric approach to enabling host nation government legitimacy. Additionally, as most actions occur at the tactical level and are seen first, they can have an immediate and enduring effect at both the operational and strategic levels of war.10 A perfect example of this paradigm is a fratricide incident that occurred on 30 September 2010 in Pakistan’s Kurram tribal region.       

At approximately 0500L, two NATO helicopters had mistaken a Pakistani border patrol outpost for an enemy location, engaging the outpost and killing three Pakistani soldiers. As a result, Pakistani authorities ordered a halt to all trucks and oil tankers ferrying supplies to the ISAF’s through the vital Torkham Gate checkpoint. This tactical engagement resulted in a 10-day blockade of the Torkham Gate area and the destruction of an estimated 150 trucks by Pakistani and Taliban insurgents. The situation had so badly deteriorated that international mediation was required at the strategic level to reach resolution.10 This incident clearly highlights the standout nature of COIN operations in which tactical level actions drive decisions and further actions at the strategic levels of war, often to a radical degree.

A further enigma of COIN operations is the greater importance of the diplomatic, information, and economic facets of the national instruments of power ahead of military action. David Galula, a French Army officer and scholar who is widely acknowledged as the founding father of COIN theory stated that, “Essential though it is, the military action is secondary to the political one, its primary purpose being to afford the political power enough freedom to work safely with the population.”11 Here we also find Galula emphasizing the importance of working with the population to bolster host-nation government legitimacy, a critical subset of COIN theory.

A Majoror catalyst for achieving host-nation government legitimacy in COIN operations is enduring local security of the population. As I highlighted previously with the Pakistani border outpost incident, tactical level actions drive changes for the better or worse at the operational and strategic levels of war in a COIN environment, mainly due to the outward nature of such actions towards a population.  Local security is an aspect of day to day life that a population can see, touch, and feel regularly, and will drive popular sentiment towards a host-nation government.

US Army Field Manual (FM) 3-24, Counterinsurgency, the authoritative manual for COIN operations, continues to emphasize this unique aspect of COIN theory when describing the nature of COIN operations. The manual states that Host-Nation (HN) forces and other counterinsurgents must establish control of one or more areas from which to operate.

HN forces must secure the people continuously within these areas, and when necessary, the host nation must retain or regain control of the Majoror population centers to stabilize the situation, secure the government’s support base, and maintain the government’s legitimacy      .12

In addition to local security, another critical factor to drive legitimacy is the establishment of essential services. Simple services such as potable water availability, sewage plants operating, trash collection, a transportation network, along with schools and medical clinics open represent a return to normalcy for a population and further validate the legitimacy of a host-nation government. These themes continue to repeat themselves in the writings of Roger Trinquier, David Kilcullen, General (ret.) David Petraeus, LTG McMaster and many other COIN theory experts, firmly cementing the population and its attitude towards governance as the “key terrain” in a COIN environment.

COIN Decision Support Tools

A decision support matrix was the primary tool used by our young Majoror in the National Training Center battle, guiding the flow of the battle and decisions required of the senior commander. The COIN environment however does not provide the same level of simplicity as does combined arms maneuver or Majoror combat operations.

Although certain aspects of COIN operations can and should be war-gamed, a decision support tool cannot be built in the same manner as illustrated in figure 1. Dr. Jeffrey Reilly, director of joint education at the Air Force’s Command and Staff College, and author of Operational Design, Distilling Clarity from Complexity for Decisive Action, posits that the real analysis should be focused on the collection and examination of longitudinal data.13 Reilly further explains that “this data should focus on the insurgent’s effectiveness in exerting governing authority and the population’s attitude toward the host nation’s governing authority. Longitudinal data is an intrinsic ingredient in developing incisive assessment criteria. If it is accurate, longitudinal data provides the ability to assess the COIN strategy and even more significantly to show the subtle types of progress that lead to success.”14 The formation of such tools are invaluable  as they will be able to measure success over extended periods of time, in an operational environment that changes rapidly due to and endless array of factors. If such tools are built correctly, studied for correctness, and understood at all levels of war, then the decisions commanders and strategic leaders must make to remain successful in the COIN environment should remain apparent and easily executable.

There are those scholars and theorists who are adverse to the emphasis on “metrics” in a COIN environment. One only needs to peruse the pages of varying “mil-blogs” in existence that refer to such data as an “archaic-McNamara” style of thinking, in which one searches in vain for a scientific formula to provide a timely end to conflict. A hasty end to COIN operations is not however what longitudinal data is meant to provide. This critical data represents the fuel for an effective decision support tool in the COIN environment. This data is also closely tied to measures of effectiveness (MOEs) and measures of performance (MOPs). A MOE is a criterion used to assess changes in system behavior, capability, or an operational environment that is tied to measuring the attainment of an end state, achievement of an objective, or creation of an effect.15 MOEs answer the question, Are we achieving results that move us towards the desired end state, or are additional or alternative actions required? MOPs are defined as criterion to assess friendly actions that are tied to measuring task accomplishment.16 MOPs answer the question, was the task or action performed as the commander intended? FM 3-24 describes the data required to drive MOEs/MOPs in the COIN environment as observable, quantifiable, objective, along with subjective indicators to assess progress measured against expectations.17 This all too often proves to be the crux of the COIN problem, identifying the appropriate data to assess and criteria of which to weigh it against. FM 3-24, for all of its usefulness, does not provide further insight or context into how to collect such data, what to do with it once it is collected, and how to ensure its relevancy.

Since we have established that local security and essential services remain the Majoror catalysts for success in the COIN environment, it is logical that the data collected to drive decision support tools should reflect population’s attitude towards these two areas. If this data is collected appropriately, it should yield a “tilt line” or an indicator for the minimum support from the population necessary for success.18 If this tilt line is used appropriately, it should provide the commander a valuable decision tool for modifying or changing the COIN strategy.19          

Example Tilt Line Figure (Figure 1)

When developing the data requirement for measurement in a COIN environment, there are some lessons from history that can fill the void of doctrine and drive the approach.        FM 3-24 provides such an account. The manual states, “In South Vietnam prior to 1967, US forces used the “body count” to evaluate success or failure of combat operations. Yet, the body count only communicated a small part of the information commanders needed to assess their operations. It was therefore misleading. Body count can be a partially effective indicator only when adversaries and their identities can be verified. Additionally, an accurate appreciation of what insurgent casualty numbers might indicate regarding enemy strength or capability requires knowing the exact number of insurgent armed fighters initially present. In addition, this indicator does not measure several important factors: for example, which side the local populace blames for collateral damage, whether this fighting and resultant casualties damaged the insurgent infrastructure and affected the insurgency strategy in that area, and where families of dead insurgents reside and how they might react.”20                                                                       

Although FM 3-24 does not provide the “how to” it does provide the “what not to”, valuable insight for any planner. Given such a costly lesson in history, surely we would learn to apply it in complex COIN environments such as Afghanistan. However, as we use the lens of metrics to review what data was collected and provided over the past 13 years in Afghanistan, we will find that history did not necessarily repeat itself, but it certainly did rhyme.            

Afghanistan and Irrelevant Metrics

The data collected in Afghanistan makes it nearly impossible to identify trends, measure effectiveness, or provide a commander or strategic leaders a tool to assist with decision making. According to a 2013 Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) report, titled The Afghan War in 2013, Meeting the Challenges of Transition, ISAF and the US have mainly reported on only the   “positive” trends in the fight against the insurgents. This method hauntingly falls in line with the body counts that were made prior to 1967 in Vietnam. 21       

The unclassified picture of the war in Afghanistan since 2009 has been severely tainted by the use of carefully selected indicators which painted the picture of tactical progress. ISAF chose to highlight the kinetics; in particular, enemy initiated ambushes (EIAs) to drive their MOEs, a deadly practice in a war of political attrition. Furthermore, ISAF has failed to develop metrics that show even tactical progress at the highpoint in ISAF deployments, and that ISAF and the ANSF can cope with insurgent expectations of withdrawal by 2014. It has downplayed or ignored political dimensions of the war which more accurately align with a population-centric COIN approach.22

A rationale for the use of EIAs from 2009-2012 as a reportable metric is because it presented the most favorable set of statistical trends but however contains a lack of military or political meaning.23. Trends in EIAs revert to the same kinetic focus on tactical victories in regular combat that characterized a great deal of US and ISAF reporting before the insurgency reached the crisis level in 2008, and in ways  strikingly similar to pre-Tet assessments in Vietnam. The result is reporting that focuses on the areas where US, ISAF, and the best ANA forces have a decisive tactical advantage.24 This focus on EIAs ignores the fact that militant groups such as the Taliban are fighting a political war of attrition and the fact that the insurgency cannot be defeated by winning tactical clashes, making it remarkably difficult to assess either ISAF success of the challenges of the ANSF face.25  As we have established earlier, metrics and data collected in a COIN environment should constitute the Majoror composition of a commander’s decision support tools, or in this case, our strategic leaders’ decision repertoire. When the data that is collected represents a desired public relations narrative rather than a reflection of the relative success or failure of a campaign’s approach, they are a symbol of a “spin” that border on dishonest reporting.

The following figure, provided by the 2013 CSIS report, reflects the statistical nonsense chosen for a public relations impact. It shows the extent (or depths) to which the data were used to try to show progress that was not occurring. It is only one of a wide range of similar charts that ISAF has issued on EIAs that have no real statistical meaning, much less serve as an adequate measure of progress in the war.26

(Figure 2)

In contrast, the following three figures show that even if one does confine EIA reporting to combat areas and tie it to specific regions, the figures did not show anything like the progress that ISAF and US official sources reported publicly in Helmand in 2011 and 2012.27               

Figure 3 shows what appear to be positive trends in EIAs in the Helmand area-which was the key focus of the surge; however, these trends do little more than show that the insurgents stopped making attacks they know would result in Majoror losses during the peak of the surge in 2010. This “positive” trend largely vanishes in 2011 as the insurgents focused on attacks that would give them political visibility or which they thought would produce favorable results.28

(Figure 3)

Figure 4 shows that there were still significant acts of insurgent violence in the Helmand River Area in 2012.29  

(Figure 4)

            Figure 4 shows a significant insurgent presence in the Helmand valley in 2012.30


(Figure 5)

A further disturbing trend is that ISAF and US reporting like DoD’s 1230 Report, the one Majoror official US report on the course of the war where the State Department and US Agency for International Development (USAID), have never produced a single meaningful analysis of their role in the conflict, and has quietly dropped virtually every metric that shows progress in substantive terms. Any sort of map or graphical representation showing progress in governance and security by province and district has been deleted, as have maps showing perceptions of progress in aid.31 Furthermore, all references and maps relating to the original campaign plan are gone, along with any reference to progress in the Populated 81 Critical Districts of Interest and more than 40 additional Districts of Interest that were the focus of ISAF objectives in 2009 through early 2011.32     This stovepipes the data to a certain period of time instead of viewing progress since inception, the only true way to assess progress.

Metrics are only relevant if they do not focus on meaningless aggregates and accurately represent that war being fought, in this case a war of political attrition with a COIN approach. Even in the case that the EIAs were accurate, the Taliban, HiG, HiK, Haqqani Network, etc., understand that there is no point in directly challenging a vastly superior ISAF forces or the best ANSF. They understand that concentrating on building influence, high profile attacks, and intimidating ANSF is more important than winning tactical battles. The insurgents can lose virtually every tactical battle and still emerge as political victors, as highlighted by the Chinese Communist victory over the Kuomintang, the Vietnam War, and Nepal.33

Fortunately in March 2013, ISAF realized the reality of this situation and is developing new and more realistic measures of security, stability, and military progress. ISAF is considering  new unclassified reporting methods that would combine a brand of military metrics with measures of political and economic trends. Moreover, ISAF and the ANSF are moving towards more realistic measures of ANSF capability and a broader approach to assessing ANSF that include key new elements like the Afghan Local Police (ALP). They are moving away from combat unit rating systems that emphasize measures of how ANSF are generated to a focus on how they actually perform-the measures that will actually count in the field.34

So why did it take so long? Did we actually have to suffer such a high degree of loss of our most precious resource? Where could we have looked to find the solution? As I highlighted earlier, FM 3-24 provides a loose framework, but nowhere near the necessary detail required to build timely COIN decision support tools. What could history have taught us? What we have experienced here is the “phoenix syndrome” a concept where valuable lessons learned were crushed to the earth due to their unpalatable nature, and then resurrected from the ashes and integrated into an approach. In this case, the “phoenix” is the valuable lessons learned post 1967 in Vietnam regarding metrics and how they are collected and used for decision. Unfortunately in the case of Afghanistan, this phenomenon has occurred too late to have a Majoror impact.

The Hamlet Evaluation System

I do not propose that this system, used in Vietnam from 1967 on, is the “perfect” answer, but it is closer to “the solution” than anything used in Afghanistan. If improved upon and integrated into doctrine, therein lies the possibility of avoiding such a protracted, unpopular conflict such as we have experienced in Afghanistan.

The US Department of Defense first introduced the use of quantitative analysis to measure operational effects in South Vietnam in 1963. Those attempts to quantify were those notoriously tied to “body counts” as a measure of military effectiveness, an approach which did not accurately reflect US progress. A lesser known effort is a series of linked data-collection efforts developed to evaluate the success of rural pacification or counterinsurgency programs. Beginning in 1967, Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV), Civil Operations and Rural Development Support (CORDS), began compiling the Hamlet Evaluation System (HES), a monthly and quarterly rating of the status of pacification at the hamlet and village level throughout the Republic of Vietnam.35                                                                                    

The geographical framework of the HES was similar to what ISAF is attempting to achieve in its revised campaign plan, however the approach used in Vietnam greater complemented an ability to access progress. Each province, district, village, and hamlet in South Vietnam was given a unique HES identification number and located by spatial coordinates. With the cooperation of local officials, US District Senior Advisors (DSAs) evaluated the status of each hamlet and village under their jurisdiction on a monthly and quarterly basis. The HES was originally an attempt to systemize and digitize a less formal prior practice of the South Vietnamese government to assign letter ratings of the security status at the local level.36

Much like any assessment tool, the HES went through several phases, improving upon itself as subjectivity in data collection was identified, along with other miscues. The first system, which was introduced in 1967 (post-Tet Offensive) was called “HAMLA”. It required DSAs to rate Hamlets from A-E or V on 18 indicators of relative insurgent/government control.

(Figure 6)

“A” Hamlets were those which in which enemy military forces were very unlikely to have entered inhabited areas of the hamlet during the month; friendly local security forces conduct adequate security operations in the hamlet both day and night; Government of Vietnam (GVN) law enforcement is adequate both day and night; at most sporadic Viet-Cong (VC) activity and VC did not collect taxes from hamlet residents. “B” hamlets were similar to “A” but friendly security forces operations were marginal to adequate by night, VC collect taxes sporadically at most. In “C” hamlets, friendly local security forces conduct marginal operations at night and there is sporadic to regular cover hamlet VC activity, but only sporadic overt activity and the GVN hamlet chief is usually present only during daylight. In “D” hamlets, enemy forces are likely to have entered the hamlet during the month while friendly security forces conduct only marginal operations day or night. “E” hamlets are those where the VC is the primary authority day and night, collects taxes regularly. These hamlets may be visited by friendly security forces which differentiates them from “V” hamlets, which were fully controlled by VC.37

In 1969, a revised version called HES70 was introduced with the goal of reducing the degree of individual DSA judgment in coding decisions by asking specific factual questions, for instance: “Do local residents who are prime VC targets sleep in their homes at night?”, “Is there a GVN hamlet chief for this hamlet?”, or “Is there a market in this hamlet?”. A third system, HES71, was introduced in 1971, adding several new questions to the DSAs monthly and quarterly ledger and re-organizing the method for generating pacification indices.38

As I stated upfront, there are several limitations to such a measurement tool.  According to Robert William Komer, the first appointed head of CORDS, “There are obviously many limitations on the overall utility of pacification measurement system data. Perhaps most significant, they do not provide other than indirect inferences as to what the population of the countryside really thinks about the GVN, the VC, security, and the like.”39 Komer further asserts that despite its imperfections, emphasis was placed on generating detailed factual reporting rather than subjective evaluations.40 Thomas Thayer, author of War Without Fronts, The American Experience in Vietnam, does however conclude that the HES was overall effective. “Detailed analysis of the HES data confirm them and so do independent reporting systems outside the HES”.41

There are several critical lessons to draw from the HES experience, despite its limitations. The first and perhaps most critical is to have an assessment system in place at the onset of COIN operations. This is where the blatant gap exists in our current doctrine, and where we must improve. Furthermore, Dr. Reilly asserts that an additional significant lesson is to gain an understanding of how strategic end-state conditions, objectives, effects, and Centers of Gravity (COGs) for the core of longitudinal assessments. “If the COG is governing authority (as is the case in COIN), the objectives and effects should assess the progress of the host nation’s governing authority and the effectiveness of COIN actions take to neutralize the insurgent’s governing authority”.42 The HES further provides evidence of security as a catalyst for perceived host-nation government legitimacy. “Analysis of the HES security data also revealed strong correlations between hamlet security and VC ability to tax and recruit”.43

In spite of history and these lessons, commanders often overlook the potential validity of HES in COIN operations. Despite the varying forms of collection occurring at tactical level in Afghanistan, the data is not correlated into any sort of assessment mechanism or decision support tool for commanders or strategic leaders to make critical decisions.


As of 1 April 2014, ISAF has suffered 3429 friendly KIAs with the US taking the brunt with 2315 KIA. This coupled with an approximate 17,674 wounded has taken a deep toll on the American populace.44 Despite the tragic events of September 11th, the general US population no longer has the stamina to stay the course in a prolonged COIN guided campaign at such a high cost to the nation’s economy and its most precious resource, America’s sons and daughters. We currently sit at a crossroads similar to the military experience post-Vietnam. Our Army is experiencing a painful drawdown and developing doctrine chooses to ignore the human aspect of warfare, choosing rather to focus on the growing technological global threats, and the more palatable approaches to defeat them.

When interviewed, LTG H.R. McMaster stated that one of the most important lessons learned from Vietnam is that “wars are profoundly human endeavors. That means we need to pay particular attention to the drivers of conflict, including local dynamics as well as regional factors, and understand that cultural, ethnic, tribal, and religious factors can affect the course of war and its outcome in a profound manner. Therefore, defense concepts must take into consideration the social, economic and historical factors that constitute the human dimension of war.  We often neglect those factors.”45

I greatly fear that as we stand upon this precipice, that we will choose to ignore the lessons of history and fail to turn observations into true lessons learned rather than a “phoenix” to be raised from the ashes at the most dire moment.  A failure to learn from the Afghanistan experience and provide the future force a reliable doctrine to assess COIN efforts is criminal and must be addressed. It is our responsibility as leaders of America’s sons and daughters to ensure that at the start of the next such endeavor, that history’s rhymes do not haunt us once again.


  1. ATTP 5-0.1, Commander and Staff Officer Guide, 4-22
  2. JP 5-0, Joint Operation Planning, III-37
  3. Ibid
  4. Clausewitz, On War, 93
  5. ATTP 5-0.1, Commander and Staff Officer Guide, 4-22
  6. JP 5-0, Joint Operation Planning, GL-6
  7. JP 5-0, Joint Operation Planning, GL-15
  8. Clausewitz, On War, 90
  9. FM 3-24, Counterinsurgency,1-1
  10. The Telegraph, Pakistan Halts NATO Supplies to Afghanistan After Attack (accessed 1 April 2014)
  11. Galula, Counterinsurgency Warfare, 2-1
  12. FM 3-24, Counterinsurgency, 5-1
  13. Reilly, Operational Design: Distilling Clarity from Complexity for Decisive Action, 113
  14. Ibid
  15. JP 1-02, Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, 333
  16. JP 1-02, Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, 334
  17. FM 3-24, Counterinsurgency, 5-27
  18. Reilly, Operational Design: Distilling Clarity from Complexity for Decisive Action, 115
  19. Ibid
  20. FM 3-24, Counterinsurgency, 5-27
  21. Cordesman, The Afghan War in 2013:Meeting the Challenges of Transition vol III, 2
  22. Ibid
  23. Cordesman, The Afghan War in 2013:Meeting the Challenges of Transition vol III, 11
  24. Ibid
  25. Ibid
  26. Cordesman, The Afghan War in 2013:Meeting the Challenges of Transition vol III,12
  27. Ibid
  28. Ibid
  29. Ibid
  30. Ibid
  31. Cordesman, The Afghan War in 2013:Meeting the Challenges of Transition vol III, 20
  32. Ibid
  33. Cordesman, The Afghan War in 2013:Meeting the Challenges of Transition vol III, 40
  34. Cordesman, The Afghan War in 2013:Meeting the Challenges of Transition vol III, 2
  35. Kaylvas and Kocher, Violence and Control in Civil War: An Analysis of the Hamlet Evaluation System, 3
  36. Ibid
  37. Kaylvas and Kocher, Violence and Control in Civil War: An Analysis of the Hamlet Evaluation System, 9
  38. Kaylvas and Kocher, Violence and Control in Civil War: An Analysis of the Hamlet Evaluation System,4
  39. Komer, Impact of Pacification on Insurgency in South Vietnam, 10
  40. Ibid
  41. Thayer, War Without Fronts: The American Experience in Vietnam, 152
  42. Reilly, Operational Design: Distilling Clarity from Complexity for Decisive Action, 114
  43. Ibid
  44. Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom Casualties (accessed 1 Apr 14)
  45. Manea, Octavian, Reflections on the Continuities in War and Warfare (accessed 1 April 2014)


  1. Reilly, Operational Design: Distilling Clarity from Complexity for Decisive Action, 115
  2. Cordesman, The Afghan War in 2013:Meeting the Challenges of Transition vol III, 14
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About the Author(s)

Major James Bithorn was born and raised in Long Island, NY and graduated from Norwich University with a B.A. in English Literature in 2003.  Upon commissioning and completion of OBC he was assigned to 5/7CAV, 1st Brigade, 3ID where he served as a scout platoon leader and HQs troop executive officer and deployed to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom III. 

Upon redeployment and completion of the Maneuver Captain's Career Course, he was a assigned to 1-506IN, 4th Brigade, 101st ABN (AASLT) where he served as a rifle company commander and deployed to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom VIII. 

Once redeployed from Afghanistan, Major Bithorn served as an O/C-T and Division plans team chief for Operations Group, NTC.  Once complete with his assignment there, he was subsequently assigned as an SGL for the Maneuver Captain's Career Course at Fort Benning. 

Major Bithorn will graduate from the Air Command and Staff College in June '13, where he will earn a Masters of Military Operational Art and Science.  His next assignment is as an AMSP student within the School of Advanced Military Studies.



Tue, 07/01/2014 - 4:44pm

In reply to by Rick


IMO independence was the prime mover. It didn't matter what the leadership was squabbling about . From independence all else follows - just like the US. The great tragedy is if the US had wanted an iron-clad deal to guareentee China would not spread communism ala the Domino Theory a recognition of Ho's Vietnam in 1945 (as the OSS advised) and diplomatic recognition would have sealed it.

It would taken very little diplomacy to spin the new People's Republic of Vietnam as a Asian equilivent of Yugoslavia or perhaps even a Sweden.

The simple truth is every Vietnamese knew they would win. The disturbing bit is that after Ia Drang the WH knew it as well. But like Bill M suggests we have some appalling institutional behaviour entrenched in US governence that apparently has not changed one bit despite 40 years of reflection on why we were defeated in VN.



Tue, 07/01/2014 - 2:42pm

In reply to by RantCorp

An interesting experience and perspective; thanks for sharing it.

However, one nuance that "Ho and Giap were prepared to lose 250,000 NVA KIA every year to unify the country:" it appears now that both individuals had been marginalized and N. Viet-Nam became a police state under Le Duan whose policy was war in the South over economic development in the North at all costs.

It is in my view Le Duan who, if your source is accurate, was the one willing to lose a quarter million a year. Had the man that Gen. Giap referred to as Uncle been healthy and not shoved aside, he may have accepted a tentative peace offer or accommodation to spare such casualties.

Regardless, Hanoi understood war was an extension of policy (politics) and the U.S. policy was the body count.


Tue, 07/01/2014 - 9:05am

In reply to by Bill M.

Bill wrote,

'at the end of the day perception is reality when it comes to people's reactions '

IMO this is the biggest problem when we deploy for such short tours.

Attempting to garner what drives the conflict is a collection of preceptions. The abscence of a necessity for rationale and factual benchmarks makes the study of history, idelogy, politics etc a hazardous undertaking if the natives believe something considerably different. Attempting to convince a person who cannot read or write that the facts you are alluding to are in no end of authorative tombs helps little.

This is especially true if the text you have studied at great length is the Koran. For some reason we seem convinced that an instruction from the Angel GABRIELE 1500 ago years is going to influence the natives in Kunar who we hope will guide us thru the 'valley of IED death '.

The question of bipartisan support is an interesting one. In the late 1950s the mind boggles if the advice to Ike was coached in a context of what political support would be necessary to reverse the VN War of Independence and a following Chinese Invasion rather than the Domino Theory. I hazard a guess it would have been a mere footnote in the washout after Dien Bin Pheu.

IMO this is precisely what is going wrong with our current effort. We have decided that an attempt to abolish the Saudi monarchy by Arab dissidents was somehow an attack on the world by a bunch of fruitcake inspired by God. Like my travels with my minders on the Kunming - Chengdu line you don't have to spend much time with the fruitcake to gather they possess very little genuine religious conviction when it comes to war and peace. Certainly there is an enormous effort put into painting a fierce picture of god, phrophecy,matrydom, prayer, ritual etc. but IMO it is a deliberate ruse.

The best advice I was ever given when assaulted with wave after wave of incessant 'Allah Akbar' this 'Allah Akbar' that - whether in your face or on screen, think of the purpose and intelligence of OrwellIan sheep.

'Four legs good-two legs bad!'


Bill M.

Sun, 06/29/2014 - 2:04pm

In reply to by RantCorp

If your point is we should focus as much, if not more, on our strategic assessment assumptions I agree. Narratives are perceived truths, not necessarily fact, but it doesn't matter, because at the end of the day perception is reality when it comes to people acting upon them.

One critical point you missed is that U.S. leadership decisions then and now are based on maintaining a favorable position for the party in the White House and the opposing party will do everything possible to undermine their favorability, so the spin factor plays a serious role in our national level decision making. After China fell to the communists, no other President wanted to be seen as weak on communism. Our role in Vietnam was defined as part of our struggle against global communism, and once that perception became the dominant view the nuances, and aspects that were not nuanced at all, apparently became irrelevant to our decision making.

We're in a similar place today with our war on terror. President Bush and others removed all nuance when he said you're either with us, or against us. Those in our government that called that view into question were labeled as being weak on terror, and no politician can afford that label. One only needs to listen to Fox or MSNBC News to hear the extreme spin on events to gain partisan favor. We need to understand ourselves as much as we do others, and identify ways to soften the political rhetoric so we can make better decisions that are actually in the interest of America, and not a political party.


Sun, 06/29/2014 - 9:41am

I’d like to share a ‘tactical’ encounter I experienced in southern China that gave me an insight into how empathy with past, present or potential opponents can reveal strategic realities that are not so obvious when studying maps, history, ideologies, spreadsheets, orders of battle, hardware etc.

In the 1980s I rode the Kunming - Chengdu railway built by the PLA during the Vietnam War. I was ‘escorted’ by a retired Chinese professor and an Interior Ministry spook who among many other things could quote an alarming amount of Shakespeare. The line is 1100 km long and if my memory is correct has more than 800 tunnels. The line connects the industrial heart of China with the Kunming-Hanoi railway (completed in 1910 by the French colonialists), the road highway to Tibet and the Ho-Chi-Ming Trial.

It is a marvel of engineering. It twists and turns so much that sometimes the train can be in three separate tunnels at the same time. The soft shingle soil and the region’s frequent earthquakes forced the PLA to forgo explosives and heavy machinery and dig the tunnels and cuttings with pick and shovel. 2100 PLA soldiers died during its construction. It was begun in late 1950s and was completed in 1971.

I remarked to my traveling companions that 2100 dead was a heavy price for a railway to such a sleepy destination as Kunming. I was somewhat startled to hear my companions explain the cost was more than justified by the fact that the supplies that came down the line played a major role in preventing the US invasion of China.

Over the 24 hour journey and all of a bottle of Scotch I was able to glean from both men that this had been a genuine fear that was widely felt by the Chinese population during the American War in VN. The spook assured me that during the VN war an impending US invasion of China was a widely held view within the PLA; and remains so to the present day. I have to confess it is a viewpoint that had never entered my mind. A quick Q & A around some of our fellow travelers in our ‘Hard Seat’ carriage (3rd Class to the bourgeois) found this to be the conventional wisdom.

They hadn’t heard of the Domino Theory but after I explained what it entailed, it was their turn to be somewhat dumbfounded. They were at pains to point out that the Vietnamese hated the Chinese more than they hated anyone – including the Americans. As far as they were concerned any contention that the Vietnamese would allow their homeland to be used as a stepping-stone for Sino-Realpolitik was the argument of a village idiot. Despite my best efforts they found it difficult to believe I was serious.

Not surprisingly my companions did not seem overly concerned that VN had suffered so much at the hands of the ‘Imperialists & Capitalists ’. They justified this sentiment by arguing that there would have been far more death and destruction if the US plan to invade China had not been stopped in its tracks in SVN.

(In case you are wondering if I am somewhat sympathetic to the politics of our major trade partner, major banker and the Chinese government in general I shall digress a little.)

The train slowed to a crawl as it approached Kunming station and some of the kids who’d joined in our discussion (mainly impoverished college kids returning home and having no ticket) climbed out the windows, hung on the window sill for a bit, dropped to the ballast below and fled away from the train across the tracks on open side away from the platform. They were pursued by the police firing 9mm Makarovs.

It wasn’t so much shooting kids for evading the $10 fare that freaked me out but in order to get on the train you had to buy the ticket from the Triad goons out the front of Chengdu Central station. The splendidly uniformed officials behind the gleaming ticket kiosks refused to sell you (or anyone else) a legitimate ticket and directed you to the black-suited gangsters out front. In other words China Railways shot people who had the gall to deny the Triad their racketeering money.

I’d hoped the low-powered 9x18mm round was just a prop in a dangerous charade of authority but a fellow foreign traveler I met later had witnessed a shot-dead kid dragged off the tracks and dumped on the platform. But I digressed

The next person I heard reflecting this “THE AMERICANS ARE COMING!” strategic viewpoint was Robert McNamara himself. I quote him ad verbatim from the excellent document ‘Fog of War’ he made in 2006. McN recalled a VN-US reconciliation gathering wherein he was rebuked by the former wartime NVN Foreign Minister Thach in 1995:

“Mr. McNamara, You must never have read a history book. If you'd had, you'd know we weren't pawns of the Chinese or the Russians. McNamara, didn't you know that? Don't you understand that we have been fighting the Chinese for 1000 years? We were fighting for our independence. And we would fight to the last man. And we were determined to do so. And no amount of bombing, no amount of U.S. pressure would ever have stopped us."

I was spellbound listening to the same line of reasoning that had so startled me rumbling along the Kunming- Chengdu line so many years before. To me the compelling factor were two sworn enemies (the Chinese and the Vietnamese) angrily agreeing as to absurdity of our strategy embodied in the Domino Theory?

Thach like most leadership figures of the post WW2 era knew McNamara possessed one of the finest minds of his generation. The NVN Foreign Minister’s scarcely concealed anger indicated (to me at least) that he did not believe someone as intelligent and as well read a McN was telling the truth.

Though my relationship with my two minders was on a vastly different scale the incredulity on their faces matched perfectly Thach’s reaction when McN offered the Domino Theory up as the rationale for some much death and destruction.

I personally believe the old snake McN was actually telling the truth. He actually did believe a North Vietnamese victory would facilitate a Soviet/Chinese Realpolitik down thru SE Asia. Ironically, and at no surprise to the locals, it did the very opposite - it started a war between VN and China.

As McN recalled further into the documentary, he had made the fundamental mistake of failing to emphasize with the natives. He reflected upon of the morality of failing to recognize the Vietnamese were fighting an anti-colonial War of Independence. It may never have occurred to him the Chinese were supporting the VN because they feared a US invasion of their homeland if their awkward neighbor were defeated.

The Vietnamese and Chinese were completely perplexed by the meaninglessness of our Operations in the south of Vietnam. Ho and Giap were prepared to lose 250,000 NVA KIA every year to unify the country. Furthermore if these levels of NVA losses had been reached, the PLA would have willingly sacrificed ten times that amount of PLA KIA to prevent a US invasion of their country. The 10 year long US effort did not get anywhere near these levels of KIA before we shot our bolt and fled.

In both Hanoi and Beijing the leadership was at a loss as to how we envisioned that thousands of S&D missions and various ‘Strategic’ programs such as CORDS were going to pacify them into allowing any force posing an existential threat to remain in SVN.

McN recalled his discussion on this very issue with his WW2 ex-boss the old battle-horse General Lemay. Despite considerable differences in their approach to war in general and VN in particular both men agreed if circumstances were different, and either of them were brought before an international court, they would justifiably be charged with war crimes.

Our lack of basic empathy with the Vietnamese and the Chinese conspired to shape a strategic position that was so detached from reality that our opponents misconstrued our official position - that we were defending SE Asia from communism – to be a clumsy ruse to disguise our desire to re-colonize VN and invade China.


Bill M.

Fri, 07/04/2014 - 1:06am

In reply to by x61624

I agree with most of your points, but will challenge your second point, or more accurately expand upon it. First I agree with Bob's World points about natural stability, but I also think it exists in few areas outside of the West. One of his points is if we continue to impose this unnatural stability we will face resistance. This is true but my counter argument is this resistance can be suppressed sufficiently to sustain the state. I am not arguing that a state should do this, or that we should help them, only that they can. Admittedly in the social media age this is harder.

Make to your point about the military needing to be near to impose their will. In a conventional sense this is true, but more importantly the populace will often conform if they fear the consequences of not conforming. If they know, or even suspect the insurgent underground or secret police are watching them they'll tread lightly. This is especially important if the "imposed" has established an informer network and scale distrust within a community like North Korea has.

Still at the end of the day it is all about local context.


Thu, 07/03/2014 - 11:39am

In reply to by Bill M.

Bill M.

Your comment brings up several interesting points both in the context of what I've studied about VN and witnessed in Iraq, as well as a non-combat rotations in SE Asia.

1. Assessments are only as good as the people making them, the validity of the metrics used, and the appropriateness of the metrics used. If any one of these three factors is off, victory is becomes an improbable outcome of luck.

2. In population centric warfare of any kind, military force is transient. While a superior military force might significantly influence the population, it generally only does so when it is within striking distance, or there is a perception among the population that it will be in striking distance again. However, that doesn't discount the long term loyalties of the population. A village in Afghanistan might be fervently loyal to a NATO SOF element during VSP ops, but when that VSP breaks down and leaves the loyalties of the population might well go back to the Taliban if it is percieved that the Taliban are the legitimate government or influencer for whatever reason.

3. Coming from comments in general, Context is King. We only fight the right battles and initiate the right programs when we understand the context we are operating in. I think in the American military in general, our politics, values, and talent management often times limits our overall grasp of the world in which we fight. This will likely continue to be a severly limiting factor in future wars that are not strictly conventional.

Mike in Hilo

Mon, 06/30/2014 - 11:00pm

In reply to by Bill M.

Bill M.:

Actually, I couldn't agree more....And my adviser colleagues and I largely felt that way then as well...But we would have had a bit more respect than we did for the HES process if HES had also reflected that reality...Hence my reference to the nearby NVA battalion determining the behavior of the villagers, not the inputs and outputs of governance so meticulously measured by HES....

I might add--There seem to be lots of misconceptions about CORDS...No surprise, I suppose, since it ceased to exist in February 1973--it's been a long time! Anyway, my point is, while the HES covered, as you can see, a wide range of indicators, the range did not reflect what CORDS was actually, principally about--which is why the field advisers viewed HES as less than useful (to put it kindly). Every CORDS Province Team was headed by a Province Senior Adviser (PSA), most often a US Army O-6, and on a somewhat lesser number of teams, by a State Dept. Senior Foreign Service type, who would have a COL or LTC as his deputy. The other 50 or so members of the team (like yours truly) were essentially the PSA's staff. And the PSA had a definite, clear advisory message for the Vietnamese counterparts: a succinct two words, "Kill communists." This is the context in which John Vann, who, as a regional DEPCORDS, the boss of the PSAs in one of Vietnam's four military regions, famously said, "Security may be 90 percent of the problem or it may be 10 percent, but it's always the first 90 percent or the first 10 percent." Not to say that the team didn't judiciously monitor governance (witness HES), and call shortfalls to the attention of the Vietnamese officials. But we well knew, and their officials and officers were absolutely convinced, that this was but the icing on the cake...


Bill M.

Sun, 06/29/2014 - 4:24am

In reply to by Mike in Hilo


Beyond the almost super human challenge of getting honest assessment input, do you really think if the assessments were conducted honestly and resulted in better governance by addressing the shortfalls identified it would have changed the outcome of the war?

My point is good governance doesn't protect you from overwhelming insurgent or NVA forces. They're indifferent to our metrics, and they can easily undue our successful state building efforts within a few minutes, hours, or days with military action. Not saying we shouldn't do this, but for a while we saw an effort to make the PRTs the main effort in CENTCOM, and many sort of forgot you still have to kill or otherwise neutralize your adversary's armed components.

Mike in Hilo

Sun, 06/29/2014 - 3:00am

Concur, generally, in desirability of instituting a HES-like system...But the designers of HES-Redux would want to avoid the shortcomings of HES, three of which come to mind off the top of my head:

1) In deriving a hamlet's HES score, indicators internal to the hamlet were overweighted: So, the importance of characteristics such as a functioning public school with teacher in attendance, a functional public health post, villagers receiving funds for self-help projects like raising hogs, etc., was relatively exaggerated. A highly significant indicator of a hamlet's security which would be, strictly speaking, exogenous to the hamlet in question, was underweighted, viz., the hamlet's proximity to a main force PAVN unit or PAVN base area, when it was patent that the enemy battalion inside the tree line, up the hill from the villagers' homes, was the factor most responsible for the behavior (not the loyalty or sympathy, but the behavior) of the villagers and the degree of security.

2) Habitual propensity of the Government of Vietnam (GVN) to underreport incidents. It was not uncommon for me to encounter incident reports which grossly understated the strengths of the enemy units involved, and in the province that was my principle AO, can cite two incidents in the 1973-74 time frame, of battles in each of which RF incurred a couple of dozen KIA, that went entirely unreported. Reporting integrity would, of course, have wreaked havoc with the HES scores...

3) The US advisers were held responsible for the shortcomings of their GVN counterparts: a District Senior Advisor's OER would suffer if he found himself in an area where the lousy security situation did not show improvement. This was unfortunately, in some instances, a disincentive to integrity in reporting the indicators.

These observations were generally shared by my fellow advisers and were derived, inter alia, from my experience as US representative on the HES Committee of Gia Dinh Province 1973-75.