Small Wars Journal

The New Physics: Key to Strengthening COIN

Sun, 01/16/2011 - 12:38pm

The New Physics: Key to Strengthening COIN

by A. Lawrence Chickering

Download The Full Article: The New Physics: Key to Strengthening COIN

In a series of short reflections, Tom Ricks neatly summarizes major themes in current thinking on how to strengthen COIN. Sharing a trait that is evident in most current theoreticians, he omits serious discussion about how to recruit the populace of countries threatened by insurgencies to play an active role in COIN. This failure has several dimensions. I want, in this short essay, to address one of the most interesting of them, which relates to the importance of basic principles in physics to counterinsurgency warfare. I will focus, especially, on the difference between the "old" (Newtonian) physics and the "new" physics of quantum mechanics and relativity theory.

Download The Full Article: The New Physics: Key to Strengthening COIN

A. Lawrence Chickering is a social entrepreneur and writer who designs and implements civil society strategies in public policy. He is founder and President of Educate Girls Globally (EGG), which has developed a powerful program for promoting girls' education and empowering traditional communities by reforming government schools, partnering with the government of the very tribal state of Rajasthan in India. Before that, he founded the International Center for Economic Growth, which was headquartered in Panama and played a major role in promoting economic reform in the more than fifty countries over ten years. He is coauthor of Strategic Foreign Assistance: Civil Society in International Security (2006).

About the Author(s)

A. Lawrence Chickering is a social entrepreneur and writer who designs and implements civil society strategies in public policy.  He is founder and President of Educate Girls Globally (EGG), which has developed a powerful program for promoting girls’ education and empowering traditional communities by reforming government schools, partnering with the government of the very tribal state of Rajasthan in India.  He has concentrated his recent writing on the uses of civil society in foreign policy and, more specifically, in counterinsurgency warfare.  He is coauthor of Strategic Foreign Assistance: Civil Society in International Security (2006).  His other, great interest is conflict management and the search for a transpartisan politics.  He has written two books on that subject: Beyond Left and Right (1993) and (with James S. Turner) Voice of the People: The Transpartisan Imperative in American Life (2008).  He is a regular contributor to the SWJ.


Lawrence Chickering

Sun, 01/23/2011 - 3:44am


I agree with everything you say. I believe empowering is aligned with the non-local causation in the new physics, and I agree that the first principle of empowerment is to let people pursue their own objectives.

I agree current policies on NGOs are very problematic, and a major reason is their emphasis on helping rather than empowering. I am not in favor of increases in funding for international NGOs as currently organized.


I did not, in fact, mean to promote anything to do with more quantitative analysis. I know that both NGOs and donor agencies are preoccupied with "measurable results", and that pushes them, almost inherently, toward helping, which is easy to quantify, versus empowering, which is much harder to quantify. I understand that the current nonprofit and donor financial markets are dominated by old physics concepts of helping. I wrote the article to call that objective into question and suggest a very different approach, which over time will yield enormously greater results at much lower costs.

My point works better in normal development policies than it does in disaster relief, such as in Haiti, where helping -- especially at the outset -- must be the principal objective. I would argue that in Iraq empowering should be a much greater priority than it is, however.


Investing in local assets is very important, but empowering and connecting people needs to happen first to overcome the internal conflict in tribal societies. The local resources we want to strengthen need to be the resources of a *united* people -- or at least a people whose distrust is not so great that more resources could trigger a civil war. The key to increase trust is to promote communication across loyalties -- personal engagement. This objective needs to be given much higher priority in current policy.

Ken White,

A central question here is: what activities would catalyze significant attention to programs that are working and open the possibility of funding for them at strategic scales. At present, I think our government has almost no capacity to identify intervention models that are scalable and sustainable, and until such a capacity is developed, no information will exist to stimulate investment at strategic scales. I coauthored a book on this subject, focused on the challenge of making foreign aid strategic. It is called STRATEGIC FOREIGN ASSISTANCE: CIVIL SOCIETY IN INTERNATIONAL SECURITY (2006), and it explores four strategic issues and civil society programs that should be greatly expanded.

In general, I believe that programs that empower will produce far greater returns than programs devoted to helping. The program I founded and run, Educate Girl Globally (EGG), which has developed a powerful model for promoting girls education by reforming government schools, is an empowerment program of tremendous power and enormous potential scale. The ultimate test of returns is governments' willingness to invest in a model, which governments are starting to do for EGG's model.

Ken White (not verified)

Sat, 01/22/2011 - 9:17pm

<b>Lawrence Chickering:</b><blockquote>"...This complaint against a PRT is very widely expressed by NGOs working in the country."</blockquote>I'm sure it is. Over many years on four continents not including this one, I've heard it often. Occasionally it's even a valid complaint on their part.<blockquote>Of course not all NGOs or PRTs are the same. It is difficult, however, to see the value in throwing up one's hands and saying, therefore, there is nothing that can be said about any of it."</blockquote>Nor are all military units the same. To my knowledge, no one is suggesting nothing be said on the topic. My comment was to suggest what is said should be factual, as objective as is possible and not include suppositions not clearly stated as such. That approach seems to engender better discussions than even the slightest hint of possible bias -- or of overly idealistic goals.<blockquote>"Enormous efforts...many believe we have much too little to show for the efforts than we should... try to understand why our returns are so low and what we might do to increase them."</blockquote>I would agree that the effort has been "enormous" and that it has been broadly ineffectual. While you and I probably differ significantly on the solution to that, I contend the returns are low due to, in order (1) a lack of security in a nation that has never been and will likely never be 'secure' in the Western sense; (2) a woefully inefficient provider of main effort, to wit: the USG; (3) a bureaucratic haze over all efforts; (4) an overarching lack of agreement over what should be done and by whom.

That lack of agreement can be (and is...) discussed ad infinitum. However, the main provider and the other actors are unlikely to change and the main provider is totally unable to remove his bureaucratic constraints. Security is highly unlikely to be adequately improved in less than a generation or two, if then. Ergo we can discuss what should be done for weeks on end but we're not going to change much of anything. IOW, there will be little to no increase in "returns."

The moral of that, if there is one, is that attempting to instill western values in South Asia was and is a fool's errand. It was and is also not necessary.

However, we are there and cannot or should not leave precipitously. Thus, the only realistic and sensible thing to do at this time is scale expectations back to the rational level they should never have been allowed to exceed. We will be confronted with the expenditure of huge sums, a great deal of well intentioned effort all resulting in little change. It will not be a waste but it will be broadly wasteful and unsatisfying.

Welcome to what was and is a security challenge, not a development project.

And that's why the "returns" are and will remain small...

slapout9 (not verified)

Sat, 01/22/2011 - 8:11pm

Lawrence,a few follow up points.
1-I read your paper again and I guess the main part I find difficult to understand is your physics analogy. When I think of Physics I think of the the 4 Forces of Physics (gravity,electromagnetism,weak and strong nuclear forces)instead of the laws of motion concerning objects.
2-Physics in war and peace is about the transfer of energy. The longer the distance of the energy transfer the more energy that is wasted in the transportation function as opposed to actually doing the work.
3-In COIN the most efficient transfer of energy would be to train the army (people) that are already there instead of invading and maintaining supply (energy) lines over thousands of miles. In other words static protection forces.
4-I think the same is true of production, instead of importing fuels/food of whatever kind it is a more efficient use of energy transfer to produce it as close as possible to the area where it will be used/consumed for the needed work. In other words static production.
5-Your idea of teaching women is intriguing but if that makes the local male population angry dosen't that defat the whole purpose?


Sat, 01/22/2011 - 8:08am


I appreciate your paper and the discussion it has sparked however, while your  Physics analogy adds a certain quantitative cachet to your argument it conflicts with your underlying premise of finding success via efforts free from most quantitative benchmarks.  Nongovernmental Organizations interested in making payroll find benefit in organizational charts, workbreakdown structures, workplans, cost estimates, and schedules just as Taxpayers find benefit from transparency, oversight, and accountability of tax dollars spent.  I would suggest that you if you were to survey, compare, and contrast NGO business models with Governmental service models across the ages you would improve your chances of finding some of the answers which we all seek.  The concepts of helping and empowering, unlike many Physics concepts, are not rigidly defined as your paper makes clear.  The Hobbsonian human ecosystems in Hati and Iraq are examples of, and speak volumes about, the need for transparent and accountable Leviathans and NGO's which understand their role along the continuum of the provision of life saving, sustaining, and enhancing services.  In order to successfully apply hard science techniques and analogies to examine social science problems requires effort, but the resulting benefits are always worth the cost.


If we're asking "how we can empower them to mobilize for COIN", aren't we already setting aside the first principle of empowerment: that of enabling people to pursue their own objectives? Mobilization for COIN is <i>our</i> objective, but it may not be the objective of many of the communities we deal with. Many of them may prefer a neutral stance in the insurgent-counterinsurgent fight. Some may sympathize with the insurgent. Either way, if we dictate the goal of "mobilization for COIN", it's no longer empowerment.

After many many years of dealing with and observing NGO operations, I am not entirely convinced that expanding the operations of foreign NGOs (as opposed to local civil society) is necessarily a solution to the problems of places like Afghanistan. Part of the solution perhaps, but there are major obstacles and major problems that I feel are being glossed over in these pieces. Large-scale government funding of NGOs poses real challenges and there are significant pitfalls involved. These need to be at least acknowledged, and ideally addressed, in any discussion of such funding.

Just to start, I'd cite the extreme difficulty of obtaining accurate assessments of completed and ongoing NGO activities. If you read NGO reports (I have read many) you tend to wonder why the world has not yet been elevated to the age of Aquarius: everything is invariably reported as a glowing success, even when field visits reveal a very different story. This is a direct consequence of the extremely competitive struggle for funding, in which any admission of error or failure can be an enormous handicap. In reality, of course, any organization that attempts anything will have failures and errors: this is implicit in human endeavor. Anyone or any group that has never done anything wrong has never done anything at all. Unfortunately the desperately needed process of evaluation, correction, and learning is consistently obstructed by the prevailing refusal to discuss or even admit to errors and failures.

My own suspicion is that large scale government funding of NGOs would simply result in an NGO feeding frenzy, with the interests of the communities rapidly submerged beneath the interests of the competing NGOs.

Lawrence Chickering

Sat, 01/22/2011 - 3:44am


I have no problem with self-defense and deterrence coming from villagers themselves. The great challenge of COIN in tribal societies is precisely to empower communities to play active roles in a variety of activities they value, one of which is certainly security. An important problem to be overcome in the course of that is dealing with tribal societies' antagonism to outsiders, which includes other tribes, the Afghan federal government, and us. The more the communities can do, including security, the fewer the opportunities for the Taliban to play on the antagonism against outsiders and assert themselves, as happened in my story.

Ken White,

It is *possible* other things might have been going on. My understanding, however, is that the causal sequence became clear when the PRT came in, the Taliban appeared for the first time as an antagonistic force and attacked the NGO for being lackeys of the military. The beginning of serious conflict happened with the appearance of the outsiders, who were the military. They made no effort to overcome their role as outsiders because they did not consult either with the NGO or the community about repairing the roof). This complaint against a PRT is very widely expressed by NGOs working in the country.

Of course not all NGOs or PRTs are the same. It is difficult, however, to see the value in throwing up one's hands and saying, therefore, there is nothing that can be said about any of it. Enormous efforts, at enormous expense, have been expended trying to promote economic, political, and social change in Afghanistan. People may differ about this, but many believe we have much too little to show for the efforts than we should. My purpose here and in other articles is to try to understand why our returns are so low and what we might do to increase them.


My own belief is that there is *too much* quantitative evaluation -- or perhaps evaluation of the wrong kind -- and not enough *conceptual analysis* of the challenges we face in a tribal society like Afghanistan and how to respond to them. I believe that antagonism to outsiders and low social trust are the great impediments to COIN, and I believe our outcomes there would be much improved if we reduced our focus on what *we* should do to fight the war and help them develop (our continuing Newtonian approach) and focus more on how we can empower *them* to mobilize for COIN by giving them the tools -- both practical and *especially social* to pursue progress on their own. The key to it is to empower them rather than help them -- empowering being aligned with the new physics and helping being aligned with the old physics.


I am not entirely sure what you are saying, but I believe it is aligned with my argument. I also believe that *empowering people* is an essential precondition for people to organize stationary forces and production.

slapout9 (not verified)

Fri, 01/21/2011 - 1:49pm

I don't understand the paper myself. But I do say the greatest principle of Physics that we violate in War and Economics is the principle of stationary production or principle of least movement in order to accomplish work. When economics was monetized it basically destroyed this concept. In COIN it results in whack a mole or chasing the enemy instead of developing stationary forces to weed out the insurgents and stationary production to provide life support to the people. When we begin to follow that principle we will start to make a lot of progress IMO, if we don't we may relearn the principle of splitting the atom all over again and in a very bad way.


Fri, 01/21/2011 - 12:06pm

War is a horrible way to push the frontiers of human understanding, but it provides for measureable real-time feedback regarding the costs and benefits of ideas, theories, and TTPs. The study and application of Physics and Development have made tremendous strides during wartime, and both disciplines benefit from the results of efforts undertaken during wars as well as the interludes between them. Physics greats such as Planck, Einstein, Schrodinger, Heisenberg, Bohr, and Pauli extensively relied upon quantitative methods in order to advance mankinds understanding of various aspects of the Physics branches of Newtonian and Quantum Mechanics. Roman Proconsuls such as Publius Iuventius Celsus (Asia), Festus (Africa), Sergius Paulus (Cyprus), and others extensively relied upon quantitative methods to manage Development efforts, with a focus upon taxation and financial management, in the provinces to which they were assigned. Modern day US Governors field legions of accountants and engineers in order extensively quantify their efforts to administer and Develop their states while bond markets provide regular insights as to their effectiveness. If we are to be able to transition from a 'Newtonian to a 'Quantum Mechanical understanding and application of Development Models and Methods the equivalent descriptions of 'Probability Theory and 'Hilbert spaces still need to be elucidated and subjected to the rigors of battlefield review.

Ken White (not verified)

Wed, 01/19/2011 - 1:28am

<b>Lawrence Chickering:</b>

Unlike the gracious Zenpundit, I <i>can</i> fault the reasoning presented in your anecdote.

Without asking why the NGO had done nothing about repairing the roof or assisting the Villagers in doing so, I suggest that if they'd been in that area for eight years and were asked to leave over the incident of which you write, it's quite possible, even probable there may have been other issues...

Inadequate information is provided to determine the accuracy of your contention, and lacking detailed knowledge of the Village's actual as opposed to possibly stated motives it would seem the real reason for the departure of the NGO cannot really be determined.

Most PRTs will endeavor to work with local NGO -- it is the generally the NGO that is reluctant to cooperate. Sometimes for valid reasons, sometimes not. All Villages, all NGO and all PRTs are not the same. Few things in the ME or South Asia are as they seem. To infer a consistent pattern universally applicable is generally unwise.


Wed, 01/19/2011 - 12:28am

Hi Lawrence,

Perceptions are important, agreed. And I find no fault with the reasoning in your anecdote.

However, the guns were not in the villagers hands, but in those of American soldiers. If the villagers could both repair the roof and deter armed Taliban strangers from coming in and intimidating their brothers, cousins, neighbors and friends by the capability of self-defense (or, more likely in an Afghan context, the prospect of eventual retaliation) so much the better. That deterrence is also a potent perception.

One reinforces the other.

Lawrence Chickering

Tue, 01/18/2011 - 8:17pm

Gian P Gentile and zenpundit,

Important perceptions come from many places, including the barrels of guns. Because Taliban guns are most likely to appear in response to our military symbols, the best way to keep their guns holstered is by promoting non-local action (as I argued) in local communities, removed from those symbols. I know of one NGO that had worked in an Afghan community for 8 years. A PRT project moved in and, without asking anyone, started fixing the roof of a school. The sight of people in army uniforms rebranded the NGO an outsider collaborator. And this NGO, which, again, had worked for eight years in this community, was driven away by this. If the village itself had repaired the roof without any guns, the NGO would still be there. Here the sight of our guns destroyed the NGOs authority and explicitly brought Taliban guns into prominence --
not a happy outcome.

gian p gentile (not verified)

Tue, 01/18/2011 - 7:53am

z-dog; LOL



Mon, 01/17/2011 - 11:07pm

Which is, in my view, a good argument for the widespread ownership of guns :)

gian p gentile (not verified)

Sun, 01/16/2011 - 2:58pm

A riff on Mao relative to the arguments in this piece:

"Perceptions" grow out of the barrel of a gun.