Small Wars Journal

American Strategy in Afghanistan Flunks Sun Tzu

American Strategy in Afghanistan Flunks Sun Tzu by Gian Gentile, Jerusalem Post opinion piece. "Proof of counterinsurgency’s failures is the current state of affairs in Iraq and Afghanistan."

…leads to the last causative factor in American history that has helped shape the current impulse to “change an entire society” in Afghanistan. After World War II, throughout the Cold War and persisting through the 9/11 era is the rock solid assumption that whatever America does in the world is, by rule, morally righteous. This hardened assumption of moral righteousness has combined with another rock solid assumption: that American war of whatever kind works in foreign lands, that if the United States just gets the tactics of war correct and puts the right general in charge then anything can be accomplished with military force.


If we had stuck to the original plan that was to defeat al-Qaeda and the Taliban government then that was pretty well done early on. It also hasnt helped that Pakistan has continued its use of proxy forces and its support of certain aspects of the Taliban. Apart from drone strikes, we have not been able to embark on a mutual arrangement with Pakistan to eliminate the networks and training camps in Pakistan. We have had to swallow the fact that what is in our interests, is not necessarily in the interest of others. We have also had an ever changing strategy and embarking on a mission to rebuild a nation with our short term Western mindset. Given all that, it seems that its not necessarily COIN doctrine that is to blame. Re-engineering COIN through the use of a liberal, egalitarian mindset combined with these other challenges is never going to produce the kind of outcome that meets our expectations.

Take for example one of the events of this week. We witnessed the shooting of a woman by the Taliban on youtube. Our Foreign Affairs Minister said this is why Australia should continue to commit troops. This was a horrific act. But the Minister's statement reflects the poor strategic discipline that would make it difficult for any doctrine to succeed, let alone COIN. This statement suggests we are now not only in Afghanistan to defeat terrorists, rebuild a nation but to re-engineer a whole people. A war on cultural and religious barbarism that would take generations of troops to defeat. And if we are pursuing that cause in Afghanistan then by that rational, there are plenty of other places with people and their leaders doing equally dispicable things to fellow human beings.

What if the Selous Scouts had been given the job after the first phase in the war in Afghanistan to continue to eliminate and dismantle any human infrastructure left to support al-Qaeda and to remove any support attempting to reform, without embarking on a nation building program? The Selous Scouts were a highly effective unit who were tasked with COIN, but came at their task from a different strategic direction. In the end politics played out nationally for their political masters. True a number of their successes had political consequences such as the raid on
a ZANLA camp at Nyadzonya Pungwe, Mozambique 1976. However, my argument is that the Selous Scouts were not nation builders, they did not attempt to change cultural behaviour but were counterinsurgents with an understood strategy pursued via guerilla style tactics, that was fairly cost-effective.

If the original strategy was applied consistently with a force like the Selous Scouts would we be looking at the effectiveness of COIN differently?

Madhu (not verified)

Tue, 07/10/2012 - 11:09am

To all:

I hope my previous comment didn't come across as "America is always wrong," because I don't believe that at all. Pax Americana brought much good with it, increased wealth and trade and a period of stability when compared to other periods of history.

It's just that times change and sometimes the systems that once worked don't work so well anymore. I really love this beautiful experiment of a Republic. Its creative energy fills me with great awe, but when energy is created it can be both creative and destructive.

Forget power and 'blocs'. Think <bold>the management of human energy</bold> instead - in terms of strategy. The attempted management, because the world is mercurial and unknowable, sometimes. That's what I think.

I was thinking something along the lines of this:

<blockquote>My synthesis would be along the lines of this: the narratives and histories we created about the Cold War periphery countries (in this case, South Asia) were incomplete. We attemped a historical re-do of the 90s in the 00s in our attempt to gain a strategic endstate that kept shifting in some sense.</blockquote>

I thought about this while reading a commentary in Army History (by Gian Gentile). I think we have a selective history of that region and it affected us in the 00s in terms of our military and foreign policy strategies. We forgot our own history there, it was selective and we interpreted it completely through the lens of our battle with the Soviet Union, and our confused thoughts about non Western countries and post WWII colonialism/neocolonialism.

It was the correct way to view our European security theater but not the correct lens with which to view the AfPak theater.

You see, the fomenting of insurgency, and our contributions and our allies contributions to it, licit and illicit both, caused a problem. And instead of going back to first principles, we focused on the Taliban insurgency without thinking it through.

I don't know. I change my mind sometimes.

Anyway, the problems all started with this bit of conventional wisdom: "we abandoned Afghanistan and look what happened."

Uh, no. We were there on and off. I can see why people don't like to talk about it, though.

In an April 9, 1862 letter to General McClellan, then President Abraham Lincoln succinctly and pragmatically noted “war[s] c[an] be won only by fighting the enemy rather than by endless maneuvers and sieges to occupy place.” Strategic reality that McClellan, a military officer having long served, lacked the mental facilities to comprehend. While his management of the Union Army would result in a well trained and organized force, despite his supposed popularity with the troops, when campaigning he failed to achieve any strategically meaningful results.

Like McClellan, many senior US military officers who have led during the now decade long War on Terror seem to lack strategic comprehension and to not understand that the focus of combat operations during the past decade should have been 100% directed at destroying Al Qaeda units and operatives. Adhering to the tactics advocated by Generals such as David Petraeus, US ground forces have been committed in comparatively large numbers to time consuming occupation / nation building campaigns that can produce no strategic benefit, i.e. strategic Return on Investment (ROI), to this country worth their cost. Occupation activities carried out on the theory that if successful they could convince large populations over a large area, often in remote parts of the world, to deny support to Al Qaeda. A deprivation one must presume they somehow believed would have ended Al Qaeda’s ability to function.

Instead COIN birthed insurgent groups which drew this country’s ground forces into a long drawn out military effort that consumed the bulk of their attention. The resulting combat operations produced a steady stream of casualties and cost 100’s of billions in US taxpayer’s money. While General Petraeus gave multiple public presentations using charts showcasing alleged tactical success numbers for his Iraq based COIN style military policing tactics: the number of attacks had decreased, violence was down, decreased number of civilian deaths, etc., his presentations begged the question – to what strategic benefit for this country? The answer is “NONE.”

In the words of the historically (strategically) successful North Vietnamese General Giap, the insurgents realize that the US will run out of patience for our occupation based combat before they run out of men to sacrifice in their fight to drive us from their lands. Did the US military learn nothing from the Vietnam conflict? We always seem to concentrate on the tactical while our supposedly less educated enemies concentrate on the strategic.

As Sun Tzu also said, and many US leaders failed to heed, “If the campaign is protracted, the resources of the State will not be equal to the strain” and “There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare.” If this country’s war in Afghanistan can be characterized by single terms, one of them surely would be “protracted.”

In the same Book (or Chapter) Two, Sun Tzu also noted that, “It is only one who is thoroughly acquainted with the evils of war that can thoroughly understand the profitable way of carrying it out.” One can only wonder at comments from Generals who believe COIN will work if only they have enough decades and funds to carry it out. Centuries ago Sun Tzu realized the absurdity of that approach to warfare by an organized State, so did Giap, so do the Taliban’s leaders, etc. It appears that many Western Generals and Admirals have failed to absorb the lessons of Sun Tzu.

It is time for the military to strategically reevaluate the value of COIN, because as accurately noted or implied in Col. Gentile's article it has more than failed ... to secure America's strategic objectives in the War on Terror, it has delayed (in my opinion) achieving victory and is helping to economically ruin this country.

Jimbo Monroe

Fri, 07/06/2012 - 11:44pm

@Col Gentile, not asking this as an attack, but trying to solve a puzzle that has deviled me for several months. What is the source for the Sun Tzu quote "Strategy without tactics...? I personally love the quote, and have used it in conversation for years, but when I needed a citation for a paper a search of several translations of the Art of War came up empty handed.

Vitesse et Puissance

Fri, 07/06/2012 - 8:13pm

Let me put it this way - how one frames the policy choices has a lot to do with the strategic options one can pursue. It is in all probability impossible for the United States of America to pursue a completely amoral, "realist" policy in its deals abroad. In order to justify the use of force, it is necessary - at least for the American democracy - to frame the conflict in terms of morality rather than power. Now, COL Gentile and others may bewail this situation, but that does not mean they have any possibility of changing it. The choice then devolves to doing something and doing nothing, even if the "something" we are capable of doing proves to be inefficient, misguided, with only limited prospects of success, and of intrinsically questionable morality. What to do ?

Well, this: Man up and face facts. Realism may require one to accept the negative externalities of progressive policy. Realism may require sub-optimal strategies, ineffective tactics, and self-defeating outcomes. Now this does not refute COL Gentile's assertion that there is a substantial difference between a hammer and a sledgehammer. He wouldn't be the first historian to point out that the successfully application of economy of force is not a particularly American military virtue. I bewail this, too. But that is a different question than asserting we should just all stay at home and take whatever the outside world deals our way because we can't assure ourselves of nice tidy wars with sure-fire exit strategies. Such is not the nature of war itself.

The danger of paying too much attention to the Liddell Harts and Sun Tzus of the strategic discipline is that one imagines the choices to be easier than they really are, the risks to be manageable to a fault, and outcomes to be predictable. No amount of strategic brilliance could ever have absolved the Germans of the dilemma of having extensive land borders with strong and populous rivals along those borders. Likewise, no strategic hocus pocus will ever make it easy for the USA to deploy and sustain a military force abroad without substantial support from allies overseas. The American public, I believe, understands these limitations even of its elites do not. However, in most places and times, we are many and wealthy and our enemies fewer and poorer. So we should really stop whining to ourselves and our "friends" about how tough it is to be the most powerful nation in the world.

Bill C.

Sat, 07/07/2012 - 8:03pm

In reply to by gian gentile

Yes Sir.

gian gentile

Fri, 07/06/2012 - 7:21pm

In reply to by Bill C.


I see your point and am with you. One can apply the same logic to Iraq; why when the stategy and policy was muddled after we took down the regime did we opt for mission creep into the default framework of nation building? It is the cart, as you say, but perhaps more like an ocean liner that just cant be budged once it was put into motion, yes?

Bill C.

Fri, 07/06/2012 - 6:05pm

In reply to by gian gentile

There would seem to be a very reasonable, understandable and logical reason why the operational method of "building an Afghan state" does not seem to "fit" re: a core policy goal of "disrupting, disabling and defeating al-Qaeda."

This very reasonable, understandable and logical reason -- why the operational method utilized in this case does not seem to fit this specific core policy goal -- may be that (1) the building of the Afghan state was not attempted in an effort to (2) disrupt, disable and defeat AQ.

Rather, the operational method of nation-building -- employed by the United States in Afghanistan -- would seem to have been used more to deal with the underlying "root cause" of all such outlier state and societal difficulties generally (ex: terrorism, insurgency, genocide, humanitarian disasters, etc.).

Herein, the "root cause" of all such outlier state and societal difficulties was/is thought to be that these state and societal entities are not -- as yet -- adequately organized, ordered and oriented more along modern western lines.

Thus, "nation-building," in Afghanistan and elsewhere, to be seen as the operational method utilized -- not so much to defeat the immediate problem at hand (AQ) -- but, rather, to deal with the underlying "root cause" of all such difficulties generally and, thereby, to preclude this/these problem's recurrence.

Cart (deal with the root cause of the problem) before the horse (deal with the immediate problem at hand) approach so-to-speak?

gian gentile

Fri, 07/06/2012 - 10:23am

Bill C and Dr M:

I agree with Bill C that there are larger issues driving American action in the world although i did try to address a few of them toward the end of this piece. But I also believe it to be true that the more narrow core policy aim for Afghanistan all along has been focused on al Qaeda. I have gone through hundreds of testimonies by high ranking military officers and civilian officials to include the presidents and al qaeda when the onion is always peeled back has remained the core policy goal. Building an afghan state has been, wrongly i believe, the operational method using military force to achieve it. Therefore the Taliban is an operational enemy, but not a strategic one in Afghanistan (al Qaeda is our strategic enemy there). If we were paying attention to our St Carl we would figure out that ultimately wars are not fought to only achieve operational ends, but instead policy ones. That is why i cringe when senior military officers say in MacArthuresque fashion that "there is no substitute for victory" in war. Well sometimes yes there is, and regardless such a statement is ultimately for the political masters to make, and not generals. If we allow the military to define the outcome of wars in such terms we have reached militarism.




Thu, 07/05/2012 - 1:50pm

Colonel Gentile has been proved right about the overall policy we have followed. Now is the time to answer the question of whether the civil-military relationship in the determination of strategy could be improved.

The most important decisions about a military commitment occur beforehand, when the goals and terms on which we enter a conflict are set either explicitly or by default. The usual objection to stating limits to our action is that doing so will encourage the enemy, but that can only be a problem if the limits (which will be obvious in any case) preclude our stated objectives.

The question is how to have a debate about aims and terms under the pressure of events. I would again suggest a change in the law that would require the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to report the prospects of reaching different objectives with different levels of commitment whenever the United States confronts a war longer than 90 days. The President and Congress could then decide what sort of commitment to make and both the strategy and who is responsible for what aspects would then be clear. The strategy may need to be adjusted in response to conditions that do not go as planned, but that is a risk in all wars and is not the same as entering a war with no forethought only to realize later that things aren't working out.

If the civil-military relationship remains unchanged, and all we are able to do is hope that memory will be different when events again push us to war, I'm afraid we will continue to be at risk of plunging into the realm of tactics against which Colonel Gentile so trenchantly warns.

David P. Billington, Jr.


Thu, 07/05/2012 - 1:26pm

You cannot change hundreds of years of stagnation, the mission in A-stan was to kill and disrupt AQ. We did that. Along the way the mission got skewered. There was nothing to build on there in the first place, and Karzai is a thief. Corruption is a way of doing business there. The war is the economy in Af-Pak. There was a better way to do this. The ANA, ANP cannot be trusted. Green on Blue more and more. AQ has moved its ops to Africa and Yemen. What are we still doing there? COIN only works when you have civilized, reasonable ppl. Theres a shortage of that in A-stan it seems. Science flies you to the moon, religion flies you into buildings.

Madhu (not verified)

Fri, 07/06/2012 - 8:34am

In reply to by Bill C.

@ Bill C - you've got a point. American and Western (EU and NATO) foreign policy has for much of the twentieth century been along lines first of modernization (am I getting this right?), and then democratization. I mean, weak states are unstable, and we will help with stability, whether it be via international institutions, specific country-to-country development aid, assisting militaries, etc.

And it's not all bad, it's just that when it doesn't work as we intended, we don't have a plan B and our institutions are not set up to deal with failure which is inevitable in any human system. Plus, by what right do we do these things? Good intentions are not enough, but that's a different discussion.

It's not so explicit, it's just grown that way in an ad hoc fashion.

At least, that is the general conversation we are having in this Small Wars Council thread:

But the right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing (various "tenured" bureaucracies in DC versus rotating Presidential administrations, and vice-versa) and in individual situations, depending on the zeitgeist of the day, we are more in tune with international democratization at times than others.

Plus, our attempts at democratization can lead to militarization, even when the intents are peaceful and through our diplomatic channels. This is something our "doves" don't get....or, maybe they do.

And our attempts at stability via working with the tyrant du jour doesn't work half as well as we think (plus, it's immoral and even when it's necessary, we should be careful to recognize the essential disgustingness of it). Both hawks and doves have contributed to the state we are in today, foreign policy-wise. Not all terrible, but not all great either, obviously.

(Another edit to my comment: Actually, it does kind of stink. I'm a little tired of the know-it-all-ness of the foreign policy types, whether it be let's-give-aid-doves, or the let's-be-strong-hawks. You don't know what you are doing a good chunk of the time, plus, how did a nation based on the idea of liberty turn into such a nation of one half peaceful NGO and one half arms sales buttinsky's?)

So, the general thrust of your argument explains the generic intellectual climate of institutions, but not the specific policies from one period to another, which depend on the situation.

I have more links for this discussion and will add them when I get a chance.

I believe the editor of the journal, Peter Munson, is writing a book on just such themes? I intend to read it.

But I believe that is COL Gentile's general point in this article? That our institutions didn't focus on the core policy goal as stated and instead substituted their own based on their own preferences.

Edit to my comment: Oh wait, I don't want to put words in his mouth. That's really MY interpretation.

"America's core policy goal from the start of the war in 2001 up to the present -- remembering that policy gives war its direction and purpose -- is focused on disrupting, disabling and eventually defeating al-Qaida."

Herein is where I think we may get it wrong.

America's core policy goal in Afghanistan (regardless of what anyone in an administration said) would not seem to be/have been disrupting, disabling and eventually defeating al-Qaida.

Rather, America's core policy goals would seem to have/had a much broader, more all-encompassing scope and purpose, for example:

To transform ALL outlier states and societies more along modern western lines; this, so that these states and societies might come to cause the modern world fewer problems and come to offer the modern world, instead, greater utility and usefullness.

Herein the determination was made to use various difficulties presenting themselves in such outlier states and societies (chaos, terrorism, genocide, insurgency, humanitarian and/or natural disasters, etc.) as evidence of the need for -- and justification to -- intervene for the purposes I have described immediately above. (The concept of R2P, also, to be seen in this light.)

Accordingly, to properly understand nation-building, in my view, one must do so -- not from the seemingly improper and exceptionally limited perspective of just Afghanistan and/or al-Qaeda -- but rather from the potentially more-correct and much broader perspective of America's overall foreign policy goals and objectives re: ALL outlier states and societies.

Within this broader, more all-encompassing description of America's foreign policy goals and objectives may lie a better answer as to (1) why the US intervened as it did in such an unlikely place as Afghanistan (9/11 presented the requisite opportunity and the chance to establish a precedent) and (2) why the United States did so, given the circumstances, in such a seemingly odd and improper manner (nation-building).

Thus, not "very limited core policy goals" (disrupting, disabling and defeating al-Qaeda) giving war its direction and purpose but, rather, policy writ-large (transforming ALL outlier states and societies more along modern western lines) doing a better job of explaining the nation-building approach.