Small Wars Journal

Learning to Eat Soup with a Spoon

Learning to Eat Soup with a Spoon by Kelley Beaucar Vlahos at The American Conservative.

Today, there is no better symbol for the dramatic failure of COIN, the fading of the COINdinistas and the loss that is U.S war policy in Afghanistan than this week’s news that Nagl is leaving Washington to be the headmaster of The Haverford School, a rich preparatory school (grades k-12) for boys on Philadelphia’s Main Line.


Bill C.

Wed, 12/26/2012 - 11:59am

Looking back over Adm Zinni's comments in this interview:

I note the contemporary "root cause" argument:

That the thing that will cause our military to deploy and to engage -- today and in the future -- will be various adverse political, economic and social conditions existing in certain countries; this causing various members of these populations to rebel.

Do we believe to that this, in fact, is the true root cause of current and future unrest; such as would require U.S. military engagement?

Or, in looking for a more-correct "root cause" of modern discord -- which might lead to U.S. military engagement -- might we look, instead, for understanding and examples offered by our military engagements during the long-19th Century?

Herein, I am suggesting that the true "root cause" for our engagements today and in the future are/will be similar to those which caused U.S. military action against (1) the American Southerners during the American Civil War, (2) the American Indians during the American Indian Wars, (3) against the Japanese (Admiral Perry) and (4) against China (the Boxer Rebellion).

This more-correct "root cause" for 19th -- and 21st Century -- discord leading to U.S. military deployment/engagement being:

Resistance to efforts made by the United States and its allies to "open up" the more-different and more-closed states and societies and to transform these such that they might be better accessed and utilized.

Bill M.

Tue, 09/04/2012 - 1:23am

In reply to by Bill C.

First we reject the notion of nation-building COIN, it is built on the false premise that if you fix the economy you defeat the insurgency. This has been proven to be incorrect. We will continue to do COIN and nation-building when it suits our national interests, which in fact may be little more than humanitarian in some cases.

a. I hope we wouldn't we wouldn't deploy General Purpose Forces for any operation that is not considered important, I think the real point is developing realistic policy objectives to achieve those objectives.

b. We really don't need "robust" civilian capabilities to conduct COIN, but what we do need is a recognition by those civilian agencies is they can't claim it is their role if they don't have the capacity. Part of our challenge today is too much civilian capacity already, and they're pursuing their own strategies.

c. We don't have to pursue democracy to conduct COIN. Defeating an insurgency and establishing a democratic government do not always have to be the same goal. You have to be careful using the term majority, because in many states (Iraq for example) majority rule means mob rule. The biggest tribe wins, and that doesn't result in the form of stability we're generally looking for.

d. That will rarely be the case, so we need to determine if we're serious about self-determination and let their leaders call the shots or if we're going to appoint leaders that fit our mold, which would smell a whole lot like colonialism. The tasks we give them? This really gets back to my question, or we an occupation force conducting COIN or a support element conducting FID? We say one thing, practice another, so it is little wonder that we don't have coherent strategy.

Bill C.

Mon, 09/03/2012 - 11:00pm

In reply to by Bill M.

Then do we (1) retain nation-building COIN but (2) determine to use it only in those rare cases when success seems more assured? For example and as minimum:

a. When the accomplishment of this mission is of sufficient importance to the United States.

b. When the requisite US civilian capabilities [State, USAID, DOJ, etc.) -- and similar civilian capabilities available from our allies -- have been robustly developed, are readily available and are more than adequate for and up to the task at hand.

c. When the vast majority of the host nation population is hungry for democracy -- is demanding same -- and is asking to, otherwise, be transformed along modern western lines.

d. When we can count on the host nation leaders -- and local government officials -- to see things much as we do, to conduct themselves accordingly and to accomplish the tasks that we give them much as we require.

Bill M.

Mon, 09/03/2012 - 1:39am

In reply to by SWJED

We certainly do, and we have demonstrated our patience repeatedly for successful ventures. Patience with failure is a sign of weakness, a failure to learn and adapt, which seems to me what many of the COINdistas preach. Americans tolerate rough patches well also, but they don't tolerate 10 years of lies well, and then when they are asked to be patient for 10 more while we continue to the do the same thing. The military has created the myth that Americans don't have patience as an excuse, but it is partially true, they don't have patience for enduring failure with little sign of progress. I can't think of one case where we failed because we didn't spend enough time, but a few where we failed due to poor strategy.


Sun, 09/02/2012 - 10:54pm

In reply to by Bill C.

Interesting observation, beyond my humble capability to provide a decent reply. That said, in even the best of economic times, does our country have the patience for COIN and all the long-term implications such operations entail?

Do we believe that, minus the financial crisis, COIN -- and the COINdinistas -- would have similarly lost their glow?

Many people exploited the insurgencies we were/are involved in for personal benefit and some of those sold snake oil. Many others made honest and major contributions, yet none of it mattered in Iraq when the policy wonks in the Bush Administration mandated intentional blindness when they directed the military to call the growing insurgency in Iraq a few dead enders from the former regime as though ignoring the insurgency and giving it a different label would make the problem go away. A lot of people at high levels should be held accountable that never will be. Mistakes are made in war because we can’t predict what will happen and we’ll never have perfect knowledge, but that doesn’t excuse intentionally misleading the American people.
Nagl's book was an interesting study on how organizations learn and adapt or fail to do so. It was not a study on COIN. The background context was two different insurgencies and two different approaches to contrast how they learned, which hardly qualifies as an academic textbook on COIN. It worries when we an officer with no practical COIN experience writes a thesis on learning organizations using COIN as a backdrop, and then he gets labeled an expert on COIN. I suspect that was a surprise to him also. That isn’t personal attack, simply pointing out how quickly our community wants to identify someone as an expert on and then quit thinking critically about it. I suspect if I wrote a thesis on cyber war there would be some folks who mistakenly label me as an expert, and then standby for a lot of bad advice based on my limited academic study.
A couple of thoughts on the rebirth of our COIN doctrine (very little was actually new), this was akin to washing your older son’s cloths and wrapping them in gift wrap and giving the clothes to your younger son. There is nothing wrong with that as long as you’re not fooling yourself. The uncomfortable truth is we were doing terrible at COIN and the situation in Iraq was getting out of hand. Fortunately a lot of junior, mid-grade and senior NCOs and Officers stepped up to the plate made contributions to change the course of the fight on the ground (not the strategy). Very few them pursued self-promotion and most avoided expert label because the good ones are leery of anyone who calls himself an expert. They all deserve credit for stepping up. One of the outcomes was the repackaging of our COIN doctrine which was a partially successful effort to correct our operational and tactical approach on the ground. The other outcome was a renewed focus on irregular warfare which was sorely needed throughout the forces (I think we can seriously question the effectiveness of this effort since from my optic I have seen little investment in IW from many of the services), but at least there is interest and that is the start of creating new programs.
The intentions of most involved were honest and selfless and solely focused on fixing what was clearly broken. Unfortunately we reframed once and came up with proposed logic for this king of conflict and what we thought the doctrine should be, and then we quit learning. Too many leaders at all levels in the military embraced the COIN doctrine with the same passion and faith many embrace their religion with. They don’t need to see it work, they just know it will. Blind faith is a not good substitute for critical thinking. After the doctrine was published we get learning, we quit questioning, we quit growing. We created popular myths that indicated we were successful when we weren't, but we believed our own spin and continued to march blindly on.
Taking a step back the COIN doctrine was a step in the right direction to share what we thought we learned to date, but it never should have been the end all. In effect we stopped becoming a learning organization which is the anti-thesis to Nagl’s book.
Irregular Warfare, which COIN is a subset of, will continue to be important. It isn't IW or conventional war it is both and it always has been. I suspect the excessive micro-management in the military has resulted in the either or school (IW or conventional war), because everyone feels compelled to embrace the shiny thing of the day instead of preparing to fight the future wars/conflicts we may have to fight (instead of want to fight), which I suspect will involve conventional combat, asymmetric weapons (Cyber, WMD), and irregular aspects, or in other words a hybrid war. A term we shouldn't need, but apparently we do to force holistic thinking. Hopefully it serves a Zen Koan which after mediating on it our officers will become enlightened and with great mental clarity and state, I got it! It is both, it always has been. Now we have to figure how to prepare for both.

joseph collins

Sat, 09/01/2012 - 7:41pm

This lady specializes in poison pen ad hominem type of critiques. There is nothing ... nothing new in this piece, save her acidic attempt at becoming the Maureen Dowd of strategic studies.

Nagl's book is a good one*, but there are no "last word" books in this area. His work on 3-24 ---- a book much better book that its critics make it out to be --- was noteworthy. Much of his subsequent work on doctrine has been done pro bono as a civilian. His work at CNAS was excellent. He is a dedicated teacher too. I for one am delighted at his latest appointment as headmaster of a great boys' school in Philadelphia.

Blaming Nagl for large scale ,expeditionary force COIN is like blaming a TV news commentator or the RED CROSS for a flash flood.

The author of this screed fails to mention that John Nagl fought in Iraq and was himself as a young Major a victim of bad or unlucky decisions in Iraq. Wanting to reformulate a useable coin doctrine was a noble and a good thought... even if no one in his or her right mind is a fan of large scale , 3d party, expeditionary force coin operations.

[In the 20th century, the USA only had one undisputed success at expeditionary force COIN. In the PI, 1899-1902, we won big ... but you don't want to hear how we did it. It was as viscious and mean on both sides as our wars against the American Indians. We all remember Vietnam. Iraq and Afghanistan ... those opns are incompletes, awaiting grades at a future date. I tend to see Iraq as a trillion dollar mistake ... but that's just me. In any case, I don't need Vlahos's crocodile tears about Afghanistan... a war that Nagl neither created nor promoted.]

The truth here is that John Nagl is a distinguished veteran of combat in two wars. He did his best to help the Army to adapt to the second one. His book, originally written as a Captain, way before Iraq and Afghanistan, is pretty darned good, even if the history of those cases (and 3-24) is being rewritten as we speak. He is a very nice man with a lovely family and this lady author is both wrong and mean spirited.

Joe Collins

*I have used Nagl's book in class for 7 or 8 academic years. It is very well written and a nice comparison of vietnam and malaya. It espouses the classical hearts and mind approach. That term by the way, goes back to a UK Gen named Clinton who was fighting Americans in the Revolutionary War. If Nagl is wrong about that point of view, he has a lot of company. You can't find a serious book about COIN or irregular conflict that does not cite Nagl's work. On the other hand, you will look in vain for books that cite Ms Vlahos's contributions.

Madhu (not verified)

Thu, 09/06/2012 - 12:29pm

In reply to by SWJED

<blockquote>Most importantly (and especially since most our military members don't actually read a doctrinal pub cover to back) it seriously (and I write this with a straight face) forced the nuke them and let God sort them out crowd and the "tweeners" (the I don't know what the f*** is going on here but want someone to give me some guidance crowd) to give pause and as such gave them purpose (albeit the former raised their ugly head from time to time and worked against our Nation's desired end-state for Iraq).</blockquote>

I see. You have given me something new to think about. I honestly never really thought about it that way. I may have to rethink a thing or two. Very glad you responded. Thank you.


Sat, 09/01/2012 - 6:41pm

In reply to by Madhu (not verified)

Madhu, first up, don't break contact from here, you are a cherished contributor. Second up, FM 3-24 was never, ever, meant to be the defining doctrinal answer to COIN. It was published as an urgent need to address our failures in Iraq. Most importantly (and especially since most our military members don't actually read a doctrinal pub cover to back) it seriously (and I write this with a straight face) forced the nuke them and let God sort them out crowd and the "tweeners" (the I don't know what the f*** is going on here but want someone to give me some guidance crowd) to give pause and as such gave them purpose (albeit the former raised their ugly head from time to time and worked against our Nation's desired end-state for Iraq). FM 3-24 was written as a stop-gap and from page one encouraged readers to use its contents as mere guidlines, not gospel, and adapt the concepts and tenets to a particular situation, at a particular time, on a particular plot of ground. How much more could one ask for from the authors and those who championed the pub?

Madhu (not verified)

Sat, 09/01/2012 - 6:23pm

In reply to by SWJED

So, people who write policy have NO responsibility at all? Is there no relation between the policy and the practice as described in FM 3-24?

It's a serious question. What about studying the policy and its effects on what is actually happening? Why is that so off-limits and unfair, as long as it is part of a larger, more comprehensive study?

And yes, I'll stop haunting this website for the time being :) Hey, at least I care and still pay attention, right?


Sat, 09/01/2012 - 6:15pm

In reply to by Bob W.

Well said Bob. Wish I could put it so well and so short. I tend to ramble on;)

Bob W.

Sat, 09/01/2012 - 7:08pm

In reply to by Madhu (not verified)

Mahdu, well said, i agree, that was my point exactly. It is not difficult to criticize existing policies, doctrine, or operations while avoiding the logical fallacy of ad hominem attacks. People do it here all the time, which is one of the reasons I'd argue that SWJ is such a good institution here in interwebland.

Madhu (not verified)

Sat, 09/01/2012 - 6:06pm

In reply to by Bob W.

@ Bow W: Well, yes, the buck stops at the top, but one can still ask whether the policy was the correct one and what was its intellectual genesis, and whether military politicking at the top pushed a personal agenda within the DC world. That's fair. But, I agree, not in this manner. The tone is all wrong. All wrong.

See journalists? This is what happens when you personalize things.

There are serious questions about the way in which the military chose to operationalize things: fair and serious and intellectually decent questions, so that we as a nation may learn and grow and continually improve, because nothing is ever perfect, is it?

But when you go personal, all of that is lost in the ad hominem, and then the good questions don't get asked because of defensiveness and a feeling of insult (which is fair, the feeling of insult.)

So, as someone that cares, thanks a lot for nature of the criticisms.

Aaargh, so frustrating!

I have grown weary of the ad hominem attacks on mid- level officers and scholars over a policy that is being implemented completely outside of their control, and in a manner which none of them ever described. It is petty, vindictive and completely unproductive. There are better things to devote one's time to than this sort of thing, especially for those who purport to be scholars and officers.


Sat, 09/01/2012 - 5:10pm

In reply to by gian gentile

It's your choice Gian and, as so many times before, I will welcome you back when you can't resist. Your friend, and I mean that, Dave D.

gian gentile

Sat, 09/01/2012 - 4:43pm

You are right Dave I don't get it, I never have and I never will.
You are also right that the nation owes you and your friends like Nagl et al a debt of grattitude for taking a messed up set of wars and making them better.
I will post on your blog no more forever.

Madhu (not verified)

Sat, 09/01/2012 - 5:56pm

In reply to by Madhu (not verified)

<blockquote>Was there a foreign government behind the 9/11 attacks? A decade later, Americans still haven’t been given the whole story, while a key 28-page section of Congress’s Joint Inquiry report remains censored.</blockquote>

And if you want to know about the business relationships, just search for any prominent name and the part of the world you think that retired person may have had working connections. What you find is interesting, but you do the homework, young people. Also, maybe some of our journalists could do this homework, too. A lot of people got "gamed"--especially in South Asia--because of personal relationships or fond memories of days past, particularly the Cold War.

Do some real investigation, some of you journalists. Real investigation. The stuff that isn't ticky-tacky domestic personalities.

I miss Carl Prine's blogging, as difficult as he was. At least he requested material via FOIA, I think.

Madhu (not verified)

Sat, 09/01/2012 - 5:24pm

In reply to by SWJED

I guess what bothers me is not the specific critiques (I'm often a sharp critic of our overall strategy in Afghanistan, as my past comments have shown), but that is so focused on one aspect, as if that is the only thing that got us to today.

It cannot be that we face the situations we face today in Iraq and Afghanistan without a whole host of questionable decision-making being involved, without errors on the part of multiple people and administrations. Basically, an entire strategic culture had to change its mindset -- and couldn't do it. Even the salvage operations had the same strategic blind spots, even if the tactical changed.

I don't know. One the one hand, I am glad that Col. Gentile has spoken up and that he continues to speak up about, well, the obsession with Vietnam in a whole generation of military officers, active and retired.

I am so sorry, but why is that the only history that can provide us with lessons learned? For Afghanistan, we Americans have a very detailed and complicated history in that part of the world. Why is that so often overlooked as we mine a different conflict so consistently, as if it's more about the hangups of one group of people than an attempt to understand a situation in all its facets? Why can't we focus on the task at hand?

On the other hand, I appreciate Dave Dilegge's attempts to focus on the big picture and to not personalize the situation. However, what is wrong with pointing out that some people got major things wrong in their congressional testimonies and prections? Why can't we just state it; that so-and-so got such-and-such wrong? He or she may be a good person and meant well, but the advice proved wrong based on subsequent events? It happens.

Why aren't more people interested in the US's history in that part of the world, aside from the baby stories told in more contemporary military journals and in think tank policy papers?

I guess I find the personalities involved in this world to be confusing.

But, I'm trying folks. I am trying to be honest. It's so dirty, though, the history of DC and its connections to various parts of the world. It kind of makes you cynical when you read names of retired military and diplomatic people and their business connections. I am not referring to Drs. Kilcullen or Nagl here, so don't get mad at me. But, it's pretty sick if you look at those government watchdog websites. The connections are pretty sick.

I wish Kelly Vlahos and others like her would look deeper into the situation, because there is a lot out there. What did people know, and when did they know it, about Saudi Arabia and others in relation to 9-11? If only she would spend as much time trying to get at the still classified material. Perhaps she is, and I just don't know.

Sigh. I am trying to be honest and fair, but it is like a hall-of-mirrors.

As far as I could discern COL Gian Gentile was the only one interviewed for this scathing op-ed piece.

Those attacked in this hatchet job (Full disclosure: I know and think highly of most of them) are honorable men who were handed a s*** sandwich by an administration in denial that an insurgency was even taking place. They did not have the luxury of conducting a COIN campaign through all the school-book phases - and hopefully stemming what this ill-advised adventure became. Rather, they had to move forward while at the same time undoing years worth of self-inflicted damage the US military and other US department / agency counterparts (read CPA) bestowed. The verdict is still out on our efforts in Iraq and it may be so for years to come, but it seems that country is a hell of lot better off now than the pre-"surge" days.

I'd go to war with the likes of Nagl, Kilcullen and like-minded souls any day. Moreover, people like Dr. Kilcullen thought invading Iraq was a mistake in the first place, but rather than playing chicken little across the op-ed-blogosphere he and others stood up and became the men in the arena, not the freak sideshow many of their distractors have become.

Moreover, much of Vlahos' critical commentary centers on career changes these people have made (especially John Nagl) to a point of personal viciousness. Such is life, people do move on; and again I know these people; these types of moves are quite normal and on my planet people do this quite naturally as well as frequently.

Like the <i>Washington Post</i> likes to say, "if you don't get it, you don't get it".

Dave Dilegge