Small Wars Journal

This Week at War: The Biden Plan Returns

Here is the latest edition of my column at Foreign Policy:

Topics include:

1) Running out of time, Petraeus implements Biden's counterterrorism plan

2) Britain chooses to become an American auxiliary

Running out of time, Petraeus implements Biden's counterterrorism plan

Bob Woodward's latest book, Obama's Wars, discusses how, during the debate within U.S. President Barack Obama's inner circle over the best military strategy for Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus was the main proponent of a classic "protect the people" counterinsurgency strategy. During the debates, Petraeus railed against Vice President Joe Biden's proposal for a narrower "kinetic" counterterrorism approach that would focus on killing al Qaeda and Taliban leaders with bombs, missiles, and special-operations raids. Obama eventually gave Petraeus's plan the nod. Attempting to implement the soft touch recommended by counterinsurgency theory, former commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal severely limited the use of airstrikes and artillery and ordered U.S. ground units to disengage from firefights rather than risk firing into occupied buildings.

But that was then. Under pressure to show measureable results, Petraeus now seems to be warming up to Biden's approach more than he is likely to admit. According to the New York Times, the past three months have witnessed a sharp acceleration of airstrikes and commando raids on Taliban leadership targets. From June through September, U.S. pilots dropped 2,100 bombs and missiles on Taliban targets, a 50 percent increase from a year ago. Officers attribute the increased rate of attacks on better target intelligence, provided by a greater number of drone surveillance aircraft. Between early July and early October, special-operations forces killed 300 midlevel Taliban commanders and 800 foot soldiers, and captured another 2,000. According to Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, a recent internal study requested by Petraeus showed that 90 percent of the campaign's operational success has come from just 5 percent of the forces, led by his command's special-operations raiding teams.

With time running out until the December strategy review and July's scheduled drawdown, Petraeus has cast away McChrystal's soft touch. Furthermore, the counterinsurgency mantra of "clear-hold-build-transfer" no longer seems relevant given the time pressure to deliver credible progress. Petraeus's strategy now appears to be pure coercion, directed at mid- and higher-level Taliban leaders. Perhaps Petraeus has removed the Counterinsurgency Field Manual from his nightstand, and replaced it with Thomas Schelling's Arms and Influence, the Cold War-era primer on the utility of military coercion.

Petraeus's tactical shift may be getting results. According to the New York Times, the general is sending in aircraft and clearing the roads to shuttle high-level Taliban leaders who are now seeking an audience with Afghan government representatives. The fear of a Hellfire missile, a laser-guided bomb, or the nighttime arrival of commandos seems the most logical explanation for the growing willingness of some Taliban commanders to talk. The metrics of counterinsurgency success -- growing acceptance by the population of the legitimate government, improved policing, falling corruption, etc. -- have not arrived and could not account for the changed calculations of these Taliban leaders.

The Afghan government and the Taliban are obviously a long way from a truce. The negotiating authority of the Taliban envoys is in question. And, according to the New York Times, the Taliban emissaries must remain anonymous, lest they be killed by the Pakistani intelligence service, which apparently has yet to sanction the idea of a settlement. In spite of these frailties, Petraeus seems eager to arrange these talks -- they seem to be the best way of showing results before the December policy review.

Obama is no doubt equally eager for progress toward a truce, if only to get another chance at resetting his Afghanistan policy. If he gets that chance, it won't be due to counterinsurgency theory but rather to tried-and-true coercion, enabled by a surprisingly small number of drone handlers, intelligence operators, and special-operations raiders. Could that make Joe Biden Obama's best military advisor?

Britain chooses to become an American auxiliary

In a recent column, I discussed the choices the new Conservative-Liberal Democrat government in Britain faced as it completed a review of its defense planning. If the top priority for British leaders was to retain the capacity for an independent foreign and defense policy, they would give top priority to nuclear deterrence and naval and air power. Ground forces would get the chop. If by contrast, British leaders were —to defer to the foreign-policy leadership of the United States, the European Union, or some other larger alliance, Britain should then choose to structure its forces to be a good partner and cut military capabilities that its friends would provide instead.

The results of the government's strategic review cum budget-slashing exercise are now in. The Strategic Defense and Security Review largely protects military capabilities most useful to allies like the United States, while taking large risks with the British military's ability to operate alone.

The Defense Ministry will suffer an 8 percent cut in real terms over the next four years. Prime Minister David Cameron has chosen to largely protect the Army, Britain's special-operations forces, and the country's purchase of the U.S.-built Joint Strike Fighter. This outcome is no doubt highly pleasing to the Pentagon. Getting the axe will be Britain's surface and amphibious naval forces, which will be hard-pressed to respond on short notice or again mount a significant independent expedition. Cameron also deferred a final decision on modernizing Britain's nuclear deterrent until after the next general election; Cameron's Liberal Democrat allies will thus get another chance to permanently kill this capability.

Cameron and his colleagues were constrained by three difficult factors. First was the government's requirement to economize across entire budget, with defense slated to do its part. Second was Cameron's pledge to sustain Britain's contribution to the land war in Afghanistan until 2015. Third was the previous Labour government's commitment to build two new large aircraft carriers, with much of their funding having already been spent. The annoying result for Cameron was that it would cost more to terminate the aircraft carrier program than to complete the two ships. The funding absorbed by the carriers has effectively sunk much of the rest of the Navy and shot down many of Britain's aircraft. The consequence of these three constraints is that more than a decade will elapse with numerous large gaps in British military capability which will include, embarrassingly, an aircraft carrier sailing with no aircraft.

The government's analysis of future threats contributed to its decision to emphasize its ties and interoperability with the United States. It judged the top tier of risks to include mass-destruction terrorism, cyberthreats, natural disasters, and international crises where Britain would act within a coalition. The government threat assessment downgraded the risks of conventional war, state-on-state conflict, and a replay of the 1982 Falklands campaign.

Mitigating the top-tier threats requires international intelligence cooperation, partnerships on cybersecurity, coordination with foreign partners on special-operations training and employment, and interoperability within multilateral military command structures such as NATO. It is thus no surprise that the defense review directs the British Army to reorganize its brigades to more similarly match their U.S. counterparts. Cameron also decided to scrap some battlefield intelligence capabilities (under the assumption the Americans will provide the data) while increasing funding for cybersecurity.

In spite of the relative chill of late between Washington and London, Cameron has decided to increase Britain's dependence on the Pentagon. He's counting on the relationship to never get too cold. And on the Pentagon not doing any of its own deep bone-cutting.


slapout9 (not verified)

Tue, 10/26/2010 - 12:24am

Well said "Mac", well said.

"MAC" McCallister (not verified)

Mon, 10/25/2010 - 7:49pm

Dear Slapout,

The reason I highlighted the "gang" moniker was to warn against applying this shorthand to readily because of the implicit baggage it entails. While working in Anbar I would argue against the "oh yeah, the tribal system is just like the mafia" soundbite... No it wasn't ... the Dulaym Confederation was a kinship and alliance based arrangement and not a criminal organization... Similar types of arrangements may be found within qawms, solidarity groups, merchant/political families, alliance and patronage networks, etc, etc in Afghanistan.

I witnessed a tendency in the popular press to associate and mindlessly link a social organization with "criminal" (mafia) or "anti-social" (gang) behavior because someone believed they recognized some "good fellanistic" tendencies... It didn't add anything to the conversation and in the end only prejudiced how we thought about the locals and to question our engagement strategy. Please note that I am not arguing against engaging with actual bandits (gangs) if required... not that there is anything wrong with that :-)

You and I may not be as superficial when it comes to differentiating between kinship based associations and civil society, bandits and freedom fighters, thieves or politicians but many of my dear friends and acquaintances are just that when it comes to describing complex identities and relationships.

Absolutely, it remains a critical requirement for FIDestas to study indigenous group psychology (reasons for segmentation and aggregation) especially the ways it is expressed within the target audiences cultural frame of reference ...


slapout9 (not verified)

Mon, 10/25/2010 - 5:47pm

Hi "Mac", Robert Taber boy does that bring back memories. I was not just in Florida for the Cuban Missile Crisis bur also the Bay of Pigs. Went to school with some of their kids and as I got older I used share some meals with their parents at a small out of the way Cuban restaurant in Orlando, that probably doesn't even exist anymore. Much about the Bay of the Pigs has never come to light at least from my sources point of view. Anyway back to the present, many think his (Taber) book is outdated but I think it is more relevant than ever. I have quoted from your post below what I think is relevant, in other words you have answered your riddle IMO.

"Riddle me this... is Afghanistan a modern society? If it isn't and I am firmly in the "it isn't" camp how can you apply a modern, bourgeois-democratic, liberal, capitalist state template and expect to influence anything? If Afghanistan remains a traditional society wouldn't it behoove us to study traditional Afghan political warfare, and coalition building and coalition management techniques instead?

National governance in Afghanistan is not an expression of the general will and no amount of wishful thinking on our part will make it so. Our cognitive framework for appreciating, developing and executing strategic and tactical initiatives in Astan is plain wrong. The GangBangAstan moniker is closest to ground truth but also condescending and therefore in danger of becoming a caricature. We might be better served to study Astan history for appropriate stratagems rather than abstract social theories so as to free ourselves from the chains of "oughtism" i.e. we will show the Afghans how they ought to govern themselves." by "Mac"

I would add this, counter-gang theories are just a set of tactics and very well could be viewed as a misleading carcitutre....but understanding why people join gangs and why some prosper and survive and others don't maybe of help as we go forward into the future.

Greyhawk (not verified)

Mon, 10/25/2010 - 5:09pm

Dave Maxwell,
Thanks. I've been reading Woodward, too. From what I gather from my reading (concur with your caveat), the "Biden plan" was fleshed out enough to be war gamed, and the Pentagon was reluctant to do so. Add to that Gen McChrystal's now-infamous quote from London last year; it lacked reference to VP Biden but we've been repeatedly assured it was a reference to (attack on, in fact) his plan. Beyond the "goodness" of this plan, all the above has led to stories of a serious crisis in civ/mil relations that have been discussed elsewhere in this forum.

That's much ado about a plan no one has seen, though the "McChrystal plan" was leaked (during a period when such leaks were more like a flood) last year to none other than Bob Woodward, who cited the Pentagon Papers as an example why such things should be made public ASAP - instead of waiting for the book publishing date. Also notable: Obama's Wars includes the full leaked text of the president's six-page memo that constitutes our actual plan for Afghanistan... but somehow this oft-referenced "Biden plan" still remains illusive.

Given the variety of serious people involved in serious discussions that reference said Biden plan, I would think more serious people would be looking for a "hardcopy." Certainly it must be something more robust than a one or two sentence expression of a thought from the good idea fairy, yes?

"MAC" McCallister (not verified)

Mon, 10/25/2010 - 2:32pm

Robert Taber in "War of the Flea" explains that "the modern industrial society and its government cannot govern, except with popular participation and by popular consent." Taber goes on to state that what is true of the industrial state is also true, with minor qualification, of the non-industrial state. Modern governments must seem popular and must make great concessions to popular notions of what is democratic and just, or be replaced by regimes that will do so. "Governments of the dominant industrial states themselves, even more so than those they dominate, are strapped politically by this factor of domestic 'image'. They must use the liberal rhetoric and also pay something in the way of social compromise - schools, hospitals, decent concern for the well-being of all the people...". Taber goes on to state that these are modern weaknesses and that these weaknesses invite a distinctly modern development i.e. modern guerilla warfare to exploit them. Sound familiar?

Riddle me this... is Afghanistan a modern society? If it isn't and I am firmly in the "it isn't" camp how can you apply a modern, bourgeois-democratic, liberal, capitalist state template and expect to influence anything? If Afghanistan remains a traditional society wouldn't it behoove us to study traditional Afghan political warfare, and coalition building and coalition management techniques instead?

National governance in Afghanistan is not an expression of the general will and no amount of wishful thinking on our part will make it so. Our cognitive framework for appreciating, developing and executing strategic and tactical initiatives in Astan is plain wrong. The GangBangAstan moniker is closest to ground truth but also condescending and therefore in danger of becoming a caricature. We might be better served to study Astan history for appropriate stratagems rather than abstract social theories so as to free ourselves from the chains of "oughtism" i.e. we will show the Afghans how they ought to govern themselves.

Realistic COAs should consider concepts of power, authority, sovereignty, and obedience and how they manifest themselves along the frontier. Take the idea of sovereignty for instance - the idea that there exists a right to which all other rights must yield. Whether found in St.Paul's formula that "all Power is of God" with a view to remind the prince that he held his authority only as a trust; or in sharia i.e. Islamic law as the legitimating source of constitutional authority and where the Caliph's, Sultan's, Amir's or Khan's authority is also held in trust... or unalienable Rights endowed by one's Creator... How do concepts of sovereignty play themselves out in Kunar province, or among the Haqqani alliance network?

We continue to discuss the problem as if the modern governmental machine has successfully established itself in Afghanistan or that the various social organizations with their own autonomous forms of governance have agreed to obey this machine... The central government does not have the authority nor capacity to alter as it pleases its subjects' rules of behavior. We expect the Karzai administration to express a power (form and extent of power) that no other administration in history has expressed before... Even Abdur Rahman Khan, the Iron Amir, required local allies to impose his vision. His autocratic powers were limited in scope, capacity and capability. No absolute monarch in Astan ever had at his disposal a standing police force comparable to the one we (Soviets and U.S.) are attempting to create for the Khan. Food for thought... the more "democratic" the state, the greater the growth in the apparatus of coercion.

Is it any wonder that the inhabitants of GangBangAstan are pushing back against the encroachment of the central government into their realms of sovereignty and autonomy?


slapout9 (not verified)

Mon, 10/25/2010 - 12:09pm

OODA Loop analysis.

Step 2 of the OODA Loop is Orientation or a common picture of the situation. So from my old Street Cop point of view...There is no Afghanistan! I would rename it GangBangAstan to more correctly define the situation.
I would say you probably have at least 30 to 50 Gangs there(with many different motives) that can and will cause you a lot of problems and until we realize that I don't think we are going to come to a realistic COA. Just my Opinion.

Bob's World

Mon, 10/25/2010 - 10:22am

Bill M:

Great comments. I realize we feel compelled to brag about every HVI we pop. It's part of the problem with having intel-driven strategy: One begins to see the bad guys and their organizations as the problem, and then see the removal of a guy or attrition of a group as a major success. These are great shaping operations, but need to be kept in context. Bragging about them in the press helps keep our perspective skewed ( thus why the VP of the US thinks CT alone can save the day...), and does little to carry the main effort.

One more example why there is so much insurgency: Politics and Politicians. They won't take responsibility for their short-comings, so they blame them on others and then send the military our to defeat them. Then they take credit for that military slap at the symptoms of the problems they are creating through their governance/foreign policy; and use that to get re-elected. (A new twist on OODA Loops for Slap to mull over!)

We went to Afghanistan for much the same reasons we went to places like the A shau: Becuase the enemy was there in sufficient numbers to seek a "decisive battle." The fact is, that there is no decisive battle solution to this problem, as you well appreciate.

AQ is an idea as much as an organization, and an idea whose time has come cannot not be defeated in any decisive battle, nor contained in any small corner of the world. One must appreciate that it can manifest anywhere, at anytime and not get fixed mentally or physically to any one place or group. Only then does one maintain the flexibility of thought and action to address the roots of the problem foremost, while sniping out the key nodes as they present themselves.

We can chase this problem from Afghanistan to Pakistan to Yemen to Somalia, and never "fix" it for decisive defeat. Simlarly we can devastate AQ now, and whoever relaces them next, and if the conditions feeding the problem are still unaddressed, have made no real headway.

Understanding this gets closer to what Lawrence hints at when he says "more intellectual than a bayonet charge."


I agree with your points above, but question the political reality of our politicians being able to relentlessly and "without fanfare" pursue Al Qaeda. We'll have all the right wing wanta be warriors jump out of the wood work and claim the administration is not tough on terrorism, with the likes of Sen McCain urging them on. Maybe we can conduct a few operations for show (to entertain the Max Boots in the media world), which will then hopefully create some space to conduct the real operations that really matter.

DoD is just as bad as our politicians about seeking fanfare based on the recent press reports about such and such units being more effective based on head counts. I don't think DOD is really cut out to be effective in the covert and clandestine worlds based on their culture. I much rather see the CIA take the lead on this and do it right (of course the CIA will have to hire the right people and put the right people in charge), with DOD playing a supporting role.

Your points on space and sanctuary are spot on and I would add that the goal to deny safehaven to terrorists is a waste of effort and huge sums of tax dollars. Terrorists (not talking about insurgents) can operate in the West (note the various leftist groups in Europe and the U.S. during the 70s, and of course the IRA). They'll adapt to whatever environment they're in. They may not be able to swing from monkey bars and practice large scale maneuver events, but they can certainly train and execute operations in the modern world. I can train someone to make IEDs and to shoot in my basement. I much rather let the terrorists form training camps in Afghanistan, Somalia, etc., because they make an excellent targets to strike assuming we can muster the will to do so.

Bob's World

Mon, 10/25/2010 - 8:13am

In many ways the CT-aspect of this version of the VP's CT-only plan is far too robust. Afterall, we'd really only need persistent day-to-day CT for going after critical AQ UW nodes in Pakistan, with the odd strike in Afghanistan when they opted to venture in that direction.

De-conflating the threat to remove all of the Afgahn and Pakistan insurgent groups from the target list and focusing solely on AQ proper would be essential.

No need to hold Kandahar (I believe we have over 20,000 on KAF currently); and if the CIA needs 3000 guys to work just this one AOR of a global pursuit of AQ I would suspect they are either incredibly inefficient or incredibly under-invested in other areas of the globe where AQ's UW network nodes operate as well to extend the reach and effect of their network.

I think a couple "re-definitions" help narrow the scope:

1. Seeing sanctuary not as "ungoverned space" or space at all for that matter is #1. This takes the "exestintial" out of AFPAK. Recognizing that it is a mix of legal status, favorable terrain and the support of a poorly governed populace that provides true sanctuary changed the focus on how and where to best operate to deny it. (For example, a clumsy drone strike well exploited by threat IO in the FATA may actually increase sanctuary there, and in Europe and North Africa all in one blow.)

2. Delinking AFPAK region from the AQ mission of "Defeat-Disrupt-Disable." Overly focusing in any one area binds us to terrain and blinds us to the bigger picture. Besides, better to keep "The Base" where we know where they are than to drive their dispersal in to other dark corners of the globe where we have even less legal access (thus greater legal sanctuary) to engage.

3. Such a CT effort must be relentless, global,ruthless; and excuted quitely without fanfare or bragging over every success. It also must be a supporting effort to a main effort.

That main effort must be rooted in a calm, sane diplomacy that works with the governments and populaces of all the many troubled regions where AQ's message does find fertile soil in the conditions of insurgency in poorly governed populaces, and "encourage" changes in a manner that very visibly reduces perceptions of the US co-opting local legitimacy, but clearly enforcing it instead. Civilian-led, with military support only where necessary for security or unique capability/capacity.

For Greyhawk,

Have not seen an official version of the Biden CT plan but I am reading Woodward's new book _Obama's War_ and here is an excerpt. Take the source with a grain of salt.

"Biden had spent five hours hashing out an alternative to McChrystal that he dubbed "counterterrorism plus". Instead of a troop-intensive counterinsurgency, the plan focused on what he believed was the real threat - al Qaeda. Counterterrorism put an emphasis on shutting down terrorist groups by killing or capturing their leaders. Biden thought al Qaeda could be deterred from returning to Afghanistan without having to embark on the costly mission of protecting the Afghan people.

Al Qaeda, he reasoned would always take the path of least resistance and not come back to its former home as long as:

1. The US maintained at least two bases - Bagram and Kandahar - so Special Operations Forces could raid anywhere in the country.
2. The U.S. had enough manpower to control Afghan airspace, and the enemy was nowhere close to contesting that;
3. Human intelligence networks inside Afghanistan providing targeting information to Special Operations Forces; and
4. The CIA's elite, 3,000 Afghan-strong Counterterrorism Pursuit Teams (CTPT) could move freely.

Afghanistan only had to be a slightly more hostile hostile environment for al al Qaeda than Pakistan ("one Predator tougher") for them to choose not to return."
End Quote.

"MAC" McCallister (not verified)

Sun, 10/24/2010 - 4:59pm

Ursa Maior,

While I wholeheartedly agree that warfare is an art.. it is also a science... Exploiting weapon ballistics is a science... Attempting to achieve specific weapon effects is an art... as in the exploitation of particular weapon ballistics to achieve specific effects i.e. high angle (mortar) fires fix the bad men in their holes as we move against them , flat trajectory (artillery) fires allow me to reach out further so as to attrit a massed assault before it reaches my final protective fires... Time on target calculations are all very scientific in their execution. Strategy and tactics IMO are art forms... but I venture that there exist "social scientists" who might disagree with me. Is modernizing a given society an expression of science or art... both maybe?

I disagree that specifying whether something is a rebellion, revolution, or insurgency is doctrinal hairsplitting... Doctrinal hairsplitting as you call it, allows me... the strategist or tactician to tailor the art and resources against a specific threat or circumstance... Insurrection defined as simply the armed resistance of the people briefs well but tells me nothing as to potential effects the leadership of this armed resistance desires... As a politico-military planner I'd like to know whether I need to plan for a long term fight or a small riot in the city center... since both are considered an armed insurrection.

In my opinion, rebellion is not synonymous with revolution... and while IMO it is impossible to actually force warfare into neatly arranged definitions... we should define the subject matter before we engage in intelligent conversation. We don't have to agree on the definitions... but I owe it to you to explain my assumptions/definitions concerning the subject at hand.

Reference ridding ourselves of misperceptions in regard to warfare as science or art... warfare is an expression of both and always has been... ever since the first hunter developed a better spear delivery system.


UrsaMaior (not verified)

Sun, 10/24/2010 - 3:53pm


someone once wrote about war as a "social phenomenon" was/is/and will be an art not a science. Therefore doctrinal hairsplitting (is it a correct expression?) is more a hindrance than a useful tool. In my opinion rebellion is a synonym for revolution. Insurrection is simply the armed resistence of the people.

We should stop trying to force warfare into neatly arranged definitions. It is an art. After we have managed to get rid of this misperception irregular warfare will cease to be the freak it is now.

slapout9 (not verified)

Sun, 10/24/2010 - 3:11pm

Over at the SWC discussion board we have talked about Rebellion vs. Revolution a great deal. What I was taught was a Rebellion is an action against a specific law or policy of the Government. The populace simply wants the law or policy changed not the government itself. Revolution is about changing the entire government not just some specif law or policy.

"MAC" McCallister (not verified)

Sun, 10/24/2010 - 9:43am

Dear UrsaMaior,

What exactly are you disagreeing with? Do you disagree that there exists a difference between rebellion and insurgency? I am a bit confused because I address the terms rebellion and insurgency and not revolution.

I have heard it said that the difference between a rebellion and revolution is that one has failed (rebellion) to change the existing social order whereas the other succeeded (revolution). If this definition has merit then the French Revolution of 1789 is indeed a revolution but the Hungarian merely a failed rebellion.

One web-based dictionary defines revolution as follows..."an overthrow or repudiation and the thorough replacement of an established government or political system by the people governed." The Hungarian rebellion repudiated the soviet system in 1956 but failed to replace it... can we still call it a revolution? I don't know... what are your thoughts?


UrsaMaior (not verified)

Sun, 10/24/2010 - 3:39am

"I submit that there is a difference between rebellion and insurgency. A rebellion is an organized resistance or opposition to a government or other authority but not the form of government or authority itself."

With all due respect Sir I disagree. The french revolution og 1789 and the hungarian one in 1956 both were aimed at replacing exisiting forms of governments.

Bob's World

Sat, 10/23/2010 - 7:51pm


My comments are not directed at you, just general musing as I spend a bit of time looking at US policy, past and present.

I find that when someone wants to attack a position they disagree with they drop the "t" bomb ("that's tactical") or the "I" bomb ("that's idealistic") to attempt to discredit their opponent. Typically such terms are missued in the approach.

So, as I say, my comments are not aimed at you, I find a lot of logic in your positions. Like Dave, I am a FID guy. I just thought I'd share some thoughts I have had recently on these concepts.

"MAC" McCallister (not verified)

Sat, 10/23/2010 - 6:29pm


I was referring to myself... as in, yes, I personally accept the realistic notion that all is probably lost in our attempts to create a modern nation state in Afghanistan and to call a spade a spade when dealing with the locals and that there are also certain ideals, principles or values I adhere to or actively pursue, such as keeping my word for example. Actually, I have not always kept my word... but it is an ideal I aspire towards.

I was not attempting to define one or the other theory of world politics such as classical realism, modern realism, structural or neo-realism, or liberalism. I consider my personal ideals or idealism separate from liberalism as political theory. You are correct, liberalism used to be labeled idealism after the First World War but no longer. That is why I don't associate my personal idealism (ideals, principles or values) with political liberalism... or liberal world political theory.

Can't speak much about moral agendas... nor specific national interests that "demand" our presence in Afghanistan. I do speak volumes on operational and tactical approaches to get our collective rear ends out of Afghanistan with a semblance of frontier prestige intact... Not sure if that would make me guilty of misframing the threat. It might.



"MAC" McCallister (not verified)

Sat, 10/23/2010 - 5:49pm


Count me as a FIDesta in the fight of our allies (as appropriate) against banditry, rebellion, terrorism and subversion... Not so sure though that we can do much about changing social conditions without directing the foreign internal "war on poverty" ourselves and doing for "them" what public housing has done for "us"... (sarcasm).


Bob's World

Sat, 10/23/2010 - 5:41pm

A Realist is one who shapes and executes foreign policy in pursuit of national interests. An Idealist is one who shapes and executes foreign policy in pursuit of moral agendas.

Much of what is proclaimed as "realist" today is truly moralistic idealism. Much of what is derided today as idealism is truly interest driven realism.

Show me the interests in Afghanistan that demand our presence, and I will show you greater ones that are put at risk by our current approaches. By misframing the threat we have changed the equation in ways that are very risky indeed.

The "Biden Plan" may be seen by some as Real Politic; but it is no less idealism than a massive program of Afghan nation building. Find the interest first, then find your realism. We've not done that very well to date. Intel driven strategy is dangerous, as it blinds one to the nuances that a strategy driven strategy alerts one to.

Mac: roger on responsibilities to friends, partners, and allies and assisting them with their internal defense and development programs so they can defend against lawless, subversion, insurgency, and terrorism and change the conditions that give rise to such.

Greyhawk (not verified)

Sat, 10/23/2010 - 3:00pm

I've heard so much about it - has anyone ever actually seen this Biden Plan? I'd like to see a Fall, 2009 version if possible, thanks.

"MAC" McCallister (not verified)

Sat, 10/23/2010 - 2:04pm


Yes, permutations abound... "There are no more than five musical notes, yet the variations in the five notes cannot all be heard. There are no more than five basic colors, yet the variations of the five colors cannot all be seen. There are no more than five basic flavors, yet the variation in the five flavors cannot all be tasted." Sun Tzu

In response... expand your thinking to include a myriad of possibilities and manifestations.

Also... and very much in line with your Stage 3 consideration... "to kill a tiger, you must first lure him out of his cave"... Korean Proverb. Encourage an opponent to assume shape.

Lastly, reference existential threat... while the realist in me agrees that it might be the "other" who faces the existential threat... the idealist in me assumes a bit of the responsibility to safeguard when my government pledges its support... :-/



Good analysis. I think a key point to remember concerns the question does an insurgency equal an existential threat? Yes for the government that is threatened but not for the US unless there is an insurgency directed at the US within the US.

As you correctly point out there are numerous permutations of insurgencies. Here are some I jotted down back in 1995 when it was supposedly not fashionable to be thinking about insurgency and counterinsurgency:

1. Insurgency: An organized movement aimed at the overthrow of a constituted government through the use of subversion and armed conflict. (JCS Definition, 1995)

a. It is an armed expression of internal and organic (regardless of external support) political disaffiliation. May be offensive (revolutionary war) or defensive (separatist or autonomous movements).

b. A protracted political-military struggle designed to weaken government control and legitimacy while increasing insurgent control and legitimacy (FM 31-20 Special Forces Operations)

c. Each insurgency has its own unique characteristics based on strategic objectives, its operational environment, and available resources (FM 31-20)

(1) Revolutionary insurgencies seek to overthrow existing social order and reallocate power within the country.

(2) Other insurgencies seek to:

• Overthrow an established government without a follow-on social revolution.
• Establish autonomous national territory within the borders of a state
• Cause a withdrawal of an occupying power
• Extract political concessions that are unobtainable through less violent means

I think it is important to keep in mind that there are the above permutations and many more.

"MAC" McCallister (not verified)

Sat, 10/23/2010 - 12:38pm


Firstly, this is all academic... mental masturbation.

I propose to delineate between resistance to government and revolution. I concur that all martial challenges to government have a political component and exploit core grievances and perceived illegitimacy but I have to ask does the term insurgency differentiate between addressing social-political-economic grievances (rebellion) and revolution-insurgency (regime change). Gustave Le Bon in his book "The Psychology of Revolution" describes the Russian government's fight for survival as follows: "Assured of the neutrality of the peasants, the (Russian) government could contend with the fanatics who were burning the towns, throwing bombs among the crowds, and waging a merciless warfare. All those who could be taken were killed. Such extermination is the only method discovered since the beginning of the world by which a society can be protected against the rebels who wish to destroy it."

Please note that I make no value judgment as to whether a given government should remain in existence. Some social systems and governments actually need to be toppled.

The key phrase is society protected against those who wish to destroy it... Can we honestly say that negotiating with those who seek to destroy, in order to build something new, is the best course of action? How should one deal with the true believer?

We must first define whether we are fighting an existential war (insurgency?)in which our opponent seeks to replace the existing social order or a rebellion in which the opponent merely seeks to "change" an existing social order. If rebellion, then striking
the proper balance in the use of the full range of tools against the right conditions and targets is absolutely necessary.

I submit an addition to Stage 3 - Military defeat and total discrediting of ideology and political philosophy that fuels the insurgency.



Sat, 10/23/2010 - 12:04pm

I've been following this development throughout the week. I think the most interesting thing I read (…) was by Paula Broadwell, who is authoring a biography on General Petraeus. Essentially, she argues that CT is a branch of COIN. "Petraeus's comprehensive COIN strategy clearly states that these CT and population-centric operations must be complemented by clear/hold/build operations of conventional forces, training of host nation elements, and local security initiatives. "


Yes you are right as is Bill M. Violence and killing are inherent parts of insurgencies. My real problem is with the either or approach. Most insurgencies I would submit have a political component and exploit core grievances and perceived illegitimacy. But as I tried to point out it is not either or one side (political or military) predominant over the other. It is a question of understanding the situation and then striking the proper balance in the use of the full range of tools against the right conditions and targets.

I was scribbling on the white board some thoughts for _protracted_ insurgency (protracted but not necessarily communist - Stage 1 latent or incipient or Strategic Defensive; Stage 2 Guerrilla Warfare or Strategic Stalemate; Stage 3 War of Movement or Strategic Offensive) on a paper I am trying to write,   I thought I would share them with you.   My translated scribblings are on a power point slide (which i would attach if I knew how - perhaps the SWJED will give me an assist!!). or you could try to access it at this link:

Main Idea - we seem to generally intervene in Stage 2 of a protracted insurgency and the outside intervention of direct combat regular forces may actually increase the Strategic Stalemate (or perhaps solidify or cement the stalemate causing all concerned to be stuck perpetually in the swamp of the insurgency).  It may perhaps not be appropriate to introduce direct combat regular forces from an external power during Stage 2  because it will prevent the enemy from progressing to Stage 3 and the development of a regular maneuver force from the insurgency that can _then_ be defeated militarily.  At the same time the introduction of the external regular direct combat force in Stage 2 actually might enhance the legitimacy of the insurgency and prevent the host nation that is under threat from being able to push the insurgency back to Stage 1 where political accommodation could be made to end the insurgency. The best case is for the host nation to recognize the political and economic conditions (combined with subversive charismatic leaders who exploit those conditions) during the latent or incipient stage of the insurgency (Strategic Defensive) and change those conditions and undermine the legitimacy of nascent insurgent leadership and prevent the political mobilization and establishment of the underground and auxiliary necessary to support the guerrilla force in Stage 2.

Thought:  The only way an insurgency can be defeated using direct combat regular military force is during Stage 3 when the enemy has developed its own regular military force and able to mass, and fire and maneuver in large units.  Therefore direct intervention by external regular military forces perhaps should not occur unless in Stage 3. During Stage 2 the objective of the host nation has to be to drive the insurgency back to Stage 1 where appropriate political accommodation can be made.  Support from the host nation's friends, partners, or allies should be in the form of indirect and enabling support and should be employed so as to enhance vice undermine host nation legitimacy and assist in driving the insurgency back to Stage 1. If the insurgency cannot be driven back to Stage 1 for a solution; then as counterintuitive as it may seem, perhaps the insurgency should be allowed to progress to Stage 3 so that it can be defeated with regular direct combat forces (although it must be recognized that this is likely to be politically infeasible).

The bottom line is that an external force (from a friend, partner or ally) must weigh the appropriateness of intervention in Stage II and the 2d and 3d order effects.  Seems to me the fundamental strategy for conducting COIN must be to help the host nation government drive the insurgency back to Stage I where the conditions driving the insurgency can be changed.

Stage 1 - Prevention of or Solution to insurgency.
Stage 2 - Stalemate
Stage 3 - Military defeat of an insurgency.

There are only 3 outcomes to an insurgency:

1.  Political accommodation or solution to an insurgency in Stage 1 (either prevented  from developing or driven back from Stage 2 for solution)
2.  If direct combat regular forces are introduced in Stage 2 there will be a long term stalemate.
3.  Military Victory can only be achieved when the insurgency has reached Stage 3 and direct combat regular forces are engaged.

Of course this theory might have some applicability to dealing with sovereign nations under threat from an indigenous insurgency but may not be applicable to a situation along the lines of Al Qaeda if they are in fact conducting an insurgency on a global scale as some suggest. And the obvious problem with Al Qaeda as in insurgency is that they probably have no intention of developing a conventional force that can be defeated militarily and there is nothing that could drive them back to a Stage 1 condition where a political accommodation could be reached (and of course no western government could survive an attempt at political accommodation with Al Qaeda. Therefore the only options are to hunt down and kill the AQ leadership while at the same time working hard to separate it from its support whether that support comes from nation-states, other non-state actors, or the population.

Just a few random thoughts for Saturday morning. Still more thinking to do on this.

"MAC" McCallister (not verified)

Sat, 10/23/2010 - 11:04am


Not so sure that history is proving correct the much touted adage that insurgency is first and foremost a political problem. Insurgency is defined as an organized effort aimed at overthrowing a constituted government. It is an attempt at regime (institutions) change; change/imposition of an ideology or political philosophy. In terms of social organization this is life or death stuff... not merely negotiation topics for power sharing agreements.

I submit that there is a difference between rebellion and insurgency. A rebellion is an organized resistance or opposition to a government or other authority but not the form of government or authority itself. You can discuss the underlying political and socio-economic causes of dissent with a rebel and make appropriate changes... You can't do the same with a dedicated insurgent bent on overthrowing a constituted government (and all that comes with it in terms of political and economic philosophy and ideology). The true insurgent does not seek compromise...

I submit that Bill is correct... when engaged in an insurgency you might actually have to shoot your way to victory (and don't forget the underground infrastructure and auxiliary). You must also discredit the ideology and political philosophy that fuels the insurgency.

On the other hand, when fighting rebels (who are fighting because of grievances that may be solved by adaptive governance), reforming government may be a better approach than shooting your way to victory.


These types of arguments are the result of the politically correct nonsense that has been spouted since 9-11, with the key misleading arguments being that you can't shoot your way to victory (really?) and that reforming the government and development are more important than defeating the insurgent (where has that ever worked as a defeat mechanism?). These are at best partial truths, and taken out of context are extremely dangerous assumptions for the counterinsurgent to make. The suppression of a vibrant insurgency requires very aggressive military action that uses appropriate tactics to kill as many insurgents as possible while avoiding alienation of large segments of the populace.

Winning minds requires that the counterinsurgent convince the populace that the counterinsurgent is going to win. Very few people want to throw their hat in with the side they believe is going to lose. GEN Petraeus, just as he did in Iraq, is conducting aggressive tactics to force the enemy to the bargining table or face total defeat. Consolidating the victory will require government and development reforms, but don't confuse consolidation mechanisms with defeat mechanisms.

Of course I'm a major fan of the home team (SOF), but I think the stats above are strictly based on body counts. It is hard to measure the value of what GPF provides in the way of route security and presence, both of which are extremely dangerous and critical missions to the overall effort.


This COIN versus CT argument is getting tiresome and is really unhelpful (we are right back to "my CT is better than your COIN"!!!). There continues to be a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature and character of war and basic COIN theory. COIN and CT are not an either or approach. Here are some basic COIN points that should be kept in mind.

Consider that there are generally four "elements" that may be involved in the insurgency:

(1) The insurgent
(2) The population
(3) The counter-insurgent (the existing government or occupying power)
(4) The peace enforcer or peace keeper (external nation or forces)

Key to understanding insurgency is that it is a political problem first and foremost which has implications for the military. However, an insurgency will usually ultimately be successful if the underlying political and socio-economic causes are not addressed

The insurgent, the counter-insurgent, and the peace keeper/enforcer have only two fundamental tools to work with to accomplish their goals:

(1) The enhancement of popular perceptions of legitimacy.

(2) The credible capability to coerce

Success or failure is determined by each sides understanding, application, and the mixture of these tools (which is determined by the political leadership, not only the military leadership)

Note that the credible capability to coerce is a key component of COIN. I do not think that GEN Petraeus is "reluctantly" accepting coercion over COIN when in fact coercion is an integral part of COIN. We need to stop the madness with all these meaningless COIN versus CT arguments and get on with strategy and campaign plan development and execution using all the elements of national power and tools available in the proper balance (while understanding that this balance has to be constantly adjusted as conditions change at multiple levels from political to military to economic to the local population). Again, these arguments are patently unhelpful.

IntelTrooper (not verified)

Fri, 10/22/2010 - 9:42pm

Saying that an increase in kinetic ops equals a move away from counterinsurgency doctrine is at best oversimplification. I forgot the part where FM 3-24 precludes swift, violent action against vetted irreconcilables in the insurgency. In fact, I specifically recall it underlining the necessity of killing some people.

That 5% of the force is doing the vast majority of the work is no surprise -- our forces are too heavy and vehicle-dependent and our leadership too uncertain of their abilities to use them in precision raids against targets that we know and want. Besides, the good assets are always reserved for the fair-haired SOF folks. :)