Small Wars Journal

War: Sometimes There ‘Is’ a Substitute for Victory

War: Sometimes There ‘Is’ a Substitute for Victory - Jerusalem Post op-ed by COL Gian Gentile.

Sometimes the way a military fights a war results in it reaching a point where it is no longer worth the amount of blood and treasure invested to fight it in that way.

... But nation building in Afghanistan to prevent the return of a handful of al- Qaida fighters is a military mission without end.

I mean really, how long does it take to build modern, functioning states from scratch? It took the United States nearly 100 years to work out the fundamental social and political issue that divided it, namely slavery. In Europe it took hundreds and hundreds of years for small feudal entities to combine under centralized governments to form modern states.

So why do the US and its military think that it can achieve this in Afghanistan in only a few years? Because the American military, with buy-in from its political leaders, has come to accept a narrative that says nation building anywhere in the world can be done, if only the right general is put in charge and the tactics are tweaked...



Tue, 10/30/2012 - 8:02am

Nation building isn't the job of the US Military... Why are we doing it then? Who's is it? The State Dept and the Peace Corps. We have no history of building nations... Ok we Germany and Japan back together after WWII, but that can hardly be compared to a grass roots build like we are attempting in Afghanistan. Did the Senior leadership in the military join to fight and win our nations wars or because they thought they would look good in the uniform??? To the politicians in uniform... If you like politics so much, get out and become one. Additionally I find it laughable at what retired brass is willing to run their mouths about, that they wouldn't while in uniform. Sickening...


Mon, 10/01/2012 - 5:57pm

In reply to by Bill C.

Politics require that if the US deems it necessary to remove a government, that government must be replaced with something recognizable to Americans as "democratic", "free", etc. This certainly does increase the difficulty of these operations, but politics take precedence over practicality. I see no cause to deduce from this that there is an overarching policy of transformation, especially given the mass of evidence to the contrary.

Bill C.

Mon, 10/01/2012 - 8:36am

In reply to by Dayuhan

Thanks Dayuhan:

But does "the installation and sustenance of a new government" (certainly very broad and general terms indeed) really address the reason why the very specific approach of nation-building/state and societal transformation/modernization was chosen for Afghanistan?

Or, for an answer to this question, must we look elsewhere, such as, to American foreign policy goals/objectives writ large?

This, given the fact that, arguably, the adoption of this approach (nation-building/state and societal transformation/modernization) made, if not the installation, then certainly the sustenance and sustainability of a new government in Afghanistan -- and the permanent removal of the Taliban thereby -- much more difficult (if not impossible), and much more costly, than it, otherwise, needed to be?


Mon, 10/01/2012 - 6:13am

In reply to by Bill C.

I think it's reasonable to say that a specific policy toward Afghanistan was adopted as a result of 9/11, that the permanent removal of the Taliban from power was sought, that it was assumed that this required the installation and sustenance of a new government, and that the war was the continuation of this policy, or perhaps the core element in the pursuit of that policy. I do not see any reason to deduce that this was part of a generic policy of transforming outlier states. The general lack of enthusiasm for such transformations suggests that no such policy exists.

Bill C.

Sun, 09/30/2012 - 10:57pm

I have not studied Clausewitz at all and so I, obviously, cannot intelligently address or answer the following questions. But I would like to ask those who have studied Clausewitz, and know more about these things, to consider these questions:

1. In looking for a reason why armed nation-building/state and societal transformation was undertaken -- and continued -- in Afghanistan, then should we look toward Clausewitz and his contention that war is a continuation of politics/policy by other means?

2. Are my arguments below (beginning with my Sept 26th, 11:04 AM entry) somewhat consistent with, and somewhat supported by, (a) the relevant facts and (b) what Clausewitz was saying?

Bill C.

Sat, 09/29/2012 - 10:24pm

In reply to by meanwhile


Are you suggesting that (1) the defeat of Germany and Japan during World War Two and (2) the occupation and other efforts made by the United States and its allies in Germany and Japan following this world war did nothing to favorably transform the states and societies of Germany and Japan such that they:

a. Became less of a security problem for the United States/the modern world and

b. Became more of a security asset to same?

Likewise, are you suggesting that the efforts made by the United States and its allies during the Cold War (via containment, etc.) did nothing to similarly transform (admittedly, thus far, to a lesser degree) the states and societies of China and Russia?

You understand, of course, that if you say that our efforts resulted in no such favorable transformation of these states and societies, then that would mean that:

a. These states and societies would, still today, pose the same -- or greater -- security threat to the United States/the modern world that they did in the middle (Japan and Germany) and latter half (China and the former USSR) of the 20th Century. Or

b. That the favorable transformation of these states and societies was brought about by other means (to wit: by means other than the efforts made by the United States and its allies).


Sat, 09/29/2012 - 9:26pm

In reply to by meanwhile


It's worth the time to run the numbers on Germany and Japan.

Keep in mind that Hitler was appointed chancellor January 30, 1933 and that as the Germans took over territory prior to 1 Sept 1939 they added to overall German GDP (Saarland, Austria, Sudetenland, Alsace-Lorraine, and portions of Poland and Yugoslavia).

A quick graph of German GDP from 1900 to 1990 can be seen at reference (1). Raw data to make your own graphs on a variety of countries can be found at reference (2). The definition of the international dollar can be found at reference (3). World Bank data can be found at reference (4) - as a check to a portion of the data set (1970 and onward for Germany as of today's date).

(1) How and when did Germany catch up to Great Britain and the US? Results from the official statistics, 1901-1960, Albrecht Ritschl Humboldt University of Berlin and CEPR, March 2004, Figure 1 German GDP Per Capita in Constant Prices,

(2), World Population, GDP and Per Capita GDP, 1-2003 AD (Angus Maddison),

(3) Geary–Khamis dollar, From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia,–Khamis_dollar

(4) World Development Indicators and Global Development Finance - Google Public Data Explorer,

I will leave the Japan analysis to you...


Sun, 09/30/2012 - 6:54pm

In reply to by Bill C.

I'm not sure what you mean by a "ruse". I see no evidence to suggest that the transformation of "outlier states" is a "core, stand-alone foreign policy goal" for the United States. In actual practice the default approach to such states seems to be to contain, isolate, and ignore them with occasional dabbling in humanitarian aid, not transformation. Transformation is a last resort when containment fails and the outlier states become an active security threat, which is quite rare. Most "outlier states" offer little economic and strategic advantage and the cost of trying to transform them is far greater than any potential gin, hence general disinterest.

Bill C.

Sun, 09/30/2012 - 10:16am

In reply to by Dayuhan


You seem to suggest that transformation of problematic, lesser and remaining "outlier" states and societies is not a core, stand-alone foreign policy goal of the United States; but, instead, simply a ruse that is occasionally used to put a benign face on intervention that is needed to address real threats.

But does this idea hold water given the fact that:

a. In Afghanistan, due to 9/11, there would seem to be no need for such a ruse. And

b. Transformational efforts take such an incredibly long period of time -- and are so expensive in blood and other national treasure -- that this would seem to preclude their use as a ruse.

Yet, in spite of all this: Transformational efforts were (1) introduced into Afghanistan and (2) continued there, full force, even though -- as COL Gentile notes -- the destruction of AQ was largely achieved only a few years into the war.


Sat, 09/29/2012 - 8:44pm

In reply to by meanwhile

I would add that in actual practice there's been very little interest in "transforming" the non-integrated "outlier states". The typical default approach to these situations has been to contain, isolate, and dabble in humanitarian relief. "Transformation" is only attempted in cases where the states have become or are harboring significant threats, and even then it's mainly an effort to put a benign face on intervention. Is anyone interested in "transforming", say, Somalia, the DRC, Chad, Zimbabwe, etc? Of course not. It isn't worth the effort and expense.


Sat, 09/29/2012 - 7:36pm

>>>>> Bill C:
The core foreign policy objective in question is:

To provide for United States security by transforming states and societies such that these might be made to cause the United States/the modern world fewer problems and made to offer the United States/the modern world greater utility and usefulness instead.

The great power states and societies of Germany and Japan have been so transformed.


Does any Western nation other than America produce people so terrifyingly ignorant of history? Both Germany and Japan had been modern industrial nations with a history of democratic government and supporting insititutions - eg functioning police and courts - before WW2. Hitler, for goodness sake, was (more or less) elected to power.

Progress is believed to have been made in favorably transforming the great power states and societies of China and Russia also.

Russia and China have certainly been "transformed" recently, but the US hasn't had much to do with either - other than negatively in Russia's case, where the US persuaded the Russians to privatize state assets before setting up a functioning legal system and social security net, leading to the gangster years of the Russian economy, which themselves led to Putin's "managed democracy."


Fri, 09/28/2012 - 7:36pm

In reply to by Madhu (not verified)

Madhu said:

"I'm sorry, I don't care if my words aren't correct, I refuse to use an acryonym unless I have to, which I don't."

Yea! Hurray! Madhu for universal editor of the world, to have the power to force people to write plain English with ultimate recourse of forcing violators to go back to using manual typewriters.

Good on you! (I am not being sarcastic.)

Bill C.

Fri, 09/28/2012 - 7:44pm

In reply to by Madhu (not verified)


As to your question: "... could men and materiel have been used in a different way ...?"

Maybe not, if one's definition of "victory" still includes -- much as it did in the cases of Germany, Japan, Russia and China (half-century projects each?) -- the achievement of significant state and societal transformation and incorporation, such as the global economy requires.

Madhu (not verified)

Wed, 09/26/2012 - 12:19pm

In reply to by Bill C.

Yes, Bill, every single person that comments here knows that the Washington and Brussels consensus promotes nation building and international policing as a forever and all-the-time goal....

That is why many varied commenters (including yours truly) around here tend to be skeptical of:

1. Modernization theory/development theory/capacity building as an intellectual doctrinal underpinning.
2. NATO and other international alliances that promote process and institutional importance over progress and actual hard results, where we might agree. Which, we can't, because it's too big and the demographics and diaspora and economics don't overlap very well.
3. International crisis advocacy scholarship over an honest and real scholarship.
4. Prioritizing intelligence "operationalizing" over information gathering.

And so on.

The point is, even within that framework, could men and materiel have been used in a different way given the overarching frameworks?

I'm sorry, I don't care if my words aren't correct, I refuse to use an acryonym unless I have to, which I don't.

Bill C.

Wed, 09/26/2012 - 12:04pm

Nation-building has less to do with AQ and more to do with core United States foreign policy objectives writ large. This, the reason why nation-building activities -- in Afghanistan and elsewhere -- continue even though AQ has largely been subdued.

The core foreign policy objective in question is:

To provide for United States security by transforming states and societies such that these might be made to cause the United States/the modern world fewer problems and made to offer the United States/the modern world greater utility and usefulness instead.

The great power states and societies of Germany and Japan have been so transformed.

Progress is believed to have been made in favorably transforming the great power states and societies of China and Russia also.

To complete the job, the objective became to similarly transform and incorporate the lesser and remaining problematic/troublesome "outlier" states and societies. (Will take, in certain instances, some form of "nation-building.")

Thus, the question becomes, is there a "substitute for victory" re: transforming and incorporating these lesser and remaining problematic/troublesome "outlier" states and societies and providing for United States/modern world security thereby?

Or can United States/modern world security be provided for -- not by transforming and incorporating these lesser and remaining "outlier" states and societies -- but by simply working around them and/or by dealing with them in some fashion other than transformation and incorporation?

(9/11, Syria, etc., possibly arguing against this latter proposal?)

Bill M.

Sat, 09/29/2012 - 1:41pm

In reply to by Madhu (not verified)


Always enjoy your comments, and your comment about FM 3-24 reflecting our culture is very true. It doesn't reflect the way the world actually works, but the way we desire things to be. On the other hand, it is a bit of urban legend that we don't read and follow our doctrine. If you look at the all the so-called COIN success stories in recent years they reflect how commanders parroted our COIN doctrinal lines of operation/effort to achieve COIN objectives. Over time it is sadly comical to see the same articles about successes in the same areas over a period years indicating that they're not successes, but articles as you stated that reflect the world through our cultural bias. When the measures of effectiveness don't reflect the world the way we want it to be, we change the measures.

Gian has a strong point of view that is a counter culture view. Personally I think many of his views are as off track as the views presented in our COIN doctrine, but perhaps a strong counter culture view is required to drive the debate and avoid the effect of cultural mass hypnosis channelizing our thinking?


Fri, 09/28/2012 - 7:40pm

In reply to by Madhu (not verified)


I request that you stop saying things like this "Probably, my comment is terribly stupid." You are as good as anybody else around here and better than most.

Madhu (not verified)

Wed, 09/26/2012 - 11:05am

I wish this conversation would move on. It's "stuck". What are the different ways in which this all could have been operationalized? Was it necessary to build an entire army, or, could working with commandos or a paramilitary unit have been enough? I don't know, that's why I am asking. Probably, my comment is terribly stupid.

It's hard being a civilian and trying to become more educated on military matters.

I agree with <strong>carl</strong> on his diagnosis, but I differ on the cure.

Even if one believes that there is something unique about the real estate in AfPak (as a decades long "hot" node in an international network) it is possible to imagine different ways of operationalizing the thing (<strong>Wilf Owen</strong> says such a level of war doesn't exist? Okay, then use the word "plan". How could it have been planned differently? Not to Monday morning quarterback, but to move the discussion forward so that next time--I bet there will be a next time, some types learn nothing--we've all improved. It's not impossible for this to be so).

Even if one believes that Al Qaeda is affiliated with at least one of the Talibans and a syndicate of transnational terror groups, could things have been operationalized differently? One doesn't have to agree with <strong>Col. Gentile's</strong> layout of the issues to think that another plan could have been envisioned.

<strong>CBCalif</strong> mentions Krulak. I remember that email to George Will, as well. I've seen other plans mentioned around here, an Austin-Logan plan?

Captain's Journal (blog) was quite good at this.

It seems to me that we--meaning NATO--are very static and cumbersome and heavy moving, which are disadvantages, even with lots of money and technology at our disposal. How to build any nation when security is undermined both internally and externally, and some of that baked into the cake of a certain type of population-based counterinsurgency?

I seem to be the odd one out around here, in that I do believe the real estate is special and that we ought to be worried about affiliated groups, yet, I'm not sure the general environment as envisioned in FM3-24 was the correct way to go. I know, supposedly no one reads manuals, but I've always looked at this doctrine writing as more reflection of a culture than anything specific that you all follow. It's what is reflected culturally in your writings as a military that interests me, not the exact specifics of it.

And if someone like me is paying attention, then I bet that you all are being psychologically and intellectually profiled by everyone under the sun. That's how our military gets "handled", I believe, in quiet back rooms, where senior types are told all kinds of nice things by your peers in other militaries--stuff like, how "we really support you but can't say it in public". And then, friends, you believe that is the only reality that contributes to any situation.

I dunno. I'm going off the deep end again, aren't I?


Fri, 09/28/2012 - 6:53pm

In reply to by Dayuhan

Our extended presence perhaps helps AQ a bit, but then so does our extended existence. They pulled off 9-11 before we showed up in the place and I rather doubt that if and/or when we bug out they will look at each other and so 'Oh my. They've left. What do we do now?'


Tue, 09/25/2012 - 6:57pm

In reply to by carl

Agree with what CBCalif says, and would also point out that our extended presence in Afghanistan is a huge plus for AQ. It reinforces their fundamental narrative and allows them to pitch themselves as the champions of Islam fighting foreign intrusion in Muslim lands. I've always believer that the whole point of 9/11 was to bait us into doing exactly what we're doing in Afghanistan, and I have to question whether it's a good idea to give them what they want, especially given the enormous and continuous drain on resources that could better be applied elsewhere.


Sat, 09/29/2012 - 4:39pm

In reply to by carl

Carl: Interesting thoughts, however, I might point out that, Afghanistan has been a tribalized land for centuries. It is not a unified land, therefore not a unified country. It will always be partitioned by its tribal nature, absent one side or the other being able to temporarily impose its will (by force) on the others. That may not be acceptable to some dreamer in the US administration (past, current, or future), but that is their history and is what is going to happen. It is not the business of this country how the territory, or whatever we refer to the foreign land mass, of Afghanistan is ruled or by whom. Our only interest in placing forces into that area was to destroy or drive out of the area any Al Qaeda operatives / units operating there -- and nothing more.

As Abraham Lincoln tried repeatedly to tell his generals (such as the failed McClellan), the objective is to destroy the enemy army not to occupy his land. Occupation as a means of preventing an enemy force from using a land area is a fools game doomed to defeat when an enemy force can merely move to another area and operate from there. Lincoln was strategically more perceptive than the COIN Generals and mid-level officers running / or who were running today's military if they believe foreign land occupation is a sound strategy. Lincoln realized concentrating on occupation causes one to take their eye off the real target -- destroying the enemy's forces. He was also strategically more perceptive than Bush II or Obama -- unless the latter is (hopefully) changing his mind about the validity of COIN warfare (see below).

This country is expending billions killing / fighting primarily the Taliban in Afghanistan while AQ has in true guerrilla war fashion moved their operations elsewhere. Like Giap noted, if an enemy's position or its forces in a given locale are too strong for my forces to overrun, we'll depart and conduct operations elsewhere. But fear not, the US anti-Taliban crusade is temporarily keeping them from controlling "more of" Afghanistan. In the mean time AQ has moved into Somalia, Northern Mali, North Africa, Yemen.

Did you notice the article on the change of command coming in Afghanistan, the call for a strategy review, and the fact that despite killing OBL and killing numerous of his number men, AQ has simply moved its operations into Yemen, Somalia, Mali, North Africa and concentrating where we are not COINing -- as indicated by their Benghazi operation.

"Large scale" COIN / nation building occupation stye operations are incredibly costly and never achieve positive results for the occupier. That wasted effort in Afghanistan has cost this country somewhere around $600 billion in wasted equipment, munitions, fuel, and other materials and the lives of trained men -- and in the end no more will be accomplished than would have been achieved by a much smaller footprint in the Northern Alliance areas from which raids could have been conducted against any located Al Qaeda types.

As I accurately noted, "As far as the Taliban goes, punishing them [in 2001] was one thing, but we have been through this before. You don't spend billions holding a grudge. What happens between [the Taliban] and their fellow tribesmen is their business, not ours unless they once again choose to make it so. It would be cheaper to repeat the [B-52 bombing] efforts of 2001 [against their forces] then to pay for the costly large scale nation building effort we have since conducted, even if we had to [massively bomb them] once every year for the last decade [-- to curtail the extent of the land their forces occupied while we have a footprint in the Northern Alliance area.]" It most certainly would not have cost one-tenth of $600 billion to have bombed the Taliban's forces and any controlled citizens once every year -- and it would not hve impeded out operations against AQ one-iota not to have occupied what was Taliban Land.

If we confined our bases (source of operations) to Northern Alliance territory, their men would have pulled out of the Pashtun areas, as they are going to do shortly after US forces depart Afghanistan. Just watch and you will see the Uzbek, Tajiks, and other non-Pashtun soldiers abandon their units in Pashtun territory and rapidly return to the safety of their tribal areas. I'm patient, you can wait until it occurs to comment on that retreat.

There wasn't anyone in the US military among us who worked with the South Vietnamese that believed for a second that on their own they would hold out for long against the North Vietnamese, despite the nonsensical comments at that time from the administration or from some politically oriented brass.

If, while we were carrying out General Krulak's proposed strategy and operating from bases (for instance) in the Northern alliance areas, any Taliban forces foolish to attempt a "push" into that area would be crushed by US air power. as occurred in 2001. I don't know your background, but I don't believe you have witnessed what B-52's and other aircraft delivering large sustained bombing can do to attacking ground forces. I have seen it first hand, it is not a contest. The only question for the enemy ground forces is whether their will be enough left of their bodies to bury.

As to the opposite side of that coin, we would make it clear to the Northern Alliance tribes that we would not back any advance by their forces into Pashtun territory. If they chose to advance that would be their problem and they would surely be defeated. We only need small bases in their areas and would not be occupying their land or conducting military operations in their territory.

The choice between a military strategy proposed by General Krulak, USMC (ret.), who served multiple tours in Vietnam, versus Crocker, FSO civilian is not a contest. Just because civilians hang around the military and, as do reporters, observe military operations doesn't mean they know or understand the first thing about military operations and how the military functions and (nuisances that they are) they most certainly do not -- thus the internal military slang term "silly-vilians" when referring to the thoughts of civilian arm chair military men.

I don't know what you mean by the term "unified command" as it applies to military operations in Afghanistan, but the extent of a Generals command over foreign forces is a matter decided by US political leadership, not the military. Other than that, the military commander has control over all US forces in that country. The terms of engagement for the other NATO troops of the so-called ISAF are also political and not under the domain of the US commander on the ground. Those are political decisions made by the brilliant civilians, not generals. There will never be the day when some civilian, Crocker or otherwise, is smarter about military matters than a military officer.

Perhaps for the inexperienced it is a "sterile debate" as to whether military objectives should be achieved using the collective COIN, counter-guerrilla ops or pacification style tactics versus conventional style SOG / raiding operations, but that merely reflects inexperience with the subject matter. It is at the heart of how to proceed with defining and achieving strategic and tactical objectives at a reasonable cost in a reasonable time frame. Nothing in this world perhaps other than modern art, proceeds free form or without structure whether it be process decisions in the computer systems development world, in the design and development of aircraft, in manufacturing management techniques, or in countless types of warfare. Terminology and definitions provide structure to any effort without which confusion would reign -- again maybe out side of Picasso style modern art.

What would be more harsher than a nation building style occupation and ridiculous attempt at changing a nation's cultural -- looking up and seeing long strings of 500 pound bombs raining continuously down on one's military bases and forces, on government buildings, on the towns where one's supporters reside, on power plants. on key roads, on airports, and on the other places one needs to control their country providing the fear that they may be so weakened afterwards their enemies may attempt to seize control.

As for "setting a definition" and "inflicting it" (colorful terms) on someone, I believe I stated, "As a thought, consider it this way." Of course, by definition the opposite of that also holds true, don't consider it that way. I was fascinated by the spectrum of defining Small Wars as "just about anything short of WWII or Inchon ...." Personally, I don't believe that a war with one military campaign that cost (to date) around $600 billion and another that cost around $1 trillion define components of a "Small War" -- absent an interesting definition of inflation Wiemar Republic style -- especially when neither of these rather expensive campaigns achieved any strategic objectives worth that level of investment. The US military and intelligence operators could have found and killed OBL for far less. But that is just my view -- and I would suspect a few other non-COIN affectionado type military officers, past or present.

Colonel Gentile has it right and hopefully we are going see a restoration of non-COIN conventional sanity to the US military as we did after Vietnam.


Sat, 09/29/2012 - 9:19am

In reply to by carl

Carl: I completely agree with your comment "I think what it is time for, finally, is for us to admit that the Pak Army/ISI is the devil that must be dealt with or our effort in Afghanistan will fail no matter what." It is an issue that both our Governments seem to avoid. No doubt some pressure has been put on but not to the extent one would expect considering the scale of the problems they have caused - not too mention the lives of our soldiers.

Part of the problem with the debate here is that it overlooks the reach back into domestic politics. For example, when the drastic images of the woman being shot by the Taliban was screen on youtube, our Foreign Minister claimed that was the reason why troops remained in Afghanistan. The next when soldiers are killed, the political cry is for them to come home. No wonder our military commanders are unable to implement a unified command. You guys also forget that its no only a US campaign. May be US led but you are relying on a bunch of nations who are not that great at implementing any kind of COIN let alone engaging as efficiently in a kinetic way as the US.

However, while the discussion has been mostly focused on what we could have or should have done in Afghanistan, I would be interested to know what you think we need to do for future planning? We need the US military to remain the most effective at conventional warfare. We also need to ensure the correct balance in an unconventional / IW fight. The COIN experiment in Afghanistan has seen the pendulum swing too far and we now never hear a peep from the pop-COIN proponents. But we cannot avoid the need to confront strategic threats in failed states against the likes of AQ or some new version of AQ that may form.

What does this strategy look like without getting sucked into nation building combined with the lethality of defeating the planning and operating elements of terrorist organisations?

As a starter the future could look like:

# Continued growth in radicalisation at home and abroad.

# Plugging the holes in failed or failing States.

# Multigenerational campaign against AQ and other extremists.

# A new approach to Pakistan.

# US & its allies to implement a long term approach to preventing bush fires by engaging in regular burn-offs. “A scalpel rather than a sledgehammer.”

How do we move forward and not lose US strategic presence and projection of power either in conventional or IW and beyond the current argument over COIN being good or bad?


Fri, 09/28/2012 - 7:44pm

In reply to by CBCalif

Now Mr. CBCalif, don't you go setting a definition of small war and inflicting it upon me. I use that term because it means just about anything short of WWII or Inchon. As the Small Wars Manual (1940) states "Small wars vary in degrees from simple demonstrative operations to military interventions in the fullest sense, short of war." The authors have a few other sentences they use to make it clear that small war encompasses everything from teeny to huge and there are more or less as many ways of doing it as there are men doing it. I always use the term for just that reason and it avoids what (to this civilian) are sterile debates about whether something is FID, or COIN, or counter-guerrilla ops or pacification or whatever. I know that has some import to pro military guys but to me it seems to get in the way of just figuring what is best to do and getting on with it.

Your idea about airbases and Rangers would just turn the clock back to the mid-90s when the Taliban were taking the country. What would you do if they began pushing the forces you backed back? What would you do if the forces you backed began pushing forward? Would you increase or decrease your support depending? Depending on what? Implicit in that idea is a partition of the country. Neither side would stand for that.

The Pathans are not much more numerous than the others. They are the largest single ethnic group (42% according to the 2008 CIA World Fact Book) but they don't vastly outnumber anybody. And, judging by the number of night letters Taliban & Co deliver and the number of throats they have to cut, I don't think the Pathans are a monolithic bloc.

Regarding this statement of yours "Let the Pashtuns and the Taliban know if they allow Al Qaeda to return they will receive a visit from US forces and our bombers as before, this time even harsher.", aside from the fact that a lot of Pashtuns don't much like Taliban & Co and have no control over them, how much harsher can you get than conquering and occupying the country?

I am a bit confused by your second and third paragraphs. And I don't want to be harsh but I can't characterize the thought expressed in the last sentence in your fifth paragraph and anything but not so well thought out.

Amb Crocker is not a military man. That is true. But I believe he has every idea and then some about what works in wars, big and small, and what doesn't. And what is corrosive to the structure of the military and what is not. He is a very smart guy and his military judgment, from what I've heard him say, is quite good. For example, he was quite acerbic when commenting on the lack of a unified American military command in Afghanistan immediately after we helped the anti-Taliban forces kick out MO and the boys. Come to think of it, we still don't have a unified command. In that respect I figure Amb Crocker's military judgment is superior to the military's.

We are conducting a small war effort and have been for a long time. Not too well though. Again, I will not accept you defining what small war is or isn't.

I think what it is time for, finally, is for us to admit that the Pak Army/ISI is the devil that must be dealt with or our effort in Afghanistan will fail no matter what.


Tue, 09/25/2012 - 5:52pm

In reply to by carl

Carl: As a thought, consider it this way. Small Wars and Large Scale Nation Building (using COIN or whatever tactics) are not synonymous. Small Wars involve the commitment on the part of the US of a few battalions, some SOG detachments, maybe some Special Forces detachments, Helicopters and on call fixed wing aircraft and little more to a given area campaign.

As the retired Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Charles Krulak recommended in the beginning of the Afghan Campaign, just station a few battalions of Rangers, or 10th Mountain Division, or Marines in a nearby location (e.g. [my thoughts]in the area controlled by the (anti-Pashtun, anti-Taliban) Northern Alliance tribes. Build some small airbases there, arm the Northern Alliance forces who would be happy for the assistance against the much more numerous Pashtuns as would their cousins in the surrounding countries. Let the Pashtuns and the Taliban know if they allow Al Qaeda to return they will receive a visit from US forces and our bombers as before, this time even harsher.

Al Qaeda is going somewhere, and they have -- into Yemen, into North Africa, into Somalia, etc. Occupations (i.e. Nation Building efforts) are incredibly lengthy and costly "large scale" efforts that [will help] bankrupt the country from which the occupying forces came from. Eventually the people turn against the occupiers and you end up fighting an insurgency rather than concentrating on your original [and only] enemy, the terrorist groups. If Al Qaeda returns under the above scenario to Afghanistan, fight them with forces in the Northern Alliance area using the same tactics and technology we are now wasting aginst the Taliban. Afghanistan by then would have been / will be in the midst of a tribal style Civil War and its lands would be de facto killing grounds making
it easier to conduct operations there against Al Qaeda.

Occupying a country and force the military to fight under the restrictions placed on their actions by COIN tactics leads to demoralization and all we will end up doing is leaving behind what will become a chaotic situation with the side we "created" being defeated. At least half of the force structure of the Afghan Army we created is made up of minority non-Pashtuns. The fighting will take place in Pashtun territory. Those Uzbek and Tajik (and whoever else's) soldiers are going to get themselves out of what will be for them a very hostile Pashtun territory (after the US departs) faster than you will believe. They are going to retreat quickly into the Northern Alliance tribal areas and the under strength Karzai Pashtuns will desert him in a flash.

As far as the Taliban goes, punishing them was one thing, but we have been through this before. You don't spend billions holding a grudge. What happens between them and their fellow tribesmen is their business, not ours unless they once again choose to make it so. It would be cheaper to repeat the efforts of 2001 then to pay for the costly large scale nation building effort we have since conducted, even if we had to do it once every year for the last decade.

I was an officer in the military that was ruined by LBJ's absurd strategy in Vietnam. Col. Gentile's call (as I interpret it) is for the US to end its Large War, large scale, very costly efforts in occupying a hostile country and return to efficiently conducting the Small War efforts that fighting terrorist group such as Al Qaeda and its affiliates require -- not to abandon Small War efforts.

Crocker is not a military man and has no idea or understanding of how destructive for the military are the costs of a long term occupation of a hostile land aimed at securing another nation -- both in its morale and in the massive wasting of budgetary funds which are sorely needed elsewhere and thus are a re-direction that is ruining the fighting capability of the US military.

It is time for the US to admit our COIN effort in Afghanistan will fail / is failing given what is happening there, reorganize our effort to allow for base areas in the Norther Alliance tribal areas if needed, and reorient our war against Al Qaeda and its affiliates as a Small War effort -- at least in my opinion.


Tue, 09/25/2012 - 1:05pm

In reply to by Dayuhan

I am assuming the only way to prevent AQ from returning is to keep Taliban & Co from taking the place over again. That is what Amb Crocker said. It would be better if the gov other than Taliban & Co were approved by us but I think the sine qua non of approval is that AQ is kept out. To count as a functional entity, that gov would only have to function well enough to keep AQ out. The various govs of the 'Stans don't function so great but they do well enough to keep the big league Islamo-fascists like AQ out.

I don't expect to convince anybody of anything. That is what I figure and am consoled to know I am in good company since Amb Crocker thinks the same.

Going back 11 years and figuring that 'boy if we had only done that, that would really have been smart' is fruitless. Besides, to people like MO and the Pak Army/ISI what are unacceptable consequences? They haven't had to face any yet. If they get the place back (a big if) it will just have been a short hiatus on the road to victory and their morale will be into outer space. Taliban & Co's ideology hasn't changed. Pak Army/ISI's ideology hasn't changed. AQ's ideology hasn't changed. If they take Afghanistan back there is no reason for them to not go back to doing what they were doing before 9-11. They would have won and will just seek the next victory.


Tue, 09/25/2012 - 8:52am

In reply to by carl

Are you assuming that the only way to prevent AQ from returning and using the region as a base for attacks against the US was to install a new government approved by us and transform that government into a functional entity? If so, I remain unconvinced that the assumption is valid. Have you considered the possibility that a time-limited and focused response to 9/11 could have been calibrated not to determine who ruled Afghanistan next, but to convince whoever took over that attacking us or sheltering those who do would bring unacceptable consequences?

Gian makes a few...says some things that don't quite stand up in the article.

First he says that AQ only has a handful of fighters. Maybe. But since it is not a collection of Revolutionary War veterans, its roster is not static and the death of the last name on the roster does not mean the end of the organization or one like enough to it to matter. If Taliban & Co were to regain Afghanistan I suspect recruiting would pick up nicely.

I know it is very fashionable to decry "armed nation building" but I see it a little different. We kicked Taliban & Co out because they wouldn't give up AQ. Then there was no gov in Afghanistan. Taliban & Co wanted it back so there had to be something put in its place. We more or less did a more or less bad job of doing that. Taliban & Co still wanted the place back as did Pak Army/ISI who were backing them. Our new men in Afghanistan could not stand up to the Pak Army/ISI sponsored Taliban & Co so we had to help them with that. Since MO and the boys weren't averse to shooting people dead we had to arrange to shoot back in order to keep them from (so far) taking the place over again. That required arms. Call it what you will, I don't see how we could have done much else than what we have maladroitly done for years given that we won't see and treat the Pak Army/ISI for the enemy they are. (Geesh guys, at least we don't have to buy for them the bullets they use to shoot us.)

Gian also plays the sophist when he conflates the resolution of the slavery issue with building an effective gov in the US. The states had effective governments for a long time before the Revolution and the country had an effective gov the day the Brits left. That doesn't have much to do with a Afghanistan. From our point of view a modern functioning state on the order of the US or Europe, as Gian implies in the article, is not needed. All that is needed in Afghanistan is a state that is strong enough to keep the Islamo-fascists out and Afghanistan had a gov that could do that prior to the king being deposed. That is a tall enough order but not nearly on the order of making Switzerland of the Hindu Kush. Gian is engaging in the what I believe is called the fallacy of the false alternative.

As far as the British leaving Afghanistan in the 1840s, they did, after they beat them up some. Who needs Afghanistan when you have the Punjab? But they stayed involved in the country and its affairs for the next 100 years. They had to because the Russians were coming and the tribesmen like to raid. So the Afghans were able to successfully stay Afghan because they were able to play off the Brits against the Russkis. Gian should mention that.

Gian is right that it is important that the basic strategic reality be grasped, but it is not that AQ is down to its last 6 men. It is that the Pak Army/ISI is the primary enemy. Or if we have grasped that we don't have the moxie to do anything about it-same difference.

Gian always makes the argument that good generals don't make a difference but (and boy will I get in trouble for saying this) that is the argument of the Army personnel management system. 'A general is a general is a general. And this years iteration to be in charge of Afghanistan is...' People do make a difference and how they do what they do makes a difference. In the conflict in Iraq, the big boss may or may not have made the difference but the way Gian frames his argument the baby and the bathwater end up in the same place. (The big bosses in Afghanistan have made no difference at all, rotating in and out yearly makes it impossible.)

Sometimes it seems to me that Gian wants the Army to do what it did after Vietnam, forget all about small war and hope it never comes back.

Gian, BTW, thanks, for all you do. - Dave

As usual, Gian is hitting right in the X-ring (dead center Bullseye) with his analysis of where our policy of "Nation Building via Armed Forces" is seriously flawed.

Hopefully, both our civilian and military leadership will wake up after November and take a serious look in the mirror of future policy, w/o the careerist egos involved, and start to put both our country and military on a path of common sense doctrine, and national security, limited-objective based deployments.

If victory is achieving one's goal, the first step toward victory is selection of a goal that is sensible, practical, concrete, and achievable. "Armed nation building" is none of those, and its pursuit is an invitation to failure. There can be endless debate over the flaws and deficiencies in the means used to pursue that goal, but some attention must be paid to the question of whether the goal ever made sense in the first place. I hope somebody's listening.

As the Col. perceptively notes, the core policy objective from the start of the war, as expressed clearly and repeatedly by senior American political and military officials, was the destruction of al-Qaida. A quite limited policy goal for sure – and one that was largely achieved only a few years into the war. Instead of grasping this basic strategic reality – that the US had achieved its core policy objective – the American military and its political masters convinced themselves that the only way to keep al-Qaida at bay was to build a modern state in the Hindu Kush. One can only wonder how the US military allowed such a an initially successful well conducted operation in Afghanistan to morph into what will be the costly and disastrous nation building effort it is now conducting.

As he also noted, "nation building in Afghanistan to prevent the return of a handful of al- Qaida fighters is [not only] a military mission without end," (to which I would add) it is a fools errand on which the US military was sent by a ridiculous doctrine (COIN) developed by some of its own generals and men of other ranks. It makes one marvel that they could not see that it was a mission without end and one that could never succeed. Despite the books published by some of the COIN adherents about America's Vietnam experience, they learned absolutely nothing from the lessons of that conflict, and believed (apparently) as noted above that if you just tweaked the tactics they could do what a prior generation of the US military failed to accomplish.

If (hopefully only some) US military officers of today believe "nation building anywhere in the world can be done, if only the right general is put in charge and the tactics are tweaked," they are in need of a serious purging and being replaced by officers who understand the true missions of the military. That is to conduct conventional attacks even when modified as in the early days of Afghanistan, to carry out SOG, drone, or other type raids, to assist existing and willing military organizations through training to carry out operations against insurgents, to conduct sea based searches and interdiction, to prepare for the next Gulf war type conflict which will come around, to develop effective anti-missile and ASW systems, and to perform the countless other activities of that nature, and to never again engage in nation building or large scale COIN activities.

In the end, the only COIN performance that will be remembered as successful will have been Petraeus's presentations before the Congress.

Dave Maxwell

Mon, 09/24/2012 - 12:55pm

Since Gian brought up Korea in his opening remarks, I will say that if the hostilities do restart on the Peninsula, this time there can be no substitute for victory there.