Small Wars Journal

Why We're Getting it Wrong in Afghanistan

Why We're Getting it Wrong in Afghanistan - Anthony King, Prospect.

Writing in this month's Prospect, Stephen Grey details the political and military mistakes that have been made in Helmand. Perhaps most importantly, he identifies the role of the institutional culture of Britain's armed forces: "cracking on"—the unshakeable determination of Britain's troops. Grey is right that the ethos of "cracking on" is the army's greatest quality; effective armies require fortitude and morale in order to endure the losses that they will inevitably suffer. Yet, as he notes, it may be the army's greatest weakness too...

A new Afghan strategy is essential—and the announcements from US General McChrystal and Gordon Brown at the end of August recognise this. However, their new strategy in Helmand also requires a reformation of Britain's armed forces themselves. The success of General Petraeus in Iraq rested finally on a common recognition by the US Army and Marine Corps that the way in which they trained, planned and conducted military operations required profound revision. In short, operational success demands institutional reform at home. While valuable at the tactical level, the culture of "cracking on" needs to be expunged from operational command. The armed forces, the ministry of defence and government need to develop more mature criteria on which to assess the performance of commanders—judging them by their political contribution to the campaign, not by the number of air assault operations they have conducted....

More at Prospect.

Cracking on in Helmand - Stephen Grey, Prospect.

... Even in chaos and dysfunction, the British army is good at preserving a belief in order and purpose. And when men die their officers steel them and move onwards with poetic speeches, just as Lieutenant Colonel Robert Thomson did on 10th July 2009, after a dreadful day near the town of Sangin in Helmand in which five of his men were killed. In his eulogy Thomson wrote about men saluting the fallen, and returning to the ramparts. "I sensed each rifleman tragically killed in action today standing behind us as we returned to our posts, and we all knew that each one of those riflemen would have wanted us to 'crack on'... And that is what we shall do."

Crack on. From Basra to Sangin, I've heard that phrase as regularly as Amen in church. Cracking on: the army's greatest quality, and perhaps its greatest weakness. I remember standing vigil on Sergeant Johnson's body at dusk on a hilltop, after he had died in the battle for the town of Musa Qala in December 2007. His fellow soldiers were silhouettes, drawn close to their commander. On the horizon muffled bombs flashed through the drizzle. Major Jake Little told his men to put their grief to one side, to deal with it later. After the battle.

Cracking on could also mean failing to challenge impossible orders, or unwillingness to expose a flawed strategy...

More at Prospect.


Ken White (not verified)

Tue, 09/08/2009 - 11:41pm

Anon 9:30 PM:

Plan A is salute, Plan B is resign -- everyone has a Plan B. Many of us also have had a Plan C -- say 'Yes,Sir,' salute haphazardly and then do it our way; if it works, you get an Attaboy; if it doesn't, what can they do, send you to Afghanistan?

He's sharp, may even be sharp enough to have a Plan D. We'll just have to wait and see.

Though I'd be willing to bet large money on the lack of potential to achieve those 'goals.'

Anonymous (not verified)

Tue, 09/08/2009 - 10:30pm


All quite true, but I didn't miss the fact that the same man dual hatted or that some of our coalition partners aren't thrilled with being involved (the Dutch also have a timeline). It is a coalition effort, as you mentioned, with each nation having "red cards," including the U.S. You also make a fair point on Policy, but that is what M4 has to work from on the U.S. side. He cannot support the creation of strategy (any of the above) that runs counter to U.S. policy, although he would have several other views to take into account. If there is an issue with the Policy, M4 can and should make that known behind closed doors, but it won't be and shouldn't be for public consumption. If the policy doesn't change, he's back to the two old choices: salute smartly or retire.

Ken White (not verified)

Tue, 09/08/2009 - 9:31pm

Yet again. That last one (8:29 PM) is mine. :(

Anonymous (not verified)

Tue, 09/08/2009 - 9:29pm

Anon 8 Sep 7:11 PM:

I think you're missing the fact that ISAF is not bound by what the US President wants. Yes, A US General is the Commander but the contributing nations all have their own rules and the CG of coalition forces has to live with that. Canada, for example seems pretty sure they will exit in two years regardless. Both the British and German populations are less than ecstatic about their roles...

It also seems that the two "germane policy points" you cite may entail a bit more effort than we seem likely to support. I see no way either of those can be obtained, much less retained or even less guaranteed, short of a permanent US presence. Nice sounding goals but attainment is highly improbable

Anonymous (not verified)

Tue, 09/08/2009 - 8:11pm

I am less interested in the strategy of the recent past, which was, if anything and to use your term, "enemy-centric COIN," than I am in what we are about to implement.

The President outlined two germane policy points that any new strategy has to account for: (1) Afghanistan not be used as a safe haven for transnational terrorists to plot attacks against the U.S. (2) Afghanistan not be used as a safe haven for the destabilization of Pakistan. These two policy points begin to establish the ends portion of what the ISAF Commander has to focus his theater strategy around, and it is difficult to imagine how either of those policy points can be implemented without a solvent Afghan government, especially the second. In fact, I believe we would fine specific language that does so, but I'm not going to look it up or elaborate. Thus, our Presidents policy requires that U.S. forces via ISAF support the Afghan government.

What is partially lost there is that the Afghan government has a say in the ends as well. What concerns me is the lack of a combined strategy or IDAD strategy. The Afghan government with support from ISAF needs to craft an IDAD strategy, although this may take a lot of support. This strategy would have to balance ends, ways, and means and discuss acceptable risk and mitigation. It is from the IDAD strategy that ISAF would build its campaign plan. One of the key aspects of this IDAD would be ISAF assistance to build the capability and capacity of the Afghan security forces.

That is how I see it until the new strategy comes out.

gian p gentile (not verified)

Tue, 09/08/2009 - 7:37am

These numerous Anons get me confused.

To the Anon, at Sunday 401PM, before we continue with this worthwhile discussion, might you state in your own mind in a short paragraph or two what actually is our current Strategy in Afghanistan?

I have asked Andrew Exum on his blog numerous times to do so but for I assume to be understandable reasons he has declined.

So, please, in order to debate strategy and how military operations in Astan either suit it or do not, it would be helpful to start out with an agreed upon idea of what our Strategy currently is.


Anonymous (not verified)

Mon, 09/07/2009 - 5:01pm

So let me get this straight, Gian... What you are saying is that the overall strategy is flawed, or at least inadequate, so you then hammer the ways portion of the strategy at the conceptual level and ignore the totality and other parts of the strategy? You lost me there, and I think this is merely a smokescreen for your real purpose.

The decision to execute COIN operations as part of a greater theater strategy is one based on the current operational environment and the desired ends of the strategy. To create a strategy we have to examine the ends, ways, means, and consequent risk. The previous anonymous poster (not me) mentioned that our two approaches should be used at different times depending on the situation; however, that is not how I see it but how it may appear from my arguing against your position. I have always stated that any COIN approach has to suit the current operational environment. And approaches could include various efforts and foci: offense, defense, and stability and population, guerrillas, insurgent infrastructure, or even terrain. Moreover, approaches should be bottom up and tailored for local conditions. You, on the other hand, constantly deride any COIN that involves stability operations in any form or, to use your personal vernacular, population-centric COIN. Instead, you champion the notion that "COIN" should be enemy-centric or terrain-centric. I see this as the doctrinaire rigidity we must avoid that you ostensibly preach against, yet in reality you are pushing your rigid view.

Anonymous (not verified)

Mon, 09/07/2009 - 12:54am

Secure the population and fight the Taliban at night. Anyone roaming around after hours is probably up to no good, while good people are indoors and out of harms way.

Afghanistan isn't that complex, only hard, and will take patience. As the dynamic ebbs and flows, both strategies discussed here should likely switch.

Recognizing when the time to to lean into the opposite direction will be the challange and having the trained cadre to operate from one to the other will be another major challange as well.

gian p gentile (not verified)

Sun, 09/06/2009 - 6:15pm

Fair enough, Dave.

I do think, however, that an important issue confronting us and one that I will not let go of is how current counterinsurgency operations are critiqued and analyzed by many experts who share a common theory of Coin, and share a common criticism of how it is conducted. The two articles by King and Grey are good examples of it.

As I have argued before, in my mind if we accept such criticisms as fact and if we continue to propagate them without challenge the result will be trying harder to make Coin work in Afghanistan at the tactical level when as I have also argued (and others like Finel) the real problem in my view is with Strategy. It is the problem with strategy that continues to push me back down to challenge assumptions and shared beliefs about the efficacy of population centric counterinsurgency.

Anon, happy to continue to debate and discuss with you as Dave guides.


Anonymous (not verified)

Sun, 09/06/2009 - 12:49pm

It is not a pet rock or shtick on my part, nor am I creating a straw-man here.

These issues that I raise are real, they exist, and they have not gone away, in fact they have gotten worse.

Clearly you and I are on different planes and we see the world fundamentally differently. So be it.

But I do not think that my arguments represent "devolution" to use your word but instead a worthwhile corrective to what I still believe has become a one-sided, and dogmatic view of current war and conflict, and with a detrimental effect on our Army and the nations security.

Might you let us know who you are? You said you were in OIF 1, where were you at and what did you do? Those kinds of things might be of interest to the SWC community.



Lets go back to the issues, and as best as we can, keep it above the personal level. I know that this is a very emotional issue for many.

Doing your best to keep it non-emotional / non-personal is most appreciated.

--Dave Dilegge

Anonymous (not verified)

Sun, 09/06/2009 - 11:02am

Did I say anything about "knuckle-dragging wanna fight, etc." in my last post? No I did not. Did I in my first? Yes, in a purely sarcastic fashion. I mentioned that Odierno moved from an approach that was probably too enemy-centric for the environment to one that was balanced to fit the situation, and he was able to keep ahead of the insurgents by adapting that approach. You added in your tropes, not me. My recollection of Odierno's actions are based on my time in OIF 1, not Toms books, thank you. And I would like it noted that YOU forced the thread to devolve to your pet rocks, not me. That is why I posted in the first place. Suggest you go back and look at your own post.

gian p gentile (not verified)

Sun, 09/06/2009 - 10:49am

Anon, If you cant see the stock critique of Armies that fail at Coin in the above articles by Grey and King, then I simply do not know what to say to you. It is a stock critique, you can find it in standard works like Krepinevich, Nagl, Cassidy, Ucko, and many, many others. It is there and its form and content are knowable and understandable. It is fine with me if you think that it is a valid critique, but the stock critique is there and it was woven throughout the Grey and King articles.

You play on it too again in your subsequent post about the mythical turning of General Odierno from the knuckle-dragging wanna fight the Soviets in the Sunni Triangle days, to his better days of enlightened and balanced population centric coin during the Surge. How do you know this assertion to be correct? After reading Ricks "The Gamble?" If nothing else, it is contested and highly problematic. I was a BCT XO under Odierno in Tikrit and from my view Rickss caricature is highly questionable and debatable. As a historian, I am able to admit that at a minimum it is too early to tell, but folks like you have accepted as accomplished fact these kinds of tropes.

How can we really have a discussion of strategy in Af/Pak if it continues to devolve into the world of population centric Coin tactics and operations, or what Dave Maxwell has often referred to as the New American Army Way of War. Suggest you have a look at Daves post on a different thread on the Rashid WashPost oped of today to see what I am getting at.



Anonymous (not verified)

Sun, 09/06/2009 - 10:25am


I completely agree. We need a viable strategy for Central/Southern Asia, which normally would be or could be discussed in terms of ends, ways, means, and risk. And your mention of sanctuary and the general situation in Pakistan is spot on in my opinion--it is a central issue that has to be addressed.

What I'm so bone-weary tired of is this incessant narrative against Soldiers conducting stability as part of a larger COIN effort, and somehow Soldiers doing anything but shooting people in the face is inherently evil. GEN Odierno's a perfect case study of someone who moved away from his 4ID days of an enemy-centric approach to supporting an appropriately balanced COIN approach based on the operational environment.

The necessity to counter gian p gentile's argument likely makes the core points of what I am trying to say seem stilted, and I apologize for that. And I know this argument is tiresome; however, I'm more tired of having to read his same arguments for every thread or article on COIN. Need strategy--got it. Anything but enemy-centric COIN evil--got it. Let's move on and talk more about the issues surrounding Pakistan, as you mentioned. THAT is an interesting discussion.

Anonymous (not verified)

Sun, 09/06/2009 - 12:58am

This debate reminds me of the blind men and the elephant story. There seems to be "some" truth in each argument, but none of the arguments are complete. Personally I agree strongly with the previous post's comments on pacification, but also agree with gentile's comments that this approach by "itself" won't work. It must be part of a comprehensive and realistic strategy, or we'll just be spinning our wheels. Additionally, and I realize the overall strategy piece attempts to address this, but our COIN approach will not work as intended until the safe haven in Pakistan issue is resolved. Very tough problem set, but not one that is unsolvable if we set realistic expectations and are serious about achieving those expectations. Bill

Anonymous (not verified)

Sat, 09/05/2009 - 10:51pm

Ron Holt and Pol-Mil FSO,

Wholeheartedly agree--excellent points.

gian p gentile,

Where is this mysterious stale COIN critique that blames the ground forces? I didnt say that, and I certainly wouldnt agree with anyone who did. The sarcasm of my first post seems lost, so I will dispense with it.

Your ubiquitous comments always indicate that COIN is the bane of the Armys existence. Example: "Stop being soldiers and become masters of nation-building." So I guess we weren't Soldiers when deployed in the decade from 1991-2001? This obviously indicates your disdain for Soldiers conducting stability operations as part of COIN, as if COIN can succeed sans stability operations. Westmoreland and Abrams both understood the importance of Pacification and supported it. They understood that COIN must separate the population from the insurgency physically and psychologically; that combination requires appropriate balance of offense, defense, and stability in the form of neutralization, security, balanced development, and mobilization. How do you propose to separate the population from the insurgency, especially psychologically, without stability operations?

Your derisive term "New Age population centric COIN" and associated narrative is quite tiresome. You blast away at the ways and then discuss how the overall strategy is insufficient or nonexistent (common ground on the former). However, COIN is a way, not the whole strategy, yet you lump them together. Youve also made the point that fighting the military wing of the insurgency is very important and I concur, but does your mention of it have to be so shrill and repetitive?

Ron Holt (not verified)

Sat, 09/05/2009 - 10:42pm

Pol-Mil is perceptive. Many of the high value targets we took out in 2008 along the border were replaced by younger, more radical and better educated leaders. It is often better to target the infrastructure/shadow government rather than the top leaders.

Pol-Mil FSO

Sat, 09/05/2009 - 9:07pm

Stephen Grey's article is the best piece that I have read about UK ops in Helmand, and one that made a few lights go on in my head. I would differ with him about Panther's Claw - I think it did have at least some positive short-term effects but Grey is right that the follow up governance and development efforts are usually the weak pieces in any operation. I saw a couple of "mowing the grass" (or whacking the mole") ops in Maywand District of Kandahar Province in 2008 by first the Gurkhas and then the Paras that had no real observable effect.

On the targeting of high value individuals, Grey brought up a point that I had not thought of - that these actions could be eliminating the leaders of tribal groups that we are trying to swing to the government side. There are several other reasons why I believe that targeting is oversold in Afghanistan, one being that our intelligence is abysmal. Most importantly, our knowledge of the bad guys is not matched by our knowledge of the good guys. This issue is complicated by the fact that there is a very hazy line between the bad guys and the good guys, that the line up can and will change frequently, and that no Afghan ever burns bridges with anyone else no matter whether he is a sworn enemy not a friend. In addition to the problem of generally being the dark about the second and third order effects of taking out an individual, the Pashtun honor code places the highest emphasis on revenge for killing relatives or clan members. Thus targeting becomes an attrition strategy; a joke I heard while in country was that at our current rate we should eliminate the Taliban leadership by 2035.

gian p gentile (not verified)

Sat, 09/05/2009 - 8:25pm

Anon said: "Instead of trying to improve our understanding and ability to conduct COIN, we should use the body count."

To which I say, do you really think that we have not been trying to improve our understanding and ability to do Coin over the last seven plus years in Astan and Iraq?

Are folks not just simply tired of this stale old Coin Critique that blames the ground forces for just not getting it and trying hard enough? Is it possible that there are other reasons that things are not going well other than a purportedly knuckle dragging Army that only wants to fight the big one? Like, say, the absence of coherent STRATEGY.

Then Anon said: "If we just kill enough of those pesky guerrillas...the Army can get back to preparing for the real threat--the Soviets."

Actually I dream of hordes of bugs from Klendathu, since they mass for us in linear fashion and we all know from the Coin experts that linear warfare is simple and easy.

Anonymous (not verified)

Sat, 09/05/2009 - 7:47pm

Absolutely, but the clarion call to "end the madness" gets so tiresome. It has to be a comprehensive effort whose balance and parts are based on the environment, not just an approach completely focused on killing the enemy. And anything that doesnt do so somehow is both doomed to failure and undermines the Army.

Excellent question on intel. Hopefully someone in the intel community can address it.

Seaworthy (not verified)

Sat, 09/05/2009 - 6:54pm

Surely as part of securing the population, there will be ongoing activity to locate the Taliban and destroy them?

I'm puzzled whether leaning too far toward this current strategy doesn't offer the advantage and flexibility to the Taliban for the offense, relegating us toward too much of a defensive and reactive posture?

Do we have the on-going operational intelligence that would prevent us from running about the countryside wearing ourselves-out?

Anonymous (not verified)

Sat, 09/05/2009 - 5:17pm

WARNING: The record is skipping again and we're falling down the slippery slope. The root of all evil is COIN, despite that it is only "the way" in the Lykke strategic model. In fact, forget about the rest of the Lykke model: ends, means, and risk. Rather, blame all strategic, operational, and tactical challenges facing the Army on that one approach. Instead of trying to improve our understanding and ability to conduct COIN, we should use the body count. Skip any kind of stability operations, ignore the population, conduct guerrilla-centric operations, and get in line for your Summers lobotomy. If we just kill enough of those pesky guerrillas and ignore the rest of the insurgent infrastructure long enough, we can let Afghanistan collapse, and the Army can get back to preparing for the real threat--the Soviets. Then all of our problems would be fixed.

gian p gentile (not verified)

Sat, 09/05/2009 - 10:38am

Essential points for the American Army from these two pieces are:

Stop being soldiers and become masters at nation-building.

Rethink war: change its principles; namely, instead of Offensive (actually meaning initiative) it should be Protect the People (actually meaning stasis). Historical analogy; dont be like the Prussian Army in the Seven Years War but become like the French Army in the years leading up to 1940.

Try Harder! You still dont get population centric counterinsurgency; you still want to fight Omaha in the Korengal.

Listen to the Counterinsurgency Experts: Military Officers, Civilian Experts, and classic Counterinsurgency Texts. If you do and you apply what they say you can win! It really is that simple. Trust and believe the experts and classic texts, they really do know what they are talking about. New Age population centric warfare can in fact be mastered and you can do it.

Dont worry about strategy since it will naturally come to the fore once you master and put into practice the tactics of population centric counterinsurgency.

Finally in American doctrinal manuals expunge the term "warfighting" since such thinking will continue to corrupt our Army and take as back to bad days instead of a better present and future of enlightened new-age warfare.

[When will this madness end??]