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Flawed Doctrine or Flawed Strategy?

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Flawed Doctrine or Flawed Strategy?

by Sergeant First Class Morgan Sheeran, Small Wars Journal

Flawed Doctrine or Flawed Strategy? (Full PDF Article)

The United States and her allies are in trouble in Afghanistan. That's not hard to see. What seems to be taking up all the bandwidth these days is a conversation about how to go about reversing the backwards slide that Afghanistan is in. The Department of Defense notes in its January, 2009 report on Afghanistan, The Taliban regrouped after its fall from power and has coalesced into a resilient and evolving insurgency." It goes on to state, Shortfalls limit the Allies' capacity to fulfill all aspects of the COIN strategy." Meanwhile, the military's senior leadership is spending its time discussing such things as the appropriateness of the doctrine developed to fight and succeed in such wars. Some are even excusing failure beforehand. Air Force Major General Charles J. Dunlap, Jr. pointed out in the pages of Armed Forces Journal that the United States did not lose" the Cold War as a result of our failure in Vietnam, thereby implying that failure in Afghanistan would be less than catastrophic and therefore tolerable.

Assessing the acceptability of loss in the central campaign of the Global War on Terror is certainly a diversion from any assessment on how to succeed in a difficult enterprise. It is not the conversation that military leadership should be having at this or any point. While the Army managed to get COIN right just enough to avert a massive failure in Iraq, any self-congratulations are misplaced. The Army has still not wholeheartedly embraced the only doctrine that we possess which is specifically designed for use in counterinsurgency warfare.

Flawed Doctrine or Flawed Strategy? (Full PDF Article)

About the Author(s)


Morgan (not verified)

Fri, 06/05/2009 - 5:12pm

I see your point, COL Gentile. In maneuver warfare, the Center of Gravity may change. It may be the destruction of the enemy's armor, the protection of a key capability or the denial of key terrain. But in politics, it remains the same; the loyalty or at a minimum the acquiescence of the population.

Insurgency is the meeting point of the spectrum of conflict and the spectrum of civil politics. You could say it is the area of color shift on the overall spectrum of politics where politics becomes violent, and that the spectrum of conflict is in fact a continuation of the spectrum of politics. The closer you are on the spectrum to civil, or non-violent politics, the more likely that your CoG will actually be the population. Insurgencies actually have political arms whose actions in the fight are not kinetic but are aimed at establishing shadow governance with the intent to assume the mantle of legitimacy upon the advent of the right conditions, including the irrelevance of the sitting government in the daily lives of the population, or CoG.

We see this with the Taliban and their establishment of functional courts in certain areas of Afghanistan. These courts are granted their legitimacy by the people, who actually bring complaints and cases, such as land disputes, before said courts.

Coalition convoys may rumble down the road unscathed a mile away, but the insurgent controls the CoG. A large FOB may sit on the other side of that ridge line, but the CoG sits in the enemy's camp, seeking justice.

The insurgent's actions, and the overall efforts made to influence the population tell you that his overall center of gravity is the population. Failed counterinsurgents are often those who stubbornly and mistakenly choose another CoG. The Soviets controlled all the major cities, but failed to properly identify the CoG. They killed millions and still failed. Failed governments are those who fail to govern this CoG and to service this CoG... either through their own failings or through being disabled from doing so by an insurgency.

The very strength of an insurgency in relation to a conventional military force is this basic mis-identification of the CoG. Whereas in maneuver warfare the aim is to destroy the enemy's capability to continue resistance, forcing acquiescence to the will of the winning belligerant, in insurgency the aim is to destroy the opponent's relevance. Relevance to what? To the daily lives of the population.

This, I believe is the real reason why the rate of success of mechanized forces in COIN, as opposed to the footbound armies of old, is lower. Mechanized forces try to substitute response for presence. Response has less influence on daily relevance than presence, as any child of an absentee father will tell you.

The center of gravity in politics is the population. Politics is civil influence to the point of coercion. Violent coercion... such as being arrested by a man with a gun, and imprisonment, is the ultimate expression of that coercion. Here in America there are many who oppose the elected president, to the point that many go along with the social contract only out of fear of the consequences... coercion. Insurgency, being the meeting point between civil politics and warfare, is to the left of the point on the spectrum of conflict where uniforms are worn by both sides. As in civil politics, the CoG is the population, leaning more to the side of coercion in an insurgency; coercion by an entity that claims legitimacy as a government in opposition to the existing one. Any counterinsurgent who mistakes this CoG as being less than the primary goal of all involved is doomed, ultimately, to failure. Hence our understanding that there is no strictly military solution to the problems of Afghanistan, Paksistan or Iraq.

This does not mean that an operation that is able to identify and catch insurgent forces in the open is undesirable. Nor are carefully designed actions to disrupt his command and control. However, I contend that by keeping the real CoG in mind and seeking relentlessly to deny the enemy access to the CoG, one will force the insurgent into actions he would not otherwise take in order to regain access to it, exposing him to the strengths of military force.

This must be the commander's intent. In AirLand, the key element in any OPORD was to understand the commander's intent. If all else failed, if you were still attempting to accomplish the commander's intent, success could be achieved. Even if each commander's intent in every case is to influence the population as the CoG, if those responsible for achieving the commander's intent are untrained in what that means, they will be less likely to achieve it. Our failure to train our most junior members in COIN disrupts that ability, and is indicative that we have not, as has been posited, achieved over-saturation with COIN. We are still far less than fully capable at this end of the spectrum of conflict.

The further away from the civil political end of the spectrum, such as when the insurgency has gained enough strength to operate as a maneuver force, as a number have, moving the conflict on the scale away from civil politics, the more CoG's will possibly shift from the population. Our failure rate decreases towards this end of the spectrum, but that's because "discovery" of a CoG that is less likely to be the population occurs the further away from the civil end we get. We have difficulty accepting the population as a true CoG. We are more in our comfort zone when the population can be easily described as, "COBs" and "collateral damage."

Our failures, and therefore the need for better training, occur more at the insurgency level closer to the civil political end of the scale. This is the end where a military thinker who has not been effectively trained at this end of the spectrum will default to a more normal military CoG. This causes our higher failure rate at this end of the spectrum.


Fri, 06/05/2009 - 4:20pm

COL Gentile:

Is this the paragraph to which you referred previously?

5-88. Not all COIN efforts require large combat formations. In many cases, U.S. support is limited, focused on missions like advising security forces and providing fire support or sustainment. The longstanding U.S. support to the Philippines is an example of such limited support. The limited support approach focuses on building HN capability and capacity. Under this approach, HN security forces are expected to conduct combat operations, including any clearing and holding missions.</i>

I for one cannot see such an approach being very effective in Afghanistan. There is no way to achieve the U.S./NATO goals without a very large footprint, in my opinion. Terrain, culture, and extreme government corruption would continue to breed and provide freedom of movement for Taliban and other anti-government, pro-extremist groups.

Gian P Gentile

Fri, 06/05/2009 - 4:06pm


I agree that it is not just doctrinal but cultural. But where you and I disagree is that you still see the Army as for the most part conventionally minded but with a small core of Counterinsurgency experts who continue to try to beat the walls of ignorance down.

I see the opposite.

You mention Kilcullen's 28 Articles of Coin and then posit that Coin is more than that. But I see those 28 articles as only what the American Army now seems to think about coin. Morgan's piece certainly embraces them and the things that you have written do too.

I asked you once before on this blog but you didnt respond if you can conceive of an approach in Afghanistan that is not premised on the principles of population centric counterinsurgency, which Kilcullen's 28 Articles codify.


Fri, 06/05/2009 - 3:16pm

Going to a very basic level here: I think Niel just touched on an area of concern for anyone who looks at COIN with a wary eye; "thinking outside the box" is very much a key to success in conflicts where the opposition will respond to whatever effort we put forth. (For instance, if the enemy wants us to conduct an "enemy-centric" campaign they can make that happen...) Therefore the challenge to those developing doctrine/training/strategy (or even "metrics") is to avoid simply creating another box - <em>and</em> to ensure that those one level down don't take their inputs and build another box for their troops to operate in.

If we're going to employ "quality" concepts to the discussion "empowerment" must be included. <em>Train, equip, support, and get out of the way.</em> I submit that Niel's experiences in Anbar <em>could</em> be cited as what happens when that's done successfully (though perhaps in spite of restraints; I wasn't there, don't know, won't guess - the end is the same) - and that Morgan's example typifies what happens when it isn't done at all.

Niel (not verified)

Fri, 06/05/2009 - 10:32am


Great article, enjoyed the read. It's making the rounds at CAC.

On a second note, while I have limited sympathy and even agreement with some of COL Gentile, I am not in concurrence on the uselessness of Galula. I will simply say that like any work, including CvC, it must be taken in context. I agree with you that most leaders are intelligent enough to adapt "doctrine" or "dogma" to their individual situation and AO. Necessity is the mother of invention and all that.

I also continue to posit that if we have "unthinking approaches" to COIN, it isn't because of doctrine but because of our Leader Development and Educational system, which you correctly identify hasn't had a holistic review or change based on the changing operational environments. I don't think 100-5 was considered a failure when BLUEFOR was regularly trounced by the OPFOR at the CTC's, with BCT's applying "dogmatic" checklists and graded against how well they adhered to proper MDMP processes and not how well they actually fought. Indeed, that CTC mentality is driving some of the "dogmatic" approaches to COIN. Take the formula, stay inside the box and do well was the standard of the 1990's zero defect training mentality that stays with us.

A secondary problem is convincing even officers to actually read a book more detailed than "Green Eggs and Ham". I am regularly brief commanders who only want "the high points" or an EXSUM of extremely complicated issues, and think they can succeed in COIN only if they read Kilcullen's 28 Articles. Or as a senior officer I am acquainted with (a senior planner at a major command) said - "no decision in the Army currently is too important not to be reduced to a 3x5 card".

Our flaws are cultural/LD&E related, not doctrinal. COL Gentile is targeting the wrong problem, IMO.


Gian P Gentile

Fri, 06/05/2009 - 8:35am


Just a short follow up to your last response.

Clausewitz teaches that a center of gravity is something to be discovered. With the American Army's new way of counterinsurgency the discovering is done for us and we are told to accept as principle, no, as immutable rule, that the population must, in any counterinsurgency campaign, be the center of gravity. From that basic rule is derived a number of principles turned into methods of protection of the population through small outpost presence, separating the insurgents from the people in order to win hearts and minds. This, boiled down, is FM 3-24. There are other ways to approach problems of insurgency and instability in the world, but until we come off this population centric approach to counterinsurgency as the only way to go about doing things, we will find ourselves basically applying the same tactics and methods over and over again.

And on FM 100-5 (Airland Battle Version), it was actually a doctrinal manual about initiative, not a simplistic procedural approach to synchronizing massive amounts of firepower at critical points in the depth of enemy battlespace.

Morgan (not verified)

Fri, 06/05/2009 - 1:24am

It's always a pleasure, Sir.

I by no means believe that the application of COIN doctrine should even look exactly the same from province to province. I do not believe that COIN is necessarily applicable in the Korengal, which is absolutely not representative of the rest of Afghanistan.

I sure as hell wouldn't want to do it there. God bless anyone who can pull it off. Promote them two grades immediately and give them a year paid to write a book about it.

What I believe is that doctrine, especially COIN, is a way of approaching a problem. Just as the MDMP is supposed to lead a thought process, not prescribe a solution. What it does generally lead us to is a single center of gravity. As opposed to AirLand, which focuses on the disabling of the enemy through fire, maneuver, deception and mass at critical points, COIN leads us to view the population as the center of gravity, and not necessarily the enemy. There will be times, using this thought process, that your actions will be the same as they would if you were operating as an enemy-centric force... but the difference will be subtle. The CoG will affect decisions, though... like the application of firepower.

Like the MDMP, the same COA will not be chosen in each case... each province is different; but the one consistent answer that I got when I asked a village elder what was needed was, "Security." The creativity comes in deciding how to secure your center of gravity. CPT Carl Thompson's piece on COIN was beautiful. He creatively applied the principles, and neither the FM nor Galula prescribed exactly what he did. He used his creativity to apply general principles, and it worked. It's that process that we need to empower, not canned solutions.

I think that we would see more of this IF we train our soldiers in the doctrine as principles and not as battle drills. Then we give them the tools to be creative. Until we provide this training, we are just leaving it to chance.

Gian P Gentile

Fri, 06/05/2009 - 12:59am

Dear Morgan:

Thank you for your most thoughtful reply (and original article).

But what you say above is not universal. I just read a very powerful argument by two LTs and a SFC who argue very persuasively that their recent experience in Astan proved that the key to success was to regain the initiative tactically through the killing of the enemy. These men are not stupid, they are not knuckle draggers, they are trying to make sense of things and reflecting on their experience. They may be right, they may be wrong. You may be right, you may be wrong, same too with me. But we should not be so cocksure of ourselves to think that Galula is the code, the secret to success; that if it ostensibly worked for him in Algeria then it will work for us in Baghdad or the Korengal. That is my point, and has been all along. It is about creativity at all levels of war and not dogma; yet I honestly and truthfully fear that we have accepted blindly this faith in population centric counterinsurgency that it can work if it is just applied correctly by inspired units. History proves that war does not abide by solutions.

Morgan (not verified)

Fri, 06/05/2009 - 12:28am

COL Gentile: Sir, thank you for your comment. First, I would like to correct a misconception. The attribution you refer to was not yours, it was Maj. Gen. Dunlap's. What I attributed to you was the call to reevaluate the doctrine. I apologize if this was not clear. I don't feel, with the clarification, that you would object to that characterization. You continue this call in your comment.

Sir, you know that I disagree with you on your evaluation of the efficacy of the principles (which I do not find as prescriptive as you do) of Galula and FM 3-24. Whether or not his principles were original or not I find to be largely immaterial. From my experience on the ground, my observations were what proved Galula to be correct. I was a conventionally trained Cold Warrior. I didn't go to Afghanistan with a preconceived idea. I had read Galula, but it didn't make as much sense as it did after I saw the insurgency on the ground there and saw what Galula described in detail on the ground. I also saw that when the basic principles that Galula and FM 3-24 described were implemented, even imperfectly, they had a positive effect. When they were flouted, even though the commanders claimed success, real progress was absent or the situation got worse. This is demonstrated in our current position, regardless of what some may attribute it to. I also saw that Galula described the actions that the insurgents would take pretty accurately. These were my experiences on the ground, Sir. This is what brought me to be an advocate for the doctrine and into honest disagreement with your assertion that it is not relevant.

As I said in my article, reevaluation and adaptation of the doctrine should be consistently done; but first we must actually <i>try</i> to execute it properly to the best of our ability. Good doctrine done poorly will discredit even the best doctrine. AirLand done poorly in the deserts of Kuwait and Iraq in Desert Storm would have had the same impact on that doctrine. It would also have ruined any ability to properly modify the doctrine. Until we train our junior leaders and even Privates in COIN, which we do not, how can we effectively implement the doctrine? We did train them in AirLand, and they acquitted themselves well and largely in accordance with that doctrine when it was proper to use it. We need to do the same with this doctrine.

If it fails when done properly, then you will be proven correct. I do not believe that it will, Sir. I do wholeheartedly agree with you that much of what needs to be done to resolve the situation in Afghanistan favorably is not best done by the Army. Hopefully we will see changes in our civilian capacity building abilities soon. Securing the population means very little if the government cannot deliver on its basic responsibilities. Many of these are things that the Army is less than effective at assisting with. Again, we need to become effective at our part, which we are less than fully effective at.

I'm glad that you integrated your MiTT Teams well. As you can see from the first comment, I am certainly not the Lone Ranger. It was hit-or-miss. Some units were great to work with while others were not. It was not all bad.

Again, Sir, thank you for your comment. I hope that my clarification helps you to see that I was not mischaracterizing your position. If I have still done so, please correct me.

Morgan (not verified)

Thu, 06/04/2009 - 11:43pm

Inteltrooper, thanks for your comment. I cannot say that I'm surprised, nor am I gratified, to see that nothing much has changed. What will change with the arrival of the new troops is capability. However, if that capability is not matched by behaviors, it will only mean the same problems on a wider scale.

I am encouraged by the new leadership, and have confidence that the it will push certain behaviors down. The relief of GEN McKiernan was as much a message of ruthless enforcement and the willingness to relieve as it was anything else. However, your point about bad habits is well taken. We have failed our implementers... the young Specialist and especially the young Sergeant and Staff Sergeant, by not training him/her in the doctrine. COIN is a doctrine that requires a basic theoretical understanding and a certain amount of "buy-in." By not trusting the capabilities of our first line leaders to grasp concepts... by not training them in the theory of what they are doing... we have disabled them.

They are smart, dedicated young leaders. Many of them will figure out coping mechanisms in the absence of such guidance. That should not be the case. They should be using their innate skills to figure out how to apply principles in their particular situations, but we have failed to teach them the principles. In the meantime, Colonels argue back and forth about how much COIN is too much and how we had better be prepared to fight Red China for the fate of the world.

Congratulations on your safe return. Do what you can to disseminate the lessons you have learned and share your knowledge with others. You are not alone, and the rest of us need your voice to add to the conversation.

Gian P Gentile

Thu, 06/04/2009 - 11:33pm

Sergeant Sheeran:

Your paraphrasing of my arguments is incorrect. Using your words, you paraphrase me in this way:

"He [me]suggests that a loss in World War III would be catastrophic and so therefore it is honorable to lose the small war in order to be ready for the hypothetical big war, even if that big war appears far from imminent."

I have never argued anything of the sort. What I have said is that the American Army must do whatever it takes to win the wars we are in now; that is our mission assigned to us by our political masters. I have argued, though, that these wars and our necessary focus on counterinsurgency comes at a cost, and that cost is clearly an atrophied ability to fight wars at the higher end of the conflict spectrum. If that is what it takes to win these current wars so be it, but there is risk involved and I have tried to make that point. I have also argued that we should not become so consumed with these two wars in Iraq and Astan that we allow them to over-determine what we think future conflict will be. We must be ready to fight an enemy from a lonely iraqi insurgent up to a north korean army (as an example) who stands and fights us. In my mind the best type of army for this range of possible future scenarios is not one optimized for coin but a general purpose force that can do all possible missions reasonably well.

So please, I ask you kindly Sir, to at least get my arguments correct before you go after them.

As for Galula and Astan; sorry my friend, disagree. Astan isnt even remotely close to Galula's world, and that world was not even close to the reality of the war the French were fighting in Algeria. You see the French counterinsurgency officers constructed a worldview that saw any insurgency fueled by communist expansion throughout the world. At its core the French School saw, incorrectly, the FLN in Algeria in that light. And even if there was some element of communist revolution to the fln it was fundamentally a war of nationalism for them, to make Algeria their own; how are these discrete tribes in all their complexity and variety even close to what the FLN was in Algeria? Suggest you read Horne's masterpiece "A Savage War of Peace."

Galula needs to be brought down about 18 notches of stature in the American Army. His book was not that good; it was simplistic in its programmatic, procedural approach to coin; and it was nothing that Gallieni and others had not already done before starting as early as the 1830s in Algeria (current scholarship supports this assertion). In fact David Galula was an opportunist selling coin snake oil to a group of American military officers in the early 1960s who were interested in it when Vietnam was ramping up. Galula could speak and write English fluently and he was a natural business man at heart who saw a market for his unoriginal ideas in America. In French military historiography and military theory Galula has been a nobody. He is no way near on the same level of Callwell or Clausewitz or Mao. But his worthwhile two little writings have been turned into the oracle of coin within the American Army by a certain group of Coin experts who were writing a new counterinsurgency doctrine for the American Army and wanted to give it the weighted authority of history by a text that seemed to so easily explain it all in an easy, understandable way. It became the cipher, the secret code buried in Archives that Counterinsurgency expert Tom Ricks found, and then provided to the US Army via an interesting link with the University of Chicago Press. Next thing we know folks are falling all over themselves to be the next one to claim that they did Galula in Adamiyah, Dora, Khost, and Korengal because they had followed the precepts of FM 3-24 which really truly is just a rehash of Galula (on this point see political scientist Stathis Kalyvass excellent critique of the manual).

I am sorry that you had a bad experience with battlespace owning units during your last run in Astan as an advisor. I appreciate and respect your hard service as a citizen soldier to the nation. I can tell you that when I owned battlespace in Baghdad in 2006 of the at least 10 different MTT teams that I worked with I always treated them right and appreciated their fundamental importance to mission success.


Thu, 06/04/2009 - 10:47pm

Having recently returned from Afghanistan, my observations mirror yours, sadly. ETTs were severely mistreated by "battlespace owners," among other failures inherent in the ETT system. Instead of Americans supporting the ETT/OMLT, they thought the role of ETTs was to support their (usually pointless or counterproductive) operations. I won't ennumerate the countless other failures I observed for fear of just sounding bitter, but I am glad you assembled this article. In my opinion, the feedback on the success or failure of a given approach should come from the ETTs, who are closest to the population. Even "manuever units" are isolated from the ground truth by their intermittent contact with the population (KLEs do not constitute "contact with the population"). This is most clearly measurable in the belief of many officers and enlisted personnel that locals were to be feared and kept at arm's length as much as possible.

This trend has the potential to be reversed with the arrival of elements of the 10th Mountain and 4th ID in RC-East. Some of the problem in Afghanistan was that the last time many personnel had deployed was in 2005-2006 in Iraq when all the wrong lessons were being learned. Unfortunately, there was no break in these bad habits prior to sending them to a completely different culture and environment that requires a different approach.