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Thinking Critically about COIN and Creatively about Strategy and War

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Thinking Critically about COIN and Creatively about Strategy and War

An Interview with Colonel Gian Gentile

by Octavian Manea

Download the Full Article: An Interview with Colonel Gian Gentile

I've carefully read your commentary concerning David Galula's work on counterinsurgency and its applicability for today's COIN campaigns and you seem to identify a special kind of lesson or warning than the ones that influenced the development of FM 3-24: "its tactical brilliance was divorced from a strategic purpose. So don't repeat the same mistake. After all, France lost Algeria". So, why do you think that by embracing Galula's tactical brilliance, we tend to lose sight of the art of strategy?

That has been the whole problem with the COIN narrative that developed at least in US Army circles since the end of the Vietnam War. It was, and is, premised on the idea that the Vietnam War could have been won by better counterinsurgency tactics and operations. This is the basic nugget of an idea that had a snowball effect; in the 1980s with Andrew Krepinevich' The Army and Vietnam, then in the 1990s with John Nagl's Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam and Lewis Sorley's A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and the Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam, and more currently many of the writings of Colonel Robert Cassidy and others.

The idea of a better war through improved counterinsurgency tactics has come to define causation in the Iraq war too. Recent books like Tom Ricks's duo of Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq and The Gamble: General Petraeus and the American Military Adventure in Iraq and Linda Robinson's Tell Me How this Ends: General Petraeus and the Search for a Way Out of Iraq offers the notion of a bumbling, fumbling conventional army that is doing counterinsurgency incorrectly, but because a better and enlightened general comes onto the scene combined with a few innovative new officers at the lower levels who figure out how to do counterinsurgency by the classic rule and voila the operational Army is reinvented and starts doing the things differently. And it is because the Army does things differently on the ground that it produces a transformed situation, as the narrative states. It's the idea that better tactics can rescue a failed policy and strategy.

Download the Full Article: An Interview with Colonel Gian Gentile

Interview with Colonel Gian Gentile conducted by Octavian Manea (Editor of FP Romania, the Romanian edition of Foreign Policy).

About the Author(s)

Octavian Manea was a Fulbright Junior Scholar at Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs (Syracuse University) where he received an MA in International Relations and a Certificate of Advanced  Studies in Security Studies.



While I agree with most of your comments, I think the key take away from Melton's article was to understand the type of war you're engaging in (defensive/offensive) at the strategic level and plan at the strategic level accordingly, so subordinates at the operational level understand the objectives they are to achieve. Unlike our recent two experiences where our overall goal other than fighting terrorists and stopping the proliferation of WMD where very vague and constantly changing. It sounds overly simple, but I think the implications he makes are profound on many levels.

I never associated the problems with the National Defense Act of 1947, but it makes sense and is worthy of more study.

We seem to have this annoying habit of embracing ideas that have never worked, failed to work repeatedly, while ignoring tried and tested theories.

Ken White (not verified)

Tue, 12/28/2010 - 9:28pm

<b>Bill M.:</b>

Agree that was his thrust and it's certainly important and valid. It's also not just the two latest wars. I used 60 years as did Melton, dating from Korea through Viet Nam to today. That's two generations, wandering around in the wilderness...

My point and his subsidiary point is that while the Clausewitzian logic is on target, it's hard for the US and its Armed forces to get there because of the way we have <u>elected</u> to structure ourselves, to handle our personnel issues and I'd add, to train.

All three of those issues can and should be fixed...<blockquote>We seem to have this annoying habit of embracing ideas that have never worked, failed to work repeatedly, while ignoring tried and tested theories.</blockquote>True -- and that's mostly a product of overweening egos in high places.

It's the American way. :<

Anonymous (not verified)

Tue, 12/28/2010 - 11:04pm

Just wanted to add that I'm not the same Anonymous that posted the article here. I did post a link to that article within minutes on the "Tossing the Afghan COIN" post so see why it would be confusing. Have no idea what "Open Source Warfare" is but one thing in your response to him/her caught my eye:

"Beyond consistently demonstrating your lack of historical knowledge on these types of conflicts..."

To which I would reply for him/her:

"We must hold our minds alert and receptive to the application of unglimpsed methods and weapons. The next war will be won in the future, not in the past. We must go on, or we will go under." General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, 1931

Interestingly, I saw this quote in the newest Joint Force Quarterly in an article about Social Media. But using google to look for the quote again, I also found it in an article by COL Douglas MacGregor and another article about EBO.

So obviously the quote, like history, can be used and possibly abused any number of different ways that may or may not apply. In my case, while I subscribe to the quote, I must find another screen name both to avoid "Anonymous confusion" and because while I believe there is great value of military social media, I'm unconvinced others have the same appreciation from a perceived OPSEC standpoint.

One of my answers to that would be, if you let those espousing the status quo and "we always did it that 1930" have the bully pulpit, then progress and new TTP and ideas are never explored or advertised to those in power to use them (or are killed as programs due to naysaying) because "the force is strong" in inertia, IMHO.


Wed, 12/29/2010 - 12:47am

Certainly we need to be aware of the potential emergence of new weapons and tactics. It happens, though less often than some suppose, and it can be significant.

We also need to be aware that there are lots of people who will wrap old ideas in new terminology and hype them up as part of a self-promotion campaign. This also happens, rather more often.

Our antagonists adapt to our tactics and develop tactics of their own that exploit their capacities and our vulnerabilities. Disparate groups set aside differences to fight a common enemy. Not exactly a shock, and we don't need arcane theories to predict that these things would happen: it's a bit like predicting sunrise in the east.

Slapping terms like "quantum" and "open source" on long-established patterns may sound kind of geeky-cool (like ya saw it on the innernet), and is certainly a useful marketing aid, but it doesn't really advance understanding and often distracts attention from the actual substance of what is being discussed.

I do wish the various anonymous posters would at least choose consistent pseudonyms, if they'll be posting regularly. There is something vaguely amusing about a duel of the anonymi, but some sort of identification would make it easier to keep things in order.

The last anon,

I like the quote you cited from McArthur, and tend to agree like many others that we're embracing pop-centric COIN doctrine based on misinterpretations of old wars, and while not throwing the baby out with the bath water, I don't think it will get us to where we want to be. More importantly, I like Dayuhan don't see any substance in the previous Anon's post. What exactly is new? I once again looked up quantum and while a fairly creative guy I can't find a useful correlation to quantum with what is happening in the conflict, so please help me out. Personally I like the use of open source warfare, not because it is new (it isn't), but because it is an easier way to explain what is happening. Easier to envision to what is happening regionally and globally.

When you talk about new weapons and other technologies, my biggest concern is we'll be surprised by emerging nations because we're overly focused as a force on irregular warfare. Folks from my background make their living and always have in the IW realm, but we also assumed that GPF would retain focus on the larger issues (high end fights) and constantly evolve their technology to ensure they we're on top of the predator food chain. Not convinced that is happening now, so we may be surprised when our next state on state war competitor knocks downs our satellites, renders our communications equipment obsolete, and applies their smart weapons against our platforms, and who knows what else (failure of our imagination).

Grant Martin (not verified)

Wed, 12/15/2010 - 2:08am

I definitely agree that our COIN doctrine offers only a nation-building approach to any environment that has insurgents. The President tasked the DoD to do Counter-terrorism, and we've given him one COA: COIN, and not just any COIN- but "population-centric", "clear-hold-build" COIN. This idea plays well in the current military intellectual environment as well as the Western media: it is "feel good" stuff!

Unfortunately it ignores pragmatic methods for securing the President's objectives and guarantees a long and costly solution. Not only that, it ignores on-the-ground realities that don't fit our "hearts and minds" stereotyping of what motivates human behavior. Transforming Afghan society through incorporating women into all facets of the Afghan National Security Forces should never be seen as a way towards "[Disrupting, dismantling and defeating Al Qaeda]", but in our COIN paradigm- one of the main ways to keep AQ from challenging us from Afghanistan is to change Afghanistan's culture and society!

The only thing that encourages me is that I've yet to see many forces here following our COIN doctrine. FORCEPRO requirements trump everything and we stay hunkered down on massive bases churning information primarily for internal and home consumption. Our priorities are mainly focused on short-term, easily-measured metrics. Even though this is personally very frustrating, it leads me to believe that we are just paying the COIN doctrine lip-service and that pragmatic politics might really be driving this train.

Grant Martin
MAJ, US Army

The views expressed above are the author's own and do not constitute a position of NTM-A/CSTC-A, ISAF, the US Army, or DoD.

I admire those like COL Gentile who challenge dogma's and ask their readers/students to actually think about what is "really" happening or has happened. However, while I agree with many comments in this article, I think he tends to throw the baby out with the bathwater with his unbalanced counter view.

While he is correct that good tactics will not save a bad strategy, it is also true that bad tactics can fail a good strategy (assuming we had one). I'm also under the impression the focus of a FM is really at the operational/tactical level. The how to book on how to go about executing the given strategy.

I find it disappointing that senior leadership implied the early failures in Iraq and or troubles in Afghanistan were due to poorly trained Soldiers. The Soldiers will adapt quickly if allowed to do so by their officers, what I saw was a very poorly conceived strategy and then when it turned into a bag of crap it was quickly handed over to the tactical units to deal with. Here you go, you guys figure this out.

On the other hand, where I disagree with COL G is his refusal to recognize that General Petreus was the right man at the right time when he took over in Iraq, and it was his change in strategy (not just tactics) that bought us enough space to exit with our heads at least held level.

COL G in my opinion accurately identifies the myths with the focus on winning hearts, when the effort needs to be on controlling the designated populace, which is exactly what the Brits did in Malaya, while simultaneously aggressively pursuing the criminals. Any attempts that focus solely, or even mostly, on winning hearts is generally a short lived effect in a very localized area, it is not a strategy.

Actually better than the article was Grant's excellent post above. He identifies the real underlying flaw with our "new" approach to war, and it is the prevailing view of political correctness. We focus on the imaginary myth that everyone wants to be like us and ignore the reality immediately in front of our face. There are none so blind as those who refuse to see. I hope Churchill was right and that we'll eventually pursue the correct course of action after we exhausted all the wrong ones.

Bob's World

Wed, 12/15/2010 - 8:38am

Good comments by both Grant and Bill; a lot of good in the article as well. Good tactics can indeed temporarily overcome poor policy and bad strategy; but those results typically prove to be fleeting.

As Bill points out, the Brits employed some good tactics on the Malayan Peninsula. (Arguably the easiest terrain feature to conduct COIN on, so long as one does not allow a sovereign border on one end to become a barrier to the COIN force that provides legal sanctuary to the insurgent). Separate and Pursue were critical supporting tactics that put the current crop of insurgents on the ropes; but it was the political changes of Great Britain relinquishing control of the government; granting full political participation to the Malayans of Chinese descent (the popular base of the insurgency) that allowed those tactics to "stick" and produce long-term results. One without the other is folly.

We tend to see what we want to see. The tactics proposed by Galula are sound as well. The French lost Algeria and Indochina because they were not willing to relinquish political/economic control of those nations.

There is a lesson for the US in this. While US control measures are less overt, we tend to see them as benign and nothing like the outrages of colonialism. If it were our opinion that mattered, if it were our perception that counted, then Europe would still have colonial control over half the globe, and the US would not be in a war on terrorism.

It is the perception and opinion of the populace that counts, that matters. Merely telling someone you are not standing on their neck is not enough, telling people that a boot on their neck is good for them is not enough, putting someone else in power to put their boot on the neck for you is not enough. Giving someone vast development projects is not enough. One must actually remove the boot. It's a matter of respect.

"Effective governance" is nice, but expensive and does not guard against insurgency. "Respective governance" is essential, and it does not have to be all that effective to work.



slapout9 (not verified)

Wed, 12/15/2010 - 9:50am

It is the perception and opinion of the populace that counts, that matters. Merely telling someone you are not standing on their neck is not enough, telling people that a boot on their neck is good for them is not enough, putting someone else in power to put their boot on the neck for you is not enough. Giving someone vast development projects is not enough. One must actually remove the boot. It's a matter of respect.

"Effective governance" is nice, but expensive and does not guard against insurgency. "Respective governance" is essential, and it does not have to be all that effective to work.



Some Strategic stuff there Bob. But Colonel Gentile's article/interview brings out the most important point IMO and that is this idea that there is only one way to do COIN is/has gotten us into a lot of trouble. Higher HQ really needs to listen to that point.

Bob's World

Wed, 12/15/2010 - 10:31am


Thanks, and agree with COL G's point. There are indeed many ways up the mountain.

I just point out that there are some constants in mountain climbing that it is worthwhile taking note of and respecting. Gravity is a constant. One must ultimately go up to get to the top. Unpredictable factors, like weather, get a vote and can defeat the best of efforts. The closer one gets to the top, the going may get harder, but one's vision of the bigger picture improves and the mountain looks far different from the top looking down, than from the bottom looking up.

It's not just ok to recognize constants, it is essential; and in COIN as in mountain climbing one of the constants is the variables, and that the mountain/populace always gets a vote.

Bob and Slap, I find myself in the odd position of agreeing with both of your well thought out comments and insights above. I don't know if it due to the holiday season or we have finally found common ground to build upon?

I want to believe that I have finally swayed you to come sit by my campfire, but I know better. :-)


gian p gentile (not verified)

Wed, 12/15/2010 - 7:25pm

Very helpful comments, all fair points and I pay attention to them.

Comments of my own on a few of them follow.

Bill M: I didnt mean to imply that we should throw the coin baby out with the bathwater. In fact buried in the interview somewhere is a point that i make that yes the Army must be able to plan and execute a pop centric coin campaign. Although over the past few years my strident critiques of Coin i think have caused many folks to reasonably conclude that i do want to ditch it all, but which again i do not.

Grant; I dont know man, your observations of course are very important and must be paid attention to because you are on the ground, but others recently observed operations in Aghanistan like Exum and Mansoor and at least Exum noted that pretty much the American Army is doing a good job at pop centric coin. Just because we are not perfect at it, does not necessarily mean that we dont get it.

Bob: You may be right about the fundamental nature of insurgencies, although I do think in some cases they are more than just a competition over a "respective government." Sometimes insurgencies have erupted simply to punish a foreign occupying power, with no real hope to take over the government. But OK, I am happy to take your excellent formulations of the nature of insurgencies. My point though, that i think in terms of strategy you might agree, is that just because the nature of insurgencies is over respective government does not mean that our strategy should adopt and operationally symmetrical approach to be the one to build the respective government, or help the host government to do so. Sometimes, strategy might just demand that instead of a battle over respective government our approach might be nothing at all, or perhaps a sustained campaign of attrition to punish with the aim to simply keep the ruckus sustained within a certain area.



slapout9 (not verified)

Wed, 12/15/2010 - 8:52pm

I want to believe that I have finally swayed you to come sit by my campfire, but I know better. :-)
by BillM

Sounds good I'll bring some Hell's Angels Guys they have some interesting theories on how to defeat insurgencies, but they are not really into the Good Government thing.LOL

Grant Martin (not verified)

Thu, 12/16/2010 - 3:10pm


I tried to caveat my observations with "I've yet to see"- implying my limited observations. From what I understand, there are SOF units and some conventional units doing what our COIN doctrine espouses, although I think we are having a problem going from clearing to anything longer-term. I put that down to your conclusions that holding and building in all instances doesn't come from winning hearts and minds a la 3-24. I personally don't believe much of the populace cares for what we or GIRoA has to offer- but that is an assumption I have yet to see questioned among our planners.

What I meant to imply was not that we weren't doing COIN correctly, but that we weren't following it at all. So, for instance, we preach things like population-centricity, living among the people, pursuing the enemy, fostering lasting solutions, building relationships, being a good guest, interacting face-to-face, partnering, empowering subordinates, exercising initiative, etc.- but then we restrict our units through FORCEPRO requirements and restrictive policies so that they cannot do any of those things.

I don't pretend to know the why behind this, nor if it is wrong to do so. If by limiting our subordinate's freedom of maneuver we are attempting to really only pursue the limited, pragmatic objectives you mention, then maybe our talk is just that and our actions- most of them- do actually support something closer along the lines of what you advocate- albeit in a not-so-publicized manner (maybe for internal and external political reasons we have to do this?).

The only other alternative that I can think of is that we are risk-averse and focused on our personnel system's one-year evaluation environment and subsequent career pressures. Hopefully, for our institution's sake, this is not the case.

- Grant

Grant Martin
MAJ, US Army

The above comments are the author's own opinions and do not constitute the position of NTM-A/CSTC-A, ISAF, the US Army, or DoD.

I am not sure that "strategy" is possible in the complexity of human social systems, at least in the way the military has espoused "strategy" as essentially a large-scale version of rational decision making.

WE are the ones who scientifically categorize war, operations, and tactics. We see situations as "ill-structured" when these categorizations do not seem to be working. It is too convenient to criticize activities that aren't working to be void of "strategy" (which is, in my view, more of a Shaman rain dance).

I believe we have made a cultural mythology of "strategy" usually vested in our skewed interpretations of history (the old "hindsight is 20-20" issue). I think strategy began as a physical matter -- where the general stood on higher ground to better see and affect the way the battle goes. Tactics were literally his orders, not some lower form of activity that feed his larger scale strategy. As political-military hierarchies grew, we had to find some way to rationalize this process -- of breaking the situation down into manageable parts, issuing orders at each level that are derivatives of higher orders.

We took that physical meaning and have embellished it into what has become a dead metaphor. Now such "generalship" is mostly invested (from what is taught at our war colleges) in rational, hierarchical decision processes that give the appearance of understanding causality (as would our engineering sciences).

Based on the premise that "strategy" is no more than a dead metaphor, I would further argue that Colonel Gentile's comments are philosophically empty (representing a monistic paradigm that is not much help when it comes to acting in complex situations, but serves as a convenient criticism rather than a sound argument). We will search endlessly for that "strategy" or "strategist" when we may be ignoring the truth that our view of what strategy is is the problem.

"Strategy" has evolved into a catch phrase -- a culturally invented linguistic container in which we place blame for things that are not working the way we'd like them.

gian p gentile (not verified)

Thu, 12/16/2010 - 5:12pm


It is simple man, we dont need clever post modernist thinking drawing on post structural linguistic criticism, or deconstuction (ala Derrida and Foucault) to understand what strategy is and how understanding it is absolutely essential. Shoot Chris, reading your post reminds me of some of the "walking through walls" stuff of Shimon Naveigh and the tragic effect that it had on the IDF especially the Israeli Army in 2006.

A "monistic paradigm", what in the hey does that mean? No I think I get what you are saying, that by me using terms like strategy i am not in the gets it club of complex post modern thinking on war, right?

Let me try it one more time and again it is really simple. Strategy is the level of war that if done correctly should align means (military, national resources, etc) with achieving policy ends in the most cost efficient and expedient way. How is that monastic? How is that somehow not appropriate for warfare for today and in the future.

My suggestion to you is to not over think the problem.

I do find one point of possible agreement with your post above, although I would alter it a bit. You say we have created a "cultural mythology" of strategy. Well no not really, but in the American Army we have created a matrix hardened by concrete of tactics and operations that precludes us from doing effective strategy. This problem emerges out of the Vietnam War and the American Armys desire to isolate itself into a comfort zone of the operations of airland battle. Unfortunately the Coin of today is the same kind of constraining comfort zone that airland battle was to the army of the 80s.

Lastly, and maybe Wilf can jump in here, I dont agree with what I think your implicit argument is over complexity that in the past warfare was not as complex as it is today. So Ok, right, the Horseshoe at Cold Harbor was a relatively non complex problem for Emory Upton to solve, or the Somme and 7000 British soldiers killed in the first hour on 1 July 1918, that was not complex, right?



Thu, 12/16/2010 - 6:36pm

I agree with you about the canard of counterinsurgency as the "graduate school of warfare," Gian.

But at the same time, one might say something about the strategic difference between the First Day of the Somme or Cold Harbor and pop-centric COIN: The indirect approach, with its obligatory nod to the good captain who survived the trenches of WWI and took from the slaughter that particular insight.

The thing about America's current notion of COIN as a population-centric event, best sussed out through Hearts & Minds, is that it depends indirectly on other actors for "success" (however defined).

Most typically, the COINdinistas trot out the "population" or the "host nation government," and I don't think it's wrong to assume that if not more complex it certainly is more nettlesome to put one's strategic eggs into the Karzai kleptocracy's basket.

There are all sorts of reasons for this, but one might suggest the highly profitable continuation of the war becomes its own end for the HN oligarchy, just as using the US forces as a crutch becomes its own debilitating condition for them and us.

Perhaps our problems with properly executing an indirect approach to "victory" (however defined) have their roots not in complexity but rather in our military (and broader) culture. But it also likely has to do with the strategic paradoxes of a war and a pursuit of "victory" that are in tension with each other, problems that include, but aren't limited to:

1. Defeating the Taliban requires that the HN "out govern" them. Our proxies, the Karzai government in Kabul, however, prove inherently destabilizing. The spread of that government is what helps to drive the rebellion against it. So we try to push the government into the Afghan provinces fighting to avoid it, and they fight because we push the government;

2. The Taliban rally supporters by decrying a foreign occupation. In order to defeat them, we "surge" more foreign occupiers, which proves their point;

3. We must win hearts & minds through control (stick) and suasion (carrot). The carrot, however, is self-defeating. The more money we sluice to the "people" to buy support for the Kabul government, the wealthier they become and the more they send to the enemies. The more projects we begin, the more they are pickpocketed by the Taliban. The more supplies we send to support our troops and the growing (albeit often AWOL or unreliable) Afghan security forces, the more tolls are paid to the trolls (Taliban, Pakistani enablers) and the stronger the enemies become.

4. We posit a pop-centric effort as the best means to "win" in Afghanistan. But the COG really is in Pakistan, where ISI plays a cynical game of hunting with both the fox and the hound. And the various Taliban directed westward have a great deal of Pakistani Pathan support, which we can't apply much stick or carrot to retard for all the obvious reasons.

It's often suggested that you offer criticism but no solution. While I disagree with that tepid point, it should be asked how you would re-orient US strategy to achieve our foreign policy goals.

How would you navigate the shoals my strategic lighthouse has illuminated without making the situation for the region and ourselves worse?

Bob's World

Thu, 12/16/2010 - 6:37pm


I know you are not suggesting that the degree of violence equates to the degree of complexity of an operation. After all, killing and dying are easy, and as well executed by the stupid and the lucky as by the brilliant and prepared.

But nothing makes headlines and history books like a good box score.

This is where Sun Tzu had it all over Clausewitz. CvC wrote of warfare, TZ valued victory without warfare as the pinacle of the art.

Not that any of that applies to COIN. COIN is simply governance, and Insurgency illegal politics creating a civil emergency that, at times, can resemble war in its violence, but is very different in its nature.




Thu, 12/16/2010 - 7:02pm

I am like you -- not a fan of those who think things are more complex today. I speculate here, but think that is a result of our modern communications -- we can appreciate the complexity quicker and with more information things become more ambiguous.

I also believe we have created a rationality -- the levels of war for example. We believe in the inalienable correctness of policy; otherwise, what good is strategy without the right policy? Policy is ephemeral and largely a "sausage-making" process of political haggling. If it is wrong, doesn't that make strategy wrong?

gian p gentile (not verified)

Thu, 12/16/2010 - 8:04pm


I think you are right about the "rationality" of structuring war into levels of tactics, operations, and strategy which can become rigid and harmful in a hierarchy like the American military. To be sure the development of strategy is never simple, lock step affair and is often messy, confusing, and iterative. But in so warning of the perils of structure, my read of your post was that in so pointing out these perils you were arguing to throw strategy itself out with the bathwater. But if we do, then what are we left with, the hope that complexity and networking will solve our strategic problems for us? Still I appreciate your candid and thought provoking criticism.

Bob: You are right, i didnt mean to suggest that although i can see how my post at the end might have led one to see it that way. To be sure in history one can find small wars that were arguably more complex and difficult than conventional wars, and vice versa. It is just the idea of warfare today as being a priori more complex and complicated because it involves populations, insurgents, the internet, etc to be reductionist and even arrogant.

Carl (is the "P" for Prine?) Well, I just again dont buy the notion that pop centric campaigns are even, a priori, more "nettlesome" to use your word. I think it just depends on the war and its characteristics. For example as hard, complex, and nettlesome a year for an combat battalion commander might have been in Baghdad in 2006 or 2007 I just dont think when you roll it all up it was as hard, nettlesome, or complex as a year starting in June 19444 for a rifle battalion commander in the 4ID who landed, then fought through the hedgerows, then ended up in the Huertgen. Now having said that, one could come up with a reversal of this example and it could make sense too.

So for the alternative in Afghanistan in my view it is the Biden plan, or a lighter footprint using the Counter terror approach. I agree with you that the center of gravity for the Taliban insurgency is in Pakistan, an external sanctuary which we cannot get at effectively nor can we expect the Pakistanis to get at it. But the theory of pop centric coin says well no matter, yeah it is there, but if we win over the afghan population then at some point the sanctuary wont matter because the local population will be on the governments side and no longer support the insurgents. This is a pipe dream or better yet a fools errand and there is no support in history to show that it can work, nor in contemporary practice. So strategy then demands an alternative. My suggestion of the CT alternative though accepts that there will be substantial control of the Talib over parts of Afghanistan (but that is so now anyway), but it is also premised on the idea that the Afghan government will still receive US resources and support, but not through a nation building campaign by the American military. This alternative is also premised on the notion of attrition over time of AQI in Afghanistan and any Talibs that chose to ally with it once we drawdown. I keep going back to what the Presidents core political objective is for the place which is to "disrupt, disable, and eventually defeat AQI to prevent it from using Afghanistan and Pakistan as a base to attack the US." There is no mention in that core political objective of either the Taliban or Nation building in Afghanistan. So it seems to me that a functioning and sensible strategy would apply the most efficient and minimum use of military force and other resources to achieve that rather limited (and correct in my view) core political objective. It can be done I think but it wont happen because the American Army and its generals have adopted nation building coin as its operational framework for Afghanistan and like the generals in World War I there is no other way to proceed other than chunking more Divisions directly into the breach.


Col. Gentile

There is far too much post-modern nonsense being used to explain and analyse Iraq and Afghanistan.

I also support your comments:

It is as if Galulas text offers the secret to success of counterinsurgency if only its practitioners would "get it". Again, remember, that the French ultimately lost in Algeria regardless of the better tactics of counterinsurgency practiced by David Galula.

The idea that hearts and minds have been won by foreign occupying powers in modern counterinsurgency war is just simply hokum.

Ralph Peters hit the nail on the head in his 2006 New York Post article when he observed it is hard enough to bear the timidity of our civilian leaders - anxious to start wars but without the guts to finish them - but now military leaders have fallen prey to political correctness. Unwilling to accept that war is, by its nature, a savage act and that defeat is immoral, influential officers are arguing for a kinder, gentler approach to our enemies. Much of this is not due to the military commanders but an omnipresent media and well meaning civilian advisors with a Western democratic mind-set.

Historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., astutely pointed out in his 1977 biography of Robert Kennedy, the notion that reforms can be carried out in a wartime situation by a beleaguered regime is ―the fatal fallacy in the liberal theory of counterinsurgency, with the United States so often obliged to work through repressive local leadership, the reform component dwindled into ineffectual exhortation.

As a civilian I want my Armed forces and our most important ally, the US, to first and foremost be trained to fight first to win and to respond and defend against any external force.

If that force is threatening our freedoms from afar then I want my armed forces to take the required action to neutralise this threat - first and foremost. As a taxpayer Im not interested in my armed forces then staying to rebuild every nation from which that threat was planned. As with any corporate strategy - it needs to be focused on clear objectives.

One of the reasons I admire you constructive challenge to COIN is that those at your level of influence are in the position to ensure we do not fall into the trap where after Iraq and Afghanistan we think there is some off-the-shelf model of COIN that can be dusted off for the next fight.

Galula points out that French military history contains excellent examples where the construction of doctrine has been so rigidly retained as articles of faith. In 1940 they duplicated a recipe proved during World War I and fought a 1918-type of war against the German panzer divisions. The result in both cases was disastrous.

p.s. I am not expressing the views of a postmodernist as presumed. I think postpositivist is a better characterization.

My point on strategy comes from the science of cognitive linguistics, neither Foucault nor Habermas.

I like Galula's book better than 3-24 and I use it in my lessons. I think he is a pragmatist and he learned through immersion.

I subscribe to Simons' idea of the "Lawrence Paradox" (see where we cannot reduce our experience to principles. Every situation is unique (why Lansdale was successful in the Philippines in the early 50s and when he tried the same ideas a year or two later in S Vietnam, he failed.

I believe our best hope is to immerse key people for long periods of time and adapt as we go (similar to John Paul Vann). I like design philosophy but do not subscribe to the Army's or JFCOM's (Joint Warfighting Center) versions -- they misinterpret design literature, are overly prescriptive, and treat design as another instrumental-like (tool kit) methodology.

gian p gentile (not verified)

Fri, 12/17/2010 - 10:00am


Fair enough, but I have to tell you after two years of on station graduate study in the early 90s when the linguistic turn was all the rage, you certainly use the language of it.

Agree though with your point about principles, which is EXACTLY the problem with Coin today in the us army.

Sometimes though design can go too far as it did with Naveh and the IDF. If we are not careful we will design ourselves into doing nothing beyond the hope that a bunch of networked small units will self actualize themselves into effective action. Unfortunately the real world does not operate that way and even the best army's with the most small unit and individual initiative require a certain degree of centralization.

Lastly, I would caution your use of Vann as the exemplar of "immersion." It is possible with Vann that he became too immersed in the place and couldnt see beyond the tactics of his way to the realization that strategy and policy in Vietnam were the root causes of American failure.


The Pap

Fri, 12/17/2010 - 12:36pm

I think "design science" (with a focus more on artistry) is a more useful and more open philosophy than rational decision processes (which dominate DOD schools & colleges when it comes to tactics, campaigns and strategies). The underlying rational decision model (RDM) underpins ALL of our thinking (at least insitutionally). The rational model is what I was referring to as a monistic paradigm (that excludes other ontological views and associated knowledge structures).

One of the related key assumptions in our system of military training and education is that knowledge is progressive (like the hard sciences, we get better and better at understanding what we have to do). I think this assumption is flawed and this has served to create a crisis in the profession of arms.

An alternative philosophy, suggested by Donald Schön in his books, The Reflective Practitioner and Educating the Reflective Practitioner, is to reorient professional practitioners on artistry (associated with reflection-in and on- action) and less on technical rationality (associated with RDM, expertise and skill). Studying past wars are not so much about discovering a science of warfare, but more so to conclude that such a science is implausible.

Once we accept that conclusion, our view of military professionalism should shift from technical rationality (oriented on RDM, expertise and skill) and more to reflective practice (oriented on uniqueness of each situation, the importance of immersion into it, and the ability to question one's own and the institution's assumptions/reframing).

Design is an attitude, not a methodology. You seem oriented on criticizing design as a method and rationalistic way of finding causality (using the monistic paradigm to evaluate another). I would not equate 40 years of design science culminating in the IDFs seem to indicate the IDF should have used RDM/progressive assumptions about knowledge and they would have been better served.

Have written too much here, my apologies. My bottom line is RDM and progressivism have failed us when face with wicked situations. These may serve us well in moderately complex operations (like force-on-force, "Desert Storm"- type activities), but are inadequate for complex social milieu.

"Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated." Confucius

MikeF (not verified)

Fri, 12/17/2010 - 1:17pm

Just got done watching the documentary "180 Degrees South: Conquerors of the Useless." Thought this quote might be helpful for this thread.

"The hardest thing in the world is to simplify your life. Its so easy to make it complex. The solution to a lot of the worlds problems might be to turn around and take a forward step. You cant just keep trying to make a flawed system work."

-Yvon Chouinard, Founder of Patagonia Clothing Company


Sat, 12/18/2010 - 3:31am


I totally agree with you that ISAF forces, especially in Kabul (where I posit the real COG exists, not with the population) pay lip-service to COMISAF's new COIN guidance. On paper it makes sense; in practice, you're given an LOR or UCMJ investigation if you try and follow it. Literally.

I'd just like to clarify what you brought up in your second post about following up the 'clearing' stage of the campaign plan. This is precisely why we lost Marjah, why we're losing Op Hamkari, and why we're losing the east and the north - we can't be responsible to hold and build but nobody seems to have told GIRoA. Governance and Development are host-nation responsibilities and our host has shown sorely lacking capability to fill critical civil servant positions in southern districts, have all but given up on other districts that might not be KTDs, and don't even get me started on the anti-corruption efforts. Corruption, sanctioned organized crime, and GIRoA malfeasance regarding rule of law and the economy will cause us to lose this war. Holding and Building get lip service (much like COMISAF's COIN guidance) from ISAF and IJC planners because we still don't understand how diametrically opposed GIRoA priorities are to our own.

GIRoA embed
Kabul, AFG

The views expressed above are the author's own and do not constitute a position of ISAF, the US Army, or DoD.

Grant Martin (not verified)

Sat, 12/18/2010 - 7:54am


Although that is true for Kabul-assigned forces, I have also, sadly, seen it hold true for units outside of Kabul, as witnessed first hand in RC-E and S and heard about in other regions.

One of our NATO brethren here (from a European country) opined that he thought one of the main reasons for being in Afghanistan was to prove the feasibility/worth of NATO- and many in Europe look at Afghanistan in that light. He stated he thought that was sad, since that has caused us to be risk-averse towards COIN tactics, favoring instead the political objectives of building NATO involvement and cooperation and a long-term, sustainable training mission. If that is an unstated main effort, then that could explain many of the apparent conflicting guidance we see out of the HQs (although I think it is still misguided and self-defeating).

As for GIRoA, I agree with your final statement. I have always thought it was an area unaddressed in our COIN doctrine: what happens when you are trying to conduct COIN, but the host government doesn't agree with your priorities and really doesn't want to conduct too much COIN? I would argue that at the strategic and operational level COIN in that environment is very different than what is described in 3-24, and efforts that ignore that run the risk of backfiring and contributing to instability.

Grant Martin
MAJ, US Army

The views above are the author's own and do not reflect the position of NTM-A/CSTC-A, ISAF, the US Army, or DoD.


Sat, 12/18/2010 - 8:54am


Agree wholeheartedly. Two things I'd clarify though:

1. "<i> one of the main reasons for [NATO] being in Afghanistan was to prove the feasibility/worth of NATO- and many in Europe look at Afghanistan in that light.</i>"

This is, beyond a doubt, the <i>only</i> reason NATO is here shohna-ba-shohna with the US. The sad fact of the matter is we strongarmed them into it, it's not in their national interests, and NATO is a dinosaur in need of major refocus in the least or disbandment at the most. It's a Cold War fossil in search of relevance in the 21st century.

2. <i>"I would argue that at the strategic and operational level COIN in that environment is very different than what is described in 3-24...</i>

At least in this version of nation-building, there is no such thing as "strategic" COIN. It's a tactic misapplied to handle the President's stated policy. The problem is there's no commensurate COA at the strategic level to fill the void. Just like terrorism itself is a tactic that we decided to wage war on, so is COIN a tactic we use to deal with the true strategic threat (not terrorism, by the way). And this tactic isn't going to win us any wars with no strategy to match.

The views above are the author's own and do not reflect the position of ISAF, the US Army, or DoD.

The Pap

Sat, 12/18/2010 - 11:50am

Perhaps "strategic" FID/COIN/FSA is vested in a kind of inverted campaign, where small changes in local areas may (unpredictably) create an amplified effect. This would perhaps cause us to reflect on strategy as strictly a top-down process (good for Desert Storm events) rather than a bottom-up (better for wicked wars, like Vietnam),

As Grant commented in his complexity article a few weeks ago, the problem is we have no way to model complexity and chaos to present a planning sort of argument.

As complexity science and chaos theory suggest, we have to be patient and act in order to adapt effectively (which requires learning and unlearning -- a more radical [ephemeral] view of knowledge construction).

Also requires a huge amount of patience on the part of friendly parties -- the amplified effects may not become apparent for a generation.

BTW, I think your comments on motivations for NATO are hugely insightful and I appreciate the discussion!! Fantastic.


Sat, 12/18/2010 - 12:57pm

I think the only thing that is "vested" by FID or COIN is the willing host nation we would support. But since that's lacking in many areas with GIRoA, can we execute a political and governance campaign to any effect? If and when GIRoA fails due to a plethora of non-military issues, the best tactical COIN force in the world won't matter one bit.

None of our tactical prowess on the battlefield matters. What does matter is the popular view of the illegitimacy of any strong central government, the ANA/ANP drug addiction rate, the rate at which GIRoA cannot bring governance to District-and-below levels, incapacity to deliver rule of law, massive corruption in mid- to high-level government, and an APRP process that is wildly contentious among the host populace. Again, our military doesn't matter one bit in this effort because these, the most debilitating issues in Afghanistan, aren't military issues we're dealing with. It's an internal Afghan political fight with a vicious organized crime element gnawing at the periphery. The US Army isn't going to "win" let alone solve any of it.

The views expressed above are the author's own and do not constitute a position of ISAF, the US Army, or DoD.

Anonymous (not verified)

Sun, 12/19/2010 - 5:30pm

Can anyone remember any intelligence analysis of the current Afghanistan situation that was totally focused in providing answers to Kilcullen's "conflict ecosystem or systems"? Meaning how all conflicting eocsystems actually interact with each other broken down by District, tribe, clan?

And do not feed me the idea that is what Human Terrain Teams are providing as they are not providing anything close to that--do not provide me that is what the SOIC's were created to do as they are not even with massive DIA support.

If we cannot on any single day in Afghanistan understand fully the ecosystem that we face then what we are now seeing should not be surprising anyone.

We could in theory pull all ISAF/NATO combat personnel out and turn the war into a SOF environment but I am not so sure that even SOF could handle it over the long haul as they simply do not have enough personnel to be everywhere--especially with the current Afghan government.

slapout9 (not verified)

Mon, 12/20/2010 - 12:03am


The CIA did a pretty good job on the tribal relationships and how to use when we first went into A'stan. Don't know if that is an ecosystem analysis but it worked.

The Pap

Mon, 12/20/2010 - 10:42am

The "ecosystems" metaphor reminds me of a theory of analogous reasoning that may have led to decisions during the Vietnam conflict (see, for example, Yuen F.Khong, Analogies at War, 1992).

Our dominant metaphors today seem to be drawn from open systems theory (based strongly in the theory of evolution).

How's that working out (sarcasm)?

slapout9 (not verified)

Mon, 12/20/2010 - 11:32am

"How's that working out (sarcasm)?"
by Chris Paparone

I would say it is working out exactly how systems theory says it will work out. The primary purpose of a system is to survive and if you attack it then it is going to attack you back. We attacked A'stan and they will keep attacking us back until we leave or destroy enough of the system until it is no longer capable of attacking back.

slapout9 (not verified)

Mon, 12/20/2010 - 12:19pm

no problem, but yes attrition is the answer but it needed to be in North Vietnam not South. But here is the larger question why would you attack a system that hasn't done anything to you in the first place? Vietnam didn't attack us, A'stan didn't attack us but we attacked them, so you had better be prepared for the system to fight you or don't do it in the first place.

The Pap

Mon, 12/20/2010 - 11:51am

So we attrit the system? Sounds familiar...Westy?

Carpet bombing (rolling thunder)?

Not trying to be a wise guy...just that the arguments bring images to mind. Hence, historic analogy...

Bob's World

Mon, 12/20/2010 - 12:50pm

Define "hasn't done anything to you yet."

It is a well accepted tenet of Deterrence that if one party develops a capacity that so exceeds that of a competitor, that the competitor is likely to launch a pre-emptive strike to destroy that capability before it can destroy him. Risking war in order to restore the balance of power to a degree of equity that either allows deterrence to work once again or survival if it goes to war.

This is a concept that NATO should consider as we press an ever-expanding NATO into Russia's sphere of influence. We may not feel that we are threatening them. Can one write similar guarantees that they will not feel threatened?

President Bush made a comment recently on how the US was attacked on 9/11 when we "had never done anything to anyone." (Or words to that effect). It is the perception of the aggrieved or threatened party that matters, not that of the one being attacked.

slapout9 (not verified)

Mon, 12/20/2010 - 1:27pm

Bob, I disagree. What you described is a failure of deterrence not deterrence. Deterrence is based on the idea that if you do something bad to me I will do something WORSE to you, in other words the attack will never happen. If you preemptively strike someone you are creating a self fulfilling prophecy.

That is the problem with the modern world our concepts of deterrence no longer work and it is our refusal to develop or change to different concepts that is getting us into trouble. And those concepts are primarily in the realm of systems thinking.

Anonymous (not verified)

Mon, 12/20/2010 - 6:53pm

To the commenters on this topic;

I have often talked about the evolutionary development of Salafi insurgencies and pointed to John Robb's "open source warfare" as an explanation of the evoluntionary speed in their development and then I coupled it to using Kilcullens' "conflcit ecosystem" as the analysis tool.

I also would often write about a complexity science (quantum physics) research project that was relased about a year ago by the research team around Sean Gourley which if one read thoroughly with their 15 characteristics that they had discovered one would in fact assume that they had indirectly validated "open source warfare".

Needless to say the SWJ comments were never that positive--now becomes the interesting aspect.

A formal White Paper was submitted to both JIEDDO and DARPA integrating the quantum research with the "eoclogy of an insurgency" in response to several announced BBAs with absolutely no response---now much to my surprise the following article will in fact show a far deeper interest in the research and talk of the acceptance of power laws which had been discovered in 15 different insurgencies by the Gourley research.

If the article is half way accurate then in fact at least JIEDDO and the University of Maryland now have to honestly admit that the Robb theory of "open source warfare" is both valid and the curve has been truly missed since Robb briefed DoD on the theory between 2004-2006.

NOW can we get a formal discussion going on this topic as it is the third COIN way forward that I have also written about and it would go a long way towards understanding the staying power of AQI and the Taliban.…

Anonymous (not verified)

Mon, 12/20/2010 - 7:04pm

To continue;

If JIEDDO/MITRE/University of Maryland are accepting the results of two completely unattached complexity science research projects which in fact validated "open source warfare" and if your enemies in this case AQ in their slick new e-magazine are NOW actually using the exact same terms of "open source jihad and system disruption" defined in the same way Robb does. Does that not indicate that SWJ and the discussion groups are going in the wrong direction?

The best validation of a theory is when your enemies start using the same theory-what a powerful statement.

Anonymous (not verified)

Mon, 12/20/2010 - 7:35pm

A short quote taken from the above referenced link.

Like small companies, Clauset says, terrorist groups are made up of highly motivated people looking to make a product -- terror attacks. "Both of these face the problem that they need to grow, or theyre going to die," he says. With small groups, if a key member leaves, its a major blow; with a larger work force, one persons departure doesnt matter as much.

Thats why the U.S. decapitation strategy has failed to subdue insurgent groups, he believes. "Someone was joking a few years back about how weve killed the No. 3 al-Qaeda guy in Iraq 20 times," he says. "They keep replacing him with somebody else. We need to understand the phenomenon, not the network. The network is the manifestation of the phenomenon."

slapout9 (not verified)

Mon, 12/20/2010 - 8:04pm


I will be happy to discuss it with you, but it is not new, watch this 8 part series below. You will here them talk about Chaos,Anarchy,Panic,Racial and religious exploitation and toward the end is an excellent section on System Disruption. I saw this at DOD Contractor sponsored hunting club in the late 1960's. I agree with you that nobody wants to talk about it and Johnn Robb does a great job of how it works but it is NOT new. Some of the technologies are new and the tactics have advanced but the general theory of Revolutionary?Guerrilla war and it's various forms are not new. And as the Title suggest It is "More Deadly Than War"

Adult Warning Label:This is not for faint of heart.

Anonymous (not verified)

Mon, 12/20/2010 - 10:24pm


Formerly the older style guerrilla movements were local in nature and would appeal for global support from one of the superpowers ie Soviets or US---what we see now is an ever increasing guerrilla movement ie Salafist going "global" in order to impact the local fight.

This was from John's blog today tha depicts that shift and that is what is new.

•The attached graphic is a nice depiction of how the price of oil was impacted by minor shortfalls in oil production. NOTE: The shortfall in production caused by MEND in Nigeria and uncertainty in Iraqi production caused by its global guerrillas, drove the timing of the price spike. It's a good demonstration that open source warfare + systems disruption works.

slapout9 (not verified)

Mon, 12/20/2010 - 11:01pm

Anonymous. I read Johnn Robb most everyday and yes it is a private movement going global but the Communist movement did and to a certain extent is still doing it.

Anonymous (not verified)

Tue, 12/21/2010 - 5:25am


Actually when compared to the few remaining communist movements ie Mexico that are still fighting none carry the integration, focus, organizational skill sets, global recruitment, financial flows, and TTPs as does the global Salafi movement.

There is simply no comparison--that is why it is a third way forward.

slapout9 (not verified)

Tue, 12/21/2010 - 9:35am

I understand what you are saying. An Air Force guy once told me all we have is a beachhead in the middle of 1 billion undefeated Muslims. We have a cause we are willing to fight for, they have a cause they are willing to die for! That is a very powerful Motive compared to ours.