Small Wars Journal

Afghanistan -- The Sun is Rising

Wed, 06/15/2011 - 9:32am
Afghanistan -- The Sun is Rising

by Brian McLaughlin

In January 2002, as a ground operations officer for resupply airdrops to special operations forces in Afghanistan, I described the toppling of the Taliban as an "unqualified success." Now, as a media production advisor in General Petraeus' Counterinsurgency Advisory and Assistance Team, nine years after I thought we had won this war, I can again contribute to winning in Afghanistan.

From reports and my occasional excursions in the field, I have the strong belief that the counterinsurgency campaign is working, the Taliban and related groups are losing ground, and the population is swinging their support to the government. The prospects of economic development, normalcy, and peace are more appealing to people than just surviving under the Taliban's iron rule.

Many disagree with me, especially with the Taliban's spring offensive well under way. The acting chief of police in Kandahar characterized recent attacks in his city this way, "The past 17 days were the worst in 30 years of my police service." The war continues and the insurgency still has sharp, snapping teeth, with overall attacks up 300% since 2007. Recognizing that, let's examine some of the progress in the country, much of which I plan to capture in an upcoming documentary.

Kabul is vibrant with construction and business activity, indicating hopefulness. I have met many young Afghans who have started businesses and several Afghan-Americans and other expatriates who have come to participate in the growing economy. Even the film industry is sprouting. I have visited ten film companies in Kabul alone -- their skills ranging from rudimentary to world class -- though few are profitable.

I have repeatedly witnessed that Afghans are rebuilding their country and lives, with or without outside assistance. Many of my grand ideas for media initiatives are already being put in place by Afghans. I considered a film training conference. When visiting a nationwide Afghan television station, Channel 7, I was told, "You should have been here yesterday -- we had a conference for filmmakers." Many of the themes I intend to communicate in videos -- national pride, damage by the insurgency, shifting gender roles -- are being addressed more effectively by Afghan films and television.

Filming of agricultural projects in the comparatively hostile province of Paktika gave me much optimism. Canals and flood barriers had been built by the residents -- over half a mile of canals in one community. In another village, in exchange for 100 meters of canal funded by the U.S., the village was required to provide 30 meters -- instead they built 400! Where these projects have been implemented, we have seen clear shifts from locals favoring the insurgents to actively helping Afghan and coalition forces. Equally importantly, the villagers learn to make things better on their own. It is inspiring to see such success. Admittedly, the results in Paktika are not yet being replicated in other provinces.

A March 2011 poll shows that 3/4 of Afghans feel it would be bad for the country if the Taliban returned to power, up from 2/3 just six months earlier. Almost two-thirds of Afghans view the Taliban as the biggest danger in the country. Meanwhile, Afghan governmental institutions have improved dramatically, despite their significant flaws, and are spreading throughout the country at a rapid rate.

With no Army brigades currently rated as independently operationally effective, there is much improvement needed. At the same time, the number, capabilities, and dedication of the Afghan National Security Forces have improved at a pace considered nearly impossible just a short time ago. While the numbers are impressive (36,000 new recruits in six months), my direct observations are equally telling. I had the pleasure of filming a "shura" (an organized consultation group) of junior officers and senior non-commissioned officers of the Afghan 205th Corps in Kandahar. The passion and pride of these lower-level leaders and their devotion to their profession rivaled that of any nation's military. They spoke repeatedly about wanting to be viewed as the defenders of their country, rather than the coalition forces, and being permitted to assume that role.

Yes, insurgent attacks are at a historical high. Yet, in the first three months of this year, 3,000 insurgents were killed or captured. Another 700 have reintegrated into society and 2,000 were in the process of doing so (only a handful of whom return to the insurgency). In the last ten months, 900 insurgent leaders were killed or captured. In total, that amounts to about a quarter of the insurgency eliminated in recent months. And, this was all before bin Laden was killed, decapitating the movement and depriving it of a large source of funds.

Although still below the horizon, the sun is rising over Afghanistan. After 30 years of war or oppression (about two-thirds of the life expectancy in the country -- 44 years), Afghans are remembering how to look to the future. Or, as a USDA agricultural representative put it, they have reinvigorated their initiative.

Since December 2010, Brian McLaughlin has been the Media Production Advisor of the Counterinsurgency Advisory and Assistance Team at Headquarters, International Security Assistance Force -- Afghanistan. He is a film producer and president of Emerald Elephant Entertainment with over ten years of film experience and over 25 years of international experience. He is a member of the Producers Guild of America and will be a visiting professor in the film department of the University of Notre Dame starting in August 2011. His films have won several awards, including two Accolade Awards of Excellence. He spent 20 years in the U.S. Army and Army Reserve as an Infantry officer, most of that time as an augmentee to Special Operations Command Europe, with call-ups for Bosnia and Operation Enduring Freedom. Other assignments include Airborne Pathfinder Commander and General's Aide-de-Camp. He has a bachelor degree in Business Administration from Notre Dame and an MBA from Boston University. Brian was recognized by Notre Dame as an Exemplary Asian Pacific Alumnus and has been a three-time president of the Independent Film Association of Southern Arizona. He has a son, Collin.


3rd para., Kandahar acting chief of police quote: BBC News,, 9 May 2011

3rd para., insurgent attacks: U.S. Department of Defense, "Report on Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan and the United States Plan for Sustaining the Afghanistan National Security Forces," April 2011, various on-line citations, including, p. 44

4th para., examples of Kabul film and television companies:

Moby Group, GroupOne, Maverick International, AwaNama, Aina Media & Culture Center, Apple Media Production, Basa, Nawai Sahar Films, Star Group, Tik Tak Consulting Services, Development Pictures

4th para., media profitability: Altai Consulting, "Afghan Media in 2010," 13 October 2010

5th para., filmmaker conference: 16 January 2011

5th para., music videos showing pride in country:

Shafiq Mureed, "Beautiful Afghanistan,"

Farhad Darya, "Atan,"

5th para., films showing damage by the Taliban:

"Zolykha's Secret," dir. Horace Ahmad Shansab, 2007

"Earth and Ashes," dir. Atiq Rahimi, 2004

5th para., films and television promoting shifting gender roles:

"I Am Passing," dir. Shabnam Zaryab, 2010

"Afghan Star" (film), dir. Havana Marking, 2009

"Afghan Girls Can Kick," dir. Bahareh Hosseini, 2008

"25 Percent," dir. Diana Saqeb, 2007

"Afghan Star" (TV show), Tolo TV, 2005 to present

"Osama," dir. Siddiq Barmak, 2003

6th para., canal project:

USDA rep Caroline Clarin,, February 2011, February 2011

7th para., March 2011 poll: U.S. DoD, "Report on Progress"

7th para., Taliban is greatest danger: ABC News, the BBC, ARD German TV, and The Washington Post; "Afghanistan: Where Things Stand," 6 December 2010,, page 11.

7th para., Afghan government spread: U.S. DoD, "Report on Progress"

8th para., ANA operational effectiveness: U.S. DoD, "Report on Progress," p. 31

8th para., ANSF recruits: U.S. DoD, "Report on Progress"

8th para., 205th Corps shura: 1-2 March 2011

9th para., insurgency historical high: U.S. DoD, "Report on Progress," p. 44

9th para., insurgents killed or captured:

9th para., insurgents reintegrated: U.S. DoD, "Report on Progress"

9th para., leaders were killed or captured:


Bob's World

Sun, 06/19/2011 - 7:41am


You say that "The communists used their ideology to deny freedom to millions, and to kill millions who didn't concur with their ideology." Ok, I accept that as a fact. But it is also only half a fact.

By "communists" I assume you mean some mix of Soviets/Chinese promoted UW campaign to leverage nationalist insurgencies in countries where they sought to gain influence in their competition with the West? This is a game we both played, is it not? The US has a history of supporting the populace/insurgent if we don't like the government, or the government if it is one we believe will play ball with us, regardless of how despotic or what form of governance that government might apply.

Or by "communists" do you mean the various nationalist insurgencies that emerged to throw off long-standing oppressive regimes. From the Russian people rising up to throw off the Romanovs, to various Asian efforts to remove colonial powers or residual regimes consisting of those who rose to power in collaboration with their colonial occupiers? Saudi insurgents even attempted a communist ideological approach, but it failed miserably (but not surprisingly) among that populace.

Communism is an effective secular ideology for insurgency, so insurgents use it. It is not an effective ideology for continuing effective/good governance so it always morphs over time to become much more capitalistic in practice. The key point is that it is not the ideology that CAUSES the insurgency, it is merely a very effective tool often selected by insurgents to take on oppressive or illegitimate or discriminatory self-serving regimes. As we do not promote communism it is also typically a competing ideology to whatever we happen to be selling or backing. As we have been allied with colonial powers, or been the colonial power, or have been exercising colonial-like control for economic or containment purposes, we find communism to be a "threat."

Fact is, be it "communism" or "capitalism" or "Islamism" the ideology is not what creates the conditions of insurgency, they are merely choices the insurgent makes for how to best motivate a populace to take action to challenge a government. That challenge may be within the legal system as party politics where such activities are allowed; or as insurgency where such activities are outlawed.

As you indirectly point out though, a tool that is great for promoting change of governance is not also necessarily great for providing good governance after that change has occurred.

For America to move forward with our own security and our own foreign policy we must first shed some excess baggage that is holding us back, and one huge lump of excess baggage is that idea that ideology is the threat itself, rather than merely the tool employed to effect change where a significant and distinct segment of some populace deems change is necessary. Only then can we focus on the problems of governance that need be addressed as the real problem, too often that problem is us or related to us when the opposing ideology is either communism or Islamism. We don't handle that kind of criticism well, as it causes us to have to look hard in the mirror and see things that others see but that we prefer to ignore.

Backwards Observer

Sun, 06/19/2011 - 3:59am

<em>Backwards Observer, I am still trying to decipher your post.</em>

Bill M, the VNQDD engaged in assassination and the murder of civilians. The French colonial administration used subterfuge and brutal repression to administer Indochina. The communists took it to the edge of the Clausewitzian envelope. My impression is that there was plenty of terror for everyone. Your general thrust on the use of the use of terror seems to be that it is confined to the 'other side', i.e. 'the bad guys'. There's nothing wrong with a monochromatic view of history if you feel that it serves your purpose.

I agree with your last paragraph, but don't follow your argument that ideology was never a threat? Ideology is very much a threat to our physical security and way of life. The communists used their ideology to deny freedom to millions, and to kill millions who didn't concur with their ideology. Not sure how that doesn't fall in the threat realm. AQ is using its ideology to justify the killing of thousands, and to promote attacks on the U.S., the West in general, and Arab states that are too secular in their view. Ideology is the motivation and justification for these actions that threaten us. Ideology in itself doesn't threaten us, but those who embrace and use hostile ideologies can and have been real threats.

Please explain how ideology is something we can discard as a threat?

Bob's World

Sat, 06/18/2011 - 8:53pm


Actually containment began as a program to physically contain Soviet expansion, not communism. It was only after nationalist China fell in '49 and Mao made it clear that he did not see the US as an ally and friend that we modified containment to a much more idealistic program of containing an ideologically described threat rather than a physically described one.

This in turn drove us off of the moral high ground of promoting "self-determination" to a lower, more specific position of promoting "democracy." We actually became an opponent of self-determination at that point when we feared the local choice would align a nation with the Russo-Sino pact that threatened to dominate the Eurasian continent.

But ideology was never the threat, not then, not now. It was just the tool. I find this fascinating as I drill deeper into insurgency how it leads me to clearer perspectives on much larger matters. This is a primary reason why I believe we need to retire containment ASAP as a foundation of our foreign policy, as it is too controlling, and the ideological aspect of it never really worked to begin with.

"Ideology cannot be contained, Liberty cannot be denied." RCJ

At some point we have to ask ourselves what kind of nation we want to be. Leading the Cold War served the world well. Continuing Cold War polices 20 years hence only serves ourselves, and not very well at that.



At that time (since 1947) containing communism defined our National Security policy/strategy, so it was very relevant in shaping our response.

Backwards Observer, I am still trying to decipher your post. Regardless it is important to note that Ho embraced and "converted" to communism while in Paris, and he was actually one of the founding members of the French Communist Party who supported him throughout his war with the French military. The French communist party was popular in France and was able to reject requests by the French military for more troops, etc., and allegedly they provided intelligence to Ho. When Ho eventually returned to Vietnam in the late 20s, he actually spent most his time in China (on the Vietnam border) where he organized clandestine political cells. The Japanese invasion enabled his initial success, just as the Japanese invasion enabled Mao's success. The USSR also provided a lot of support to Ho and Mao.

Not all politics are local, Vietnam is a perfect case of numerous foreign interests clashing and leveraging various local groups to pursue their ends.

Backwards Observer

Sat, 06/18/2011 - 4:16pm

Dang, I left out an interesting bit about the outcome of the strained relations over the attempt to install a Catholic emperor:

<blockquote>This prompted anti-Christian edicts, and in 1858, a French invasion of Vietnam was mounted, ostensibly to protect Catholicism, but in reality for colonial purposes. </blockquote>

From the same VNQDD Wikipedia entry above. Believe it or not!

Backwards Observer

Sat, 06/18/2011 - 4:07pm

<em><blockquote>His movement was NOT popular in Vietnam, but he effectively used terror (and leveraged the stupidity of French strategy and tactics) to gain support.</blockquote></em>

Some excerpts from the Wikipedia entry for the Vietnamese Nationalist Party:

<blockquote>The Việt Nam Quốc Dân Đảng (VNQDD), also known as the Việt Quốc and the Vietnamese Kuomintang, is the Vietnamese Nationalist Party, a revolutionary socialist political party that sought independence from French colonial rule in Vietnam during the early 20th century. Its origins lie in the mid-1920s, when a group of young Hanoi-based intellectuals began publishing revolutionary material. In 1927, after the publishing house failed because of French harassment and censorship, the VNQDD was formed under the leadership of Nguyen Thai Hoc. Modelling itself on the Republic of China's Kuomintang, the VNQDD gained a following among northerners, particularly teachers and intellectuals. The party, which was less successful among peasants and industrial workers, was organised in small clandestine cells.</blockquote>


<blockquote>French involvement in Vietnam started in the late 18th century when the Catholic priest Pigneau de Behaine assisted Nguyen Anh to found the Nguyen Dynasty by recruiting French volunteers. In return, Nguyen Anh, who took the reign name Gia Long allowed Catholic missionaries to operate in Vietnam. However, relations became strained under Gia Long's successor Minh Mang as missionaries sought to incite revolts in an attempt to enthrone a Catholic.</blockquote>


<blockquote>From 1928, the VNQDD attracted attention through its assassinations of French officials and Vietnamese collaborators. A turning point came in February 1929 with the killing of Hervé Bazin, a French labour recruiter widely despised by the Vietnamese people.</blockquote>


<blockquote>On February 10, a VNQDD member injured a policeman at a Hanoi checkpoint; at night, Arts students threw bombs at government buildings, which they regarded as part of the repressive power of the colonial state. On the night of February 15-16, Hoc and his remaining forces seized the nearby villages of Phu Duc and Vinh Bao, in Thai Binh and Hai Duong Provinces respectively, for a few hours. In the second village, the VNQDD killed the local mandarin of the French colonial government, Tri Huyen. On February 16, French warplanes responded by bombarding the VNQDD's last base at Co Am village; on the same day, Tonkin's Resident Superior René Robin dispatched 200 Gardes indigènes, eight French commanders and two Sûreté inspectors. A few further violent incidents occurred until February 22, when Governor-General Pierre Pasquier declared that the insurrection had been defeated. Hoc and his lieutenants, Chinh and Nguyen Thanh Loi, were apprehended.</blockquote>

Bob's World

Sat, 06/18/2011 - 2:37pm


But remember, "communism" was never the threat, it was the ideology applied by the threat.

The threat, per our vital national intrest, was a Eurasian land mass dominated by a nation or coalition of nations that was not friendly toward the US. The fact they employed a communist ideology is, and was, moot.


Distortions of history lead to wrong conclusions. Ho spent many, many years out of Vietnam roaming Europe (and working on ships). He joined the communist party in Europe before he started his movement in Vietnam. His movement was NOT popular in Vietnam, but he effectively used terror (and leveraged the stupidity of French strategy and tactics) to gain support. There were no less than three other nationalist movements in Vietnam that were more popular. As for the OSS, some authorities claim they were the most communist penetrated U.S. organization in history, and they were frequently manipulated by communists who were more savvy politically than the OSS agents helping them. This is understandable since there were communist resistance groups throughout Asia and Europe who were fighting the Axis, and while the OSS correctly identified that the Vietnamese people wanted independence from the French (which the U.S. supported initially), they didn't understand Ho's intentions. On the other hand, if we didn't support the French it is possible that Ho would have been defeated by other nationalist groups. Who really knows.

Bob's World

Sat, 06/18/2011 - 8:58am


The people of Vietnam (besides those who were in bed with and profiting from the old colonial system, or those who in some wild rural areas were likely largely apolitical) wanted an independent liberty. I would never promote that the wanted the form of controlling communism government and ideology adopted and applied by Ho and gang to achieve that larger end. What we will never know is what form of government Ho would have adopted if we would have taken the recommendaitons of the OSS team that worked with Ho to fight the Japanese in WWII and if we would have honored our commitment to a self-determined liberty to the people of that land. One of those great "what ifs." What if Truman, rather than Mao, had stepped up to empower Vietnamese liberty.

People overly fixate on the ideology and govenrance tools applied by the insurgent to effect change rather than on the despotic/illegitimate systems in place that drive such radical approaches to popular reform of government in the first place. Blame shifting. We see the same thing in many places today where people are turning to AQ for support and in turn, the ideological form of Islam they apply to fuel their movement. Once again we have a choice, an opportunity, to support the people IAW our espoused principles, or let twisted perspectives of our national interests drive us to act counter to our espoused principles and side with sitting regimes regardless of how bad/evil they might be.

This is the lesson we need to learn from Nam.


Sat, 06/18/2011 - 6:38am

If a lack of strategy is the overarching reason for a lack of success, then what is to be done in areas like Afghanistan where the decentralization of the drivers of conflict by definition prevents any holistic strategy from being effective? I guess decentralizing the government would be a good start? Focus on border control, and destroying the sources of external support, consequences be damned? Is the overall reaction to this article a call for a windfall change, or complete disengagement? Is ISAF a victim of the philosophy of "focusing on what you can control"? If so, where are the policy makers? The "outsourcing of grand strategy" idea is troubling. I hope they (the people in charge of policy) read some of your responses.

All of those questions are serious questions I'm asking for my own personal understanding.

Ken White (not verified)

Sat, 06/18/2011 - 2:10am

<b>Steve:</b><blockquote>"Both airmobility and the idea of Special Forces were in effect pushed on the Army from above and weren't widely accepted.</blockquote>That's not how I recall it. My recollection is that the objections to both concepts and their integration in the Army came from the 'heavy' community. Thus, the degree of acceptance depended on who was in charge where and most of the Army embraced both concepts, only the Heavy folks demurred. Parochialism routinely does more damage to the the Army itself and to the the nation than do most enemies...

As you mention:<blockquote>Also, you had an entire generation of officers who had learned their trade in Europe during World War II and had no real small wars or insurgency experience to fall back on."</blockquote>There were plenty who'd fought in the Pacific and had a much broader base of experience but they were heavily outnumbered by those with European experience and thus got sidelined by the Euro-centric types. When those Pacific guys were in charge, Korea or Viet Nam, things went much better...

The Eurocentric effort in Korea was flawed as was that in Viet Nam due to that Euro-flavored approach. Viet Nam in particular suffered, due to the time factor, from a number of European experienced field grades rotating through on six month here, six month there tours. A war that should have received mission priority instead was accorded 'personnel management' priority...

<b>Robert C. Jones:</b><blockquote>"The US has yet to come to grips with the reality of our role in Vietnam. We believed our actions necessary to prevent Chinese influence from spreading into SEA and that belief was reasonable at the time, but it was wrong, the Vietnames had no more desire for Chinese influence over them than French or US. We read it wrong then, and then wrote it wrong in the history books.)"</blockquote>In order:

I think most have come to grips adequately. Largest problem I see currently is that some still use it, generally with a grain of truth and a few grams of distortion, to push other agendas -- on both sides of the question and with little regard for the reality...

It was <i>sort</i> of reasonable at the time but that was really a charade and a cover story -- sort of like WMD in Iraq; some merit, essentially believed correct but known not to be nearly as significant a problem as the government tried to lead people to believe...

The Brothers Kennedy wanted to boost the US economy and look tough. That, among other things, gets left out of many of those history books...

As I believe you're aware but rarely mention, the bulk of the people in in the south, to include the VC / NLF / PRG did not agree at all with the North's idea which you do not totally accurately portray. <blockquote>"We saw that as a state on state conflict, coupled with a VC insurgency in the southern state."</blockquote>That's backwards in one sense -- the <u>North</u> tried to portray it as you wrote. We and the South contended that was flatly incorrect as total command remained with Hanoi during the entire period of US involvement and thus it was a North driven insurgency and war.

There are many myths about that war and you frequently use a few of them. The truth lies somewhere between your rather left leaning and not totally accurate variant and the "we could have won if we'd been turned loose" crowd who are equally wrong. ;)

It was a dumb war and the US Army as an institution fought it very poorly; the US a a nation did not comport themselves at all well and it was doomed to fail before the first American hit the ground.

Afghanistan OTOH, was proper and a success -- until G. W. Bush got an attack of conscience and decided he owed the Afghans something. He did not and we do not -- though Jimmy Carter, Zbigniew K. Brzezinski, Charley Wilson and a few others might...

Proving once again that 'morality' and warfare are an oxymoron.

<b>Bill M.:</b>

Comrade Bob? That one a them there sreudian flips? ;>

I agree with your post, particularly this:<Blockquote>"The relevance to Afghanistan is limited, and I suspect the only direct tie to it is it is impossible to develop sound policies and strategies when we both intentionally and unintentionally distort the truth. If your comment is right about ISAF really believing this article, then that is frightening."</blockquote>True...

I'd also add that there are two areas of very broad similarity in both wars -- good intentions and absolutely NO strategy, thus necessitating some obfuscation if not outright lies to 'justify' the effort and creating an information hurdle that is almost insurmountable.

Not smart. If the strategy is good and the logic not too badly flawed, the conduct of the war -- and the information aspects -- flow naturally and well

Bill M.

Fri, 06/17/2011 - 11:43pm

Comrade Bob,

In fact the communist Chinese and at the end of WWII, and the Imperial Japanese, provided much material and training support to Ho and his merry men of terrorists to fight the French (unfortunately he fought more than the French, the VC also brutally murdered any Vietnamese who were also nationalists, but opposed Ho's communist vision). Once Mao assumed power in China they continued to provide support to Ho for several years. That relationship changed and we apparently missed it, but one can understand why our leaders suspected Chinese support. As for suppressing the insurgency in the South, I think it be argued it was defeated, since it never had real popular support. The VC gained support via terrorism/coercion, which also unfortunately is effective.

There is no doubt that Vietnamese wanted their own nation, but a lot of Vietnamese (maybe even most) didn't want to be nationalists under Ho's regime. Ho's victory was a not a phase III Maoist insurgency victory. The conventional army in NV at that time was a much of former guerrillas (except senior leadership) that rolled over and became conventional soldiers (that transition happened long before the NV regulars rolled into S. Vietnam with Fighter jets and Soviet provided armor).

There are a lot of myths on Vietnam, both from the left (I would argue your view on this particular topic) and from the right. Ho was a not a popular figure outside of Berkley, CA. He was a ruthless murderer who considered himself an elite and wanted power. This is a debate that go back and forth for some time, but the S. Vietnamese fought hard to defend their nation because they believed in it. They all didn't see it as being as rotten as many in the left like to portray it. If you want to see a rotten government, one only needed to look north at the time, and then look at the fiasco in the south with the massive refugee problem after they were "liberated" by the north.

I'm not arguing that it was right for us to get involved in Vietnam, especially the way we went in, which was helping the French defend one of their colonies, but I also think we take the argument too far when it is argued that Ho had a successful Maoist revolution that conquerored the South. He defeated the French using Maoist tactics and conquerored the North that way. It was a different war that defeated the South.

The relevance to Afghanistan is limited, and I suspect the only direct tie to it is it is impossible to develop sound policies and strategies when we both intentionally and unintentionally distort the truth. If your comment is right about ISAF really believing this article, then that is frightening.

Bob's World

Fri, 06/17/2011 - 5:45am

McLaughlin is just doing what he was hired to do. They wanted a media expert on the COIN Advisory and Assistance Team, and training, experience and understanding of Insurgency was not a high criteria for the position. Essentially a PAO, don't think about what you are putting out, just put out what we tell you to in a professional manner. PSYOP/MISO think about what they put out.

This piece is a window into how ISAF actually thinks, that should be scary enough. I actually wish it was a PSYOP piece, but I am pretty certain it is sadly the reality as it is widely perceived at that HQ. For those on the outside looking in, this article itself is a far better metric than any of the stats listed in the article.

(Though as a side not to brother Bill Moore, to view the history of the Vietnam war through the equally rose colored lens of that HQ leads to equally flawed perspectives. We saw that as a state on state conflict, coupled with a VC insurgency in the southern state. The North simply saw the south as a theater of action for a continued revolution, one they waged with three categories of revolutionary forces: the regular army, the regional forces, and the militia and self-defense forces. Yes, we suppressed the militia forces in the southern theater, but that in no way hindered the regular forces from transitioning to phase III operations and ending the revolution in favor of the North. We must be honest with ourselves first if we are going to be able to share the truth with others. The US has yet to come to grips with the reality of our role in Vietnam. We believed our actions necessary to prevent Chinese influence from spreading into SEA and that belief was reasonable at the time, but it was wrong, the Vietnames had no more desire for Chinese influence over them than French or US. We read it wrong then, and then wrote it wrong in the history books.)



Thu, 06/16/2011 - 5:24pm

I didn't mean to say that the piece itself was PSYOP/MISO soup, but it was a facetious suggestion that the MISO TF develop a line of persuasion as part of a series to degrade the morale/support of the enemy. I should know better than not clarifying. My bad.

gian p gentile (not verified)

Thu, 06/16/2011 - 4:46pm

There appears to be a strong consensus (reflected in the posts to it) toward the McLaughlin article that it is flawed, and does not represent reality. But is his article really any different than what American general officers are constantly saying about progress being made in Afghanistan? Does this mean therefore that there is a consensus that the current American strategy in Afghanistan is broken?


Steve (not verified)

Thu, 06/16/2011 - 2:59pm

Vietnam is also complicated by the question of personalities and their influence on policy. JFK had a strong personal connection to Diem and a need to "show backbone" in the face of Soviet foreign policy. There was also the specter of "losing Vietnam" like the U.S. supposedly "lost China" to Communists. Johnson wasn't likely to change JFK's foreign policy direction in the region (if for no other reason than he didn't really know much about foreign policy and was much more focused on the Great Society domestic initiative). And if you go back through material that was published at the time you find almost an equal number of experts predicting that intervention would be successful. At the time stress was placed on the cultural differences (real and supposed) between north and south Vietnam.

Once you turn your attention to the Army you also find a number of disconnects and issues, in part fed by the policy debates of the 1950s and beyond. Both airmobility and the idea of Special Forces were in effect pushed on the Army from above and weren't widely accepted. Also, you had an entire generation of officers who had learned their trade in Europe during World War II and had no real small wars or insurgency experience to fall back on. There was also a marked tendency to cling to the "lessons of Korea" and to try to apply those in an area that bore precious little resemblance to that theater (for example, the decision to not deploy tank battalions with the initial forces sent to Vietnam was based on the Korea experience; it was later partly reversed when the Army learned that armor was indeed quite useful in Vietnam).

I could go on with some of this, but it's also worth nothing that if we did defeat the VC, it wasn't really relevant by 1969. North Vietnam had conventional troops deployed in large numbers on the edges of SVN, and had infiltrated enough Northern cadre to keep the image of the VC afloat until the US pulled out its major ground units. It's also interesting to note that some of the areas with the highest VC presence (IV Corps) had the lowest U.S. troop density.

Dave, that is a great way to sum it up, and in my view it sums up why our strategic comms is ate up, and that is because our strategy is ate up. The focus on fixing our strategic comms should be redirected to fixing our strategy, we're trying to fix the wrong problem (and spending a lot of money doing it).

Anonymous, the only parallels between Saigon and Kabul is the U.S. Government's attempt to fool its own people with overly positive claims, which in fact distorts the truth, undermines their credibility and destroys the message. There were good things happening in Vietnam, and there are good things happening in Afghanistan, but they need to be put in a context that accurately describes the total picture.


The Vietnam conflict is complicated to say the least, and of course we can see it much clearer in hindsight than the policy could see it then. That said there were experts who accurately predicted what would happen if we got involved and recommended we didn't (even if we did eventually defeat the VC). That is my concern about design. I have no doubt design would provide better insights that "should" inform decision makers, but if those insights are not politically popular they'll be discarded.

Also thanks for the link to Carl's article/post. It was very well done and great counter to "The Sun is Raising". I think Carl would agree that the Taliban can be defeated, but it would require a change in strategy and conditions. The strategy change is addressing the safehaven and support in Pakistan. If we don't do that the Taliban can't be defeated, at best we can prolong the stalemate. The condition change is that the Afghans are actually willing to fight the Taliban (and there is a lot that needs to happen for that to happen). As Carl points out indirectly, even if the Taliban is defeated, Afghanistan is still a failed State that survives on foreign aid, corruption, war and illegal drugs. I guess the question is if we defeat the Taliban, then what?

Since this paper was a strategic communications effort and not PSYOP/MISO (e.g., to influence the behavior of foreign target audiences) I thought I would offer these thoughts (or musings) I recently had on strategic communications and our quest to get our message out or control the narrative:

"Strategic Communications can only be effective when you have an effective _Strategy_ with balance and coherency among ends, ways, and means. If _THE Strategy_ is feasible, suitable, and acceptable and the ends, ways, and means can be simply and clearly articulated not only to those who have to execute, but also to Congress, coalition partners, and the people, then and only then can you conduct effective strategic communications.

If you do not have an effective _Strategy_ then you cannot conduct strategic communications because no matter how much lipstick you put on a pig, it will still be a pig.

And the irony is that if you have an effective _Strategy_, the need for strategic communications is diminished by the level of effectiveness of _THE Strategy_. But strategic communications becomes critical when assumptions and conditions change and _THE Strategy_ must be adjusted or adapted and thus explained."


Thu, 06/16/2011 - 1:02pm

How does "reinvigorated their initiative" translate into Pashtu? Get the PSYOP guys on the horn. Tell them how to bring these Taliban bastards down! I seriously thought I was going to learn another one of those cool Pashtun proverbs by the end of that sentence. The unintentional comedy of such a lackluster phrase being jammed into a spot reserved for a memorable ending is amusing. I can see the author now, hitting the backspace key repeatedly looking, searching, recalling his whirlwind tour for it. Found it!

The only value to come out of this article is the ire-filled but intelligent discourse generated by you gentlemen, and others, in response to it. If that was the point of it, then touché Mr. McLaughlin. Your team just acquired the talent of several folks free of charge. Now collect up the pro bono ruminations and do some analysis.

Bill M

On your Vietnam comments:

I read a book recently that pointed to the irony of Vietnam -- that today it resembles the nation state that we probably would have been quite happy with at the end of our intervention (that is, the "desired end state" is pretty much there). So who won (over the long haul)?

What this may teach us is that these sorts of interventions are like physicians' iatrogenic treatments -- all well-intended yet the patient is harmed more than if he were to stay out.

Military adventures to change foreign societies should always be highly suspect and we should examine attempts as "social engineering" in the Herbert Spencerian way.

The deeper question might be -- should we have ever intervened in Vietnam in the first place? An interesting book of late is:
Yuen F. Khong, Analogies at War: Korea, Dien Bien Phu, and the Vietnam Decisions of 1965 (Princeton: Princeton University, 1992). The thesis is fascinating in that we arguably go to war based in uncritcal examination of metaphor (the "dominoes" of communism, etc.).

Anonymous (not verified)

Thu, 06/16/2011 - 7:40am

"Kabul is vibrant with construction and business activity, indicating hopefulness."

So was Saigon.

"I have repeatedly witnessed that Afghans are rebuilding their country and lives, with or without outside assistance."

The believability of this statement is highly questionable as the billions that we have spent in AF are "fungible." There is no way one can say that anything was possible without "outside assistance." In this case the "hand" is not invisible.

"A March 2011 poll shows that 3/4 of Afghans feel it would be bad for the country if the Taliban returned to power, up from 2/3 just six months earlier."

I'd like to see how this poll was conducted (for example, the assumption that AF is a "country" in the question makes yellow flags go up on this assertion).

"Afghans are remembering how to look to the future. Or, as a USDA agricultural representative put it, they have reinvigorated their initiative."

I'll have to go back and reed Sheehan's "Bright and Shining Lie" to find like-quotes in 1968 before Tet.

I guess all the references were provided to give the impression of "research."

My "cynacism meter" is pegged with this article. Sorry, cannot help it.

Peter, I think quite a few people tried to tell the SECDEF, CJCS and others that their plans were too expensive, unsustainable, and most importantly ineffective, yet the mindless banter (but beautifully wrapped) coming from CNAS and other such organizations continues to give decision makers enough cover not to challenge their brilliant strategy. The fact that our President asked for options from the Joint Staff and he didn't get any is telling. As you stated earlier they can randomly cherry pick little success stories endlessly to further justify the current course we're on. I see this group think at SOCOM and the COCOMs also. I would hate to see the return of the leftist protestors during the Vietnam War, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't have debate on the war. Being a patriot in America doesn't mean saying yes sir, three bags full. Leave that mindset for the communists.


Thu, 06/16/2011 - 1:45am

A few disconnected observations on the topic:
-How is it that these people expect other people to believe and trust them when officers in their own organization can't?

-It amazed me how many plasma screens running propaganda videos and display cases full of propaganda materials are on every corner of the Pentagon. Inside. Preaching to the converted. To keep them converted. It's like mind control.

-Every commander needs to watch daily the Sopranos episode where Carm tells Tony, "Of course they laugh at your stupid jokes Tony. Your the boss." Or something like that. Then later on, he says something and everyone laughs and it goes slow motion and he looks around and you can tell he realizes how they're all falling all over themselves to laugh at his stupid joke. Everyone lies to you when you're the boss. Find people who will tell you when your ideas are stupid, your comms are tone deaf, and your plans aren't working.

Publius (not verified)

Wed, 06/15/2011 - 11:43pm

"As a study on what the folks on the inside may really be believing, I think it speaks volumes."

That is a truly frightening thought, but I suspect Grant is right. Talk about drinking the Koolaid.

What's really depressing is the realization that, despite the PR fluff about being apolitical, the military is anything but. They are playas and, as we've seen, they're not above doing back door routines when it comes to getting their way with the constitutionally empowered decision makers.

What's worse than a military with inordinate influence in a constitutional republic? A military with inordinate influence that believes its own propaganda.

G Martin

Wed, 06/15/2011 - 11:27pm

It isn't totally worthless. I find it fascinating that this is what passes as STRATCOM from our HQs still. It amazes me that we really don't understand how we come across and are incapable of putting ourselves in our audience's shoes. Perhaps this is educational in the sense of it telling us where our efforts at "messaging" are. Of course, the assumption is that somewhere someone is learning from this...

As a study on what the folks on the inside may really be believing, I think it speaks volumes.

Any-non-omous (not verified)

Wed, 06/15/2011 - 9:39pm

<i>"... I had the pleasure of filming a "shura" (an organized consultation group) of junior officers and senior non-commissioned officers of the Afghan 205th Corps in Kandahar. The passion and pride of these lower-level leaders and their devotion to their profession rivaled that of any nations military."</i>

I've sat with 205th Corps guys in "shuras" also, and after these sentences I'm gonna have to say this entire posting is shit.


Wed, 06/15/2011 - 7:06pm

I toasted Small Wars Journal when they landed the comic stylings of Doctrine Man!!

Now that you've obviously are sharing copy with The Onion, I applaud twice as loudly.



While some debate this, it seems evident to me that in fact we did defeat the VC (after LBJ left office). It also seems evident that the communist insurgency was far from being a popular nationalist movement. In fact thousands of Vietnamese hated it (tens of thousands fled N. Vietnam because they wanted no part of Ho's vision). Ho effectively employed terrorism to neutralize more popular nationalist movements that the people in large part did support (of course the French were anti-nationalist period, so this created a lot of problems that led us into the war, I often wonder what SE Asia would have been like if the French weren't so damn arrogant and oppressive).

Our media and universities still like pumping the illusion that the VC won (they didn't), and that the communist victory was the result of a popular movement, it wasn't. As Anthony Joes stated in his excellent book, "Victorious Insurgencies" it took the largest conventional invasion since N. Korea invaded S. Korea to actually defeat the government in S. Vietnam.

The communist victory (not an insurgent victory) was two fold, first they strategicaly
manipulated our media and academia who in turn created the myth that Ho was righteous and bound to win. A few million Vietnamese would disagree with that assessment. Second, after they isolated S. Vietnam from U.S. support, they launched a major ground invasion.

While I can't excuse many of terrible tactics, and it was true we were slow to learn, I think we tend to take away the wrong lessons from our involvement in Vietnam. It was not only winnable, we did win (much like the French in Algeria), but we managed to ultimately defeat ourselves with disinformation.

In no way am I defending the article above, but simply offering that overly rosey assessments and overly defeatist assessments both can gain momentum regardless of the reality on the ground based on group think. LBJ was wrong when he mentioned the light at the end of the tunnel (when he said it), and the author above, well nuff said on his article already. I think he killed his credibility with this article, although in the end he "may" very well be right.

Publius (not verified)

Wed, 06/15/2011 - 5:37pm

Vietnam insider news: Saw President Johnson on TV the other night. He noted that his military and civilian advisers had given him some very encouraging news and that we should all cheer up because there was light at the end of the tunnel.

So I cheered up. And that light at the end of the tunnel? Turned out to be an onrushing train.

G Martin

Wed, 06/15/2011 - 3:42pm

Here-here, Bill. Agree. At some point the parent has to let the child go. Terribly condescending metaphor from the Afghan perspective, perhaps- but I think we do see ourselves as the parent...

Jason, you are quite the poet, I really enjoy your writing style. Good comments.

Peter, I remain suspect of the overall tone of the article (it definitely isn't balanced), but agree there have been several successes at the tactical level. These successes may very well accelerate when we start downsizing. I don't think we will see success or failure coming, but rather there will be a series of events (that we can't foresee) that will gather momentum for one side or the other. In other words the outcome remains uncertain at this point.

I personally think we can win this (reach an acceptable conclusion to our large involvement) quicker by disengaging our conventional forces sooner rather than later, and allowing the Afghans to define who should govern their country rather than blindly reinforcing Karzai. In the end Karzai may turn out to be the best person to run Afghanistan, but that isn't our decision, that is the Afghan people's decision. If he is the right guy, we're killing his legitimacy by leading all the combat operations and keeping his Army subordinate to ISAF. It will be hard to take a step back (not out), but that is what we need to do in my opinion.

We can keep a few strike forces in place (air and ground) to counter any significant Taliban operations (if they mass), and the Afghan Army calls for assistance, but we must put an Afghan face on this conflict and truly transtion from an Army of occupation to one of advisors and providing assistance to those who will ultimately win or lose this conflict the Afghan people. Afghans can engage Afghans more effectively than foreign troops.

If the U.S. was occupied and I joined the U.S. Army that was being formed and trained by the occupier due to promises of liberation, yet year after year I see that I'm not involved in the daily planning, the plans are kept secret from me (because they don't trust me), my people are getting killed and their deaths are referred to as collateral damage, and I can sense that the occupiers are condescending I may think about jumping ship and joining the other side who is also promising liberation.

My point is the Afghan Army has not yet been forced to raise to occassion, and a lot of people are benefiting from the status quo. A real downsizing would force needed change. All good military strategies assume some risk, this one is no different, but I recommend downsizing based on my current understanding.


Wed, 06/15/2011 - 2:33pm

Until the constitution/laws of GIRoA are rewritten and district and provincial officials are elected or appointed NOT by the central government, IDLG, or the president, but by the local people/tribes/shuras; until the successes have nothing to do with our intervention of CERP/AID money or international security forces; until we can stop the flow of millions of our dollars from Kabul into the pockets of Afghan elite and to their resorts in the UAE, please dont tell me about 130 meters of canal turning into 500 as a template for success in Afghanistan.

I'm going to write a puff piece and submit it. Now excuse me, I've got to go watch some old care bear cartoons for some citations.


Wed, 06/15/2011 - 12:13pm

The chorus is growing. The corner is being turned. I'm not there anymore, but from the number of reports I'm seeing from different places and people, it may be true. The problem is, these are tactical COIN successes at local levels. What our tacti-gy has never considered is how, once you've made these successes at the local level, you lash them all together and step back without it falling apart because there's nothing to hold the "nation" together. That would require something more than slogans such as COIN, democracy, sunrises, and rainbows. And his bio is almost longer than his article.

K L (not verified)

Wed, 06/15/2011 - 11:25am

I believe it is reports like this, if taken seriously, that will prolong our occupation of Afghanistan, presenting a perpetual optimism that we're on the cusp of defeating the insurgency because X, Y and Z while cheerfully ignoring A, B, and C.

"Now, as a media production advisor in General Petraeus Counterinsurgency Advisory and Assistance Team, nine years after I thought we had won this war, I can again contribute to winning in Afghanistan."

Given all the superb papers published on SWJ this would have to be the most self serving.

It is as if the conflict in Afghanistan is now just peaking to a beautiful cinematic finish. I feel like I missed something.

Time and time again we are presented with commentary about Afghanistan from well meaning intellectuals who are darlings of the media who misrepresent what is happening on the ground. Most of the time it is well intentioned. A commentary for the chattering class. They string together beads of isolated experiences as reflective of the nation as a whole. Opinion is put forward fait acommpli.

While it is important to recognise everyone can make a contribution we should be determined in our mission to ensure a realistic, frank and direct description is put forward - regardless of how well intentioned


Bob's World

Wed, 06/15/2011 - 10:18am

Sadly, the CAAT has devolved in many ways into being cheerleaders for, rather than advisors to, the senior leadership at ISAF.

While it may not matter that that the Media expert on the team has little to no expertise in insurgency or counter-insurgency, it does make it hard for him to produce fair and balanced products when he is unable to place the information he packages so well into any kind of realistic, balanced context.

The sun is indeed coming out in Afghanistan; and as the primary drivers of insurgency radiating outward from the Karzai government remain untouched, the Taliban once again come out along with it.

We target sypmtoms of insurgency and throw a mix of suppression and development at the Resistance aspect of the insurgency in Afghanistan (making it resist more while enriching Karzai's cronies in the patronage ponzi scheme created by the constitution); and do little to force resolution of the real, and critical issues driving the revolution between the current regime we helped create, and the old regime we helped expel.




Wed, 06/15/2011 - 10:06am

I'll have a pint of whatever Brian's been drinking. Make that two.