Small Wars Journal

Dilbert Leads the COIN Fight?

Tue, 12/22/2009 - 9:22pm
Lieutenant Colonel JJ Malevich, the Canadian Exchange Officer and Director of COIN at the U.S. Army / USMC Counterinsurgency Center, raises the BS flag in his COIN Center blog post Winning the War Through PowerPoint: Dilbert Leads the COIN Fight?

In 2001, I sat in a conf room at NATO HQ in Sarajevo. My boss was trying to convince the Serbs of the joys and benefits of joining the Bosnian Army. His tool was a power point presentation. This presentation was a work of art. It had motion, colors, arrows, timelines, phases. The logic was flawless and it was delivered with passion. The senior Serbian officer in the room let my boss rant, then in a bored voice said, "Colonel, you have made a nice presentation here. The colors are very pretty. But, we will never do this." My boss was struck dumb. He could not believe this. His logic and power point went over like a lead balloon. What he had failed to realize is that war is a complex human activity that by it's vary nature defies normal logic. The Serbs would not work with Croats and Muslims because they hated them. That was the only logic that mattered.

A few weeks ago, I was sent a power point presentation on the "Dynamic Planning for COIN in Afghanistan". I looked at it briefly, but thought that it was some kind of joke; so, I flushed it immediately. However, I received it from another source. So, it appears the joke is on me...

Read the rest at the COIN Center blog.


Police Mentor (not verified)

Fri, 12/25/2009 - 10:09pm

How did the Allies ever win WWII without PowerPoint? Seriously, PowerPoint in the military has led to product v. plan. A modern version of the old saying, "If you can dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with BS." My experience in Afghanistan was one of endless, meaningless slide decks.

Adam Tharp (not verified)

Wed, 12/23/2009 - 9:46pm

Someone deserves a power point ranger merit badge, but I would never brief that mess to a GO.

Corallary to Donna U., if you can't describe the C2 structure in 15 seconds, it's a bad C2 design. Of course we've completely violated that in AFG; it's been 9 years and I still don't understand it.

IntelTrooper (not verified)

Wed, 12/23/2009 - 1:23pm

+1 to Coinoperator07, with the caveat that we need to do a much better job of identifying local power structures than reverting to the default "tribe." Unfortunately it's usually more complicated than that.

Donna Diane Uetz (not verified)

Wed, 12/23/2009 - 10:27am

The Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman once told a colleague that if you could not explain something in it's simplest terms then you didn't really understand it...


Wed, 12/23/2009 - 9:19am

I looked at this power point like a dog watchin' Jeapoardy...

I would like to know if this thing is for real. I mean, in every joke there is an element of truth and this presentation does have that, but the process is overwhelming.

Can't we just sum it up to the Commanders like this?

Step 1. Identify and kill bad guys.

Step 2. Support the local culture/tribe.

Step 3. Teach them to defend/support themselves.

Step 4. Let Afghans start with Step 1.

Whose idea was it to establish a national government first, anyway? We didn't even do that for ourselves when America was born.

M.R. (not verified)

Wed, 12/23/2009 - 2:42am

I believe the intent of the slide deck authors is "mapping the mess" - or trying to define the problem in a systemic way.

Though deeply flawed in many ways, it is a start at a process that probably should have been undertaken a while ago. (The most notable flaw appears to be a recognition that the host nation government plays a key role. Since this government, for all intents and purposes, does not exist, this appears to be a huge o-crap-o-gram).

These slides would work well (as previously mentioned) as a working document, however, the intent of mapping the problem is to find key leverage points to influence and change the dynamics of the system. In short, these appear only half finished.

The slide presentation gave me a headache. We're not really showing this to Afghans, are we?

Instead of a step-by-step "plan" broken down to the "granular" level, why not articulate an end state (what we want Afghanistan/ Af-Pak to look like), rules of engagement (which need to be pretty loose), and let the ground commanders execute? As crappy as this may sound, we can make it up as we go so long as we achieve the desired end state.....? Comments?


Wed, 12/23/2009 - 12:34am


I agree that exercises like that are useful educational aids. What is disturbing is the thought of something this complex being pursued as a plan in the real world.

Having every step of the mission planned in advance is not a characteristic of a good plan. A good plan will be flexible so that unexpected changes can be adjusted for and opportunities quickly exploited. When a staff gets too detailed and implements too many assumptions into a plan, it tends to become inflexible, to be more likely to suffer from tunnel vision in that only a narrow set of options resembling those in the plan are considered, and it is often blinded to unexpected indicators that the assumptions are wrong.

If this is the plan - or if something similar gets adopted - I hope that the organization is exceptional and able to transcend those natural tendencies of humans and human organizations.

IntelTrooper (not verified)

Wed, 12/23/2009 - 12:29am

Obi Wan:
That's no PowerPoint... that's a cluster ----.

@Tucker: I see a flaw within the first few slides. "Restoration" of essential services? Has the person who came up with this ever been outside of Kabul? (Answer: No.) Expectations of essential services? Like what, cable Internet and weekly trash pickup? How about not supporting government institutions whose only contribution has been to victimize the population?! Increase in Coalition funding? LINES, ARROWS, COLORS, ARROWS, CURVY LINES, AUUGHH! Who came up with this?!?

In the words of the Tazmanian Devil: KABLAH DABLAH DABLAH BAH!

I'll also defend the slide deck, not as a "presentation", but as a working document of planners (and hopefully commanders). I believe that these depictions are useful to those who were involved in developing them. They are a form of map for this sort of conflict to help commanders and planners better understand the environment and potential implications of proposed actions. Alot of thought probably went into creating this and those who did understand exactly what they mean.
What these pictures are not, and should not be, are communications tools to try and explain the environment or to transmit the plan. This gets into the discussions of Design that have occurred on this and other sites. The key to success in the process is the intimate involvement of the commanders and staff who will execute. Otherwise these are just strange and unintelligible pictures.


Tue, 12/22/2009 - 9:53pm

While I understand the gut reaction that people have to that slide deck, I think that it is worth defending the idea, if not the specifics of the execution. There is an old saying that all models are wrong, but some are useful, and the first half of that applies in spades to anything having to do with COIN. That said, the fact that the Joint Staff (in this particular case) is now actively trying to model COIN is actually something that makes me feel much better about the future of COIN in the Army. The reason is simple; the majority of the Army's force structure is determined through combat simulation models. Until there are better models for how the military executes COIN it will be a challenge to institutionalize the necessary force structure. So while the model is obviously wrong, it is probably a useful step in the right direction.


Tue, 12/22/2009 - 9:33pm

The first thing that I thought of when I saw that flowchart was, "that must be what the blueprint for the death star looked like."

Hopelessly complicated and completely indestructible except for one small catastrophic vulnerability that is not easily located.