Small Wars Journal

U.S. Military: Too Much Tactics, Too Little Strategy

Fri, 07/21/2017 - 9:17am

U.S. Military: Too Much Tactics, Too Little Strategy by Robert Cassidy - The Globalist

The United States and its allies have been fighting terrorists and insurgents for almost 16 years. It has some of the best-equipped, most-seasoned, and best-led forces in its history of fighting wars.

Those forces have won a number of battles, conducted a host of strikes, and captured or killed many terrorists, including Osama bin Laden.

Yet, there are more murderous Islamist groups around the globe today than there were on 11 September 2001, and there is a strategic stalemate in Afghanistan. Efforts to defeat Islamist terrorists around the globe remain incomplete and fleeting.

The ends of these wars against Islamist militant groups are not in view. Worse, it is not certain that these wars will end well at all.

A key aspect of this lies in the axiom that the purpose of war is to serve a political end, but the nature of war is to serve itself. War serves itself when it is unguided or unconstrained by reason and policy, or if the political end is not viable within the means that states are willing to commit based on the perceived value of attaining that end.

Tactical and operational kill-and-capture actions do indeed disrupt insurgent and terrorist networks, but the gains are impermanent, particularly if those networks retain external support and sanctuary.

Beyond the absence of a viable long-term strategy, other factors contribute to what seems to be a state of ground hog war. There are the myriad murderous Islamist zealots who are animated by an apocalyptic and interpretive Salafi-Wahhabi-Jihadist creed…

Read on.


If we consider that continuing "modernization and development" -- of both our own country and the Rest of the World also -- that this is (a) not only our own political objective but, indeed, (b) what we believe to be the unalterable course of history regardless of our and/or others' wishes,

Then what strategy might we employ (think, for example, re: both our domestic and foreign policies?) to provide that this such "modernization and development" objective might be reached -- both at home and abroad -- (a) with less unending turmoil and (b) with less need for the use of military, police and/or intelligence forces to deal with same?

In this regard, consider the following:


"During the 1950s and 1960s the initial focus of counterinsurgency research was on the problem of modernization and economic development. This is important as disaffection and resentment of government and government institutions by peasants generally stemmed from feelings of inequality, oppression, discrimination. Scholars observed that, in many societies, the negative consequences of economic development to which the developed nations adjusted over the course of decades and centuries were being experienced in the space of years by the developing countries. As the economic conditions underlying society began to shift, pressure built on traditional society. This, in turn, put pressure on nascent governments, many of which had only recently acquired independence from colonial empires, and on those empires that sought to retain their colonies. In many cases, governmental institutions could not keep pace with societal change, leading to disorder and instability. This instability left societies vulnerable to insurgent influences.

Insurgents could thus take advantage of this flux to gain popular support, by promising alternatives to the government. The government, unable to ameliorate the problems of the population, would increasingly be isolated and weakened. The insurgent could acquire almost everything they needed from the populace, progressively attenuating government authority and creating “counter-institutions” to provide what the government could or would not (e.g., taxation or social services). Eventually, either the government would collapse, unable to separate the insurgents from the people, or the insurgents could form their own armies and defeat the government in battle. This was the essence of what Mao called “people’s war,” and many Western scholars adopted the Maoist viewpoint on insurgency.

Once these two principles, the problems of modernization and the insurgent need for popular support, were accepted, the preventive solution becomes apparent. The answer was to restore the hope of the people and gain their support for the government. In order to do this, counterinsurgency would consist of providing the people security from predations by government and insurgent forces and reducing the negative consequences of development while enhancing the positive aspects. Increasing political rights of the people, improving standards of living, and reducing corruption and abuse of government power were key prescriptions of the counterinsurgency theory, which came to be known as “winning the hearts and minds of the people.”


Bottom Line Question -- Based on the Above:

Re: the demands of "modernization and development," now that the "insurgency" problem -- related to same -- can be found to be in full force -- both at home (think the Brexit and the election of President Trump) and abroad (think the Greater Middle East and elsewhere) -- what "strategy" (see the excerpt above?) might we employ;

This, to deal with what looks to be now a global/a universal -- a both at home and abroad -- and thus an EXPANDING AND UNENDING insurgency problem?

("Failure of strategy," in this light, to be understood more comprehensively, to wit: as "failure of strategy" -- "too much tactics/"too little strategy" -- across-the-board, both at home and abroad and, thus, as per both our domestic and foreign policies relating to "modernization and development?")

An often repeated critique of America's War on Terrorism is that it completely void of strategy, and sadly it is true. There is no logical strategic approach to achieve a reasonable condition at an acceptable cost. We're a washing machine that is stuck in a perpetual cycle of wash, rinse, repeat . . . . The only adjustments we make are around the margins where we adjust the number of troops, whether downsizing or surging, but simply adjusting the means has proven insufficient. The real issue is the ways and ends which seem to be frozen in time. We can't fix broke until we have the moral courage to admit the current approach is broke. I have worked for leaders (an inappropriate term in many cases) who simply say we're doing O.K., don't be negative, don't speak truth to power, and as the author stated in the paper one of the units most guilty of creating this quagmire can give beautiful briefings that convince the gullible that we're winning, we just need more time, troops, and money, then the rinse cycle kicks in again. The first step to define realistic desired conditions or ends, then honestly describe the current environment, then identify what issues we need to address to fix the scoped problem, then develop a strategic approach and reframe the problem and adjust the strategic approach as often as the strategic environment changes to ensure we're adapting to emerging reality. We're taught this, but we execute this type of design thinking poorly for a hole host of reasons.

Furthermore, we can no longer afford (we never could) the luxury of only developing a strategy to counter violent extremists. Any national strategy must address the whole array of threats (Russia, Iran, North Korea, VEOs, etc.) as a collective, because we're using the same means to respond to all of them. That forces to identify what is essential, and to identify activities that serve multiple purposes to gain efficiency. However, I won't be surprised at all if we read a similar article in 2020, because our national security apparatus has become increasing astrategic. The constant demand for information, the 24 hour news cycle, and our over reliance on achieving a technological over match has contributed to the tactical mindset at levels that should be focused on strategy. At the end of the day the costs for this approach puts our nation at great risk. Not only to do we waste the lives our great tactical operators, we're breaking our military, and doing little to help with our significant national debt challenge, which in the end could prove to be our existential threat.

Robert C. Jones

Sat, 07/22/2017 - 12:12pm

In reply to by Dayuhan

Excellent points. The roots of failure are definitely in policy, but all of the strategy that springs from those roots is equally flawed.

To be clear though, the problem is not that we have too little policy or strategy. The problem is that we have the wrong policies and strategies.

We have misunderstood the problem from inception, and we have applied solutions that may have worked reasonably well historically when applied in isolation, but have little hope of achieving durable results in the world as it exists today.

Too little strategy, or too little policy?

Every war is fought to achieve a national policy goal. You "win" when you achieve the goal. If the goal is unrealistic or not achievable with the means selected to accomplish it, or if the goals keep changing, you don't win.

We're not good with goals, and as look as we keep sending military forces out to do things like "build nations" or "install democracy", we are going to find ourselves in messes.

Re: "strategy," General (ret.) Sir Rupert Smith seems to see the world in "global insurgency" (or is it "global civil war?") terms.

Thus in:

a. "Continuous and unending modernization and development" versus

b. "Continuous and unending global resistance to the political, economic, social and/or value change requirements of same" terms:


In our new paradigm, which I call ‘‘war amongst the people’’, you seek to change the intentions or capture the will of your opponent and the people amongst which you operate, to win the clash of wills and thereby win the trial of strength. The essential difference is that military force is no longer used to decide the political dispute, but rather to create a condition in which a strategic result is achieved. We are now in a world of continual confrontation and conflicts in which the military endeavour to support the achievement of the desired outcome by other means. ...

Instead of a world in which peace is understood to be an absence of war and where we move in a linear process of peace–crisis–war–resolution–peace, we are in a world of continuous confrontation. The opponents in confrontation seek to influence each, including with military acts. To be effective, these acts must be coherent with and allied to the other measures that affect intentions so as to gain advantage in the confrontation.


Thus, in general, "the kind of war upon which we are embarked" -- which General Sir Rupert Smith appears to be discussing above -- this looks to be a war in which, for example:

a. The U.S./the West seeks -- both at home and abroad -- to achieve the political, economic, social and/or value "change" requirements of "modernization and development." And a war in which:

b. Both at home (see the Brexit and the election of President Trump) and abroad (see our confrontations in the Greater Middle East and elsewhere) these such political, economic, social and/or value "change" requirements -- necessary as per the U.S./the West's view of "modernization and development" -- are often being rejected. (With "status quo other"/"status quo anti" often being adopted in their place?)

Thus, in accordance with General Sir Rupert Smith's thinking above (if I have read him right), the military's purpose -- in such a "global at home and abroad insurgency" (or civil war)/in such a "continuous and unending confrontation/in such a "forever war amoungst the people" -- is simply to "create a condition in which a strategic result" (i.e., a result relevant to the necessary political, economic, social and value "change" requirements of "modernization and development?") can be realized?

"Strategy" (and tactics employed in strategy's name?) -- and as per our militaries' such requirements both at home and abroad -- thus to be understood in exactly these such "create a condition" for the winning of the hearts and minds of the populations (for example: re: the political, economic, social and/or value "change" requirements of "modernization and development") terms?

(Herein, it being exceptionally important for us to see that General Sir Rupert Smith emphasizes, above, that "victory," "winning" -- or as he puts it "the desired outcome" -- this actually is to be achieved by other [i.e., "non-military"] means? Thus, to suggest that the primary burden -- for both pursuing "the desired outcome" -- and/or for "winning," etc. -- this belongs to, in General Smith's eyes, [a] OTHER AGENCIES and [b] THEIR STRATEGIES?)

Bottom Line Question -- Based on the Above:

Thus, re: the Greater Middle East today for example, does our military strategy, and our military tactics, actions, etc., based on same; do these "create a condition" in which a strategic result (i.e., a result relevant to the political, economic, social and/or value "change" requirements of "modernization and development") might be realized? Herein, the ultimate responsibility for "victory"/for "winning"/for achieving these political, economic, social and/or value "change" requirements of "modernization and development" -- as per General Smith above -- this belongs to (a) other agencies and is to be achieved via (b) their strategies, tactics, etc.?