Small Wars Journal

Killing Your Way to Control

Tue, 07/05/2011 - 10:00am
Killing Your Way to Control

by William F. Owen

British Army Review, Spring 2011

Download the Full Article: Killing Your Way to Control

The population is not the prize. The population are the spectators to armed conflict. The prize is the control the government gains when the enemy is dead and gone. Control only exists when it is being applied, and it exists via the rule of law. The population will obey whoever exercises the power of law over them. Power creates support. Support does not create power. This is the source

of great confusion.

The Soviets exercised near-genocidal levels of violence against the Afghan population, as did the Nazis in occupied Russia. Neither was attempting to create an environment where the rule of law prevailed. Control was sought via threat of harm to the civilian population. No one supports people who seek to harm them. Law as in control and stability,is where crime (including terrorism) is punished and justice functions effectively enough, to enable people to live safe and productive lives. Creating and sustaining that condition requires someone to have monopoly of the use of lethal force. People will support who ever has the power to effectively enforce the rule of law. Gaining the monopoly on lethal force requires the destruction of the competition. Merely being present is not enough. In violent competitions, power gains support and not vice-versa.

Download the Full Article: Killing Your Way to Control


Bill C. (not verified)

Fri, 07/08/2011 - 4:50pm

Our goal is to bring "outlaw" (really "outlier") states and societies under control -- so that these might cause us fewer problems and so that they might become more useful to us.

The manner by which we attempt to achieve such control is important -- because a too aggressive approach might easily become gravely counterproductive -- especially if such leads to a much larger and/or completely untenable/unwinable war.

Thus, "strategy," etc., must consider this important factor?

JMA (not verified)

Fri, 07/08/2011 - 3:22pm

Bob said: "One can neither kill nor bribe a resistance out of existence, perhaps into the closet, but not out of existence."

We what is obvious in the case of Afghanistan is that given a situation where the resistance jumped into the closet temporally it would allow the US to declare victory and pull its troops out.

Therefore either these iron age people are really as stupid as I believe they are or they really want the US to stay.

JMA (not verified)

Fri, 07/08/2011 - 3:14pm

Bill M Said: "Really? 100 years ago we could employ the military in a manner to achieve military objectives that facilitated achieving political objectives, but we can't do it now?"

Does the "can't" in your question refer to the ability (or military capability) of the US to carry out such operations or whether to do so would be politically acceptable to voters and the populace at home (in the US)?

JMA (not verified)

Fri, 07/08/2011 - 3:07pm

Bob said: "The measure of insurgency is not the presence or absence of violence; it is the presence or absence of illegal political action. Violence is merely a tactical choice."

Well yes, but the measure of if and when the military should get involved is when an armed insurgency emerges. Mere illegal political action is a police matter.

Bob's World

Fri, 07/08/2011 - 2:55pm


Realize you were typing as I posted my last. Worth considering though is that all the "so called soft/smart" power is directed at the resistance aspect just as the hard power is. Moot, Moot, Moot. One can neither kill nor bribe a resistance out of existence, perhaps into the closet, but not out of existence.

Afghanistan will never get to stability by ignoring the revolution and suppressing the resistance. Even by addressing the revolution they will still be a long ways from stability, but at least they will be headed in the right direction.


I am beginning to think our problem is we're stupid-smart. Enjoy the enclosed video on a fanastic innovation that people in the U.S. are uniquely capable of producing due to a combination of our education system (even with its flaws), property rights, inncentive system for innovation, etc. We know we don't have a perfect system, but it is better than others, and we just can't believe that other nations will not willing transform to adapt our system(s). The problem is our view of the world. I think we are so advanced politically, economically and technically that it is impossible for us to understand how more primative societies view the world.

The article we're debating is hardly an intellectual revolution, but a throw back to the previous century (according to Carl), yet despite our great achievements in all the sciences (physcial, social, political, etc), sometimes old school laws still pertain even though they're uncomfortable deviations from the world we desire.…

Really? 100 years ago we could employ the military in a manner to achieve military objectives that facilitated achieving political objectives, but we can't do it now?

As Ken stated the article is a simple dose of reality that isn't politically popular, but one that needs to understood by politicans and military leaders alike before they haphazardly commit to these missions (either directly or through mission creep).

We are not going to change the cultural norms or the political system in Afghanistan, so that is wishful thinking. Development and strategic communications will not defeat the insurgents. For those who are arguing with the author's approach, what do you recommend in lieu of?

It is worth adding that the author didn't say the military effort was the complete strategy, but others elements of the strategy will not work unless we put the insurgents under untolerable military pressure.

I actually think we are putting the insurgents under a fair amount pressure in Afghanistan now given the number of U.S. troops, but in order to effectively expand that pressure the ANA and other Afghan security forces will have to commit to the fight spiritually and physically, and the safehaven in Pakistan will have to be addressed. Anything less than that is capitulation.

What I find amusing about these attacks on the article is that we are largely pursuing this strategy now (and only over the past two or so years) and it is starting to make some limited gains (just as our initial combat operations did in 2001/02 time frame). None of the so called soft/smart power efforts have produced results in areas that have not been cleared of insurgents.

Bob's World

Fri, 07/08/2011 - 2:24pm


The measure of insurgency is not the presence or absence of violence; it is the presence or absence of illegal political action. Violence is merely a tactical choice.

What one might want to pause and ponder is whether or not one as the governmnent has provided adequate LEAGAL venues to the populace to express their political concerns in a manner that is both legal and effective?

But we here on SWJ rarely discuss insurgency, rather we focus on the interventions by more powerful foreign governments in the insurgencies of others for the purpose of securing a solution that that foreign power believes will best serve THEIR interests in that troubled land. As I acknowledged, historically "control" through the suppression of the troublesome segment of the populace was once perfectly adequate and for the most part acceptable. What Great Britain came to learn, IMO, is that the Cost of such operations began to exceed the benefits as the far flung corners of their empire became better connected by the very telegraph cables and steam ships that they had employed to build that economic system of control and exploitation in the first place.

So too today. The US also implemented a system of controls post WWII to secure our own economic and security concerns, and with a big wake up call on 9/11, are beginning to realize that once again the Costs of such an approach have again grown to exceed the benefits.

Britain was wise enough to cut their overhead and was fortunate to have a trustworthy rising ally to hand off to as they stepped back into a (backseat driver more than we admit)position close behind the US to let us break trail for a while.

So yes, I am quite aware of the suppressive qualities of well applied military power upon some foreign populace. The first order effects can be quite satisfactory. But as the victims of 9/11 would tell you if alive today, the second order effects can be a bitch.


JMA (not verified)

Fri, 07/08/2011 - 2:04pm

Bob, again I seem to detect some confusion between the political grand strategy towards one country's engagement with another and how the military should be used in response to an armed insurgency in that country.

As far as the political stuff goes TR's soundbite sounds good but it was arrogant for someone from a background of little colonial experience to lecture the Brits on how to (or not to) run an empire. But if you were to apply that sound bite to how to (or not to) utilise the military his (and I paraphrase and adapt) "if you are going to use military force then don't use half measures" is spot on. In other words, get in and do the business then go home.

Wilf's article in not 100 years too late but I have acknowledged that it is probably 40 odd too late for the western powers who are unable to justify (to their own populace) such use of military violence anywhere (which the further East you go does not seem to be a concern). Do we know what Russia is doing in Chechnya (and do they care if we know) and do we know what China is doing in Tibet (and do they care if we know)?

Just to correct you... military action (as advocated by Wilf) is not "to suppress all dissent" but only to suppress "violent dissent" as "non-violent opposition is normal everyday politics, and not something that the Army should worry about."

slapout9 (not verified)

Fri, 07/08/2011 - 1:51pm

It might be helpfull to read Wilf's other article called "Targeted Killing". In that article you will find out that it is killing under the guidance of Policy. If you don't have that ultimate Policy guide you will just end up killing people as some type of activity. Not a good thing to do.

Ken White (not verified)

Fri, 07/08/2011 - 1:31pm

Sigh. The 12:29 PM is I... :(

Anonymous (not verified)

Fri, 07/08/2011 - 1:29pm

Nah, it's not naive nor is it a century late. It is simply a dose of reality aimed at those who wish to believe in a 'better way.' While there are times and places where better ways will in fact work, in most cases where force should be (note those words...) applied, one is going to have to kill people and the more efficiently, accurately and effectively one does that the sooner one will have acceptable conditions in which to to improve governance or do whatever else is required.

Do not break out the chain saw when it isn't needed. If you do use it, do so correctly or you may hurt yourself. That's neither naive or inappropriate to this or any other time.


Fri, 07/08/2011 - 1:08pm

"Wilf's article is spot's just published 100 years too late."

C.E. Callwell never would've published anything this naive.

Bill C. (not verified)

Fri, 07/08/2011 - 12:28pm

Addendum No. 2:

And why such "control" is being sought.

Bill C. (not verified)

Fri, 07/08/2011 - 12:23pm


Importance of my item above, I believe, being to describe the kind and type of "control" that we seek -- via "killing" -- and/or some other method -- to achieve.

Bill C. (not verified)

Fri, 07/08/2011 - 12:13pm

The "crime" that we seem to be seeking to stamp out by various means throughout the world today, is that various states and societies are not ordered, organized, configured and integrated for optimal use by the global economy -- so as to adequately provide for and support the rapid and ever-increasing needs of today's developed and developing world.

In this regard, our "push" (that of the more-modern, more-open, more-liberal, more-integrated, more-demanding and much more-needy world) has come to their shove (that of the more-traditional, more-insular, more-conservative, more-independent and more-self-sufficient world).

If this (or something similar) is, indeed, the nature of the conflict, then (a) how do we employ and (b) where do we deploy our assets and "instruments of power;" so to achieve the desired ends ("outlaw" states and societies are brought under such control as is required to ensure that they [1] cause us fewer problems and [2] become more useful to us)?

carl (not verified)

Fri, 07/08/2011 - 11:32am

This was a fine article. One of its' most important points, so important that Wilf went over it twice, was that in small war, force must be precisely applied so as to limit the killing of civilians. The force must be skillfully applied. That word "skill" is the one that is emphasized. If too many civilians are being killed, there is no skill in the application of violence and something must be changed.

This is one of the most important points in this article. Force is vital, but it must, must be used with skill. No excuses. If too many civilians are being killed, it is because the soldiers are not skilled (or maybe, I think, are not permitted to use their skills).

Bob's World

Fri, 07/08/2011 - 7:27am

Wilf's article is spot's just published 100 years too late.

This whole idea of going to some foreign land and imposing ones will upon them so completely as to suppress all dissent through violent military action to get the populace to submit to the government one has chosen/approved/protected for them is the fast track to creating transnational terrorism today. Just ask AQ, because it is such actions by Western Nations over the past 100 years or so that has provided them their primary base of support.

My current commute book on CD is "Colonel Roosevelt" by Edmund Morris, that covers the years following his Presidency. After nearly 2 years on Safari, from Kenya up through Egypt and all points in between, he offended his British hosts on that stop of his following speaking tour of Europe in 1911 I believe. In regards to Britain's colonial policies there, where Muslim extremism was a growing problem, as was, in TR's mind, the fiction of the degree of sovereignty allowed to various local governments under an ultimate British control. Allowing all kinds of poor governance, but with the Brits stepping in only for matters that affected British interests. To paraphrase (I don't have the text handy) he told them "If you are going to be there, be there all the way beause you have determined you must be there. But if you are not willing to do that, then don't be there at all. Don't just be there hafl way."

This is the problem with modern colonialism under the British Empire and neo-colonialism under US containment poliices. Now, one can take TRs advice and stay, which then triggers the approach WILF promotes. BE THERE. Or, one can assess that no interest really rises to that level, and DON'T BE THERE. Following this guideline, I can't think of many such places where the US would stay today, and a few places where in fact we would be better served by being there all the way. (AFPAK is definitely on the 'don't be there' list).


JMA (not verified)

Fri, 07/08/2011 - 5:00am

Back to Wilf's article. I see this section as being the key (being what I have echoed elsewhere before reading this piece):

"Thus at the campaign level, the Armys
mission should be to defeat the
insurgents, as in breaking their collective
will to endure in combat. Defeating the
enemy creates your freedom of action
to do all else. It does not matter if the
Government policy is to ensure that
everyone has a red front door. An Armys
job is to kill or capture anyone who
seeks to violently contest the colour of
the front door. Non-violent opposition
is normal everyday politics, and not
something that the Army should worry

This of course could mean that the insurgents just cache their weapons and continue to live in the population to maintain their presence and continue their political indoctrination of the masses (for this read their control).

The next phase (after "clear")would then be either "hold" or "control" is when these insurgent elements (hiding in the community) are "taken out" together with the unarmed "political wing" by police/civil action/intel elements. This would be through the legal channels as opposed to military action. (Perhaps an interim martial law period would allow one to lift these persons without too much ado).

There is just too much chattering around the issues IMHO. KISS. Also there must be a separation of the military tasking and the overall political control of the district/province/country.

Why is there confusion over the role of the military? Because the US continue to put serving generals in charge. The idea of a Bremer type person (maybe he was not the right choice) or a Templer (from Malaya) correctly takes the military out of the equation. I sympathise with the general in charge in that he has to use his soldiers in non military roles as there is most often no one else or no one else reliable.

Bill M.

Thu, 07/07/2011 - 11:57pm


In some cases a top down solution can be very helpful, but as I wrote earlier I suspect if Karsai was a saint and skilled politician that cared about his nation and his people (and acted as such), the Taliban would continue to fight because they desire to be in charge to push their form of Shari'a law and to exploit the Afghan people for financial gain. I'm not excusing poor governance, but simply making a point that it is not that simple.

I was reading some books on investment today, some honest books on investment that recognized the complexity of the markets and the number of variables that can influence it that you can't wish away with a few simple investing rules. The parallel is that we strive for a few simple rules that we can follow in hope of getting a good return on our investment in Afghanistan. That is one of the reason there is such a backlash by some against our COIN doctrine (follow these rules and you'll be a millionaire).

One of the authors quoted a Supreme Court Judge, which I'll attempt to paraphrase.

"I like simplicity that lies on the other side of complexity, I don't want anything to do with simplicity that lies on this side of complexity." In short, he wanted to see the hard analysis first, all the variables considered, etc. before we gained insights that were both simple and brilliant.

I think design is an "attempt" to study complexity and get to the far side of it, but we don't do it well. Instead we rather buy what the various think tanks are selling without putting their ideas through serious consideration. I know you said you don't believe in complexity, but complexity is a fact, not a theory, and you can't address it with simple ideas that are formed on this side of complexity.

Bill C. (not verified)

Thu, 07/07/2011 - 3:50pm

COL Jones:

In that:

a. The purpose of the United States generally in the world today, and specifically re: Afghanistan now, is to "open up" and "modernize" outlier states and societies. (Helping to explain why "development" is a COIN LOO?)

b. And the Taliban understands this to be the case (US objective is to "open up" and "modernize" outlier states and societies -- this, so that these might pose less of a problem to the developed and developing world and become more of an accessable/useable asset.)

(Important note: Reforms must include equal rights for women -- as modern states/societies -- and the international community/global economy -- will not forego access to this important resource [one half a country's population]).

Then do we believe that such an objective (the "opening" & "modernizing" of Afghanistan) is something that the Taliban will be willing sign up for -- via some kind of reconcillation package and/or a new constitutional arrangement?

Or does the adamant "anti-opening"/"anti-modern" stance of the Taliban -- and others of its ilk in the less-integrated world -- preclude such an accommodation; and only leave us with (1) abandoning our objective or (2) "killing our way to control?"

Bob's World

Thu, 07/07/2011 - 3:12pm


It is indeed a messy business. Understanding what the critical lines are, and then only crossing them knowingly with the clear intent to step back at first opportunity is key.

A saying I like is "that while it may sometimes be right to do the wrong thing, it is never wrong to do the right thing."

Governments get into a psychological trap, that once they are illegally attacked, they feel compelled to "enforce the rule of law." I believe they also are fearful of being accused of weakness or appeasement if they do not counter in kind. This misses a key point that I often raise: Insugency is internal to a state. A state cannot "appease" it's own populace when addressing their reasonable concerns (recognizing that invariably the government and the agrieved segment of the popualce will differ on what is "reasonable"). To make such changes, even if unwilling to do so prior to being attacked, is simply government doing its job. To continue to refuse to evolve while attacking the populace for daring to challenge such a grievance and being forced to adopt ilegal forms of coercion to force government action, is to add one governmental sin upon the other.

EGO and the inherent nature of politicians and governments to avoid responsibility (for fear it will be converted to "fault" by their legal political opponents) is a major escalator of violence and duration in insurgency.

For example, find a single American politician willing to recognize any aspect of responsiblity in US foreign policy as contributing to the conditions that gave rise to the attacks of 9/11. It is political suicide. Ask any reasonable foreign politician if he can identify any such points and they will ask you to sit down while they compile the list.

Human nature drives these conflicts in so many ways.



I am advocate for limited development after the COIN force establishes security, not before them. I emphasize "limited" development, because I think the government only needs to convince the populace that life is better now that the government has won, and limited development avoids the "big" promises that will generally be broken. Set expectations low (but better than the current situation), and then try to succeed them.

Top down is an appropriate focus "if" you can get to the left of the insurgency and address underlying issues. Top down will not defeat an insurgency once it starts in "most" cases, due to pyschological factors involved. Once blood is spilt and groups are formed with their own identities then the insurgency becomes more than an armed conflict over a particular issue. I think we fail to capture that in our discussions, and focus too much on a rational solution to a problem that has transformed from mostly rational to emotional in nature.

Kids won't leave street gangs, when the gang is part of their identity, just because we offer them a job at McDonalds. Poor analogy, but I still think it makes my point. You'll pull some people away from the insurgency with top down policies, not all, and those you can't have to be defeated militarily.


Bob's World

Thu, 07/07/2011 - 6:57am


The whole idea of "Development" as a LOO for COIN, let alone a primary LOO, is misguided at best. It is rooted in a belief that it is a lack of EFFECTIVE government, as measured in government services, infrastructure, etc that causes insurgency. Poppycock.

Governments can be highly effective with great infrastructure and still have strong undercurrents of latent insurgency waiting to explode into conflict (US in the 50s and 60s; Saudi Arabia today; etc, etc). It is not so much what or even how the government does its business, and certainly not about the form of government. It is about how the people FEEL about that government. If some distinct and significant segment of the populace perceives themselves to be excluded from full participation in society, the conditions of insurgency will grow within that segment.

Once that occurs it only takes a spark; some event, some leader, some ideology, to move them to action. With modern info tools such movements can now organize on the fly, avoiding the necessity of a pesky Maoist Phase I (and thereby avoiding getting identified and rolled up by the security forces who have done that very well to date in Sauid Arabia and other ME states).

Good governance goes to these popular perceptions and does not require much development, or even much security for that matter, to adopt and implement the small changes of governance that can have major impact on reducing the conditions of insurgency to a manageable level.

How much security and development required for Karzai to conduct a major reconciliation with Taliban leadership and hold a comprehensive constitutional Loya Jirga???

How much security and development required for the KSA to adopt and implement policy changes that bring Shia Saudis into equity with Sunni Saudis? Or to shift the Judicial system from being under the King's control? Small changes have huge impact. Key is understanding what changes are most important.

Clearing some village or building a school is largely make-work that does little or nothing to address the primary drivers of insurgent causation. All this "bottom-up" COIN is also Poppycock. The problem starts at the top, and the solution also must start at the top.

Most US COIN (that involves us in some foreign land) is best conducted by the President, the SECSTATE or the Ambassador. They need to own that mission, and currently they delegate it to the military. That is our strategic point of failure right there. And don't give the Intel guys too much air time, as they will make it all about some threat, and in reality that threat is merely a symptom of a larger, and non-military, problem.


JMA (not verified)

Thu, 07/07/2011 - 5:46am

Carl said: "Yes, because the Tamil militias in their various incarnations had never been defeated by arms before."

Well yes but when the Sri Lankan government exhausted all the "nice" methods of countering the insurgency and stopped pussy-footing around the Tamil "militias" were annihilated and the Tamil population crushed. There is always a first time and the first defeat of the Tamils was total and decisive. Never to rise again in a generation (or two). Not nice, never could that approach be emulated by a western country but ruthlessly effective none the less.

Like Wilf's approach it will be many times more effective than the current "cheque-book" counterinsurgency whereby money is thrown around to the extent that the population is bribed into submission.

Bill M.

Wed, 07/06/2011 - 10:29pm

@ Carl, I wish I could find the reference, but when I was studying insurgency in Africa a well done authority stated if 11% of the population supported the insurgents, then the State wouldn't succeed unless it had external support, and if the insurgents had 15% of the population actively support their cause it was unlikely the State could win even with external support. I'm leery of using statistics to determine cause and effect, but I think these percentages could be valid. 11% of the population actively supporting an insurgency, and assuming most of the population is neutral/passive, that creates a massive security problem for the State to deal with. If they had 5% of their population in the military which is probably unrealistic, they would be stretched to the extreme. Forget the exact numbers, since there are too many variables to determine what is required to win on either side (numbers alone don't determine combat and political effectivenss); however, it simple knuckle dragger terms the more folks that support the insurgency the tougher the problem.

@ GRDN, well said, but if we are in a situation where the real government won't govern effectively as we appear to be in Afghanistan, then is a political approach feasible?


I agree with you that most insurgencies are armed struggles for power. In fact Id probably say that they all are. My follow up to that is that armed struggles just dont appear out of nowhere. There has to be an underlying reason, a cause, something that is pissing people off to such an extent that they view the only way to correct those errors is through violence and non legitimate political means.

In regards to breaking the insurgents will to fight, I think we are pretty much on the same page. I think killing insurgents to the point that they just want to quit is part of the overall solution. However, in my opinion the best way to do that is to introduce the developmental/reconciliation/political piece of COIN so as to provide a better choice for the local population to side with and take as much of the steam out of the oppositions will to resist as possible. The populations support of the government and the rejection of the insurgent will be the only thing which can generate the intelligence and popular support needed to destroy the enemys resistance.

So just as you said, if fighters can be brought into the peaceful political process by demonstrating that they cant achieve their aims through military action, and their grievances are addressed in both the short and long terms, either a negotiated settlement can reached or victory achieved - and then there is no more reason to fight the state.

Also Robert Jones, I agree with you 100%. I wish policy deciders (both political and military) paid more attention to this line of reasoning.



Wed, 07/06/2011 - 3:21pm

Because I take SWJ seriously, I'm going to suggest a good book that makes the argument this "Wilf" character should've made, but didn't.

He didn't cite it, but it's Stephen L. Melton's "The Clausewitz Delusion: How the American Army Screwed Up the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan."

Melton makes the point that in most wars a casualty rate of about 50 percent of MAMs will bring a state to collapse. This isn't always so, but it's a working number and you can read through his case studies about it.

I've made the argument elsewhere that refugees amongst the Sunni Arabs in Iraq should be counted as "casualties," almost like EPWs, because it removed them far from the battlefield.

Douglas Ollivant makes similar points (and also cites Melton) in his recent "New Orthodoxy" essay, which I highly recommend.…


Wed, 07/06/2011 - 2:06pm

"nor is there likely to be from the Tamils in Sri Lanka."

Yes, because the Tamil militias in their various incarnations had never been defeated by arms before.

Again, this ahistorical rant by Owen was lamentable. It posits the same sort of war-as-process vibe as the three cups of tea crowd.

JMA (not verified)

Wed, 07/06/2011 - 1:39pm

Ken said: "Of course one can always misuse one's military. We in the US have offered examples of how to do that..."

Yes, and the big one is to try to turn a first class fighting unit into a ground holding and infrastructure defending militia.

JMA (not verified)

Wed, 07/06/2011 - 1:05pm

What a refreshing article!

Having debated with Wilf on the Discussion Board around these issues I am surprised that I find myself in almost total agreement with him. Has his position changed or has mine? I don't know.

I would go so far as to state that western countries (with their imposed limitations and RoE) stand no chance of defeating any insurgency. It seems that the current approach is to seek a negotiated settlement requiring significant concessions from the outset.

As I commented on - The Third Way of COIN: Defeating the Taliban in Sangin...…

... the first step to dealing with the insurgency is to "demilitarise" the area so that the political aspects can be addressed. This process will require significant military action.

Two insurgencies that I can quickly recall that were decisively defeated the recent one in Sri Lanka (where maximum violence was employed to close a festering ulcer) and then back to the early 80's where Mugabe poisoned the water in which the Ndebele "dissidents" were swimming. Both were ugly but both were in the end decisive and in the case of Zimbabwe there has not been a muttering out of Matabeleland for 30 years nor is there likely to be from the Tamils in Sri Lanka.

I suggest that when these insurgencies occur and that the US feels the need to get involved use is made of proxy forces.

It might be easier to stop thinking in terms of "insurgency", "COIN", and "warfare", and simply recognize that we're stuck in a fight between two factions, both of which want power, control, and the ability to run the show for their own benefit, stomp any who object, and oppress the other faction. We happen to call one of those factions "the government".

It would be lovely for us if those factions would reconcile and share power, but realistically, they won't. They aren't fighting for inclusion and representation, they are fighting for power: one wants to keep it, the other wants to seize it.

The question for us is why we insist on remaining in the middle of it.

Bob's World

Wed, 07/06/2011 - 6:46am

From Bill Moore:

"I still believe there is a political aspect that must be addressed (different than nation building), but again that isn't the military's role."

I agree completely with this sentence, and in fact, this is the crux of the problem currently in Afghanistan. The "enemy COG" that is the primary driver of the over-arching revolutionary insurgency between the Northern Alliance leadership installed by us as GIRoA and the Taliban government sent into exile by us to Pakistan is the current Constitution of Afghanistan, enabled by us, that turns traditional Afghan patronage into a Ponzi scheme of control and corruption vested in a single man; and that creates in effect a monopoly of governmental and economic opportunity also controlled by that same man.

The two critical tasks are to oversee the reconciliation of these issues and the conduct of a new, INCLUSIVE OF ALL Constitutional Loya Jirga. This is what removes the proverbial thorn of insurgent causation from the paw of the Afghan populace, (and it is whoever does that that will have earned the respect and support of that same populace necessary to garner their support on other issues, such as denial of sanctuary to AQ, etc).

The problem is that no general sees that as his job, and that we see COIN as warfare and keep putting generals in charge. So, it matters little really if WILF is the general and he scorches the earth; or it Mother Theresa is the General and she treats all with love; or anything in between. If all one does is treat the symptoms of the problem, all one gets is a temporary suppression of those symptoms. Sometimes a decent interval is enough, sometimes suppression is enough. If I am the manager of the East India Company trying to wring a profit out of the natives and the Royal Army can keep the symptoms suppressed, that is good enough. That is what our COIN doctrine is derived from. (Or American fruit, and the USMC can keep symptoms suppressed, etc)

We don't get better by going backwards.

We don't get better with the current approaches either.

We must recognize the nature of our history as well as the nature of such conflicts and design new approaches that are Civilian-led (as Galula advised) and focused on the causal roots between the govenrment and the populace. We must accept that sometimes those roots are so deep that they can only be resolved by the removal or major changes of the standing government by the governed populace for their reasons to what they want; not by some intervening party for their reasons to what they think will best support their external interests.

The bulk of our efforts in Afghanistan are directed at the resistance insurgency and avoid the revolution. Such an approach, IMO, cannot succeed. Such is the nature of resistance. One must address the revolution first, and instead we ignore it. That is our strategic problem. It is definitely in a general's lane to lay that out for the President, and I don't think any have attempted to make that case.



The most powerful force in the world is when two ideas meet, so in my humble opinion disagreement and the debate it leads to is beneficial. For one I welcome. Second, I don't buy into the argument that killing them all is necessarily the right answer, there is a lot gray area here, but I do think if you're going to employ the military to fight the insurgents, then we need to do a much better much of fighting harder and more effectively if we're going to break the insurgent's will.

I think I addressed your point about working with the populace in my first post, so I agree you have to work with the populace to identify the insurgent.

While every situation is different, in general I don't think addressing the underlying the issues will solve most insurgencies, because I think most insurgencies are armed struggles about individuals striving to obtain power. There is a lot of emotion and personal ambition involved on both sides, and not as much altruism involved as we idealists like to think. Sometimes underlyng grievances can't be fixed (we won't support Shari'a law that oppresses women for example), and in other cases just because you fix the particular grievance they may be using as propaganda to mobilize support doesn't mean they won't continue to pursue personal power through the illegal use of force. I tend to look at this less politically and more from a human behavior stand point. However in some cases if there a real grievance such as oppression of particular ethnic group, then by all means you must address that issue.

As for the killing your way out of an insurgency, the point that the author and others have made is that the goal of fighting to begin with is to break the insurgents will to fight. We can't do this through development efforts, only through the effective employment of violence (that doesn't mean a license to commit mass murder) that over time convinces the insurgents and would be insurgents that they cannot achieve their goal through the use of violence. The State is too strong and effective for this means to work. The objective is to get the insurgents to stop fighting. I and others will argue this is a short term goal, then the government must follow through quickly to address the issues (but in my opinion not until the insurgents are knocked back on their heels).

As Bob and others point out, if you don't address the underlying issue then you will only have achieved a temporary victory, and in totalitarian regimes like Syria a state of victory can be maintained only as long as the government has control over the security forces and willing to terrorize their own people. Non totalitarian regimes must also maintain control of their security forces, but for the government to remain legitimate and stay in power they must address the needs of their people.

Afghanistan and Iraq were outliers from COIN in my opinion. We didn't go there to support a functional government, we went there to oust the governments that were in place, then we enabled the establishment of new governments that naturally have a lot of opposition in the bid for power. When we talk about addressing underlying issues, it is tougher when you are an occupation like force, because one of the biggest underlying drivers of the conflict is our occupation of the country. How can the country address the underlying the issue when we are still there? Its funny how we blame everything on Karsai, yet I suspect that even if Karsai was the Dali Lama and Margret Thatcher combined we would still have a robust insurgency because our forces are still there calling the shots in so many ways.

There are no easy answers, but if our objective is to defeat the Taliban insurgents, then I don't think we will do that with our continued efforts at development under fire. Instead we need to focus our efforts on destroying them militarily. I also think the Afghans need to take the lead in doing this, and if they're not willing to do this, then maybe that should tell us that this fight can't be won.

I really appreciate reading a dissenting opinion for once; its good to know that people are willing to think differently from the mainstream in order to produce results. However, I think the reasoning in this article is misplaced.

Killing insurgents is important - it needs to be. I dont think anyone will argue with this. Some people just need to be killed for things to happen.

However, a serious issue becomes apparent when trying to kill enough insurgents to influence their decision making process: how do you identify who is and who is not, an insurgent? Do they wear uniforms and fight us on defined battle lines? Of course not, and thats why we cant kill our way out of an insurgency.

The ability of the insurgent to blend in with the population and hide from counterinsurgents is perhaps their single greatest advantage. So how then, do you suggest we find the insurgent in an environment where conflict may be between people of the same race and creed? The truth is the whole conflict becomes a massive identification problem, and the individuals most capable of identifying who is on what side happen to live in the local population. Additionally, the local population will only (and quite logically) help in the identification of the insurgent if they have a good enough reason to do so - either through coercion or potential benefit. I'd prefer their willing support.

Furthermore, how do you kill all the insurgents when the problem that is CREATING the insurgents in the first place is not being addressed? Why keep chopping at the top of the weeds and not pull the roots up? Why not destroy their grievance with the existing system and destroy their motive (their will) for fighting in the first place? Are you seriously going to keep killing every insurgent that is created, without stopping their creation? That doesn't make any sense to me at all. Quit treating symptoms and fix the problem.

Also I realize that the military may not be the most ideal organization for doing all of this, but what do you do when its the only organization you have capable of doing so? Lose or make do?

Like I said before, I appreciate the thinking here - but I disagree.



I suspect we differ on a few points and agree on many others. I think Wilf's article effectively addressed that the military's logical line of effort in a counterinsurgency is to break the insurgents' will through the use of force, and he correctly identified that an insurgency is an "armed, violent and illegal" opposition to the existing government (we can argue until the world ends on the wisdom of the policy that actually gets "us" involved in these fights, but that isn't the point now).

Concuring with the arguments above does not mean I believe supporting a corrupt and ineffective government is wise. However, I don't think it is our role (especially the military's) to fix their government. The Afghan people can do that if we get out of their way. We may not like it, but it won't have the legitimacy you speak of until they make it.

I still believe there is a political aspect that must be addressed (different than nation building), but again that isn't the military's role. The military's role is to defeat the insurgent militarly (while respecting the political and cultural limitations that impact their tactics and ROE).

Where I suspect our opinions diverge is that you seem to think if we give the insurgent leaders the means to participate legally within the existing government framework they will lay their arms and join the political process. Every situation is different, but in many situations I take the view that the insurgent leaders are fighting for power (using ideology as a facade to justify their hunger for power), not the right to "share" power, and unless they are defeated or at least convinced they can't win militarily they will not abandon their ambition for power.

To get to your specific point above, I think it a fools errand to do development while fighting, and very stupid to subordinate fighting to development when we are still in a shooting match. You and I both know if the Brits built schools, clinics and roads in our colonies during the revolution we wouldn't stop fighting them. The same holds true in most insurgencies. You may win over a few villagers, but I suspect that loyalty will be short lived.

I won't pin myself down to a doctrine or philosophy, because I want to reserve the right to adjust appropriately to the situation. So while I didn't concur with Wilf's article in total, what I enjoyed about it is that it challenged the current COIN dogma that has hampered our ability to achieve our national objectives in Afghanistan.

We're there, and our military is not going to fix their government. If our task is to defeat the insurgents through combat operations and enabling the Afghan security forces to do the same to consolidate the gains when they're made, then we need to adjust our tactics appropriately. No one is talking about a scorched earth policy here, we must respect civilian lives, and I personally think we drop way too many bombs as it is now. I am more inclinded to put more boots on the ground to close with the enemy, and fewer in the FOBs.

Bob's World

Tue, 07/05/2011 - 10:14pm


I never promote "statebuilding." Silly stuff that. I do promote governments seeking to have legitimacy in the eyes of their entire populace, to seek to treat every segment of the populace with respect, to seek to ensure that the rule of law is perceived as just by the people it is applied to; and to ensure that legal, trusted and certain means of affecting government are available to the populace. The entire populace.

That is how insurgency is both prevented and cured.

As to Malaya, Gian, you confuse counterinsurgent operations with counterinsurgency. Yes, the Briish military effectively suppressed the insurgents. That is good counterguerrilla operations. (Same more recently in Sri Lanka). But the insurgency itself? At that point it was largely unaddressed. All of the drivers that led to the rise of the communist ideology insurgency among the ethnic chinese were still in place at that time. That is suppression of sysmptoms, not resolution of problems.

Only later did the British ensure sufferage to the ethnic Chinese populace and remove the controlling influence of the Office of the High Commissioner that the Malayan government had to answer to. They granted the Malayans independence and brought them into the Commonwealth as peers. THAT was the counterinsurgency part.

Now, Bill Moore argues that one has to do the military suppression part first before one can get to the actual efforts to address the drivers of insurgency. Perhaps, that is definitely a situational consideration. Frankly I believe we tend to go with the counterguerrilla operations first because we give these problems to the military, and the military finds a threat and defeats it. Destroy the village to save the village. Clear-Hold-Build. etc. I suspect that a more tailored approach to security that focuses on delievery of the good governance that goes directly to the drivers of Insurgency would be more efficient in most cases.

So, gosh, no, my facts are straight. Our analysis is different. I analyze these conflicts as a student of insurgency and my aptitude, training and experience as a Special Forces officer turned strategist. Also my experience running Military Support to Civil Authorities for the State of Oregon and my experience, education and training as a criminal prosecutor. I take a multi-discipline approach, in other words.

Most military texts tend to look at insurgency in the context of military operations and warfare. It taints the perspective. Most COIN writings are by and about 3rd party interventions for the interests of that 3rd party as well. That too taints perspectives. I try to look through that to better understand the dynamics between the populace and their government; and also the relations with those pesky 3rd parties, be they there to wage FID or UW.

As to Israel? Do they treat the Arab populace equally to the Jewish populace? More importantly, as facts are largely moot in such cases, does the Arab popualce PERCEIVE that they are treated equally? Receive justice under the law? Have legal recourse to their grievances? Do they recognize the right of the Jewish government to govern them?? I do not think the Israelies should create a separate state at all, that will solve nothing. I do advocate that the govern their entire populace equitably, and that is probably an area that needs some work.



Tue, 07/05/2011 - 8:02pm

I see no difference between this apparently un-Swiftian nonsense and the huggy-wuggy school of COIN.

gian p gentile (not verified)

Tue, 07/05/2011 - 7:16pm


Gosh what you say is not supported by history. In Malaya the British destroyed the insurgency through military force and it only made things better, not worse.

Your arguments about coin become so mixed up with state building that they, at least to me, lose any sense of coherency for guiding foreign and security policy. For you countering and insurgency is simply doing long term state building in foreign lands where the needs of the people are paramount. Sure that makes sense as a matter of humanistic principle but I am not sure where and what that means for American foreign policy and national security.

It certainly cant apply to a state like Israel because if they followed your precepts they would immediately grant Palestinian statehood and withdraw from the territories because that is what the people want who are fueling the insurgency.


Ken White (not verified)

Tue, 07/05/2011 - 6:06pm


Every Political situation is different. <u>Every</u> war therefrom resulting and thereunto pertaining (not always the sane thing...) is different. Most Operations in such wars are different. Public opinions will differ. Wilf's solution is often necessary, sometimes it could be necessary but can also be avoided either totally or partially. There is no one size fits all...

However, once one commits one's general purpose forces -- one's war fighting organizations -- such an approach is indicated. One can sluff on that but one will pay in other ways. Really, it boils down to what <b>SJPO'Neill</b> wrote:<blockquote>"Wilf says nothing to prevent popualtion enaggement nor does he say this is a bad thing - he merely points out what the role of the military is..."</blockquote>Of course one can always misuse one's military. We in the US have offered examples of how to do that...


Tue, 07/05/2011 - 5:14pm someone who has spent more time disagreeing with Wilf here than I have agreeing with him, I have to say that I am in total agreement with him in this article: he states here very well what should have been said some years ago before too many bought into the concept of a 'nice war'.

Clearly the article will be subject to some 'nit-picking' because it doesn't provide a universal panacea to the IW conundrum but that was never the intention of the article; or because it doesn't kowtow to the fluffy pop-centrists. Wilf says nothing to prevent popualtion enaggement nor does he say this is a bad thing - he merely points out what the role of the military is...

Bob's World

Tue, 07/05/2011 - 5:12pm

All insurgents are civilians, but not all civilians are insurgents. Sort that out and fire for effect. (but only IAW the ROE, of course).

Counter-guerrilla operations can indeed destroy an insurgent force; most likely such actions will make the insurgency worse. "Insurgency" describes the conditions of discontent between the government and some distinct and significant segment of the populace that led to an insurgent force to form, organize and conduct operations to resolve the same.

To set out to destroy this force as a seque to getting about addressing the issues of insurgency is a technique that is often applied, but invariably with only temporary effect. Any government willing to kill its own populace in order to avoid reform is hardly likely to take on those same reforms once that bothersome segment of the populace is so disposed.

Convenient histories may lead some to miss this fine point, but inconvenient realities usually drive the point home again in time.


gian p gentile (not verified)

Tue, 07/05/2011 - 4:41pm

Bob T said:

"While the British emphasised killing the enemy in Malaya, they also tried to win over the Malayan people by rewarding "good behaviour" and loyalty to the government.So the approach was mixed."

They tried, but the idea of "winning over" the ethnic Chinese squatters on the jungle fringes who provided material and moral support to the insurgents had little to nothing to do with defeating the insurgency. Wilf is spot on correct in this regard in the two critical factors that defeated the Malayan insurgents were physical relocation of the squatters combined with military operations to sever the links between the insurgents and the resettled squatters. These two factors produced control over the resettled population. The hearts and minds that were won by Templer were those who were already on the side of the British colonial government who wanted nothing to do with a communist takeover.



Tue, 07/05/2011 - 4:08pm

Please, no more cherry picking bits of interesting read and slickly argued BUT

1) While the British emphasised killing the enemy in Malaya, they also tried to win over the Malayan people by rewarding "good behaviour" and loyalty to the government.So the approach was mixed.

2)" Enemy centric tactics facilitate population security." No doubt it works in some cases, e.g kill Al Qaeda car bomb cells = civilians protected. But what about armed narco trafickers who might be PRO government and are also in the area of operations? What about armed militias and vigilantes who may be pro government or merely protecting their communities? At some point, you are going to have to sit down with a community representative and figure out what the hell is going on as your forces patrol around chasing gunfire at night.

In the scenario outlined in this essay however, that is fluffy pop centric COIN nonsense. While we don't want to turn COIN into aid work with guns, ignoring constructive community engagement to focus purely on zapping the bad guys is just a fantasy. It has its time and place, and to be sure Brits and Americans have got pretty good at slotting the bad guys. But it ultimately didn't work in 'Nam, it wasn't the solution in Northern Ireland, nor was it the only way in Iraq.

For a Brit, you should know better (I am a Brit in London.) The fact is, a lot of Catholics in Ireland stopped fighting because of a reconciliation process. That process was in part brought about by events like the hunger strikes. Not because IRA men were lying awake at night worried about the SAS, although this may have been a factor for some.

Likewise, sometimes IRA operations were disrupted with NO VIOLENCE to protect informers- eg faked car crash to hold up an IRA hit man. What kind of Northern Ireland would exist today if the British had just sniped any unarmed IRA lookout? It seems the problem with this enemy centric vs pop centric debate is that it suggests catch all approaches. Blasting anyone on the street who looks like they are spotting for a mortar strike might have worked during Tet, but it sure was never going to work in Belfast. And yet both approaches are "enemy centric."

For a more nuanced opinion, I am currently reading the Orbis Operations report on Sangin...

PS- It was an enjoyable article regardless.


I agree with Steve, a well argued article up to a point. Although I think you ignore some realities.

Points of agreement:
- using lethal force to break their will to endure combat defeats any armed opponent in any environment. (There are a few reasons we don't do this, but mostly due to the toxic effect of our COIN doctrine which has created the self limiting sophistry you mentioned in your article)
- we are in Afghanistan to defeat an armed opposition to the government. (The take away here is you don't defeat an armed opponent with reconstruction teams, civil affairs, military information operations, public affairs, etc., you defeat them with relentless combat operations designed to crush their will to resist. Instead we limit most of our operations to disruption operations, which equates to a forever war.)
- yes, there is a mindset that we can't defeat insurgents by skillfully employing violence to break their will to fight, so our combat operations are severely self limited, which means "we" have created the conditions where it is impossible to defeat the enemy using effective combat operations. That is a lot different than the claim you can't kill your way to success.

Where I suspect we disagree:

- The Army's job is to influence the enemy, not the populace. While we have placed excessive focus on the populace the armed forces do require intelligence from the populace in order to kill the enemy, and since many fighters come from the populace it to our advantage (if it is doable) to influence the population also. There is a balance here that you appear to be ignoring. While I agree we are out of balance, to ignore influencing the population in some cases simply means waging war against your own population.

- The Taliban are poorly equipped and trained, so we should win every engagement. This statement is true for some elements of the resistance, maybe even the majority, but there are many elements within the Afghan resistance that are well trained and good fighters. In regards to their equipment, it has been proven to be good enough for guerilla warfare where they can cleverly use the terrain to conduct effective hit and run tactics with their current kit. If they're foolish enough to attack a fire base they are killed in mass, so those encounters are won.

What your article doesn't address in regards to Afghanistan:

- How do we deal with the safehaven in Pakistan? Is it possible to militarily defeat an insurgency that has a safehaven and state support that we have decided is hands off?

- If the Afghan government is so corrupt that a large percentage of the populace supports various resistance groups, then is a military victory really possible within the rule of law?

I'm no expert on military matters, but the thesis of this article seems rather brutal.

Quote from the article (page 2)

"Killing civilians should be avoided, not
because it is morally or ethically wrong
to do so, but purely because, due to the
rule of law, those civilians are under your

When did it stop being morally or ethically wrong to kill civilians? What am I missing?

Steve Metz (not verified)

Tue, 07/05/2011 - 10:21am

Very nicely argued. But I don't think anyone questions the effectiveness of the "mailed fist" approach to counterinsurgency. People like Luttwak, Peters, and Scheuer have proposed it for a number of years. The question is whether it is politically feasible for Western Democracies playing an outside role to do so.

My own approach is to advocating applying what is today the mainstream approach to COIN--the limited force model--only in cultures and contexts where it has a high probability of success, specifically those with a reasonably functional state and economy that simply needs a temporary helping hand. And to rely on a threat based approach via limited duration expeditions and raids to control the threat in other contexts.