Small Wars Journal

Commentary on Our Double-Edged Sword

Fri, 01/14/2011 - 10:13am
Before reading the linked article (Our Double-Edged Sword by Thomas H. Henriksen in the Hoover Digest) I offer a few comments for consideration. I think the author's critique is really with the doctrine of population centric COIN vice the Indirect Approach. I do not think we should throw the baby out with the bath water here and lump the Indirect Approach with population centric COIN.

And I really do have to take exception to this statement from the article:

"Some of Carl von Clausewitz's writings have, for longer than a century, influenced generals to see the object of war as simply destruction of adversaries in detail."

I guess I can accept it if emphasis is placed on the word "Some" because not all of Clausewitz writings emphasized this. I would also caveat this and say "It is the misreading of some of Clausewtiz' writings" or it is the misunderstanding caused by those who only read the bumper stickers of Clausewitz and do not really read (and more importantly study) On War.

Just to make a point we should not forget this quote from the chapter in People in Arms (Book 6 , Chapter 26):

"In a national insurrection the center of gravity to be destroyed lies in the person of the chief leader and in public opinion; against these points the blow must be directed." Clausewitz, 1832.

The other point we should be concerned with in this article is the premise that the indirect approach is somehow equated only with a softer, kinder, gentler approach. If we are going to twist the Indirect Approach in such a way then we should perhaps throw it in the dust bin along with Effect Based Operations (EBO) (which, by the way, is the only term to be struck form the lexicon since 9-11 when GEN Jim Mattis ordered it out of Joint Doctrine -- in contrast we have had a proliferation of new terms, many of which are redundant and overlapping, but I digress)

But we should consider the evolution of the indirect approach as follows (an excerpt from a paper I have not finished writing).

The Indirect Approach, first written and practiced by Sun Tzu and later codified and further developed by Captain Sir B.H. Liddell Hart in the 20th Century remains a key tactical concept, one of the pillars of operational art, and an important part of strategic theory today. It is a very popular term and is used by military and diplomatic strategists as well as politicians in theoretical writings, professional military journals and in the popular press.

However, since the attacks of September 11, 2001 and the resulting, so called Global War on Terror, military and strategic thinkers in the United States have put forth numerous concepts to explain conflict in the 21st Century. Such terms include Irregular Warfare in contrast to Major Combat Operations; Complex Contingencies, Hybrid Warfare and Full Spectrum Operations to name some of the major ones.

Emerging as a major operational construct to support strategy in these new operating environments is the Indirect Approach. This approach has been broadly characterized as working "through, by and with" friends, partners or allies to achieve US objectives and has formed the basis for the development of what the United States military now calls Security Force Assistance (and what gas long been called Foreign Internal Defense). The assumption is that if the U.S. military can "build the capacity" of the indigenous security forces then those forces can achieve security objectives for the U.S. However, is this really the meaning of the traditional Indirect Approach? (as an aside ("through, by and with" should really be written as "through and with" because the "by" really does not add anything to the meaning except to make it grammatically awkward, but I digress again)

Of course B.H. Liddell Hart is the man who brought the concept of the Indirect Approach to the fore in the 20th century. Fundamentally, his strategic concept can be summed up in his own following words:

"In strategy the longest way round is often the shortest way there; a direct approach to the object exhausts the attacker and hardens the resistance by compression, whereas an indirect approach loosens the defender's hold by upsetting his balance."

"The profoundest truth of war is that the issue of battle is usually decided in the minds of the opposing commanders, not in the bodies of their men"

Some would apply the Liddell Hart's concepts to purely the maneuver of military forces and the psychological effects on military commanders. This would seem to be a narrow use of the concept and perhaps render it no longer relevant. Even in current U.S. military doctrine (Joint Pub 3-0) it is used in a similar manner:

"In the event that a direct attack is not a reasonable solution, Joint Force Commanders should seek an indirect approach until conditions are established that permit successful direct attacks."

The emphasis remains on the direct attack as decisive and the indirect approach as a means to getting to and setting the conditions for the direct attack. However, in literature by some of today's senior military leaders the Indirect Approach takes on a different meaning:

"The primary contribution of Special Operations Forces (SOF) in this interagency activity is to organize, train, and assist local security forces. The indirect approach relies heavily on the SOF capability to build host nation defense capacity, provide civil affairs forces to give humanitarian and civic assistance, and offer information operations assets to aid the partner."

The Indirect Approach describing the activities of Special Operations Forces appears to be a strategic contrast to the operational and tactical action the indirect approach by regular maneuver forces.


Madhu (not verified)

Sun, 01/16/2011 - 10:46am

<em>I think one way we "cherry-pick" is to see what we want to see. We are still viewing the world through a 20th century prism: some of our allies are not really our allies, old friends are no longer that interested in us and our various international connections and frameworks bind us but free others.</em>

To refine the above a bit: intellectuals paid to think about this stuff "know" the above but when dreaming up solutions go with the familiar. Or maybe, the familiar binds us so that we can't work around it very easily.

(Contracting, government and military bureaucracies, the intellectual preconceptions and predispositions of our think tanks and universities. Takes time to change, I guess. Influence agents abound in such complicated systems.)

Madhu (not verified)

Sun, 01/16/2011 - 10:09am

<em>"In a national insurrection the center of gravity to be destroyed lies in the person of the chief leader and in public opinion; against these points the blow must be directed." Clausewitz, 1832.</em>

<em>For, me, this came down to "the speed and availability of information." That's it. Everything else in the world is really the same, except as affect by this advance in information technologies.</em>

How does the changing "speed and availability of information" alter populations and the center of gravity, if at all? I understand that populations (literate, connected populations) span national boundries with ease because of the internet but what about preliterate societies and geographically isolated populations?

Examples of populations:

1. Literate, connected.
2. Literate, without connection or with altered connections (for example, where internet is retricted or populations are actively propagandized).
3. Preliterate, "connected" via contact with above two populations.
4. Preliterate, without connection.

How does one think about center of gravity with respect to the above populations? I suppose I am adding more complication which is against the tenor of the post.

To simplify: know your population? Populations?

I think one way we "cherry-pick" is to see what we want to see. We are still viewing the world through a 20th century prism: some of our allies are not really our allies, old friends are no longer that interested in us and our various international connections and frameworks bind us but free others.

Can't solve problems if you refuse to admit the truth. First things first: whose goals ally with ours and whose differ? How about the nations and populations we simply don't understand very well as long as we are being honest with ourselves? We don't have to be confrontational but we should at least admit the obvious.

Strange creatures, intellectuals and writers (this is not directed at anyone in particular.) When you live in your head, the written word is intoxicating. That goes for the internet world of recruitment too.

Bob's World

Sun, 01/16/2011 - 8:32am

Wise words from Max, Mac and Bill.

For me, in this age of swarming, conflicting concepts, many designed by people who had never thought twice about insurgency prior to 9/11, the key is to focus on what, if anything, has changed.

For, me, this came down to "the speed and availability of information." That's it. Everything else in the world is really the same, except as affect by this advance in information technologies. This led me down a large number of paths, some mere rabbit holes, and other portals to other seemingly unrelated disciplines that all contribute to understanding the effects of such a change.

Through western history one can map on a timeline an interesting dynamic of warfare, social unrest, and changes in form of governance from small to large, associated with such info-tech changes. (Roman Roads, the printing press, the teletype and steam transport, jet travel, and now satellite/cellular coms. From tribes, to kingdoms, to states to ???

What comes next? Who knows, it is evolving around us. States are at the core, but the rise of empowered populaces and non-state actors blur the hard lines and rules that had come to define "statecraft."

Even with just the telegraph and steam it became too hard for European Colonial powers to sustain control over foreign populaces through military and economic might, as exercised through local, illegitimate governments. As info-tech made its next major advances, a weakening Soviet Union lost its ability to similarly exert itself over the empire it latched onto at the close of WWII.

Friendly despots and dictators have probably been obsolete for some time, and have been requiring the expenditure of ever greater influence, money and might to keep in place. The U.S. still clings to such tools to serve our interests around the globe. Differently than the Euros or the Soviets to be sure, but such differences are largely moot to the affected populaces.

Much of what we call "COIN" is not about counterinsurgency at all. COIN is a domestic program between a government and its populace. What we call COIN is a derivative of Colonial TTPs to sustain their control in the face of this growing friction from informed populaces.

We don't need a bunch of fancy new terms and concepts, from 4th Gen to IW to Pop-centric. We only need to acknowledge that the world is changing, and that the colonial-based tactics that we still employ must change as well.

Maybe I cherry pick too, but at least I try to cherry pick from a fruit salad of options, not just from the same old bowl of cherries where so many seem to restrict their search.



Since 9/11 we have developed more flawed concepts, more buzzwords and buzz phrases than we have in our previous 200 years of military history.

As Mac correctly identified, cherry picking is a common method (perhaps the only method) to develop arguments to support our particular views, but we used to understand that and views didn't become dogmas. Now we have a COIN doctrine that is in some ways seriously flawed, yet it is accepted as an intellectual doctrine/dogma that is based on non-bias academic approach, and yet it is far from non-bias, and one it argue about its so called academic merits.

Our very temporary success in Iraq had more to do with AQ incompetence than our shift to population centric COIN. AQ couldn't resist the temptation to keep committing senseless mass murder, and not surprisingly they finally turned the locals against them. We didn't win them over, the locals just needed our help in neutralizing AQ, and in the Sunni's case they needed our help to reduce the threat from the Shi'a security forces that we enabled through mob rule disguished as democracy. This short term success isn't the result of population centric COIN, but a short lived common interest.

Strategies can be a combination of directa nd indirect methods, but ultimately direct action must be taken to influence various audiences (to include violent acts). Although often confused with a strategy, through, by and with isn't a strategy. It is just a slower means to the direct approach, and it sure as heck isn't a new concept, we have been enabling and encouraging others to do our dirty work since our nation was founded and prior to (Indian wars).

Indirect versus direct, CT versus COIN, EBO versus targeting, etc. have simply served to muddy the waters and have in many ways shifted the debate from what is the right strategy, to what buzz word, phrase or concept we want to play with?

"MAC" McCallister (not verified)

Sat, 01/15/2011 - 3:22pm

... current COIN theorists are indeed cherry picking evidence to support their conclusions... nothing wrong with that... I do it all the time... as do many of my esteemed colleagues... You can't engage in conversation, discussion, or debate without proofs for your argument... especially when proofs are hard to come by... Cherry picking has evolved into an art form.

My latest cherry picks are as follows... We removed the Leader of the Faithful in Afghanistan and a tyrant in Iraq. We didn't wait for the security situation to improve before imposing types of governments to our liking... regardless whether the locals were receptive or not. No martial law or transitory military government required... Mission complete after "free" elections and transfer of authority to Iraq's and Afghanistan's new leaders. All that was left was to do was build capacity and help the local authorities deal with their illegitimate malcontents...

You may not be able to kill your way out of an insurgency but you might be able to buy legitimacy with roads, schools, and hospitals. In the spirit of Samuel Huntington... pop-centric COIN is an election/advertising campaign with promises of a brighter future... This reasoning makes total sense to someone like me who is a product of a consumer society in which everything is for sale...televisions, loyalty, ipods, honor and yes... even legitimacy... but then... you might have to deal with folks who ain't buying the product. In the words of Corporal Steiner (the Iron Cross) when speaking with his regimental commander... "you think that just because you are more enlightened than most officers that I hate you any less?"

When we try to purchase legitimacy i.e. "Awakening" in Anbar, "Sons of Iraq" in Salah ad Din or the various Afghan Outreach Programs, etc, etc... we are chastised by the media and political and military pundits for encouraging corruption. Oh, the dirty underbelly of pop-centric COIN. Righteous indignation abounds... As if purchasing the loyalty of specific groups to bolster the legitimacy of the state is such a bad thing... It's not like purchasing the loyalty of specific groups isnt happening here in the United States.... Damned if you do... damned if you dont and no closer to legitimacy...

It is interesting to study the branding of pop-centric COIN. Pop-centric COIN started out innocently enough as one commanders stylized way of fighting to be shared by his subordinates... (it worked with the Kurds in Mosul... right?) and evolved into an end all philosophical tenet of irregular warfare... An intellectual coup de etat... brilliant! The crowding out effect of pop-centric COIN has been phenomenal.

I personally find it hard to believe that legitimacy, a key principles of pop-centric COIN, can be so easily bestowed upon a government when that government is established by an usurper (one who assumes the right of government by force) without a change to the moral compass... or the definition of COIN itself... Is it still considered COIN when an outsider imposes hope and change... and then has to fight against the inevitable back-lash? I guess it can... but not without affecting the moral compass somewhat. No matter, we now have a technical blueprint to fix the problem.

I believe that any evidentiary validation for pop-centric COIN is irrelevant... We conquered and imposed a government by force... We are not protecting an altruistic government or beloved leader... We are protecting a system of our own making. Does this now also mean that we can change the leadership, if the leadership does not manage the political system as we intended?

Pop-centric COIN is a technique and one more easily justified in terms of the greater good... Not that there is anything wrong with that... except that pop-centric COIN isnt working as advertised... As for me... I'll continue to cherry pick my metaphors, analogies and evidentiary validations for or against pop-centric COIN... and why shouldnt I? Everyone else does...


Also received this comment from a mentor (to all of us and whom all should know as a great teacher of strategy) regarding my comments above which I thought were also worth sharing:

"Basil H. Liddell Hart cherry picked history to validate his indirect approach theories. Field Marshall Archibald Wavell, a close friend, chided him for seeking the strategic equivalent of the Holy Grail (which Wavell called the Military Philosophers Stone), and suggested that with his intellect and command of the pen BHLH could have written just as convincingly about a strategy of the direct approach (see A Guide to the Study and Use of Military History, U.S. Army Center of Military History, 1979, pp. 85-86). One wonders whether some current COIN theorists are similarly cherry picking evidence to support their conclusions." JOHN COLLINS

I agree with potential utility of the approaches described in the article, as well as Col. Maxwells further exposition on the "through, with, and by" approach. My problem with the terminology of the "indirect approach" is that it gives a sense of permanence to a concept that can be very temporary, and situational. It also implies a certain level of resource allocation and cost, as compared to a "direct approach." In truth an indirect approach only exists because there is a perception of a "direct approach." Arguing for a strategy on the basis that it is "indirect" in the way that Liddell Hart presented the term, is to imply that it will be at less cost and the enemy will be less able to deal with it. This is a dangerous assumption because, in time, our "indirect approach" will be seen as our "direct approach" and generate adversary counters. To my mind, "through, with, and by" is indirect in the sense that we (the US) may not have as high a profile and may not be directly combating the adversary. However, it is very "direct" from the perspective of the partners we team up with--our indirect approach is enabled, and facilitates, their direct slog against the enemy.

We should be thinking in terms of the multiplicity of approaches. Their quality as "direct" or "indirect" is decided by the situation and may even change over time. If the indirect depends upon the direct to hold the adversarys attention and resources, then we should we should have the strategic flexibility to see when the situation has tipped and the direct is now the quickest, most effective way to proceed--it has become the indirect.

"The shih of battle do not exceed the extraordinary and the orthodox,
Yet all their variations cannot be exhausted.

The extraordinary and the orthodox circle and give birth to each other,
As a circle has no beginning.
Who is able to exhaust it?"

("The Art of War" Sun Tzu; Denma Group Translation, Shambhala Press, 2002)

Let me be clear that I am not criticizing "through, with, by" or any individual approach (pop-centric COIN), but want to emphasize that its success or failure is in large part due to the context of other approaches either not taken, or executed in coordination.
Phil Ridderhof

The following is a comment from a mentor and old China Hand that I thought would be worth sharing:

"Might be more useful to describe Sun Zi's approach as "whole of resources" rather than "indirect." He never hesitated to advise his prince-of-the-moment (POM) to attack with all available forces if he deemed such an attack viable. Nor did he hesitate to advise assassination, economic warfare through siege, bio/chem warfare, IW,....and we have to remember that the POMs all believed in a mystical sort of faith system that included "analyzing" smoke, animals, ...."


Fri, 01/14/2011 - 11:31am

COL Maxwell,

Thank you. It is an interesting quote that I had not come across before. Made by, I see, interesting commentators as well.

Yadernye: My apologies. I should have included a footnote. Please see: Fridovich, David and Krawchuk, Fred, "Winning in the Pacific: The Special Operations Forces Indirect Approach," Joint Forces Quarterly, Q1 2007, Issue 44, pp 24-27


Fri, 01/14/2011 - 10:59am

COL Maxwell,

Can you provide the source for the last quote?