Small Wars Journal

Gaining the Initiative in Afghanistan

Wed, 09/02/2009 - 4:34pm
Gaining the Initiative in Afghanistan

by Colonel Gian P. Gentile

Gaining the Initiative in Afghanistan (Full PDF Article)

A very recent article in the Washington Post says that the enemy in Afghanistan has improved its tactical fighting abilities when confronting American forces there. The article stated that the enemy has figured out "gaps" in the current American tactical and operational approach of population centric counterinsurgency. And the article added the tactical improvement on the part of the enemy in Afghanistan, according to "American military officials," has taken us by "surprise." This means in effect that the enemy has the initiative.

Afghanistan is war, right? In war there has to be fighting or the threat of fighting for it to be war, right? If there is no fighting or threat of fighting then it cannot be war, right?

The answer to this tactical problem in Afghanistan provided by the Counterinsurgency Experts is better population centric Coin tactics and operations; just try harder at building schools, roads, local security forces, establishing government legitimacy, and population security through dispersion of forces to protect them. Once we get better at these processes and try just a bit harder, with a just a few more troops, then voila (just like we think happened in Iraq) victory is achieved, triumph is at hand. But where in this formulation of scientific processes are the enemy and the killing of them?

Gaining the Initiative in Afghanistan (Full PDF Article)

About the Author(s)

Award-winning historian, associate professor of history, and director of the military history program at the United States Military Academy at West Point. Author of How Effective is Strategic Bombing? Lessons Learned from World War II to Kosovo. A serving Army Colonel, commanded a combat battalion in West Baghdad in 2006. Currently working on a study on four sets of generals in counterinsurgency as a visiting fellow at the Council for Foreign Relations.


Chris (not verified)

Fri, 09/25/2009 - 9:30am

COL Gentile, thank you for the reading suggestions. I'm always looking for an excuse to expand my library!

MikeF, you make some great points on alternatives to our clearing of the routes, but the reality is that few of those are actually being used. I'm in a position where I say the daily data on what we're doing in both theaters, and we are not doing route clearance successfully.

Our found and cleared rates should be much higher, but the problem isn't so much the clearance of the routes, but the denial to the enemy of the munitions and materials, not to mention personnel, that he needs for making these bombs. If we have to clear them from the roads we have already failed. Their operational support areas (sanctuaries) are the key to our waging a successful campaign aganinst their IEDs and IED networks, and more importantly, our overall COIN strategy.

If anyone would ever care to take this discussion to the classified side: please contact me at I have access to all of the data you'd ever need our C-IED operations.


"Example: we need to keep our routes clear, thus we perform nearly continuous route clearance missions, which become quite convenient targets for the enemy."

We solved this problem back in 2007. I hope that you are wrong in your example that some are still confused over how to handle it.

Here's the options none of which have anything to do with the route clearance team.

1. Influence/Persuasion. Convince the local leader to handle it. This option may require the use of bribes.

2. Direct Action. Kill/Capture the bomb-maker and financier. Effectiveness of IEDs goes down.

3. Coercive Civil Affairs. Take the money off the table. Refuse to do any reconstruction/building in the area until the attacks stop. This threat is highly effective.

4. Deterrence. Least desired, but effective. Kill enough of the emplacers so the cost of emplacing the IED outweighs the benefit.



gian p gentile (not verified)

Thu, 09/24/2009 - 7:51am


Thanks for the post. I would only add that your point is also one of the key arguments that historian Mark Moyar makes in his excellent new book "A Question of Command: Counterinsurgency from the Civil War to Iraq." Although the book is essentially about leadership in Coin, Moyar also argues that in counterinsurgencies the proper weighting between persuasion and coercion usually tends to fall on the latter, especially early on in a Coin campaign. Historian Andrew Birtle in his multiple volume history on American Army Coin doctrine also argues this as well.


Chris (not verified)

Wed, 09/23/2009 - 6:11pm

COL Gentile, I believe you are on to something here that has been forgotten concerning a "COIN strategy," and that is the notion of taking the fight to the enemy. In Afghanistan, our forces are forced to respond to the enemy at the tactical level, rather than forcing the enemy to react to us by our actions against them.

Example: we need to keep our routes clear, thus we perform nearly continuous route clearance missions, which become quite convenient targets for the enemy.

Rarely do we go beyond this and actually go after the key enemy areas of interest: his staging bases, sanctuaries, and logistics lines. We have adequate intelligence to determine all of this, but we lack the operational initiative or will power to go after these areas. We never leave the tactical mind-set of the tactical fight. All of these areas are quite vulnerable to our capabilities if we properly leverage them, but we are not.

It is a fair argument that we are currently undermanned to carry out such a campaign, but I would argue that we are improperly utilizing those fine forces that we do have there. They are trained to take the fight to the enemy, so let them do so and force the enemy to react to us for once. This will result in a multitude of beneficial effects that will then allow us to pursue the more non-kinetic measures of a COIN strategy.

Unless, and until we eliminate the enemy sanctuaries and staging bases that exist throughout Afghanistan, we will not be able to successfully employ our non-kinetic measures or protect the populace. We must clear these enemy ares, THEN control and deny them in order to defeat them. They cannont continue to attack us if they are unable to reconstitute and resupply their forces in these relative safe-havens. This is a key component of a successful COIN strategy which we seem to have forgotten.

After reading the many posts that were generated due to COL Gentile's original paper, I see many of them are hitting on parts or aspects of a good COIN strategy, but we need to remember that kinetic and non-kinetic operations must work together, not in isolation to be successful. Synchronization of efforts from the tactical to strategic levels are required, all with a single focus.

Question is, what is this focus now?!?

Ron Holt (not verified)

Tue, 09/08/2009 - 6:22pm

I strongly agree that we need to seize the initiative in AFPAK! Our whole strategic vision has been somewhere between flawed and non-existant. Perhaps my definition of PopCentric COIN is a little different than yours--I do not see it as "nation-building." And there is no perfect strategy--any strategy has pluses and minuses...A good body-count may or may not mean anything in the long run.Schools and clinics mean nothing if the teachers and doctors are afraid to get near them. But I really don't see any reason why we cannot do population-centric COIN and kill the AAF at the same time. One should enhance the other. COIN should provide intell and local forces for destroying the enemy and an enemy on the defensive would be less likely to disprupt COIN.
In some ways we are currently doing neither. Our attempts at COIN are often laughable and our tactics are predictable.
Is it possible in this political media-driven
world to do what is necessary to "win" in Afghanistan? We are afraid to do what it takes to seal the US-Mexican border much less the AFPAK border. Could we [a la MikeF] really use the tactics of the British in Malaya or Galula in Algeria today without risking prison?
As long as the tribal areas of Pakistan are a safe haven for the Taliban, HIG and HaQQani there will little chance to "win" in Afghanistan.
I do not think it is COIN that has changed our view of war-- it more of a series of cultural/political changes in the US and Europe that makes it so difficult for us to act in our own defense and so "easy" for the Islamists with the goal of destroying the West.

Ken White (not verified)

Tue, 09/08/2009 - 3:40pm


As you know, I'm pretty much in agreement with you on focus, differing mostly on the capability of the Troops to do varied missions. We are, I think, in total agreement that 'COIN' theory has many conceptual flaws and applying many of its tenets it to be avoided to the maximum possible extent.

You cite:<blockquote>"Last year in the classroom at West Point in a military history class for seniors when I put up a slide stating what the Soviet Strategic and Operational Objectives were in Afghanistan and I asked students what they thought about them, invariably, and not just in my class, they said it looks like ours today. Now clearly there were differences and important ones too."</blockquote>Yes, differences but I submit the similarities are induced by four things; the Afghan demographic, their (and the USSRs then as well as ours now) governmental / governance milieu, the terrain, and the instrument available to address those three problems. As one of my favorite fearless Cavalry leaders once said, "You can only do so much with so many people and any piece of terrain."

Thus I suggest, you're correct in that the strategy that put us there was flawed and the strategy being pursued is thus flawed but I believe there is little prospect for significant change due to many factors. While I totally agree the major COIN fallacy is to willingly hand over the initiative to the opponent <u>unless</u> the COIN fighter has great numerical superiority and further agree that this is not a good plan under any circumstances, I do not believe political will for an aggressive strategy can be obtained in Afghanistan for a variety of political reasons, both domestic and international. Not least due to the fact that political support in the west for significant military initiative is generally lacking other than in existential wars.

Add to that the constraints on force size, the likelihood of more spaces in the future is slim, thus an adequately sized structure for COIN-like adventures is improbable.

The policy goals for Afghanistan have never been clearly and openly articulated -- I believe because no one in power then or now had or has a clue what those goals should be. The amorphous 'not destabilize the region; provide no safe haven for future terrorist activity' goal is to open ended and potentially unattainable as to provide basis for a coherent strategy.

Thus, I fear we're going to be forced to continue the march to a great extent on this one. That does NOT mean we have to be this dumb again.

Does it?

gian p gentile (not verified)

Tue, 09/08/2009 - 7:30am


Thanks for the note.

My intention for writing this short piece was more directed at what I see as the farce of population centric counterinsurgency, and what its farcical nature has done to conceptions of war.

If nation building is the decided military approach to achieve political objectives in Astan then so be it (although I think strategy shows this to be a mistake and that political objective can be accomplished by other means as proposed by writers such as Andrew Bacevich; whether you would call the alternative "moral" is a different and related matter) but let us not distort what nation building in Astan really means, it means killing and destruction along with construction too. But at the heart of it, for a generation so called "armed nation building" means war, and in war people die and things are destroyed.

The population centric counterinsurgency craze has distorted our conception of war. So when I read DeYoung's piece in the Wash Post of how we continue to be surprised by the enemy there, then I read what seems to be the never ending stream of catechisms out of the mouths of commanders there that the way to defeat them is to protect the population, to disperse our troops out into cops, to build more schools, to be culturally aware, to link the people to the government, to separate the people from the insurgents, well, after hearing all of those catechisms it occurred to me that perhaps the way to regain at least the tactical initiative in Afghanistan might be to focus on fighting.

As I have said on other posts and threads the problem in Afghanistan is not with not doing a better job at the tactics of population centric counterinsurgency; no, the problem in Astan is with Strategy and aligning means with political ends. Strategy lost the war for us in Vietnam and if we dont start getting Strategy right in Afghanistan soon we do so at our peril.

There has been lots of talk about how we are not the Soviets in Afghanistan. Well to be sure we are not. But that doesnt mean either that there are not troubling similarities that we at least ought to explore and not dismiss out of hand. Last year in the classroom at West Point in a military history class for seniors when I put up a slide stating what the Soviet Strategic and Operational Objectives were in Afghanistan and I asked students what they thought about them, invariably, and not just in my class, they said it looks like ours today. Now clearly there were differences and important ones too. But this exclusionary "case study" approach to history by the Coindinistas does not get us anywhere because it dismisses any study of history that doesnt fit into the neat little Coin case study box. With the Soviets in Afghanistan the simple Coin argument goes that we are nothing like them, we are different, we are better, and because there are no connections between their failures and what we are doing today, we can win if everybody would just get on board and give us more troops and allow us to try just a little bit harder at population centric counterinsurgency.


Bill Moore (not verified)

Tue, 09/08/2009 - 3:54am

COL Gentile, I admire any man who can take an ass kicking from the crowd and still come out swinging. On the other hand, I'm still not sold on your proposed approach. I can cherry pick parts of your article that I agree with, and by all means our infantry platoons need to be world class fighters that are able to carry the fight to the enemy and defeat him in battle. If we're "really" losing that ability, then shame on us.

I want to know how your proposed kinetic strategy is going to win the fight? The Russians tried that (and they were almost effective), they even destroyed their crops, villages, etc., but as long as the resistance had a safe haven in Pakistan it wasn't decisive. Otherwise it may have worked. However, with the reality of a safe haven in Pakistan what approach do you propose that will be acceptable to the American people from a moral perspective?

gian p gentile (not verified)

Sun, 09/06/2009 - 10:23am

Well if I continue to miss the "Coin Strategy" (which I actually dont, and I understand it to a tee, and which is why I retch when I see the term Coin applied to strategy which is oxymoronic to say the least; that is to say a basic contradiction in terms. Population Centric Counterinsurgency is a set of tactics rolled up into a discrete form of military operation but too many folks still want to consider it a "strategy," it is not) you, Charles Martel, miss the basic point that I have been making.

Your exposition is a perfect explanation of what folks think, think, can happen when they apply the science of population centric coin. In fact if you took my name out of your post along with Peters it would read like any set of talking points that came out of the Surge, Tizzi Ouzu, or current command guidance in Astan.

As far as Peters goes, he has come around as you say in Iraq but for purely domestic political reasons and his conservative readership. If you read what he has said about Iraq he actually has argued that it wasn't fancy footed FM 3-24 "hearts and minds" tactics but the use of brute military force under, according to Peters, better and inspired leadership who knew how to lower the boom on the insurgents and terrorists there and that has been his argument about Iraq and not that hearts and minds were proven to work.

I suggest that you read Carl Hacks new essay in the Journal of Strategic Studies which brings into serious question the myth that Templers hearts and minds campaign broke the rebellion in Malaya. I also recommend that you read historian Douglas Porchs superb history of the French conquest of Morocco and what actually brought it about, and how the French General Layautey used the rhetoric of hearts and minds, "oil spot," and "progressive penetration" as public relations ploy to pacify not Moroccan rebels but the French public and their concerns over the use of French imperial military power.

Charles Martel (not verified)

Sun, 09/06/2009 - 9:29am

Gian continues to miss that the COIN strategy includes a lot about killing the enemy. Like Ralph Peters at the beginning of the surge, Gian thinks that the population-centric approach is more about schools than killing the enemy. Ralph at least has come around by seeing the facts on the ground in Iraq. Security is the key principle in coin and you don't get that without finding and killing the enemy. And you don't find and kill the enemy without being in and among the population because they know who and where the enemy is. Once you establish the security, you hold the area so the enemy cannot come back and brutalize the population. That gives you the breathing room to institutionalize that security by building the police and army and the building the economic institutions that keep the people from ever allowing the enemy back. Clear, hold, build. Gian would ignore hold and build to emphasize clear -- but it has to be all three.

gian p gentile (not verified)

Thu, 09/03/2009 - 3:52pm

With regard to Malaya and the newer scholarship on it that I referenced in my short piece see Carl Hack's essay in the special edition of the Journal of Strategic Studies that came out this past June that devoted an entire special issue to the Coin Paradigm and a number of essays to a revised view of Malaya.


Seaworthy (not verified)

Thu, 09/03/2009 - 3:11pm

Davod: The Malayan Emergency conflict officially ended in 1960. I'm not very handy with a computer, but research LtGen Sir Gerald Templer should be of more then passing interest. Specifically on how he relocated chinese villages (Vietnam's strategic hamlet program), cut-off insurgent support, and literally starved the MNLA, forcing them into areas controlled by his forces.

Templer's insistance on operational intelligence as an art form coupled with cutting-off ethnic Chinese support for the MNLA was the key.

The crux of the problem was the political differances between Malays and Chinese. Our problem in Afghanistan seems how to deal with a reinvigerated insurgent at the moment....a short term strategic problem for the Brits in Malasia as well in 1950!


A couple more important points regarding that time period.

1. The British only reverted to that strategy when they were close to losing and the effort was an economy of force mission.

2. Many advocate that this approach is not achievable today due to the current rules of engagement and laws of land warfare.




Here is a short read on the Population Control strategy used by the British during the Malayan Emergency in 1948-49. Rand has more publications. Sir Robert Thompson wrote extensively on this subject.

Draining the Swamp:The British Strategy of Population Control

Wade Markel

One BIG distinction is the requirements of Population Control and Repression needed to ultimately secure and seperate the people from the insurgents. IMO, this two-year effort is often overlooked and instead replaced by the population centric model used after the main force of the insurgency was weakened.

Hope this helps.



davod (not verified)

Thu, 09/03/2009 - 2:16pm

I have not read the information which shows the Malayan Emergency was won in 1951-52. I would appreciate a link if possible.

I have a USN friend who served in intelligence in Vietnam when the Brits Malayan experience was being touted. He mentioned to his boss the difference between Malaya and Vietnam. In the main, the Communists in Malaya were of Chinese extraction, so there was an abiity to segregate the Chinese from those of Malay an Indian extraction. In Vietnam, not so much.

Andy (not verified)

Thu, 09/03/2009 - 9:42am

Reading the WAPO article, some of the "Coin" sites like Exum, and quotes by anonymous senior military officers gives the impression that the war in Afghanistan is only a couple of years old. The WAPO article, for example, talks about how senior military officials were surprised at the Taliban's (and other enemy forces) tactics and ability to adapt. My question is this - where have you been the last 8 years? Nothing the Taliban and associated groups (HiG and the Haqqani Network) are doing is unexpected for those of us who've followed Afghanistan all along.

A common narrative is that Afghanistan was under-resourced. That is true to an extent. More worrisome, however, was a shortage of attention and, by extension, knowledge on Afghanistan. This knowledge deficit is exposed in that WAPO article and the comments of Coin "Guru's" like Exum and Kilcullen.

I'm glad that people are finally looking harder at the tough nut that is Afghanistan, but I'm worried about "rookie" mistakes rooted in ignorance of the theater. I worry that practitioners, buoyed by "success" in Iraq, are going to dogmatically implement doctrine without fully understanding the operating environment in Afghanistan. I worry when senior military officials claim that something is new or surprising when it is not. Operationalizing COIN or whatever set of doctrine requires an intimate knowledge of the operating environment, knowledge that the COIN guru's influencing policy don't have given some of the shockingly ignorant comments they've made. Please do your homework before evangelizing COIN in Afghanistan.

Seaworthy (not verified)

Thu, 09/03/2009 - 9:31am

I was struck by Prof. Finel's use of the chess tactic term fork. We may well become an isolated pawn, giving away to our enemy the flexibility to attack us as we become only the defender.

I can sympathize with the good Col. Gentile. Assuredly, there will be only so many part time Taliban that we will be able to "lease back." The rest will have to be killed, and the sooner the better.

The example of the British strategy against the MNLA though correct, depended also on being very much intelligence driven, something that's not all that clear to me exists with our conventional forces in Afghanistan. And a so-called "gap" that the Taliban most assuredly will always be one up on us at.

How is our ability to gather information and process it into actionable intelligence at the tactical level in Afghanistan?

I concur with Prof. Finel. The fundamental question for us in Afghanistan remains the necessity of the war itself. However, I disagree with the characterization of being "forked."

The alternatives cannot be so clearly delineated until one has translated strategic approaches (such as population- v. enemy-centric focus) into strategic objectives and operational plans. We are not inherently compelled to preserve any particular part of Afghanistan. The problem is that any question of population- or enemy-centric focus runs up against the ambitiousness of our stated goals and objectives.

Regaining the tactical initiative could be significant (and thus alternatives would matter) at the strategic level if we are willing to reconsider our stated vision for Afghanistan. It's a matter of rendering our strategic aims consonant with what is feasible tactically and operationally.

It's our inertia strategically that hands the initiative to the enemy in Afghanistan. It's that fixed ambition that does so much to make our enemy's strategy viable and arguably renders this question of strategic approach moot for the war we face in Afghanistan.


gian p gentile (not verified)

Thu, 09/03/2009 - 7:46am


Fair points, to be sure, and MikeF as well.

The only thing I would add, Bernard, and I am in agreement with you on your basic point about Coin, is that until we can get our strategy right in Afghanistan (which at least from my view so far we have no strategy at all, or at least one to use Bernard's word that has "coherence") then we have to do something that works on the ground, that gives us at least back the tactical initiative, and from there might open up options for better strategy.

These so-called levels of war (tactics, strategy) are not discrete but work with and against each other in myriad ways. To be sure Frederick's strategy at Rossbach and Leuthen and his use of the central position was brilliant, but it would not have given him the success he achieved if he did not have a superb, tactically proficient army that could fight.

My argument, therefore, was for incremental improvement on the ground in Afghanistan through better tactics that hopefully at some near point might lead to better strategy.

My short piece was also a call to view war (past and present) as it actually is, and not through the distorted prism of the principles and maxims of population centric counterinsurgency.


I have to admit, I am not sure this gets us where we need to go. Seizing the initiative is valuable because it allows you to set conditions so that the adversary is strategically "forked" to use a chess term -- Liddell-Hart refers to the goal as forcing the enemy on the horns a dilemma.

But in this case, I think we're the ones who are forked. If we go pop-centric, the enemy will adapt as the Post article suggests. The will force us into situations where we either suffer casualties or use force in conditions they will carefully plan to result in civilian casualties. If we follow Col. Gentile's approach, they will either flow into provinces with less effective forces or simply retreat into the Pakistan sanctuary, all the while using terror to undermine security gains.

Focusing on killing the insurgents creates tactical initiative for us, but the structure of this insurgency, I think, makes it difficult to translate into strategic initiative which the insurgents will continue to hold.

Either way, we're still playing their game, fighting in ways to minimize our combat power while maximizing theirs. Having surrendered the initiative on determining the time, place, and nature of the conflict, there is little hope of recovering the initiative at the tactical level.

Unless you can close the Pakistani border and really control internal movement within Afghanistan -- isolate the battlefield as the Brits largely did in Malaya -- I don't see how enemy-centric COIN solves the challenge.

The problem isn't the type of COIN we are trying to us... the problem is trying COIN at all.


COL Gentile,

Sir, this article was much needed to enhance the debate on strategy and tactics. I agree that we must attack and destroy the enemy and deny him of safehavens; however I will submit that we are not facing an Either/Or choice between the pop-centric COIN crowd and the enemy threat crowd.

To begin, I'll start with Iraq circa 2007 as I currently understand it.

1. Anbar. US forces co-opted a homogenious Sunni populace to turn against AQ and temporarily support the GOI through bribes and treaties.

2. Baghdad. US forces secured the populace through population control measures, literally building walls to seperate the people from themselves.

3. Diyala. In Diyala, a heterogeneous mixture of ethnicity, tribes, desert, and villages, we focused on destroying the enemy to secure the populace. We targeted training camps, safe-havens, and shadow govt's.

Afghanistan is not Iraq. As we debate on how to approach strategy, you are correct in emphasizing the need to attack the enemy.

My concern questions who should be doing the fighting?

If we unilaterally attack, the cost will be high. There is another way. It's the special forces indirect approach where we only assist and advise; we do not do the fighting for the Gov't of Afghanistan or Pakistan. It will take longer, it requires a much smaller footprint, but inevitably, it could be the least-bad option.


Major Michael Few