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Reading Lawrence in Afghanistan: The Seven Pillars of Counter-COIN Wisdom

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Reading Lawrence in Afghanistan: The Seven Pillars of Counter-COIN Wisdom

Evan Munsing

A man, a myth, and a Hollywood epic, Thomas Edward Lawrence has served as a theoretical touchstone for generations of professional soldiers as well as intellectuals with a bent towards unconventional wars.  This was perhaps never so true as over the past decade, when he became required reading for junior and senior military officers and a phrase from his autobiography became the title for one of the most famous and widely read military analyses published in the last decade - an analysis which, not coincidentally, underpins current US Army and Marine Corps counterinsurgency doctrine.  Lawrence’s 27 Articles in particular became popular with the military and was accepted as holy writ by the military advisor community. 

Unfortunately, in the process of anointing T.E. Lawrence as a lost prophet of COIN doctrine, his writings were totally denuded of the strategic thought that underpinned his analysis. By burying the intellectual roots of a contemporary operational doctrine beneath a historical legend that seems to stand beyond reproach, proponents of counterinsurgency theory sought to give their ideas historical legitimacy and in doing so stripped The Seven Pillars of Wisdom and 27 Articles of their military and cultural context and geopolitical framework.  A closer reading suggests that T. E. Lawrence would have advised against a sustained foreign military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq in the first place; he most certainly would have advocated a different approach to dealing with insurgents than the one we took. By re-contextualizing his two most famous works and examining COIN doctrine through their lens, it is possible to offer a different approach to dealing with foreign insurgencies.

The Seven Pillars of Counter-COIN Wisdom

1.  The strategic juice from a COIN victory probably isn’t worth the tactical squeeze:

As you would know if you ever tried eating soup with a knife, just because something can be done does not mean it is worth your while.  Counterinsurgencies can be successful - but the fact that a victory might be possible does not necessarily make it worth while, nor does it mean that COIN is the only path to success.  Indeed, that’s the whole point behind the all too popular phrase, which in its full glory reads,

...the Turks were stupid; the Germans behind them dogmatical. They would believe that rebellion was absolute like war, and deal with it on the analogy of war. Analogy in human things was fudge, anyhow; and war upon rebellion was messy and slow, like eating soup with a knife.

Thus, not only does Lawrence suggest that counter-insurgency campaigns are inherently difficult and slow, but that conventional militaries - even those of the finest calibre - are unable to prosecute them.  Unless there is some pressing strategic or national need to engage in a counter-insurgency campaign - as there was in Northern Ireland, geographically if not always politically part of the British homeland - then counterinsurgency is a method best avoided.

The unfortunate and often ignored truth is that counterinsurgency campaigns are so time consuming that even successful ones ultimately become irrelevant.  Strategic history moves too fast for a decades long war in a global backwater to make sense.  Any military campaign that fails to provide short- and medium-term strategic gains risks becoming meaningless - the British waged a successful counterinsurgency campaign in Malaysia, but their painfully slow and expensive victory came too late to prevent the dissolution of the British empire.

2. Let the locals do the fighting:

COIN, at least as it has most recently been practiced, assumes that more is more, even when it is claimed that less is more - that advisors are effective, that troop surges are effective, that spending billions to build up a host nation’s political and economic infrastructure is effective.  One of the most remarkable aspects of Lawrence’s accomplishment was how little support he had from the British military and how few foreigners worked with the Arabs.  Certainly, the British military conducted raids to relieve pressure on the nascent guerrilla movement, conducted joint planning with the guerillas, and provided them with machine guns and a limited heavy weapons capability, but most of the time Lawrence was by himself or with only a handful of English-speaking companions.  If the locals are not willing take the fighting upon themselves, the campaign will fail. 

The United States has continuously ignored this basic principle and shifted the burden of effort onto itself.  Would an Afghanistan that was secured by primarily local forces look like a stable, modern, westernized society? No, but it would have been controlled by anti-Taliban forces, as opposed to being unstable, un-modernized, preyed on by the Taliban, and controlled by a leader who has aligned himself with our enemies and who is more interested in criticizing counter-insurgency efforts than improving them.  There should have been little sustained western presence; rather we should simply have enabled the Afghan people to liberate themselves, then faded away.

3. Let your allies fight the way they want:

Critical to his success, Lawrence understood that there was both no need and no point in trying to make the Arabs fight like a western-trained army.  As he stated in the twenty-second of his 27 Articles: 

Do not try to trade on what you know of fighting. The Hejaz confounds ordinary tactics. Learn the Bedu principles of war as thoroughly and as quickly as you can, for till you know them your advice will be no good to the Sharif. Unnumbered generations of tribal raids have taught them more about some parts of the business than we will ever know...

The Afghans spent the last two and a half millennia showing the West that they are among the world’s preeminent practitioners of guerilla warfare, defeating first a general of such skill that he was called “the Great”, and later repelling sustained attempts by both the British and Soviet Empires to assert their dominance over the region.  The inability of policy makers to conceive of an Afghan military or nation that was not modeled in our own image suggests a startling lack of imagination.  This is especially bizarre as it was a loose alliance of Afghan tribesmen fighting in their traditional manner led by America’s own counter-culture guerrillas, the Army Special Forces, that defeated the Taliban swiftly and to great acclaim between 2001 and 2002.  Yet, unlike Lawrence, we could not imagine allowing our allies to fight and govern in a manner different from our own and so imposed on the Afghans certain political and military systems that are entirely alien to their own way of doing business and which are thus doomed to fail. 

4. Don’t burden your allies with things they can’t use or don’t need:

“The Hejaz war would be one of dervishes against regular troops... against an enemy so enriched in equipment by the Germans as almost to have lost virtue for rough-and-tumble war.”

As Americans, we are not only supremely comfortable with technology, we also have a tendency to see in technology the answer to all war’s problems, and thus we assume that other militaries will benefit from the technologies we use.  All technologies, however, are embedded in the societies from which they arise and thus one can not successfully transfer a technological solution without also transferring a certain aspect of culture that enables that technology’s sustained and appropriate use - which is much more difficult.  Although many Afghan soldiers now have relatively expensive optics attached to their M-16s, they often do not know how to employ the optic, zero it, or even practice basic marksmanship techniques.  For all the billions of dollars spent, we have ultimately given them equipment they don’t know how to use and will not be able to afford once Congressional funding dries up; vehicles they can neither maintain, employ effectively, or get spare parts and fuel for; and a logistics system that is inefficient and unwieldy and does far more to tie them down than it does to free them to maneuver.

5. Keep goals - and the foreign presence - small:

Our original goal in Afghanistan - to defeat the Taliban and hunt down Osama bin Laden - was accomplished with a very small footprint.  It was only once we started heaping on additional goals and decided that Afghanistan needed to be modernized politically, economically, and culturally that it became necessary for a large American presence.  As Lawrence said,

Our successor and solution must be local; and fortunately the standard of efficiency required was local also. 

There is no need to try to turn other nations into mini-Americas; it should be enough that they accomplish our interests. We should not expect our allies to act or fight like Americans, we should not expect them to share our goals, nor should we judge our own success by how closely they imitate us.

6.  Understanding the centrality of host-nation will:

As an admirer of Clausewitz and an advisor to a national movement of men “willing to fight for nothing but Arab independence,” Lawrence was keenly aware of the importance of national will in determining military victory.  Indeed, his long term strategy was based on the need to grow and cultivate the moral power of the Arab lay people. The United States, however, assumed that the contest was between itself and the insurgents, rather than realizing that victory in Iraq or Afghanistan (or Vietnam) was really a contest between the will of those nations and the will of their home-grown insurgents.  Unfortunately, neither host nation had anything resembling a coherent national will. 

7.  COIN is irrelevant unless it yields tangible strategic ends:

Lawrence was quite clear that his work was intended to accomplish something concrete.  A successful Arab revolt could knock Turkey out of the war and thus weaken the Central Powers; it could also lead to a unified, self-governed state for the Arabs.

I meant to make a new nation, to restore a lost influence, to give twenty millions of Semites the foundations on which to build an inspired dream palace of their national thoughts.

Indeed, Lawrence noted that the greatest strengths of the Arab fighters lay in their strategic and moral position, which far outweighed the Turk’s tactical and material advantages. 

Our own counterinsurgency wars have had much murkier goals - although defeating the Taliban and Saddam Hussein were tangible end points, it was never clear how a sustained presence in either Iraq or Afghanistan would make the United States safer from international terrorism, particularly once war casualties eclipsed the numbers of those lost during the attacks on September 11, 2001.  Nor was it clear how either country could be incorporated into an American alliance or how a sustained foreign presence in those nations would aid the global spread of democracy or capitalism.

The Path to Failure is Paved with Good Intentions

So what would a successful campaign in Afghanistan have looked like?  It would have looked like an anti-Taliban campaign, a military and intelligence enterprise probably administered by the same teams of special operators and intelligence agents who defeated the Taliban in the initial push and much closer to the traditional SF model of “by, with, and through”.  It would have been minimalist, it would have been cheap, it would have accomplished our initial goal of denying Afghanistan as a terrorist safe haven, and there would have been few, if any, ancillary goals tacked onto that primary goal.

It is, of course, wonderful for us to wish that the Afghans and all other peoples have such things as modern judicial systems, schools and universities open to women as well as men, flat screen TVs and Starbucks and all the other amenities of the West.  But that is a very long fight, and one which ultimately can not be waged by militaries, and which perhaps can only be fought by the people themselves.  Certainly, we have shown ourselves to be no miracle workers on that front, and if the most recent National Intelligence Estimate proves true and Afghanistan disintegrates in a few years, we will ultimately have done very little at very great cost.

About the Author(s)

Evan Munsing is a Light Armored Reconnaissance Platoon Commander for the United States Marine Corps.  He was previously a subject matter expert on organizational theory for the National Defense University where he wrote about interagency military teams.  The views expressed here are solely his own and do not reflect the views of the United States Marine Corps, the Department of Defense, or the United States Government.


Madhu (not verified)

Tue, 07/22/2014 - 9:56pm

I don't know where to put this quote because it can go so many places here at SWJ.

I think it has application toward the notion of "classic" counterinsurgency works which I think is restrictive, both emotionally and intellectually.

<em>Kipling’s India is the romantic playground of the Raj. I am touched nearly to tears by his best story, Without Benefit of Clergy, and yet the tears don’t actually fall—I cannot believe in his Indian characters and even Kim leaves me skeptical. Kipling romanticizes the Indian as much as he romanticizes the administrators of empire. E. M. Forster was funny and tender about his friend the Maharajah of Dewas and severely ironic about the English in India, but India escaped him all the same. He wrote of A Passage to India: “I tried to show that India is an unexplainable muddle by introducing an unexplainable muddle.” No one could find a second home in Kipling’s India or Forster’s India.
Perhaps no one can write in depth about a foreign country—he can only write about the effect of that country on his own fellow countrymen, living as exiles, or government servants, or visitors. He can only “touch in” the background of the foreign land. In Kipling and Forster the English are always posturing nobly and absurdly in the foreground; in Narayan’s novels, though the Raj still existed during the first dozen years of his literary career, the English characters are peripheral. They are amiable enough (Narayan, unlike Mulk Raj Anand, is hardly touched by politics), but hopelessly unimportant like Professor Brown in The Bachelor of Arts. How <strong>Kipling would have detested Narayan’s books</strong>, even that Indian “twang” which lends so much charm to his style.
‘Excuse me. I made a vow never to touch alcohol in my life, before my mother,’ said Chandran. This affected Kailas profoundly. He remained solemn for a moment and said: ‘Then don’t. Mother is a sacred object. It is a commodity whose value we don’t realise as long as it is with us. One must lose it to know what a precious possession it is. If I had had my mother I should have studied in a college and become a respectable person. You wouldn’t find me here. After this where do you think I’m going?’ ‘I don’t know.’
‘To the house of a prostitute.’ He remained reflective for a moment and said with a sigh: ‘As long as my mother lived she said every minute ‘Do this don’t do that’. And I remained a good son to her. The moment she died I changed. It is a rare commodity, sir. Mother is a rare commodity.’ </em>

- Graham Greene, The New Republic

Modi and Sharif famously had a moment of "sari" diplomacy - exchanging gifts for their mothers - that was very different than anything predicted by many western commenters. The New Republic missed it and predicted something very excitable when any seasoned observer would have noted that Modi would shift to the center after the election.

I found this by accident and it amused me given that recent history of western commentary. It's clear that some in India and Pakistan are attempting to create a different narrative, one that strengthens a notion of a cultural and emotional connection. The American Army's traditional (and weirdly jealous in terms of 'owning the narrative' ) understanding often gets in the way of understanding how important this connection is, and, for some reason, misses that it is an interloper not just as an outsider, but as a 'non-family' member.

At any rate, how does putting yourself in Lawrence's place actually prevent empathy, I sometimes wonder. It's 2014.

This is all very impressionistic. I'm not sure what I mean by this comment, really.


Thu, 03/13/2014 - 1:20am

In reply to by pluscachange


I read it as it was intended to be read, a criticism of how the war in Afghanistan was conducted using Lawrence as the authority in a reference to authority argument. Count the number of paragraphs that concern Afghanistan and then count the number of paragraphs referring to small war in general. You can't hide a fundamentally flawed criticism of our actions in Afghanistan by pretending it wasn't about Afghanistan.

We secured the major highways in Vietnam in the sense that we were almost always able to get the convoys through. Sometimes they had to fight their way through but except for cases like Khe Sahn and some others where a post was actually surrounded by recognizable formations, the supplies got through.

"As to the Philippine War and whether there were atrocities...", where did that come from? The question was never were there atrocities. There were, on both sides as there are in all wars. My point was that that war was cannot be viewed from such a simple point of view as that. That is why I suggested Linn. Of course if you aren't interested in learning from that war, and there is a whole lot to learn, don't look at it from any but that narrow point of view.

I am not sure you understood the point of my last paragraph. My fault, I should have been more clear in my writing. Not one word of that was directed at the Pak Army/ISI. I was commenting on the stupidity, cowardice and lack of moral courage evinced by our multi-stars, American multi-stars and our genii, American genii inside the beltway.


Thu, 03/13/2014 - 12:19am

In reply to by carl

I think you read into this an intended comprehensive analysis of all parts of the Afghan war, but this not the thesis of the article. The author states in the first couple of paragraphs that he is taking on the false personification of TE Lawrence as the prophet of COIN, and then states:"By re-contextualizing his two most famous works and examining COIN doctrine through their lens, it is possible to offer a different approach to dealing with foreign insurgencies."
It's a limited focus and topic, a big picture view, not an item by item analysis of the Afghan war . Lawrence could only have done what his means would have allowed--which would not have, by analogy, permitted him to stop Whitehall from funding his adversary if it so wished.
Afghanistan is also the first war where road supplies often benefitted the enemy by the "toll" charges assessed on them by the Taliban, such that we were funding the enemy (and with enough checkpoints, perhaps some cargo also went into their hands). But as we learned with Vietnam, securing major roadways is a whack-a-mole situation. With all due respect, a pithy article need not address these or the many other individual factors that combine to make this conflict the piece of work it is.
Here Lawrence could probably have done well.
As to the Philippine War and whether there were atrocities, Linn does not represent the weight of thought that labels atrocities as atrocities, as do many historians. If in fact there were 200,000 Philippine casualties attributable to US troop actions or actions set in motion by US troops, then I believe Prof. Linn is engaged merely in reframing (though in the most elegant and otherwise well researched way).
However, I certainly agree with your last paragraph. And I can also agree that the generals needed to be pressured into stopping the ISI, but perhaps such is their paranoia about India that supporting the Taliban was more important to them.


Wed, 03/12/2014 - 8:57pm

In reply to by pluscachange


No it isn't a bit overboard. Conflicts have their own characteristics and in this one the critical factor is the role of the Pak Army/ISI and our refusal to do anything about that. The things you mention are important (and not given enough recognition, especially Gulf state citizens) but they apply through the good offices of the Pak Army/ISI. It is they who provide the critical support and sanctuary without which the other things you cited would have small impact.

If we are restricted from doing something about external support and sanctuary it is a restriction we impose upon ourselves. At any time in the last 13 years we could have done something about the Pak Army/ISI, the least of which would have been not giving them money to kill us with. But we chose...we chose not to. There was always a good reason of course, we were working with the moderate elements and didn't want to undercut them, Mullen was really good buddies with Kayani and things had to be handled just so, the sacred Karachi supply line. Always a reason and always a good one. But we did not actually do anything. We let the support and sanctuary stand and even helped pay for it. Mr. Munsing ignored all that completely in favor of a nice little thesis that was ever so neat and devoid of usefulness because it ignored the prime factor driving the conflict. If an article addressing small war doctrine ignores external support and sanctuary it is useless. If using Mr. Lawrence as a prop couldn't address the main thing, find another prop.

Read Linn's books on the Philippine Insurrection.

Mr. Munsing's point seems to be there are intrinsic limits on how well an external army can do in these types of conflicts. To me that is an excuse for the lousy job our Army, the American Army and the American government have done. You don't have to take the blame for being both feckless and stupid if you can sell the line that armies can't do it, rather than our Army and government couldn't.

(I emphasize that when I refer to the American Army in this statement I mean the big institutional Army, exemplified by the multi-stars. And I also mean the genii inside the beltway, the GS-infinitis. The guys on the line can do wonderfully well and have done so on more occasions than we deserve; but they can only do so much to make up for spineless and stupid at the top.)


Wed, 03/12/2014 - 10:20am

In reply to by carl

You go a bit overboard saying that the article is pointless if it doesn't address the ISI issue. It doesn't address funding by Gulf States or their citizens, or the infrastructure set up by Gulf Funded madrassas/deobandi schools. But an army faces those things it must and can, not the world of afferents.
Unlike the Japanese and others, our troops are severely restricted in their ability to go after outside sources of shelter/refit/supply. So it was with North Vietnam/Russia and others.
Logistic difficulties and costs at a time of budget constraints is another factor in this conflict that wasn't addressed fully, but the article had a much narrower scope--a reflection on the uses and misuses of Lawrence as a maker of doctrine, illuminating the uses and misues, construction and deconstruction of COIN.
Your underlying point--that these must be addressed is valid, but that doesn't take from Lt. Munsing's piece because the overarching point both of you make is that COIN alone can't do it all even when done properly--COIN doesn't say much about outside suppliers largely immune to retribution/interdiction.
As to what happened in the Philippines, Smedley Butler summarized the observations of many US troops who wrote home about attrocities. Post 1950 historians who have looked at the conflict and primary source material agree that we did commit attrocities.
Finally, I think the author's point isn't to say that troops can never ever fight a guerilla conflict--after all he is one--just that there are very significant limits on what an external force --such as we invariably are--can do.


Wed, 03/12/2014 - 2:39am

In reply to by pluscachange


Smedley Butler is probably not the best source on that war. It is more useful judge that conflict by reading other sources. It is also useful to note that the Filipinos and Americans fought hard against the Japanese, together; and many of the Filipinos fought them hard when there weren't many Americans around to back them up, except those they were hiding and protecting. So a few decades after colonization, there we were, fighting the Japanese side by side.

The Philippines were islands, easily isolated. Malaya was pretty easily isolated. The French managed to mostly isolate Algeria and after they did so it helped to calm things way down. What that illustrates is insurgencies that can be deprived of external support and sanctuary do not do well at all, so much so that it is a fundamental. Taliban & Co had the support of the Pak Army/ISI and sanctuary in Pakistan from the beginning. They still do and we have never tried very hard to deprive them of that. Stupid of us to believe that we could ignore that fundamental. Bad show for Mr. Munsing to totally ignore it.

If your criteria to judge the success of those armies in their small wars is did the subject peoples fall in love with them, that is a bit unreasonable. They were asked to suppress opposition so their countries could impose their will on the subject peoples. This they did. That includes the IJA in China. The point of my bringing those cases and the others up is that regular forces can be quite proficient at small war.

I would note that judging by the number of Filipino Immigrants in the US, maybe the US Army did rather better than the 'kill 'em all' armies like the IJA. But it is also very useful to note that where the US Army played the hard card during the Insurrection, places like Batangas and I think Samar, the resistance against the Japanese wasn't as strong as it was in other places.

My main point is that Mr. Munsing's article is fatally flawed, useless really, as far as Afghanistan goes because he ignores the primary driver of the conflict.


Wed, 03/12/2014 - 1:08am

A good article, and certainly achieves what I'd gather is one of it's aims, to stoke the debate. The success may have been achieved to the extent Kilcullen, in an interview with Tom Ricks in, seemed to be backpedallying a bit as to COIN and whether it was applied properly and fully in Afghanistan( though I take the author as being less concerned with Kilcullen's book than with the unthinking adoption and pasting of COIN onto any insurgency, regardless of applicability, as if it were a miracle epoxy for holding a country together.)
As to some of the comments:
I seem to recall that Smedley Butler thought that our methods in the Philippines were essentially war crimes. So did many others. The Philippines, as an island system, were remarkably different from most other wars inasmuch as the rebels had limited options of where to go.
As far as Malaya, it should be remembered that the British calculated that they dropped 4,000 pounds of bombs for each insurgent killed. I don't get the idea that it is held up in British Military circles as an example of how best to conduct counterinsurgency.
As far as the Russians in Europe being "successful," they were in the way certain SS divisions were "successful". However, as in the Philipines, the insurgents in Latvia and Ukraine had nowhere to go (and the insurgents in Ukraine undercut their popular support by engaging in attempted ethnic cleansing of Poles and others). The glee with which the Baltic States and Ukranians tore down statuary icons of the Soviets suggests that the "success" was short lived if by that we mean getting the nation to accept the colonial rule. Balts, Poles never did--and as can be seen, Ukranians also detest the Russians (and as with most colonialists, this seems lost on the Russians).
Did the Japanese really win? Are they loved in the Philippines and elsewhere? Certainly they didn't suppress the irregulars in China.
As to comments about what we have learned, it would seem from appropriations plans very little--1)the YF 35 eats huge amounts of the budget and isn't a good replacement for the A-10; b) No plans to allow the Army to have fixed wing aircraft even though the Air Force institutionally despises air-ground support missions and the low-and-slow aircraft best suited to them c) there is almost a sigh of relief that can be heard as the ditching of MRAP's is discussed, as if the next major conflicts will be tanker driven battles (the talk is of how we can now "return" to our "warfighting skills." Artillery and armor, so portable, so often useful in wars like Mali or Somalia) d) there is talk about spending large amounts of money on robot warriors. Trained, one assumes, to eat soup with a knife, but little else. In short, the problem is perhaps one of service anthropology and myths and value systems, to the extent that irregular war and its practioners have still not become recognized but are still marginalized, even as their value increases. They weren't liked by those in command in any war and still are paid essentially lip service.e) there is little in appropriations for what the ANA needs--logistics, supplies, parts, and medevac capability. It doesn't appear that we've gone after the funding sources of the Taliban and other newer insurgencies (i.e. Gulf States and their citizens).
Add to this the way we allocate funds--based on what group has the strongest lobby. Here Tech solutions always win--what is the glory for a legislator of cutting a ribbon at the expansion of a special ops unit vs announcing that you, the district's Congressperson, have brought home the bacon in terms of factory jobs to produce the A.E.Neuman1 Series Robot. (why else is manufacture of parts spread out in 35 or so states?) How many lobbyists lavish ego strokes, lunches, and campaign contributions in advancing the cause of funding irregular units?

It is very easy to construct a tight argument if you just sort of pick and chose your facts and relate things to other things that don't much relate at all. A few examples.

First, the statement is made that the successful outcome of the war in Malaysia came to late to prevent the dissolution of the Empire. The Empire as already breaking up and mostly broken up by the time the Emergency started. India was gone in 1947. The things that caused the Empire to dissolve are many and varied but the slow resolution of the Emergency wasn't one of them.

Second, the statement is made that conventional militaries don't do such a good job at small war. We did ok in the Philippines. The Indonesians did ok as detailed in Kilcullen's work. The Red Army did fine in Europe. The Imperial Japanese Army did fine at small war wherever it went. (Fortunately we can't precisely copy Red and IJA methods.). The Algerian Army did a good in job Algeria in the 90s. The list goes on.

Third, the statement is made that small wars go on so long that the eventually become irrelevant. But then that is qualified by saying that it is ok if the effort is really important. That is a problem of war, figuring whether it is worth fighting or not, not of small war.

Fourth, the most serious fault of all. This article goes on long and confidently about what went wrong in Afghanistan anwhat we should have done to have made it gone right. It says all of this with great brio and does not make any mention, not a word, of the role of the Pak Army/ISI. It says nothing about the true axis of decision in this conflict, the Pak Army/ISI, and the true primary nature of the conflict, Unconventional War waged against us and Afghanistan by the Pak Army/ISI by proxy. It just ignores that fundamental.

It is easier to make the 'never again a small war' argument Big Military likes to make when you just ignore things that don't suit the argument.

Robert C. Jones

Wed, 03/12/2014 - 12:45pm

In reply to by G Martin

Grant - you left off the punch line.

So, did he recommend "So therefore we need to stop trying to make other people more like us and sending out SOF to force the conversion"; or did he say "so therefore we need to keep up the CT pressure to achieve our stated national ends"?

Or something else altogether?


G Martin

Wed, 03/12/2014 - 12:14pm

In reply to by Bill C.

This was from an article today:

McRaven warned Congress about what he called the “irreconcilable” extremists growing out of Somalia, Yemen, Syria and North Africa. “No amount of negotiations,” he said, “no amount of placation is going to put them in a position where they're prepared to support universal values as we know them.”…

This seems to support your assertions very aptly I'd say...

(A little enhancement and editing done.)

First we must acknowledge, I believe, that in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, countering the insurgency was not our objective.

Thus, to discuss our actions in Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. -- from the perspective of counter insurgency -- this would seem to be grave error.

Rather, in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, we had much grander ambitions, to wit:

a. To use the opportunity presented by the conflicts

b. To transform these outlying states and societies more along modern western political, economic and social lines.

Here we must acknowledge the assumption going in: This being that, post-the Cold War and the so-called End of History, populations, anywhere and everywhere, liberated from their oppressive regimes, would quickly, easily and mostly on their own (1) throw off their old ways of life and old ways of governance (and their corresponding values, attitudes and beliefs) and, in the place of these, (2) adopt modern western ways.

Herein, we considered:

a. The waiting-to-be-liberated populations to be our new friends and

b. The oppressive regimes to be our new enemies.

This such thinking led to:

a. Regime change becoming the new priority and

b. The military (the instrument to effect regime change) moving forward to the foreign policy lead.

Now came the big surprise:

The populations, effectively liberated from their oppressive regimes, DID NOT, quickly, easily and mostly on their own, move to embrace ways of life and ways of governance which were more compatible with the wants, needs and desires of the West.

Rather, it looked like these populations, thus liberated, were as likely -- or more likely -- to adopt ways of life and ways of governance which were even more detrimental to Western interests.

Based on this new understanding, we quickly reversed course.

Now populations are no longer seen as the primary venue by which we might achieve our desired ends. Rather, we have decided to again work with the regimes. This, because we have come to again realize that our instruments of power and persuasion have a better chance of influencing and dealing with regimes rather than populations.

This such new/old understanding -- that we must work with the regimes to achieve our desired ends -- now being verified by the fact that we have:

a. Moved to place diplomacy again in the lead (recognizes the priority of the regime as the way to achieve our foreign policy goals and objectives) and

b. Moved to have our military forces focus on helping regimes work around or stand against resistant populations. (See BPC, conflict prevention, Phase Zero operations, small SOF footprint, etc.; none of which seek to liberate the population or overthrow the regime.)

To sum up:

The overall goal and objective of the West -- in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere -- was not to "counter the insurgency." If such had been the case, then one would have expected to see the West adopt measures similar to those offered by Lawrence or by COL Jones.

Rather the goal and objective of the West was to (1) use the opportunity presented by these conflicts to (2) transform these outlying states and societies more along modern western political, economic and social lines.

And, here, the West made the fatal mistake of believing that, post-the Cold War, the "universal appeal" of the West's way of life and way of governance would make the populations -- liberated from their oppressive regimes -- become our natural allies and the means by which we could achieve our goals.

Herein, we have learned from this fatal mistake and have adapted (as outlined above) accordingly.


Wed, 03/12/2014 - 2:23pm

In reply to by Evan Munsing

“And who knows? maybe a more comprehensive AfPak strategy from the start could have allowed the SOF-Northern Alliance team to have eliminated them in that initial push.”

Perhaps, but I am not so sure. A complete defeat on American terms of the Afghan-Taliban probably would have been viewed through Pakistani eyes as not serving their long-term interests.

Secondly, the Taliban were never a global threat nor are they today. Al Qaeda certainly was and had we structured a different more subtle and lower profile strategy we likely could have large destroyed them without igniting a long-term insurrection in Afghanistan.

We took a page out of the Soviet playbook when we should have taken a page out of the British playbook where after mis-starts they politically largely achieved their primary goals in Afghanistan.

Evan Munsing

Tue, 03/11/2014 - 2:28pm

In reply to by miarty

Miarty -

You're quite correct on both points. Rather, what I was trying to suggest was that in both cases the actual exposure of American forces (and American interests in terms of material and funding) was quite small; and although the Taliban was never truly "defeated", the threat they posed to global security was substantially mitigated. Their continued existence in the borderlands of Pakistan and the inevitable low, continued level of violence that resulted was acceptable to American strategic interests. And who knows? maybe a more comprehensive AfPak strategy from the start could have allowed the SOF-Northern Alliance team to have eliminated them in that initial push.


Well written article that I enjoyed reading. But a few points I disagree with.

1) The Northern Alliance, in conjunction with American SOF, did not defeat the Taliban in 2001-2002. Superior firepower brought to bear by SOF and partnered with the Northern Alliance pushed the Taliban, and al-Qa`ida, out of most major population centers in Afghanistan. However, the Taliban was not defeated at that time. If they were we wouldn't have been fighting a counter-insurgency against them for the past decade.

2) The footprint to find and kill UBL was not small. The in-theater piece may have been but there was also a significant CONUS-based piece of the Intelligence Community working towards that goal.

Again - well written and thought out. I just have a different read on some minor historical points.

One must remember that T. E. Lawrence’s Bedouins DID NOT defeat the Turkish Army; they only harassed the communications on left flank of the Turks. This was an important contribution but certainly not decisive. It was Allenby’s regular British and Australian forces that defeated and rolled back the Turkish Army all the way to Aleppo in Syria.

Evan Munsing

Tue, 03/11/2014 - 2:00pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones


You're absolutely correct; I think one of the greatest long-term threats that our military faces - and will continue to face - is the unwillingness of senior political and military figures to do what the British ultimately did in Malaysia. We haven't shown much agility in adapting to history and we must be more willing to change our own strategic narratives and reorient ourselves toward new goals as history evolves.


Robert C. Jones

Tue, 03/11/2014 - 9:02am


Nice work. We attempt strategic things as we must with tactical actions. But then we measure progress with tactical metrics that soon come to trump any thoughts we may have ever had as to what actually leads to our intended strategic ends. The result, we maximize tactical successes in a manner that undermines our strategic goals - and ultimately fail to achieve more than a "decent interval" (as Kissenger sought to get us out of Vietnam) to rationalize a US "win" - that is soon followed by a host nation defeat.

I will comment however on this statement: "the British waged a successful counterinsurgency campaign in Malaysia, but their painfully slow and expensive victory came too late to prevent the dissolution of the British empire."

In the sense that the British completely failed to reestablish the Colony as they set out to do, they lost. In the sense that they recognized the infeasibility of that task and were able to shift to a strategic goal of bringing a new sovereign country of Malaysia into the Commonwealth - and tailor military operations to support that end - they won. The Malayan emergency is a great example of how there are rarely military solutions to these problems, but that discreet use of the military can help facilitate a workable political solution that serves one's strategic ends.

Our problem is that we go in with infeasible ends, and then tend to make those ends even more infeasible as we expand our objectives over time - and then expand our military activities as well in efforts to force what we think will be best for us. (After all, if it's good for us, it must be great for our allies, partners and the host nation, right??)

Regretfully, we only take tactical lessons from Malaya and ignore the strategic genius of what Britain did. The Brits won by losing. We, on the other hand lose by winning. So very British. So very American.


Now is the time for the leaders of those special operators and intelligence agents, those who we keep saying should have led the way to strategic victory in Afghanistan, to seize the moment. Big-War weariness gives them the opportunity to make the case for the use of real Small-War strategy and tactics. I think ADM McRaven is doing just that. With someone like him, who has a vision for the future of SOF and its role in national and international security, in the lead...we may actually apply the lessons so many of us have learned in the last 13 years.

I'd like to add a couple of points for readers, especially those familiar with Lawrence, to consider.

First, Lawrence's entrance as an active participant into the 'Arab Uprising' was in the capacity as an observer for the British Foreign Office, and NOT as a military advisor. This is worth considering because it highlights a point I find too often overlooked by military readers, as well as 'Hard Power' associated wonks who might easily fall into the trap of admiring Lawrence's literary candor and ability to the extent they automatically assume their counterparts in the "Soft Power" universe are working from the same foundational and philosophical basis, which they are NOT. In practice, the division of engagement in conflicts such as Iraq or Afghanistan don't neatly fall into the dichotomy of "Hard" vs "Soft" power, but the INSTITUTIONS involved Define themselves in this fashion… to the point of overall failure of the entire venture due to our own engaged institutions working at cross purposes with each other (which in my opinion, is exactly at the root of the general failure of the so-called COIN strategic application in Afghanistan).

For the sake of brevity… "A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East" by David Fromkin, and "Does America Need A Foreign Policy: Toward a Diplomacy for the 21st Century"" by Kissinger… are texts I have heard cited as 'primary' and 'policy bibles' by each political parties respective Sec of State's, as well as by their DoS 'keepers', often enough to recommend that any and every 'Hard Power' reader of Lawrence add these two texts to their reading lists in order to better understand their civilian counterparts (and also because each is exceptional, if not on a par with Lawrence).


A. Scott Crawford

Leonard McDonald

Mon, 03/10/2014 - 5:29pm

Let's make sure we pivot to Asia, buy a bunch of fighters, and forget these lessons learned in blood so we can do it all again the next time we end up carrying the spear in another land that time forgot.


G Martin

Mon, 03/10/2014 - 3:25pm

The sad thing is that we all know this- but can't help ourselves anyway. Our approach to warfare is also "embedded in the societ[y] from which [it] arise[s]"- and our approach is decidedly technological, technically rational, systematic, and deliberate. There is no other way for us to approach things due to the emergence of self-referential and justifying systems and processes that do not allow any other way.

I don't see much on the horizon promising change, however- if Vietnam didn't change us and Iraq isn't looking like it will- and we seem to be unable to change in Afghanistan- one wonders what will cause us to change...