Small Wars Journal

Reflections on Counterinsurgency and Doctrine: Neither Strategy nor Platitudes

Thu, 05/08/2014 - 6:09am

Reflections on Counterinsurgency and Doctrine: Neither Strategy nor Platitudes

Robert M. Cassidy

The new U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps counterinsurgency doctrine, Insurgency and Countering Insurgencies (FM 3-24/MCWP 3-33.5), has some good things to offer but also has several flaws.  This review distills both features, and ends with thoughts about doctrine and counterinsurgency over the last decade.  

This new manual aptly defines insurgency and counterinsurgency in the very beginning, borrowing from the current Joint Pub 3-24, Counterinsurgency.  Both manuals state that insurgency is organized violence to seize or undermine political authority over a geographic area whereas counterinsurgency is the use of civil and military instruments to marginalize an insurgency and to address its root causes.

This doctrine correctly states that “counterinsurgency is no substitute for strategy” in the beginning of the first chapter.  There is indeed no such thing as ‘counterinsurgency strategy’ because counterinsurgency comprises the methods and approaches to render an insurgency ineffective within a larger strategy.

Forces can adapt, improve, and adopt methods to undermine or reverse an insurgency’s momentum, engagement after engagement, and fighting season after fighting season; but if strategy is absent or fundamentally deficient, it may come to naught in the end.  Operational activity, the art and science of operations, and operational gains are good, but not relevant without strategy.

Two other positive aspects of this document are the inclusion of a chapter on assessments and the exclusion of any bogus split of counterinsurgency into two types, either a population-focused kind or an enemy-focused kind. 

This exclusion is cause for optimism because a sound doctrine must note that counterinsurgency is counterinsurgency:  killing those insurgents and leaders that warrant it and mobilizing the preponderance of the population by improving security and by addressing the grievances that catalyze insurgent support.

A chapter on assessments is important because few have figured out how to do these very well.  Militaries tend to over-assess almost everything, encumbering themselves with myriad reviews, most of which exhibit propensities toward quantifying everything that is quantifiable, even if meaningless.  As of this year, there were over a half-dozen overlapping, but required, reports or reviews to appraise how the war in Afghanistan was going. 

This portion of the document underlines important things to measure, for example, the collection of taxes and the levels of violence against host-nation government and security officials.  It also warns against counting bodies, harkening back to the emphasis on body counts during the Vietnam War, and to Robert Strange McNamara’s assertion in the 1960s that by every quantitative measure, the U.S. was winning in Vietnam. 

However, that chapter also prescribes things like measuring agricultural activity and electricity output, which may not be as meaningful in determining the strength of the insurgency.  In 2013-2014 in Afghanistan, the most meaningful things to measure were how the Afghan security forces fought vis-à-vis how the insurgents fought and what the outcomes of their engagements were.  What were the realities and perceptions of those interactions during the first fighting season that witnessed the Afghan security forces in the genuine lead?

Notwithstanding the positive aspects noted above, this manual is a modest effort in doctrine, writing, and thinking about counterinsurgency.  In many places, it is generally a compilation of platitudes and homilies.  As a consequence, it is wordy and unwieldy.  The art of writing cogent and compelling prose is not that evident.

Below are examples of the platitudes in this document:

“Effective counterinsurgency operations require an understanding of the military profession.”

“The U.S. Army and Marine Corps can prevent or defeat an insurgency across the range of military operations.”

“If an insurgency develops, it will require resources to defeat the insurgents.”

“An insurgency’s goals and actions are influenced by the conditions the insurgency develops in.”

“An effective counterinsurgency force is a learning organization.”

“A situation is usually more complicated than it seems when the military force first becomes involved.”

 “A counterinsurgency involves simultaneous activities at every echelon.”

“Effective counterinsurgency is about effectively linking tasks to a purpose and achieving that purpose.”

Fewer pages of compact and meaningful substance and prose would stand readers and practitioners in better stead than this manual does because, then at least readers would be more inclined to read those pages, and the substance would be more comprehensible.  There is no reason why this document should be more than 50 pages. 

This manual strives to do everything and as a result does not do many things that well.  It tries to cover design, mission command, and intelligence but doctrine already exists for design, for mission command, and for intelligence.  This manual over-reaches and does not achieve what it should as a result. 

The paradoxes it borrows from the 2006 doctrine are now cliché.  The paradox of greatest importance to understand before undertaking counterinsurgency is the strategic paradox that finds a top-tier power fighting a war of limited ends with relatively unlimited means, against a pre-industrial foe that espouses a messianic vision and that is fighting a war with limited means for unlimited ends.  Contradictions flow from this paradox that do not bode well for the ‘superior’ side.

There are also not enough questions or question marks in the document, which is a bit curious.  The first need is to ask the right questions, to understand the essence of the environment and the multiple variables interacting within it.  Ask the questions that will create an informed understanding about the environment, the enemy, the population, and us, operating in it.  What are the causes behind the insurgency, the grievances that catalyze its support?  Is the value of the political object significant enough that our political will endure the costs in magnitude and duration to see it through to a successful end?

Beyond asking the questions, there are some enduring imperatives that should appear in any counterinsurgency doctrine, many of which do emerge somewhere in this manual.  These imperatives would include the following.

  • Build indigenous security capacity in institutions and forces early.
  • Use lethal and non-lethal action to coerce and mobilize the preponderance of the people against the insurgency and its support.
  • Out-mobilize the population against the insurgents by convincing the people that the government is more capable and more legitimate than the insurgents.
  • Restrain the traditional tendency to measure everything because many things may have no meaning.  Indeed, Einstein once observed that some things that can be counted do not count whereas some things that count cannot be counted.
  • Crucially, isolate the insurgency from external support and sanctuary.  It is very difficult to neutralize an insurgency that benefits from sanctuary.

In the end, countering insurgency is difficult.  It is more difficult to plan and undertake counterinsurgency when a military has neglected to think about it, teach it, organize for it, and maintain a corpus of current doctrine that informs it and guides its execution.  Difficulties also certainly stem from those situations where ill-conceived policy drives badly resourced and poorly analyzed operations.  Strategy that does not align the ends, the means, and the ways is not strategy.  Counterinsurgency itself is not strategy. 

All war is hard, but it is harder if stupidity prevails.  World War I was harder than it should have been because of stupid generals and their failure to recognize that war’s character had changed due to variables that had emerged in the previous century. 

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were harder because of stupidity and hubris, and as a consequence of the American military’s general failure to sustain knowledge and doctrine about the historical tenets of counterinsurgency.  A scholar of Clausewitz’s work offered the following insight about the U.S. and counterinsurgency after the Vietnam War:

No wonder that, after the experience of Vietnam, American strategists and military instructors long shunned the subject of small wars. They had proved particularly difficult for high-tech armed forces that were good at major campaigns in which overwhelming firepower promised success.[1]

The U.S. military must retain the doctrine and the knowledge about the best practices and tenets associated with effective counterinsurgency, ones it was compelled to relearn in the crucible of combat across multiple insurgencies.  The American military did adapt to both the Afghan and Iraq insurgencies at the operational and tactical levels of war.  The failures in Iraq and the uncertainty that still obtains about the future of Afghanistan relate to strategy and policy deficits.  Operational momentum is good but it is irrelevant minus strategy.  

In the end, it comes down to being smart about the wars that policy impels, or being stupid about them.  The former approach aligns ends, means, and ways while benefiting from thousands of years of historical experiences.  The wars of the twenty-first century have been difficult because of bad estimations and misunderstandings about our enemies, about ourselves, and about the kinds of wars we undertook.

Instead of amassing an excessive amount of words, this document should have made the words count.  Understanding any kind of war requires critical thinking and cogent doctrine to convey that thinking.  Weighty gibberish does not serve well as doctrine because it impairs clear thinking and because jargon is the bane of critical thinking.  Counterinsurgency does not equate to strategy and platitudes do not equate to doctrine.

End Note

[1] Beatrice Heuser, “Victory, Peace, and Justice:  the Neglected Trinity,” Joint Force Quarterly (2nd Quarter 2013):  11.


About the Author(s)

Dr. Robert Cassidy, Ph.D., is a retired U.S. Army colonel. He is a teaching fellow at Wesleyan University and a senior fellow with the Center for Advanced Defense Studies. He has served in Afghanistan and Iraq.



Our ability to view and understand insurgency and counterinsurgency today continues to be hindered by a failure to state -- up-front and directly -- in our publications and elsewhere -- the problem and context of our time, which is:

a. The determination of the United States/the western world to transform outlying states and societies more along modern western political, economic and social lines. (This, in sum, is our political objective.) And

b. The fact that many people and governments around the world are not convinced that such a radical transition/transformation is something that they should -- or even could -- do.

From Walter Russell Mead:

" ... our economy is a transformative revolutionary force, and our democratic ideology is a transformative revolutionary force. So we are changing everything ... "

People throughout the world -- to include in the United States -- do not accept or tolerate massive/all encompassing change well. Their natural inclination is, in fact, to resist and fight against such radical/revolutionary change.

So, within the scope of the overarching problem/context I have offered above ("we" require change; "they" resist change), how might one come to easily view and understand insurgents/insurgency and counterinsurgents/counterinsurgency today? I suggest in the following manner:

a. Today's insurgents can be viewed and understood as those individuals, groups, states and societies who are resisting/fighting against such radical political, economic and social changes as the West desires/requires. Insurgency, today, likewise to be viewed in this "resistance to change" light.

b. Today's counterinsurgents can be viewed and understood as those individuals, groups, states and societies (predominately those of West) who are attempting, via various ways and various means (to include "diplomacy, development and defense"), to convince these resistant parties to adopt a western way of life and a western way of governance. Counterinsurgency, today, to be viewed specifically through this "convince to change" lense and requirement.

Thus, it is with this overall perspective well in hand, I suggest, that now one might be able to better view and comprehend the -- corresponding and associated -- "nuts and bolts" details of counterinsurgency operations outlined in our insurgency/counterinsurgency publications.


Sat, 05/10/2014 - 5:26pm

In reply to by PSmith

Thanks PSmith,

"We fail at COIN because we are blinded by apparent tactical successes not seeing that these tactical successes are often dissociated from and void connection to the strategy. If the strategy is missing or flawed then no amount of killing 'insurgents' will counter them."

That is perhaps the most intelligent observation I have seen written in a while. We "fought" a war that had nothing to do with the strategic political objective, and we patted ourselves on the back for doing such a good job at it.

The manual does not say that COIN is not a strategy. You misread it. It says that COIN is not a substitute for strategy. Two different thoughts.

I hope you agree that at both national and military levels, that if we choose/select countering an insurgency as the method of war, that the adversary's strategy has to be countered with strategy. If that is the case then the dogma that COIN is not a strategy falls on its face.

Your statement:
" The failures in Iraq and the uncertainty that still obtains about the future of Afghanistan relate to strategy and policy deficits. Operational momentum is good but it is irrelevant minus strategy...,"
appears to conflict with your thesis.

Seems to me there might be a need for a counterinsurgency strategy when we select this particular form of warfare.
And yes the ways, ends and means can be aligned in conduct of this method of war, thus meeting our strategy design.
We fail at COIN because we are blinded by apparent tactical successes not seeing that these tactical successes are often dissociated from and void connection to the strategy. If the strategy is missing or flawed then no amount of killing 'insurgents' will counter them.

I also think the use of the term 'counter' as our doctrinal lexicon suggests overemphasis on killing to the exclusion of other actions that influence, motivate, 'insurgents' as well as relevant population.
Next revision to this manual should seriously consider the use of the term 'influence' to replace 'counter.'

From the new Joint Publication 3-24, at the beginning of Chapter VIII:

“With a few exceptions, lasting insurgency endings are shaped not by military action but by social, economic, and political change. At their core, insurgencies are battles for the control of public support…The government may defeat the insurgent military cadre, but, with few exceptions, insurgencies do not end until case-specific root causes are addressed.”

(Ben Connable and Martin Libicki, How Insurgencies End 2010: RAND)

Crucial and critical question:

Do the writers of the new publications (FM 3-24/MCWP 3-33.5 and JP 3-24) understand -- and do these new publications address and accept -- that, in order to end certain insurgencies, the social, economic and political changes that are required, may, of necessity, need to be of a non-western, non-modern and, indeed, "revisionist" nature?

(Thus, running counter to the overriding political objective of the United States, which is, to transform states and societies more along modern western political, economic and social lines.)


Thu, 05/08/2014 - 6:15pm

I made this comment elsewhere, and it should probably be addressed to COL Gentile, but if COIN is not strategy, then we probably have a huge gap in military strategy when it comes to satisfying political objectives.

These ideas are from a related thread, but I pose them to COL Cassidy:

"I think what we miss is that both the Russian and the Chinese strategies are inherently political. We Americans are extremely uncomfortable with a political strategy. COIN is a good example. The political objective was a free, democratic, and stable Iraq. Our strategy was to support the Government of Iraq (GoI). Our operational and tactical method was COIN. Now there are huge gaps between the political objective, the strategy, and the operational and tactical methods.

Our military is not comfortable using any method other than coercion. Either coercion via threat of force, or coercion via bribery (Remember Money as a Weapons System - money to work with us or stuff we will buy you). We don’t understand psychology. We think there is no honor in any other strategy. Plus we are really good with our plethora of hammers. But only using a hammer does not address the real problem and only leads to us playing whack-a-mole without ever addressing the political problem or reaching the political objective.

War’s character has not changed. War is a battle of wills. But coercion is not the only way to address the will of the population. It also might help to determine what the will of the population is before you decide that the solution is a 500 lb bomb."

What IS our strategy when it comes to dealing with intra-governmental violence of a political nature, particularly when we have a specific political objective. If COIN does not represent the connection, what does?


Thu, 05/08/2014 - 1:24pm

Thanks for the review. I could not agree more on document size. Writing should be clear and concise. However, the basic problem is that one man’s “cliché” paradox is essential to understanding an insurgency to another. Many manuals could be improved by eliminating useless prose and writing shorter concise prose. The problem is identifying what the useless prose is. You state that “It tries to cover design, mission command, and intelligence but doctrine already exists for design, for mission command, and for intelligence.” However, to Linda Robinson, the design chapter “is the best and most useful chapter for the practitioner, in my opinion. The section on Conceptual Planning should be elevated to a must-read and elaborated on in training and education.” (See her review) There is disagreement on counterinsurgency and doctrine on counterinsurgency will somewhat reflect this disagreement. That also means a longer document and less precise prose than any individual may like. However, the benefit is that it will be close to being right. One could allow one person to write the document. However, the downside is that person might be really wrong.

On platitudes, I would argue that you are taking what are topic sentences out of context and calling them platitudes. A platitude is a trite and meaningless statement. However, most of what you picked out simply introduces a paragraph that has meaning. Perhaps not meaning you (or I) think should be in the document, but meaning nonetheless. You pick out the topic sentence, “A counterinsurgency involves simultaneous activities at every echelon. “ The paragraph it goes in is as follows:

“A counterinsurgency involves simultaneous activities at every echelon. Platoons within a company could be doing different tasks, and companies within a battalion could be doing different tasks, all in support of a battalion’s method of counterinsurgency. Every task involves potential decisions that can have an immediate impact on success or failure. Moreover, these tasks are interrelated. This means that junior leaders will make decisions at the point of effort, relying on mission type orders."

I will not argue that the paragraph is important or not important to the document. I will argue that it is not a platitude. It is simply stating that tactical units could have a higher variance in the types of missions and a tactical headquarters will task its subordinate units and control a wider range of mission types. Moreover, those different types of missions will be interrelated. This is justification why decentralization of control is important in counterinsurgency. One can agree, disagree, or think the statement is not important enough to be in the document. However, I do think it is unfair to point to that topic sentence and call it a platitude.

Those are just my thoughts on your review. Again, thanks for taking the time and effort to write this.


Thu, 05/08/2014 - 11:08am

In reply to by TheCurmudgeon

In regard to grievances, possibly the Colonel was over-generalizing?

Every insurgent conflict will have a unique tone and circumstances. An example, albeit a bit dated, is the 1966 Buddhist uprising in I Corps Viet-Nam and how III MAF commander, Big Lew Walt tried to handle the situation as opposed to totally supporting the host Saigon government's nasty approach.


Thu, 05/08/2014 - 7:55am

COL Cassidy,

You state the the new FM should include this sentence: "Use lethal and non-lethal action to coerce and mobilize the preponderance of the people against the insurgency and its support." You also state that: "[the exclusion of a distinction between a population-focused counterinsurgency doctrine or an enemy-focused doctrine] is cause for optimism because a sound doctrine must note that counterinsurgency is counterinsurgency: killing those insurgents and leaders that warrant it and mobilizing the preponderance of the population by improving security and by addressing the grievances that catalyze insurgent support." From these thoughts I gather that you do not believe that legitimacy is relevant to a counterinsurgency?

Along that same line, you would seem to infer that an insurgency could be defeated even where the insurgents have legitimacy and the government does not. Is that what you believe?

Outlaw 09

Sat, 05/10/2014 - 1:10pm

In reply to by RantCorp

Robert---if we take say the Wikipedia definition of political warfare and your comments concerning a revolutionary population ie say currently the eastern and southern proRussian Ukrainians as an example of a revolutionary population ---at what point can one actually define a population is revolutionary or is it a totally radicalized population due to the overwhelming propaganda contributed to the political warfare?

I bring this up after watching a Russian video yesterday filmed during the Ukrainian government attack on an occupied admin building where the National Guard personnel were literally confronted by the locals as "fascists" (yelling, shouting cursing them using the term fascists over and over)and were up in their face as a crowd---from both the tone and populace actions this crowd firmly believed the constant stream of Russian TV/radio that states over and over the Kiew government is run by neo Nazis, nationalists, anti semitics, and fascists.

The reporter making the video seemed to be in a couple of his comments stunned by the repeating of the Russian propaganda literally word for word by the local crowds.

So the question just how does one define a revolutionary population as such vs a population that has been thoroughly radicalized as an effect of political warfare? Fully understand that the State actor driving a political war will adjust the propaganda messaging to hit all the right buttons within a targeted population, but this seems to hitting a deep set of buttons. Secondly does the State actor also run the risk of "losing control" of his radicalized revolutionary population?

From Wikipedia:

Political warfare is the use of political means to compel an opponent to do one's will, based on hostile intent. The term political describes the calculated interaction between a government and a target audience to include another state's government, military, and/or general population. Governments use a variety of techniques to coerce certain actions, thereby gaining relative advantage over an opponent. The techniques include propaganda and psychological operations (PSYOP), which service national and military objectives respectively. Propaganda has many aspects and a hostile and coercive political purpose. Psychological operations are for strategic and tactical military objectives and may be intended for hostile military and civilian populations.[1]

Political warfare's coercive nature leads to weakening or destroying an opponent's political, social, or societal will, and forcing a course of action favorable to a state's interest. Political war may be combined with violence, economic pressure, subversion, and diplomacy, but its chief aspect is "the use of words, images and ideas."[2] The creation, deployment, and continuation of these coercive methods are a function of statecraft for nations and serve as a potential substitute for more direct military action.[3] For instance, methods like economic sanctions or embargoes are intended to inflict the necessary economic damage to force political change. The utilized methods and techniques in political war depend on the state's political vision and composition. Conduct will differ according to whether the state is totalitarian, authoritative, or democratic

Outlaw 09

Sun, 05/11/2014 - 1:14pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

Robert----you often talk about the legitimacy of say a revolutionary population that drives them ---why on the other hand does a Sate actor try to constantly strive to have things "legal" in their eyes regardless of how vague that legitimacy is?

What is the underlying drive of this type of State actor--meaning the idea of legitimacy somehow grants them the freedom of action even if in the eyes of the international world that legitimacy is itself illegitimate.

Robert C. Jones

Mon, 05/12/2014 - 12:30pm

In reply to by Bill C.

Bill C.,

We just wanted revenge against those in charge and to punish AQ; and, as powerful outside powers do, we identified and leveraged the grievance of the population in Afghanistan not on board with the current regime to advance that agenda.

All the social mumbo jumbo was added later in the context of "well, while we are here, we should make this a new ally by working to make them more like us."

The reality is that one is hard pressed to identify much difference between the Puritans who settled Massachusetts Colony and the Taliban of Mullah Omar's Afghanistan. Radical right wing religious zealots dressed in black who were incredibly intolerant of other beliefs, and equally abusive of the rights of women.

But that kind of radical religious politics simply cannot survive in the light of day. It faded quickly in New England once the Puritans were no longer able to drive off anyone who did not subscribe to their narrow beliefs; and equally it would fade naturally in Afghanistan by bringing conditions there into the light of day. I personally believe that those who insist doggedly that any Taliban participation in governance in Afghanistan must be blocked (a form of Tyranny to exclude some group) in order to prevent the old Taliban practices from coming back, is without much historical or logical merit.

Afghanistan is in the light of day now. The Taliban cannot turn of the lights of information and awareness. What they got away with in the dark days following the Soviet expulsion could not be done today. It wouldn't be how we would do it, but then, that is not the measure for success.


Bill C.

Mon, 05/12/2014 - 12:27pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

"This is about patronage, not being Pashtu."

To me, this is about with which group we might be able to pursue our political objective, which was/is to transform outlying states and societies more along modern western political, economic and social lines.

We could not do this via the Taliban so, insurgency or no, they had to -- for the time being -- be painted out of the picture.

Allowing the Taliban to return to the political arena -- given that they would not allow the state and societies of Afghanistan to be organized, ordered and oriented more along modern western political, economic and social lines -- this was deemed not to be in our interest.

The insurgency, therefore, being seen as the lesser of two evils and something that we could live with and ultimately prevail over.

The Taliban in participatory/power mode (given that they would not allow a transition to a western way of life and a western way of governance) being something that we could not live with.

Thus, something that the new counterinsurgency manuals probably does not deal with, to wit: the fact that the root cause of the insurgency is often our attempts to transform the subject state and society -- specifically along modern western political, economic and social lines -- via an government installed by and/or friendly to the United States.

Herein, the way to cure such insurgencies being to allow -- and accept -- social, economic, and political changes that are of a more-traditional, non-western, non-modern and/or "revisionist" nature.

Robert C. Jones

Mon, 05/12/2014 - 9:39am

In reply to by RantCorp


This is about patronage, not being Pashtu

Some individuals, families and tribes are inside the circle (and the Constitution Mr. Karzai and a handful of cronies railroaded past an aghast Constitutional Loya Jirga as Western "experts" applauded back in 2003 is at the crux of the patronage issue driving the current revolutionary insurgency in Afghanistan); and some individuals, families and tribes are outside the circle.

The constitution of Afghanistan did two insurgency driving things:
1. It centralized patronage at the national level, so that instead of being a local system with low-level "corruption" and with impacts, good and bad, all occuring locally, it all became massive, impersonal and controlled by a handful of Northern Alliance elites at the very top. No leader owes much of anything to the people he is tasked to serve, instead his patron is back in Kabul and all loyalty is owed upward. The people and the mission are just tools to help serve self and patron.

2. It codified the reversal of fortunes created by the US invasion. No longer could those who lost power and opportunity simply wait for the natural balance to re-emerge once we left. And the insurgency really did not begin until that point became clear. The losers had no choice then but to fight; and the fact that the insurgency persists demonstrates clearer than any other metric that they still fell that same way. Clearly this is very convenient for Pakistan as we have created for them an aggrieved population that will willingly accept Pakistan's help in exchange for supporting Pakistan's interests where convenient.

For us to blame Paksitan for something we enabled and created is frankly just not very smart. It certainly isn't very helpful. Yet it remains our offical and widespread take on the situation.


Sun, 05/11/2014 - 6:45pm

In reply to by carl


You did not mention religion in your reply and if you don't mind me saying so it gave your point much more gravitas. The whole religious thing is a ALQ/ISI straw man that IMHO has caused many well-meaning people to take their eye off the ball.

I re-watched the HBO Manhunt doco flagged by Outlaw. Near the beginning OBL gives the whole shaheed spin that I have endured from so many fruitcake Wahabbis that it really breaks my balls when I hear it dribbled out in the same subway 'MIND THE GAP' monologue. When the elephant came our great hero cowered in his room for 15 minutes as the Navy cleared their way up to him in Abbottabad and he didn't fire a single shot from his ever-present AKSU.

Interestingly the Saudi journalist towards the end of the doco had a somewhat bemused 'knock me down with a feather' attitude towards our hero.

" At the end Osma really wanted to live?"

Perhaps it is me but I got the impression he was a little incredulous that we didn't find it blindingly obvious that martyrdom was not something OBL desired in the slightest. It is my experience none of the leadership seek paradise any time soon.

I digress - like you I find it difficult to understand why RCJ belives the Pushtoons are so incensed that two Pathans are the front runners to replace the current Pathan who is President of Afghanistan that they feel it is only just that are blown up by the Taliban as they go to work, go shopping, pray in mosques, play volleyball, listen to Michael Jackson, fly kites and attend weddings.



Mon, 05/12/2014 - 12:05pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

Robert C. Jones:

You may have not forgotten about the Pak Army/ISI, you just ignored it. What you ignored is this. The Pak Army/ISI wars upon Americans. It kills Americans. Because of the Pak Army/ISI Americans are shot, torn asunder by bombs, blinded, emasculated and crippled in every way imaginable. They suffer and their families suffer. That is the context in which to view the unconventional warfare the Pak Army/ISI wages upon us and the Afghans, who suffer and die to a far greater extent that we. That deserves some emotional response. Not to view the killing of our people with some emotion isn't coolly rational. It is callous.

The Pak Army/ISI can conduct UW anywhere. Anybody can. There will always be some sorehead to front for you, everywhere. They are willing to continue their killing us year after year because they are not effectively opposed, by us, because we ignore them. If they are successful ultimately at this, it will be because they were not effectively opposed by us, not because they are backing a righteous cause. There are a lot of ways to win. One of them is if the enemy, and we are their enemy, doesn't fight back.

That the Pathans are monolithic political block is nonsense. That the rest of the Afghans are a monolithic political block is nonsense also. But I should not be surprised to hear you say that. If you believe the Pathans are all of a single mind, you have to believe the Uzbeks, Tajiks, Hazaras and Kuchis are all of one mind also. Your basic thesis falls apart if you can't keep both of those fantasies alive.

Big power politics may be just business to the suits inside the beltway and the general sahibs in 'Pindi, but to the people on the line who bleed red and hot, it is personal. Not to keep that in mind is not only callous it is immoral. When we send men like Meyer and Swenson out to try and maybe die there should exist an unspoken pact of honor between them and their leaders. The men will try at risk of their lives and the leaders will try just as hard to support them and cover their backs. That is the pact. The civil and military leaders have broken that pact and lied to the men by not contesting the Pak Army/ISI. They have sent men out year after year knowing that they will be killed by Pak Army/ISI UW and knowing they are not doing all they can to cover their men. That is immoral. It is especially so for the very high up military leaders who know this is happening, do nothing, say nothing all the while paying lip service to loyalty.

There is nothing especially intellectually challenging about all this. The great challenge is moral and we are failing. Not to cover for your men and to refuse to contest an enemy who is killing them is a grave moral failure.

Robert C. Jones

Sun, 05/11/2014 - 9:55am

In reply to by carl

No, Carl, I did not forget about the Government of Pakistan and their enduring vital national interest to maintain a strong line of influence into the physical territory of modern Afghanistan through their historically shared Pashtu populace. I think I just put it into a less emotional and more accurate context than you do.

Pakistan is no more able to conduct UW among a population where there are no existing conditions of insurgency than anyone else. The unique thing about Afghanistan is that there is always about 50% of the population that is outside of patronage power under any particular regime. This flips almost as often as political power does between Democrats and Republicans in the US, but the difference in Afghanistan is that it affects the day to day livelihood of every man woman and child of the side that put on the outs. So as long is one is flexible, there is always a disgruntled team out the outs to work with.

As example, the US worked with one segment of the population in concert with Pakistan to frustrated Russian efforts in Afghanistan; then post 9/11 we worked with pretty much the same segment of the population the Russians did during their occupation to frustrate the Taliban and AQ.

Big power politics if funny like that. It isn't personal, it's just business. The US is coming to realize we have exaggerated our interests in the AF/PAK region tremendously. Equally we should come to realize that we have underestimated Pakistan's interests in that same area. Iran as well.

One cannot understand a fundamental and largely timeless and universal concept such as insurgency in general terms when one views it through highly emotional and politically charged lens of any one particular case and what side one affiliates with. My analysis is not about who I think or feel is right or wrong, or who should win or lose - it is just about how I see the nature of the conflict in fundamental terms.


Sat, 05/10/2014 - 5:01pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

Robert C. Jones:

You forgot the third important thing it tells us, the Pak Army/ISI wants Afghanistan the way it wants it to be and will war upon the Afghans until that happens. That is the most important reason the insurgency is so resilient.

You persist in seeing the Pathans as a monolithic political bloc. They are not. Most every book I've read that describes things at the district level very often describes things as a fight between different groups of Pathans. There is no "half of Afghan society" who want what they had back. Their is a small portion of that group, Taliban & Co, who want what they had back; want what they took at the point of a gun from people who didn't want to give it to them in the first place.

To describe Taliban & Co as somehow the voice of the dispossessed Pathans is nonsense. That it is nonsense is borne witness to by the thousands and thousands of Pathans killed by Taliban & Co. for disagreeing with them.


Sat, 05/10/2014 - 3:41pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

Bob wrote:

‘This may seem overly "philosophical" - but one cannot accurately assess the hard, cold facts unless one has a viable philosophy to view them through.’

Your assumption of my lack of respect for the philosophy of war could not be further from the truth. IMO our lack of insight as to the philosophical makeup of our opponents is what makes the resources we bring to the fight so ineffective. Depressingly this repeated failure brings us to the cusp of adding another loss to our record of three zeros and a draw since 1945.

Folks lay blame for our failures at the foot of the altar of strategy, religion, politics, sanctuary, poverty, criminality, doctrine, body armor, 5.56, toxic leadership, military-industrial-congress complex etc. but I believe these are a mere patchwork of symptoms obscuring the heart of our shortcomings. IMO is our failure to empathize with the most profound element of our opponent’s emotive intellect that we are so toothless when we choose to fight.

Most people assume Ike was warning us to the economically ruinous effect of so much ‘hell-yeah’ RMA bullshit but perhaps as the Supreme Commander of the biggest Army in history he saw how militarily dangerous it could be if the cost was not grounded in human empathy.

The ISI understand what important philosophical buttons to press and as such the Pathans will do whatever they want regardless of how little political, religious, economic sense it makes.

In this part of the world Ali Jinnah and Jawaharlal Nehru understood this better than anyone and neither were particularly religious, nepotistic, avaricious or martial. Likewise Ataturk, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Ho, Pol Pot and Khomeini to name the most recent cast of characters. Not many friends in that lot.

History records Sun Tzu calling it art but a long time ago someone told me he meant philosophy.

I dread to think if Putin is a dark master of this philosophy.

Keep Punching,


Robert C. Jones

Fri, 05/09/2014 - 4:06pm

In reply to by RantCorp


If war is "the final argument of kings," then insurgency is the final vote of the people.

Elections in a place like Afghanistan do not, IMO, express a very accurate tale of the political will of the entire population. When some segment of the population has both powerful greivance AND no effective legal means to express that grievance and drive politcal change, one ends up with insurgency.

The very fact that the insurgency in Afghanistan is so resilient tells us two very important things:

1. The current regime is a form of Tyranny, denying some significant segment of the population an effective political voice.

2. Under the current regime a significant segment of the population percieves that it is in their personal, family and/or tribal best interest to effect political change.

Remember, Afghanistan is an all or nothing, patronage-based society. This insurgency is not because a vast segment of the population necessarily want the Taliban back in power; it is because the half of Afghan society who had patronage power under the Taliban, and were dispossessed of that power by our artifical elevation of the Northern Alliance into power, want that power, wealth and influence back.

This may seem overly "philosophical" - but one cannot accurately assess the hard, cold facts unless one has a viable philosophy to view them through. You may not agree with mine, but a blind man can see that the philosophy we have applied to date is not a viable one.

This new FM is better than the last, but it rests upon that same philosophy, so does not really help us get much better.


Fri, 05/09/2014 - 3:43pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

Bob wrote:

'GIRoA also by legal design creates a monopoly of governance and patronage power in those associated with the former Northern Alliance; and equally excludes Taliban participation.'

Under threat of beatings, rape and murder 7 million Afghan natives voted down approx. 15,000 Talibs. As you point out nobody is suggesting a Talib Government Mk II would get the Nobel Prize for Peace but I would argue 7 million to 15 thousand doesn't strike me as an indicator marking the political will of tyrants.

Obviously this thread is not AF/PAK but it has a resonance in understanding poitical conflict. It is my guess that a similarly peaceful election in the Ukraine would be much more even and would bolster your sound philosophical approach to legitimacy and its primacy in driving political conflict.

A philosophical approach that IMO the recent AF election indicated does not explain the conflict in the AF/PAK region.



Fri, 05/09/2014 - 3:45pm

In reply to by Robert C. Jones

double post

Robert C. Jones

Fri, 05/09/2014 - 9:58am

In reply to by RantCorp


Starting an insurgency is a lot like starting a fire. It requires fundamental components be in place prior to any effort to ignite. And there are natural laws that apply (heat goes up, flame requires oxygen, etc). The better one understands the fundmentals in general, the better one can understand the unique nuances of any particular case. Our doctrinal defintion of insurgency ignores the fundamentals and is based more on western legend and governmental bias. It hinders our ability to deal with and undertand particular cases as they occur.

Sitting governments (regardless of how they came to power, or how they have served in power) will always be the LEGAL actor, and as such will have claim to legal legitimacy. The insurgent challenger, by definition, will always be the illegal actor with little to no legal legitimacy. BOTH parties, however, will have some degree of political/popular legitmacy bestowed upon them by the population base they emerge from or serve.

A tyranny is any government that uses the law and their authority to deny any segment of the population full participation in the governance and opportunity of the area they rule. GIRoA is perhaps a much better government than what the Taliban provided, but that does not somehow cure the fact that they were elevated into power by a foreign nation and therefore de facto illegitimate in the eyes of that segment of Afghan (and foreign) society who were invested in the previous regime. GIRoA also by legal design creates a monopoly of governance and patronage power in those associated with the former Northern Alliance; and equally excludes Taliban participation. That is not a Democracy, that is a form of tyranny. And revolution naturally ensued from that segment of the population oppressed by that tyranny. This is the big problem with forced regime change - invariably trades one tyrannt for another, and the game contiues with all the players simply switching roles.

As to the Ukraine, the way the population divides geographically; and the way it sits between two large, powerful systems of external influence are inescapable geo-political facts. There is no "right" or "wrong" other than through the lens of what side one associates with.

Equally there is little to no vital national interest for the US at stake that would drive much action by us; or by NATO for that matter. The vital US interest that drove why, when and how we engaged in WWI, WWII and the Cold War was to serve in a small a role a possible to tip the balance of power so that no single entity would attain a hegemon over the Eurasian landmass. Russian actions in the Ukraine in no way put the current balance of power at risk. Western Europe is weak, but so is Russia. If any party begins to rise to disrupt that balance we will be more apt to act. For now we watch, and that is wise.

But remember, insurgents don't cause insurgency, and defeating insurgents does not defeat insurgency. insurgency is a condition, often latent, that resides within some population based upon their perceptions of the governance that affects their lives. We too often create powerful forces of insurgency through our foreign policy and military actions - and then act surprised and offended when insurgents or foreign UW actors emerge to leverage that energy to their advantage. Bob Cassidy is of the school that focuses on the insurgent. I am of the school that focuses on the insurgency. Reasonable minds can differ, but I personally believe he is attemtpting to fit a problem that is typically not a form of Clausewitzian warfare to fit within that framework.



Fri, 05/09/2014 - 9:49am

In reply to by Robert C. Jones


I am intrigued by your take on the revolutionary/resistance/UW nature of the so-called pro –Russian belligerents in the Ukraine. Obviously it is a mixture, but whereas IMO you are dangerously wrong in your argument that the ISAF/GIRoA are the tyranny and the Talibs (not exclusively but by in large) represent a legitimate counter by the Pashtoon community, do you see the ski-masked folks in the Ukraine as an ethnic Russian version of the Pashtoon in terms of legitimate grievance towards bad governance.

From my point of view it is too easy to replace the ski mask for a turban and rather than come to terms with the New Generation Warfare shouted about by our Baltic friends you just read the ISI manual on UW. However my very limited experience with anti-Soviet Ukrainians back in the day was that they considered many folks from the western side of the Ukraine as Catholic & Polish first, anti-Soviet second and Ukranian third. This ancient prejudice lends weight to the resistance/ revolutionary argument and undermines the Russian UW case. Obviously for all appearances this contradicts what is depicted in the media but I learnt a long time ago that the media is the very last place you should look for understanding political conflict.


Robert C. Jones

Thu, 05/08/2014 - 7:54am


Concise gibberish is no more helpful than the "weighty" variety.

I believe our doctrinal definition of insurgency is fatally flawed. We see the problem in a confused mix of what troubles us most (violence), and the solution we in the military bring (warfare). The first is a tactical choice, and the latter rarely applies.

Your points are good ones for forcing our political will onto some foreign population, but by all historical accounts were largely rendered obsolete shortly after Great Britain connected the people of the globe with electronic communications.

We need a new playbook for the world we live in today, and it needs to sit on policy makers desks more than military ones. The military can no longer force the outdated solutions our policy makers craft. Step one is recognizing insurgency for what it actually is - and not what we wish it to be.