Small Wars Journal

The Tao of Protracted Warfare: A Yin-Yang Approach to Conducting COIN

Tue, 05/01/2012 - 5:39am

ABSTRACT:  The conduct of counterinsurgency operations is a difficult and complex undertaking that requires flexibility, adaptation, and a holistic approach.  The recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have forced the United States to devote considerable resources towards finding the best ways toward winning the COIN fight.  In this paper, the authors use the ancient principles of Yin-Yang to help simplify and clarify key tenets of COIN doctrine.  For thousands of years, Taoist practitioners have advocated finding the proper balance between the black energy of the Yin and the white energy of the Yang to improve our existence in this world.  Accordingly, the authors believe the application of the Taoist philosophy towards COIN can help improve both the comprehension and execution of the multifaceted strategy that is needed to successfully fighting wars amongst the people, reduce terrorism, maintain strong alliances, nurture international cooperation, and strengthen mutual interests around the world.

The recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have focused considerable U.S. attention, energy, and resources towards determining how to win the counterinsurgency (COIN) fight.  Due to its complexity, however, the successful conduct of COIN calls for “an intellectual framework that is coherent enough to provide guidance [yet] flexible enough to adapt to circumstances.” According to the U.S. Department of State,

COIN is a complex effort that integrates the full range of civilian and military agencies. . . It is an extremely difficult undertaking, is often highly controversial politically, involves a series of ambiguous events that are extremely difficult to interpret, and often requires vastly more resources and time than initially anticipated.

The U.S. Department of Defense also emphasizes that the successful planning and execution of COIN operations is intensely challenging.  COIN demands that military forces must oftentimes conduct unfamiliar sets of missions and take into account added considerations, including integrating their activities and efforts with that of an army of external actors and agencies including the host nation, coalition partners, nongovernment organizations, intergovernmental organizations, and other organizations that hold political, social, informational, and economic power in the operational environment. Current U.S. military doctrine goes on to describe the daunting complexities inherent within COIN as follows: 

COIN operations involve complex, changing relations among all the direct and peripheral participants.  These participants adapt and respond to each other throughout an operation.  A cycle of adaptation usually develops between insurgents and counterinsurgents; both sides continually adapt to neutralize existing adversary advantages and develop new (usually short-lived) advantages of their own. . . Learning and adapting in COIN is very difficult due to the complexity of the problems commanders must solve.  Generally, there is not a single adversary that can be singularly classified as the enemy. . . Executing COIN operations is complex, demanding, and tedious.  There are no simple, quick solutions.

Therefore, it appears as though an in-depth methodical study of complex systems would serve as a logical next step to finding the best ways to successfully conduct COIN. But perhaps a simple examination of the word "complex" itself will yield enough insights for a better understanding of this daunting task.

A common definition of the word “complex” is “composed of many interconnected parts.” By and large, U.S. military doctrine details the complexity of COIN by describing various interconnected parts of an insurgency and how they act together to form the interwoven characteristics of the whole system.  Doctrine also encourages military practitioners to consider systems thinking for “developing an understanding of the relationships within the insurgency and the environment [and] is based on the perspective of the systems sciences that seeks to understand the interconnectedness, complexity, and wholeness of the elements of systems in relation to one another.” But because it is difficult to describe the whole system without describing each of the parts, and because each of the parts must be described in relation to all of the other parts, an all-encompassing understanding of a complex system such as COIN is very difficult to achieve.  It might, therefore, prove beneficial to examine another standard definition of “complex” as “so complicated or intricate as to be hard to understand or deal with.” U.S. military doctrine does fittingly depict COIN with this in mind: 

The complexity of insurgency presents problems that have incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements.  The solutions to these intensely challenging and complex problems are often difficult to recognize as such become of complex interdependencies.  While attempting to solve an intensely complex problem, the solution of one of its aspects may reveal or create another, even more complex, problem.

Consequently, even though U.S. military doctrine adequately explains the difficulties associated with conducting COIN and properly highlights the hazards of not combating insurgencies in a holistic manner, many find the doctrine itself to be too confusing and convoluted to be of practical value, especially at the tactical and operational levels.

The authors believe the application of Yin-Yang principles can help to simplify many of the key tenets of COIN doctrine. This paper will show how some enduring principles of the ancient Taoist philosophy can help to clarify our understanding of COIN.  In so doing, not only will military practitioners be able to better combat insurgencies, they will also be able to apply what is learned into even better COIN doctrine.  This paper will also reveal how a Yin-Yang approach to fighting insurgencies can help improve our comprehension of the multifaceted and flexible strategy that is critical for successfully fighting wars amongst the people. While the on-going U.S. involvements in the Iraqi and Afghani conflicts suggest that this will be a difficult undertaking, a proper consideration of Yin-Yang principles can help to illuminate a more coherent strategy for contemporary COIN operations.  Additionally, an improved understanding of COIN will serve as the basis for a developing a comprehensive methodology that helps to reduce terrorism, maintain strong alliances, nurture international cooperation, and strengthen mutual interests around the world as envisioned in the 2010 U.S. National Security Strategy.

Yin-Yang and a Taoist Understanding of the World

In ancient China, Yin-Yang helped to simplify and explain the natural order of the world.  Taoists believe that the interaction between the black energy of the Yin and the white energy of the Yang explains why things happen.  The Yin represents darkness, structure, form, and contraction while the Yang represents light, potential, action, and expansion. Both are equally divided within a circle that symbolizes everything in the universe, and the seemingly dynamic exchange of black and white within this circle signifies both the perpetual and inseparable relationship between the two.  Even though the two are opposites of one another, they are also complementary forces; if one is too strong, then the other is considered to be too feeble. Harmonious balance occurs only when the two energies are in proper unison.  And just as most things in life are not completely black and white, the Yin contains a small white circle while the Yang contains a small black circle.  The Yin-Yang, therefore, provides a simple yet profound way of representing equilibrium in this world.

Today Yin-Yang principles can be found to help explain a wide variety of complex activities.  In Tai Chi Chuan, a form of Chinese martial arts, Yin-Yang helps to express fluidity of motion so that disciples may more easily master the varied techniques in self-defense.  Extreme hardness creates cracking while extreme weakness causes crumbling.  Therefore, the most effective fighting methods utilize an appropriate balance. In architecture and design, Feng Shui emphasizes the simplicity of Yin-Yang in the pursuit of the auspicious and aesthetically pleasing.  A house that is too dark tends to cause depression, pessimism, and fatigue due to excessive Yin, while an overly bright home with too much Yang often results in headaches, troubled emotions, and quick temperament.  Recognizing that time, space, and weather all act in complicated ways to disrupt the human condition, experts in Feng Shui counteract the multitude of adverse influences by designing balance in the living environment. In the practice of Zen Shiatsu, Yin-Yang is used to convey basic methods for how to promote mental wellness, good physical health, and longevity.  Those who specialize in this form of Japanese massage therapy nourish weakened areas of the body by applying pressure on to those areas that exhibit inflammation and excess energy. For thousands of years, this ancient Taoist principle--finding the proper balance between the Yin and the Yang--has helped to turn complex notions into more understandable concepts, and in so doing, has helped to improve form, function, and life.

The Connection between Yin-Yang and Military Operations

In order to realize improvements from the application of Yin-Yang, there are three key steps.  The first step requires a sound understanding of the world as it is--recognizing that there exist opposing forces which create constant tension, conflict, and imbalances in our lives.  Only after attaining this basic understanding is one then ready to advance to the second step--applying appropriate countermeasures to remedy imbalances and, thus, help improve the condition of the world in which one wishes to live.   The final step is the unending pursuit of perfection--a continual assessment and reassessment that help ensure steady progression towards the attainment of the ideal.  By mastering these three steps, Yin-Yang practitioners are able to correctly diagnose disorders in our world, direct opposing energies in the proper fashion to remedy existing deficiencies, and continually strive to realize a more perfect existence.

However, is it possible for military practitioners to apply Yin-Yang principles to warfare?  Interestingly enough, the steps for employing Yin-Yang show remarkable similarity to the U.S. military operations process which prescribes a feedback loop based on good observations, rapid adjustments, informed decision making, and continuous assessments on the progress of an operation.  This Plan-Prepare-Execute-Assess cycle has provided the U.S. military with a systematic method of dealing with the wide variety of missions that it must accomplish, which are typically characterized by complexity, uncertainty, and continuous change.

Figure 1: The U.S. Military Operations Process

A reading of Sun Tzu's Art of War, one of the earliest records on military strategy, also reveals a close association between Yin-Yang and warfare:

In all fighting, the direct method may be used for joining battle, but indirect methods will be needed in order to secure victory.  Indirect tactics, efficiently applied, are inexhaustible as Heaven and Earth, unending as the flow of rivers and streams; like the sun and moon, they end but begin anew; like the four seasons, they pass away to return once more. . . In battle, there are not more than two methods of attack--the direct and the indirect; yet these two in combination give rise to an endless series of maneuvers.  The direct and the indirect lead on to each other in turn.  It is like moving in a circle--you never come to an end.  Who can exhaust the possibilities of their combination?

Sun Tzu further emphasizes a Taoist understanding of the dynamic world when he describes how there is nothing constant or predictable in warfare:

Water shapes its course according to the nature of the ground over which it flows; the soldier works out his victory in relation to the foe whom he is facing.  Therefore, just as water retains no constant shape, so in warfare there are no constant conditions.  He who can modify his tactics in relation to his opponent and thereby succeed in winning, may be called a heaven-born captain.  The five elements (water, fire, wood, metal, earth) are not always equally predominant; the four seasons make way for each other in turn.  There are short days and long; the moon has its periods of waning and waxing.

Therefore, it appears as though the study of Yin-Yang may indeed provide a way to enhance and improve military operations.  But as Sun Tzu also perceptively noted:  “Thus in military campaigns I have heard of awkward speed but have never seen any skill in lengthy campaigns.  No country has ever profited from protracted war.” We ought to, therefore, ask ourselves whether or not it is possible to leverage Yin-Yang principles in pursuit of success in the “shifting mosaic” and “long war” of COIN operations.

A Yin-Yang Approach to Understanding COIN

Current U.S. military COIN doctrine has identified a number of valid operational imperatives and has highlighted “in order to successfully deprive an insurgency of its power and appeal for a sustained period, there must be a balance in the appropriate use of force and on nonmilitary efforts.” Examining these imperatives from a Yin-Yang perspective helps to better reveal why such a balanced approach is so critical; just as Yin-Yang seeks out harmony through the attainment of equilibrium, successful COIN plans ought to include a balance of traditional military and nonmilitary aims.  Arriving at the appropriate balance will, however, continue to be a function of properly and deftly implementing the Plan-Prepare-Execute-Assess cycle.

Figure 2: A Yin-Yang Perspective to Successful COIN Operational Imperatives

This Yin-Yang perspective to COIN also helps to more clearly illuminate the many paradoxes associated with employing purely military action.  While counterintuitive to the traditional U.S. view of warfare, a COIN strategy that focuses too heavily on the Yin will likely prove to be counterproductive.  Consequently, oftentimes the more the force the protected, the less secure it may be; and oftentimes the more force that is used, the less effective it may be.  Military doctrine also warns “if a tactic works this week, it might not work next week; if it works in this province, it might not work in the next.” This is in keeping with the Yin-Yang ideal that constant assessments and reassessments are necessary for determining what plans and actions will be best suited for a particular COIN operation.

Of course, the same is also true for a COIN strategy that focuses too heavily on the Yang and does not lead to the desired improvements in local or national governance.  The U.S. Department of State has proposed a new paradigm called Smart Power to bolster American foreign policy for the 21st Century.  Characterized as being a blend of hard and soft power and of principle and pragmatism, Smart Power intends to employ the full range of tools at America’s disposal--empowerment, partnership, development, cooperation, diplomacy, persuasion, principled negotiations, policymaking, deterrence, coalition, coercion, and military force--to meet the world’s increasingly complex challenges.  Policymakers who want to focus exclusively on nonmilitary activities, however, ought to realize that there is very little likelihood of COIN success without Yin actions.  The Yin-Yang method to COIN, above all, stresses how foolhardy it is to focus too heavily on any single response and suggests that the best strategy employ a balanced approach from the many options available.

Conclusion:  Learning from the Past—The Promise for the Future

Although it has been just a few years since the U.S. Defense and State Departments updated their policies for COIN operations, the main tenets they prescribe derive their origins from the rich lessons of history.  Sun Tzu’s military principles, written approximately 2500 years ago, form the basis for successful COIN.  The United States’ own checked past in conducting COIN—which include the Indian Wars during the 17th to 19th Centuries, the American Civil War, the Philippine and Central America colonial period at the turn of the 20th Century, the Vietnam War, Lebanon in 1983, Somalia in 1993, and the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan—continues to shape the views on how to best conduct COIN. And in spite of its difficulties and challenges, COIN experts have done their best to simplify and codify lasting principles so that future generations can learn from the lessons of such hard-fought conflicts.  President Theodore Roosevelt’s foreign policy motto, “Speak softly and carry a big stick”, perhaps most succinctly captures the balanced approach needed to emerge victoriously in COIN.

The primary goal of this paper is to simplify a number of important yet complex COIN concepts so that policymakers and military practitioners can gain an improved understanding of how to overcome the complicated demands of fighting wars amongst the people.  While the approach the authors employ borrows substantially from ancient Chinese philosophy, the aim for doing so is to emphasize how, oftentimes, complicated matters can be more clearly explained and digested using more comprehensible concepts such as Yin-Yang.  In keeping with the ideals of Taoism, the most promising results for success in COIN are likely to come from a balanced approach to conducting COIN.  Perhaps most important of all, the Taoist approach reveals that it is possible to triumph as long as one remains responsive and flexible: 

[Yin-Yang] discloses that when situations proceed beyond their extremes, they alternate to their opposites.  It is a reminder to accept necessary change and be ready to transform, warning that one should adjust one's efforts according to changes in time and situation.  [It] also says:  In a favorable time and situation, never neglect the unfavorable potential.  In an unfavorable time and situation, never act abruptly and blindly.  And in adverse circumstances, never become depressed and despair (Alfred Huang (trans.), The Complete I Ching, xx).

Military might coupled with prudent statesmanship can work together to yield hopeful and enduring COIN results.  And as appropriately stated in the 2011 U.S. National Military Strategy, “Military power and our Nation’s other instruments of statecraft are more effective when applied in concert.”

Categories: protracted warfare - COIN

About the Author(s)

LCDR James Y. Wong is a US Navy supply corps officer who is currently a
contract specialist with the Naval Air Systems Command.  He earned his
commission from Officer Candidate School in 1996, and he holds a B.A. in
economics from UC Irvine and a M.B.A. in contracting from the Naval
Postgraduate School.  He has completed two Western Pacific deployments,
served as a Defense Logistics Agency Contingency Logistics Support Officer
for the 4th Infantry Division in Iraq, and recently completed an assignment
as Contracting Officer and Deputy Chief of Contracts for the Combined Joint
Task Force-Horn of Africa.

LTC Ernest Y. Wong is a US Army military intelligence officer who is currently the Intelligence Fusion Division Chief for 8th Army G2.  He is a 1994 graduate of the US Military Academy, and he holds a M.S. in management science and engineering and a M.A. in education from Stanford University. While assigned as an Assistant Professor in the Systems Engineering Department at West Point, he was selected as a NASA Marshall Space Flight Center Summer Faculty Fellow.  In addition to his current service in the Republic of Korea, he has also served in Iraq and Kuwait.


Gordon Potter

Tue, 05/01/2012 - 11:20pm

The COIN strategy by doctrine is a population centric approach.

With a thorough understanding of the HN populations perceptions, most of the complexities / ambiguity falls away to reveal the true problem sets. Only then can one effectively evaluate processes lending to the proper solution.

For an example; If you take the first diagram above and replace "battle command" with "population" in the center,

1- Mission Analysis (Plan), or establish baseline popular perception you will arrive at the populations Known world / reality.

2- Coordinate (prepare) Activities,narratives, messages, centered on improving populations reality.

3- Implement (execute) a program with a desired end state to be evaluated in 90 days. Trend the popular perception of the program against the desired end state, make adjustments repeat the process.

Without the full support of the Host Nation population the COIN strategy will fail.