We are warned about Afghanistan, but choose not to listen (part 2)

Continued from yesterday’s post… Unlike Iraq, we have had wise and eloquent warnings about our folly in Afghanistan.  Such as this article, which I strongly recommend reading in full.


Every conflict, be it conventional or unconventional, embodies an amalgam of physical, mental, and moral effects.

… Without explicitly saying so, the Times report makes it clear that the Taliban’s strategic target is the mind of their adversary. Its operational schwerpunkt (i.e., main military effort to which all other efforts are subordinated) is also directly aimed at the mind of their adversaries, both in the field or in London and Washington. It is also pretty clear, that the Taliban’s operational schwerpunckt is to use an omnipresent physical menace (manifesting itself through a welter of large and small attacks, and when faced with opposition, running away to fight another day, as well as mine warfare, terror, etc.) is to undermine mental and moral stability of their adversaries. This focus on the mind is a way of war that is entirely consistent with the thinking expressed in the first book ever written on the art war by the Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu, as well as their modern incarnation in the guerrilla theories of Mao Zedong.

Like the Taliban, the strategic aim of the British operation is also directed toward the mental and moral levels of conflict — namely winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan people. But in sharp contrast to that of the Taliban, the operational-level schwerpunkt of the NATO forces is entirely physical. It is aimed directly at controlling checkpoints and lines of communication.

The theory behind NATO’s operational schwerpunckt — and remember, it is only a theory — is that through this physical control, NATO forces (i.e., alien outsiders) will provide the means to win at the mental and moral levels of conflict. Borrowing terminology from Mao and applying it to the culture of Afghanistan, NATO forces would do this by physically isolating the Taliban fish from a sea of a people supporting them — people who, in this case, have been conditioned by 30 years of violent civil war in what is perhaps the most xenophobic culture in the world. Once the Taliban are isolated, the NATO military forces would then be able to play the mental and moral game of winning the hearts and minds of the people by providing greater protection, economic aid, and the construction of economic and democratic political infrastructures.

This new strategy, named Clear, Hold, Build by the Americans, is actually the resurrection of a famous old colonialist strategy evolved by Hubert Lyautey (1854-1934) who eventually became a Marshall in the French army and ended his days as a virulent fascist. Lyautey’s theory, named Tache d’huile, a buzz word to connote the idea of spreading oil spots, posited that counterinsurgent forces should aim to secure an ever expanding geographic zone of security, like a spreading oil spot, and then use that security to win over the colonized people (presumably, so the French colonialists could continue to exploit the people and their resources). Each new area secured would provide a basis for further spreading, and so on, clearing and holding ever larger regions.

Tache d’huile was tried by the French in Morocco, Vietnam and Algeria and by the Americans in Vietnam with the notorious Strategic Hamlets program. Although it worked sometimes in the short term, the long term results speak for themselves. (Some contemporary counterinsurgency specialists like to point to the case of Malaya as a successful counter-example of clearing and holding, but one must remember that the guerilla fighters in this case were ethnic Chinese who were hated by the ethnic Malayans.)

The problem is that to succeed in the moral and mental game in Afghanistan, NATO’s tache d’huile strategy must establish a blanket physical security so pervasive that highly visible alien aid providers and reformers spread thinly throughout a traumatized, xenophobic, clan-based population will not be picked off one by one by the Taliban, warlords, criminal gangs, or any others who feel threatened by their presence.

But there is more. Not only is the operational focus of the NATO forces physical, it is clearly reflective of and consistent with the interdiction theories of modern western conventional war, particularly those of Baron Antoine-Henri Jomini, a very influential 19th century French theoretician who tried to systematize Napoleon’s art of war. These theories reflect the incontestable fact that western combatant forces are heavily dependent on lines of communication (LOCs) for flows of supplies and reinforcements, and therefore, are highly vulnerable to physical disruption of LOCs. NATO’s heavy dependency raises the ominous question of whether the fallacy of mirror imaging — i.e., assuming the Taliban is vulnerable to something NATO is vulnerable to — is again creating the same mistake it did for the Americans in Vietnam.

History has shown repeatedly that conventionally-inspired military action (especially interdiction operations aimed at choking off the supplies and reinforcements and destroying the so-called safe havens of the adversary) aimed at achieving an unconventional end (winning hearts and minds of the people in a guerilla war) can easily degenerate into a mindless, fire-power centric war driven by conventional military thinking.

The Soviets, for example, tried to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people, but lost sight of their goal and eventually became ensnared in a struggle for control of Afghan LOCs. This degenerated into a firepower intensive bloodbath in which the Soviets inflicted horrendous damage; but, in the end, they had to leave Afghanistan with their tail between their legs. Readers interested in the Soviet experience should click here for a stunning lessons-learned analysis of how nation building Soviet-style failed in Afghanistan. The same kind of degeneration into a mindless applications of firepower happened to US forces in Vietnam. In both cases, all the noble sounding rhetoric about winning hearts and minds of the locals was drowned and forgotten in a sea of mindless body counts and wanton destruction.

About the author

Franklin “Chuck” Spinney is a former military analyst for the Pentagon. He currently lives on a sailboat in the Mediterranean and can be reached at chuck_spinney@mac.com


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For more information from the FM site

To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar.  Of esp interest these days:

Posts about the War in Afghanistan:

  • Scorecard #2: How well are we doing in Iraq? Afghanistan?, 31 October 2003
  • Quote of the day: this is America’s geopolitical strategy in action, 26 February 2008 — George Friedman of Statfor on the Afghanistan War.
  • Another perspective on Afghanistan, a reply to George Friedman, 27 February 2008
  • How long will all American Presidents be War Presidents?, 21 March 2008
  • Why are we are fighting in Afghanistan?, 9 April 2008 — A debate with Joshua Foust.
  • We are withdrawing from Afghanistan, too (eventually), 21 April 2008
  • Roads in Afghanistan, a new weapon to win 4GW’s?, 26 April 2008
  • A powerful weapon, at the sight of which we should tremble and our enemies rejoice, 2 June 2008
  • Brilliant, insightful articles about the Afghanistan War, 8 June 2008
  • The good news about COIN in Afghanistan is really bad news, 20 August 2008
  • Stratfor says that our war in Pakistan grows hotter; Palin seems OK with that, 12 September 2008
  • Pakistan warns America about their borders, and their sovereignty, 14 September 2008
  • Weekend reading about … foreign affairs, 19 October 2008
  • “Strategic Divergence: The War Against the Taliban and the War Against Al Qaeda” by George Friedman, 31 January 2009
  • America sends forth its privateers to pillage, bold corsairs stealing from you and I, 9 February 2009
  • “The Great Afghan Bailout” by Tom Engelhardt, 14 April 2009
  • Stratfor: “The Strategic Debate Over Afghanistan”, 13 May 2009
  • A joust between two schools of American military theory, 19 May 2009
  • Can we answer SecDef Gates’ question about NATO and the Af-Pak War?, 19 May 2009
  • Troops without proper equipment in 2004, troops without proper equipment in 2009 – where’s the outrage?, 20 May 2009
  • New bases in Afghanistan – more outposts of America’s Empire, 21 May 2009
  • The simple, fool-proof plan for victory in Afghanistan , 1 June 2009
  • Advice about our long war – “It’s the tribes, stupid”, 9 June 2009
  • An expert explains why we must fight in Afghanistan, 11 June 2009
  • Real experts review a presentation about the War (look here, if you’re looking for well-written analysis!), 21 June 2009
  • The Big Lie at work in Afghanistan – an open discussion, 23 June 2009
  • The trinity of modern warfare at work in Afghanistan, 13 July 2009
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