Why Trump’s plan for Afghanistan will fail

Summary: Trump has announced his new strategy for Afghanistan. It got bipartisan applause, except from those who want even larger escalation. Here are the reasons why it will fail. How pitiful that we have learned so little after 16 years of war. This failure to learn is among the worst of our weaknesses, able to offset the power of even the greatest nation.

Fake Churchill about success
Among the dumbest advice ever. Churchill didn’t say it.

Our new strategy, the same as our old strategy.

On Monday Trump announced a new strategy for our current war in Afghanistan, now in its 16th year. This would be a new chapter for our involvement which began in 1979 with Operation Cyclone (“Charlie Wilson’s War”), our arming of jihadists to fight the communist regime and its Soviet Union allies. That brought the Taliban to power. Then came 9/11 and NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) — disbanded in December 2014. Now Trump follows the advice of the generals who crafted Obama’s “surge”. Since they have not had a new idea in decades, Trump’s new plan is the same as Obama’s.

It will fail, just as Obama’s plan failed. First — Trump’s speech provided few specifics, leaks from Congress say that he plans to increase our Troops from 8,400 by half. Expecting much from that is daft. The ISAF had over 130,000 troops in 2012, when the Taliban was weaker. A tenth of that will accomplish little or nothing.

The second reason is more fundamental. Foreign armies almost never defeat insurgents.

The two kinds of insurgencies.

In January 2007 I sketched out a simple dichotomy explaining who wins against insurgencies (i.e., in counterinsurgency, aka COIN). Look at insurgencies by the degree of involvement of outside armed forces.

  1. Violence between two or more local groups, who can form from any combination of clans, governments, ethnicities, religions, gangs, and tribes.
  2. Violence between two or more sides, where at least one is led by foreigners – comprising, as above, any imaginable combination of factions.

Local governments usually win conflicts of the first kind, often with foreign assistance. Their key to success is control of political and military conduct of the war. For example, see David Kilcullen’s insightful analysis of the Indonesian government’s defeat of insurgencies in West Java and East Timor. COIN enthusiasts often conflated these with insurgencies of the second kind, as if victories by local governments are similar to the defeats by foreign armies.

An intermediate kind of conflict is a colonial power granting independence to local elites (through whom it has ruled), winning at COIN by trading away sovereignty for an influence with the newly independent State. Examples are the British wars in Malaysia (1948 – 1960) and Kenya (1952-1960) — of course the British took full credit for these in the histories they wrote).

The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One
Available at Amazon.

Foreign armies usually lose to insurgents.

The local fighter is therefore often an accidental guerrilla — fighting us because we are in his space, not because he wishes to invade ours. He follows folk-ways of tribal warfare that are mediated by traditional cultural norms, values, and perceptual lenses; he is engaged (from his point of view) in “resistance” rather than “insurgency” and fights principally to be left alone.

— David Kilcullen in The Accidental Guerrilla (2011).

Counterinsurgency is an ancient form of conflict, usually successful. The odds shifted when Mao brought insurgency war to maturity after WWII. This new mix of methods is called Low Intensity Conflict (LIC), 4th generation war (4GW), or non-trinitarian warfare. With this new tool, insurgencies proliferated. Most of the West’s wars since WWII have been fighting insurgents in foreign lands.

Martin van Creveld was one of the first to fully understand the consequences for foreign armies. See this from The Transformation of War: The Most Radical Reinterpretation of Armed Conflict Since Clausewitz (1990). He begins by looking at modern military machines, the expensive pride and joy of many nations large and small.

Transformation of War
Available at Amazon.

“One would expect forces on which so many resources have been lavished to represent fearsome warfighting machines capable of quickly overcoming any opposition. Nothing, however, is farther from the truth. For all the countless billions that have been and are still being expended on them, the plain fact is that conventional military organizations of the principal powers are hardly even relevant to the predominant form of contemporary war. …

“Without a single conventional war being waged, colonial empires that between them used to control approximately one half of the globe were sent down to defeat through LIC’s …In the process, some of the strongest military powers on earth have suffered humiliation…

“…how well have the world’s most important armed forces fared in this type of war? For some two decades after 1945 the principal colonial powers fought very hard to maintain the far-flung empires which they had created for themselves during the past four centuries. They expended tremendous economic resources, both in absolute terms and relative to those of the insurgents who, in many cases, literally went barefoot. They employed the best available troops, from the Foreign Legion to the Special Air Service and from the Green Berets to the Spetznatz and the Israeli Sayarot. They fielded every kind of sophisticated military technology in their arsenals, nuclear weapons only excepted.

“They were also, to put it bluntly, utterly ruthless. Entire populations were driven from their homes, decimated, shut in concentration camps or else turned into refugees. As Ho Chi Minh foresaw when he raised the banner of revolt against France in 1945, in every colonial-type war ever fought the number of casualties on the side of the insurgents exceeded those of the ‘forces of order’ by at least an order of magnitude. This is true even if civilian casualties among the colonists are included, which often is not the case.

“Notwithstanding this ruthlessness and these military advantages, the “counterinsurgency” forces failed in every case.”

The Changing Face of War: Combat from the Marne to Iraq
Available at Amazon.

He give a briefer summary The Changing Face of War (2006).

“What is known, though, is that attempts by post-1945 armed forces to suppress guerrillas and terrorists have constituted a long, almost unbroken record of failure …

“{W}hat changed was the fact that, whereas previously it had been the main Western powers that failed, now the list included other countries as well. Portugal’s expulsion from Africa in 1975 was followed by the failure of the South Africans in Namibia, the Ethiopians in Eritrea, the Indians in Sri Lanka, the Americans in Somalia, and the Israelis in Lebanon. …Even in Denmark {during WWII}, ‘the model protectorate’, resistance increased as time went on.

“Many of these nations used force up to the level of genocide in their failed attempts to defeat local insurgencies. Despite that, foreign forces have an almost uniform record of defeat. Such as the French-Algerian War, which the French waged until their government collapsed.”

Why foreign armies usually lose to insurgents.

Foreign forces almost always lose when they take the lead fighting insurgents — with exceptions from unusual circumstances — because the locals have two great advantages. First, they play defense. They need only to outlast the foreigners. As Clausewitz said in On War, Book 1, Chapter 1…

“As we shall show, defense is a stronger form of fighting than attack. … I am convinced that the superiority of the defensive (if rightly understood) is very great, far greater than appears at first sight.”

Second, insurgents have the home court advantage. David Kilcullen unintentionally described this in his famous “Twenty-Eight Articles: Fundamentals of Company-Level Counterinsurgency” (Military Review, May – June 2006). For example, consider article #1…

Know the people, the topography, economy, history, religion and culture. Know every village, road, field, population group, tribal leader and ancient grievance. Your task is to become the world expert on your district.

This is delusional advice to an American or British company commander. The “world expert” on “your” district already lives there and probably was born there. US company commanders on twelve month rotations cannot acquire such deep knowledge in foreign cultures, no matter how thick their briefing books. It might be difficult for some of them to do so in Watts or Harlem.

Clear vision

Time brings insight to those who pay attention.

“Hear this now, O foolish people,
Without understanding,
Who have eyes and see not,
And who have ears and hear not.”
— Jeremiah 5:21.

By the year after my article this grim fact had become clear to a widening circle of observers. Chet Richards (Colonel, USAF, retired) expanded this insight in his 2008 magnum opus If We Can Keep It: A National Security Manifesto for the Next Administration. In 2008 RAND came to the same conclusion after examining “Eighty-Nine Insurgencies: Outcomes and Endings” (Appendix A by Martin C. Libicki in “War by Other Means – Building Complete and Balanced Capabilities for Counterinsurgency“ by David Gompert and John Gordon et al). Here is a summary.

Some officers with experience on the front lines tried to warn us, as in this quote from Doug Sanders “Afghanistan: colonialism or counterinsurgency? Americans bring Afghans their new 60-year plan” (Globe and Mail, 31 May 2008).

One thing this cloak is hiding is the likelihood that once a nation finds itself relying on counterinsurgency for military success in a foreign setting it has already lost. …The insurmountable problem that the COIN Team faces is that expressed by a senior French commander who told journalist Eric Walberg that: “We do not believe in counterinsurgency” because “if you find yourself needing to use counterinsurgency, it means the entire population has become the subject of your war, and you either will have to stay there forever or you have lost”.

In 2010 Andrew Exum referred us to Erin Marie Simpson’s doctoral dissertation in political science from Harvard: “The Perils of Third-Party Counterinsurgency Campaigns” (17 June 2010; available through Proquest). Her conclusion was expressed in a DoD-sympathetic fashion…

Ultimately, I argue that third parties {foreign armies} win when they’re able to overcome these intelligence challenges before public support runs out. This typically requires rather substantial military reforms and complex deal-making with local leaders. Unfortunately, the nature of selection effects in these cases gives rise to a population of insurgencies whereby these conditions are very unlikely to be met.

The Counterinsurgency Center
Too bad they keep losing.

The core problem.

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”
— Upton Sinclair in I, Candidate for Governor: And How I Got Licked (1935).

Why do so few people see this history (e.g., see the near-total refusal to see it at this Small Wars Council comment thread)? Why do our armies — led by the best-educated officers in history — repeat the tactics that have failed in so many similar wars?  This is especially unfortunate, since we face foes that have learned so much from the wars of the post-WWII era.

The most plausible reason, as so many have explained since 9/11, is that the leaders of our national security apparatus run it for the money. Our wars keep the funds flowing to the military-industrial complex and boost the power of the Deep State. Victory is nice but optional.  “War is the health of the state“, as true today as when Randolph Bourne wrote those words in 1918.

How can we win?

“Men and nations behave wisely when they have exhausted all other resources.”
— Abba Ebban (Israel’s Minister of Foreign Affairs), 19 March 1967. Let’s not wait until then.

First, stop “repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results” (that’s insanity per an ancient insight of Alcoholics Anonymous, who know all about dysfunctionality). Eventually this will go badly for us. Second, admit that we do not have the best military in the world at fighting these “unconventional wars” (i.e., most wars of the post-WWII era).  Third, fight only where the stakes are high and we have reason to believe we can win (see this post for details).

Fourth, stop listening to people whose advice has been so wrong. As Martin van Creveld’s said in “On Counterinsurgency: How to triumph in the age of asymmetric warfare“, a speech given at the Henry Jackson Society (26 February 2008).

So when people ask about how we should study counterinsurgency, the first step should be to gather 95% of all the literature on the subject, put it aboard the Titanic and sink it. In fact, there is so much of it that if you put it aboard the Titanic the iceberg becomes unnecessary!

The logical answer for why the materials on counterinsurgency are so inferior is that most of them were written by people who failed to achieve victory. Ninety-five percent of the literature is written by the losers, who in trying to justify their own actions, put the blame for their failure on others. Therefore there is little reason to expect the literature to be any good. Indeed, the best thing to do with it is to put it away.

Last, rely on methods that have worked for America in our past. Let’s try a defensive strategy in America’s wars, and win.

War often forces harsh choices. We will continue to lose until we confront them. The pressure to do so must come from below the most senior ranks of our defense agencies and from civilians. Neither will happen fast or easily, but we must start soon. Time is not our ally.

Einstein on problems and solutions
A fake quote (see his actual words), but good advice.

For More Information

For a deeper analysis of these matters see The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World by General Sir Rupert Smith.

If you found this post of use, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. Also see all posts about COIN, and especially these…

  1. Max Boot: history suggests we will win in Afghanistan, with better than 50-50 odds. Here’s the real story. From 2010!
  2. Return of the COINistas (the zombies of military theory).
  3. Is victory impossible in modern wars? Or just not possible for us?
  4. Darwin explains the futility of killing insurgents. It makes them more effective.
  5. Two generals chat about Afghanistan (a funny, sad, horrifying look at our war).
  6. Doug Macgregor asks what happened to “America First” in national security?

31 thoughts on “Why Trump’s plan for Afghanistan will fail”

  1. We get long endless wars because we love it when our Presidents promise them. Philip Rucker is White House Bureau Chief at The Washington Post and a political analyst for MSNBC & NBC News. This is his tweet about Trump’s policy for an open-ended commitment to the Afghanistan War.


  2. Good post FM. There’s an intriguing new book on Afghanistan: Fool’s Errand: Time to End the War in Afghanistan by Scott Horton. He is managing director of The Libertarian Institute, host of Antiwar Radio, and the opinion editor of Antiwar.com.

    I heard the author discuss it on a podcast yesterday. (I plan to read it once he releases an ebook edition.) He shares your basic analysis of the war, but at least in his interview his emphasis was less on the 4GW aspects, and more on inter-ethnic divisions within the Afghan polity that make the COIN strategy as we’ve implemented it particularly counterproductive.

    1. sflicht,

      “more on inter-ethnic divisions within the Afghan polity that make the COIN strategy as we’ve implemented it particularly counterproductive.”

      Based on the summary, the book looks like an excellent history.

      Color me unimpressed by the analysis you describe. That is the kind of criticism seen in every one of the failed wars by foreign armies against insurgencies. It implies that there are special circumstances making ineffective the specific strategy or tactics use. People respond with equally microscopic and irrelevant details.

      After almost a hundred of these wars — in nations around the world, of almost every kind, using a wide range of methods from gentle to genocidal — it is daft to look at those details as important. Or even relevant. Especially since the people, like Horton, making the arguments don’t have the level of technical knowledge to make such a technical analysis.

    1. Jim,

      “We won’t win, but can’t lose.”

      I disagree. I’ll bet that almost every one of the armies of developed nations fighting foreign insurgencies believed they couldn’t lose. That shows their ignorance about 4GW, which attacks the foe’s moral.

      Colonel Harry G. Summers, Jr. (Chief of the US Delegation): “You know you never defeated us on the battlefield”

      Colonel Nguyen Don Tu (Chief, North Vietnamese Delegation): ”That may be so, but it is also irrelevant.”

      — From Summers’ On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War (1982).

  3. People hold up Germany and Japan as poster children for what can be done through nation building, but the conditions that led to their post WWII success are so narrow, that any comparison to modern situations are irrelevant at best, and counter-productive at worst. Their examples sell false hope.

    You point to the MIC and the gravy train in general for why we refuse to acknowledge the truth when it comes to nation-building and COIN, and I’m sure there is some accuracy in that. But these projects are not possible without public support, and public support is not won with monetary arguments. Public support is won through moral and strategic arguments. If we want to make sure that we end our current foreign COIN forays and stay away from these situations in the future, we would do well to develop counter-arguments to ideas such as Powell’s “Pottery Barn” foreign policy. He used this to push a moral imperative for COIN. Whatever you think about the reasons we invaded Iraq (strategic arguments), the “you break it you buy it” moral argument for occupation and COIN is the rhetorical leg that needs to be kicked out.

    The bad news is that by any objective standard, we have failed in Iraq and Afghanistan. I don’t know enough to know if some kind of “victory”, as we currently define it, is still possible in Afghanistan, but I sincerely doubt it. My guess is the best thing we could do is move the goal posts, declare victory and go home. The silver lining is that I don’t think Americans have the patience to go down this road again in any substantial fashion. That’s why you see 4,000 troops going instead of 40,000.

    The result of our failures is that eventually there will be another mass terror attack. Absent some organic revolution in the Islamic world, another attack is nearly certain at some point. When it is on the order of 9-11 or worse (nuclear, chemical, biological), there will be no calls for nation building. At that point, our experiment in handling hostile foreign powers as a police matter will be over. The West will, at some point when threatened enough, revert to its roots and engage in total war. We will be forced to deal with Islam as we dealt with Japanese State Shintoism. Our COIN and nation building failures in Afghanistan and Iraq will provide the moral foundation for this total war (our cultural specialty), which, ironically, may eventually set the conditions necessary for reconstruction. But many will die. I don’t see any strategic or tactical change allowed by our current or future polity that can alter this course at this point. The golden hour has passed.

    Depressing. If you see a way out of the box, I’d love to hear it.

    1. Obe,

      Thank you for this excellent analysis. Here are a few thoughts, quickly jotted down.

      “Public support is won through moral and strategic arguments.”

      That’s a powerful insight. I don’t believe there is any realistic way to change how Americans see these wars. We have orientation lock (sort of like “target fixation” in pilots). As I said in 2009, our war in Afghanistan is based on a big lie — which we love to much to even question.

      “to develop counter-arguments to ideas such as Powell’s “Pottery Barn” foreign policy.”

      Another powerful insight. This illustrates the deep dysfuncationality of our thinking. Fist, Pottery Barn does not follow this policy — yet another big lie foundation for the war. Second, the metaphor is nuts. Since we broke some pottery in the store, we should continue running thru the store and breaking more stuff?

      “I don’t know enough to know if some kind of “victory”, as we currently define it, is still possible in Afghanistan, but I sincerely doubt it.’

      That’s the point of this post.

      “The result of our failures is that eventually there will be another mass terror attack”

      Exactly. See We’re goading our enemies to attack America. Eventually we’ll succeed, and they will.

      “If you see a way out of the box, I’d love to hear it.”

      We probably will win the usual way nations win: not thru competence but because we have the structural advantage. Time is our greatest ally. See Handicapping the clash of civilizations: bet on the West to win big.

  4. wehaveseenthismovieb4

    Careerist, yes men military officers seemed to have learned how to advance to the next star and audition for six-figure appointments with the MIC after 30 and out. The MIC after buying Congress have certainly learned how to maximize shareholder value without an end point in sight. Not enough civiians have learned because no one they know is going. Besides they volunteered. “Thanks for your service. (Won’t feel safe unless a couple of you guys die defending me this week in some god foresaken third world shit hole.)” McMaster is the saddest of all in this group. He needs to re-read his book.

  5. Dear Editor,

    I’ve been waiting with bated breath after President Trump’s address for your post. Since I’ve been a close follower of yours for over a decade and a half, my reaction to the speech was a long deep sigh. I wish that “Clown” would have read and listened to Lind!

    I can not agree more with your analysis and links.

    I am so sick and disgusted by these blood sucking generals and their ilk, they’re those Who Wanted to Be instead of Wanting to Do! After they retire they end up as DoD Consultants, Think Tank Denizens or executives at Arms Manufacturers. Yeah, I’ve researched their career paths and most stay near DC or… Hollywood!

    Please forgive my venting Sir.

    Have you heard if COL David Hackworth? Not long before his passing he started an organization SFTT (Soldiers For The Truth) who came to my attention about the same time as DNI. Regarding Afghanistan, he was just as prescient!

    Now that I think of it this was when the Internet became available and I immediately saw it as an excellent research tool! Unfortunately, I was initially beguiled by NeoCon propaganda. However, I exercised some objectivity by examining opposing viewpoints. Soon I realized it was Information Warfare by “Sound bite”. The “Right” controlled the Radio and “Left controlled” the Press. It was an exercise that was causing mental and psychological illnesses!

    Thank you for my mental well-being!

    Thanks again for my continuing and continued education and edification. That goes for your commenters too!

    1. Longtail,

      “I am so sick and disgusted by these blood sucking generals and their ilk”

      I have a different perspective. Societies are ecologies. Deer, wolves, flower, weeds — all have a role, and work well in balance. We need soldiers. They have to be aggressive and insular — focused on their institution, their tribes and clans. Societies that manage their defenders well, prosper. Those that manage them badly, fail. We’re in the middle of that range, by historical standards. That’s sad, because for most of our history we did this very well.

      We can do so again, if we try. Our failure to do so is a symptom of larger decay of our political regime. The fault is ours, not theirs. They we see all problems in terms of bad people oppressing us innocent flowers is the chief symptom of our problem.

      It’s like syphilis. There’s little mileage in treating the symptoms. When we look in the mirror and decide to do better, many of these problems will disappear like shadows in the daylight.

      “Have you heard if COL David Hackworth?”

      Yes. I have all of his books in my library, and enjoyed reading them. I miss reading his website.

  6. Barack Obama campaigned and won the presidency on a promise to end our involvement in foreign wars, yet in the end he expanded it. Now President Trump has done the same. (Even G W Bush campaigned originally on a humble foreign policy, guided by the UN.)

    Now the Democrats celebrate ousting Bannon and derailing Trump’s campaign-time offer of rapprochement with Russia. On the whole leaders of both the left and right and the media seem overjoyed that we will again escalate our unwinnable war in Afghanistan.

    What is an antiwar voter to do?

    Disgust by the populace with the failure of the Vietnam war kept us out of war for almost a generation. Yet now we tolerate perpetual war. Two reasons, I think, are the ending of the draft, which disconnected the vast majority of Americans from the human cost of war, and the hiding of the monetary costs through deficit spending, resulting in a a general economic malaise that is disconnected enough to not be distinguishable as being at least a partial result of our huge expenditures in Afghanistan and Iraq.

    We will not win in Afghanistan any more than we could have won in Vietnam. While an American soldier cannot tell an insurgent from a cooperator, a local has no problem instantly distinguishing an American from one of their own. As you have documented, our guys will never “know every village, road, field, population group, tribal leader and ancient grievance” nor be able to exploit them. Even the most illiterate Afghani knows that the enemy doesn’t look like them, doesn’t speak their language, doesn’t worship the same god they do, and doesn’t belong there.

    There is an excellent documentary on the war in Afghanistan that I particularly recommend to anyone who thinks we can win if only we strengthen our resolve and commit more resources to it: This Is What Winning Looks Like (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/This_Is_What_Winning_Looks_Like / https://youtu.be/Ja5Q75hf6QI). I presume that Major Bill Steuber paid for his honesty in that film with his career.

    1. Iconoclast,

      “Barack Obama campaigned and won the presidency on a promise to end our involvement in foreign wars, yet in the end he expanded it.”

      That is absolutely false. I wrote about Obama’s plans to expand the war in Afghanistan in March 2008: “How long will all American Presidents be War Presidents?” He was only a candidate them, but I wrote assuming he would win the election.

      “What is an antiwar voter to do?”

      What previous generations of Americans did when reform was needed. Act. Here are 50+ suggestions.

      “We will not win in Afghanistan any more than we could have won in Vietnam. ”

      Did you read this post? Just curious.

  7. FM,

    I agree with a vast majority of the article. I personally feel responsible for helping to prolong the conflict in Afghanistan. It is something that I will have to live with. It is a very personal thing for me and many others, but I also agree that – that is not a good reason to continue the war. I also agree with your comment that “most developed nations fighting in foreign insurgencies believed they couldn’t lose.” And most of them have lost.

    I am, for the most part, in agreement that once a foreign power gets involved in a counterinsurgency mission it has already lost – minus a handful of cases.

    The main ingredient in the government of any country to defeat an insurgency is the “government response.” We will all agree that we are a long time away (decades, if ever) from the Afghan government being able to properly “govern” or are we? If we use our standards of “govern” then obviously that will never happen. But is there an acceptable (and reachable) level of “governance” that would allow for a shift in the current paradigm that is Afghanistan?

    I have tossed around in my mind what a total withdrawal would look like…and I can find both positive and negative aspects of a complete withdrawal. I know it is a difficult question – but in a nutshell – what do you think a total withdrawal would look like – on a strategic level. In your mind, is there any good reason to stay in Afghanistan?

    One last comment: It has taken me years and years to inculcate into my own brain that this type of warfare (4GW) is psychological, political and lastly, spiritual. It is a hard thing to truly understand. Few really understand the full meaning of that statement. The more I think I understand it – the more I realize I don’t.

    Warfare of any kind is complex, dangerous and hard.

    We should avoid them the best we can.

    Again, great post and great conversation!


    1. Jim,

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment. A few quick comments on it.

      “But is there an acceptable (and reachable) level of “governance” that would allow for a shift in the current paradigm that is Afghanistan?”

      While interesting in a theoretical “angels on a pin” way, I doubt that is an operationally useful question. More useful: what level of influence do we have shaping the Af gov’t? History in Vietnam, Iraq, and Af shows a clear answer: very little. US officials in all three cases expressed high confidence in their mastermind ability to have the little gooks follow out awesome lead. In all three cases that confidence proved delusional.

      “I have tossed around in my mind what a total withdrawal would look like”

      These things are never binary. We can give them advisory help (which they will mostly ignore), money, weapons, development aid, and military training. We don’t need to have our troops fight and die for them. (This doesn’t mean that military advising is safe, of course).

  8. FM,

    Appreciate your comments. Much to contemplate.

    As an aside – I am much more concerned about our politics right now than the Afghans.

    We have our own issues.


    1. Jim,

      “We have our own issues.”

      Being as parochial as the next American, my primary interest in the Af War is how it so clearly shows the dysfunctional aspects of US foreign policy — and the government’s and itizens’ broken (shattered) OODA loops!

    1. Mike,

      I wrote the first version ten years ago. But I wonder if we can hang on for another ten years. I doubt even 10-20 thousand American super-soldiers and their Buck Rogers gear can hold off the Taliban if their incremental gains pass a tipping point — so that the local see their eventual victory as likely. Things deteriorate fast after that point.

      My impression is that in every one of these foreign army vs. powerful local insurgency the foreign army was surprised by their defeat. It’s the “s” curve in action.

      A more interesting question — one which you are well-positioned to answer — is why US military officers do not see the implications of not just post-WWII history but their own experience? I’ve been pointing this out to individual officers, retired and active duty, and they are each astonished. Except for the ones that refuse to see it.

    2. FM-

      10 years after the release of the iPhone, large enterprises are still struggling to conduct digital transformations.


      They refuse to change until they absolutely have to change. And, CMO’s and senior leaders rotate out of jobs every 2-3 years so it is easier to promote Vanity metrics than Actionable KPI’s and strategy.

      I see a lot of similarities with military leaders.

      1. Mike,

        That’s an interesting perspective. But my personal experience with both groups (i.e., not a survey), I see a big difference. Corp leaders acknowledge the challenge and need to act. They don’t know how, or find the mechanics daunting, or just dither.

        The military officers I talk to deny the facts I cite in this post. For the past decade they tell me that COIN often wins — citing quite bogus stories, plus the “we could have won Vietnam” denialist myth. Until about 2012-12 most said that we were winning in Af. That has no parallel to what I see in corp America about the tech revolution.

    3. Kodak
      BMG Music

      I don’t disagree with you, but there are many more examples and similarities.

      To your point, go back to your AA reference. For the True Believers, it is too difficult to be honest with one’s self and realize two decades of your life was wasted.

      AA folks follow the Serenity Prayer. There’s much to be learned from it’s author, Reinhold Neibuhr.

      1. Mike,

        I don’t believe that is a useful analogy. Competition means that there will be losers. Not every company can successfully adapt when its market changes. I know several of those stories well, and they did not deny tech change — like I see US military officers doing with 4GW. They attempted to adapt and failed. For example, Kodak worked very hard to adapt (it is based next to my home town).

        Sears was strip-mined by a financier. It is not a failure to adapt to tech, any more than a fish whose innards are sucked out by a lamprey is clumsy.

  9. The Man Who Laughs

    I don’t disagree with you that the new strategy will fail. I wonder though, about the Administration’s definition of success.

    Maybe success is defined here as “The Kabul government doesn’t collapse on our watch, and so we don’t get blamed politically for losing the war.” Thomas Power in his book Thinking About The Next War talked about the mind set of a government losing a major conventional war. The unspoken question put to the military was not “Can we win?” but ‘Do we have to surrender today?”. The military’s answer becomes ‘Not today, because we are not defeated yet.” And the war goes on, without hope of victory. Of course in a counterinsurgency it’s a bit different. The taliban won’t be rolling into DC, and we have the option to leave, but the question becomes will the government we supported collapse, and can we escape blame for it?

    In a major conventional war, the clock runs out when the military is defeated on the battlefield, and there is bo longer anything left to fight with. The clock here is more a matter of domestic politics. Barring overwhelming domestic political pressure, the counterinsurgent government chooses to continue the war rather than pay the political price of withdrawal, which seems, to them, to be less painful at least in the short term.

    I am not defending the new strategy. I am trying to speculate about the thought process involved here. That may in fact be a fool’s errand.

  10. Do you think suppose the insurgents of Afghanistan’s history learned Mao’s way of insurgency. That if they would have won against the Roman and Mongol armies?

    1. Info,

      I’ve seem some discussion (speculation) about that. My guess (*guess*) is that there is a combination of methods at work. The lesson of history is that knowledge spreads. To some extent by books. More strongly by shared experiences, people talk to others.

    2. ”The lesson of history is that knowledge spreads. To some extent by books. More strongly by shared experiences, people talk to others.”

      I read that the mongols under Genghis Khan by their competence and sheer destruction was able to quell rebellion and subsequent insurgency through utter terror. Although I have no idea how they would have fared against 4th generation warfare as we have it now.

      1. info,

        (1) Those accounts were written by the Mongol’s foes, not the Mongols. Imagine how we would view Rome if we only had accounts from the Germanic tribes they conquered — often brutally.

        (2) It’s fun to imagine mix-and-matching armies from history! Much like imagining counterfactuals. If time travelers offered nukes to Lee in 1865, would he have used them? I imagine not, since he had come to believe God wanted them to lose — and new weapons could increase the death toll but overcome that judgement.

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