On the 16th anniversary of Afghanistan, see why we lost

Summary: On the 16th anniversary of the Afghanistan War, let’s ask why our investment of much blood and money in the WOT has accomplished so little. Despite our weak foes. To see why, look at advice given our troops in 2006. It was bad advice. Obviously so at the time. But our hubris made it seem logical.

War on Terror

As of October 7, we have been in Afghanistan for 16 years. At its peak, NATO had almost 140,000 troops in Afghanistan (132,457 on 6 June 2011). The cost to America in money is somewhere between $900 billion and $2 trillion (depending on your assumptions). The cost in blood is 2,350 dead and 20 thousand wounded American soldiers (per DoD), and a total of 3,451 dead for NATO (per iCasualties). The results from our occupation of Iraq were equally low, despite the high cost in blood and money.

The results for America, Iraq, and Afghanistan are meager for those investments of time and blood. This is especially odd since we are fighting poorly equipped and almost untrained insurgents. Even odder, we seldom ask why. In the early years of the war, people in the 4GW community explained why this would happen (Martin van Creveld explained this in 1991). I wrote dozens of articles about this starting in 2003.

Below you will see my favorite of this long series. It’s from May 2007, revised for improved clarity (I’m a better writer now). It shows the amazing hubris of our military in the WOT. Which was and is quite mad, given foreign armies’ almost total record of failure fighting foreign insurgencies since Mao brought 4GW to maturity after WWII (details here). I’ve seen nothing that so clearly shows the thinking that has produced so little for America at such great cost.

Twenty-Eight Articles:
Fundamentals of Company-Level Counterinsurgency

David Kilcullen, Military Review, May-June 2006.

Kilcullen originally submitted it to Military Review for the “Countering Insurgency” writing contest. They decided to publish it immediately because it could help Soldiers in the field.” LTC Kilcullen allowed them to do so, withdrawing from the writing contest. They said “It would certainly have been a strong contender for a prize.” It went viral, influencing countless officers deploying to fight our wars. It is not just bad advice. It is bizarrely bad advice. Red emphasis added.

Article #1: “Know your turf.”

“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.

It is easy to read this as important but banal. Centurions posted to remote Roman provinces were probably told to “know your turf.” This ignores the depth of Kilcullen’s insight. He is describing the “home court advantage,” one reason for the superiority of defense over offense. It is a powerful advantage in war, especially so in 4GW.  It is one reason for the consistent victory of locals over foreigner armies since WWII.

Unfortunately, in the Middle East our foes have this advantage, not us. The world expert in each neighborhood in our war zones lives there. US company commanders on twelve month rotations cannot develop the locals’ knowledge about their home turf, especially in so foreign a culture. How much can a commander learn about these very foreign lands in that brief time? Starting with little knowledge of the area’s language, history, and culture — let alone the area’s complex geography and social relationships.

On War
Available at Amazon.

It would be difficult for some of them to do so quickly in Watts or Harlem.

Now for the bad news. Our company commanders know little about “them”. Many of them know a lot about us. Thousands of people from the Middle East have studied or worked in America.

“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.”

— From Book 1, Chapter 1 of Clausewitz’s On War.

Article #2 – “Diagnose the problem.”

“Once you know your area and its people, you can begin to diagnose the problem. Who are the insurgents? What drives them? What makes local leaders tick?”

Having “strategic corporals” was insufficiently awesome. Now we need sociologist captains who can analyze and prescribe solutions for foreign societies. Could we send the average company commander to do so in Watts or Harlem? Worst of all, this advice crashes on our lack of the home court advantage. How can someone newly arrived in a foreign culture – Iraq and especially Afghanistan are very foreign to most Americans – do this without speaking the local languages, knowing little of the culture, history, or local relationships.

This is not a task for company commanders, who already carry a complex and heavy load of managerial and leadership duties.


Please read the rest of “28 Articles.” Most of it is great advice, just like the first two discussed here — but for insurgents. Not for foreign infidel invaders. A similar confusion is often seen when hawks take advice from T. E. Lawrence’s (“Lawrence of Arabia”) great book Seven Pillars of Wisdom. That too provides valuable insights — for insurgents, like those he led in WWI.

The War on Terror has been largely on the basis of such conceptual and factual errors. As such its failure was baked in from the start. Now Trump plans to expand it while learning nothing from our failures. No nation, no matter how powerful, can long prosper under such mismanagement.

“Sooner or later, everyone sits down to a banquet of consequences.”
— Attributed to Robert Louis Stevenson.

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

About the author

David Kilcullen has become famous for his role designing our tactics in the War on Terror. Their failure has not affected his career. See his impressive bio. Imagine what it would look like if we had some successes!

“He served 25 years as an army officer, diplomat and policy advisor for the Australian and United States governments, in command and operational missions (including peacekeeping, counterinsurgency and foreign internal defense) across the Middle East, Southeast Asia and Europe. {In 2005 he retired as a lieutenant colonel from active duty.}

“In the United States he served as Chief Strategist in the State Department’s Counterterrorism Bureau, and served in Iraq as Senior Counterinsurgency Advisor to General David Petraeus, before becoming Special Advisor for Counterinsurgency to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

“Dr. Kilcullen holds a Ph.D. from the University of New South Wales, with a focus on the political anthropology of guerrilla warfare. He …was elected a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society in 1996. Dr. Kilcullen was named one of the Foreign Policy Top 100 Global Thinkers in 2009.

“Today Kilcullen is an ASU Future of War senior fellow at New America {think tank}. Kilcullen is Founder and Chairman of Caerus Global Solutions, a strategic research and design firm that helps governments, global institutions, businesses and communities build resiliency in conflict, disaster-affected and post-conflict environments. He is also the Founder and Chairman of First Mile Geo, a tech startup that pioneers open, online cloud-based platforms for collecting, analyzing, sharing, and visualizing social and spatial data.”

See his 2009 book The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One. For more information about Kilcullen, including links to many of his articles: The Essential 4GW reading list: David Kilcullen. And, of course, his Wikipedia entry.

War Room in Dr. Strangelove
Intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, planning to lose more wars.

For More Information.

See the other posts about David Kilcullen’s work, which provides deep insights about our mad WOT.

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

  1. Return of the COINistas (the zombies of military theory).
  2. Why we lose wars so often. How we can win in the future.
  3. A powerful new article shows why we lose so many wars: FAILure to learn.
  4. Study body counts to learn about our wars: how we fight, why we lose.
  5. Two generals chat about Afghanistan (a funny, sad, horrifying look at our war).
  6. Why Trump’s plan for Afghanistan will fail.
  7. Stratfor pans Trump’s new Afghanistan War plan.
  8. A reminder that we pay for our wars in money and blood.
  9. How We Learned Not To Care About Our Wars.

37 thoughts on “On the 16th anniversary of Afghanistan, see why we lost”

  1. Sent by email by a reader

    Sorry to disturb your faith in Clausewitz, but in may ways, he was as daft as Kilcullen.

    1. Dear Reader,

      (1) That’s an interesting observation. How is Clausewitz “daft?”

      (2) I assume you give Clausewitz a break for his age. Not many analytical works remain read or useful after 200 years. In a vibrant field, old works should be superseded. We venerate Newton, but scientists don’t read Principia for insights.

      (2) Clausewitz might be daft — I am interested to learn how — but can’t be as daft as Newton. Lots of insights come from daft folks.

      (3) I don’t say Kilcullen was “daft”. I said the exact opposite. True, his awful advice probably got lots of NATO soldiers killed. But see the “About the author” section. Kilcullen was a smashing success. His career is a small mirror of the greater WOT. While not doing anything for America — at great cost — it is a success in the terms valued by our leaders. Which is why it is expanding under President Trump.

  2. What on earth do you mean that you (ie America) “lost”.
    The US forces managed to trash this nation and leave unnumbered Afghan civilians bleeding wrecks.
    In terms of total carnage inflicted, the US Forces, as always, reign peerless, in a sea of wreckage that they have created. Sometimes they even hit the right target.
    You guys won- you won the battle of barbarism, and the rest of the world remembers that and remembers that “you do not mess with the Yanks”, because if you do they will torch and destroy someone, somewhere within 500 km of your location. (They are rotten aims).

    1. Mindbody,

      “you lost because of a total disregard for the lives of civilians.”

      That’s not an explanation. History overflows with successful military ventures conducted with “total disregard for the lives of civilians.”

      Look at WWII, with our strategic bombing of Germany and Japan. At the end bombing of cites with little or no military significance.

  3. I think it was right for the US to enter Afghanistan as it was a jihadi hot bed and its people treated like cattle by the Islamists. However, the fall out is now the wave of Afghani immigrants entering Europe who feel that they have a right to ‘live there’ owing to the US and NATO presence in their country.

    Overall, a relatively stable Afghani government seems to be in place that is holding its own against the Taliban and the people’s lives have improved (e.g. they can watch TV, listen to music, have a degree of human rights etc.) and there was no civil conflict at the last general election (unlike, say, in some African countries).

    1. Ivan,

      “I think it was right for the US to enter Afghanistan as it was a jihadi hot bed and its people treated like cattle by the Islamists.”

      (1) It was not a jihadi “hot bed”. Al Qaeda had some small operations there, but 9/11 was planned in Germany — with the perps key training in Florida. Saudi Arabia is a jihadi hot bed.

      (2) Lots of people are treated as “cattle”. I am happy for you and your children to go liberate all those nations (first, raise the money from people like yourself). Leave us out of your global policeman fantasies.

      (3) We have wrecked Afghanistan, and caused the death of uncounted tens of thousands of its people.

      (4) There is zero legal basis in the international order for a nation to invade another, no matter how “helpful” the intent. I suggest you ask before your little army decides to help others.

      1. Ivan,

        “On this one we will have to agree to disagree :)”

        (1) You can delusionally believe what you want, but there is no basis in international law for our occupation of Afghanistan and the devastation we have brought it.

        (2) You can raise the money and send yourself and your kids off to fight in crusades. I want my tax dollars used to benefits the US, and my children in the services fighting for the defense of the US — not acting as your mad concept of invading and occupying nations whose government you don’t like.

        People like you are a big part of the problem with America today. So, yes, that is disagreement.

      2. Well people really criticise Bush but he ejected a sadistic dictator. The Taliban were no better than ISIS and deserve to be exterminated. The US cannot just turn in on itself and let the world pass on by a lack Monroe Doctrine. Creating an international power vacuum is just going to let Russia and China every their influence. If you are comfortable with that then that’s your right. But I and many freedom lovers are not.

      3. Ivan,

        “Well people really criticise Bush but he ejected a sadistic dictator.”

        Nobody would mind if he did it with his kids and his money. The world overflows with “sadistic dictators. There is little evidence that Iraq will be a better place. Certainly the women of Iraq have been cast back centuries in their treatment. Do you add that into your god-like moral calculus?

        “The Taliban were no better than ISIS and deserve to be exterminated.”

        I recommend therapy for these delusions of god-hood. You are not supposed to read Mein Kampuf, Mao’s Little Red Book, or about Khmer Rouge’s killing fields as “how to” texts.

        “The US cannot just turn in on itself and let the world pass on by”

        That’s called the False Dilemma logical fallacy. It’s effective with sophomores and fools. The international order the US and its allies constructed after WWII — wrecked by Bush Jr and people like you — was an alternative between isolationism and your evil Might Makes Right regime.

        “‘But I and many freedom lovers are not.”

        Don’t drape your evil war-mongering with “freedom lovers.” The people your programs have killed, the women you’ve cast into the dark ages, and nations you’ve wrecked (Iraq, Af, Libya, and Syria) are testimony to the reality behind you words. You’ve disowned and helped destroy what so many Americans died in WWII to construct — betraying their legacy.

      4. Wars have been a part of mankind’s history since we became tribal socueties. The USA maintains an army that is not designed to play a purely defensive role like, say, the Japanese one.

        There are certain individuals out there who want to do as much danage as they can to the USA – and Europe – for the values they espouse. Take a look at this Geert Wilders documentary for a start. I acceot your desire to avoid spilt American blood but unfortunately I think you are somewhat naive: visegrad2017.wordpress.com/extremist-islamic-attacks-in-europe/

      5. Ivan,

        “Wars have been a part of mankind’s history since we became tribal socueties.”

        So have religious sacrifices and abuse of woman. You must realize that’s quite a nutty defense of your war-mongering.

        “The USA maintains an army that is not designed to play a purely defensive role like, say, the Japanese one.”

        Back to the False Dilemma logical fallacy! Just a reminder, there are few children or fools here that take such nonsense seriously. See my previous comment.

        “There are certain individuals out there who want to do as much danage as they can to the USA”

        So you want to bomb Munich and Miami because the 9/11 was preped there? Can you give any rational justification for your war-mongering?

        “Take a look at this Geert Wilders documentary”

        So you want us to invade and occupy Europe because they are islamic radicals there?

        “but unfortunately I think you are somewhat naive: ”

        I think you evil, perhaps quite mad. You “justifications” don’t make sense. Good-bye.

  4. America lost the war in Afghanistan but too many powerful American interests benefit from keeping us there. This includes military-oriented industries and contractors (dollars), military leaders (promotions and a lab for new technologies), and political leaders from both parties (small foreign wars are now the opiate of the American people).

    This is Vietnam all over again on a smaller scale (in terms of people) with extra cynicism on all sides in Washington (the key theater of operations for Afghanistan). I fear that small foreign wars are viewed as a benefit by the coalescing plutocracy that is killing the second republic and that we shall have many more in the future. George Orwell wrote 1984 as a warning, unfortunately some people seem to read it as a blueprint for the future.

    1. Pluto,

      (1) One of the odd aspects of the WOT is that we have to guess at why? I ran a series asking about our goals in Iraq and AF, including articles by Stratfor’s experts guessing at the US govt’s goals. That we don’t know why we are fighting — and don’t care — is one of the oddities in an odd war.

      (2) “This is Vietnam all over again on a smaller scale”

      I ran several dozen posts showing the similarities between then and now. Include several with articles about our wars — that we in fact from the Vietnam era, with the names changed. That similarity — repeating our mistakes — should have set off alarms. But it didn’t. We just don’t care.

      (3) More evidence that we don’t care.

      My recent articles about our wars have gotten very few pageviews. The one a few days ago got about 500 pageviews, a record low. The FM website opened in 2007. We don’t know and don’t want to know. That reveals much about Americans.

  5. Eugene Waldenmaier

    With 95% of the world’s poppy derived opioids coming from Afghanistan, somebody is winning in this war or we would be long gone.
    . As a following thought. Have you every heard of such a drug bust as these drugs come into our country. I never hear of such drug busts at a investigative level above our local police and sheriff.

    1. Eugene,

      You can ask a drug expert about this, or google articles about the global drug trade. Perhaps heroin is processed elsewhere before being shipped to the US (i.e., it might not come directly here from Af).

      That Af’s heroin production went from near-zero before the invasion to LOTS today — with heroin deaths becoming a major social problem in America — should cause some unrest (or at least comment) among Americans. But we just don’t care! Citizenship!

  6. We didn’t lose and Afghanistan is not the “killing fields” MindBody claims it to be. The Afghans are quite adapt at whacking each other and have done so for generations. But, we need to get out and let em go back to their ways of boogering little boys, stoning women, and growing poppies.

  7. Larry, Pluto 99, Spot on. I can’t agree more. I have read most of the pertinent posts plus Kilcullen (initially with wrong attitude). Now I understand, but hey, it’s good for business and the economy. Jobs, jobs, jobs! Like you have said, lots of infrastructure work should be done.

    Grand Strategy seems forgotten.

    Defensive posture and Home Ground Advantage seems logical and less expensive. A few Ohio Class boomers as part of Deterrent Triad would suffice. Cost of a fleet of AIP/Diesel Electric Submarines could protect us from adversary incursion. For cost of 1 Virginia Class Fast Attack Submarine we can build 2.5 top notch AIP or purchase from Germany or Sweden. They are almost impossible to find they are so quiet. They just lay on the bottom and wait. Like Dreadnaughts of old, Carrier Battle Groups are becoming obsolete.

    Then there is the futility of getting our troops involved in other’s civil wars. Learned that from you and Martin Creveld!

    Football Coaches preach Defence Wins Games. It’s been demonstrated over and over when I was in High School and ever since.

  8. The Man Who Laughs

    There’s a lot of discussion on this site about counterinsurgency, but I do start to wonder about the proficiency of our military overall, and this includes conventional war. We did well against the Iraqis in stand up conventional fights, but that’s more or less clubbing baby seals. We keep seeing signs of trouble. The Navy keeps running into things. There have been some really troubled procurement programs including the F-35 and the Littoral Combat Ship that have cost an awful lot of money but don;t seem to have delivered all that much. The Chinese are improving, and seem to be pulling ahead of us in computing, which will give them the edge in key military technologies in the years ahead.

    We did well enough chasing the Taliban out in the early stages of the campaign when he had, at most, a few hundred operators, including CIA officers delivering sackfuls of cash. . Things seem to have gone downhill once the place was declared safe enough for a three star General and the circus that traipses around with one. It does make we wonder how competent the Pentagon really is, and not just at counterinsurgency. Maybe what you’re discussing here is merely a symptom of a larger disease.

    1. the Man,

      That’s a spot-on analysis. There is in fact much concern in the military about atrophy of conventional war-fighting skills that are lightly used in COIN. Such as artillery — King of the conventional Battlefield.

      The Navy’s ship handling problems are example of the deeper problem. To save pocket change ($14 million/year) they replaced ship-handling school with a box of DVDs. Now there is a generation of senior officers who are not good at this vital skill. As with the F-35 fiasco. Both show hints of deep rot. Rot tends to grow deeper and wider every year. Delay in fixing it means increasingly drastic actions become necessary to fix it.

  9. The Man Who Laughs

    Artillery. Didn’t Napoleon say that God fights on the side with the best artillery? id he didn’t, he should have. I don’t know how relevant you will consider this. I told you a few threads back that I’m an old wargamer from back in the days. There’s a game called Decisive Action. They actually play it at the Army Command and Staff College. You can get a civilian version of it. The scenarios included all give the OPFOR basically old Russian artillery. BM-21s for multiple rocket launchers, for example, and SCUDs. But the scenario editor includes some up to date, modern, high end Russian tube artillery, MRLs, and ballistic missiles.

    Just for the hell of it, I went into the scenario editor and replaced the old Russian weapons that Red had in the included scenarios with up to date stuff like Russians use now. All of a sudden, there was a mass die off of Blue, and I couldn’t figure out how to keep it from happening. Back then I was in an online group dedicated to that game that was moderated by a guy who worked at the Command And Staff College. I posted about it, and he that yes, it’s that bad. I wonder what we could have bought in the way of modern artillery with a fraction of what we’ve squandered in Afghanistan. And I wonder what’s going to happen when we encounter these weapons for real.

    1. The Man Who Laughs,

      I wonder if all this focus on conventional warfare is the equivalent of the French love of Chivalry and armored knights during the Hundred Years War. They were really well-equiped and skilled at fighting an obsolete form of war. So they repeatedly got their asses kicked by the Brits. Then they lost. France survived only because of Henry V’s early death, late marriage (leaving a young son), and the French’s contribution of insanity genes to the Brit’s royal DNA.

      Now we’re gearing up to refight WWII. That seems quite mad in an age when any peer foe can easily build nukes. Since the early 1960s war gaming has shown that conventional war between nuke powers goes atomic. Hence every conflict between major powers cools when they get nukes. Latest example: India – Pakistan.

      Meanwhile we fight lots of 4GWs, but refuse to learn how to win at them. More fun to just repeat our mistakes.

  10. The Man Who Laughs

    You’re right that a war between the Great Powers would go nuclear, but as time goes by the Russians and the Chinese are marketing more advanced conventional weapons. You don’t necessarily have to fight Russia to run into high end Russian artillery or air defenses. If we manage to get into a war in Korea, we’re going to run into artillery systems better then any we’ve previously encountered. Other countries are getting better air defense artillery than the North Vietnamese ever had. I don’t expect to fight a conventional war with Russia or China, but some of the countries we seem to flirt with the idea of going to conventional war with are very well armed indeed, and maybe more competent than the Iraqis were.

    1. The Man,

      I haven’t seen studies of this, but I suspect the conventional military advantage of the US vs even the strongest non-nuke powers is growing. Nobody — not all our rivals together — are pouring the resources into conventional military R&D as we are. Much is wasteful, but much is not.

      Remember the warnings about Saddam’s great military before the Kuwait war?

      US DoD has a strong incentive to exaggerate the capabilities of rival foes. It’s a game they’ve played well since WWII. Occasionally their lies become known to us, but like Charlie Brown and Lucy we always fall for the next lie.

  11. The Man Who Laughs

    I don’t question that we have a very large lead in conventional capabilities over, say, North Korea, and this is one reason why they’re putting a lot of effort into a building a nuclear capability. That having been said, if war comes, and we end up trading artillery fire with them, then it’s going to matter. The French had, on paper, a conventional advantage over the Viet Minh, but still ended up losing at Dien Bien Phu, which was pretty much a stand up fight. 4GW is not a guarantee that you won’t find yourself in a conventional battle, and the enemy, who gets a vote, may find a way to get you into a situation where your conventional advantages can’t bail you out. And maybe you might even cooperate with his plans for doing that if you screw up badly enough.

    I don’t deny the very real advantages that we have. I do think that sometimes we get a bit overconfident about them, and I worry that we’ll find ourselves in over our heads because we thought our strong suit was stronger than it really was.

    1. The man who laughs,

      “That having been said, if war comes, and we end up trading artillery fire with them, then it’s going to matter.”

      You are missing the point. Without nukes, North Korea would be quiet as kittens.

      “The French had, on paper, a conventional advantage over the Viet Minh, but still ended up losing at Dien Bien Phu, which was pretty much a stand up fight”

      Again you missing the point. The power of the French military in 1950s was tiny. They were only able to continue the war with massive US assistance. The North Vietnam won against the US by using 4GW and avoiding conventional warfare until the US tired of it all and left. And the conventional power of the US is greater today vs. non-nuke militaries than it was in the 1960s. China and Russia don’t even play the conventional warfare game except in areas needed to maintain defensive capability.

      China’s construction of carriers shows a possible change in China’s strategy. My guess is that they intend to project power in the western pacific, creating a larger defensive zone around China’s coast.

    1. Steve,

      “A ‘win’ was not in the cards. ”

      Well, it depends. We overthrew the Tailiban. If we had installed a new govt, promised aid (training, arms, money), and left — that would have been considered a “win” by almost everybody. But our occupation and neo-colonization program — a win for that was, as you say, “not in the cards.”

      “The arms merchants define ‘win’ as getting paid. Winning is irrelevant.”

      That is really cynical. I know a lot of smart knowledgeable people who agree with you. And that explains the facts. Perhaps it is one of those “sad but true” things.

  12. Hi,

    I write here for the first time after being an avid reader for quite a while and resisted the urge to intervene on more than a few occasions (internet foras can be soooo intoxicating), but this last bit made it too tempting….

    Don’t get me wrong: on most topics, I endorse the bulk of the opinions expressed here, and more than that, the general angles of vision and choices of topics, but on warfare (which I’ve studied as an amateur for 2 decades, and yes, M Van Creveld is one of my go-to sources and has been for a very long time), I detect more than a few areas of hot debate.
    Here and now, I reacted to this…. I’m French after all (sorry for my english):

    “I wonder if all this focus on conventional warfare is the equivalent of the French love of Chivalry and armored knights during the Hundred Years War. They were really well-equiped and skilled at fighting an obsolete form of war. So they repeatedly got their asses kicked by the Brits. Then they lost. France survived only because of Henry V’s early death, late marriage (leaving a young son), and the French’s contribution of insanity genes to the Brit’s royal DNA.”

    First off, contrary to what an abuse of english-written history can lead you to believe, the Hundred Years War was won by France, and not by way of the English side going postal. The war (1337-1453) is made of phases of tit for tat, back and forth between the belligerents, with long periods of pause (medieval economies and states could not sustain war for long) and internal strife (it is an essential moment of national construction for both entities). As for warfare, chivalry was not in and of itself an obsolete weapon system: knights were still the best fighters of their times, and highly versatile (contrary to specialized systems like longbowmen who had only one tactical configuration).
    The drama was, in this instance, the mentality of chivalry that went with the training (warrior ethos instead of soldier ethos, individualism, hierarchical relations and sense of priorities that made discipline impossible) and the political organization imposed by feudality and a weakened monarchy (France’s political history is best summed up by a constant struggle between the “center” and feudal entities).
    The obsolete part of warfare in France was the tax system and the military organization that it entailed, which depended too much on the feudal element, making a sustained centralized effort difficult to maintain, and too dependent on the political strength of a particular king. Once these hurdles were handled (first under Charles V and his military leader DuGuesclin, then, more durably, under Charles VII), victory could be achieved. And was. And knights were an essential part of it, because they could be used as what they were originally made to be: a heavy cavalry made for rapid action and shock (but also of versatile warriors able to adopt ad hoc methods) on which discipline could be imposed, not a mob of self indulged small groups aiming for individual exploits and ransom. Charles VII manage to impose a embryo of permanent taxation and centralized state that allowed a standing army, the first element of which were the “Compagnies d’Ordonnance” (others were the “Francs Archers”, a militia force, and permanent artillery companies), organized around knights put in the controlled environment of permanent, organized and hierarchical military units. This was the more regular and standardized version of what had been created/improvised by particular military commanders earlier in the conflict. The English longbowmen were “reverse Agincourt-ed” at Patay, and the newly organized standing army proved decisive to end the war and kick the Brits out. But feudality was (slowly) being phased out as a price.

    The rational use of knights (but as heavy cavalry stricto sensu, with an effective authority above and on the field) was still a decisive tool for quite a while (until he middle of the XVIth century). The problem is not of tactics or technique: military analysis is too often reduced to this angle (especially in the USA where, it seems, the military culture seems to be very manichean, a-politic, and purely mechanistic, at least in the “official” circles), whereas it is maybe the least important one (maybe one of the reasons why so few lessons have been remembered from Vietnam, especially in the US Air Force).

    Other prick to my Frenchness:
    “The French had, on paper, a conventional advantage over the Viet Minh, but still ended up losing at Dien Bien Phu, which was pretty much a stand up fight”
    No advantage at this point. The Indochina War was a makeshift effort to maintain a colonial empire with very little means: the expeditionary corps was too small and ill equiped (at best 100 000 men present at once on location, plus auxilliaries and what would become the ARVN) on too big a zone (the entirety of VN plus Laos and Cambodia). And only a part of the troops were “tip of the spear” units (paratroopers, Légion, Marine Infantry/colonial troops), able to be mobile and intervene in a variety of scenarios (that plus an anemic air force = reduced mobility). Most of all, the political will was not very strong and the financial means were limited.

    It was not a matter of “4GW” or other fashionable concepts that seem to multiply these days (and in other times), but, as always, a matter of sustained will, commitment, means devoted and their intelligent use ont the theater of war. When General De Lattre died, the “intelligent use” part went out the window for a while. Dien Bien Phu was initially a good idea that was made to last far after it outlived its usefulness, and a case of hubris pas this date. Maintaining a garrison that size that far with too little aerial means to sustain it was a bad judgement call once the Viet-Minh had had gathered enormous means in artillery (especially anti aerial) and operated a huge concentration of troops and logistical manpower. At this point, the garrison was so outnumbered and so deprived of sufficient logistics that it was only a matter of time before it ran out of ammo and food (and men). On the tactical level, the only thing that it was akin to was World War One: all the commanders on both side have likened this battle to that of Verdun (1916). Trench Warfare, assaults on fixed positions, artillery galore and extreme rates of attrition (especially on the Viet side: lots of inexperienced troops, insane tactics of human wave attacks, and being the one to attack).

    An old military rule of thumbs states that in order to control a contested area durably, you need a force 3 to 5% the size of the local population to even have a chance at winning (and you need it there for a long time): more would not be useful (and the cost would be unbearable): once it is there, much depend on your ability to “read” the local context, make reliable allies, support a credible alternative to the enemy’s rule…. Technological progress, especially in the means of pure destruction, but also in those of detection, have not changed these numbers that much. In the cases of the Viet Minh, Viet Cong or Talebans, their ability to provide an almost permanent presence everywhere and a credible order of affairs (albeit an often harsh one: justice system, tax system….) that will last (“you have the watches, we have the time) counts for a lot more than their fighting organization (which just has to not lose and reproduce itself).

    Sorry for the length….

    1. Tancrede,

      1200 words is too long a comment to read, let alone respond to. But you make a few points to which I can respond.

      (1) “contrary to what an abuse of english-written history can lead you to believe, the Hundred Years War was won by France ….”

      I suggest you re-read what I said. The Treaty of Troyes was a decisive victory for the English, but they were unable to implement it. Henry V married too late and died too soon — leaving a too-young heir. Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Valois infected the Valois insanity gene into the English royal family. The combination allowed the French to recover and then win.

      (2) “and not by way of the English side going postal”

      To what are your responding? I didn’t say anything remotely like that. I said the exact opposite: the English won through the disciplined use of a next-gen form of war. I suggest you reply to quotes to avoid this confusion.

      (3) “It was not a matter of “4GW” ”

      To what are your responding? I didn’t say that it did. That would be not just a false claim, but a crazy one.

      (4) Your claim that “No advantage at this point” for the French military in the VN at the end.

      Can you provide a supporting citation for that? From what little I’ve read, the French had an overall advantage in military force up to the end of the war. Better trained troops, better transport, better logistic support, dominant airpower, much more firepower, etc. Number of troops were roughly equal. (See Wikipedia.)

      (5) “An old military rule of thumbs states that in order to control a contested area durably, you need a force 3 to 5% the size of the local population”

      That’s a modern maxim, not an “old” one. It’s quite false for most of history. The second British Empire (late 19thC) was controlled by a microscopic army as a per cent of population. India was the most valuable and heavily-garrisoned large component. In 1900 it had a population of about 280 million — held by 30,000 British troops and 200-300 thousand locally-recruited “sepoys”. That’s 0.1%. Their holdings in Africa were even more lightly garrisoned.

      See this BBC article about the British army.

      Most pre-modern states could not afford to garrison large conquests with armies of 3-5% of the population. They lacked the financial, logistic, and organizational resources to maintain such large armed forces for long periods of time. The extraordinary exceptions — Sparta, the Roman Republic, the Zulus — were militarized states, organized from the ground up to produce a big military to conquer and hold conquests and slaves.

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