Archive for the ‘COIN’ Category

Afghanistan: “A Paradox in Noncooperative Behavior and Escalation”???

December 7, 2010 1 comment

Recently, Army Colonel Robert M. Cassidy published an article on Small Wars Journal entitled A Precis on the Logic of the Afghan War.  Below is my response to the article, which can also be found in the comments section on SWJ.  Check out the Wikipedia entry for the Dollar Auction Game for more info.


There is a game called “The Dollar Auction.” The rules are simple. The auctioneer puts $1 up for auction, beginning at 1 cent. He will sell to the highest bidder. The catch is that the second highest bidder must also pay his bid – and he doesn’t get anything.

Generally, the game proceeds along, and eventually someone bids $1, leaving someone else with a bid of 95 cents or something similar. Then the fun part starts. The second-highest bidder has an incentive to bid $1.01 because he will only be out 1 cent instead of 95 cents. The original bidder of $1 then has the same incentive to bid, say, $1.10.

The bids continue well beyond $1. Eventually, the game becomes more about winning than profit. Dollar bills have gone for $3-$5 dollars, and sometimes $20. The bidding often becomes heated and emotional.

We’ve been in Afghanistan a while now. COL Cassidy sounds like he is bidding $3 for a $1 bill rather than articulating a viable way ahead for Afghanistan.

A comprehensive COIN strategy in Afghanistan with the aim of transforming that country into a working, non-terrorist democracy is certainly the best outcome we could want. Given enough time, money, and blood, we might be able to achieve it.

The problem is that this strategy will take so long and be so expensive that it won’t be worth the effort. Sure, we’ll end up with a buck, but how much will we have paid for it?

A limited counter-terrorism strategy is certainly not capable of producing the same results as a COIN strategy. However, it is much more efficient. While we may get, say, 75% of the effectiveness, we get it at 10% of the cost. We get more bang for the buck.

The 800lb gorilla in the room is the defense budget. It will shrink, and soon. While COIN is the most effective strategy, it is also the most manpower intensive, ergo, the most expensive. COL Cassidy does not mention this fact.

It is time we opted for a more efficient strategy. While not as effective, a limited counter-terrorism strategy is more sustainable in the long run.

Human Terrain….Again

November 8, 2010 Leave a comment

image There is an article in the November-December 2010 edition of Military Review entitled Controlling the Human High Ground: Identifying Cultural Opportunities for Insurgency.  Needless to say, I’m disappointed we continue to dwell on this idea of “Human Terrain.”  As I wrote a few weeks ago, humans are not terrain.  Humans aren’t even like terrain.  Why we use the metaphor of “terrain” to describe human beings is beyond me.

Some might wonder why I am so intent to writing about this subject.  How we model things is important.  Here is an excerpt from a paper entitled On the Mismatch Between Systems and Their Models by Russell L. Ackoff and Jamshid Gharajedaghi:

There is a very serious mismatch between most social systems and the models of them that are in
Barry M. Richmond, creator of the Systems Dynamics model and I-think language makes it clear
that systems and the models of them in use are not the same. According to him “the way we think
is outdated.” He goes on to define thinking as:

consisting of two activities: constructing mental models, and then simulating them
in order to draw conclusions and make decisions. The mental model is a “selective
abstraction” of reality that we create and carry around in our head. As big as some
of our heads get, we still can’t fit reality in there. Therefore all mental model are
simplifications. They necessarily omit many aspects of the realities they

To think about anything requires an image or a concept of it, a model. To think about something
as complex as a social system we use models of similar, simpler, and/or more familiar systems.
Unfortunately, as social systems become increasingly more complex, simpler mental models of
them do not reflect their emerging properties.

In short, this is what is happening with human terrain.  We are using a simple model (terrain) to imagine or conceptualize a much more complex system (human social/cultural groups).  As a result, we draw bad conclusions about the nature of the system.  This new article from Military Review is a perfect example.  The model of “terrain” has erroneously led the author to believe that humans, like terrain, can be “controlled.”  Humans are independent beings capable of making choices.  While humans can certainly be influenced, they can never be controlled. 

Human Terrain: Are We too Stupid for Big Words like Anthropology?

October 3, 2010 3 comments

an·thro·pol·o·gy (ăn’thrə-pŏl’ə-jē) n.

The scientific study of the origin, the behavior, and the physical, social, and cultural development of humans.

I’ll confess:  This is a rant.  I hate the term “Human Terrain.”  If you are unfamiliar with this term, it refers to a U.S. Army program which uses social science and social scientists to help commanders understand the social dynamics of local populations.  This kind of understanding is particularly valuable when conducting counterinsurgency operations because winning the support of the local population is the most important objective.  This is in contrast to more conventional warfare in which seizing (actual) terrain is the more important objective.

I can only assume the Army uses this phrase to help the cognitively challenged segments of the officer corps who might look at you with a blank stare if you used the word Anthropology, or the words Social Science, or similar phrases.  “You see, CPT Schmedlab, we used to seize key terrain, but now the people are the terrain, get it?”

My problem with this term is twofold.  First, it assumes the majority of officers are absolute idiots who can’t understand a concept unless one can relate it to something familiar in existing military jargon.  If this is the case, the Army needs to reassess the quality of the officers it is recruiting.  Second, the term itself is misleading.  Humans are not terrain.  They are not even like terrain.

Terrain is static.  It doesn’t move.  It doesn’t have families or choices or feelings or culture.  Humans, on the other hand, have all these things and more.  Human socio-cultural systems are incredibly complex, which is why we need to increase our institutional knowledge of social sciences.  Comparing social systems to dirt and rocks, to use some jargon, “ain’t gettin’ it.”

Of course, this isn’t the first time the Army has done this.  I remember “Non-Lethal Fires.”  WHAT?!  The only way fires can be non-lethal is if you miss your target.  Of course, this was intended to convey information operations intended to influence certain actors within the populace.  Actually, the term is still floating around.  I guess we can now fire some non-lethal fires into some human terrain.  Or, we could just say “influence the local populace.”

In short, humans are not rocks.  But whoever came up with the term “Human Terrain” most certainly is…

The Carrot or the Stick?

December 23, 2009 Leave a comment

As a new but now dedicated reader of Small Wars Journal, I came across the following piece regarding the role of armed forces in warfare:


War is about Killing and Destruction, It is Not Armed Social Science

A Short Response to Andrew Mackay and Steve Tatham

by Colonel Gian P. Gentile

I feel sorry for the British Army for they seem to have been taken in by the American Army’s consumption with Counterinsurgency and its theoretical premise that military force can “change entire societies” for the better. Of course this quote is attributed to one of America’s leading Counterinsurgency experts retired Army Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl.

The irony is that the American Coin experts in their own campaign to transform the American Army to a Counterinsurgency force from 2005 to 2007 used the British Army as an example of the proper way to do “classic” Coin: e.g., Malaya, and Sir Robert Thompson’s recommendations for the United States in Vietnam. Yet as the Iraq Triumph Narrative is now written, the British Army lost their way and failed in Iraq where the Americans succeeded. Now, just as with the American Army, the British Army based onthis essay by Mackay and Tatham have succumbed to the flawed theories and notions promoted by General Rupert Smith in his hugely influential but deeply flawed book The Utility of Force.

Download the full article: War is about Killing and Destruction

Gian Gentile is a serving American Army Colonel and teaches military history at West Point. He commanded a Cavalry Squadron in West Baghdad in 2006.


The article is worth a read, but I believe the author’s point is flawed.  Here is my take on the subject, portions of which I posted as a comment on SWJ:

The fundamental question is this:  Is war about killing and destruction? Or is it about hearts and minds (i.e. “convincing”)?

I would argue that they are two sides of the same coin (the carrot and the stick, so to speak). In other words, people respond to incentives, and convincing implies offering incentives, while killing and destruction are most certainly disincentives. Our problem here in the American Army (in a general sense) is that we rarely understand what incentives people are likely to respond to and how they are likely to respond.  The reasons for this are numerous, but I would point to two primary reasons:

First, our mechanistic view of warfare as evidenced by our obsession with “effects”. While cause and effect is a good model for a physical, energy-bonded system, it is a poor model for a socio-cultural system. People are not machines – they make choices. Second, we don’t understand why people make choices. We ASSUME they will act rationally in their own best interests, but this view is flawed.

Choices are a confluence of rationality, emotion, and culture. Rationality is a subjective rather than objective calculation.  In other words, the “rational” choice is not necessarily the choice that is in the chooser’s best interests, it is only the one he PERCEIVES to be in his best interests. Emotion speaks to the excitement of choice.  Whereas rationality is concerned with minimizing risk, emotion is not.  Anyone who has jumped out of a perfectly good airplane for “fun” can attest to this fact. Culture has the most influence, yet tends to be understood the least.  This is because to us it appears irrational, stupid, or self-defeating (which it may be, but it doesn’t appear that way to THEM), and because for them it is just the way things are (the problem with unwritten laws is that no one knows where to go to erase them). When they don’t act they way we think they will (cause and effect mentality), we dismiss them as backwards and irrational.

To sum up, killing or convincing, stick or carrot, are complimentary ideas.  However, understanding how and when to apply them effectively is an art few have mastered.  Perhaps few care to, espousing an “all or nothing” approach.