Subversive Applications of Military Classics to COIN

I’ve been thinking some more about General Flynn’s directive on intelligence in Afghanistan that CNAS published the other day.  Flynn has been frustrated at the enemy-centric mindset of the military personnel and organizations he works with.  It seems to me that one way perhaps of changing the way military professionals think about such things is to look at how the classics, the stuff that people are made to read in staff colleges and what not, really do speak to COIN.  In other words, perhaps we could reframe some of the classics and thereby stick the key COIN ideas in officers’ heads or, more to the point, send them straight to the spinal cord as reflex actions.  

Liddell Hart

 One of the most influential military theorists in history (and an accomplished self-aggrandizer), Basil H. Liddell Hart, addressed some of the relevant issues in Strategy (2nd Revised Edition).  The book did have a chapter on “Guerrilla War,” though this was a late  add-on; Strategy evolved substantially over time.  Nevertheless, the chapter makes the important point that “guerrilla warfare is waged by the few, but dependent on the support of the many.”  (p. 367.)

That’s great as far as it goes, but this is not what Liddell Hart is famous for.  He’s famous for the ‘indirect approach.”  Better to use what he’s famous for and point out how it may apply to the present problem.  For instance:  

“To move along the line of natural expectations consolidates the opponent’s balance and thus increases his resisting power.  In war, as in wrestling, the attempt to throw the opponent without loosening his foothold and upsetting his balances results in self-exhaustion, increasing in disproportionate ratio the effective strain put upon him.  Success by such a method only becomes possible through an immense margin of superior strength in some form–and, even so, tends to lose decisiveness.  In most campaigns the dislocation of the enemy’s psychological and physical balance has been the vital prelude to a successful attempt at his overthrow.”  (pp. 5-6).  

I think an interesting seminar discussion could be had exploring how this does or doesn’t apply to the fight against the Taliban.  What does the Taliban expect us to do?  What does the Taliban want us to do?  Who is getting more exhausted in this fight?  How can the Taliban’s psychological balance best be “dislocated”?  

Of course, Liddell Hart was certainly not above ridicule.  The below comment was not made in the context of guerrilla warfare, but is too fun to leave out.  And in the context of the General Flynn article, it can be read as a nice pun (if that isn’t oxymoronic).  

From deep study of war, Clausewitz was led to the conclusion that ‘All military action is permeated by intelligent forces and their effects.’  Nevertheless, nations at war have always striven, or been driven by their passions, to disregard the implications of such a conclusion.  Instead of applying intelligence, they have chosen to batter their heads against the nearest wall.”  (p. 325.)

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Mark, you bring up interesting questions, and I’m reminded of Dr. Bruce Hoffman’s op-ed piece in the Washington Post:

    The difficulty in fighting this war is the limitations we place on ourselves, which reduce the surprise possible against the enemy. I’m not suggesting that we practice the war without boundaries or limitations, but the moral limits we constrain our plans by also limit the outcomes and leverage we can bring to bear.

    The Taliban has been fighting this war for decades and even though we’ve recently acknowledged that they are a terrorism-supporting government and even a terrorist organization themselves, they have a long history of knowing that the they can take advantage of the United States’ self-limiting.

    The Taliban was created to bring order to a factured, corrupt and chaotic society through the use of a strict religious code. The inability to institute a strong national government, free of corruption, means that the Taliban will continue to find an audience, and the focus the US places on the Taliban gives it credibility.

    I believe that the US will exhaust itself before the Taliban leadership, but more importantly, who will the non-Taliban Afghans and Pakistanis tire of more quickly? I think the US and Taliban can both outlast their patience, but the battle will be determined by who the non-militants believe is causing the greatest damage.

    The Taliban depends on the painting of US forces as conquerors, destroyers and infidels. By eliminating the greatest examples of those personas, the US can reduce the “balance” of the Taliban. Engaging in local support and education, the careful application of military operations to limit civilian impact, and a respect for Islam as separate from the Salafi-Jihadist creed of Al Qaeda and the Taliban is an important step forward for (and out of) Afghanistan.

  2. Mark,
    Your comments on COIN are right on the money. All to often our responses to problems like Afghanistan etc are kinetic, linear and led by percieved technological solutions which are believed to be less risky. The reality is that a successful COIN effort must be led by knowledge, not power. As Kurt Vonnegut would have said: So it goes…

    Tom Quiggin

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