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Strategy and Perception, Part II.

To continue, my last post was inspired by analysis by Jason Fritz at Inskspots and I would like to continue to use excerpts from his post as a foil to ruminate about strategy:

Delicate strategic balancing: perception’s role in formulating strategy

….We have a whole suite of problems with our strategy in Afghanistan, foremost of which are a failure to state specific and achievable ends as well as a misalignment of ways and means to achieve the pitifully-described desired ends we have written down. But if our strategic success now depends upon selling to the Afghans that we mean well and that they are now more skeptical than not of us, well we have a very, very serious problem. Balancing the Say-Do equation is an imperative. However, if public perception is that mistakes and crimes committed by individual U.S. service members is indicative of U.S. policy or strategy, then public communications begins to drive strategy instead of the other way around.

Incidentally, I agree completely with Jason’s emphasis that we do not have the fundamentals right on strategy and Afghanistan. To an extent, worrying about “Perception” when you do not have Ends, Ways and Means in sync is akin to fretting about the paint job and waxing of your automobile while the battery is dead, the engine is shot and your car is up on blocks with the tires stolen. Nevertheless, perception will always be at least a contingent factor in strategy, affecting the friction of your diplomatic and theater environment, the attitude of the home front and the political will of elite decision makers.

The classic example of perception having a strategic impact is the Tet Offensive and the effect it had on America’s Eastern Establishment political elite and the Johnson administration directing the war in Vietnam. While Tet was a debacle militarily for the southern Communist cadres that composed the Viet Cong, the offensive struck the American political center of gravity hard. SECDEF McNamara resigned, the antiwar movement was energized and Tet indirectly contributed to the primary results in New Hampshire that caused President Lyndon Johnson to withdraw from the race for president in 1968 and subsequently order a halt to bombing North Vietnam. The mighty Democratic Party, which had dominated American politics since 1933, was riven by an ideological civil war that played out in the streets of Chicago.  Had Hanoi been prepared to seek a negotiated settlement, Johnson likely would have given away the store (a TVA on the Mekong!) to secure peace.

….Public communications and information operations to influence perceptions are ways, but the U.S. keeps falling into the trap of making perceptions ends in themselves. If our ends, ways, and means were better formed and aligned, I suspect that the “Do” side of the equation would be solid enough to negate the affects of mistakes. But this is not the situation in Afghanistan where continued programs of questionable efficacy, strategic drift with regard to ends (compare this and this for instance), andcontinued support for an illegitimate and ineffectual government abound. If ways and means are not succeeding (to what ends?!?) or are the wrong ways and means entirely then your strategy rests in total upon Afghan perception that you’re making a difference instead of in part, which amplifies individual disasters such as we’ve seen of late. While it is unlikely that the United States will change course at this juncture, we need to start paying attention to this phenomenon now and avoid it in the future so we can avoid codifying perceptions as ends and put influencing them back where they belong: as ways. A successful strategy would go a long way to restoring this balance. Once again, maybe in the next war.

I think Jason has put his finger on another problem altogether here. His description of “perception” in that paragraph is one of political perception of a foreign audience of our actions as they constitute an ongoing, apparently unending process to which there is no conclusion in the sense of a defined End, just an arbitrary time limit (to which we are only kinda, sorta, maybe sticking to).  Actually “audience” is not even the right word, as the Afghans are interested participants and actors as well as onlookers who happen to be on the weaker side of an asymmetric dynamic. Weak does not equate to “powerless”, and as we have stupidly set very high strategic goals that require the voluntary consent, adoption and cooperation of the Afghan people to reach, withholding of consent, passive or active resistance or armed insurgency are Afghan bargaining alternatives to abject submission to our wishes. As occupation in the form of unending process looks a lot like foreign domination of Afghanistan by infidels and their corrupt and predatory collaborators, it is not surprising that the Afghans of all stripes are bargaining hard after ten long years.

American civilian leaders running the Afghan war are politicians and lawyers, for whom unending process (like for example, the Federal budget) rather than results is familiar and comfortable and for whom irrevocable choice making is anathema. Crafting a usefully effective military strategy is difficult if one of the unspoken, sub rosa, goals is to “keep all options open as long as possible” which precludes commitment to and vigorous pursuit of a prioritized, specific End to the exclusion of others in as short a time as possible.

This perspective, while perhaps a career advantage for a politician, is over the long haul ruinous for a country in a statesman, as the net result becomes burning money and soldier’s lives to garner nothing but more time in which to avoid making a final decision, hoping to be rescued by chance (Once in a blue moon in warfare, a Tsarina dies or an Armada sinks and changes fortunes, but most nations losing a war ultimately go down to defeat).

A defined and concrete End, by contrast, yields a different perceptual effect because uncertainty for soldiers and onlookers alike is reduced. Foreigners can calculate their own interests and costs with accuracy and decide if opposition, neutrality or alliance will be to their advantage. Now it may be that a desired strategic End is so provocative that it is best kept secret until a sudden victory can be presented to the world as fait accompli, but that is still a very different thing from elevating process of Ways and Means over distant, ambiguously unrealistic and vaguely defined Ends. Loving policy process and tactical excellence above strategic results when employing military force gets you a very long and likely unsuccessful war.

However, somebody else said it much better than I can  2500 years ago….

….When you engage in actual fighting, if victory is long in coming, then men’s weapons will grow dull and their ardor will be damped. If you lay siege to a town, you will exhaust your strength
Again, if the campaign is protracted, the resources of the State will not be equal to the strain
Now, when your weapons are dulled, your ardor damped, your strength exhausted and your treasure spent, other chieftains will spring up to take advantage of your extremity. Then no man, however wise, will be able to avert the consequences that must ensue.
Sun Tzu

8 Responses to “Strategy and Perception, Part II.”

  1. A. Mitchell Says:

    Great article. Who wrote it? The theme being used doesn’t display properly in Firefox. Opera yes, but few people use Opera. Some of the typefaces are invisible, or nearly so, for the 10% of American men with some form of colorblindness.

  2. Nathaniel T. Lauterbach Says:

    Good. So we agree that what we need is not to focus on perceptions, women’s rights, schools built, body counts, foreign aid dolled out, bushels of poppies harvested, drugs interdicted, weapons caches seized, voters registered, women enrolled in school, afghan soldiers trained, Iraqi soldiers trained, human terrain mapped, afghan lithium ore mining potentials, or anything else that some beltway think tank MA or PhD thinks. That all seems rather fox-ish.
    Rather, we should become like the hedgehog, rigorously and relentlessly persevering toward the one End that matters. With that one End in mind, our ways and means should naturally prioritize themselves.
    My take? The political class lacks the discipline to think of any of these issues with rigor.
    Our people are what’s failing.

  3. seydlitz89 Says:

    Hi Zen-

    Been thinking about this emphasis on “perception”.  I think the emphasis in terms of strategic theory should be placed rather on “assumptions” going in to the conflict.  I think it also important to think of what the “Big Picture” was for the participants/decision makers of the war that you are critically analyzing.  Assumptions drive perceptions, question or change your assumptions and the perceptions change as well, but you have to first recognize and then question your assumptions to do that.  I think this the strategic theory side of assumptions as part of Stephen Metz’s comments on the larger cultural assumptions present historically in US policy formulation.
    I think the Vietnam analogy useful, but for quite different reasons than you do.  Committing forces in 1965, the US had a coherent strategic goal, if difficult to attain.  Going into Afghanistan and Iraq there were no coherent strategic goals at all that I can recognize, rather only dubious assumptions based on an unquestioned neocon world view.  Initially there had been a coherent view, but by January 1968, the US strategy in Vietnam was already “off the rails” so Tet’s strategic impact only continued what was already happening.  McNamara had announced his coming resignation as Sec Def in November 1967, so that was not a result of Tet either.  Also economic incentives to North Vietnam would be part of a larger strategy, employing various sources of power towards the political purpose: “carrots” as opposed to “sticks”; in fact economic approaches in general have a tendency to create division in the  enemy camp (dividing political and economic interests).  Strategy need not be limited to only destruction and coercion. 

  4. Madhu Says:

    @ Seydlitz89:
    That is an interesting comment. It ties into Nathaniel T. Lauerbach’s comment nicely because the perceptions he is detailing early on based on the assumption as the population being the “prize.” But the population is not simply the Afghan population, it’s also the governing classes of the competing proxy powers with the sphere of Afghanistan.
    What if we picked the wrong audience? Whose perception matters most? Competing spheres of perception: American population, Afghan populations, Iranian, Indian, Chinese, Pakistani….
    Also, how do we know that our actions are perceived as we would perceive them? There is an assumption that our Western focus on governance, schools, women’s rights, will be perceived a certain way? What is this assumption based on? Anyway, you all get the point.
    The point of a hedgehog, it seems to me, is an odd kind of humility. I can’t do everything well, I can’t know everything, I can’t understand everything, so I must prioritize and do what I am capable of doing well.

  5. Madhu Says:

    Oh, sorry: Nathaniel T. Lauterbach.
    It wouldn’t be a comment of mine if I didn’t get something wrong.

  6. seydlitz89 Says:


    By the time you get to the local populations perceptions being key to the accomplishment of your policy goal, you’re probably too late to start questioning those initial assumptions.  If your political purpose is the establishment of a client state, the social reorganization of the subject population along completely different lines, the establishment of a state apparatus where none existed before (in the case of Afghanistan), than your goals are far beyond anything that can be achieved by military power alone.  In fact such radical goals will require extensive and long-term allocation of both moral and material resources . . . with a limited chance of success.  
    How many times in history has such a thing been attempted and achieved?  In post-colonial times? 

  7. Madhu Says:

    I agree with that, seydlitz89. I sort of can’t believe what’s been happening, to be honest.

  8. Madhu Says:

    “If your political purpose is the establishment of a client state, the social reorganization of the subject population along completely different lines, the establishment of a state apparatus where none existed before (in the case of Afghanistan), than your goals are far beyond anything that can be achieved by military power alone. ”
    Can a third party achieve any of that with non-military power, even? I guess I am talking about development policy because it seems to me that much of Western development policy doesn’t really work in terms of changing the very patterns of governance without serious buy-in from the recipient.

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