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William Lind on the Taliban’s Operational Art

Adam Elkus directed my attention today on Twitter to a new piece by William S. Lind, “the Father of 4th Generation Warfare” at The American Conservative:

Unfriendly Fire 

….The Soviet army focused its best talent on operational art. But in Afghanistan, it failed, just as we have failed. Like the Soviets, we can take and hold any piece of Afghan ground. And doing so brings us, like the Soviets, not one step closer to strategic victory. The Taliban, by contrast, have found an elegant way to connect strategy and tactics in decentralized modern warfare.

What passes for NATO’s strategy is to train sufficient Afghan forces to hold off the Taliban once we pull out. The Taliban’s response has been to have men in Afghan uniform— many of whom actually are Afghan government soldiers or police—turn their guns on their NATO advisers. That is a fatal blow against our strategy because it makes the training mission impossible. Behold operational art in Fourth Generation war.

According to a May 16 article by Matthew Rosenberg in the New York Times, 22 NATO soldiers have been killed so far this year by men in Afghan uniforms, compared to 35 in all of last year. The report went on to describe one incident in detail—detail NATO is anxious to suppress. There were three Afghan attackers, two of whom were Afghan army soldiers. Two Americans were killed. The battle—and it was a battle, not just a drive-by shooting—lasted almost an hour.

What is operationally meaningful was less the incident than its aftermath. The trust that existed between American soldiers and the Afghans they were supposed to train was shattered. Immediately after the episode, the Times reported, the Americans instituted new security procedures that alienated their native allies, and while some of these measure were later withdrawn,

Afghan soldiers still complain of being kept at a distance by the Americans, figuratively and literally. The Americans, for instance, have put up towering concrete barriers to separate their small, plywood command center from the outpost’s Afghan encampment.

Also still in place is a rule imposed by the Afghan Army after the attack requiring most of its soldiers to lock up their weapons when on base. The Afghan commanding officer keeps the keys….

Lind has lost none of his skill for zeroing in on which buttons to push that would most annoy the political generals among the brass.

However, I think Lind errs in ascribing too much credit to the Taliban here. A much simpler explanation is that the usually illiterate ANA soldier is a product of the same xenophobic cultural and religious environment that created the Taliban, the Haqqanis, vicious Islamist goons like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar or the Afghan tribesmen who slaughtered the retreating garrison of Lord Elphinstone in 1841.

While the Taliban have infiltrators, it remains that many of the “Green on Blue” killings are just as easily explained by personal grievances, zealous religious bigotry, indiscipline, mistreatment by American advisers or Afghan superiors and sudden jihad syndrome. While it is impolitic to emphasize it, Afghan betrayal and murder of foreign allies (generally seen as “occupiers”) is something of a longstanding historical pattern. The Taliban capitalize on it politically but they are not responsible for all of it.

13 Responses to “William Lind on the Taliban’s Operational Art”

  1. larrydunbar Says:

    ” is a product of the same xenophobic cultural ” 

    A case where “culture” “eats” structure. Not much one can do about the ANA if there are no “infiltrators”. So you’re saying it is a total lost cause?

    I mean, while McChrystal seemed to have a different strategy, the ANA is the “out” for NATO. 

    Perhaps a re-arming by Mitt? 

  2. J. Scott Shipman Says:

    Hi Zen,
    I believe the Taliban benefit from what you accurately ascribe; their polycentric groups fight what is before them. There are a lot of Taliban sub-groups/wannabes/etc who share the Taliban’s desire to run NATO out of Dodge—in Boyd speak—they share a “unifying vision.”
    Further, the fact they are being effective matters more than their motive—or even if the results are or are not occurring according to a plan. In typical guerilla fashion, they cannot defeat NATO forces in a straight-up fight, but they can sure create multiple hot spots at times unexpected/unanticipated by the NATO forces.
    Multiple disparate groups with independent decision makers attacking at each opportunity—they have the statical law of averages on their side—more attacks, more chaos, more restrictions by the NATO forces—and more chances to realize their “unifying vision” of a NATO exit.  (Exit = defeat, is my guess—and to kill/maim as many NATO folks as they can in the process.)

  3. zen Says:

    Hi Larry,
    The ANA isn’t working. It seems that in areas turned over to ANA control result in ANA commanders reaching quiet deals with Taliban commanders, which is sensible because most of the ANA units cannot fight on their own ( some units really can, but it is a small minority and they are going “green on blue” too inside secure areas of the Defense Ministry). The old Afghan army of the Communists, Daoud and Zahir Shah had a secularized, urbanized, literate, professional officer corps that could draw on a secular urban population. Check out pics of Kabul in the 1960’s, You’re right, the ANA is an exit strategy but the ANA is not nearly as good as ARVN or even the Iraqi Army and South Vietnam and Iraq actually had indigenous economies that could (partially) support the mil apparatus we built them
     Hey Scott,
    You put that well. Agreed.
    Considering 4GW theory, I’m inclined sometimes, from looking at places like China 1911-1949, Lebanon in the 1980’s, west Africa in the 1990’s, the Congo basin and Mexico in the 2000’s to say 4GW is a better descriptor of a specific type of political environment in which war takes place than a kind of war. Your term “Polycentric” is a key characteristic, multiple sides of combatants, an anarchic strategic ecosystem in which the fortunes of combatants can swiftly rise or fall based on military effectiveness, legitimacy and/or fear 

  4. TG Says:

    Dear Mr Zenpundit
    Before you choose to write something other people may read, take the rouble to familiarise yourself with the subject, and don’t accept that some “authority” like Mr Lind has it right.
    The Soviet Army did not loose the war in Afghanistan. In fact they were very successful at it at the tactical, and operational level. It did what it was trained to do, and those things it wasn’t trained to do, it learned to do. There is a plethora of former Soviet veterans that write about it online. Many even speak English. They will tell you about raids on drug and arms caravans on the Pakistani border, convoy ambushes and counter-ambushes, forcing locals to respect the Soviet Army by using raw power, which is the ONLY form of persuasion respected in Islamic societies.
    The problem with Americans is that they choose to only see the end product, which was withdrawal, and to the American “analysts” this spells failure. And it was, in the sense that a pro-Soviet regime wasn’t established in Afghanistan. However, an anti-Soviet movement wasn’t begun in the Central Asian republics either until the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Even then most new Central Asian states are closer to Russia in politics, and remain only notionally Islamic as societies, i.e. not radicalised.
    So strategically, if the Taliban even ever had a strategic goal, for the Soviet Union Afghanistan was decidedly a draw. Diplomatically it was a defeat because of the Moscow Olympics. Politically it affected relations with the Warsaw Pact. Culturally it brought the onset of perestroika and that changed the Soviet society. But, militarily, it didn’t mean very much at all aside from quite a bit of combat expereinced gained by quite a bit of officers and NCOs. Notably when it came time to storm Grozny, the column that was not ambushed, and was able to assist the Russian troops that were, was led by an officer with Afghanistan experience.
    NATO on the other hand is a bunch of idiots that just waste time and money, never mind lives for 0 strategic reason. There is no political, economic, social or cultural capital to be gained from remaining in Afghanistan even another hour longer now that Bin Ladin is dead, because Taliban can not be eradicated. Its dead leaders will be replaced, and Afghanistan will be reoccupied with a fundamentalist Islamic regime which is culturally compatible with the mentality of its population. Just like the “Hearts and minds” failed in Vietnam to change the Vietnamese culture, as did the Communist Party, and Vietnam remains a deeply corrupt and amoral society, known in the West for drug export, so too any attempt to change the Afghani culture will fail. It is this culture that produces ““Green on Blue” killings” which in other times would be called a treacherous ambush.
    NATO ought to preserve as much of its military capability for when radical Islam comes calling at Europe’s door, as it had before.
    Of course people in leather chairs have a lot of trouble looking truth in the eyes and facing reality of being wrong

  5. zen Says:

    Hi Greg,
    Mr. Lind is an unpopular figure in some mil circles, it’s true but you would be surprised what I know about the former Soviet Union. 
    There are many Americans who served in Vietnam, including a number of my close relations, who can tell you much the same tale about tactical or operational superiority vis-a-vis an insurgent enemy. Our friends the Germans demonstrated great tactical and operational excellence in WWII. Tactical and operational excellence are important and the Red Army was an extremely capable military force with brave soldiers and very tough counter-guerrilla tactics. But end results do matter and Vietnam and Afghanistan were lost wars, not for tactical incompetence but because of poor strategic leadership ( on display again by the US/ISAF/NATO in AfPak).
    Central Asian Islam was broken in the late twenties and thirties, the Basmachi were the last swan song and even if it hadn’t, the harsh Deobandi-Wahabbist-Salafist-Takfiri radicalism of AQ and other extremist groups are alien to local practices and is unlikely to take root. How popular is the IMU? Not very.
    Afghanistan did not “bring down” the USSR, as Bin Laden alleged but the strategic effect of losing a war correlated with the Soviet Union’s longstanding economic problems and inability to structurally reform due to opposition in the CPSU CC, coming to a head while an expensive arms race with the US was in full swing. Had Brezhnev and Kosygin used early detente to engineer Yugoslav or Chinese style economic reforms circa 1970-74, the USSR might have been better positioned a decade later, but they didn’t and instead papered over economic decline with hardline policies at home, larger military budgets and adventures in the third world that ultimately wasted resources ( much like the hundreds of billions of dollars we have thrown away building a pretend state in Afghanistan)

  6. seydlitz89 Says:

    Hi zen-
    Lind’s thought has degenerated into basic dogmatic speculation: there is little resemblance between his original article in the Marine Corps Gazette, or even what he formerly referred to as “4th Generation Warfare”, and what he’s written here.  When exactly was the “dialectically qualitative shift” from “warfare” to “war” anyway?
    From a Clausewitzian perspective, the Afghan campaign was lost strategically (that is the connection between organized violence and politics/policy) relatively early on.  There was a window of opportunity to establish an adequate coalition to govern, relative to Afghan conditions, the country, but that opportunity was lost in the rush to war with Iraq.  No Taliban “operations” necessary to change that basic fact.  They are there for the long haul and we are not, one of the basic forms of defense is simply refusing to yield and outlasting the foreign occupation, as we have seen in countless examples from history . . . no 4G whatever necessary to understand that, rather simply seeing war as subordinate to politics/political relations/political circumstances . . . in other words, contrary to Lind, with his single reified iron track of tactics > operations > strategy, effect is also influenced from the top, that is the political conditions, regardless of material elements.
    Soviet experiences in Afghanistan are better compared to US experiences in Vietnam, than to NATO’s current mess in Afghanistan, imo.  The Soviet Army was basically a conscript force with all the strengths and weaknesses therein, much like the US military in the 1960s.  The real impact/disruption was social, including the loss of the image of invisibility the Soviets had enjoyed up to that point, as had the US military prior to 1968.  The Soviet leadership were sick of the war by 1986, but continued on for another three years.  Officers and whole units were sent to Afghanistan as punishment for infractions/poor discipline.  Political officers promised troops they would be building schools, whereas the reality was very different.  Drug and alcohol abuse skyrocketed . . . Not to mention how the war metastasized the existing problems in the Soviet Army that had existed before 1979: ethic hatreds, lack of career NCOs, hazing among conscripts . . .
    I would refer to William E. Odom’s, The Collapse of the Soviet Military, pp 247-251

  7. seydlitz89 Says:

    “invincibility” not “invisibility” . . . maybe I need new specks . . .

  8. zen Says:

    Hi seydlitz89
    Working on a longwinded post, somewhat related to the above, on which I hope that you will comment. Should be up tonight or tomorrow
    I have read articles by LTG Odom, smart man, but not the book to which you referred.
    This is the first article from Lind that I have read in some time. He dropped out of sight when DNI folded and I was not aware until the other day that he had started writing again, now for The American Conservative. I can’t speak for him nor am I aware of if/how his views have evolved on 4GW. I think he is projecting the Taliban as a monolithic SPECTRE type group here when there are simply a lot of afghans who share many opinions with the Taliban without actually wanting to be ruled over by them or by us or Karzai.

  9. seydlitz89 Says:

    Chernyaev found this encouraging but still ambiguously expressed in old ideological slogans and myths.  Apparently he did not immediately recognize a radical ideological revision that Gorbachev had let slip out: society’s interests were higher than class interests. This assertion flatly called into question Marx’s conception of historical development and the primacy of class struggle.  Gorbachev was to take the primacy of society’s interests – or ‘humankind interests’, as he would also call them – to its logical conclusion in another year, but for the moment the point got lost . . .

    pp 97-98 

  10. zen Says:

    Good excerpt. I would argue the reason Cheryaev did not recognize this is that very few top Soviet leaders after Stalin’s period actually read and knew Marxist-Leninist theory. Except for the eminence grise Suslov, who was in Stalin’s last Presidium as a junior figure, and Suslov’s protege, the pedantic ideologue Ponomarev, the politburo dealt in vague, ritualistic, platitudes because they were either technocratic bureaucrats (Andropov, Ustinov, Gromyko, Kosygin) hack mediocrities (Brezhnev, Romanov, Chernenko, Grishin etc. ) or ethnic minority satraps (Aliev, Konaev, Scherbytsky, Pelse etc.). while Trotsky, Bukharin, Kamenev and their followers had looked down on Stalin’s crude style, the old monster really did know his theory, even if he felt free to redefine it as it suited him

  11. seydlitz89 Says:

    Disagree.  I think they did take it seriously since they had been molded by this mindset though out their intellectual development.  Marxist-Leninism was also what made them a world ideology.  That they were all simply “cynical opportunists” helps make them intelligible to us, but misses the main point imo.  I would add that from a Soviet perspective, “cynical opportunism” very much describes the US and how we deal with our own ideological assumptions: say one thing, but remained focused on something else.
    Christopher Donnelly wrote in Red Banner (1988): 
    Marxism has, like many other social movements and philosophies, developed its own language.  This is a mixture of special terminology and of common words imbued with special meanings.  It is most important therefore to realized that Marxist jargon, which may appear as mumbo-jumbo or apparently anodyne and innocuous pronouncements, usually has a specific meaning with specific and practical implications.  These will be obvious to this initiated in the philosophy, but incomprehensible or (even worse) misleading for those who are not.  Modern Soviet official pronouncements are invariably couched in the jargon of Marxism-Leninism, and the failure to appreciate this fact has been responsible for a great many misunderstandings of Soviet statements or intent. p 53

  12. zen Says:

    You misunderstood my point, or perhaps more likely, I was unclear.
    I did not imply the Brezhnev era Soviet leaders were cynics, I said that they were (suslov and his followers excepted) unread in the theory in which they believed. Like a cultural Catholic who occasionally attends mass without studying Church teachings, a politician who praises the Constitution without reading the Federalist papers or a military officer who never read Clausewitz, they had a pragmatic understanding of Marxism-Leninism at a fairly superficial level compared to Stalin, Lenin, Trotsky, Bukharin, Kamenev and even some of Stalin’s henchmen like Molotov. The Revolutionary and Civil War generations of Soviet leaders took the time not only to read Marx and Lenin, but other thinkers on the Left, including their ideological enemies like Plekhanov, Kautsky, Chkheidze, Luxembourg to understand and criticize their theoretical works. Their beliefs were seriously held, but they were also largely understood secondhand

  13. Curtis Gale Weeks Says:

    I haven’t been following this discussion and only just now read Lind’s piece—which is very, very good.
    I am not precisely sure of the relevance of viewing the Taliban as a SPECTRE vs. some disembodied talking head.  Even if these Afghan attackers are operating for their own personal reasons, those reasons could have been influenced by the Taliban; or, let’s say that the Taliban has helped to insure that the “unifying vision” does not alter or fade away.  Plus, having seen some effects of rogue operators, the T. could pick up on that and utilize it in direct ways (planting agents) or indirect ways (unknowing proxies, or influencing the decision process.)
    Insuring that the “unified vision” remains unified, or relevant, may be a large portion of the operational art.
    “I’m inclined sometimes … to say 4GW is a better descriptor of a specific type of political environment in which war takes place than a kind of war.”  —One of the central problems with much theory of warfare written nowadays is an utter lack of understanding about how warfare intersects political environments, economic environments, social environments, technological environments….Warfare is compartmentalized separately from all the rest, even if some small elements of those other domains are included in discussion of warfare.  This is what I would call the Great Barrier that divides two broad schools of thinking about warfare:  one compartmentalizes; the other does not.  [Technology is handled in some theories of warfare in the way certain science fiction allegories use it:  as a kind of gimmick, with the assumption that a few examples alter everything or else the assumption that nothing is altered by it.]

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