Wednesday, June 15, 2011

ISAF Accentuating the Positive - To its Own Detriment

You know what depresses me? That after all of these years, chock full of debate and writing on counterinsurgency, that a guy with operational experience and as a media adviser to ISAF's Counterinsurgency Advisory & Assistance Team can be as wrong on counterinsurgency as this. Wow. It is a cheer-leading piece with poor understanding of counterinsurgency, the use of output metrics, and just really bad argumentation. McLaughlin is hardly the first to write such a post or make such statements, but he has me wondering why ISAF personnel and supporters keep doing this? How can they be so distant from reality and logic?

This topic relates to a post I had written a while ago on why senior military leaders have a propensity to infringe on civilian leaderships' roles and responsibilities. That is: a can-do attitude. But looking at the past as the author of the above-linked post did requires more than a can-do attitude. It requires an odd analysis of what has happened and what is happening to look at that data and say "hell yeah, we're going to be just fine." The only way I can explain it (and of course I may not be at all, but I'm sure as hell going to try) is that ISAF has adopted positive psychology in lieu of a strategy.

For those of you who aren't familiar with this relatively new field of psychology (and I'm only tangentially aware of it, not being a psychologist and all), it focuses on an individual's strengths and virtues to increase resiliency and functioning. The Army has embraced this theory in its counter-PTSD programs, so it isn't that much of a stretch to think that it has pervaded other aspects of the war effort. Begun at the University of Pennsylvania by Marty Seligman, positive psychology has patients just look at the good things (according to the website above, positive emotions, traits, and institutions) but makes no mention of any negative emotions, traits or institutions.

McLaughlin's piece is a great big positive psychology stream of consciousness. Look at all of the great stuff we've done! We've killed lots of bad guys! We've trained lots of Afghan security forces! They get together in front of an American's camera and talk about how much they want to change Afghanistan for better! Kabul is rebuilding itself! Canals! Progress! The future! Indeed, the Sun itself is rising on Afghanistan. This might work very well for soldiers to combat PTSD symptoms, but it's a shit way for a theater command headquarters to think about anything.

Military history is replete with stories of commanders and forces that did not understand their own weaknesses, when it is as important to understand weaknesses as much as strengths. I understand that it's hard for ISAF to look at its own weaknesses; especially as its greatest weakness - the inability to bring about a political solution to the war - is essentially out of its hands. Let's face it, without significant changes to the underpinning conditions (economic, political, geo-political, etc), ISAF can't stabilize Afghanistan on its own, if stability in the Western sense is possible at all.

If you think that last statement is correct - and I would guess that most serious analysts do think it's correct - then one can understand why ISAF has a positive psychological view of what it's doing. And I don't mean approve of this view, just understand. One hundred thousand troops are sent to a war they can't win (or at least have a marginally thin chance of it) - how do you keep the morale up? How do commanders substantiate the futility of what they're doing (futility in a strategic sense - not in the small actually positive things that do occur in Afghanistan)? The accentuate the positive. They look at the great things they've done, what is great about their organization and their values. The U.S. military did this in Iraq, too, in the dark days. It was hard to stomach, but one had to focus on something to substantiate why one was putting his or her life on the line for dubious and nearly impossible to reach objectives. So yeah, I get it - I understand why this is positive psychological worldview is pervasive at ISAF.

The biggest problem is that this positive outlook compounds the problems on the ground. It's one thing to accentuate the positive and it's another to ignore your problems. If you're in a nearly-to-totally hopeless situation (again, at the strategic level) on the ground, ignoring your problems leads to more problems. For example, it leads to horrible planning assumptions that we've seen and dissected at great length. It leads to counterproductive operations - such as razing villages or building roads for their own sake. It leads to plans and operations that focus on positive tactical gains that can be listed as successes at the cost of long-term, strategic success (this was the topic of a paper I wrote a few months ago that I'm waiting to be published soon.).

So ISAF - I get you're doing some great things - that may or may not be great in the bigger picture. But until you start telling me how things are going badly and what that means and how you're addressing it, your positive view of the war isn't helping anyone and is most likely hurting and killing more people than it's helping. Get a better sense of your problems, of your organization, and what you're doing and start talking about that. Dump this positive psychology stuff in conducting wars and embrace reality instead.


  1. What's chilling is that I keep hearing the "fact" that we've killed or captured 10%-25% (varies by source) of the insurgency, often followed by the phrase "the military definition of destroyed".

    It's just wrong on so many levels.

  2. While I think McLaughlin's piece isn't well supported, neither is yours. You've cherry picked as much as he has to justify your strategic assessment. That's fine, but dueling op-eds provide more heat than light, and the subject's already plenty warm.

  3. Without a realistic STRAT you can't have a workable COM.

    End of story.


  4. MK -- Cherry-picked? Strategic assessment? Huh?

    I think Jason's substantive comment amounted to something like "why does ISAF keep saying we're winning without providing any meaningful evidence to that effect?" (I don't want to speak for him here, but that's what I took out of it.)

    Maybe I can put it even more directly: in the big picture, it's pretty clear we're getting our asses kicked to no productive strategic end, so why do we A) keep doing it, and B) keep pretending like we're not?

    Is it goofy to suggest that the guys saying not only "we're winning, let's keep spending money and lives!" but "if we actually DO win, it will result in some meaningful improvement to national security!" ought to be the ones charged with the burden of proof? I simply can't fathom how or why you should think it otherwise.

  5. Maybe I can put it even more directly: in the big picture, it's pretty clear we're getting our asses kicked to no productive strategic end, so why do we A) keep doing it, and B) keep pretending like we're not?

    No, actually, it's not. The picture is a helluva a lot more complicated than that. Across the board, the indicators are mixed. It looks clear to you because you (and as far as I can tell, Jason) have already concluded that the war in Afghanistan is some combination of A) not winnable, B) not worth winning given how much it will cost in blood and treasure, or C) not worth winning at almost any cost. Those are certainly valid opinions, but I don't think you've either explained how to mitigate the risks of the barely sketched out alternative strategies you've referenced here. Instead you've simply dismissed those risks while providing little if any evidence to support the viability of your alternatives. And since every possible course of action involves substantial risks, you bear as much a burden of proof as those who argue that we should continue prosecuting the war.

    You obviously think that the situation is painfully, inescapably clear, and that only mendacity, ignorance or self-delusion can explain differing assessments. I don't agree, and I know plenty of very smart people working on these issues who feel the same way, even if they broadly concur with your assessment that continuing the war isn't worth it. I think it's sad that there's so little acknowledgment in the public discourse of how difficult it is to parse all the contradictory indicators, and how much risk is associated with each and every option.

  6. MK -- Out of curiosity, can you just briefly highlight some of the positive indicators, or even some that are "mixed"?

    And you're right, I DO reject the assertion that there's anywhere near a sufficient level of risk associated with basically any other option to justify continuing on the current path. I think the reasons for that have been pretty extensively discussed, though I'm happy to address them again if you'd like to identify the risks that I'm overlooking.

  7. The only positive indicators that exist are the ones ISAF invented so that they would have some positive indicators. I.e., "Civilian casualties have gone up, but hey, look how many vendors showed up at the Marjah bazaar this Friday. Clear proof of progress!"

  8. MK,

    What exactly is winning and what if any historical precedent would you provide that could show that either Jason or Gulliver is wrong?

    The current assumptions that have driven the latest surges hoped that our man Karzai could be transformed into a benevolent leader. Perhaps, that is more hope than reality. Perhaps, we (or you) want Afghanistan to transform into a Jeffersonian democracy more than they do.


  9. MikeF et al

    A quibble: your use of "historical precedent" in place of measures and metrics individualized to each particular conflict. To me the issue isn't past precedent per se - one can always take cases, and examine them quantitatively, qualitatively, or both, etc, and probably (definitely?) learn. The problem with that, though, is every conflict is sui generis. (I suppose one could argue the above is a classic history versus political science exchange.) This is not to say there are no lessons to be learned from history; it is, rather, to say that focusing on the past might, in this instance, be less profitable than focusing on the present. So one returns to the question: what values on metrics would support the idea of "winning?" (I suppose one could argue that one devises metrics and conceptions of winning based on past conflicts, although I think such an argument is entirely accurate, nor especially damning.) What falsifiable hypotheses can be generated? What specifically would support the idea that Afghanistan is going well, or rebut said idea? Perhaps the problem is, alas, in my parenthetical - one needs a definition of winning in order to determine whether one is closer or farther from that goal. Yet, once more, assuming a constant and accepted definition of winning, what metrics should be examined, what values should be applied to those measures, etc, etc? How does one determine whether Afghanistan is improving or deteriorating? I like the Council of Colonels (I think) in "The Gamble": "We are not winning. Therefore, we are losing." That is a pure, Occam's Razor-type analysis. Granted, with respect to my point, it is unclear how the Council determined that we were not winning. But it has an elegance of parsimony, the likes of which ought perhaps to be emulated by those who devise and analyze metrics.


  10. ADTS,

    That just made my brain hurt :). Just like the supposed COIN vs CT debate, I don't like the history vs poly sci divide. I think that any camps and labels are limiting in these endeavors.

    That's why I was particular harsh on MK in the last post. It is frustrating to see legitimate critiques (Jason here; Gentile in others) immediately countered as you hate winning (paraphrased).

    I'm not particularly happy with the McLaughlin piece, but I made the decision to publish it because it is one stakeholder's perception. If this view is driving the decision makers, then it must be examined critically (which Jason, Carl Prine, Joshua Foust) all offered.

    On an aside, now Andrew Exum is hawking the Biden Plan! It is indeed a strange world that we live in.


  11. Mike:

    Sorry to make your brain hurt, especially on a holiday. :)

    On history versus political science, three quick thoughts. First, you're right - labels limit. Stephen Haber might be a good example he is, I think, nominally a historian, but from what (admittedly little) I know, seems to operate in the field of political science using appropriate econometrics. So what is one to call him? Second, my goal was essentially a heuristic one above all: history says everything is unique, political science says one learns only by using some variant of "the" scientific method and utilizing comparison. That's a gross and wrong oversimplification on many levels, admittedly - I was just aiming for a heuristic, not perfect descriptive accuracy. Third, this is probably an aside, but I think of political science as more of a polyglot hybrid discipline than, say, history. But then again, nothing prevents historians from "borrowing" to enhance their own work, either.

    For what it's worth, I think SWJ does a great job of permitting critical but polite commentary to occur. SWJ polices itself well and the level of argumentation is high. I'd say SWJ gets it very right much if not most of the time - opinions are offered and dissents offered as well, but the dissents are smart and rarely too impolite, and the discourse is a good one accordingly. It's pretty hard to say that about much of the rest of the blogosphere.

    I have some thoughts about both the McLaughlin piece and the comments made about it. Without (hopefully) being inappropriate, I'll decline to state them here because if I state them anywhere, it should be on SWJ - and I don't think I'll state them on SWJ because I'm somewhat ambivalent about what's been written so my thoughts are hard to formulate, and I haven't followed the thread closely enough (always a problem unless you've followed from the beginning).

    I like Abu M's blog, and comment occasionally, but have glanced over some of his posts, to the point that (and perhaps I should be really embarrassed by this) it escaped me that he is hawking the Biden Plan. I think SWJ and perhaps commenters at Abu M's blog (see one Gentile, G) have been good at knocking down Nagl's and Kilcullen's hyperbole: insurgency is at the graduate school level of war (so was WW II high school or was it college) and we have the power to transform whole societies (really? and at what cost?). And it was brought up, I think, that there may have been a contradiction between some of the COIN enthusiasts accepting the Afghanistan Surge but being quite hesitant about intervening in Libya (and elsewhere?). What else can I say? The blogosphere is an interesting place.

    Thanks for reading my post and commenting on it - I was (and still am) worried it was lacking in coherence, and as long as your brain merely hurt, rather than (say) suffered a severe stroke, I'm feeling alright.


  12. It's remarkable that I've been tagged here as a Pollyanna for suggesting that the situation is more complicated than either the McLaughlin piece or Jason's post captures. At no point did I suggest that we are clearly winning - only that the indicators are extremely mixed, and have a huge degree of regional (or more accurately, district to district) variability. I'm suspicious of sweeping generalizations on both sides that don't come with a heap of caveats.

    And Mike, if that was 'harsh', I appreciate you sticking to civilized discourse despite the dominance of bombastic vitriol on blogs.

    In answer to Gulliver's question - I can't talk about most of the stuff I'm referring to here, but it's not about aggregated (and therefore largely meaningless) quantitative metrics. It's holistic qualitative assessments of the political dynamics of districts and provinces and the performance of ANSF. There's some positive polling results as well, but given how problematic surveys in conflict zones are, I don't put a lot of stock in them.

    Some exemplars (which admittedly on their add up to much on their own) can be found in Rajiv Chandrasekaran's reports from the South, and the following from that bastion of ISAF boosterism, Al Jazeera:

    Mike - I don't put Karzai at the center of a successful political strategy, and where our political approach has worked, it has been less dependent on Kabul. Given the looming issue of Presidential term limits (along with many others), it would be folly to take a 'leader-centric' approach. If you're asking about precedents in Afghan history, there are some from earlier periods, but the last 30 years has changed too much to look for exact analogues. As I said above, I look instead to politics in the districts for insights.

    ADTS - it's nice to see you here again. I'm surprised though, that you've been swayed by the thin arguments of Gentile and the SWJ crowd. I'm consistently struck by the dearth of intellectual rigor in their arguments, and the incredibly myopic range of research that they draw on.

  13. MK - You and I have differing opinions on what a lot of the metrics, etc, mean towards "success" in Afghanistan. I use the scare quotes because I don't think success hasn't been well defined. But, yeah, this post doesn't capture all of the details involved, because it's a blog post. And unlike McLaughlin, I have a small body of work on this topic in the public sphere (almost exclusively here) and didn't feel the need to reiterate it. And while I did discuss some big picture issues of Afghanistan, this post was meant to lambaste the CAAT public affairs folks, who, if McLaughlin is a typical example, apparently don't know much about COIN. Which draws into question why on earth ISAF is employing them. I hope that the McLaughlin piece isn't indicative of their level of knowledge, but they sure shouldn't have let that piece out of their HQ. Because it does reflect on them.

  14. ADTS,

    See here.


    Don't be quick to discount Gentile. He's just looking at the problem from a different perspective.

    Also, see my thoughts here.

  15. Mike - thanks for the comments. I haven't been quick to dismiss COL Gentile. I engaged with him extensively on AM, and have read most of the papers on COIN that he's put out over the last few years, and read his comments on SWJ threads. I think his work more polemical than historical or social scientific (a term and concept he derides). He also seems to grossly misrepresent evidence to fit his argument - Karl Hack's paper on Malaya, for example.

    With regard to your SWJ post - I'd suggest that you expand your survey of this issue to look at non-US stabilization missions, since they are almost always run on fewer resources than US ones. UK, French and UN operations provide plenty of relevant lessons.

    I am rather surprised to see you list El Salvador as a COIN success. We kept the Salvadoran gov't from collapsing, but the FMLN remained pretty damned strong through the end of the Cold War. Given that it won a place in Salvadoran politics in the peace deal, won the presidential elections in 2009, and are the largest bloc in the Legislative Assembly (all anathema to US goals during the war) the outcome strikes me as mixed at best.

  16. Mike:

    I did actually read that thread, apparently - - albeit not closely enough, just with the apparent intent of posing a snarky question over what I perceived as a weasel word or two.


    I will concur somewhat about social science and Gentile. Granted, I could have set up what I wrote better - paragraph breaks would have been a good idea, to begin with - but I posed a basic question and was essentially looked over: (also look at the comment I posted above the one to which I link in this paragraph). I still think the question is a good one, even if perhaps overly pedantic and patronizingly didactic. Ricks touches upon it a bit in "Gamble," but I'd still like to know: exactly how was FM 3-24 doctrine formulated?


  17. MK: No doubt that article could be extended to include many non-American interventions. The purpose was merely conversational so that others can debate. As far as El Sal, I do see it as a success in a "least-bad" sense.

    Back to A'stan, I agree with you on the districts, but I think we could stay longer and do more with a smaller force (more VSO's and advisers and less Infantry brigades).

  18. Mike,

    Again, thanks for engaging. Understood about the brief article - I didn't mean to sound critical. I just think our field is, in general, myopic about case selection.

    On VSOs - if they were working, I might agree. Unfortunately, while some sites are going to plan, the reports I am hearing is that in too many cases implementation is not following doctrine. The formal guidance to focus on the politics first is being tossed aside in favor of standing up militias. Unfettered by the mechanisms of local control and responsiveness that were originally envisioned, the militias are turning into new sources of insecurity and instability, rather than addressing them.

    Again, not in all cases, but I hear that this applies to a significant proportion.

  19. ADTS - Very, very quickly. Or so I am told.

  20. MK,

    Earlier, I tried to sidestep the El Sal question. Gian caught me at SWJ. Here's my current thoughts. FYI, as I look towards a dissertation topic, if I decide to hold-off on Iraq, then I'll probably study the American intervention in the Guatemalan Civil War. I'm gonna refrain from discussing VSOs right now. A good buddy of mine is running the programs, and he needs more time and discretion.

    The first small war that I was immersed into was Guatemala. In 1998, I was given a weeklong tour by one of the leading generals while on a Christmas vacation. His son was my roommate at school. Years later, after my own war experiences, I began to fully understand what he had taught me about the level of violence and pacification required in order to quell an insurgency militarily.

    Contrastingly, I remember thinking that if it wasn’t for bananas and the Cold War, then we probably would have sided with the guerrillas whom were literally fighting for civil rights. But, at the time, we were absorbed with the theory that Communism was an existential threat and if one country fell, then they would all fall.

    As for the Central American civil wars, I think we’re just getting to the point in history where we can fully study them particularly as the generals and insurgents are getting older and willing to talk honestly to tell their story. Additionally, I’m waiting patiently for Jill Hazelton to finish her dissertation on El Sal, Oman, and Vietnam. It’s a good one.

    Here’s some brief notes to compare/contrast:


    1. The El Salvadorian government did not fall.

    2. The coffee continued to flow.

    3. Because of our limited involvement, American soldiers were not in the villages conducting COIN so they did not have to participate directly in the pacification bordering on atrocities in many villages. In sum, the blood is not directly on our hands. I know many will disagree with this statement and that’s okay.


    1. The plight of the Mayan peasant throughout Mexico, Central America, and South America is still unresolved. They are still second-class citizens to many degrees. I’d classify this as a transnational civil rights issue.

    2. The drug war and rise of Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) bleeding into the United States which overlaps and is interconnected with the civil rights issue.

    El Sal is a thoroughly wicked question and problem with many similarities to Afghanistan. The causal question will probably be “did US intervention in the latter stages of the conflict minimize or extend the violence?” The ultimate question that our government must consider is “what is the United States role in these affairs?"

  21. Mike,

    Again, thanks for the response. I am consistently impressed with your curiosity and civility.

    Bordering on atrocities? The massacres in Guatemala cost over 200K lives, and by their own estimation (as well as most scholars) constituted a genocide. Was that level of violence required to quell the insurgency? Of course not - it was a manifestation of extraordinary racism. If you haven't already, read the report of the Commission on the Clarification of History (a Guatemalan body) - the massacres were never even closely correlated with the areas of insurgent activity. And look at the kind of state that has resulted: unable to resist the territorial encroachment of Los Zetas.

    I have read the paper Hazelton presented at ISA. It was marked by straw man arguments and sweeping conclusions that were largely contradicted by the evidence she presented - and most bizarrely, which she acknowledges earlier in the paper as not supporting her hypothesis. Unless her thesis is a marked improvement on that work, I am puzzled by your admiration for her research.

    I more or less agree with your framing of the question, but might adjust it slightly to 'what is the most constructive role for the U.S. in these conflicts for American and global security?' Outcomes that amount to a 'beggar thy neighbor' security policy will (further) unravel the collective security regime that, despite its shortcomings, still benefits us enormously.

  22. MK,

    War and warfare are bigger than all of us, but through healthy discourse, sharing experiences, and rigorous debate, then perhaps we can all get a bit wiser.

    I mostly prefer thought pieces to inspire critical thinking rather than persuasion papers.

    Thanks for the discussion.

  23. Mike:

    Hopefully you're still checking this thread. A couple thoughts on your research program. None of this is meant to deter. I just, however, would ask through what discipline (e.g., history, political science, other? ) you would seek to pursue your research in? If political science, I'd probably try and "justify" your cases. This would probably entail two or three steps. One would be thinking through the cause-effect relationship - i.e., independent variables, intervening variables, and dependent variables - and concluding what values on what variables justify studying this, as opposed to another case.

    Second, it might be necessary to "situate" your work into the political science mainstream (or risk, possibly, having your work be considered "mere" military science) - I'd consider looking at Kalyvas, Arreguin-Toft, Merom and Elisabeth Wood (Yale) as contemporary political science dealing with insurgency. Wood has an article in the Annual Review of Political Science ( on the microprocesses of civil war; maybe it'd be useful, both on its own and as a guide to the literature.

    Third, it might make sense to look at a methodology text or two, which might make it easier to accomplish said goals. I'd recommend, as a starting point if nothing else, van Evera, "Guide to Methods for Students of Political Science." It has its problems, but it also has its virtues, too. If that is too easy or not on course enough for you, I'd recommend King, Keohane and Verba, "Designing Social Inquiry," Collier and Brady, "Rethinking Social Inquiry," and (while I haven't read it, it looks good), Bennett and George, "Case Studies..."

    Again, nothing meant to deter, just, rather, hopefully, to assist.

    Best, and hope you're still reading

    PS - MK, feel free to add, subtract, contradict, etc, please.

  24. Also, last line of first paragraph should read, "another - or other or additional - case or cases."


  25. Mike F:

    Upon reflection, I just thought of a different literature than the COIN/insurgency one that you might be able to plug your project/dissertation into: perhaps the business administration literature, on buy versus build (e.g., conventional/large versus SF/small)? I think you could probably still import that literature into a political science dissertation. I also think, more importantly, that it fits into my earlier comment, that you might (probably will?) have to "fold" your project into the context of some larger (as in, large) research agenda. Again, intended to help not hinder, and MK (or anyone else), please feel free to jump in anytime.


  26. Hi ADTS,

    Thanks much. I'm very familiar with Arreguin-Toft. I will look at the other suggestions. Again, I appreciate the advice. My program will probably be dual History-IR if I elect to go. I've still got to make that personal decision and commitment. I'm also looking at doing "nation-building" work in North Carolina and keeping my efforts local. We'll see. I'll keep y'all informed. Part of the short Op-Eds that I'm doing at SWJ is to create a forum for better understanding of small wars, i.e. destroying some of the assumptions we held as law/fact over the last decade.

  27. Mike:

    Sounds (real) good to me.




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