Monday, February 6, 2012

be-SoT-ted: COIN tactics and strategy through the lens of ends, ways, means

The last year or so of the COIN debate has seen a modicum of consensus that COIN is a strategy of tactics, a concept that I can attribute first to Gian Gentile (unless someone has another, older source for the statement). Gian has written about here, here, and to an extent here (.pdf, starting on page 21). And plenty of other places and by plenty of other people. I've even used the term myself from time to time. But lately I've been questioning the validity of this point of view.

My main beef with COIN as a strategy of tactics (I'm going to go ahead and call it SoT from now on) is that all military strategy is made up in part as a summation of its tactics. In the ends-ways-means calculus of strategy, a large chunk of the "ways" section is the aggregation of tactical actions based on operational concepts and/or TTPs. For example, the strategy for the invasion of Iraq (flawed as it may have been) was Ends = regime change; Means = 180K troops or whatever it was, organized as it was; and Ways = at least partially the cumulative maneuver (air, mounted, indirect, dismounted, etc) tactical actions executed in a sequence that creates the desired Ends. This is an elegant way of saying it, but all military strategies are in part SoT, in a non-pejorative sense. You can't have strategic success without tactical successes. COIN, IW, UW, maneuver warfare are all common in this regard.

There's a bit of a semantic argument in all of this as well, better made by Gulliver than myself, especially on the pervasive use of the term strategy as a synonym for "plan" instead of the ends-ways-means construct. All around we need to clean up how we use terms that have meaning. In spite of using the term often, I've never read Gian use ends-ways-means to make the pejorative SoT argument, which I think is a shame as that's how we conceptualize strategy in the U.S. My initial instinct is that if ends, ways, and means are not aligned (ends are not achievable, means are not enough, ways not the right tool) then you run into a true SoT problem. Afghanistan may be a good case study for such a label - commanders focused on a set of tactics (ways) that may or may not be capable of achieving (arguably) already un-achievable ends, not least because the means they were given weren't enough to use effectively wage the ways they had already determined. So yeah, in Afghanistan COIN probably is a SoT due to the misalignment of strategic elements.

On the other hand, Iraq may be a study in COIN as element of a proper strategy. Ends were reasonably achievable, means were adequate given the population density of Iraq, and the ways were universally applied to the lowest levels. Whether by design or luck, the Iraq military strategy in 2007-08 seemed to align. COIN tactics were a major element of the ways used, although COIN in a population-centric sense did not encompass all of the tactics used during the Surge. Iraq seems to be an example not of COIN as SoT, but a military strategy (ends-ways-means aligned) that contained COIN tactics as an element of ways, but also included CT tactics and maneuver/conventional warfare tactics, as well as non- and quasi-military ways associated with taking advantage of the plight of the Iraqi people and the Sunni shift in allegiance that started before the Surge.

I realize I'm just scratching the surface of this topic and have simplified a few concepts here. Hopefully I'll find the time and grey cells to explore this more - hopefully with your help. But for now I disagree that COIN is inherently a strategy of tactics any more than any category of tactics can be labeled a strategy. Those tactics may be part of a military strategy that logically connects ends, ways, and means. On the other hand, COIN tactics may be the commander's ways in an illogical or inaccurate strategic equation and thus we may see COIN as a SoT. One can take issue (and many have) with commanders choosing pop-COIN as their ways irrespective of their ends and means, but that is different from declaring COIN itself a SoT. The fault lies with the men and women in command who use COIN when they shouldn't, not with a set of TTPs that may be useful in other circumstances on other days.


  1. "Focus on strategy" has become, as of late, a cop-out response.

    Many are quick to claim that the US has no strategy, or that the latest strategic review has "no strategy". But how many propose an alternate strategy in its wake (aside from vague allusions to "concentrate on objectives, ways, means and ends")

    Most strategists have no idea what they want. But they're quick to claim that others are wrong, or simply don/t have it. They/re little more than nagging housewives.

  2. I'm not terribly sure if that's aimed at me or not...

    Regardless, why must commentators and pundits offer alternative strategies? Is there no value in pointing out the flaws in assumptions or creation of strategy? I don't see that highlighting problems in a strategy necessitates presenting an alternative version. A proper critique would suss out what the writer thinks the strategy should look like anyway. Plus, not all of us get paid to write national or regional strategies - that takes time!

  3. Without speaking to the bulk of your essay, Jason, the notion of a "strategy of tactics" predates Gian Gentile by decades and has been bandied about by a Who's Who of strategic savants.

    They include Colin Gray (Gian's strongest influence, I suspect, from "Irregular Enemies and the Essence of Strategy") and Mackubin Thomas Owens but it was used in murky COIN wars initially long ago by Andrew Krepinevich in reference to U.S. operations in Vietnam.

    And it's not so much that COIN (by which I assume you mean any counter-insurgent operations) must be a process of tactics and operations driving a strategy. Obviously C.E. Callwell, the 1940 Small Wars Manual and other august publications spent some time discussion strategy and messy wars amongst the people, operations that didn't involve winning hearts and minds through a generational struggle.