Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 1, Issue 1  /  

Assumptions – A Fatal Oversight

Assumptions – A Fatal Oversight Assumptions – A Fatal Oversight
To cite this article: T. X. Hammes “Assumptions – A Fatal Oversight”. Infinity Journal, Issue No. 1, Winter 2010, pages 4-6.

There has been a lively discussion in the open press concerning the appropriate strategy for Afghanistan. Stimulated by repeated top level administration reviews (Bush 2008, Obama 2009, proposed Obama Dec 2010) the chattering classes have spilled barrels of ink discussing what an effective strategy might look like. In fact, “Afghanistan strategy” results in over 28 million hits on Google. Yet most commentators – and to be fair, most administration personnel – are not really speaking about strategy but rather about what goals are appropriate for Afghanistan. This means that most of the discussion is simply wasted. A discussion of goals avoids the difficult task of developing a genuine strategy.

Professor Eliot Cohen has provided a thoughtful outline for strategy. He starts with the requirement to make assumptions about the environment and the problem. Once the strategist has stated his assumptions, then he can consider the ends (goals), ways (the how) and means (resources) triangle. This is where most discussion of strategy stops. However, Cohen states an effective strategy must also include prioritization of goals, sequencing of actions (since a state will rarely have sufficient resources to pursue all its goals simultaneously) and finally, a theory of victory (“How does this end?”)

Unfortunately, recent U.S. “strategic” documents and the strategic discussions concerning ongoing conflicts have failed to meet Cohen’s standards. The United States National Security Strategy May 2010 lists a series of important goals (ends) and declares that the nation will use a multi-lateral approach (ways) when possible.[i] Unfortunately, the strategy does not go on to outline the means the United States will apply to each goal nor does it prioritize those goals. The section titled “The World as It Is” provides a very broad brush overview of the environment, but addresses none of the key assumptions critical to developing a strategy. In essence, the National Security Strategy is an aspirational document that provides a good overview of the administration’s goals for strengthening America both domestically and internationally. It also indicates the Administration prefers to use multi-lateral approaches whenever possible. However, it is not a strategy.

In a similar fashion, the United States National Defense Strategy, June 2008 provides a succinct list of five broad objectives.[ii] However, it does not list assumptions, prioritize goals or discuss the ways the United States will use to achieve those objectives. Further, the goals themselves are so broad as to provide little guidance for the execution. The document states:

“We will achieve our objectives by shaping the choices of key states, preventing adversaries from acquiring or using WMD, strengthening and expanding alliances and partnerships, securing U.S. strategic access and retaining freedom of action, and integrating and unifying our efforts.”[iii]

Unfortunately, it remains silent about how we will achieve these objectives. The 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) is a little better, in that it does identify some of the ways the administration plans to use, but never addresses the means. Thus, although sometimes called a strategy document, the QDR is really a statement of goals.

In fact, no one really expects these documents to be genuine strategy documents. Instead, they serve to outline the goals an administration considers important – even if unachievable. While this does no harm in the glossy public documents each administration produces, the approach has infected the broader discussions of strategy within the administration, media, Congress and academia. Most often strategic discussions in these areas are simply arguments about goals (ends) with little discussion of the other aspects of a strategy.


Perhaps what has caused the United States the most trouble recently has been the utter failure to discuss the assumptions behind recent major strategic decisions to take military action. The Department of Defense defines an assumption as:

“A supposition on the current situation or a presupposition on the future course of events, either or both assumed to be true in the absence of positive proof, necessary to enable the commander in the process of planning to complete an estimate of the situation and make a decision on the course of action.”[iv]

In short, in every plan there will be key factors that are unknown to the planners. For instance, we can’t know for certain how a population will react to a U.S. invasion or how much of the international development assistance promised at a conference will actually be delivered. However, to continue planning, the planners must make an educated guess – an assumption – about such key unknowns. While some may see this as a bureaucratic process of little value, recent events show assumptions are central to all planning. For instance, General Tommy Franks assumed the Iraqi government would remain in place after we removed Saddam. Thus Iraqis would deal with the problems of getting their nation back on its feet after the war. And because they would, the United States could invade with a much smaller force than that recommended by the previous CentCom Commander, General Anthony Zinni. In contrast, Zinni assumed the government would collapse and he would need large number of U.S. forces (380,000) to provide security and services.[v] This single, unexamined assumption dramatically altered the war plan.

Even when it became clear the Iraqi government had collapsed, U.S. decision makers did not react promptly. As Gordon and Trainor noted in Cobra II, their history of the planning for the invasion of Iraq, “The plan approved by the president heavily relied on existing Iraqi police and military forces to guarantee security post-Saddam. There was no discussion of a fallback plan.”[vi] This highlights one of the critical factors in planning – questioning what happens if your assumptions are wrong and planning how to respond. If the assumptions are unexamined, the planners will not evaluate the impact of being wrong and prepare accordingly.

Primary Assumption: These are wicked problems

Since almost all conflicts are wicked problems, experts will disagree about the definition of the problem and planning assumptions. Further, there is a high probability the first understanding of the problem and its subsequent solution will be wrong.[vii] Thus, it is critical that planners think through the implications if their assumptions prove false. Of course, not all assumptions have the same risk. For instance, the risk of assuming the Iraqi force of ex-patriots would assist in providing security was insignificant. Although the assumption proved untrue, it was largely irrelevant since there were fewer than 1,000 of them. On the other hand, assuming the Iraqi bureaucrats and police would remain in place had enormous downside risk, since the Coalition would have to fill 100,000s of billets essential to the operation of the Iraqi state.

In Afghanistan, neither the Bush nor the Obama Administration stated their strategic assumptions. Even after the Obama Administration completed its 2009 review and General McChystal’s evaluation was leaked, there was no clear statement of assumptions. In this case, the proof was left to the reader.

Based on the public statement of goals and the documents leaked in the fall, the Obama administration’s 2009 strategy seemed to be based on seven assumptions.

A democratic, centralized Afghan government is desirable and feasible.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai can form a government that most Afghans recognize as legitimate.

Public opinion in the U.S. will approve the commitment of sizable U.S. armed forces in Afghanistan for several more years.

Current counterinsurgency practices will win the hearts and minds of most Afghan people.

The International Security Assistance Force will provide the resources necessary to conduct population-centric counterinsurgency (COIN) campaigns.

Afghanistan is significantly more important to American security than Pakistan.[viii]

Pakistan will see the Taliban and AL Qaeda as a threat and fully cooperate in U.S. efforts to defeat them.

Even a casual examination of these assumptions would call into question the feasibility of the 2009 strategy. The much harsher examination of the political and military struggle in Afghanistan that has begun to take place in public and governmental forums has revealed the fallacy behind several of these assumptions.

During this article’s gestation, the Washington Post printed excerpts from Bob Woodward’s new book and, if his reporting is accurate, the actual key assumptions the Administration used were somewhat different.

“The new timetable relied on four ‘key assumptions,’ none of which the strategy review had suggested was likely. The assumptions were that Taliban insurgents would be ‘degraded’ enough to be ‘manageable’ by the Afghans; that the Afghan national army and police would be able to secure the U.S. gains; that the Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan would be ‘eliminated or severely degraded’; and that the Afghan government led by Hamid Karzai could stabilize the country.”[ix]

Woodward’s account actually highlights the fact our strategists do not use assumptions effectively. Three of four assumptions framed the operational environment rather than the strategic one. All four focused purely on the Afghanistan fight without considering the broader regional strategy or even the position of the U.S.A’s International Security Assistance Force allies. The result is a mismatch between the strategic goals and the probable outcomes. Of particular concern, the plan was initiated even though “the review suggested” that the assumptions were not true.


Assumptions are critical to defining your understanding of the problem. Only by stating the assumptions can you insure all participants understand how you see the situation. Failure to do so precludes a coherent, thoughtful discussion of the plan, since the participants are like the proverbial blind men touching the elephant. Each has a mental image of the problem he is discussing that has little or no relation to the vision of the others. They are literally not talking about the same thing. Further, even if the assumptions are stated, the discussion must continue to understand which are critical to the plan and which are not.

Unfortunately, assumptions have rarely been part of the recent discussions concerning strategy, either in the media or government decision making circles. The few exceptions — such as when Vice President Cheney assured Americans that our troops would be greeted with flowers by the Iraqis (Cheney to Tim Russert on Meet the Press, 14 Sep 2003) — were done more as part of public relations than as part of a serious strategic discussion.

A critical element of any discussion of strategy is to derive assumptions and then propose them. This ensures everyone in the discussion is trying to solve the same problem. This is the first step in dealing with assumptions. However, the process does not end there. Assumptions must be constantly re-examined to see if they remain valid. In addition, planners must think through the impact if a specific assumption proves invalid. Depending on the severity of the impact, it may be essential to develop branch plans to deal with the potential negative outcomes. In fact, if the assumptions used for planning turn out to be too far from fact, it will be necessary to admit the understanding of the problem was fundamentally wrong and therefore a completely different course of action is required. In short, as amply demonstrated in recent conflicts, an incorrect assumption can completely overturn a plan. A series of incorrect assumptions can lead to strategic failure.


[i] National Security Strategy, May 2010,, accessed 20 Sep 2010.
[ii] National Defense Strategy, June 2008, p.6,, accessed 20 Sep 2010.
[iii] National Defense Strategy, June 2008, p. 13,, accessed 20 Sep 2010.
[iv] DoD Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, 12 Apr 2001 as amended through April 2010, p. 39,, accessed 20 Sep 2010.
[v] Michael R. Gordon and Bernard E. Trainor, Cobra II: The Inside Story of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq, Pantheon Books, NY, 2006, p. 26.
[vi] Ibid, p. 162.
[vii] For a concise and very useful discussion of wicked problems, see Tradoc Pamphlet 525-5-500 Commander’s Appreciation and Campaign Design, pp. 5-12,, accessed 4 Oct 2010.
[viii] These six assumptions were derived by John Collins, William McCallister and this author for a November 2009 article in Naval Institute Proceedings titled “Afghanistan: Connecting Strategy and Assumptions.”
[ix] Bob Woodward, “Military thwarted president seeking choice in Afghanistan,” Washington Post, 27 Sep 2010, p. 1.