Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 6, Issue 3  /  

Teaching Your Enemy to Win

Teaching Your Enemy to Win Teaching Your Enemy to Win
To cite this article: Betz, David and Stanford-Tuck, Hugo, “Teaching Your Enemy to Win”, Infinity Journal, Volume 6, Number 3, Winter 2019, pages 16-22.

‘Strategy trumps tactics’ is arguably as near as our field comes to a golden rule, a permanently operative injunction for soldiers and scholars alike that is applicable to all wars wherever and whenever we choose to look. The concept is variously rendered—Infinity readers will have heard it a hundred times. For instance, in the mid-1980s Allan Millett and Williamson Murray concluded an essay on the ‘Lessons of War’ with the line, ‘Mistakes in operations and tactics can be corrected, but political and strategic mistakes live forever.’[i] Its most frequently quoted encapsulation, however, is undoubtedly that attributed to Sun Tzu who said something to the effect that ‘strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory; tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.’[ii] Further explication of a basic, time honoured concept is unnecessary.

Which makes it all the more interesting (or curious, appalling, infuriating: choose one according to your own mood), when we observe the current state of strategic affairs. All the wars of the Global War on Terror (GWOT, howsoever we may call it now), and the overarching GWOT itself, so precisely fit the mould of ‘noise before defeat’ that one wonders if Sun Tzu had a crystal ball. To recap:

  • The 2003 invasion of Iraq triggered a sectarian civil war, inside an incipient region-wide schismatic conflict, wrapped in a global insurgency that is clearly a strategic debacle for the major Western powers, not to mention those living close to or in the Middle East. Islamic State, a particularly hideous foe to arise from this bloody cauldron, has been beaten back, but no doubt a successor will emerge—assuredly more virulently righteously deranged.
  • The West’s almost two decades long adventure in Afghanistan has been a colossal waste of blood and treasure.[iii] The country remains near the very bottom of the international human development index and at the top of the international perception of corruption rankings. The Afghan police and army cannot effectively police the country or hold their own against a resurgent Taliban that is now as strong as ever. At the time of writing news reports are saying that the senior US commander there was just nearly assassinated in an attack that took out a reputed Afghan police general plus the intelligence chief of Kandahar province, as well as wounded the regional governor.[iv]

The obvious question, then, is ‘why?’ How did this happen? What is it which has made our strategic efforts so fruitless? It is often supposed that the problem is a lack of strategy—or a surfeit of bad strategy, at any rate. Another variant of this thesis holds that the West is tactically proficient but strategically deficient.[v] That would be bad, if true, albeit putting us in good company; after all, Livy records even Hannibal the Great being rebuked by his lieutenant Maharbal after the Carthaginians wiped out a Roman army at Cannae, 216 BC for the same sin. ‘You know how to win victory’, he said, ‘[but] you do not how to use it.’[vi]

It is not true, though. In actuality, our tactics are also quite poor. We argue that two reasons, amongst possible others, are foremost. First, strategy is irrelevant in our current context because policy so utterly dominates tactics—a situation arrived at by a combination of:

  • social drivers, including notably a heightened leadership perception of war as essentially a tool of ‘consequence‘ or ‘risk-management’ rather than for the pursuit of victory per se;[vii]
  • which are especially pertinent in offensive liberal wars, or ‘wars of choice’, such as have typified the landscape of security affairs since the end of the Cold War;[viii] and,
  • both the above being aggravated by advancements in information technology that expose the ‘home front’ to formerly distant ‘small wars’ in ways that consistently imperil political will, while also enabling senior commanders to dictate low-level decision-making in ways that defeat the possibility of tactical initiative, boldness, and pursuit.

Second, because we operate in this manner, we force our enemy into an adversarial predator-prey relationship at the beginning of any conflict in which we, in effect, in an evolutionary manner progressively teach our enemy how to win. The British Army, for instance, boasts that it has the oldest and best Infantry Battle School in the world. And that may be true, but it is not located in the Brecon Beacons, Wales where its soldiers train to be tactical leaders; it is located where London sends its soldiers not to fight and win, but just to fight and ‘hold the ring’ for a time while some promised sub-strategic/non-kinetic political accommodation fails to materialise.[ix]

A Hollow Fist In a Khaki Glove

Strategy is supposed to be the ‘bridge’ between policy and tactics, or in other words to connect political ‘purpose’ with military ‘means’ through strategic ‘ways’. It is meant to ensure that military power is applied towards ends which force can plausibly effectuate. In the words of Colin Gray, ‘one has a strategy, which is done by tactics.’[x] The metaphor implies a dialogue between statesmen and commanders, the object of which is to achieve a clear goal setting by the former, and appropriately bounded and orientated means on the part of the latter—an honest and objective mutual understanding of the sort of war on which they are embarking, for a start. The dialogue is unequal, in democratic states, and always a messy back and forth because the statesman may interject himself in any aspect of war-making that he wishes, though normally it is imprudent to do so—whereas the soldier must stay in his lane of professional competence.[xi] Getting this right is far from easy.

Sadly, civil-military relations, as the strategic dialogue may be described, are now far from the correct ideal. Statesmen are very unclear on goals—indeed, to take the ever-shifting narrative of the now 17-year Afghanistan war as an exemplar, they are sometimes downright deceptive with their own populations, their allies, their commanders, and even themselves. It is not hard to read profound frustration with political leadership between the lines of the Canadian General Andrew Leslie’s lament on the state of affairs:

“I often get asked… why are you there? We’re there because you sent us. As a soldier, it’s not my job to explain why you sent us. Soldiers don’t do that. We tell you what we’re doing, we tell you how we’re doing it, but we should not be in the position of explaining to the people of Canada why we’re there. The responsibility for that lies with the political leadership and those who sent us." [xii]

‘Why?’ is always the most fundamental question and, nowadays, it is frequently unanswered, it is perhaps even unanswerable. It could well be argued that it will remain unanswerable in perpetuity until we lose the fear and shame we feel towards linking a conflict directly to the national self-interest. It is also arguable that because the national self-interest is often inextricably bound up with humanitarian principles that it is an enlightened self-interest which should add weight to any argument in its favour. Lord Palmerston, the politician who dominated British foreign policy at the height of its imperial power, including two stints as Prime Minister from 1855-58 and 1859-65, is reputed to have quipped sagely that, ‘whenever I hear the words “something must be done” I know that something stupid is about to happen.’ The unhappy reality, though, is that nearly all of the West’s wars for a generation at least have begun from an implicit answer to the question ‘why?’ that amounts to no more than: well, something must be done.[xiii] More often than not the something that is available is military force, irrespective of the actual utility of force in the context of the problem at hand.

Lawrence Freedman remarked over a decade ago that the ‘management of [the] tension between liberal ends and illiberal means is at the heart of many problems of contemporary strategy.’[xiv] This is, in our view, quite true, but also something of an understatement. The liberal state engaged in a ‘war of choice’ brings along with it all the predictable values and urges that a determined and ruthless opponent requires to defeat it—such as the desire to limit conflict only to combatants and to spare them as well as civil society generally from harm (even to ‘develop’ a people, while fighting amongst it at the same time), to regularise war as much as possible and to legalise its conduct in all aspects. The ‘problem’ of contemporary strategy, really, is in fact more like a stake in its heart.

Information technology further complicates matters in a couple of significant ways. On the grand strategic level, the time-honoured technique of politically managing the vagaries of small wars has been to keep them simmering along just below the threshold of public attention. There has never been a time when imperial forces, such as those which Palmerston commanded, were immune to tactical setbacks. Pick a painting on any wall in the Officers’ Mess of any old British regiment to find the evidence of battles hard fought and won at great cost, or simply lost and forgotten.

The difference now is that the degree and immediacy to which our lives are increasingly intertwined with those of distant others—economically, politically and culturally—in ways that erase the distinction between inside and outside, has magnified exponentially. There are no longer distant events that do not potentially impinge in real-time on people everywhere, notably amongst the home population.[xv] It used to be that Western populations were insulated from small wars by distance, by solid frontiers, and by a superiority of conventional armaments, but this is no longer the case. That is what has driven the shift in strategic studies from more of a preoccupation with material combat power to a greater concern with narrative, strategic communications, and even a ‘virtual dimension’ of conflict that supposedly supersedes its tangible layers.[xvi]

On the sub-strategic level, the counterintuitive effect of digitisation that was supposed to make wars fast, decisive, and cheap by empowering the most high-tech capable armies to operate more nimbly, to make them more agile, and able to achieve more with less has been quite the opposite. The command apparatus of the most high-tech armies is more top heavy than ever, certainly no more agile, and produces good decisions no more reliably than before. The syllogism ‘knowledge is power’ remains true but only when it is the sum of information that is well understood and effectively used, else it is nothing more than poorly used data. In practice this is often the case, as a main result of technological advancement has been the enhancement of the ability of senior commanders and distant headquarters to intervene in local command decisions, to militate against and occasionally decisively countermand on-the-spot judgment. Examples of this are legion in the literature on contemporary wars, but this vignette from the United States Marines operations in Helmand, Afghanistan in 2010 is particularly apposite:

“Day Three in Marjah. The Forward Air Controller, Ben Willson, was almost having a nervous breakdown. I hadn’t seen him sleep since we’d landed. I hadn’t seen him anywhere other than the cold central corridor of the central police station, hunched over, fixated on the chunky laptop that showed him what the drones above us were filming… What drove Ben to the verge of that nervous breakdown was that he requested up to forty air strikes a day but almost all were denied. The few approvals that came through took so long—one took two hours, by which the planes had run out of fuel and flown away—that the little figures he saw on the laptop screen laying IEDs simply escaped. [He] like all the other forward air controllers in Afghanistan, had to go through five levels of approval for an air strike, including a lawyer and ending with the general and his staff.”[xvii]

Instead of a nimbler command system able to respond swiftly to events in a bottom-up manner with strong local initiative, the reality is more the opposite with local initiative squelched by a command hierarchy obsessed with what crews have described as ‘Predator porn’[xviii] or ‘Kill TV’. The result is armed forces that possess all the outward appearances of strength—equipment, uniformity, manpower, training, and so on—which are actually severely handicapped by a constipated command and control system.

Darwinian Competition: The Ecologist and The Doctor

A doctor engaged in tackling the problem of treating a bacterial infection that is resistant to antibiotics would recognise completely the issues faced by a military commander in this scenario. Too harsh an antibiotic and you risk damaging the patient, exposing them to a different suite of problems. Too weak or too small an amount of antibiotic used, and you will not kill the infection. The bacteria that are left behind spawn further bacteria that have inherited the tools necessary for survival. The doctor views this as a problem to be addressed through a more intelligent use of drugs as but one part of treating an infection, attempting to get so far ahead of the bacteria as to render moot its capacity to evolve. An ecologist would view the same phenomenon as an integral part of the Darwinian nature of the natural world; perpetual, incremental adaptation, and the survival of the fittest. We should seek to think more like the medical scientist.

Political hesitation, lack of strategic clarity, and a tentative approach to committing and then employing the use of force create the perfect environment in which to train your enemy to advance their capabilities in an evolutionary manner. The insurgency in Helmand in particular, and in Afghanistan more generally, is in some ways a lesson in how not to progress a campaign. British soldiers were deployed to Helmand without a clear aim or a clear understanding of how the myriad of aims were to be achieved.[xix] This lack of political clarity led to military commanders who were unsure of with what they were tasked and a subsequent decision to not commit anything like the requisite number of troops to achieve a victory.

The British Royal Armoured Corps have a saying which has become a truism for using the power of a main battle tank: ‘Clout, don’t dribble’. An American variant of this was recently invoked by LGen (ret.) H.R. McMaster, formerly President Trump’s National Security Advisor, recounting the ‘rules of thumb’ that his armoured cavalry troop had put to effect in the Battle of 73 Easting, a key engagement of the Persian Gulf War 1990-91: ‘if it takes a toothpick, use a baseball bat—don’t give the enemy a fighting chance—overmatch and overwhelm the enemy as quickly as possible.’[xx] The point here is not, as may be superficially supposed, simply to use the maximum force; it is rather a statement of the primacy of moral, or ‘psychological’, effects in battle and a reminder of the decisive importance of pursuing an enemy that has been shocked into incohesion all the way to his defeat.

McMaster cited the World War II American general Ernest Harmon, a key figure in the history of US armour, as the source of this inspiration, but he might as well have credited Ardant du Picq’s classic battle studies.[xxi] In other words it is an old idea, rooted in military thought going back well over a century, at least, and in many ways an excellent maxim for the use of military force writ large. Imagine, then, if you wanted to create the best, most effective adversary you could. In the pursuit of this aim you could do a lot worse than to begin your campaign against this enemy with too few men and without a clear purpose. Your forces would be unable (through lack of numbers and through the opacity of the mission) to effectively adhere to the master principle of war: selection and maintenance of the aim. The force you employed would be faced with too many enemies to fight over too large a battlespace. A myriad of small, vicious fire fights would teach your rapidly learning adversary how you operated.[xxii]

Moreover, when and how you chose to end fights would teach this enemy how to exploit your habits to his own ends. Indirect fire and air delivered munitions are by their very method of delivery and greater target effect less discriminating than a person with a rifle or a grenade. Yet they have become a method by which military commanders can buy out the perceived risks of committing more men to the fight—ironically, in practice, out of a surplus of concern for casualties the liberal democratic state at war fights with weapons that are more destructive than they might otherwise. This is not a new story, by any means, but the ‘destroying-the-village-to-save-it’ dilemma continues in contemporary operations. One well-publicised example was the 2011 wiping out of the Afghan village of Tarok Kolache by 25 tonnes of rockets and artillery in order not to lose the ‘momentum’ of ISAF forces in the area.[xxiii]

Yet early on in the Afghan conflict the Taliban had worked all this out—they had evolved. Numerous, broadly independent Taliban commanders had learned the keys to tactical success, which in turn have led to success in the conflict. Those lessons were to initiate the firefight, absorb or deflect the initial storm of returning fire, and then maintain a harassing presence until the NATO-force ground commander was forced to use his lesser discriminating assets to make his ambushers take cover for a sufficient period to extract himself. The tactic very effectively demoralises—one sees this obviously in the myriad published veteran’s accounts of the war, which share in common a progressive wearying bewilderment of soldiers and commanders by it. The young British officer Patrick Hennessey, for instance, recounted the following scene, the last phase of a contact that took the form outlined above, in this case terminated by the need to pull back to regroup and withdraw a casualty by helicopter:

“Pull back from the buildings we’d fought into and held for four torrid hours, pull back from the positions we’d charged through that morning and, with the overwatch of the British units on the high ground in the north who had done next to nothing all day, pull wearily all the way back to the start-line. Pull back over ground we’d lost a third of the company group taking. Pull back over ground we’d been shot and blown up by both enemy and our own side alike on, pull back in one steady, demoralised trudging hour over what it had taken us twelve to take. …Martin summed pretty much everything up in his hilariously angry response to the repeated buzzing questions of the Number Two Company sentries. ‘Amber 21 this is Amber 60A. I’ve just had the hardest day of my life. Fuck off and leave us alone. Out!’”[xxiv]

The tactic, it probably goes without saying, tends also to upset the civil population whose towns and crops are blasted in the apparently fruitless fighting.

Figure 1: Western Force and Adversary Predator-Prey Relationship (Accelerated Natural Selection)

The classic insurgent ‘judo throw’ is to cause the government security forces to alienate themselves from the people by provoking them into blistering combats amongst the population. Whether or not this situation is avoidable is beside the point—the problem is that our tactics exacerbate the problem. The thinking has now pervaded the collective DNA of western forces, and a risk averse deployment posture is now the accepted norm. Overly restrictive force protection measures and insufficiently permissive rules of engagement at the start of an operation create this paradigm. The enemy forces and our own are locked in an adversarial predator–prey relationship that accelerates the evolution of both groups (see Figure 1). The analogy with nature is unavoidable and stark.

What the graph illustrates is the relative speed at which adaptation occurs. The adversary starts at a comparative disadvantage in capability terms (here capability can mean anything from equipment to tactics to numbers) and yet learns fast. This initial time window (the bottom left corner of the graph) is the opportunity for western forces to drive home their advantages and make significant gains. Indeed, should the political objective and strategy have been well enough crafted, the armed force will have achieved its aim and be on the way home before the lines cross, ideally at the point where the adversary’s capability has been beaten to a nadir.

The UK’s 2000 intervention in Sierra Leone in support of a beleaguered UN mission that had been working to restore peace in the country after a civil war, is a relatively good example. In that case, although there was a degree of lack of clarity in purpose in the Cabinet initially, the operation was ultimately well conducted and swiftly concluded—'mission creep’ was avoided and the British public, with whom the operation had not registered highly, despite several sharp combats including one major engagement to rescue eleven soldiers of the Royal Irish Regiment who had been taken hostage by the Revolutionary United Front, was generally positive in its view of the war, or at least unperturbed by it. Prime Minister Tony Blair was very pleased.[xxv]

However, the longer the western force is in the fight the more opportunity there is for the adversary to adapt. Again, the Afghanistan war is a superb example. As one senior ISAF commander summed up the conflict in a 2010 interview, by which time the writing was already clearly on the wall, “We entered Afghanistan after September 11 for one limited reason—to get Bin Laden and punish those who attacked us and those who sheltered them. And then we just… stayed.”[xxvi] Part of the problem is that smaller, less formal organisations are by their nature able to adapt more quickly; another is that anti-status quo insurgents are by definition highly incentivised to improvise, innovate, and adapt, whereas conventional armies are less so.[xxvii] This is magnified by the rate at which the less capable will be killed—a harsh but effective training regime.

The outcome is that after the initial period, the western force and the adversary are locked into a perpetual struggle with neither side able to seize an advantage significant enough to force a victory. This clearly plays to the strengths of the adversary, ‘we have the watches, they have the time’ as the saying goes. The population amongst whom the fighting occurs as well as the public of the intervening nations becomes exhausted by the emotional effort required to sustain the conflict. This has been the leitmotif of the Afghanistan war for most of the contributing nations to ISAF. For example, a Canadian study concluded of the information campaign in support of the conflict that the ‘government failed to connect on an emotional level [with Canadians]. As a consequence, they won some minds but too few hearts.’[xxviii]

An even more sobering indictment may be observed in the memoirs of Major General John Cantwell, an Australian officer with thirty-eight years of service encompassing three wars from Operation Desert Storm in 1991, through Iraq in 2006, and Afghanistan in 2010 where he headed the Australian contingent. He had been hospitalised afterwards suffering from post-traumatic stress, powered at root by a gnawing doubt:

“As I paid a final salute at the foot of yet another flag-draped coffin loaded into the belly of an aircraft bound for Australia, I found myself questioning if the pain and suffering of our soldiers and their families were worth it. I wondered if the deaths of any of those fallen soldiers made any difference. I recoiled from such thoughts, which seemed disrespectful, almost treasonous. I had to answer in the affirmative, or risk exposing all my endeavours as fraudulent. I had to believe it was worth it. But the question continues to prick at my mind. I don’t have an answer.”

Imagine a way of war that causes even the most senior commanders to worry ‘what is the point?’ to the point of hospitalisation—a way of war, moreover, which through one’s own efforts leaves the enemy stronger at the end than at the beginning. Actually, there is no need to imagine such a thing.


The stabilisation orthodoxy which sees Western states intervening abroad militarily in pursuit of ends, almost always ill-defined, that military power has hardly a chance of effectuating has to be challenged. The problem, as we have discussed it so far, primarily in terms of tactics and strategy, is that it fatally compromises both, but especially tragically the latter. Time after time, governments paint themselves into a rhetorical corner from which no amount of ‘strategic communications’ can liberate them. When forced to confront the thorny issues, usually the ‘why are we there?’ question, or even worse it’s ‘is it worth it?’ cousin, ministers tend to be vigorous—framing wars of choice as values-driven fights, even existential ones, that it is essential to win. The trouble is that Western publics on the whole do not buy such arguments anymore, if ever they did; moreover, they see the obvious disjuncture between self-evidently economy-of-force-driven operations and international political grandstanding and believe their eyes accordingly.

Notwithstanding any particular tactics, some would argue, the underlying causes of the ‘infections’ that give rise to the world’s many heart-wrenching crises exist and need to be ameliorated. Be this as it may, though, the humanitarian impulse ought, frankly, as Palmerston would have urged, be questioned carefully before any action is undertaken. A key thing to ponder would be: who is responsible for it? Is economic hardship, ethnic or sectarian disenfranchisement, or gender equality in this or that part of the world a matter of professional concern to the soldier?

In the current strategic context, for most Western armies the answer is a diffident ‘yes’; the soldier as armed social worker, robust peacemaker, and stability provider is an image with which the most voters seem comfortable and that politicians are therefore happy to emphasise. Such beliefs are usually couched in terms of moral enterprise, but the reasons for it are equally, if not more, practical in their origin—the military is the one public institution that politicians can legally compel to go abroad and put life and limb at stake. Hypocrisy and ignorance, though, are at the base—do something, but make it cheap, is the demand.

A decade ago Sir David Richards, who had commanded British forces in Sierra Leone and later headed ISAF, but was then Britain’s Chief of the General Staff, suggested in a speech that what we needed in order to face a strategic context of liberal interventions was a cadre of skilled colonial administrators. He deplored that,

“… in a desire not to be considered to be still colonial, I sense that we lost the mindset and skills across Government that our fathers and grandfathers instinctively understood and there was perhaps–and still is in some quarters–a reluctance to do anything that appeared to be colonial in nature.”[xxx]

What Richards put his finger on here was an essential point, which may be readily observed with a short walk through the headstones of the British cemetery in Peshawar, Pakistan, or many other such dour monuments of empire dotted around the world—British, French, Russian, and Soviet for that matter. For the most part, the graves there are full of engineers and administrators, policemen and teachers, and often their wives and children, not soldiers. For all the sins of imperialism, at least its agents operated out of sufficient moral conviction to put their own lives on the line; whereas now we talk much of ‘whole of government’ solutions, we practice them hardly at all.

Passion is the ‘neglected mainspring of war’, as students of which we must never disconnect—as to do so would fly in the face of the understanding war as a ‘total phenomenon’ that Clausewitz enjoined us to possess.[xxxi] In our discussion of tactics and strategy and the reciprocal mutual learning that occurs between one’s opponent and oneself we have never departed far from the moral dimension of strategy and warfare. This was a point one of our interlocutors, a British general of great experience in nearly all of the events we have cited thus far, was keen to stress. It is fitting to quote verbatim his assessment of our present liberal dilemma and how we got to it:

“The minute weapons of mass destruction were not found, Iraq gained a moral taint that simultaneously infected Afghanistan. Moral taint then led to the withdrawal of the popular mandate for either operation; withdrawal of the popular mandate led to a failure of political nerve, the impossibility of applying decisive force and an acute vulnerability to moral criticism. While we self-consciously limited both our aims and the resources we would devote to their achievement, our enemies were able to endure and outlast us politically in an example of the strategic exploitation of asymmetric advantage. Liberal intervention is therefore a thin reed that requires quite specific conditions before it can be initiated… if it doesn’t meet the conditions, do not do it. I regret coming up with a conclusion that perfectly exemplifies a political context suffused by risk aversion but that is where we are for now. Oh, for the simple verities of a war of national survival.”[xxxii]

A moral impediment sits at the heart of this problem. War should be just, both ad bellum and in bello. Without a defined purpose it is almost a guarantee that constructing a moral case for intervention will prove at best Herculean. Even more problematic is that with this context, behaving in a manner consistent with the guiding principles of war, designed in part to ensure that a brutal, violent undertaking is at least as swift resolved as possible will prove at best Sisyphean. Western forces enter any conflict with advantages. What they have lacked in the post-colonial era is the clarity of purpose and sheer will that only a sense of moral authority can deliver.

It is bad strategy and poor tactics to engage in conflicts that are doomed to failure from the outset—and immoral to boot. The object of war is the creation of a better peace, we are assured, for no other cause can justify the wilful infliction of suffering and death on others and sanctify our own losses. Consider, therefore, the post-conflict scenario. Your adversary has been taught a thousand tactical lessons—by you. If he has been paying attention, he has been also taught a seminal lesson in strategy. When you leave, who do you think is best placed to seize power in the ecosystem you have so profoundly shaped?


[i] Allan R. Millett and Williamson Murray, ‘Lessons of War’, The National Interest (Winter 1988), p. 94.
[ii] A pedantic point: the oft-quoted line does not, in fact, appear in the most common translation by Thomas Cleary of Art of War. See Cleary (trans. and ed.), Classics of Strategy and Counsel, Vol. 1, (London: Shambhala Press, 2000). How it entered into the popular lexicon in this way, it is particularly beloved in the business management literature, is a mystery to us. The principle it expresses though of the primacy of strategy over tactics is certainly apparent throughout the work, and specifically for e.g., on p. 56. ‘The one with many strategic factors in his favour wins, the one with few strategic factors in his favour loses—how much the more so for one with no strategic factors in his favour.’
[iii] Thomas Jocelyn has just made this point compellingly succinctly in ‘The Afghanistan War is Over. We Lost’, The Weekly Standard (18 October 2018).
[iv] Philip Walter Zellman and Zubair Babakarkhail, ‘Top US General “Uninjured” in Attack that Killed Afghan General’, Stars and Stripes (18 October 2018).
[v] See the debate ‘Whiteboard: Is the US Tactically Proficient but Strategically Deficient?’, War Room (US Army War College, (17 August 2018),
[vi] Titus Livius (Rev. Canon Roberts, trans., Ernest Rhys, ed.), History of Rome, Book 22, Para. 51,
[vii] Christopher Coker, War in an Age of Risk (Cambridge: Polity, 2009).
[viii] Lawrence Freedman discusses offensive liberal wars in The Transformation of Strategic Affairs, Adelphi Paper No. 379 (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2006), pp. 39-44.
[ix] As discussed in Rupert Smith, Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World (London: Allen Lane, 2005).
[x] Colin Gray, The Strategy Bridge: Theory for Practice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 20.
[xi] See Eliot Cohen, Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen, and Leadership in Wartime (London: The Free Press, 2002).
[xii] Quoted in David Betz, Communications Breakdown: Strategic Communications and Defeat in Afghanistan’, Orbis, Vol. 55, No. 4 (Fall 2011), p. 619.
[xiii] Edward Luttwak was perhaps the first, certainly the most prominent, scholar to point out the morally ambivalent, arguably morally absurd, quality of this situation and to propose a controversial (to some) alternative in ‘Give War a Chance’, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 78, No. 4 (July/August 1999), pp. 36-44.
[xiv] Freedman, Transformation of Strategic Affairs, p. 42.
[xv] Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Times: Living in an Age of Uncertainty (Cambridge: Polity, 2007), p. 6.
[xvi] David Betz, ‘The Virtual Dimension of Contemporary Insurgency and Counterinsurgency’, Small Wars and Insurgencies, Vol. 19, No. 4 (2008), pp. 513–43.
[xvii] Ben Anderson, No Worse Enemy: The Inside Story of the Chaotic Struggle for Afghanistan (Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2011), p. 130.
[xviii] David Mindell, Our Robots, Ourselves: Robotics and the Myths of Autonomy (New York: Penguin, 2015), p. 242.
[xix] The authoritative and devastating account of this is in Theo Farrell’s Unwinnable: Britain’s War in Afghanistan, 2001-2014 (London: Bodley Head, 2017).
[xx] ‘H.R. McMaster, A Warrior Thinker, Pt. 1’, Area 45 podcast (Hoover Institution, 28 October 2018),; the German variant, attributed to Heinz Guderian, the father of the Panzer Division, is ‘Boot them, don’t tickle them.’ One presumes that Russians, Chinese, any nation that takes war seriously, will have a similar aphorism.
[xxi] Ardant du Picq (John N. Greely, trans. and ed.), Battle Studies, reprinted in Roots of Strategy, Vol. 2 (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1987). Further on du Picq’s thoughts and modern relevance are to be found in Robert Leonhard, The Art of Maneuver: Maneuver Warfare Theory and AirLand Battle (New York: Ballantyne, 1991), pp. 44-46.
[xxii] As the biologist Rafe Sagarin wrote in his book Learning from the Octopus: How Secrets from Nature can Help us Fight Terrorist Attacks, Natural Disasters and Disease (New York: Basic Books, 2012), an attempt to apply evolutionary theory to national security issues: ‘the vaunted technology revolution in warfare is operating much more at the grassroots combat level…’ (p. xi).
[xxiii] A summary of the event and a selection of dyspeptic commentary on it may be found in Elspeth Reeve, ‘Military Destroys a Village to Maintain “Momentum” in Afghanistan’, The Atlantic (20 January 2011),
[xxiv] Patrick Hennessey, The Junior Officers’ Reading Club: Killing Time and Fighting Wars (London: Penguin, 2009), pp. 237-38.
[xxv] See Andrew Dorman, Blair's Successful War: British Military Intervention in Sierra Leone (Farnham: Ashgate Publishing, 2009), also John Kampfner, Blair’s Wars (London: Free Press, 2003), esp. chap. 4.
[xxvi] Quoted in Betz, ‘Communications Breakdown’, p. 615.
[xxvii] This is a central theme, for instance, of Carlos Marighela’s Minimanual of the Urban Guerrilla (1969.
[xxviii] Joseph Fletcher, Heather Bastedo and Jennifer Hove, ‘Losing Heart: Declining Support and the Political Marketing of the Afghanistan Mission’, Canadian Journal of Political Science, Vol. 124, No. 4 (December 2009), pp. 914-915.
[xxix] For example, one of us attended a counterinsurgency conference in the defence academy of a main Western power where two senior colonels described at length their impressive efforts to get major national supermarket chains to import and distribute large quantities of Afghan apricots. A worthy effort, no doubt—but what part of the long and expensive training of these men for leadership in war equipped them for a low- to mid-level job in sales and marketing?
[xxx] General Sir Richard Dannatt, speech to Royal United Services Institute Land Warfare conference, (London: 12 June 2008).
[xxxi] M.L.R. Smith, Politics and Passion: The Neglected Mainspring of War’, Infinity, Vol. 4, No. 2 (2014), pp. 32-36.
[xxxii] Correspondence with LGen (ret.) Sir Robert Fry, UK Royal Marines (2 August 2018).