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Unfriendly Fire

The greatest intellectual challenge in Fourth Generation war—war against opponents that are not states—is how to fight it at the operational level. NATO in Afghanistan, like the Soviets three decades ago, has been unable to solve that riddle. But the Taliban appears to have done so.

The operational level of war lies between strategy and tactics. While great commanders have always thought and fought at the operational level, the concept was not formally recognized until the 19th century. As usual, it was the Prussian army that led the way. Some historians think the operational level may have been formalized by Field Marshal von Moltke himself in the Franco-Prussian war as a way to keep Bismarck out of his business. (“Yes, my dear Bismarck, you are in charge of strategy, but you simply must not interfere in operational matters.”)

The U.S. Army did not officially recognize the operational level of war until 1982, but the tsarist Russian army and later the Soviets picked up on it. By 1944-45, the Red Army was as competent at what they called “operational art” as the Wehrmacht. That was never true of the Western allies.

The Russian term, operational art, is a good one, because unlike tactics or strategy it is not a thing but a link. It is the art, not science, of using tactical events, battles and refusals to give battle, victories and sometimes also defeats (from the North Vietnamese perspective, the Tet offensive was a tactical defeat but a decisive operational victory) to strike as directly as possible at the enemy’s strategic center. Because it resorts to battle only when and where necessary, operational art is a great economizer of fighting strength—even a battle won eats up soldiers, fuel, equipment, and, most importantly, time.


A brilliant example of its application comes from General Heinz Guderian’s XIXth Panzer Corps in the 1940 campaign against France. Guderian led the famous advance through the Ardennes mountains’ weakest point, the junction between the strong forces the French had pushed forward into Belgium and those manning the Maginot fortifications. After Guderian crossed the Meuse river at Sedan, he faced French forces coming up from the south. He could have stayed there and fought them. Instead, thinking operationally, he held the crossing with minimum force and threw everything he had north toward the English Channel. That collapsed the “hinge” between the French and British forces in Belgium and those in France, winning the campaign in one stroke. France, which by everyone’s account had the best army in the world, went down to defeat in six weeks.

Were war to remain in its Third Generation incarnation, a matter of fast-moving campaigns led by tank armies, the U.S. military might eventually get operational art. But war has moved on: tank armies are now as irrelevant as armies of mounted bowmen. So the question must be asked anew—how do you link tactical events to winning strategically?

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.

One American soldier nonetheless advised a visitor to take an armed escort to the Afghan side of the base, which was about 100 feet away, ‘just in case.’

Multiply the aftermath of this incident 22 times since the beginning of the year and it becomes operationally important. Each incident quickly becomes known to all NATO troops in Afghanistan, which spreads the impact. Just a few hundred more such “green on blue” attacks will effectively end our training mission.

[1]The Taliban know this technique is operational, not just tactical. They can be expected to put all their effort into it. What counter do we have? Just order our troops to pretend it is not happening—to keep trusting their Afghan counterparts. That order, if enforced, will put our soldiers in such an untenable position that morale will collapse.

So powerful is this taste of Taliban operational art that Washington may fear the example it sets. During a recent visit by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta to Afghanistan, no American soldiers were allowed to get near him with loaded weapons. Might the Pentagon be worried that our own troops could learn from the Taliban? Were I an American soldier who had been told to hand over or unload his weapon before approaching Secretary Panetta, I would certainly have read it that way.

William S. Lind is director of the American Conservative Center for Public Transportation.

23 Comments (Open | Close)

23 Comments To "Unfriendly Fire"

#1 Comment By Andrew On June 27, 2012 @ 12:14 pm

In Soviet military practice the issue of Operational Art was also tied to a scale of the objective usually (not always) within the single Theater Of Operations and the scale (large or very large) of the units involved–corps, armies, army groups (fleets)and troops. Operational Art was directly subordinated to Strategy and could be (was) viewed as the means of achieving (political) objectives of the war, which were formulated within the Strategy.

I liked the piece but there are some debatable points in it. One of them is that there is nothing elegant about Taliban’s “way to connect strategy and tactics in decentralized modern warfare”. The format of this post does not allow to go deep into the issue but I would dare to state that Taliban’s “operations” are driven not by the mastery of operational (or strategic, for that matter) issues but purely by the asymmetry, which is, in Taliban’s case, largely a tactical issue arising from the (very severe)limitations on Taliban’s ability to prosecute the war. Of course, the American failure(s) in prosecuting the war in Afghanistan should not be forgotten either. Unlike the Taliban, however, American problems derive from the “top”, that is strategic (and political), level.

#2 Comment By Breck Jack On June 27, 2012 @ 10:36 pm

Andrew is exactly right, we are talking tactics here, not operations or strategy. That said, I am very grateful for Lind’s article. I had not realized what the Taliban is doing, and now I do. When you face an intelligent enemy, he is likely to find tactics that offset your advantages.

I note that the Taliban’s tactic requires soldiers who are willing to die. The US no doubt has such soldiers, but the US is not willing to use tactics that involve the near certainty of their death. The last time the US did that so far as I know was the Doolittle mission.

#3 Comment By Mark On June 28, 2012 @ 7:24 am

Although I’m no military genius by any means I do know if you go into someone’s “house” and start pushing them around they’re gonna fight back any way they can…and they know the secret rooms and trap doors in their home better than the invader.

As far as NATO/US forces not being willing to “die for the cause”, who is surprised by this? Now, if the United States were invaded and occupied I don’t doubt one bit that those who are not currently willing to sacrfice themselves would be lining up in droves…go figure.

#4 Comment By Luther Blee On June 28, 2012 @ 9:09 am

Another dead 19-year old American, another dead Afghan farmer – what do they matter?

As long as everyone important (US military, NGOs, warlords, Taliban, Karzai mafia, contractors, PSCs) are getting a steady stream of Western welfare funds then no-one is a rush to see the US-NATO leave.

It has been over a decade of the world’s super-power fighting one of the world’s poorest nations after all – blaming Pakistan, ROEs, the “intellectual challenge of Fourth Generation war”, ect… feels good but it only explains so much. Qui bono, guys?

Discussing tactics & operations in 2012 is endearingly macho but the inescapable original sin was waltzing off to the ‘big show’ in Iraq instead of buckling down to secure Afghanistan – unless, as I have come to believe, perpetual low-scale war is a profitable feature and not a bug.

#5 Comment By J Harlan On June 28, 2012 @ 9:16 am

The reason the US didn’t adopt the “operational” level of war until 1982 is 1) it’s a fantasy and 2) that it was part of a general Germanization of concepts in the wake of Viet Nam. A good English translation of On War came out in 1976 and the army in particular was searching for an answer to it’s recent defeat. Using German jargon and quoting von Clausewitz became all the rage.

The idea that there was a level of war, not based on the size of the force, between strategy and tactics was especially compelling because it meant that three and four stars could theoretically fight wars without messy political considerations. This of course is nonsense in an era when every casualty is reported and commanders estimates and plans are regularly leaked to the press.

The supporters of the concept of “Operational Art” continually try to prove their point by pretending that someone is using it while it’s obvious, as in the case of the Taliban, that they’ve simply started using an effective tactic- get as close to the enemy as you can to negate their hiding behind Afghan auxiliaries, better armor and long range fire superiority. Taliban tactics are close combat and their strategy is attrition. There is nothing between the two.

#6 Comment By MvGuy On June 28, 2012 @ 10:08 am

Thank God we have Mr. Lind back within our fold here at AW.com…. especially his ability to debunk administration lies, propaganda and absurd contentions.. The Vietnam parallels come to mind as the wars seem to expand out and out… Remember Laos and Cambodia and the secret bombing of those places. Remember “Vietnamization”…??

“[ The plan was to encourage the South Vietnamese to take more responsibility for fighting the war. It was hoped that this policy would eventually enable the United States to withdraw gradually all their soldiers from Vietnam.To increase the size of the ARVN, a mobilisation law was passed that called up into the army all men in South Vietnam aged between seventeen and forty-three”]

Trying to run a puppet lead (occupation) army of conscripted natives may look good on paper, but there are peer dynamics which make such policies unwerkable and even dangerous….
It is telling decision that the our leaders turn to the same solution they attempted unsuccessfully to rescue their ultimate failure and loss in their Vietnam debacle-cum-rout. Mr. Lind points out the [operational?] liabilities of “Afghanization” but just think what sort of intellectual fecklessness it illustrates… to even contemplate the exact same policy that cost so dear in our last big military disaster.. Is it that America can’t learn from the past..??

As our government enacts ever expanding utilization of the military to any and all aspects of life at home and throughout the entire world…. we need the expertise and especially historical insight of the results such policies have rendered for us here in America and abroad… We need william S Lind!!


#7 Comment By William Lee On June 28, 2012 @ 10:12 am

Lind’s article reminds me of the stories Dan Ellsberg tells about South Vietnamese officers and their relationships to the American forces, particularly those that occurred prior to Tet.

#8 Comment By Popsiq On June 28, 2012 @ 11:05 am

Another lesson for the West Point syllabus. But should it go into military studies, or business management?

#9 Comment By [email protected] On June 28, 2012 @ 11:39 am

Popsiq has a very good point; maybe military/operational tactics should be covered by business management classes. The West will try to over-technolize the war in Afghanistan (Good retirement contracts.)
In contrast, the Taliban can draw back to inexpensive tactics (inexpensive to them/expensive to the West) that range from leaving a handful of fertiliser on the edge of the road–not an IED, just a handful of chemicals, but causing a whole column of troops to halt for an hour or so while bomb squads and dogs cleared the area. (A trick known to US WWII and Korean vets: using metal mess trays loosely buried to activate enemy bomb detectors.)
Even simpler, the Taliban could just use catapults to toss bags of grease and black paint against Humvee windscreens–no flash, no direction, the source is blocks away. . . . But try to drive after that! The Hungarians did the same against the Russian tanks.
And so on. Business management means doing your job well and efficiently, but also causing your business rival (enemy) to do theirs clumsily. And, it can be done cheaply.

#10 Comment By Andrew On June 28, 2012 @ 12:36 pm

@J Harlan. I have to disagree with this statement “The reason the US didn’t adopt the “operational” level of war until 1982 is 1) it’s a fantasy and” (c) Operational Art never was a fantasy but the issue should be debated only within the peer-to-peer or peer-to near-peer framework. Only in this framework, where the clash of modern standing armies (and doctrines, as a matter of fact) is possible, one can seriously talk about Operational Art, that is about the conduct of (combined arms) OPERATIONS. In these settings operations are largely defined by the tactical (and technological) qualities of the units involved (lower level), while being driven by the decision making at the strategic level. Operational Art does tie the two together.

I have to agree with You, however, on this observation: “The idea that there was a level of war, not based on the size of the force, between strategy and tactics was especially compelling because it meant that three and four stars could theoretically fight wars without messy political considerations.”(c) But then again, in thermodynamics there is a thing called Ideal Gas, in war there is also, albeit not termed “ideal”, an analogue–Operation. The prosecution of the war within peer-to-peer (or near peer) framework cannot be described only on tactical or strategic levels (or both), it inevitably has to be viewed within the framework of the Operational concepts and Operations have to be developed and planned and it does not matter that the title Operational Art will be dropped out of the considerations altogether–it will be pure semantics, Operational Art will still be applied. One thing is the platoon in defense (or offense)in Afghanistan, another–is the use of the army (or army group)in the large Theater Of Operations. How the Operational Art is being subjected to the political, doctrinal, cultural and other realities of the specific “developer” (usually nation-state) is another thing altogether, and it is this level at which the totality of war, including its social dimension should be discussed.

#11 Comment By J Harlan On June 28, 2012 @ 4:24 pm

The reason I call “operational art” a fantasy is that one has to be delusional to believe that a senior commander would be left alone to fight a major campaign without interference from the strategic decision makers as happened in WW 2, Korea, Viet Nam, Iraq, and Afghanistan just to name a few.

It is a handy concept for higher level war colleges where students can be left to plan Gulf War III without the trouble of looking over their shoulder at someone playing POTUS, SECDEF, SECSTATE, CNN, Congress etc.

Tactics is the art and science of fighting. Strategy is the art of using your resources to maximize your position relative to your opponents. There is nothing linking them as they overlap. The actions of a rifle company commander can have strategic results for better or worse while the POTUS simultaneously approves a raid on a house.

#12 Comment By MvGuy On June 28, 2012 @ 11:55 pm

William Lind predicted years ago that both the Afghan and Iraq wars would not be won by the invaders…. (I.E. us..)

#13 Comment By Former Navy On July 1, 2012 @ 11:58 am

Were I an American soldier who had been told to hand over or unload his weapon before approaching Secretary Panetta, I would certainly have read it that way.

Way back in the 1980s my base used to host President Reagan’s trips to California. The first step of the Secret Service was to ban sailors from the flight line, or any office space fronting on the flight line.

Civilian contractors on base had fewer restrictions.

#14 Comment By TomT On July 4, 2012 @ 11:50 am

ROFLMAO. Remember how STUPID that STUPID BUSH was in drawing the war to the “more civilized” IRAQ? In terms of 4gw, it was a STUPID MOVE, because BUSH was a REPUBLICAN.

And THANK NATURE that Guantanimo is no longer a recruiting tool, and we’re not evilly torturing people. This new “ZERO-PRISONER” doctrine (and 100% rendition of any survivors), combined with dramatic cuts in the military, will almost certainly accelerate the timeframe for when we can bring our boys and girls home permanently.

#15 Comment By Buffoon On July 7, 2012 @ 5:39 pm

The image used at the to of this post is a horrible photoshop.

#16 Comment By Tim On July 8, 2012 @ 4:01 am

We have completely ignored and have forgetting the art of fighting an ideology war. With both the Nazis and the communists we fought the battles and the ideology. Not so with Islam, we build mosques, give credence to sharia, pay for Islamic teachers and hand out Koreans. Plus we actively work against other ideology’s that have had success in changing minds, Christianity for one. The lack of a strategic, covert ideological war is the main reason why this war is unwinnable.

#17 Comment By Bruce Erasmus On July 8, 2012 @ 5:38 pm

What a load of verbal garbage! Whenever idiots start losing they start talking crap. Did this man ever study the Vietnam War? The so-called Vietnamisation of Vietnamese forces failed, and it will fail in Afghanistan. Why? Because these are people fighting a patriotic war for their own country. They will fight forever against an invader, and take whatever pain and losses that are required to win. As happens, and has happened, in every invasion, in every country, in history where the indigenous population have not been annihilated. Calling them Insurgents or Resistance Fighters or whatever, will not change the reality that they are patriots and will fight until their country is free of what, from their perspective, is an unwanted invader.

#18 Comment By Eric On July 9, 2012 @ 1:50 pm

I do not agree with MvGuys response regarding Vietnamization of the Vietnam War.

Nixon’s Vietnamization program was working. In the battley of An-Loc in 1973, the South Vietnamise Army fought back a larger North Vietnamise attack than in Tet’ in 1968 with just American Advisers and fire support.

In fact, had Congress funded South Vietnam for a full invasion of the North at that time, South Vietnam may have been able to win the war, especially in light of Nixon and Kissinger’s B52 strikes on the North and Cambodia.

Instead when Nixon was forced from office in 1974 Congress pulled the plug on funding for the South Vietnamize Army which left the South Vietnamize Army in the untenable situation of having much less money to fund military operations against the North than the North had to fund military operations against the South. In other words, when Congress decided to dump and betray our allies, the Northern Army was much better funded and equiped than the South which resulted in the fall of Saigon in 1975.

Had we stayed the course in Vietnam we should have had at a minimum, a demilitarized zone such as in North and South Korea, and then we would have avoided hudreds of thousands of our allies becoming boat people and the killings of millions in Cambodia.

Also, the South Vietnam army lost 350,000 to our 58,000. They certainly were committed to the effort, unlike what many history revisionists claim.

If the U.S. wants an operational strategy, one may be to commit enough resources to the fight to make sure our allies know that as long as they fight with us they will not be abandoned on the battlefield, and will have the resources, advisors and fire support to win. The United States needs to put the Vietnam war in Perspective and not commit its mistakes again. The United States needs to let its Generals win the war, and it needs to recognize the sacrifices our allies our making and not desert them, especially when they were winning such as in Vietnam.

#19 Comment By MvGuy On July 12, 2012 @ 9:36 pm

“In fact, had Congress funded South Vietnam for a full invasion of the North at that time, South Vietnam may have been able to win the war, especially in light of Nixon and Kissinger’s B52 strikes on the North and Cambodia.”

Oh Sure… and Hitler may have defeated Russia if winter didn’t come in 1941…..

Even with the 5OO,OOO U.S. troops and “especially in light of Nixon and Kissinger’s B52 strikes on the North and Cambodia.” the South never developed any momentum.. Besides, It wasn’t the AVRN that halted the North’s offensive in An Loc… It was the “fire support” I.E. the B-52s and still the North made it last sixty six days. Tet may not have adversely effected the AVRN, but My Lia sucked the oxygen right out of ARVN moral… It became a lost cause the day the CIA plotters executed Diem, after that there were no South Vietnamese leaders… only CIA stooges… With 5OO,OOO U.S. troops to help, the ARVN lost to the 16 milluion in the North.. How will the 5O,OOO NATO stand-ins win against the 1OO Millions in Afpac…. Does anyone wonder why this place is where empires go to get a haircut and die…!!!???

“If the U.S. wants an operational strategy, one may be to commit enough resources to the fight to make sure our allies know that as long as they fight with us they will not be abandoned on the battlefield, and will have the resources, advisors and fire support to win”

What allies….??? or do you mean those traitors in our employ who fight for us against their own people as some form of support for us, for Karzai… FOR what..??? It’s the two trillion dollar illusion…!!!

#20 Comment By Eric On July 13, 2012 @ 1:13 pm

In response to MvGuy, Hitler may very well have won the war in Russia had he not split his army. It was not Russia’s winter that defeated the German Army. The German Army spent two winters in Russia before the Battle of Kursk, the greatest tank battle of all time in 1943. Although the Germans sure as hell froze their asses.

In 1941 Lennongrad was under seige but the Russians would not give in. The siege was so horrendous that the residents of Lennongrad had to resort to canabalism to survive, but they woud not give in.

The German army, not understanding why the Russians would not give in, dug in for the winter, froze their asses and resumed their offensive in the Spring. The Russians suffered enormous losses.

The Next summer, and fall of 1942, Hitler split his army to try to take Stalingrad and the Caucus oil fields in the south. Had Hitler instead used the German Sixth Army to like up with Lennongrad in the North he would have most likely split Russia in half and won the war. Thank God he did not listen to his Generals who were opposed to the strategy.

The Russians made enourmous sacrifices to defeat the Germans. The Russians took the brunt of the German Army, at least 75% of their active divisions.

If it was not for Russian sacrifices we would have never gotten on the European Continent in view of the fact that we almost lost facing third and fourth string German Troops. If you recall at D-Day, had Rommel been in town he would have used his panzers to roll up our flanks, but because Rommel was not there his generals were afraid to throw in the Tanks because they were afraid to wake up Hilter.

Also, we got our asses kicked at Arnhem, and nearly got split in two at the battle of the bulge. We would have never got on the European Continent without the enormous sacrifices of our allies.

We cannot win the war on terror without our Muslim allies. Pakistan and Afganistan are taking more causualties than us. Maybe if we were a little more committed to winning the war instead of finger pointing we might find that our allies hold us in higher esteem. So far, the U.S. war record since Vietman is terrible. We appear to be making the same mistakes.

The U.S.Operational strategy should be commit enough resources to the fight to win and stay the course. Otherwise our allies, just like in Afghanistan and Pakistan, will think we are going to cut and run when the going gets tough, which, at least under the Obama and Panetta strategy, looks like we are going to do, thus instilling very, very, little confidence in our allies.

#21 Comment By Dar On August 1, 2012 @ 2:58 am

July 13, 2012 at 1:13 pm
“The U.S.Operational strategy should be commit enough resources to the fight to win and stay the course.”

That line sort of contradicts the rest of your post. Sometimes the opponents will continue to fight endlessly against a foreign invader, as the Soviets against the Germans, so too in Afghanistan.

#22 Comment By Kurt E. Smith On March 31, 2013 @ 4:13 pm

How’s this for 4g strategy.Give us leaders of theTaliban or we will drop radioactive waste on your poppy fields.

#23 Comment By Tommie So On January 16, 2015 @ 3:01 am

The peace has never come from the war whether terrorists or separatists. It brings vengeance endless. Forgiveness brings peace.