Is America Inside its Own OODA Loop
in Afghanistan and Iraq???

October 29, 2003

Comment: #499

Discussion Threads - Comment #: 199

Current decision cycles—i.e. Observation - Orientation - Decision - Action (OODA) loops—are shaped fundamentally by what military theorists call an "appreciation" of one's own condition in relation to the constraints, opportunities, threats, and uncertainties in the unfolding environment that will determine one's success or failure.

An appreciation shapes the current Orientation, and as we have seen in many earlier comments, Colonel Boyd has shown why Orientation shapes and energizes the entire OODA loop [new readers: see Comment #199 for a general introduction to Boyd's theories and Thread 2 for greater elaboration]. An appreciation can be thought of as the filter through which the military organization views current events, and the presence of uncertainty and menace means that there is always a danger that a faulty appreciation will infect one's Orientation like a virus and thereby produce a dangerous disconnect between one's observations of the real world and the consequent decisions and actions directed toward coping with the contingencies of that world.

Such a disconnect can take several general forms: (1) It can be a self-inflicted wound caused by an inwardly focused OODA Loop when, for example, the Orientation is shaped by the self-referencing blinders of obsessions or preconceived notions (as was the case in Lee's frontal attack on Day 3 at Gettysburg), or ideological fixations (as was the case with French doctrine of audacious attack before 1914). (2) It can be a wound inflicted externally by the wiliness of one's adversary (as was the case in Grant's operational-level maneuver that set up the siege of Vicksburg. (3) It can a combination of (1) & (2) as was clearly the case in May 1940 when a quicker 3GW German army out maneuvered and defeated a larger 2GW French/British army.

In all cases, however, the disconnect between observations on the one hand and decisions and actions on the other causes the entire OODA loop to respond more to the fluctuations in its internal dynamics than to the unfolding threats of the real world. As Boyd has shown, the inevitable result is confusion, disorder, and taken to extremes, eventually panic and collapse.

Fourth Generation Warfare (4GW - see Thread 1) challenges the art of appreciation even further than is usually the case in a 2GW or 3GW war between nations, because non-national character of 4GW combatants embodies a far higher content of squishy political, cultural, and economic factors and relatively less of the traditional military factors. 4GW "terrorists," like the warriors of Al Qaeda, do not form a conventional army that sets up in military arrays to fight battles, for example. They hide in the cultural and political shadows, and aim to by-pass the military to suddenly strike economic, political, and cultural centers of power, before melting back into the shadows.

The increased subtlety implicit in any 4GW appreciation makes it particularly difficult and dangerous, because the increased ambiguity magnifies the temptation to collect information about the enemy that falls into the comforting pre-conceptions of an inwardly focused OODA loop. Moreover, in 4GW, the slightest tactical mistake flowing from a flawed appreciation can have a large strategic or even grand-strategic repercussions, the mistaken bombing of the Afghan wedding party being a case in point.

Recent events unfolding in Afghanistan and Iraq raise serious questions about the efficacy of the America's OODA loops in two highly dangerous 4GW conflict situations. The situation in each country is clearly deteriorating. Statements of staying the course are not enough to support a coherent OODA loop, for the simple reason that such statements imply there will never be a need to adapt the assumptions underpinning one's Orientation to unfolding conditions. I personally believe such statements also telegraph weakness. Whatever the case, one thing is clear: Soundly-balanced appreciations relating internal conditions to external conditions are needed ... and they are needed NOW.

This comment transmits two examples illustrating the current state of the art in making or rethinking a strategic/grand strategic appreciation of these conflicts. The first is an on-the-scene appreciation of situation in Afghanistan by Paul Barker, the Afghan director of CARE. The second is Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's famous memo questioning progress in the war on terror. This memo reflects Mr. Rumsfeld's ongoing effort to obtain a relevant appreciation of that war. While Rumsfeld's memo takes the form of a checklist-like series of somewhat disjointed questions, it nevertheless reflects an Orientation that will shape whatever appreciation flows out of the high-level meeting he requested.

Compare and contrast these two approaches to forming an appreciation. Then judge for yourself if either approach will lead toward the dangers implicit in an excessively self-referencing, or inwardly focused OODA loop.

Example 1: Afghanistan

Running out of time for a stable Afghanistan
By Paul Barker
Star Telegram
October 27, 2003 [ 10:57 ]

Paul Barker is the Afghanistan director for CARE, CARE is an independent humanitarian organisation working to end world poverty. With programmes in over 65 countries, CARE touches the lives of over 30 million of the world's poorest people. Whether supporting primary health care, promoting sustainable agriculture or developing savings and loan schemes, our programmes promote positive and lasting change and reduce long-term dependency.

CARE also provides emergency food and shelter to survivors of natural disasters, wars and conflicts. We remain with communities long after initial relief efforts are completed and support initiatives to enable people to rebuild their lives and to face the future with renewed confidence.



For the first year after the November 2001 collapse of the Taliban government in Kabul, the fundamentalist opposition seemed intimidated into passivity. The "B-52 factor" seemed enough to dissuade serious attacks on the new government and its coalition supporters.

But during that year, not enough was done to:

  • Give the Pashtun ethnic group a significant stake in the post-Taliban regime.

  • Provide sufficient evidence of reconstruction assistance to remote and underserved areas.

  • Build a professional, multiethnic, nonfactional national security force.

The consequences of this underinvestment have now emerged in a crescendo of attacks, first against government installations and then against the aid community. Isolated incidents have spread until a broad swath of southeast and south-central Afghanistan is now considered too insecure for aid agencies to work.


The struggle for Afghanistan's future is much more than a war of bullets and bombs; it is a contest of values and interests. Afghans face many threats, most of which are created by those with vested interests in an insecure Afghanistan: narcotics merchants, militia commanders, smugglers, highway bandits, urban gangs and radical Islamists (Taliban, al Qaeda, Hekmatyar, etc.). The appropriate response for the criminal elements is a fully staffed, paid, disciplined and professional Afghan security force.


An expanded foreign military presence may dissuade some opposition elements, but it is also likely to embolden others. An expanded international security presence is at best an interim step. To have longer-term value, it needs to be integrated into police training and reform of the judiciary system.

It needs to help establish the checks and balances necessary to ensure that promotion of a national police force does not also promote a national police state.


Example 2: Iraq

Rumsfeld's war-on-terror memo
Below is the full text of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's memo on the war on terror:

October 16, 2003
TO: Gen. Dick Myers
Paul Wolfowitz
Gen. Pete Pace
Doug Feith

FROM: Donald Rumsfeld

SUBJECT: Global War on Terrorism

The questions I posed to combatant commanders this week were: Are we winning or losing the Global War on Terror? Is DoD changing fast enough to deal with the new 21st century security environment? Can a big institution change fast enough? Is the USG changing fast enough?

DoD has been organized, trained and equipped to fight big armies, navies and air forces. It is not possible to change DoD fast enough to successfully fight the global war on terror; an alternative might be to try to fashion a new institution, either within DoD or elsewhere - one that seamlessly focuses the capabilities of several departments and agencies on this key problem.

With respect to global terrorism, the record since September 11th seems to be:

We are having mixed results with Al Qaida, although we have put considerable pressure on them - nonetheless, a great many remain at large.

USG has made reasonable progress in capturing or killing the top 55 Iraqis.

USG has made somewhat slower progress tracking down the Taliban - Omar, Hekmatyar, etc.

With respect to the Ansar Al-Islam, we are just getting started.

Have we fashioned the right mix of rewards, amnesty, protection and confidence in the US?

Does DoD need to think through new ways to organize, train, equip and focus to deal with the global war on terror?

Are the changes we have and are making too modest and incremental? My impression is that we have not yet made truly bold moves, although we have have made many sensible, logical moves in the right direction, but are they enough?

Today, we lack metrics to know if we are winning or losing the global war on terror. Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the madrassas and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?

Does the US need to fashion a broad, integrated plan to stop the next generation of terrorists? The US is putting relatively little effort into a long-range plan, but we are putting a great deal of effort into trying to stop terrorists. The cost-benefit ratio is against us! Our cost is billions against the terrorists' costs of millions.

Do we need a new organization?

How do we stop those who are financing the radical madrassa schools?

Is our current situation such that "the harder we work, the behinder we get"?

It is pretty clear that the coalition can win in Afghanistan and Iraq in one way or another, but it will be a long, hard slog.

Does CIA need a new finding?

Should we create a private foundation to entice radical madradssas to a more moderate course?

What else should we be considering?

Please be prepared to discuss this at our meeting on Saturday or Monday.


Chuck Spinney

"A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives." - James Madison, from a letter to W. T. Barry, August 4, 1822

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Thread 1 - Fourth Generation Warfare

Thread 2 - Boyd and Military Strategy