Through a Glass, Darkly


Played to the first opium harvest.
Played to the first opium harvest.

Here’s the final position after four turns and maybe five hours of semi-chatty play. Max and I could have knocked it out faster. I wanted to wait to post further impressions until the experience percolated a bit more. I won’t write about the cut-and-thrust of game play. A deeper current needs wading into. After some correspondence with Brian where we chatted over the wheels-within-wheels nature of the current Afghan War, how to design processes, and the complexities of real-world COIN campaign design, I believe Kandahar is the darkest of all the counterinsurgency designs I’ve seen.

“How do you win?” Max asked. “On joue jusqu’à l’épuissement,” I explained. We play until we quit playing, would be another way of putting it. This game, unlike Train’s other Box4 designs, depicts warfare in an unhappy corner that has known serious conflict for more than thirty years now, where the culture is as broken as the irrigation system the Soviets destroyed, where conflict has become the culture. In that it reminds me of Ben Madison’s  courageous Liberia: Descent into Hell.

Of Brian’s designs with which I’m familiar all attempt a similar level of honesty. They are deeply skeptical of ideology and other power fantasies. Their mechanisms give you plenty of rope with which to hang yourself. Glorious blitzkriegs, chevauchées, razzias, and shit-hammerings are rare and never engaged without careful calculation of the downsides. If he had designed OGRE, there would be the possibility of co-opting the cybertank by surrendering power stations along with a good wash and detail. I still say his Algeria is way too hard on the French, although I’ve been able to win playing both sides.

These are, in their way, anti-games. They resist commercialization in the best way by raising the bar for their audience while keeping their author impoverished and angry. And they queer up the taste of a Saturday afternoon. I’m not sure if I share Train’s (and everyone else’s) evident pessimism about counterinsurgency. The undergraduate anthropologist and graduate cartographer in me want someone to say it ain’t necessarily so. But I have heard the frustration expressed in professional quarters for going on ten years now. After a certain point, social network analysis diagrams, or DIME models, or whatever science-po construct you prefer all begin to look like Gordian knots to audiences where everyone carries with them a brigade’s worth of swords in addition to levels of impatience and frustration which can only be calculated by the f*ckton.

To me, Train is of the camp that holds COIN is war as we would like it to be, not as it is. There is nothing of the revolutionary struggle in Kandahar. (My skepticism of revolutionaries very likely outstrips Brian’s.) Anyway, hold on to the concept of war as we would like it to be, for it clears away so much fog in the wargame world that I’m certain to return to this important distinction in future posts.

Here’s the position in Iraq when Barack Obama stepped away from the table:

LLOs from FM 3-24. Sure, sure. How do we revise our model to account for Da’esh?


7 thoughts on “Through a Glass, Darkly”

  1. Yeah, I think you get me. Thanks!

    I’m not entirely sure where I stand on COIN, because I am no longer sure how people are using the term.
    It’s become a Humpty Dumpty word (“When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.”).
    What the Coalitions tried to do in Iraq and Afghanistan was intermittently an attempt at population-centric COIN, and it generally didn’t work for a variety of reasons, many of which had nothing to do with the concepts of COIN.
    I know that’s not a helpful summation… but my belief is still that we should not just walk away from the whole idea, as many Regular Army opiners have opined.
    The network analysis, the DIME models, the opinion polls… these are all Rationalist approaches to resolving a problem that’s usually pretty irrational.
    No wonder people get frustrated.

    Come to think of it, designing a game is a pretty Rationalist thing to do, too… and I note that of the five “Box4” games I’ve designed (Shining Path, Algeria, Andartes, Kandahar, EOKA), historically the government won four of them.
    But Kandahar does show the darkness of COIN misapplied.

  2. I wonder if any US doctrine so baroque can ever survive the electoral cycle. FM3-24 read like a children’s treasury of good ideas from the history of irregular warfare (a term which seems to be coming back into vogue). Yes, a rationalist approach in keeping with the best traditions of the Enlightenment. It always bothered me, at a linguistic level, that the doctrine was defined negatively. I guess that’s why we hear about Foreign Internal Defense, now. I don’t think COIN according to Hoyle was ever tried over the whole of Afghanistan. I guess this is what exhaustion looks like. Muttering over terminology with a hangover from taking in too many ideas meant to be prescriptive but which, at best, are more useful in descriptive mode. COIN theory, at least as it is expressed in the famous field manual, is intellectually bracing but I think is based on outlying cases. Notably, David Galula’s experience in Algeria seems like too narrow a case to build upon. In 2011 I translated a book by Grégor Mathias which in part examines how quickly his work came undone. And that was just with the changing of one company commander. How are any political gains on the ground to be made permanent after the change of a president?

    It is part of wargames’ raison d’être to pick up on discarded and misapplied concepts to see how their broken bones were meant to articulate and why they came apart under stress. One reason why I’m such a fan of matrix games is that they can address current problems without being overdetermined by black boxes, thickets of prescriptive concepts, or admiring gazes. Call those games top loaded and hard coded. Without knowing much more about simulations such as the Peace Support Operations Model than what I saw presented in London in 2013, I’m still awestruck by its absurdity. The only silver lining was that PSOM was not an American initiative.

    Galula in Algeria by Grégor Mathias:

    Peace Support Operations Model:

    1. I’ve always personally preferred the term “irregular war”, though it supplanted “guerrilla war” in my mind once I had designed a couple of games.

      The doctrinal terms used change again and again over time, though the basic problem doesn’t. Foreign Internal Defense is a term at least 30 years old, and before that they called it something else. There are historians of doctrine, and I’ll leave it to them.

      Theory is a place to jump off from, and hopefully land on a decent lilypad of practice. I would like to find Mathias’ book but my local university does not have it; I was curious about how hard a test Galula’s ideas were given. This also makes me think that sometimes it does not matter who’s President; a favourable political arrangement with a country or region doesn’t always have to be curried or stoked… things being what they are, quiet areas tend to have their support taken for granted (like Canada). Of course, more often it does matter who is in charge… whoever gets into the White House will have to focus, probably gratefully, primarily on urgent domestic issues (and hopefully ones more weighty than who gets to use what bathroom).

      I first saw PSOM in late 2007, at my first MORS event. Seemed very black-boxy to me then, but I didn’t have time to quiz them about what was under the hood. But yes, wargames are there to test out concepts, old and new.

      1. Some cursory gaggling suggests that PSOM may be used generically within the modeling and simulations community. I may have read the Connections UK 2013 program incorrectly, but I think you may know which presentation I’m talking about. (Yes, I could be more vague.) It was the one described to us complete with slides of a field deployment to a brigade headquarters. Anyway–I’m wondering if there has been anything written about its actual efficacy beyond the presenter’s remarks about higher’s appreciation of their presence. Such remarks have been made about my presence and I wonder how much is habitual military courtesy toward civilians. My point being is that such models are very long on presentations of their workings but rather short when it comes to their findings. In my view, such approaches trade on opacity and statistical brow beating.

        My point about COIN not surviving presidents could have been more vague as well! What I meant to say was that successful mission outcome is complicated by any administrative change, but especially changes within democracies. (You don’t get elected by saying the incumbent is doing everything right.) So, even assuming a rational and good campaign plan–a rather big assumption, I think you’ll agree–continuity of execution is rather short. This may be clearer when you consider the colonial policies of imperial powers. Germany’s policy in Namibia informed rear-area policing during WW1, which informed security policy in occupied France in the following war. It would be interesting to get a handle on how long continuity of operations, for lack of a better term, lasts. I’m not talking about mission creep but rather missions being reoriented in fundamental ways, such as Obama’s head fake to COIN while setting up for CT.

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