John Boyd and Patterns of Conflict: Post-Modern Strategy Deficit Disorder in the Green-on-Blue Violence in Afghanistan by Bill Buppert


“One day you will take a fork in the road, and you’re going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go. If you go one way, you can be somebody. You will have to make your compromises and … turn your back on your friends, but you will be a member of the club, and you will get promoted and get good assignments. Or you can go the other way, and you can do something, something for your country and for your Air Force and for yourself. … You may not get promoted, and you may not get good assignments, and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors, but you won’t have to compromise yourself. … In life there is often a roll call. That’s when you have to make a decision: to be or to do.”                                                                                                 -COL John Boyd

John Boyd did the intellectual heavy lifting after WWII to offer a new strategic paradigm to orchestrate warfare and deeply analyze why the larger nation-states would have increasing challenges that neither technologies nor big budgets would solve.  This essay will configure a Boydian lens over the current American conflict in Afghanistan in general and examine the green-on-blue violence phenomenon in detail to illustrate how the insurgent forces have commandeered the operational level.  Green-on-blue violence is the instantiation of hostile action against allied forces by indigenous coalition forces.

John Boyd was a visionary and much maligned defense intellectual who pioneered a number of theories and grand strategic suggestions which were almost counterintuitive to the accepted precepts and nostrums of the classical and neo-classical military philosophers and thinkers who had influenced the post-WWII Western vision of how military organizations train and fight.  He was the polar opposite of celebrated but fatally flawed modern strategic thinkers like Herman Kahn and John Von Neumann.  He realized that the future fight and the evolution of warfare would still be ultimately reliant on people and not technology.

Boyd discovered and pioneered the modern Air Force combat fighter pilot methodology and contributed in deeper philosophical waters with an examination of how to build cost effective fighting organizations, prescient predictions of new (due to historical amnesia by the West) modes of conflict such as Fourth Generation Warfare and was one of the key innovators in designing the F-15 and F-16 fighter aircraft.  One of the peculiarities of Boyd the man was that he did not write books and most of his intellectual legacy has been written by others. What makes Boyd even more interesting, if not enigmatic, is he is rather hard to pin down for a legacy in the pantheon of modern strategic thought except through his followers and acolytes.

Boyd always emphasized dynamism in thinking and the willingness of large and small organizations to adapt to emerging changes and threats.  Purpose and not merely process were driving attitudes that imbued his work and thinking; a purpose to react in conflict in a fashion that would gain advantage by striking weakness or leveraging surprise.  Nothing Sun Tzu would find scintillating or irregular.

Boyd then extrapolates these seemingly ordinary nostrums into human decision cycles.  His prognostication on the Observe, Orient, Decide and Act (OODA) Loop provides an elegant explanation on the way humans do their everyday business and wage war.  His influence has spread far beyond the war-room to the corporate boardroom. As with all intellectual contests, he has his share of detractors who find him shallow, derivative or unoriginal.

Colin S. Gray describes as eight attributes of the American approach to strategy. [1]  While Gray hails from an ultra-Clausewitzian school of strategic thought and has on occasion taken a dim view of Boyd, they happen to agree on these approaches and why most are pathologically wrong-headed.

  • America tends to practice a severe indifference to history and consistently seeks to fight the last war won.  It will adopt new means of warfare such as “Shock and Awe” or effects based operations (EBO).  The quick collapse of the Iraqi armed forces in 2003 saved the American forces from experiencing the humiliating and instructive defeat of the Israeli Army when they employed EBO and airpower against Hezbollah and had both their army and national reputation severely mauled in the process.
  • The engineering style and the technical fix fascinates American policymakers but tends to create a temporary panacea instead of a long lasting legacy program or menu of policies that matures over time and, more important, adapts over time.
  • The American political culture has tremendous difficulty supporting Long Wars because of an institutional impatience due to the political cycle and low tolerance for casualty figures that start to balloon out of control.
  • An American blindness to cultural differences causes frequent mirror imaging in policy making that cause fits and starts in military campaigns, and increases the difficulty of information operations with the mass base during the prosecution of conflicts and occupations.
  • A continental weltanschauung hinging on the unique American maritime position often induces a strategic deficit disorder to consider the wide-ranging effects of executed policy options.
  • An indifference to strategy in the traditional sense has long been something of an American tradition.  Animated by American exceptionalism, the country has often thought it may be immune to historical trends and precepts of Western strategy if it simply tried hard enough.
  • The resort to force, belated but massive tends to be a response that the military practices on a consistent basis.
  •  An active evasion of politics seems to flesh out much of American military action abroad and the last few years in the wars fomented after 9/11/2001 have seen much foreign policy and its concomitant military action come to ruin through this action.

Boyd, was above all, a synthesist who drew from a long history of strategic thought and considered one of the pillars of advantage to be capability to compromise a threat decision cycle before it could even initiate action.

A Boydian assessment of the green-on-blue violence in Afghanistan would most likely appreciate the enemy decision to compromise the decision cycle of friendly forces and create an indefinite postponement of the critical notion of handing over power to the indigenous forces to create an exit strategy.  By foreclosing on an exit strategy, the threat realizes that the longer the occupation remains in place the more alienated and agitated the mass base will be for the occupier.

“In recent days, rogue Afghan security forces have killed six servicemen from the NATO-led military coalition, pushing the number of such fatalities past 50 in a single year for the first time. The death toll highlights one of the biggest challenges facing the coalition as it nears the end of its role in Afghanistan’s war.

These killings, known as “green-on-blue” or “insider attacks,” have increased substantially within the past two years, accounting for14% of coalition casualties in 2012. Though statistically small compared to the numbers of IED-related (roadside bomb) deaths, these attacks have a significant impact on the coalition’s mission in Afghanistan.

 The two provinces burdened with the bulk of green-on-blue attacks are Helmand and Kandahar. It is no coincidence that these areas are where the Taliban are strongest, and where the country’s highest levels of opium poppy cultivation help fund the insurgency.” [2]

Whether the violence is sponsored at a higher level by Taliban forces who are infiltrating these provocateurs into the ranks or, worse yet for Allied forces in the occupation, these are spontaneous incidents or lone wolf attacks, the results are the same: a permanent trust breach that will ripple through the entire force structure.  Despite nearly eleven years of occupation, the US forces barely own the road networks outside of Kabul much less the more remote regions next to Pakistan.  One finds this eerily reminiscent of the debacle the Soviets were enduring while they attempted to pacify the country.  It even harkens back to the difficulties the dozens of German Wehrmacht divisions attempting to pacify mountainous Yugoslavia in WWII.

“The perception of occupation rests on two main factors: (1) that Western forces are in Afghanistan to support a corrupt and illegitimate central government in Kabul, and (2) that Western forces are willing to impose harm on Afghan civilians to achieve their aims” [3]  The green-on-blue violence is a direct result of the this occupation as evidenced by the suicide bomber trends Pape describes in his book throughout the world.

Assuming the Taliban or a number of disparate rebel organizations opposed to the US occupation are behind this, it infers that these forces have hijacked and compromised the high-level decision cycle of the Allied forces at the operations level.  If so, what strategic advantage would this afford the anti-occupation elements in Afghanistan (and by extension, Pakistan)?  The operational level uses subsidiary tactics to fulfill a strategic vision.  In this case the end-state is to drive the occupation forces out of Afghanistan permanently.  Lind sums it up nicely:

“Having set a realistic strategic goal, we next must understand what strategy is. Col. John Boyd, America’s greatest military theorist, defined it as a game of connection and isolation. We want to break the Taliban’s vital connections while strengthening our own.

As is widely recognized, the key to both is Pakistan. That country is the Taliban’s enabler. Break that connection, and the Taliban would be greatly weakened. In turn, most observers know that we need to strengthen our own connection to Pakistan. In strategy, geography counts.” [3]

The operational construct of the resistance in Afghanistan is far more sound and prone to success whether unwittingly or by design by compromising the decision cycle of the US military forces in Afghanistan than anything the Allies can throw against it. Again, defense intellectuals and US policymakers tend to diminish the operational and tactical IQs of their opponents and the American track record of definitive victory since the end of WWII speaks volumes to the wisdom of this hubristic and ultimately wrong-headed view. Lind’s notion of connection and isolation is so basic it almost becomes a natural inference yet American forces consistently get these associations wrong and monkey-wrench their own perceptions of who is fighting whom on the ground.

In the end, the Americans will follow the Soviets and British into the same trap the Afghans have so ably set for every invader.

 Bibliography/ Sources

[1] Gray, Colin. Modern Strategy.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

[2] Sajjan, Gohel. “Afghanistan: Green-on-blue attacks show there’s no easy way out.” CNN. (accessed October 18, 2012).

[3] Pape, Robert, and James Feldman. Cutting the Fuse: The Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism and How to Stop It. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2012.

[4] Lind, William. “How To Leave Afghanistan.” The American Conservative. (accessed October 18, 2012).

Works Consulted

Bassford, Christopher. “Tip-Toe Through The Trinity or The Strange Persistence Of Trinitarian Warfare.” (accessed March 20, 2012).

Bousquet, Antoine. The Scientific Way of Warfare: Order and Chaos on the Battlefields of Modernity. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.

Ford, Daniel. A Vision So Noble: John Boyd, the OODA Loop, and America’s War on Terror . Charleston: CreateSpace, 2010.

Hammond, Grant. The Mind of War: John Boyd and American Security. Washington, DC: Smithsonian, 2004.

Lind, Michael. Maneuver Warfare Handbook (Westview Special Studies in Military Affairs). Boulder: Westview, 1985.

Luttwak, Edward. Coup d’État: A Practical Handbook. Boston: Harvard, 2002.

Luttwak, Edward. The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire: From the First Century A.D. to the Third. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1979.

Osinga, Frans. Science, Strategy and War: The Strategic Theory of John Boyd (Strategy and History). Florence: Routledge, 2006.

Pape, Robert. Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2006.

Richards, Chester. A Swift, Elusive Sword: What if Sun Tzu and John Boyd Did a National Defense Review?. Washington, DC: Center for Defense Information, 2003.

Richards, Chester. Certain to Win: The Strategy of John Boyd, Applied to Business. Bloomington: Xlibris, 2004.

Safranski, Mark. The John Boyd Roundtable: Debating Science, Strategy, and War. New York: Nimble, 2008.

Van Creveld, Martin. Fighting Power: German and U.S. Army Performance, 1939-1945. Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2007.

5 thoughts on “John Boyd and Patterns of Conflict: Post-Modern Strategy Deficit Disorder in the Green-on-Blue Violence in Afghanistan by Bill Buppert”

  1. Pingback: ZeroGov: John Boyd and Patterns of Conflict – Post-Modern Strategy Deficit Disorder in the Green-on-Blue Violence in Afghanistan | Western Rifle Shooters Association

  2. Very good article Bill. We tend to have quite a bit of discussion on this particular topic here at NTM-A/CSTC-A in Kabul. If anyone does not know it is this command’s mission to train the ANA and ANP. The relational datum point here is many of the incidents occur to this commands troop and civilian. You also touched on what I am considering to be part of my doctoral dissertation buddy. :).


  3. When you have friends and family killed through outright indifference and arrogance then what does a man have left to lose? A foreigner has no “skin” in the game. You’re going to infiltrate and take out your revenge when the time is right to YOU and not some schedule by pencil neck geeks thousands of miles away. Take for example the recent airbase attack. A group wearing the costumes of the invaders was able to inflict more damage on the ground, without fighter jets, than was even imagined. How? They watched, waited, and then acted as they wished. Time is on the side of the ones invaded not the invaders.

  4. Very informative. I’ve never been a historian but am learning a lot from these types of well-written articles. I became very interested in history on listening to Stefan Molyneux’ yt production called “the death of the west,” as related to WW1.

  5. Pingback: Why Do the American People Support Such a Buffoonish Government? (and other news…) » Scott Lazarowitz's Blog

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