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A look back at the madness that led us into our wars. How does this advice read 6 years later?

26 June 2012

Summary: Now that we’re extricating ourselves from the first two nations we occupied in the War On Terror, with no gains to offset the cost in money and blood, let’s re-examine the advice that led us into those holes.  Like the memos planning the Vietnam War, after the war they’ll read as madness.  Historians will wonder why we took this foolishness seriously.  But we can learn from this experience, as we failed to do from Vietnam.

We had a wide range of advisors for our futile wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Some charlatans, such as Max Boot.  Some brilliant, like Ralph Peters and David Kilcullen.  The latter are more interesting.  With good senior leaders, political and military, the work of Peters and Kilcullen would have earned themselves prominent places in the annals of military history.  But instead their expertise was used to justify and support wars probably impossible to win — and destructive to those who try. Great men in the service of donkeys.

Today we’ll look at Kilcullen’s best-known work, highly influential mid-way through our wars — after the first rush of enthusiasm had passed and doubts appeared.  This is an excerpt from an article I wrote in rebuttal.  The Editor (rightly) dissuaded me from calling Kilcullen’s article pernicious nonsense, requiring instead a detailed analysis.  Now we can see more clearly. Six years later all that remains is one important question, left for readers to answer in the comments (because I haven’t a clue): why did anyone consider as sensible Kilcullen’s pernicious nonsense masquerading as advice?

Why do we lose 4th generation wars?
Originally posted on at Defense and the National Interest on 4 January 2007

An early symptom of impending defeat is loss of confidence in one’s tactical doctrines. In a strong military culture, though, this can spark a burst of creativity. In WWI, this resulted in the perfection by the German Army of infiltration tactics. Later, with new technology, this became blitzkrieg.

How has the prospect of defeat in Iraq affected the US military?

.

Blowing up hearts and minds…

The first effect has been to grasp at our strengths, the attributes that have proved insufficient in Iraq.  Like a “drop of the hair of the dog that bit you” on the morning-after, it does not help.  Enthusiasm for the work of David Kilcullen clearly shows this dynamic at work. He has a strong background in modern military theory: Lt. Col in the Australian Army, Ph.D. in anthropology, Chief Strategist in the Office of the State Department’s Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism, recently awarded the Medal for Exceptional Public Service …

Let us look at the most widely circulated of his works about counterinsurgency: “Twenty-Eight Articles: Fundamentals of Company-Level CounterinsurgencyMilitary Review, May – June 2006.   Explicitly written for a Coalition company commander just warned for deployment in Iraq or Afghanistan … At the opening Kilcullen defines his subject:

{Counterinsurgency} is a competition with the insurgent for the right and the ability to win the hearts, minds and acquiescence of the population.

As noted above, Kilcullen is not drawing distinctions between guerrilla warfare, to which this statement applies, and insurgency. With that in mind, we can then ask whether it is possible for us “to win the hearts, minds and acquiescence of the population”?

The answer is “no,” and the rationale is critical to appreciating why Kilcullen’s lessons learned for tactical commanders may mislead politicians who try to generalize it to a war-winning strategy (just implement his tactics and we win) or even worse, to grand strategy. For an explanation we must look at the different types of 4GW. …

(3)  Kilcullen’s Article #1 – Know your turf

Know the people, the topography, economy, history, religion and culture. Know every village, road, field, population group, tribal leader and ancient grievance. Your task is to become the world expert on your district.

It is easy to read this as important but banal. Centurions posted to remote Roman provinces were probably told to “know your turf.” This ignores the depth of Kilcullen’s insight.  Kilcullen here describes the “home court advantage.” It is a powerful advantage in 4GW, perhaps one reason for the consistent victory of locals over foreigners.  This is not a new aspect of war.

“As we shall show, defense is a stronger form of fighting than attack. … I am convinced that the superiority of the defensive (if rightly understood) is very great, far greater than appears at first sight.”
— Clausewitz, On War, Book 1, Chapter 1

Unfortunately, in the Middle East everyone has this advantage, except us.  The world expert on “your” district already lives there and probably was born there.  US company commanders on six to twelve month rotations cannot develop anything comparable to the locals’ knowledge about their home, especially in so foreign a culture. It might be difficult for some of them to do so quickly in Watts or Harlem. …

(4)  Article #2 – Diagnose the problem

Once you know your area and its people, you can begin to diagnose the problem. Who are the insurgents? What drives them? What makes local leaders tick?

Having “strategic corporals” was insufficient. Now we need “sociologist captains.” This is not a task for company commanders, already carrying a complex and heavy load of managerial and leadership duties.  Nor does Kilcullen explain how to apply this advice. Once you have understood the insurgents and diagnosed the problem, how do you construct a solution? A handbook offering these answers could solve many of America’s own domestic problems.

Worst of all, this advice crashes on our lack of the home court advantage. How can someone newly arrived in a foreign culture – Iraq and especially Afghanistan are very foreign to most Americans – do this without speaking the local languages? …

(5)  Article #10 – Be there

The first rule of deployment in counterinsurgency is to be there. So your first order of business is to establish presence. If you cannot do this throughout your sector, then do it wherever you can. This demands a residential approach – living in your sector, in close proximity to the population, rather than raiding into the area from remote, secure bases. Movement on foot, sleeping in local villages, night patrolling: all these seem more dangerous than they are.

This is good advice for insurgents, well known since Mao said that the guerrilla is like a fish that swims in the sea of the people. In chapter 37 of Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence wrote words that apply equally today (although in a different context) to the insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan (bold emphasis added):

“Our largest resources, the Bedouin on whom our war must be built, were unused to formal operations, but had assets of mobility, toughness, self-assurance, knowledge of the country, intelligent courage. With them dispersal was strength. Consequently we must extend our front to its maximum, to impose on the Turks the longest possible passive defence, since that was, materially, their most costly form of war.”

Will this work for us? Perhaps Kilcullen is correct that “these seem more dangerous than they are”, but in insurgent-held areas patrolling has run up casualties with no evident benefit.  Kilcullen might have in mind the Marine’s combined action platoons (CAP), Marines deployed to live in Vietnamese villages. They proved effective in Vietnam’s largely neutral (i.e., apolitical) rural areas.  Iraq is highly urbanized, with a far more politically “mobilized” people than Vietnam’s 1960′s rural peasants. Dropping a unit of Marines into an Iraq town might be …

  1. a waste of effort, if in a (relatively) peaceful Kurdish or Shiite area (i.e., already run by the locals), or
  2. suicidal, if in an area controlled by the insurgents.

I doubt there are many intermediate situations, except for what are in effect urban war zones like Baghdad, where coalition forces are bunkered in the Green Zone. Anyone suggesting the “residential approach” in Baghdad should be invited to be to test it out, personally.

(6)  Kilcullen’s expectations for our company commanders

We have fielded some of the best-educated and trained company commanders the world has ever seen. We can ask much of them, but not everything of them.  Increasing their responsibilities should not substitute for the military’s lack of effective doctrine and operational intelligence.  Simplifying their job might produce better results than making it more complex. Certainly, the insurgents’ operational doctrines do not require leaders with a college degree, let alone graduate studies. Perhaps we can learn something from them in this respect.

Furthermore, they are products of America – perhaps our finest “products.” As such, they carry with them both the strengths and weaknesses of our culture, and it is not realistic to expect them to quickly free themselves from what they are.  In general, since early childhood they have been indoctrinated to value and believe in freedom and equality, and to consider opposing beliefs are unreasonable. However fine and just, this does not help them understand and empathize a culture with different values – such as Iraq and, even more so, Afghanistan, where religion and tribal/ethnic loyalties play a much larger role.

Good commanders can do much. Great commanders can do almost anything. However, nobody can do everything. Perhaps Kilcullen asks too much.

From another perspective, these 28 articles help us even if we cannot implement them as well as can local insurgents?  That misses their significance.  These are the competitive advantages of insurgents. To borrow Michael Porter’s phrase, these are insurgents’ “core competencies.”  In conventional wars, such as WWII, armies could copy tactical innovations from their enemies. In 4GW’s what works for the insurgents often does not work well for foreigners – a basic tenet of asymmetric warfare.

We can learn from our enemies, but we will continue to lose these wars unless we find other, different, advantages vs. the insurgents. The search for these continues, but for us this is at present a “Handbook for Losers.” …

For more information

For more information about Kilcullen, including links to many of his articles:

Posts about COIN:

  1. More paths to failure in Iraq, 16 December 2006 — Myths about COIN in Iraq
  2. How often do insurgents win?  How much time does successful COIN require?, 29 May 2008
  3. No coins, no COIN, 6 October 2008
  4. Is COIN the graduate level of military hubris?, 30 July 2008
  5. Max Boot: history suggests we will win in Afghanistan, with better than 50-50 odds. Here’s the real story., 21 June 2010 — Boot discusses 7 alleged victories by foreign armies fighting insurgencies.
  6. A major discovery! It could change the course of US geopolitical strategy, if we’d only see it, 28 June 2010 — Andrew Exum (aka Abu Muqawama) points us to the doctoral dissertation of Erin Marie Simpson in Political Science from Harvard.  She examines the present and past analysis of  counter-insurgency.  This could change the course of American foreign policy, if we pay attention.
  7. A look at the history of victories over insurgents, 30 June 2010
  8. WPR: “Counterinsurgency in the Post-COIN Era”, 31 January 2012
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16 Comments leave one →
  1. Pluto permalink
    26 June 2012 11:34 am

    Why did we follow the advice of experts that now seems foolish?

    Because they seemed to offer us an easier way to achieve the task we had already assigned ourselves. As you’ll recall, we were either in the countries or about to invade them (with no chance that we would change our intent) when the advice was offered.

    Once you’ve irrevocably decided to go to Hell, isn’t it wisest to to seek advice on the least painful road and the best places to visit while there? At the time our leaders didn’t want to hear that the mission was futile and impossible so this probably was the least bad advice they could take.

  2. 26 June 2012 1:17 pm

    Once you have understood the insurgents and diagnosed the problem, how do you construct a solution?

    Well, the insurgents’ agenda is pretty simple: they want us to leave. So, there are two possible paths to solution. One is to leave. The other is to stay and somehow get the insurgents to completely change their minds.

    I would add that “hearts and minds” campaigns should not involve lots of high explosive.

  3. 26 June 2012 1:28 pm

    That misses their significance. These are the competitive advantages of insurgents.

    As I read this, I was still thinking about the “hearts and minds” issue and was imagining how to reverse the tables on an insurgency. Well, the obvious answer would be to sucker the Taliban into trying to take over Los Angeles. Unfortunately, that would require them to be a) much more organized and hierarchical b) be incredibly stupid. So, rearranging that thought a bit I realize that the problem is nothing more or less than that invading Afghanistan and Iraq was incredibly stupid. Why are we making such a complex system out of what was nothing more than a flat-out absurd blunder? Do we need a more complicated analysis than that our government was taken over by ideologues who practiced and are currently expanding the foreign policy equivalent of lysenkoism?

    To stick with that analogy, it’s hardly worth wondering whether Lysenko had a point or not. We can move up the org chart and ask why Stalin and his cronies chose to believe Lysenko, but that’s also fruitless.

    The way to win a war in Afghanistan: be the Afghani.

  4. Matt D. permalink
    27 June 2012 4:01 am

    I find it hard to accept that invading and profitably dominating foreign territory has become impossible *in principle*, as this post seems to imply. Invaded peoples resisted fiercely long before we called it 4GW, and there were countless examples of failed and successful conquests before the modern era; also examples of successfully conquered peoples who eventually rose up and broke away.

    The way I see it, we failed in Iraq in 2 ways. First, we went there. It was a morally questionable, dicey operation to begin with, almost definitely better to stay far away.

    Second, once we were there and had the entire country shocked and awed and in our possession, we completely blew our chance to govern it wisely. After getting off on the wrong foot and losing our credibility with the people and the various factions, it was quite natural for things to fall apart in an ugly way. For we proved incapable of being either trustworthy friends, or vengeful enemies, or generous benefactors, or fair judges. We exposed those who trusted us as fools, and made rich men out of those who betrayed us. Most of the people we killed were the best people in the country– those with the good sense to resist us.

    I don’t think the laws of 4GW should have prevented us from enacting sensible policies that would have made us at least competent governors of Iraq. The Iraqi people were exhausted and ready for a change. They were not like the Phillipinos of 1902, spoiling for a fight– our incompetence compelled rebellion. From the lessons of our own history as a nation, let alone the history of the world, we should have known better than to disband the Iraqi Army or commit any of the other gaffes which ultimately unhinged the situation.

    If we had governed well, we still might have had to raze Falluja– but this ruthlessness might have actually restored order, instead of just being one more atrocity on top of a heap of muddled anarchy.

    • 27 June 2012 4:16 am

      “I find it hard to accept that invading and profitably dominating foreign territory has become impossible *in principle* … Invaded peoples resisted fiercely long before we called it 4GW, and there were countless examples of failed and successful conquests before the modern era; also examples of successfully conquered peoples who eventually rose up and broke away.”

      There’s no need to guess at these things.

      (1) Before WWII there were very few successful insurgencies against foreign armies. In the ancient world the Maccabees’ revolt (160-167 bce) was considered extraordinary, almost unique. Ditto the American Revolution.

      (2) There have been many studies of the success rate of insurgents against foreign armies. They all show a very low success rate, usually in special circumstances.

      1. How often do insurgents win? How much time does successful COIN require?, 29 May 2008
      2. Max Boot: history suggests we will win in Afghanistan, with better than 50-50 odds. Here’s the real story., 21 June 2010 — Boot discusses 7 alleged victories by foreign armies fighting insurgencies.
      3. A major discovery! It could change the course of US geopolitical strategy, if we’d only see it, 28 June 2010 — Andrew Exum (aka Abu Muqawama) points us to the doctoral dissertation of Erin Marie Simpson in Political Science from Harvard. She examines the present and past analysis of counter-insurgency. This could change the course of American foreign policy, if we pay attention.
      4. A look at the history of victories over insurgents, 30 June 2010

      A summary of the record from Chapter 6.2 in Martin van Creveld’s Changing Face of War (2006):

      What is known, though, is that attempts by post-1945 armed forces to suppress guerrillas and terrorists have constituted a long, almost unbroken record of failure … {W}hat changed was the fact that, whereas previously it had been the main Western powers that failed, now the list included other countries as well. Portugal’s expulsion from Africa in 1975 was followed by the failure of the South Africans in Namibia, the Ethiopians in Ertrea, the Indians in Sri Lanka, the Americans in Somalia, and the Israelis in Lebanon. … Even in Denmark {during WWII}, “the model protectorate”, resistance increased as time went on.

      Many of these nations used force up to the level of genocide in their failed attempts to defeat local insurgencies. Despite that, foreign forces have an almost uniform record of defeat. Such as the French-Algerian War, which the French waged until their government collapsed.

    • 27 June 2012 11:00 pm

      If we had governed well, we still might have had to raze Falluja– but this ruthlessness might have actually restored order

      #snark
      Yes, sometimes it is necessary to destroy a city in order to save it.
      #endsnark

    • 27 June 2012 11:11 pm

      People have refought each of the dozens of 4GWs since WWII in which foreign armies have been defeated by local insurgents, as they find it difficult to accept that large modern armies we defeated by untrained ill-equipped peasants. So they tell themselves stories. If only “we” had done this or that, certainly “we” would have won. Algeria would be French! South Vietnam would be free! Iraq would be — what?

      It’s pointless to ask about people’s fantasies, but its difficult to imagine what Matt dreams would have resulted from “restoring order” in Iraq, or how such a thing could have been accomplished.

    • Matt D. permalink
      27 June 2012 11:27 pm

      FM– I downloaded Ethnicity, Insurgency and Civil War by Fearon and Latin, and it looks like they only examine insurgent success rate after 1945. The period since 1945 has been characterized by the general contraction of European imperial power and the simultaneous resurgence of the various lands they colonized. In other words, any observed increase in the success rate of rebellions probably has a large cyclical element– aren’t rebellions always more successful when empires recede?

      I don’t think the presence of this general trend excuses us from examining the particulars of each case. I think that in Iraq in particular we made a number of conscious, unforced policy choices that greatly contributed to the strength of the insurgency.

      Also, at first glance, it appears that there have been many successful rebellions and resistances to invasion both in ancient and more recent history. So if you could point me in the direction of the research that says successful insurgencies against foreigners have always been rare, I would be interested in examining it more closely.

    • 27 June 2012 11:49 pm

      (1) “they only examine insurgent success rate after 1945.”

      Yes, that’s the point pretty much everybody discussing 4GW (under various names) makes. Mao brought the “art” of 4GW to maturity, and so began a new “generation of war.”

      (2) “The period since 1945 has been characterized by the general contraction of European imperial power”

      It’s not just victories against European foreign armies. Creveld mentions “the South Africans in Namibia, the Ethiopians in Ertrea, the Indians in Sri Lanka, … and the Israelis in Lebanon”.

      (3) “I don’t think the presence of this general trend excuses us from examining the particulars of each case”

      When there is such a consistent pattern there are probably larger structural patterns at work, which suggests that telling pretty stories of what might have been are futile. It’s just a failure to learn, similar in essence to the reluctance to give up horse cavalry. Hence the successful small industry of historical revisionism after Vietnam, which laid the basis for our disastrous foreign interventions after 9-11.

      (4) “at first glance, it appears that there have been many successful rebellions and resistances to invasion both in ancient and more recent history.”

      Let’s see your list of “many” pre-WWII successful rebellions against foreign rulers and successful defeats of invaders by local forces other than armies. Maccabees’ revolt (160-167 bce), American Revolution, …

    • Matt D. permalink
      28 June 2012 1:50 am

      The Koreans against the Japanese Shogunate (17th century), Dutch against he Spanish (17th century), Hatians against Napoleon (19th century), Carduchians against the Achaemenid Persians (5th century BC, see Xenophon’s Anabasis). Also, if you want to count the American revolution, you also have to count Mexico’s long and successful struggle to break away from Spain as well as the ultimately successful independence struggle in Spain’s mainland South American colonies.

      The Mexican nationalist success against their French Bourbon emporer (19th century) also seems like a good example. Also the Germanic tribes against the Romans in the 1st century (the Romans had conventional superiority but were still forced to cede territory).

      Also, the Bulgarians and Vlachs against the Byzantine Empire (12th century). And the Sicilian Vespers against the French (13th century). The Swedes against the Danes (16th century). The Scots against England (14th century).

      Also, I would suggest that defining insurgency as “resistance by forces other than armies” is not a tractable definition. What is or isn’t an army? The Maccabbees most certainly had an army, so do they still count? I think it makes more sense to simply require that the winning side have nationalistic goals and inferior conventional military might. I don’t think that an eventual victory on the field (as the Maccabees enjoyed) should be disqualifying.

    • 28 June 2012 3:41 am

      It’s a short list for the entire world over 2500 years, considering that for most of that time most of the world was held by imperial forces of some sort. Is that even one per century for the world?

      That’s a very short list, especially as it includes the disintegration of structurally weak Empires (eg, Hapsburgs), internal rotting empires (eg Spain, Byzantine), effect of plagues (eg, Hati), and several tiny areas (eg, Haiti, Sicily). And several cases that don’t apply to the nationalist paradigm we’re discussing (in what sense did Rome control the Germanic tribes? It’s not really what we’d consider a colony).

      The difficulty of insurgencies before maturity of 4GW is shown by the rarity of their wins in the 3 millenia before 1945 (a few dozen) — and the large number of their wins in the 67 years since then (50 – 100, depending on how you count them).

    • Matt D. permalink
      28 June 2012 4:21 am

      The examples I provided are only a sample. Depending on your criteria, it would be easy to continue building this list indefinitely. I would say that the relation of the Germanic tribes to the Roman empire was about the same as the Iberians, except that the Iberians were eventually conquered with difficulty while the Germans were bloodied but got to keep some of their territory.

      Regardless of whether past rebellions fit neatly into the modern “insurgency” paradigm, I see ample reasons for the continued validity of analogies with with past. There are many similarities between the rapid expansion, stagnation, and sudden contraction of European colonial power and the imperial cycles of the past. Indeed, this is THE dominant imperial pattern, repeated over and over again throughout history– a newly-formed group gains a competitive advantage and expands their dominion as far as it can reach, then stagnates. Then the pressure from independent-minded members of the conquering group and resurgent natives builds until the empire is progressively broken into smaller and smaller polities, stabilizing again in a state of devolved power.

      So I see the basic pattern as being basically the same. The fact that the breakaways in the latest contraction were mostly led by nationalists rather than ambitious petty warlords and princes is a detail. Perhaps it is an important detail.

      I would also mention that it is much easier to see this imperial pattern if you look beyond the history of the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire seems to have been almost unique in its territorial stability. Perhaps this was because it expanded relatively gradually. The Mongol Empire, by contrast, expanded explosively and imploded rapidly.

    • 28 June 2012 4:33 am

      Believe what you like. This debate has been waged for 60 years, with folks like you insisting that the past failures were flukes, that under your wise management — with nifty new tactics — the new war can be won. Lots of people die. Then you folks insist that the failure was a fluke, that the war could have been won with simple tactics that are now obvious — and if the obvious mistakes were avoided.

      Then the process repeats with the next war, and the war after that, and the war after that.

      We see this in the comments on the FM website. Afghanistan can be won. Iraq can be won. Our new wars can be won.

      Whatever, dudes.

    • Matt D. permalink
      28 June 2012 4:59 am

      I need not take a moral position on the war to point out that there were numerous policy CHOICES that we made which appear to have been decisive factors in Iraq’s catastrophic destabilization. This is a plain fact. Are you glad that things turned out so badly? Once 10 years of sanctions and the invasion were already irrevocably accomplished, was the complete unraveling of Iraqi society into a barbarity worse than anyone’s worst nightmare really the BEST case scenario?

      My takeaway is not that, with a few easy tweaks, we can win any war we want so we should try again as soon as possible. My conclusion is that our Iraq intervention and similar episodes were obviously driven by corrupted intentions, and that we should fear the harm that we may do to ourselves through this corruption more than we should fear some third-world upstart who may or may not have a bomb.

    • 28 June 2012 5:34 am

      Suggestion: next time state what you are attempting to say before dragging us through all the malarkey about the Germanic tribes rebelling against Rome as a rebuttal against the dominance of 4GW in our time.

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