Category Archives: America’s Long War

Our longest war, fought for uncertain goals — with no visible end.

The New World Disorder: better, or worse?

Summary:  In today’s post Martin van Creveld, among our time’s top historians and military theorists, looks at the geopolitical state of the world. Are the doomsters right, and it is falling down? Or have we begun a new era of peace with the triumph of western culture around the world?  (1st of 2 posts today.}

The clash of civilizations

The New World Disorder

By Martin van Creveld
From his website, 19 March 2015
Posted here with his generous permission.

“A new world order” is in the making, said U.S President George Bush Sr. as the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union, its limbs broken, was lying prostrate. “The end of history” has come, proclaimed famed political scientist Francis Fukuyama. At the core of World War II, Fukuyama explained, stood a titanic struggle between three ideologies: liberal democracy, fascism, and communism. By 1945 fascism had been destroyed. Fifty-something years later, communism too had failed and would not rise again.

But that, Fukuyama continued, was only the beginning. As more and more countries became industrialized and developed a strong middle class, Hollywood and McDonald’s would spread the happy tidings. They would do away with all kinds of cultural relics, globalize the world, and make it safe for liberal democracy. Better still: since everybody knew that democracies never, ever fight each other, war itself would gradually disappear. The new world order, Fukuyama wrote, might be a trifle boring. But that seemed a small price to pay for the blessings of peace and, hopefully ever-spreading prosperity as well.

A quarter of a century later, most of our dreams have been shattered. True, fascism and communism in their classical forms have not made a serious comeback. But autocracy, which is almost as bad, continues to govern large parts of the earth’s population. Some autocratically-governed countries, such as Belarus and North Korea, have done badly. One, Russia, is currently fighting what may be seen either as a war of expansion or as a desperate struggle to assert itself and avoid disintegration. And at least one, China, has done spectacularly well.

As a Chinese friend told me, this is the first period in Chinese history when almost everybody has enough to eat. In a country as large, and over long periods as poor as China used to be, that is no mean achievement. And as a Nigerian student told me: When the Chinese come marching into a “developing” country they do not waste their time preaching democracy and human rights as Westerners always do. Instead they bring dollars, lots and lots of them. Nor are they shy of paying bribes where they think doing so will grease the wheels. The outcome is that, in quite some places, Chinese autocracy, far from being denounced for its lack of democracy and freedom, is praised as a model to follow.

Another widespread belief which did not come true was that wealth, generated by new technologies and better, read less coercive, methods of organization, would keep spreading. It is not that the world has become poorer. Rather what has happened is that the distribution of wealth has changed. As the French economist Thomas Picketty in his book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, has shown, not since the early years of the twentieth century has the gap between rich and poor been as large as it is at present.

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Good news: our military sees that we face skillful foes!

Summary: The Wall Street Journal brings a rare bit of good news about our foreign wars, a story acknowledging our foe’s military skill. We should applaud recognition of reality, however belated, as a step forward. With luck next might come awareness that their skill results in part from our tactics.  {2nd of 2 posts today.}

“People, ideas and hardware, in that order!”
— the late John R. Boyd (Colonel, USAF), quoted in Chet Richard’s Certain to Win.

Advertisement by our foes

This week the Wall Street Journal published a rare perspective on our jihadist enemies: “How Islamic State’s Win in Ramadi Reveals New Weapons, Tactical Sophistication and Prowess” — “Examination of Ramadi’s downfall reflects complex plans and new weapons.”

U.S. defense chief Ash Carter has blamed Ramadi’s fall mainly on Iraqi forces’ lack of will to fight. But Islamic State’s battlefield performance suggests the terrorist group’s tactical sophistication is growing — a development the Iraqis and the U.S.-led coalition have so far failed to counter, said Iraqi officials, former U.S. officials and military analysts studying the organization.

An examination of how Ramadi fell indicates that Islamic State commanders executed a complex battle plan that outwitted a greater force of Iraqi troops as well as the much-lauded, U.S.-trained special-operations force known as the Golden Division, which had been fighting for months to defend the city. Islamic State commanders evaded surveillance and airstrikes to bring reinforcements to its front lines in western Iraq. The group displayed a high degree of operational security by silencing its social media and propaganda teams during the Ramadi surge.

The group also churned out dozens of formidable new weapons by converting captured U.S. military armored vehicles designed to be impervious to small-arms fire into megabombs with payloads equal to the force of the Oklahoma City bombing. Over the three-day surge in Ramadi, Islamic State fighters launched at least 27 such vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices, or Vbieds, that destroyed Iraq security forces’ defensive perimeters and crumbled multistory buildings.

Military analysts said the new formidable weapon was the latest development showing how the group appears to be learning from battlefield defeats like the one in Kobani, Syria, last summer in pursuit of its goal to control the Sunni-majority areas of Syria and Iraq.

“It’s very frustrating,” said Bill Roggio, senior fellow at the Defense of Democracies think tank and managing editor of the Long War Journal, which chronicles the U.S. war on terror. “These guys are showing a good degree of tactical awareness.”

Our military and civilian experts attributed our foes’ victories to their evil tactics (terrorism), to their religion, to our allies’ weakness, and to our virtue (e.g., reluctance to kill civilians). They seldom gave much credit to our foes’ competence, adaptability, and ability to innovate — all supposed to be American’s advantages vs. foreigners.

This denigration of our foes has been a consistent aspect of our post-9/11 wars. They “are hard dead-enders” (SecDef Rumsfeld, March 2002). They are “criminals … who are willing to be guns for hire” and “foreigners who have come in small numbers”” (Major General David Petraeus of the 101st Airborne, November 2003).

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Why the West loses so many wars, and how we can learn to win.

Martin van Creveld, among our time’s top historians and military theorists, asked for a submission to his website. I provided this essay about modern war, a summary of themes often discussed here during the past 8 years. It’s probably the most important contribution to readers of the FM website. The West’s failure to learn this simple lesson is among the greatest of our weaknesses, so large as to offset the power of even the greatest of nations.

Fake Churchill about success

Among the dumbest advice ever. Churchill didn’t say it.

Our wars since WWII

The local fighter is therefore often an accidental guerrilla — fighting us because we are in his space, not because he wishes to invade ours. He follows folk-ways of tribal warfare that are mediated by traditional cultural norms, values, and perceptual lenses; he is engaged (from his point of view) in “resistance” rather than “insurgency” and fights principally to be left alone.

— David Kilcullen in The Accidental Guerrilla (2011).

Most of the West’s wars since WWII have been fight insurgencies in foreign lands. Although an ancient form of conflict, the odds shifted when Mao brought non-trinitarian (aka 4th generation) warfare to maturity. Not until the late 1950’s did many realize that war had evolved again.

It took more decades more for the West to understand what they faced. Only after the failure of our occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq did the essential aspect of this new era become known, as described in Chapter 6.2 of Martin van Creveld’s The 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 Eritrea, 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.

The two kinds of insurgencies

In January 2007 I gave a more detailed explanation to van Creveld’s conclusion. As a simple dichotomy for analytical purposes, we can sort insurgencies by the degree of involvement of outside armed forces (of course, there are other ways to characterize 4GW).

  1. Violence between two or more local groups, who can form from any combination of clans, governments, ethnicities, religions, gangs, and tribes.
  2. Violence between two or more sides, where at least one is led by foreigners – comprising, as above, any imaginable combination of factions.

{ Read the rest at Martin van Creveld’s website.
Post your comments here; he doesn’t allow comments.}

 

Is victory impossible in modern wars? Or just not possible for us?

Summary: Slowly America begins to absorb lessons from our fails in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet as with Vietnam we prefer not to see too deeply. Mark Kukis at aeon gives us another incisive analysis of modern war that misses the mark, and so sets us up for the next failed war.  {2nd of 2 wars.}

The Arch of the Victory in Genoa

The Arch of the Victory in Genoa

Recommended reading: “The myth of victory” by Mark Kukis at aeon

“War isn’t like it used to be. Victory is more elusive & a strong military doesn’t count as much.”

Mark Kukis knows this subject well, having covered our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for the major media and author of Voices from Iraq: A People’s History, 2003-2009, and covered the Afghan and Iraq wars for Time, The New Republic and Salon. This fall he and Andrew Bacevich will work on an open online course, “War for the Greater Middle East”.

I agree in spirit with this brilliant article. But his analysis repeats the mistakes of the previous military reform movement that burned brightly but was proven ineffectual by our wars after 9/11. In that sense it’s similar to the also excellent article by James Fallows in January’s The Atlantic, as I described in this post, and later here. They are complex, academic in nature, unfocused, and obscure the important lessons. They’re guaranteed to have little effect.

Refusal to learn

Kukis begins, as those advocating reform usually do, by stating the problem: America’s refusal to recognize the changed nature of modern war (aka 4th generation war, non-trinitarian war).

How could the Taliban have bested the United States? A more uneven military contest is scarcely imaginable when you consider the state of the two factions on the eve of 9/11. Before the US invasion, the Taliban had an army of roughly 30,000. Taliban forces hardly qualified as a real army, though. They operated more like a decentralised militia scattered around a mountainous country, with few roads and no communications of any kind. They had no officers. A rotating crew of regional commanders oversaw garrisons around the country. Most fighters went unpaid except for the occasional handout from a commander before they went on leave.

In the US, meanwhile, armories bristled with sophisticated weaponry and equipment. {Etc, — we have lots of stuff, more and better stuff than anyone, anywhere, anytime.}

After this strong start he draws a quite fallacious conclusion, based on a strawman assumption.

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The Right urges us to blame Obama & directly fight ISIS. Will we repeat our mistakes?

Summary:  As ISIS (grandly calling itself the “Islamic State”) expands, the Right blames Obama and calls for more direct military involvement by America. Their arguments rely on our amnesia about the past and delusions about the nature of modern war. Learning from experience is a vital skill for a nation hoping to navigate the rapids of 21st C geopolitics; so far we refuse to even try.  (2nd of 2 posts today.)

“They have learned nothing, and forgotten nothing.”
— French naval officer Charles Louis Etienne in a 1796 letter to Mallet du Pan.

Let's make a choice!

Our grandchildren will marvel at the obtuseness of our foreign policy. Future generations of historians will discuss the causes of our inability to learn from experience in our post-9/11 wars. Not only do we appear determined to repeat painful mistakes, we continue to take advice from the people who guided us into these failed wars — ignoring the clear lessons of post-WWII history — rather the people whose warnings proved prophetic.

Can any nation, no matter how rich and power, survive such a combination of amnesia, blindness, and arrogance?

The fall of Ramadi was avoidable” by Kimberly Kagan and Frederick W. Kagan, op-ed in the Washington Post, 18 May 2015. She is president of the Institute for the Study of War. He is a Director at the American Enterprise Institute. Despite being consistently wrong, our wars have been good for them — although not so good for America, for our troops that fight them, and for the nations we seek to help.

Learning From Mistakes” by David Brooks, column in the New York Times, may 2015. Our wars promoted Brooks from neocon hack at the Weekly Standard to mainstream respectability at the NYT. Simon Maloy at Salon eviscerated Brooks’ “learning” in “David Brooks’ sickening Iraq apologia“. “How the New York Times hack just rewrote history. The conservative New York Times columnist explains what he’s learned from his Iraq war boosting: largely nothing.”

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Should we use our special operations troops as assassins? Is it right, or even smart?

Summary: As we learn the details about the raid by US special operations forces on bin Laden’s home, we should reflect on how we have used our elite troops since 9/11. Years of dark deeds with bad outcomes show a people on the road to failure. Closing our eyes while we fantasize makes the ride more enjoyable, but not the end.  {2nd of 2 posts today.}

“I’ll be the good guy.  You be the American special ops assassin.”
— Children at play around the world.

Special Forces

Image by Eric A. Hendrix.

Contents

  1. Destroying the brand.
  2. The tip of our spear.
  3. Consequences.
  4. Other posts in this series.
  5. For More Information.

(1)  Destroying the brand

Every first year MBA student knows that a company’s brand is among its most valuable assets. So it goes for nations as well, where brands attack allies and generate foes. WWII created the brand that we think of as America. But we’re creating a new brand for America that will influence our grand strategy for generations to come.

The CIA has long had a dark reputation overseas, overthrowing democratically elected governments that dare to oppose America. It installed tyrants. But the doers of these dark deeds was compartmentalized, it’s deeds somewhat concealed.

The bin Laden raid shows a next step in the formation of a new face for America as our finest soldiers indelibly stain their reputations by becoming assassins, striking from the night (much as America’s technology becomes Skynet — drones run by cowards that kill from cushy seats on the other side of the globe).

The occasional hit might be forgiven or overlooked.  But as the Romans said, Dosis facit venenum.  It is the dose that makes the poison.  Too many hits and our special ops forces might as well adopt “America’s Sword and Shield” as their motto.  If the KGB will lend it to us.

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The day after Hersh: rebuttals & more evidence about the bin Laden hit

Summary: On Sunday the London Review of Books published Hersh’s article trashing Obama’s story about the raid to kill bin Laden. The next day told us much about America, with the reflexive denials by government officials, their support by the government’s fanboys, and the rapid arrival of more evidence supporting Hersh’s analysis.  {1st of 2 posts today.} Obama officially announces bin Laden's death

Contents

  1. The lesson we refuse to learn.
  2. The government’s fanboys speak!
  3. Supporting evidence.
  4. Other posts in this series.
  5. For More Information.

(1)  The lesson we refuse to learn

Seymour Hersh’s “The Killing of Osama bin Laden” and Americans’ response to it illustrates what I wrote about in both of yesterday’s posts. By now a large body of evidence refutes key elements of the government’s story about the bin Laden hit, the books about it, and the film Zero Dark Thirty. It’s the most useful news story of 2015, an opportunity for us to learn so that we do not swallow the next lie. On the other hand, this is just another on the long list of lies about key events — a defining characteristic of the post-WWII era. By now the every American should know that The first rule of American war is not to believe what we’re told. It’s a lesson we seem unable to learn.

(2)  Immediate denials from the government & its fanboys

As always, reports of government lies are met by denials by government officials. Like Pavlov’s dogs, the government fanboys (geopolitical experts, journalists, Wall Street gurus) immediately bark in support. Max Fisher at Vox ( (who was in turn brutally taken down by journalist Corey Pein. “Given the current climate in the US, it’s hard to imagine worthwhile investigative reporting on intelligence and foreign policy that doesn’t make some use of such {anonymous} sources.”). Peter Bergen at CNN. Max Boot at Commentary (he’s not always wrong). Quartz asks questions with obvious answers (questions that Hersh answered).  Most of this is dressed-up incredulity, neither analysis nor fact-checking. This resembles the waves of mockery that greeted the revelations by Snowden about NSA surveilance. Three years later we see that Snowden was largely correct. Of course there have been few (no?) admissions of error by his critics. Much depends on how many Americans have learned skepticism from the events since 9/11. Our reaction to Hersh’s story will provide an answer.

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