Category Archives: America’s Long War

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

The key to understanding our wars: the trinity of COIN.

Summary:  Most of our wars since Korea have been counter-insurgencies (COIN), in which we employ a trinity of methods — firepower, mobility, and militia. It doesn’t work for us, or for any foreign armies doing COIN. Today we review the trinity and why it fails, and ask the more important question of why we don’t see this pattern.  {2nd of 2 posts today.}

Celtic Trinity Knot

Out of 3 tools come one outcome (Celtic Trinity Knot).

Since Mao brought 4GW to maturity after WWII, modern armed forces, whether of developed or undeveloped nations, tend to rely on a trinity of methods to fight insurgencies.  None of these are new (almost nothing is new in war; it’s all a matter of combinations, emphasis, and execution).

  1. Popular front militia
  2. Firepower on civilians
  3. Sweep and destroy missions

Armies rediscover these 3 methods, each time dressing them up in the fancy terminology befitting radical innovations. Sometimes they mask their use behind pseudo-science, as DoD did with FM 3-24 (describing our new way of counter-insurgency, behind which they relied on the big 3 methods). We don’t see this history because it’s not useful for the military and their journalist allies to show us, and we have amnesia about our history.

Popular front militia were a core component of our fighting in Southeast Asia. When we recruited local militia in Iraq it’s COINnew, new, new.   Local militia were a staple of our fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, with the usual frequently ugly results. See these examples from March 2013 (torture by Shiite militia) and March 2015 (“Afghan Militia Leaders, Empowered by U.S. to Fight Taliban, Inspire Fear in Villages“). More articles see this post and this one from 2009.

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Will our geopolitical “experts “lead us to ruin?

Summary:  Yesterday’s introduction by Tom Engelhardt explained how we follow experts with records of almost continuous failures, but are surprised by the logical result. Today Andrew Bacevich takes this logic one step deeper, asking about the role of intellectuals in setting America’s geopolitical strategy — which has been one of increasing belligerence and militarization during the past 2 decades. This is another in our series of posts about experts.  {2nd of 2 posts today.}

Intellectuals In Action

Rationalizing Lunacy:
The Intellectual as Servant of the State

By Andrew J. Bacevich
Posted at TomDispatch, 8 March 2015.
Re-posted here with their generous permission.
Headlines & graphics added.

Policy intellectuals — eggheads presuming to instruct the mere mortals who actually run for office — are a blight on the republic. Like some invasive species, they infest present-day Washington, where their presence strangles common sense and has brought to the verge of extinction the simple ability to perceive reality. A benign appearance — well-dressed types testifying before Congress, pontificating in print and on TV, or even filling key positions in the executive branch — belies a malign impact. They are like Asian carp let loose in the Great Lakes.

Origins of the Intellectually-advised Government

It all began innocently enough.  Back in 1933, with the country in the throes of the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt first imported a handful of eager academics to join the ranks of his New Deal.  An unprecedented economic crisis required some fresh thinking, FDR believed. Whether the contributions of this “Brains Trust” made a positive impact or served to retard economic recovery (or ended up being a wash) remains a subject for debate even today.   At the very least, however, the arrival of Adolph Berle, Raymond Moley, Rexford Tugwell, and others elevated Washington’s bourbon-and-cigars social scene. As bona fide members of the intelligentsia, they possessed a sort of cachet.

Then came World War II, followed in short order by the onset of the Cold War. These events brought to Washington a second wave of deep thinkers, their agenda now focused on “national security.”  This eminently elastic concept — more properly, “national insecurity” — encompassed just about anything related to preparing for, fighting, or surviving wars, including economics, technology, weapons design, decision-making, the structure of the armed forces, and other matters said to be of vital importance to the nation’s survival.  National insecurity became, and remains today, the policy world’s equivalent of the gift that just keeps on giving.

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How to Create a National Insecurity State.

Summary:  An essential part of leaning as citizens is learning on whom to rely. We don’t do this well, an important part of the FAILure to learn which has imperiled the Republic. Today Tom Engelhard — editor of the invaluable website TomDispatch — shows how since 9/11 a coterie of always-wrong experts have helped build the national security state.  {2nd of 2 posts today.}

Department of Fear

How to Create a National Insecurity State

By Tom Engelhardt
Posted at TomDispatch, 8 March 2015.
Re-posted here with his generous permission.

In our era in Washington, whole careers have been built on grotesque mistakes.  In fact, when it comes to our various conflicts, God save you if you’re right; no one will ever want to hear from you again.  If you’re wrong, however… well, take the invasion of Iraq.  Given the Islamic State, that creature of the American occupation, can anyone seriously believe that the invasion that blew a hole in the heart of the Middle East doesn’t qualify as one of the genuine disasters of our time, if not of any time? In the mad occupation that followed, Saddam Hussein’s well-trained army and officer corps were ushered into the chaos of post-invasion unemployment and, of course, insurgency.  Meanwhile, at a cost of $25 billion, a whole new military was trained that, years later, summarily collapsed when faced with insurgents led by some of those formerly out-of-work officers.

But the crew who pushed it all on Washington has never stopped yakking (or being listened to).  They’ve been called back at every anniversary of the invasion to offer their wisdom in the New York Times and elsewhere, while those who counseled against such an invasion have been nowhere in sight.  Some of the planners of the invasion and occupation are now advisers to Jeb Bush as he heads into the 2016 election campaign, while the policy wonks who went off to war with the generals (taking regular VIP tours of America’s battle zones) couldn’t be better thought of in Washington today.

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Why a decade of assassinations hasn’t helped America.

Summary: During the past decade we have deployed our most skilled warriors and most advanced technology in an assassination program with few precedents in history. Result: the Middle East in flames and our foes resurgent. I and others predicted this, the natural result of putting the force of evolution to work for our foes. It’s called the Darwinian Ratchet. It’s many seen many times by military and academic experts, but we prefer not to understand. And so we don’t. Victory remains impossible until we overcome this self-imposed weakness.  {2nd of 2 posts today.}

Charles Darwin

Not someone you want working for your foes.

I’ve killed them by the tens of thousands, scoured their countryside at will, pried their allies away, and humiliated them day after day. I have burned their crops and looted their wealth. I’ve sent a whole generation of their generals into the afterworld … Have I changed nothing? They are stronger now than before. They are more than before. They fight more sensibly than before. They win when they used to lose.

— Hannibal, in David Anthony Durham’s novel Pride of Carthage (2005)

The great mystery of our post-9/11 wars is our FAILure to learn, not just from history but also from our own experience. Tuesday’s post discussed our blindness to the consistent failure by foreign armies fighting insurgents since WWII. Yesterday Andrew Cockburn raised an equally important problem: “The Mystique of High-Value Targeting: Why Obama’s Hopes of Decapitating the Islamic State Won’t Work.” He discusses its failure in our wars and the DEA’s 1992 “Kingpin Strategy”.

The explanation, so the analysts concluded, was that dead leaders were invariably and immediately replaced, and almost always by someone (often a relative ready for revenge) younger, more aggressive, and eager to prove himself. The same held true on a wider scale. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Iraqi al Qaeda leader widely cited as the source of all our troubles in Iraq, was duly targeted and killed in 2006, only to be succeeded by Abu Ayyub al-Masri, who turned out to be an even more deadly opponent. He too was duly killed, and instead we got Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, who created the Islamic State, now lord of six million people and an area the size of Great Britain.

This effect was the subject of my first posts about the Iraq War (Sept 2003 and Oct 2003) and has been a major theme since. An insurgency brings into play a “Darwinian ratchet,” in which our efforts in effect empower the insurgency.  Not just spurring recruitment (as many saw), but forcing improvement in their leadership and methods.  It’s one of the fundamental dynamics of our post-9/11 wars.

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We weaponized anthropology. Why didn’t it work?

Summary: Science provided massive advantages in our post-9/11 wars against the less-developed peoples of the Middle East. Not just the material science that created our wonder weapons, but the social sciences that gave experts the tools to manipulate these societies like children do legos. Or so said the writers of the COIN guide FM 3-24 and anthropologists like David Kilcullen. Here David Price explains why the results are less than promised.  {2nd of 2 posts today.}

The Death Star beam

Not the advantage we thought it would be.

Yesterday’s post recommended Weaponizing Anthropology: Social Science in Service of the Militarized State (2011) by David H. Price (Prof of anthropology at St. Martin’s U; bio here). In this great book he describes one facet of America’s militarization, that of the sciences). Today’s we see his explanation of why we failed despite DoD deploying the fruits of 20th century social science.

Why social science failed the COIN-istas.

In 2008 I gave 3 reasons that the COINistas’ nation-building would fail:

  1. The social sciences are as yet immature.  Its practitioners cannot wield their theories as can chemists and physicists.  Twentieth century history is largely a series of failed attempts at social engineering.
  2. Even if US social scientists were able to do social engineering at home, that does not mean that they can do so in foreign lands.
  3. If this was possible to do in foreign lands, the US military might not have the necessary organization or talent to do so.  This probably requires Thomas Barnett’s “System Administrators“, a 21st century organization of colonial civil servants.

Professor Price agrees, but gives a deeper analysis by describing the flaws in the master COIN plan — Field Manual FM 3-24: Insurgencies and Countering Insurgencies. The core of his analysis (citations omitted; links added):

The Manual instructs that “once the social structure has been thoroughly mapped out, staffs should identify and analyze the culture of a society as a whole and of each major group within the society”. This absurdly glib statement is akin to having a NASA technical manual that instructs: “add wings to space shuttle, glue on ceramic tiles; reenter earth’s atmosphere at correct angle”.

The Manual brushes aside the difficulties of conceptualizing social structure; instead, just one quick “yadda-yadda-yadda” and presto: the “staffs” have mastered these vital independent variables for manipulation. Anthropologists can devote years to studying and then struggling to represent the social structure of a single village, yet our counterinsurgency theorists cavalierly rush past the complexities of such small scale undertakings and pretend that such operations can meaningfully and quickly occur on a societal level.

That no one within the military challenges this as nonsense reveals the low level of critical analysis and skepticism within these military circles as those hawking outlandish claims of cultural engineering are heralded as making revolutionary contributions.

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A lesson about counterinsurgency that could change America’s future.

Summary: As we move forward to a new round of interventions let’s take a moment to look backwards. What can we learn from our failed interventions since 9/11, and more generally from the scores of failed counterinsurgency programs waged by foreign armies since WWII (when Mao brought 4GW to maturity)? There is a simple lesson, one that if learned could change our future. But the national defense complex (like Satan, it goes by many names) doesn’t want you to learn it. So you won’t (probably).  {2nd of 2 posts today.}

“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).

Knowledge + Action is power

Our FAILure to learn, a weakness negating our great power.

Since 9/11 the US national security establishment has demonstrated its inability or unwillingness to learn.

By January 2007 it was evident that our occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq had failed (something I had seen by 2003, and many others had seen earlier), yet it was not clear why. I wrote a post (imo one of my best) with an explanation. I sorted insurgencies into 2 groups: local vs. locals (insurgents fighting their government), and foreign vs. local (when foreign forces took a major role fighting local insurgents) — and saw that foreigners almost always lose. Popular counter-insurgency works (e.g., Kilcullen’s “28 Articles: Fundamentals of Company-Level Counterinsurgency”) showed why we this was: insurgency has a powerful home court advantage, which foreigners usually ignore.

Chet Richards’ 2008 magnum opus If We Can Keep It: A National Security Manifesto for the Next Administration took that insight and expanded it. A 2008 RAND study examined the history of 89 insurgencies and came to the same conclusion, as did the 2010 dissertation of Erin Marie Simpson (Political Science, Harvard).

For anyone not paying attention, the denouements of our interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq should have provided ample evidence. For those wanting deeper analysis, Martin van Creveld wrote The Culture of War (2008).  But DoD doesn’t want to see that foreign interventions almost always fail, so we don’t. No matter how obvious. We believe what we’re told, and can see no other truth.

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Our national security leaders are afraid because we’re not.

Summary: Our national security leaders have declared code red about terrorism. The data shows that their fears are justified. Here we see the one chart that chills their hearts, and rightly so.

Islam = terror

Today’s reporting from Oz by the Washington Post: “In campaign against terrorism, U.S. enters period of pessimism and gloom“.

The assessments reflect a pessimism that has descended on the U.S. counterterrorism community over the past year amid a series of discouraging developments. Among them are the growth of the Islamic State, the ongoing influx of foreign fighters into Syria, the collapse of the U.S.-backed government in Yemen and the downward spiral of Libya’s security situation. The latest complication came Saturday, when the terrorist group Boko Haram in Nigeria carried out a series of suicide bombings and reportedly declared its allegiance to the Islamic State.

Unlike the waves of anxiety that accompanied the emergence of new terrorist plots over the past decade, the latest shift in mood seems more deep-seated. U.S. officials depict a bewildering landscape in which al-Qaeda and the brand of Islamist militancy it inspired have not only survived 14 years of intense counterterrorism operations but have also spread.

This is quite mad. First, the “Islamic militancy” has spread because of our “14 years of intense counterterrorism operations”, not despite it. We enter as infidel foreigners, knock down secular regimes, creating chaos in which Islamic fundamentalists thrive. Afghanistan (early 1980s), Iraq, Yemen, Libya, and now Syria were all relatively secular-based regimes. Only the most powerful mental blinders prevent Americans from seeing this.

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