Tag Archives: coin

Why we lose wars so often. How we can win in the future.

Summary:  The previous post in this series asked why we lose when we’re great. This post gives a deeper answer, and points to two paths that at least make victory possible. It’s a brief review, with links to other sources giving more detail.  {2nd of 2 posts today.}

{DoD is} ready for wars past and future, but not present. {T}he current military, an advanced version of the WWII force, is ready should the Imperial Japanese Navy return. It also has phenomenally advanced weaponry in the pipeline to take on a space-age enemy, perhaps from Mars, should one appear. It is only the present for which the US is not prepared.

— Fred Reed, A True Son of Tzu.

Victory poster

Contents

  1. We’re great! So why do we lose?
  2. Why do we lose?
  3. Let’s get better soldiers!
  4. Martin van Creveld explains.
  5. Other posts in this series.
  6. For More Information.

(1)  We’re great! So why do we lose?

A previous post asked “does America have the best military in the world?” The answer is “no”, and would have been obvious to any generation of Americans before WWII. We are inventors, explorers, and businessmen. Germans were considered great soldiers, part of their militarized society and so not esteemed by us. We came to consider ourselves military Übermensch after WWII, when we crushed little Japan and helped the Russians, who defeated NAZI Germany.

Japan’s leaders coined the term “victory disease” to describe the arrogance and over-confidence produced by their early victories, but WWII gave us a case worse than theirs.

A related question is “Why do the finest soldiers in the world keep losing wars”. The previous post gave the obvious answer: we don’t have the finest soldiers in the world (certainly not at fighting 4th generation wars). This post examines a deeper reason why we consistently lose 4GWs since WWII, and how we can win.

(2)  Why do we lose?

Why we lose has many answers, depending on your perspective. We lose because foreign armies almost always lose to local insurgents since Mao brought 4GW to maturity after WWII. We lose because we refused to see this simple fact, learning from the experience of others and our own. We lose because we repeat strategies and tactics that have repeatedly failed since WWII, including some that almost guarantee failure.  For details see this post about our FAILure to learn,

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

More evidence that we’re losing America. It’s not too late to act.

Summary: I have long discussed what might make Americans rouse themselves to retake the reins of the Republic and reverse its evolution into a new regime. Clear warnings, descriptions and diagnosis of the problem? Anger at ourselves and what we’ve allowed America to become? None of these seem plausible. Perhaps fear will do it, produced by recognition that there is a class war — and we’re losing. A few posts will review the depressing news.

Will these spur you to act? Time is not our ally. Lots of groups talk about building a New America; the people doing so act in the shadows — visible only if you look. But the results of their work have become obvious.

Despair at losing

We discuss the progress of our foreign wars in great details, just as we track every vibration of the economy and the political machinery in Washington. The big things get less attention, such as the class war by the 1% against us. We’re losing. It’s like slowly boiling a frog; it’s happening so slowly that we don’t notice. But there’s still time to act.  {Also: zoologists consider this a myth; please don’t test it at home.}

(1)  COIN comes to America

As I and so many others warned for so long, the techniques of surveillance and oppression developed during our occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan would eventually come home. As we see at the crushing of the Occupy protests and on the streets of Ferguson. Here’s another example. Even I, who has chronicled so many horrific stories about America at this website, was shocked. I shouldn’t have been surprised.

The disappeared: Chicago police detain Americans at abuse-laden ‘black site’“, Spencer Ackerman, The Guardian, 24 February 2015 — Secret interrogation facility reveals aspects of war on terror in US. Protester details 17-hour shackling without basic rights. Accounts describe police brutality, missing 15-year-old and one man’s death.” Excerpt:

Continue reading

We’re goading our enemies to attack America. Eventually we’ll succeed, and they will.

Summary: Our national security agencies have put us on course for a dark future, albeit one that greatly benefits them. We feel exceptional in our ability to kill people in far-away lands, yet fear the inevitable reprisals on the “Homeland”. Like similarly mad events a century ago in Europe, afterwards nobody will recall why we thought this was rational. Today let’s look at some evidence, trying to do so with the eyes of a future generation.

At almost the same time {Spring 1965} Phil Geyelin, a White House correspondent who knew Southeast Asia well, found himself troubled by the same kind of doubts about the direction of American policy and turned to William Bundy {Assistant Secretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs}. Did we really know where we were headed? he asked. Did we really know what we would do if the bombing failed, if he other side decided to match our escalation with its own?

Bundy reassured him; he said he had never been so confident about any undertaking before. Vietnam was no Bay of Pigs, he emphasized; he had never seen anything so thoroughly staffed, so well planned. It reeked of expertise and professionalism, it all gave one a great sense of confidence.

— From The Best and the Brightest by David Halberstam (1972).

New CIA Logo

New CIA Logo.

.

More than a decade of studies in Pakistan by organizations such as Pew Research and the New American Foundation show that our drone assassins make people distrust, dislike, and often hate us. Scores of leaked intelligence agency documents and statements by experts report that they’re among the most effective recruitment tools of jihadist insurgents.

Even more obviously, we’ve fought jihadists for 13 years using such tools — spec ops kidnapping and executions, invasion and occupation of their lands, support for their corrupt and tyrannical rulers, and bombings bombings bombings. The result: a region set on fire, with the fire spreading to new lands (a welcome opportunity for DoD to expand Africom).

We have run this course before, obvious to anyone who has read The Pentagon Papers (or its excellent derivative The Best and the Brightest). Mindlessly brutal strategies, endlessly repeated and even expanded despite their failure, until catastrophic final defeat. This time we target a region and a major religion, not just the backwater of North Vietnam. We are exceptional in our FAILure to learn and drive to self-destruction.

Unlike during the Vietnam War, today we have heroes attempting to warn us: whistleblowers and leakers. Like so many heroes in history, they’re unappreciated by us (as bearers of bad news) and attacked by the government (especially by Obama, the Nobel Peace Prize-wearing leader of the “most transparent administration ever“). So far we have ignored their warnings.

What comes next? How long can we send flying robots to kill, with the inevitable “collateral damage” — blowing women and children into red mist — before people get angry enough to come over here to administer tit-for-tat? How many headlines like today’s: “U.S. airstrike in Syria may have killed 50 civilians“? Do we see this retaliation in our future, perhaps explaining our high level of fear?

We probably would respond intemperately to such an attack, perhaps with destruction of a Middle Eastern city — mass murder of people who had as little role in the attack on us as did the people in Iraq and Afghanistan on 9/11. Then we would have fulfilled bin Laden’s dream, starting a full-scale clash of civilizations between us and them. That’s a future our national security agencies lead us to.

The CIA fast-tracks us to disaster.

Continue reading

Return of the COIN-istas (the zombies of military theory)

Summary: John Quiggin writes about zombie economics, theories false but too politically useful to die. COIN is an example of zombie military theory. In the 60 years since Mao brought 4GW to maturity, foreign armies of every type have employed it against local insurgents, with an almost uniform record of failure. America’s COIN-istas — brilliant, experienced sirens — lured us to defeat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now they’re trying for a third FAILure. Will they succeed? Give your forecast in the comments.

Knife Fights

.

Revenge of the COIN Doctrine

John Nagl’s counterinsurgency failed its way to popularity before, and is now trying to make a comeback.

By Kelley Vlahos
The American Conservative, 31 October 2014
Reprinted with their generous permission

.

“Your table manners are a cryin’ shame. You’re playing with your food this ain’t some kind of game. Now if you starve to death you’ll just have yourself to blame. So eat it, just eat it.”
-– Weird Al Yankovic

In his first book, counterinsurgency advocate Ret. (Lt. Col.) John Nagl told us how to Eat Soup with a Knife. It turned out that it really was easier to eat soup with a spoon, or frankly, not to eat it at all. Today, after two failed interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, Nagl has written a follow-up, but it has nothing to do with eating humble pie.

In Knife Fights: A Memoir of Modern War in Theory and Practice, Nagl has abandoned the dining motif along with the format. The book is a memoir in which he tries to cast himself as both a inside player and a outside rebel, one who had to struggle to bring a new counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy to losing battlefields in Iraq in 2007, then Afghanistan in 2009.

Thus, the knife depicted on the cover of the book, which was released this month, is no table utensil, but a hunting knife. That might be fitting, considering the many ducks, blinds, and decoys he presents throughout. But like everything else Nagl has promoted over the years, it’s all just a bit difficult to swallow.

Simply put, Nagl, once called the “Johnny Appleseed of COIN,” uses his memoir to

  • a) paper over the huge failures of counterinsurgency in both Iraq and Afghanistan by saying the best we can hope for now are “unsatisfying but not catastrophic outcomes”;
  • b) to distance himself — and COIN — from defeat by blaming everything but the strategy for why it didn’t work as promised in the field; and
  • c) burnish his own resume — which takes up much of the book — for a possible return to a Democratic administration in 2016.

Continue reading