Tag Archives: coin

A powerful new article shows why we lose so many wars: FAILure to learn

Summary:  Slowly America begins to come to grips with its defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan, as experts provide simple easy explanations. Here we look at the 3rd such major article, a demonstration that the main lesson of our defeats is that we refuse to learn from them. Eyes tightly closed we stumble onto a rough road to the future.   {2nd of 2 wars.}

 

 “Why Has America Stopped Winning Wars?

by Dominic Tierney
(Assoc Prof of political science, Swarthmore)
Excerpt from his new book

“Since 1945, the United States has experienced little except military stalemate and loss — precisely because it’s a superpower in a more peaceful world.”

Prof Tierney vividly demonstrates one reason America keeps losing: our US-centric view of the world. It’s all about us. As with health care and other public policy issues, we have little interest in the experience of other nations — and so draw stunningly bad conclusions on our little history.

Why does the United States struggle in war? How can it resolve a failing conflict? Can America return to victory? Today, these are critical questions because we live in an age of unwinnable conflicts, where decisive triumph has proved to be a pipe dream.

We can’t win, so obviously nobody can win. This displays an amazing blindness to history. The post-WWII era of anti-colonial wars ended in 1992 (i.e., Afghanistan vs. the USSR) with a series of decisive wins by local peoples over foreign armies. It’s been an age of victory parades, not unwinnable conflicts.

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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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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,

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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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