Tag Archives: coin

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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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:

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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.

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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.

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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

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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

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“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.

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Things we need to know about the Long War

Summary:  Today we have a note by Mike Few about our Long War, one of the great public policy issues of America today. We post the work of many experts at the FM website. Usually I post them without comment. Today I’ll add an endorsement. All of Few’s articles deserve attention. This one even more than most. I agree with every line, and strongly recommend reading it.

Know your foe, know yourself, you can face a hundred battles without danger;
if you do not know your foe but know yourself, you will win one and lose one;
if you do not know your foe and do not know yourself, every battle will be lost.
— Sun Tzu’s Art of War (circa 6th Century BC)

Islam Logo

Contents

  1. Understand the Arab world
  2. Understand al Qaeda
  3. Events in Iraq are not a surprise
  4. Be wary of experts
  5. About Counter-Terrorists
  6. A Forecast
  7. A good place to start your research
  8. About the author
  9. For More Information

Comment by Mike Few

Made to the post Now that they’re in the game again, let’s ask “who is al Qaeda?”, 9 January 2014

Excellent review by Owen Bennett-Jones. I’ll try to add a couple of additional thoughts.

(1) Understand the Arab world

To understand al Qaeda (AQ), I spent a lot of time trying to understand the Arab world. In the bigger picture, I believe that the Arab world and Islam is undergoing it’s own internal Political and Religious Reformation. This process started almost a century ago as the Ottoman Empire crumbled and the Sykes-Picote treaty (see Wikipedia) drew new lines in the sand and created nation-states.

AQ is an ideology that provides an alternative to government and religion from the current hated norm. Thus, it has not died. It was never dead, and it resonates with some folks.

(2) Understand al Qaeda

If we want to understand AQ, then we must respect the ideology and stop dismissing it as terrorism. Terrorism is merely the form of political violence that AQ is using in order to gain power and maneuver space (Given their size, it is the only option that they have).

Instead, I think that we need to look at AQ in the same vein that we would consider the spirit of the American Revolution, the ideals of the French Revolution, and the initial ideals of the Russian Revolution. Previously (myself included), AQ was dismissed as akin to anarchist in the late 19th century angry at uncontrolled capitalism.

(3)  Events in Iraq are not a surprise

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Keep fighting! We must not learn from our wars.

Summary:  We were ejected from Iraq, gaining nothing we sought. No oil, no ally against Iran, no unsinkable aircraft carrier in the Middle East. All but the mad hawks realize we gained nothing in Afghanistan. Now comes the post-game show, as our military’s boosters attempt to fog our vision and erase our memories, preparing us for more wars. The truth is out there, if only we would make an effort to see.
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Afghanistan war

Learning is one way to honor their sacrifice

Contents

  1. We lose because we’re ignorant of history and refuse to learn
  2. Bitter fruit from our failure to learn
  3. The history of counterinsurgency by foreign armies, a history of failure
  4. A more detailed explanation of why foreign armies fail at COIN
  5. For More Information
  6. A closing note from Friedrich Schiller

(1)  We lose because we’re ignorant of history and refuse to learn

Keep Fighting: Why the Counterinsurgency Debate Must Go On“, Mark Stout (Director of the MA Program in Global Security Studies at Johns Hopkins), War on the Rocks, 3 December 2013 — Opening:

Counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine in general and the military’s FM 3-24 in particular have been the subject of extensive and often vitriolic debate in recent years.  Now the debate is finally subsiding, but not in a satisfactory way.  It must not be allowed to die yet.

This reasonable article by an expert avoids the big question: why have we learned so little after six decades of failure by foreign armies fighting local insurgencies? It suggests that the next round of debate about counter-insurgency warfare will produce still more tortured history justifying the next war (we could have won!) and happy theory (next time we’ll convince the locals to have good government).

Let’s rewind the tape to see what we learned from the last round. For example, how many counter-insurgency experts listened to Martin van Creveld’s warnings? Such as this from Chapter 6.2 in 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.

Seven years later and we’re still attempting to avoid learning from our failed wars.

(2)  Bitter fruit from our failure to learn

Some people are running the sums to see the results of our most recent infatuations with counter-insurgency. Before we let our military experts repeat this history let’s remember the results of their projects in Iraq and Afghanistan. Here’s a look at Iraq: “Rumsfeld’s War and Its Consequences Now“, Mark Danner, New York Review of Books, 19 December 2013 — Excerpt (red emphasis added):

A bare two weeks after the attacks of September 11, at the end of a long and emotional day at the White House, a 69-year-old politician and businessman — a midwesterner, born of modest means but grown wealthy and prominent and powerful — returned to his enormous suite of offices on the seventh floor of the flood-lit and wounded Pentagon and, as was his habit, scrawled out a memorandum on his calendar:

Interesting day— NSC mtg. with President— As [it] ended he asked to see me alone… After the meeting ended I went to Oval Office—He was alone He was at his desk— He talked about the meet Then he said I want you to develop a plan to invade Ir[aq]. Do it outside the normal channels. Do it creatively so we don’t have to take so much cover [?]

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