Tag Archives: counterinsurgency

We don’t need a new army to fight modern wars, we need a smart one

Summary;  Our long war goes badly, as the flames of Islamic revolution spread following our failures in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Libya. Some ask if the US military can cope with the challenges of fourth generation war. Here Gary Anderson (Colonel, USMC, retired) gives an answer.

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We Don’t Need a New Army to Deal with Fourth Generation Foes;
we need a Smart One

By Gary Anderson (Colonel, USMC, retired)

One of the primary fallacies regarding Fourth Generational Warfare (4GW) is that the United States must totally retool its force structure to deal with this emerging evolution in warfare; this is not the case. 4GW means that foreign and domestic non-state actors are challenging the monopoly that nation-states have enjoyed on the application of force since the end of the Thirty Years War. That does not mean that war between nation-states has become obsolete.

The fact that the United States enjoys a temporary overmatch against most plausible conventional foes has not made traditional warfighting a thing of the past. Some potential American foes intend to combine a combination of conventional and unconventional warfare in any conflict with the United States in a concept known as hybrid warfare. However, any hybrid war will probably begin with a conventional stage, and only go hybrid if America’s enemy perceives that it is losing.

The United States would be ill-advised to sacrifice its technological edge to prepare to fight low-end 4GW opponents for two reasons. First, success in 4GW is primarily a matter of operational art, particularly in the application of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism principles. There is no special technological or force structure formula for 4GW warfare. Each situation will be unique and the studied application of task organization to meet the terrain and situation will be a key to success.

The primary difference between 4GW and traditional insurgencies is that insurgencies generally have the objective of replacing one form of government with another in a specific country. Many 4GW actors are transnational and look to control a region regardless of existing borders. In that; ISIL, Boko Harem, and to a lesser extent Islamic Courts (al Shabab) do not recognize traditional largely colonial drawn international borders. However, the tactics that they initially use more resemble the classic first two stages of insurgencies with terrorism being used as an early tool.

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14 years of assassinations: Stratfor describes the result

Summary: Slowly America’s geopolitical leaders see the futility of the assassination programs which are one of the three tools we rely on to win the Long War that began with 9/11 and President Bush’s imperial surge which followed (bombing and local militia are the other two, also failures). In this article Stratfor describes the meger results achieved by 14 years of assassinations. Perhaps soon they’ll see the Darwinian Ratchet.


The Lives of Jihadist Leaders Drop in Value

By Scott Stewart of Stratfor, 6 August 2015

Much has been written since the July 30 confirmation that the Taliban’s longtime leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, died two years ago. Most of the discussion has focused on the future of the Taliban movement, the impact of his death on the al Qaeda core — which had pledged allegiance to Mullah Omar as Amir al-Mu’minin, or “commander of the faithful,” — and of course, the Islamic State’s efforts to take advantage of Mullah Omar’s death.

Certainly, the announcement has caused existing rifts among the various factions of the Taliban to become more pronounced. But these divisions have always existed, and the Taliban have long been anything but a cohesive, unified organization. The announcement also became fodder for a massive Twitter campaign by the Islamic State “Twitteratti,” who are seeking to exploit the intentional deception of the Taliban cadres who sought to hide Mullah Omar’s death. The Islamic State had publicly challenged the Taliban to publish proof of life for Mullah Omar, suggesting that word of the Talban leader’s death had leaked. This likely forced the Taliban to admit that he was dead.

Islamic State gloating aside, I personally doubt we will witness the same scale of defections from the al Qaeda orbit of the jihadist universe that we did after the declaration of the caliphate last year. This is because the battle lines in the al Qaeda vs. Islamic State fight for the heart of the global jihad have become well established, and much of the shine has worn off the Islamic State’s claim to be an inexorable force.

From my perspective, the more interesting aspect of the announcement of Mullah Omar’s demise is that he had been dead since April 2013, but nobody really missed him. Concealing someone’s death for one “Weekend at Bernie’s” is one thing, but maintaining such a ruse for two years is quite another.

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Darwin explains the futility of killing insurgents. It makes them more effective.

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 a well-known concept in science, but one we prefer not to see. Victory remains impossible until we overcome our inability to learn this and other basics of modern warfare.  This is cross-posted on Martin van Creveld’s website; he described this as “absolutely fascinating.”

“What does not kill him, makes him stronger.”
— Friedrich Nietzsche in Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One Is (1888).



  1. Our learning disability
  2. Biologists explain the Darwinian Ratchet.
  3. The Darwinian Ratchet at work in war.
  4. Conclusion
  5. For More Information.
  6. An insurgent’s theme song.

(1) Our learning disability

The great mystery of our post-9/11 wars is our inability to learn from history and our own experience. My previous post discussed one aspect of this: our blindness to the consistent failure since WWII of foreign armies fighting insurgents. Another aspect is what Martin van Creveld calls the “power of weakness”. This essay discusses a third aspect, how an insurgency brings into play a “Darwinian ratchet” in which our efforts empower an insurgency.

This post shows the origin and history of the “ratchet” concept and its slow recognition by American geopolitical and military leaders. But there are no answers to our inability to adapt our tactics to the ratchet, just as there are none for our failure to learn from the history of insurgencies (as explained in Why the West loses so many wars, and how we can learn to win).

(2) Biologists Explain the Darwinian Ratchet

It’s an old concept in biology, first developed by Herman Muller in his famous 1932 article “Some genetic aspects of sex”. We’re personally experience the Darwinian ratchet when we take antibiotics in too-low doses or for too short a time, creating a colony of slightly drug-resistant bacteria. When done by a society we breed superbugs, as Nathan Taylor explains in “What are the risks of a global pandemic?“ (Praxtime, 23 March 2013).

“The genetics of disease resistance are worth discussing here. We can think of resistance to disease as an arms race. As a population gets exposed to more and more diseases, a darwinian ratchet effect occurs, and only those with stronger immune systems survive.”

The literature of biology and medicine has many articles about the Darwinian ratchet, ranging from complex (Alexander Riegler’s “The Ratchet Effect as a Fundamental Principle in Evolution and Cognition”, Cybernetics and Systems, 2001) to the incomprehensible. The concept has spread to other fields, as in William H. Calvin’s The Cerebral Code: Thinking a Thought in the Mosaics of the Mind (1996).

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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.

Summary: As the western nations begin a new round of interventions against insurgencies in the Middle East, let’s look at the record of such conflicts since WWII. They teach a simple lesson that if widely recognized could change our future. The leaders of our national defense institutions do not want to see it, so we probably will not either. Failure to learn is among the most worst of our weaknesses, able to offset the power of even a great nation. This essay was cross-posted at Martin van Creveld’s website.

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)…

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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 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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