Tag Archives: counterinsurgency

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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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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Mark Twain gives us advice about our wars

Summary: Most of America’s wars have been counterinsurgencies, fought before Mao brought 4GW to maturity after WW2. As we start a new war, let’s take advice from wise men of our past about such conflicts. Such as Mark Twain (1835-1910), who lived during America’s golden age of counterinsurgency. Today we have two of his articles. One gives advice. The other is something to shock us into sense.

Mark Twain

Contents

  1. Mark Twain’s advice about Counterinsurgency
  2. The War Prayer
  3. Other notes from the past

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(1) Advice

Mark Twain on Counterinsurgency

by Mike Few at the Small Wars Journal
16 November 2010
Reposted with his generous permission

In a month when we’re asking the experts hard questions on the need to reform FM 3-24 Counterinsurgency and rethinking the colonial methods, Mark Twain, the quintessential American writer, decided to chime in. Nearly 100 years after his death, Mark Twain is finally publishing his autobiography. In his political views, Twain was decidedly anti-imperialist. Twain wrote in “Returning Home” (interview in the New York World, 4 October 1900):

You ask me about what is called imperialism. Well, I have formed views about that question. I am at the disadvantage of not knowing whether our people are for or against spreading themselves over the face of the globe. I should be sorry if they are, for I don’t think that it is wise or a necessary development.

As to China, I quite approve of our Government’s action in getting free of that complication. They are withdrawing, I understand, having done what they wanted. That is quite right. We have no more business in China than in any other country that is not ours.

There is the case of the Philippines. I have tried hard, and yet I cannot for the life of me comprehend how we got into that mess. Perhaps we could not have avoided it — perhaps it was inevitable that we should come to be fighting the natives of those islands — but I cannot understand it, and have never been able to get at the bottom of the origin of our antagonism to the natives. I thought we should act as their protector — not try to get them under our heel.

We were to relieve them from Spanish tyranny to enable them to set up a government of their own, and we were to stand by and see that it got a fair trial. It was not to be a government according to our ideas, but a government that represented the feeling of the majority of the Filipinos, a government according to Filipino ideas. That would have been a worthy mission for the United States. But now — why, we have got into a mess, a quagmire from which each fresh step renders the difficulty of extrication immensely greater. I’m sure I wish I could see what we were getting out of it, and all it means to us as a nation.

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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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Our geopolitical experts, like Max Boot, lead America into the dark

Summary:  A nation’s experts guide it into the darkness of the future, to success or failure. And the experts choose as guides reflect the nation’s values and wisdom.  The grim events during the 11 years since 9-11 allow an accurate evaluation of America.  Read this, then make your own forecast of our future.

Invisible Armies

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”
— Upton Sinclair, 1935

Contents

  1. The fate of our geopolitical experts shows our dysfunctionality
  2. Max Boot strikes again
  3. The real history of modern insurgencies (hidden history; you must not learn this)
  4. Van Creveld gives an accurate analysis of insurgency
  5. Studies about the history of counterinsurgency

(1)  Our geopolitical experts reveal our dysfunctionality

Our expensive but fruitless wars were supported by a well-rewarded chorus of war-mongers (ie, profiting from war; details here), such as Max Boot (Council on Foreign Relations), and Niall Ferguson (Prof History, Harvard). Some thrived for only a few years, such as John Nagel (former President of the Center for New American Security). Their stream of false analysis and failed predictions didn’t dim their fame.

As for their opponents, forecasting that our wars were not worth the cost: the more accurate they were, the less well known they are. Such as Andrew J. Bacevich (Colonel, US Army, retired; now Prof History at Boston U) and even Martin van Creveld. Their insights are drowned out by the news media’s amplification of the usually wrong but useful words of the establishment’s word warriors.

Fame comes from support of our mad profitless American Empire, as successful courtiers throughout history would expect.  Our experts working the Versailles-on-the-Potomac support the large, even awesome, profits of Empire. Our troops and their families pay in some ways.  We all pay in dollars.  Our descendents will pay by the diminished future of an America whose capital was burnt abroad.

(2)  Max Boot strikes again

Look at Max Boot, one of America’s top war-mongers, who has made a good living stoking our fears, advocating new wars, encouraging us to continue existing wars, and explaining away failure in the last war. It has not hurt his career that his forecasts have consistently proved wrong and his advice disastrous.  For example, Max Boot made a powerful claim 31 months ago in ”Yes We Can … Win in Afghanistan“, Commentary, 18 June 2010:

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