Tag Archives: counterinsurgency

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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On counterinsurgency: Conclusions. Let’s hope we learn soon.

Summary:  In this last chapter of “On Counterinsurgency” Martin van Creveld sums up the results of the post-WWII history of counterinsurgency. this was first published in 2005; hopefully we’ll learn these lessons soon.

As the first phase (Iraq, Af-Pak) of our mad foreign wars winds down — and the second phase expands — we can still learn from this analysis by one of the West’s greatest living military historians. We can still turn off this path.  The passage of time closes options; we might soon pass the last exit to avoid serious war.

Contents

  1. Summary of the previous chapters
  2. The last chapter of this essay
  3. How did the US Military react to van Creveld’s advice?
  4. For a list of his publications and links to his other online works
  5. Posts about Fourth Generation Warfare

(1)  Summary of the previous chapters

For those who have not read the previous chapters, here’s a summary of the counterinsurgency problem from Chapter 6.2 in Martin van Creveld’s 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.

Counterinsurgency can damage even the finest army

(2)  Back to the last chapter of this essay:

“On Counterinsurgency”
by Martin van Creveld
From Combating Terrorism,
edited by Rohan Gunaratna (2005)

Introduction

For background see The first lesson of our failed wars: we were warned, but choose not to listen.

This paper has into 4 parts, each posted separately.

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On Counterinsurgency: On Power and Compromises, the difference between victory & defeat

Summary:  In this third chapter of “On Counterinsurgency” Martin van Creveld describes the operational differences between winning and losing methods of counterinsurgency.  Victory comes to those who take difficult paths. Most nations take the easier path, and lose.

As the first phase (Iraq, Af-Pak) of our mad foreign wars winds down — and the second phase expands — we can still learn from this analysis by one of the West’s greatest living military historians. We can still turn off this path.  The passage of time closes options; we might soon pass the last exit to avoid serious war.

Successful counterinsurgency in Hama, Syria

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“On Counterinsurgency”
by Martin van Creveld
From Combating Terrorism,
edited by Rohan Gunaratna (2005)

Introduction

For background see The first lesson of our failed wars: we were warned, but choose not to listen.

This paper has into 4 parts, posted separately.

  1. How We Got to Where We Are is a brief history of insurgency since 1941 and of the repeated failures in dealing with it.
  2. Two Methods focuses on President Assad’s suppression of the uprising at Hama in 1983 on the one hand and on British operations in Northern Ireland on the other, presenting them as extreme case studies in dealing with counterinsurgency.
  3. On Power and Compromises draws the lessons from the methods just presented and goes on to explain how, by vacillating between them, most counterinsurgents have guaranteed their own failure.
  4. Conclusions.

Part three:  On Power and Compromises

According to the well-known proverb, success has many fathers whereas failure is an orphan. However true this may be in respect to every other aspect of life, in the case of counter-insurgency clearly it does not apply.

As noted, entire libraries have been written on counter-insurgency campaigns that failed. Often the authors were the very people who had participated in, or were responsible for, the failures in question. For example, the term “low intensity war” itself was invented by the British General Frank Kitson; having taken part in a whole series of them, he was finally made commandant of the Staff College so he could teach others how it should be done. Very great efforts have been made to analyze the reasons and suggest ways to avoid a repetition. Judging by the way the Americans are conducting themselves in Iraq, to no avail.

By comparison, very little has been written about counterinsurgency campaigns that succeeded. One reason for this is because, since 1941, the number of such successes has been so limited that nine out of ten people cannot even remember them.

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On Counterinsurgency: The Two Methods that Win

Summary:  In this second chapter of “On Counterinsurgency” Martin van Creveld describes the two methods of crushing insurgencies.  We have tried neither; we might lack the capacity to use either method.  Note that both successes were, like almost all defeats of insurgencies, done by governments fighting domestic insurgencies. 

As the first phase (Iraq, Af-Pak) of our mad foreign wars winds down — and the second phase expands — we can still learn from this analysis by one of the West’s greatest living military historians. We can still turn off this path.  The passage of time closes options; we might soon pass the last exit to avoid serious war.

Counterinsurgency in Hama, Syria

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“On Counterinsurgency”
by Martin van Creveld
From Combating Terrorism,
edited by Rohan Gunaratna (2005)

Introduction

For background see The first lesson of our failed wars: we were warned, but choose not to listen.

This paper falls into four parts, each posted separately.

  1. How We Got to Where We Are is a brief history of insurgency since 1941 and of the repeated failures in dealing with it.
  2. Two Methods focuses on President Assad’s suppression of the uprising at Hama in 1983 on the one hand and on British operations in Northern Ireland on the other, presenting them as extreme case studies in dealing with counterinsurgency.
  3. On Power and Compromises draws the lessons from the methods just presented and goes on to explain how, by vacillating between them, most counterinsurgents have guaranteed their own failure.
  4. Conclusions.

Part two. Two Methods to defeat insurgencies

(a)  Syria

In early 1982, President Hafez Asad’s (In Arabic, Asad means “Lion“) regime in Syria was twelve years old and was meeting growing opposition that did not make its future appear rosy. Part of the opposition came from the members of various ethnic groups who took issue with the fact that Asad, like his most important collaborators, was an Alawite. Now the Alawites are one of the less important Islamic sects, traditionally poor and discriminated against. Many in the Islamic world do not even regard them as true Moslems and claim that, instead of Allah, they worship the moon and the stars; it as if Germany had been ruled by a Serbic Mafia or Italy by a Greek one.

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