The bad news is that Lind’s good news is wrong

Part VI of a series about America’s new Long War

But if my assumption is valid and al-Qaeda’s leadership wants to change course (in Anbar) but cannot, we may have found a seam in 4GW entities we can exploit. It will not exist in all 4GW organizations; gangs, for example, often have tight top-down discipline. Where they are de-centralized, however, this dynamic of imposing their program prematurely may prevail widely. If that proves to be the case, then these entities will carry within them the seed of their own destruction. Our strategy, in turn, must allow this dynamic to play itself out, which means we must de-escalate and take the pressure off.

William Lind, “A Seam to Exploit?” (September 4, 2007)

I agree with Lind’s analysis about this situation. Except for the conclusion.

Many kinds of groups fight fourth generation war (4GW). Some are strong organizations with powerful hierarchies, such that Mao built to conquer China. Some are the opposite, such as the entities operating under the “al Qa’ida” brand name – much as pirates sailed under the Jolly Roger.

4GW entities operating as networks lack the command and control mechanisms we consider necessary for efficient operation. Decentralized operations with little central control. That does not mean they are weak or stupid, for they have another mechanism that substitutes for smart leadership.

An insurgency brings into play a “Darwinian ratchet,” in which the government in effect drives the insurgency. The security services cull the pack of insurgents. They eliminate the slow and stupid, clearing space for the “best” to rise in authority. That is, those most able to survive, recruit, and train new ranks of more effective insurgents. An insurgency with shallow roots can be destroyed. If not destroyed, then evolution takes place: the more severe the efforts at exterminating the insurrection, the more capable the survivors.

It works with bacteria. Administer antibiotics in non-lethal doses and soon you have a colony of drug-resistant bacteria. It works with people, too.

Hence the familiar activity pattern of a rising sine wave, seen in Palestine, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Iraq, and a dozen other places: successes by the security forces, a pause in activity, followed by another wave of activity – but bigger and more effective.

4GW is a regression, an unwinding of a thousand years of western effort to civilize warfare through a binding web of rules. War was still longer hell. It was hell on the western front of WWII, and a far worse hell on the eastern front. But implicit in this description are the existence of quantitative differences in the savagery with which war is fought.

America has used some of the standard tools of 4GW in Iraq: torture, mercenaries, women hostages, and inflicting collective punishment on communities for the acts of individuals. Recently we learned of snipers ordered to bait traps, valuable property, with orders to shoot those who pick it up – on the off chance that this might be an enemy.

As 4GWs go, we are the good guys in Iraq. Compared to the indiscriminate slaughter taking place around us, we look like saints. That’s how 4GWs are fought, from the early version in the Boer War (e.g. concentration camps) to post-Mao mature forms in Algeria, Vietnam, and Iraq.

This was the basis of my November 2003 forecast that the Iraq insurgency would prosper despite the worst we could do to them. Our wealth, our technology, our overwhelming military forces, and our sophisticated interrogation techniques – all these would only force the insurgency to more rapidly evolve.

The “colony” of al Qa’ida in Iraq has made mistakes. The survivors will:

  1. give up, or
  2. repeat their errors and die, or
  3. learn and try again.

If a sufficient number graduate to a 4GW doctoral degree through method #3, then Iraq might be in serious trouble. If the graduates feel unappreciated in Iraq, they might take their new-found skills elsewhere. Perhaps Pakistan or Saudi Arabia. Or Europe and America. Then we might be in serious trouble.

A closing thought about our fitness for a new Long War

This is how our 4GW opponents learn and evolve. Like 4GW warfare, it is brutal and effective.

How do we evolve? The post-WWII history of our national security apparatus (DoD, State, and the hodgepodge of intelligence units) suggests that we have not yet found anything like the Darwinian Ratchet. Apparently we prefer to lose, substituting a combination of amnesia and excuses for learning.

From the archives on this subject

The Real Revolution in Military Affairs: Women and children as warriors [26 KB PDF]

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