Ignoring the blindingly obvious is essential to continue our foreign wars

If we look closely at the debate about the Af-Pak War, we see some reasons why America has fought so many wars since Korea — and why these wars so closely resemble each other.  Our military journals record 50 years of constant innovation, yet some things are too awful to be seen.  For example, see this interesting article:

“Sri Lanka’s disconcerting COIN strategy for defeating the LTTE“, Niel Smith, posted at the Small Wars Council (SW), 27 August 2009 — Excerpt:

In the comments section of this SWJ post, Phil Ridderh of highlights a very interesting and disconcerting article in the Indian Defence Review containing lessons learned from Sri Lanka’s defeat of the LTTE this year. The principles articulated in this article stand in almost complete opposition to the conceptualization of counterinsurgency articulated in FM 3-24.”

“In the President’s Office in Colombo officials talk about the ‘Rajapaksa Model’ (of fighting terror). “Broadly, win back the LTTE held areas, eliminate the top LTTE leadership and give the Tamils a political solution.” Sunimal Fernando, one of Rajapaksa’s advisors, says that the President demonstrated a basic resolve: “given the political will, the military can crush terrorism.” This is not as simple as it sounds. Like most poll promises he did not have plans to fulfill his promise to militarily defeat the LTTE. Eelam I to III were miserable failures. So the ‘Rajapaksa Model’ evolved, it was not pre-planned.”

The article lists the principles as:

  • Unwavering political will
  • Disregard for international opinion distracting from the goal
  • No negotiations with the forces of terror
  • Unidirectional floor of conflict information
  • Absence of political intervention to pull away from complete defeat of the LTTE
  • Complete operational freedom for the security forces -Let the best men do the task
  • Accent on young commanders
  • Keep your neighbors in the loop

Most western readers will find the lack of concern for civilian casualties in this strategy disconcerting. The article highlights the broad condemnation Sri Lanka received for its approach.

The discussion begins strongly with comment #1, by Carl — going straight to the heart of the matter:

It is interesting that all the successful “ruthless” campaigns cited were conducted by countries suppressing internal insurgencies with their own armed forces. These insurgencies didn’t have any real sanctuaries either. The unsuccessful “ruthless” campaign was a foreign force helping a weak government opposed by insurgents who had a sanctuary.

We are presently involved in small wars as foreign forces helping weak governments. Almost all of the small wars we have been in for the past 100 years have fit this pattern. In Afghanistan the insurgents still have their sanctuary.

So apart from the extremely, fundamentally important humanitarian considerations, the “ruthless” method just doesn’t appear to work in the types of conflicts we are involved in. It seems to me also that we, in essence, ran some small scale experiments confirming this with the approaches of the 101st Air Assault and 4th Infantry Divisions during their initial deployments to Iraq.

This is the vital point, the distinction between local forces fighting insurgencies and foreign forces fighting insurgents. 

Esp, as in our wars, foreign infidels fighting local insurgents.  Foreign forces almost never defeat insurgents; local governments usually do (sometimes with material aid and trailing from foreigners).   It’s a commonly made observation.  I described  in January 2007.  Chet Richards discusses it at length in his 2008 book, If we can keep it, as does Robert W. Chamberlain (Captain, US Army) in “Lies, damned lies and counterinsurgency“, Armed Forces Journal, May 2008.

But it is not in the interest of our military to see this, and so it is seldom mentioned.  As we seen in the comment thread for Smith’s article at SWC.  Nobody follows up Carl’s comment.  Not even the critics of the war.

This is part of a larger pattern common to expert discussions about our wars:  they tend to work within the assumptions of the military.  For the first seven years the litany of the war was unquestioned:  it prevented another 9-11, the Taliban can conquer Pakistan, etc.  So the discussions tended to focus on operations and tactics, COIN and CI.  Very gentle discussions, unlikely to interrupt the smooth course of the war.

Now, after so many years, this is slowly changing.  People are questioning the litany.  Moving the discussion to broader topics, such as the strategic purpose and goals of the Af-Pak War.  These are essential steps, not only to make the war serve some rational national purpose but also to regain civilian control of our military machinery.  But they are insufficient.

The passion, the stormy rhetoric, is owned by the pro-war side.  Even today.  When that changes, then it will mark the beginning of the end to our these wars.


Please share your comments by posting below.  Per the FM site’s Comment Policy, please make them brief (250 words max), civil, and relevant to this post.  Or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

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For more information

To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar.  The following are esp relevant to this post:

Some posts about 4GW:

  1. A solution to 4GW — the introduction
  2. How to get the study of 4GW in gear
  3. Why We Lose at 4GW – the two types of 4GW
  4. Arrows in the Eagle’s claw — solutions to 4GW
  5. Arrows in the Eagle’s claw — 4GW analysts
  6. Visionaries point the way to success in the age of 4GW
  7. 4GW: A solution of the first kind – Robots!
  8. 4GW: A solution of the second kind 
  9. 4GW: A solution of the third kind – Vandergriff is one of the few implementing real solutions.
  10. Theories about 4GW are not yet like the Laws of Thermodynamics

26 thoughts on “Ignoring the blindingly obvious is essential to continue our foreign wars”

  1. Coincidentally Tom Ricks on his blog mentions “alternative” COIN techniques discussed recently at a Naval War College symposium: “Counterinsurgency: The brutal but effective Russian approach“, blog at Foreign Policy, 17 September 2009.

    BTW: I believe your correct, once the rhetoric swings, these wars will come to a close. This is one parcel of land where I think green shoots are being seen, a decent portion of Obama’s base has no interest for these misadventures and some on the right have lost or never had any interest either. Hopefully this is an instance where the center will not hold.

  2. “The passion, the stormy rhetoric, is owned by the pro-war side. Even today. When that changes, then it will mark the beginning of the end to our wars.”

    Or, the beginning of a time in which America will fight truly necessary wars, and no others. That would be progress over what we have now, namely fighting wars of choice and weakening and overtaxing our forces such that they are left ill-equipped to fight the truly necessary wars we may find ourselves in from time to time.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Thank for catching this. I have changed the text to read “these wars.”

  3. The argument seems to be that having lost money and lives to these foreign wars, we should forfeit our souls as well in the hopes of salvaging victory.

    Another missing factor in this discussion of ‘ruthless’ campaigns are the manpower that’s been needed to carry them off. (Wikipedia is the source for the following numbers, I welcome any correction in the event they’re in error)

    Sri Lankan and Indian Tamils represented a population base of about 2 million people, and the Sri Lankan military committed roughly 70,000 troops to the campaign against them.

    Chechnya’s population is roughly one million and it’s area is 15,300km2. After the shooting war Russia has had between 45,000 and 70,000 troops in the area. In other words, it took Russia ten years to mostly subdue a nation with the same population as San Jose California, and the same area as Connecticut.

    Afghanistan has thirty times the population and forty times the area as Chechnya. I’ll leave working out the troop commitment this implies as an exercise for the reader. For extra credit, describe what conducting a campaign on the Russian model in Afghanistan would do to US relations with a) NATO and b) Pakistan.

  4. It raises the question: “what method did the Taliban and other Afghani groups use to insure political control?”

    I can’t help remembering a BBC World Service television clip of Abdul Rashid Dostum negotiating peace with local Pashtun leaders south of Mazar-i-Sharif, 2001-02. His negotiation position was simply: “Do what I tell you to or I’ll have your men killed and your women raped.”
    Fabius Maximus replies: While some Afghanistan leaders on all sides sometimes use this method, there is strong evidence it is not the primary source of the Taliban’s strength. Although US sources have made strong efforts to convince us that it is so, part of a long effort to convince us that everybody we fight is Hitler-like evil. For more on this, see Another note from our past, helping us see our future.

  5. some points for consideration.
    1. Small Wars Journals has become a COIN koolaid fountain. you are correct that they tend to dodge any comments that detract from their efforts however it is a leap of logic to assume that they ignore it to continue wars.
    2. the article clearly lays out what conditions work and what don’t. the main issue is whether terrorist have a sanctuary or not. not whether it is foreign or local governments fighting the insurgents. the commenter is right that we tend to engage in wars where we let the enemy have sanctuary and we tend to lose those wars. it is a standard COIN fundamental to take away the enemies sanctuary. why we don’t do this is beyond me.
    3. i told you so. i told you so. i told you so. the Sri Lankan method was effective because they isolated and destroyed their enemy.
    4. The SWJ guys are comparing apples and oranges when they compare chechnya and afghanistan. the ruthless method didn’t work in the latter because the enemy was being trained, funded, and supplied by an outside enemy, the US. if the russians could have cut off our support, they would have had a better chance at taking afghanistan.
    5. also, the SWJ guys attempt to manage the information of this message by downplaying the Sri Lankan method saying that “This utilitarian view of force is tempting to those looking for a quick and alternate solution to the complex campaigns that trouble the US and its allies.” the campaign becomes more complex if you lose. it isn’t just a “quick and alternate solution”, it works. FFS. take a look at our previous defeats and tell me you want to continue using our failed methodology. it’s amazing how breathtakingly stupid koolaid drinkers are.
    Fabius Maximus: Whatever. By the numbers, again.

    “you are correct that they tend to dodge any comments that detract from their efforts”

    I said nothing of the kind, and more nearly the opposite. Folks like Bernard Finel are not of the SWJ or SWC, and yet tend to work within the consensus view of our wars.

    “the main issue is whether terrorist have a sanctuary or not.”

    The historical record shows this to be false. Almost every insurgency against foreign occupiers was successful after WWII, whether or not there was a sanctuary. As in the long series of colonial revolts.

    “i told you so.”

    That is childish. Did you predict it in 2000? 2005? In any case, the utility of massive force in suppression of insurgencies is hardly a new insight. Most notably, it was a principle theme of Martin Van Creveld’s “The Changing Face of War” (2006) see Chapter 6.4 — Hassad in Hama. The key piont to remember is that it works far more often for locals than foreigners.

  6. FM: “This is the vital point, the distinction between local forces fighting insurgencies and foreign forces fighting insurgents.

    I think the distinction is not quite right. The deeper point is that the majority always wins in the end. Insurgencies are war by a minority against the ruling majority. The fact is what Americans are calling a counter-insurgency in Afghanistan is nothing of the sort, it was raid that is rapidly turning into a colonial occupation.

    While colonial occupations are ones that back a minority against the majority. This is done deliberately in a colonial occupation so that the minority will be always dependent on the colonial power for it’s position.

    The other historical option of actually colonizing the place with an influx of colonists so you become the majority is order of magnitude more expensive.

    That Americans can’t admit that a war is actually a colonial occupation means that they are particularly bad at it. It is also why Iraq was able to be resolved – albeit with an Iranian backed government, the geopolitical equivalent of an own goal – while the same is not possible in Afghanistan.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I think you are overstating this. Who was the majority in China? Often there is no clear majority. Just locals fighting it out.

  7. >I can’t help remembering a BBC World Service television clip of Abdul Rashid Dostum negotiating peace with local Pashtun leaders south of Mazar-i-Sharif, 2001-02. His negotiation position was simply: “Do what I tell you to or I’ll have your men killed and your women raped.”

    FM: “While some Afghanistan leaders on all sides sometimes use this method, there is strong evidence it is not the primary source of the Taliban’s strength.

    Indeed the opposite is true. The Taliban were welcomed by Afghans who saw Dostum and his fellow warlords as far worse.

    Now of course Dostum is back in power with out help no doubt continuing with the raping and looting that made him so popular before. And when the scandle comes out everyone will piously claim that the “couldn’t have known” what a monster he was.

  8. Borrow the nearby Maoists , let them fight it out with the Taliban while Western forces quietly slip home .

  9. There is nothing new about the military’s COIN doctrine, COIN was a big thing at the start of the Vietnam war and I have seen nothing at all new in the doctrines of then and now.

    The only difference now is that it’s the only game in town – there is no cold war to get back to. If the military lose in Afghanistan then they are out of a job.
    Fabius Maximus replies: That is a powerful observation. As Chet Richards has noted, the 3 key elements to post-WWII counter-insurgency warfare are:
    (1) Massive firepower on civilians
    (2) Popular front armies or militia
    (3) Sweep and destroy missions
    In each war these things are remixed and the result declared “new and improved strategy.”

  10. “What will we do after we lose this war, sir?”
    “Prepare for the next one, son.”
    — Cross of Iron (1977 movie)

    Never out of a job. But isn’t there something more useful that they could be doing?

  11. Miyko,
    we have enemies. there is an old rule about winning hearts and minds. if you can’t win their hearts and minds.. put two in their hearts and one in their minds. it works. but for some reason.. after we dropped firebombs on dresen and nukes on japan.. for some reason.. american values get in the way of killing people that hate us and want us dead. it confuses me.. and it should confuse you.
    Fabius Maximus replies: That’s one of the most absurd things I have ever read (which is quite an accomplishment given the 11 thousand comments on this site). Most enemies are not worth our notice. Many are so small, weak, or limited as to need limited measures to contain them.

    Fortunately you were not in charge of the Cold War, or the world would be a radioactive wasteland. Containment worked adequately well even against a hostile superpower.

  12. FM… sorry but containment won’t work with terrorism. i can’t believe you even recommended that. i have a hard time taking you serious on a good day.. but that way unbelievable.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Perhaps if you read more carefully you’d understand more. I said containment worked with the USSR, given as rebuttal to your silly “rule.” There are many effective measure short of war to deal with small enemies, and I described one of them.

  13. FM.. your definition of “effective measures” are what? ignoring an enemy that has sworn to kill us? oh.. they are so tiny and insignificant we should just ignore them. 19 people killed 3000 people in New York and caused billions in damage. are you mental? tiny cells can cause massive damage in this conflict. we have to deal with the problem totally. not on an individual basis. our enemies must be killed. they won’t be swayed. besides. it isn’t my “silly rule”. it is a time honored rule of winning. brought to you by successful COIN leaders for thousands of years. i know you don’t want to hear that or accept it because you are anti-war and a 4GW koolaid drinker.
    Fabius Maximus replies: That is a good example. The 9-11 Commission proved that 9-11 could have been prevented by adequate security work. As subsequent attacks have been pervented by good security work. The examples of the IRA and ETA provide additional examples of the effectiveness of classic security methods. On the other hand, there is zero evidence that these wars have done anything to protect us.

    Terrorism is a recurrent phenomenon in modern society, and can probably not be entirely prevented. The largest terror attack in American history was the 1920 Wall Street Bombing (38 killed, 400 injured). Until the 1995 Oaklahoma City Bombing (168 killed, 680 injured). Until 9-11. At some level these can be limited but not prevented.

    On another level, there have always been people who want to kill us, and probably always will be. It’s nuts to think that every such threat calls for war, esp vs. non-State enemies — like a doctor who sees amputation as the cure for all ills. Or a child crying at at a nightmare.

  14. FM.. then you and i agree.. we shouldn’t start stupid wars with limited objectives that don’t accomplish out national objectives.

    where we disagree is that we can never provide “adequate security” unless we sacrifice our liberties. i’m not willing to do that. i’m not willing to punish our citizens with an ever creeping tyranny of security measures to prevent terrorism that can be prevented by killing the right people. i’d rather make our enemies sacrifice they security. anyone that swears an oath to our Constitution should do the same.
    Fabius Maximus replies: “Killing the right people” is certainly too vague to be operationall useful. Also it is problematic at best, and most likely utopian or unrealistic. Successful insurgencies often have their leadership cadre decimated along the way. Like Xenophon’s ten thousand, they chose new leaders and continued marching.

    When done on a larger scale, foreigners killing lots of people often arouses even stronger opposition — as shown in the many anti-colonial wars since WWII.

    In brief — as a statement of military art, “killing the right people” is useless or meaningless.

  15. Re: 14 — Osama Bin Laden’s statement of 1 November 2004:

    “[It is] easy for us to provoke and bait this administration. All that we have to do is to send two mujahidin to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al-Qaida, in order to make the generals race there and cause America to suffer human, economic, and political losses.”

    You might want to rethink the doctrine of totally annihilating any individual who means America ill. Since, you know,
    a) it’s completely insane, and
    b) America’s enemies have as much as said ‘here’s how we’re going to use this doctrine to bleed the US white over time’.

    Even if you do accept the idea that we have to hunt and kill ‘America’s enemies’ wherever they may be, it still does not follow that you have to have a massive military commitment in Afghanistan. Rather it suggests you need some very good spies, some good commandos and an air force with global reach.

    Your argument is also dependent on a totally false dilemma. There are quite a few options between total warfare and total capitulation. The argument is that America would be better served by taking advantage of those options, that’s all.

  16. Grimgrin,
    you obviously didn’t read the linked articles. besides.. i’m not calling for total warfare. i’m calling for killing the right people. so much for your dilemma.
    Fabius Maximus replies: What linked articles do you refer to? If you refer to those in the post, nothing Grimgrin says conflicts with those.

  17. FM: “I think you are overstating this. Who was the majority in China? Often there is no clear majority. Just locals fighting it out.

    The nationalists were widely seen as corrupt and ineffective while the communists made a point of not being so. So yes there was greater support for the communists. Actually my point is really a corollary of the view of insurgencies as a fight for legitimacy.

    Comment #16: “besides.. i’m not calling for total warfare. i’m calling for killing the right people.”

    This sort of nonsense springs from the US militaries propaganda about being a hyper-power. You see this frustration often – if we are so powerful why cant we just ignore history and it’s inconvenient lessons and take what we want.
    Fabius Maximus replies: I don’t believe the available evidence shows the communists had majority support until the end of the civil war — and perhaps not even then. So the Communists did not win because they were the majority at the start, or even during the war. They won for other reasons, which were clearly seen by the US State Department’s experts in China (and for which correct forecasts they were broken and driven from the Service).

  18. A major blind spot for Americans is the assumption “Their cannon fodder is as precious to them as our cannon fodder is to us.” This is a huge cognitive blunder. It’s why I avoid stressing the commonality between us and our enemies as reason to stand down. We must do better at understanding the low dollar value of human life in countries like Afghanistan.
    In Latin America, small towns have a “town killer”. If you have a beef, preferably with an outsider, you hire this guy to kill the guy who , for example, came to town and slept with your daughter. You pay him a hundred bucks. After the crime, he leaves town for two weeks, case closed, crime permanently unsolved, he returns. Killing neighbors is a bad idea, they can kill you too.
    Meanwhile, one G.I. in A gets his picture taken with his legs blown off at the knee, and we go berserk. Sending our grunts to confront their grunts is the essence of asymmetric warfare. Every time, we lose, even if we kill a hundred of theirs for each of ours, the cost advantage is theirs.

  19. Grimgrin,
    don’t put words in my mouth. i’m not calling for massive industrial wars or military actions. heck, at the end of the day, i wouldn’t be in afghanistan or iraq. let me be more specific. we have to kill the right people. killing the foot soldiers on the ground will drain our national treasure. we need to go after the financiers first and then go after the real leaders of terrorism in Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Syria. this may or may not involve killing anyone. however, doing so would send a message that there is a price to pay for giving money and support to our enemies.
    if nelson mandela was a terrorist leader attempting to attack america.. he would be dead. however, since he isn’t and your analogy is poor beyond words.. he is safe.. for the time being.

    FM.. critical thinkers don’t assume others thoughts or intentions. attacking my point and calling it vague is a childish attempt to score points and dodge a debate. how about asking who exactly we should kill? as a said above.. killing foot soldiers is getting us nowhere. they will simply regenerate as long as we leave the real leaders and financiers alone.

    care to tell us what history and inconvenient lessons you are talking about?
    Fabius Maximus replies: Let’s replay your comments.
    * Comment #12: “american values get in the way of killing people that hate us and want us dead”
    * Comment #16: “by killing the right people”
    * Now: “we have to kill the right people. killing the foot soldiers on the ground will drain our national treasure. we need to go after the financiers first and then go after the real leaders of terrorism in Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Syria. this may or may not involve killing anyone.”

    Since your explanation substantially changes your previous statements (to the extent that you now say “it may not involve killing”), you yourself have proven that they were vague. While more specific, your prescription remains vague. If not killing, “go after” can mean almost anything.

  20. I know that some people hate me, but i do not hate them. I know that i have enemies, but i don’t let my enemies decide where i will go, or when i will fight.
    Fabius Maximus replies: A succint statement of good strategy.

  21. FM.. RE American Values.. i read that in the comments of one of the links. it was surprising to me that anyone would mention “american values” when we had no problem dropping nukes on innocent civilians.

    as for comment 16… and? you wanted specifics.. i gave you them. kill.. cajole.. arrest… whatever you have to do.. be serious about it. taking half measures won’t work.
    Fabius Maximus replies: A bit odd that “kill” becomes “arrest” when you “explain”. Whatever, man.

  22. FM… i understand you have an agenda as do most of your readers. i only discovered you when my friend Bill Quick linked of Dailypundit.com linked to you. i enjoy logical, rational, and honest debate. as for “explaining”, as i said before, you never engaged me or never tried to understand what my point was. i would rather kill my enemies.. i’m willing to settle for arresting them to appeal to your sensibilities. you offer no alternatives. no discussion. just criticism. as i said before… i have a hard time taking you seriously.
    Fabius Maximus replies: By the numbers.

    (1) “offer no alternatives”

    I have stated my recommendation on the Af-Pak War many times.
    * Limit our involvment in Afghanistan to civilian and military aid. No combat troops other than descrete use of special ops.
    * Continue intense support of Pakistan.
    * If Afghanistan falls, attempt to strike deals with the new regime (as we have with so many unpleasant regimes since WWII).
    * If Pakistan takes heat from the new Afghanistan, they can go to the Security Council for permission to conduct cross-border ops. With little US involvement, approval should be easy (Russia and China will probably applaud).

    This is an application of a defensive grand strategy, as I and others (esp William Lind) have advocated. For details see section 5 (Grand Strategy) of the FM reference page Military and Strategic Theory. For a summary see these posts:
    * How America can survive and even prosper in the 21st Century – part I, 7 June 2008
    * How America can survive and even prosper in the 21st Century – part II, 14 June 2008

    Much of this is explained well in “The ‘safe haven’ myth“, Stephen M. Walt, blog of Foreign Policy, 18 August 2009.

    (2) “i understand you have an agenda as do most of your readers.”

    What point are you attempting to make? Who is familiar with these things and does not have an opinion about them?

    (3) “no discussion”

    This website is a hot forge, in which we try to burn away the dross and leave the gold behind. It’s often not a fun process. Everybody here is often wrong (the site is littered with my admissions of error), as the things discussed are on the edge of the known.

  23. I would prefer not to kill, not even my enemies.

    “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” — Sun Tzu

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