A discovery that could change the course of US geopolitical strategy, if we would only see it

Summary:  Andrew Exum points to a new paper deserves attention, about the history of counterinsurgencies.  This insight has been repeatedly discovered in the past 5 years, but ignored. It could radically change the course of US foreign policy — if we paid attention.

Clear vision


  1. Foreshadowing a revolution
  2. The Two Forms of 4GW
  3. Kilcullen unknowingly explains why we lose
  4. Other posts in this series
  5. For More Information


(1)  Foreshadowing a revolution

This small note by Andrew Exum (aka Abu Muqawama) points to an insight that could start a revolution in US geopolitical strategy: “Afghanistan: Graveyard of Assumptions?“:

As far as the success rate of counterinsurgents fighting as third parties — that is, not on their home turf and in the service of a host nation, like the United States and its allies in Iraq and Afghanistan — is concerned, I would point Boot in the direction of the freshly defended doctoral dissertation of one Erin Simpson (Doctor Charlie to this blog’s readers). Once you’re done coding everything out, it turns out it doesn’t so much matter whether or not you’re a democracy or an authoritarian regime. But counterinsurgents are a whole lot less likely to be successful if they are fighting as third parties as opposed to on their home territory …

Exum refers to “The Perils of Third-Party Counterinsurgency Campaigns”, the doctoral dissertation of Erin Marie Simpson in Political Science from Harvard, 17 June 2010 (available through Proquest).  Her conclusion:

Ultimately, I argue that third parties win when they’re able to overcome these intelligence challenges before public support runs out. This typically requires rather substantial military reforms and complex deal-making with local leaders. Unfortunately, the nature of selection effects in these cases gives rise to a population of insurgencies whereby these conditions are very unlikely to be met.

This is a familiar insight to readers of the FM website.  It’s also, of course, appeared elsewhere off and on over the years (e.g., in 2008 there was  Chamberlain in AFJ and RAND’s “War by Other Means“).

So far these studies have received little attention from our geopolitical experts.  Justly so, as recognition of this lesson from history would remove a major justification for our military’s vast budget.  Defending against a decrepid Russia or a hypothetical expansion by China does not justify a trillion dollar budget.  nor does fighting Islamic terrorism, if we’re not doing so by expeditionary warfare.  So kudos to Simpson for her work, and my wishes for its wide recognition.

Below is the first discussion of this unpleasant truth on the FM website,  from ”Why do we lose 4th generation wars?“, 4 January 2007.  It’s a discussion of David Kilcullen’s “Twenty-Eight Articles: Fundamentals of Company-Level Counterinsurgency”, Military Review, May – June 2006.    RAND also used this this analytical framework in their 2008 report “War by Other Means – Building Complete and Balanced Capabilities for Counterinsurgency“, David Gompert and John Gordon et al (in greater depth, of course).

For an excellent analysis building on the history described below, I recommend If We Can Keep It: A National Security Manifesto for the Next Administration by Chet Richards (Colonel, USAF, retired). It’s the best so far, IMO.

(2)  The Two Forms of 4GW

With admirable clarity, at the opening Kilcullen defines his subject.

{Counterinsurgency} is a competition with the insurgent for the right and the ability to win the hearts, minds and acquiescence of the population.

As noted above, Kilcullen (and I) is not drawing distinctions between guerrilla warfare, to which this statement applies, and insurgency. With that in mind, we can then ask whether it is possible for us “to win the hearts, minds and acquiescence of the population”?

The answer is “no,” and the rationale is critical to appreciating why Kilcullen’s lessons learned for tactical commanders may mislead politicians who try to generalize it to a war-winning strategy (just implement his tactics and we win) or even worse, to grand strategy. For an explanation we must look at the different types of 4GW.

As a simple dichotomy for analytical purposes, we can say that 4GW’s come in two types, reflecting the degree of involvement of outside interests (obviously there are many other ways to characterize 4GW).

  1. Violence between two or more local groups, who can form from any combination of clans, governments, ethnicities, religions, gangs, and tribes.
  2. Violence between two or more sides, where at least one is led by foreigners – both comprising, as above, any imaginable combination of factions.

4GW victories by governments are usually of the first kind, local governments fighting insurgencies. Often foreign assistance is important or even decisive, but the local government leads in such areas as political reform and tactics. Western governments have “won” a few type two insurgencies, but only by assisting the locals – with the locals carrying the primary burden. That is, the foreign interest may lead, but the local government must implement.

Examples of type one insurgencies:

  1. The WWI Arab Revolt, in which Lawrence of Arabia helped the local Arabs defeat their Turkish rulers.
  2. The Indonesian insurgencies in West Java and East Timor that Kilcullen studied.
  3. The victory of the Malaysian colonial government over a communist insurrection (1948 – 1960), during which Malaysia achieved independence from the UK. The British, controlling the information flow to western nations, take full credit for what was more of an assist on their part.
  4. The apparently successful defensive effort of western nations against al-Qaeda following their early successes in the US and Spain.

After the late 1940′s, western states fighting 4GW’s in other lands – type two wars – usually lost. This is the bright line marking a new age of military history, the ascendancy of 4GW. It began with three epochal events.

  1. The end of the WWI – WWII period, conventional wars of attrition which devastated both side, and appears to have (for now, at least) crushed the martial spirits out of Europe’s people.
  2. The use of atomic weapons, suggesting an apocalyptic end to future wars between States.
  3. The development by Mao of an effective theory of 4GW, and his successful proof-of-concept.

The era of large conventional wars and successful colonialism has ended. (Note that the war in Iraq increasingly resembles a neocolonial war, as did Vietnam.)  War continues, but assumes new forms — most esp 4GW.  This schema generates four immediate insights.

  1. 4GW’s (and insurgencies in general) are easiest to defeat at home.
  2. Do not look to wars won by the locals for lessons how we can win when fighting in foreign lands.
  3. We should avoid foreign wars, except when we only assist local forces – a different approach from that attributed to Kilcullen, as we will see below. As Germany learned in WWII and we are learning in Iraq, excellence in tactics and personnel cannot overcome a fundamentally flawed strategy.
  4. Kilcullen has been misinterpreted by those who confuse the two types of 4GW’s.

(3)  Kilcullen unknowingly explains why we lose

“Kilcullen is standing on his head. Our business is to put him on his feet.”
— Karl Marx, Das Capital (1867)  — Actually Marx said this about Hegel, not Kilcullen.

Kilcullen describes how to win a 4GW when fighting on one’s home ground. Although greatly advancing 4GW theory, it does not help us win in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Perhaps in the future we will have an insurgency on American soil. Then we can use Kilcullen’s “28 Articles” to fight it.  Let us check this logic by a second look at Kilcullen’s starting point.

{Counterinsurgency} is a competition with the insurgent for the right and the ability to win the hearts, minds and acquiescence of the population.

This nicely defines the nature of competition for a local group waging 4GW. We can catalog Kilcullen’s “28 Articles” as an insurgent’s handbook, filed on the shelf next to Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Not bad company.  Now we can read Kilcullen’s “28 Articles” and appreciate their full power. …

(4)  Other posts in this series

  1. Max Boot: history suggests we will win in Afghanistan, with better than 50-50 odds. Here’s the real story., which discussed 7 alleged victories by foreign armies fighting insurgenies (Columbia, Iraq, the Malaysian Emergency, the Philippines-American War, Northern Ireland, the Dhofar Rebellion in Oman, and the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya).
  2. A look at the history of victories over insurgents. How often do foreign armies win? — About a RAND study examining the victories of foreign armies over insurgents. It holds powerful lessons for us.
  3. COINistas point to Kenya as a COIN success. In fact it was an expensive bloody failure.

(5)  For More Information about this COIN and 4GW

For a full listing see the FM reference page about Military and strategic theory.  Here are a few posts about military theory, history, COIN, and 4GW:

  1. The 2 most devastating 4GW attacks on America, and the roots of FM 3-24, 19 March 2008
  2. A key to the power of FM 3-24, the new COIN manual, 20 March 2008
  3. Dark origins of the new COIN manual, FM 3-24, 23 March 2008
  4. Insights about modern war from the NIC’s 2020 Project, 11 April 2008
  5. How often do insurgents win? How much time does successful COIN require?, 28 May 2008
  6. COIN – a perspective from 23rd century textbooks, 10 June 2008
  7. A lesson in war-mongering: “Maritime Strategy in an Age of Blood and Belief”, 8 July 2008
  8. Is COIN the graduate level of military hubris?, 30 July 2008
  9. The War Nerd shows how simple 4GW theory can be, 22 January 2009
  10. The US Army brings us back to the future, returning to WWI’s “cult of the offense”, 13 February 2009
  11. Important reading for every American who wishes to understand our foreign wars, 7 April 2009
  12. A joust between two schools of American military theory, 19 May 2009
  13. James Bond is not just our hero, but the model for our geopolitical strategy, 18 May 2009

2 thoughts on “A discovery that could change the course of US geopolitical strategy, if we would only see it”

  1. Here's the dissertation by Charlie (who posts at Abu Muqawama), update

    “The Perils of Third-Party Counterinsurgency Campaigns”, doctoral dissertation by Erin Marie Simpson in Political Science from Harvard, 17 June 2010 — Available through Proquest. Another addition to the body of evidence that foreign armies have poor odds fighting insurgencies.

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