Our tactics are an obstacle to victory in the Long War, as the Darwinian Ratchet works against us

Summary:  Our wars in the Middle East show the rapid development of military theory.  Unfortunately, most of this takes place in the minds of our enemies — while we recycle different tactics from Vietnam and the many other defeats since WWII of foreign armies by local insurgents.  Here we examine one mechanism working against us, which our hubris prevents us from seeing:  the Darwinian Ratchet.  It does not guarantee victory to insurgents fighting foreign armies, but offsets much of the advantages of the latter’s firepower and experience.

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)

{From the start the insurgents} made a decision to attack our tactical mobility … and they’ve chosen the IED as the way to do that.  This is the first war where we’ve faced an enemy that’s adapted better than we have at a tactical and operational level. We had IEDs from Day 1. … What have we done to adapt? Nothing.
— Anthony Zinni (General, USMC, retired; former chief of the U.S. Central Command), quoted in USA Today, 15 July 2007

From my first posts about the Iraq War (Sept 2003 and Oct 2003), it seemed clear that our tactics empowered the insurgency.  Not just spurring recruitment (as many saw), but forcing improvement in their leadership and methods.  As described here (from Oct 2007):

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.

Doctrinal change since then has exacerbated this problem, as we’ve moved from COIN (winning hearts and minds, supporting the local government, clear and hold) to more traditional (and kinetic) methods of counter-insurgency (e.g., search and destroy, decapitation of enemy leaders, focusing on body counts).  We don’t see this because we don’t want to see it.  But a tiny current of recognition appears in the literature about the war, showing recognition (at some level) that this is self-defeating.  Here are a few examples.


  1. The Growing Sophistication of Iraqi Militants“, Stratfor, 27 December 2004
  2.  “Dinosaurs versus Mammals: Insurgent and Counterinsurgent Adaptation in Iraq“, David Kilcullen, RAND Insurgency Board, 8 May 2008
  3. Strong recommendation to read:  “Darwinian selection in asymmetric warfare: the natural advantage of insurgents and terrorists“, Dominic Johnson (Reader, Dept of Politics & International Relations, U of Edinburgh), Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences, Fall 2009
  4. Pakistan: The South Waziristan Migration“, Stratfor, 14 October 2009
  5. Insurgent career planning or insurgency darwinism“, JJ Malevich (Lt Colonel, Canadian Exchange Officer, COIN Branch Chief), USA and USMC Counterinsurgency Center Blog, 4 March 2010
  6.  “Bombs away“, The Economist, 4 March 2010

Links to more information appear at the end.

(1) The Growing Sophistication of Iraqi Militants“, Stratfor, 27 December 2004 — Written back when the insurgents were despised as insignificant foes; not even called insurgents.  Excerpt:

The U.S. presence has provided a great laboratory for the Baathist militant forces to improve their skills. “Tactical Darwinism” has weeded out many of the inept operatives, leaving a core of hardened, competent militants. They are creating new tactics and have manufactured highly effective devices. If these men are allowed to impart the knowledge they have gained to another generation of young aspiring militants, the worst may be yet to come.

(2) Dinosaurs versus Mammals: Insurgent and Counterinsurgent Adaptation in Iraq“, David Kilcullen, RAND Insurgency Board, 8 May 2008 (posted at Sic Semper Tyrannis).  Here are excerpts, a few titles of the slides.  This is a brilliant and subtle presentation, which a summary cannot capture. Like all of Kilcullen’s serious work, it warrants carefully consideration.  Excerpts:

Opening slide:  An unforgiving environment that punishes error — Leading to Darwinian pressure on both sides…

Slide 16:  Hypothesis: counterinsurgents adapt slowly, insurgents evolve quickly?

Slide 17:  Hypothesis: mechanisms for insurgent evolution

  • General evolutionary effect
  • Leadership evolution (destruction-replenishment cycle)
  • Bell Curve effect

Slide 52:  Conclusions

  1. In a counterinsurgency, insurgent groups and security forces appear to engage in time- and resource-competitive processes of adaptation, driven by the Darwinian pressure imposed by a complex, hostile “conflict ecosystem” that operates on the edge of chaos
  2. Counterinsurgents appear mainly to adapt, insurgents to evolve – but insurgent groups whose network and organizational structure is tighter may behave in a more purposeful adaptive manner (e.g. JAM)

(3)  Strong recommendation to read: Darwinian selection in asymmetric warfare: the natural advantage of insurgents and terrorists“, Dominic Johnson (Reader, Dept of Politics & International Relations, U of Edinburgh; bio here), Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences, Fall 2009 —  The quotes at the start of this post are from this article.  Abstract:

Models of human conflict tend to focus on military power, predicting that—all else equal—the stronger side will prevail.                 This overlooks a key insight from the evolutionary dynamics of competing populations: the process of adaptation by natural selection.  Darwinian selection weeds out poor performers and propagates good performers, thus leading to a cumulative increase in effective adaptations over time.  The logic of selection applies not only to biological organisms but to any competing entities, whether strategies, technologies, or machines — as long as three conditions are in place: variation, selection, and replication.

Applied to asymmetric warfare, Darwinian selection predicts that, counter-intuitively, stronger sides may suffer a disadvantage across all three conditions:

  1. Variation — weaker sides are often composed of a larger diversity of combatants, representing a larger trait-pool and a potentially higher rate of “mutation” (innovation);
  2. Selection — stronger sides apply a greater selection pressure on weaker sides than the other way around, resulting in faster adaptation by the weaker side;
  3. Replication — weaker sides are exposed to combat for longer (fighting on the same home territory for years at a time), promoting experience and learning, while stronger sides rotate soldiers on short combat tours to different regions.

In recent years, many civilian and military leaders have noted that US counterinsurgency and counterterrorism forces are adapting too slowly to match the insurgents in Iraq, the Taliban in Afghanistan, or Al Qaeda worldwide. A Darwinian approach suggests that this is exactly what we might predict: Weaker sides adapt faster and more effectively. Understanding the causes and consequences of Darwinian selection offers insights for how to thwart enemy adaptation and improve our own.

(4) Pakistan: The South Waziristan Migration“, Stratfor, 14 October 2009 — Excerpt:

All this experience in designing and manufacturing IEDs in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan means that the jihadist bombmakers of today are more highly skilled than ever, and they have been sharing their experience with foreign students at training camps in places like South Waziristan. Furthermore, the U.S. presence in Iraq and Afghanistan has provided a great laboratory in which jihadists can perfect their terrorist tradecraft.

A form of “tactical Darwinism” has occurred in Iraq and Afghanistan as coalition firepower has weeded out most of the inept jihadist operatives.   Only the strong and cunning have survived, leaving a core of hardened, competent militants. These survivors have created new tactics and have learned to manufacture new types of highly effective IEDs — technology that has already shown up in places like Algeria and Somalia. They have been permitted to impart the knowledge they have gained to another generation of young aspiring militants through training camps in places like South Waziristan.

As these foreign militants scatter to the four winds, they will be taking their skills with them. Judging from past waves of jihadist fighters, they will probably be found participating in future plots in many different parts of the world. And also judging from past cases, they will likely not participate in these plots alone.

(5) Insurgent career planning or insurgency darwinism“, JJ Malevich (Lt Colonel, Canadian Exchange Officer, COIN Branch Chief), USA and USMC Counterinsurgency Center Blog, 4 March 2010 — Excerpt:

In our war in Afghanistan we seem to be doing a lot of leadership targeting by UAV. But, are we doing leadership targeting because it is a worthwhile war winner or because we can? I think is more the latter than the former.

There is no doubt that the capture/kill of an insurgent leader deals a blow to the insurgency and creates an IO opportunity for the home team. But, how much of an effect remains to be seen. Obviously we’ve been going after insurgent leaders for a while and what has happened? The insurgency got stronger. In fact, some had mused that the amateurs were cleaned out and the professionals took over. When I think of leadership targeting I am reminded of the Jominni inspired doctrine “shock and awe theory.” In our doctrine, we constantly try to recreate those for 42 days of the battle of France in 1940 where the Germans got inside the OODA loop of the French Command, overwhelmed it and defeated it. Although targeting leadership can be useful in the heat of battle where HQs need to make rapid decisions and direct troops and fires to the critical point of the battle, I don’t think it applies to insurgency situations.

Leadership in an insurgency is a slower, less controlled event. Taking out a leader will not have an immediate tangible effect on the battlefield as insurgents are not normally sitting around waiting for orders.

What I think it does cause is collateral damage while at the same time giving the younger more aggressive insurgent leadership an opportunity to come to the fore.  I think we do it because we can. It reminds me of the British Bomber offensive in WW II between 1940 and 1941. The British could not come to grips with Nazis after the fall of France, but they could bomb targets in Germany and that made them feel good regardless of the effect.

Does leadership targeting fall into an overall strategic plan or is it just something we are doing because we can?

(6)  They may be ignorant herdsman, but American military technology has forced them to become 21st century bombmakers:  “Bombs away“, The Economist, 4 March 2010 — “Military technology: Elaborate new devices designed to defeat makeshift explosives struggle to gain the upper hand in Iraq and Afghanistan”.  Excerpt:

For America’s Central Intelligence Agency, the glory days of its “Darwin” patrols in Iraq were short-lived. Following the defeat of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the American-led forces faced clever homemade bombs triggered with the remote controls used to open garage doors. So CIA agents drove around transmitting garage-opening signals to blow up any bombmakers who happened to be nearby. This “survival of the fittest” culling, which gave the scheme its nickname, quickly became less effective when the bombers came up with new and better detonators. “We had to keep going back to the drawing board,” says a former senior CIA official.

And still the battle continues, with each new bombing advance met by a new countermeasure. As insurgents and terrorists have improved their handiwork, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) have become their most lethal weapons. In Iraq, IEDs are responsible for two-thirds of coalition deaths. In Afghanistan such attacks have roughly tripled in the past two years.

For more information

For a complete listing of posts on this topic see the FM reference page Military and strategic theory.

Posts about military theory:

  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. Is COIN the graduate level of military hubris?, 30 July 2008
  8. The War Nerd shows how simple 4GW theory can be, 22 January 2009
  9. The US Army brings us back to the future, returning to WWI’s “cult of the offense”, 13 February 2009
  10. Important reading for every American who wishes to understand our foreign wars, 7 April 2009
  11. A joust between two schools of American military theory, 19 May 2009
  12. James Bond is not just our hero, but the model for our geopolitical strategy, 18 May 2009
  13. COIN as future generations will see it (and as we should see it today), 1 July 2010
  14. Bin Laden wins by using the “Tactics of Mistake” against America, 4 November 2010

1 thought on “Our tactics are an obstacle to victory in the Long War, as the Darwinian Ratchet works against us”

  1. The Darwinian ratchet does exist and we are not adapting, you’re right but I think you missed something in your analogy with bacteria and antibiotics. We are also FLOODING the environment with cash at the same time. So it is more like killing off the weak and stupid while giving the strong growth hormone.

    To be fair, we are also killing the strong and smart from time to time – the ISI gets angriest when we zap one of their valued clients instead of their discards who they are betraying to us. The Pakistanis are bad allies to both sides.

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