A senior US general explains that we’re learning to fight 4GWs, but slowly

Summary: We’ve slowed the intensity of our efforts in the Long War, following failures in Iraq and Afghanistan. So the momentum shifts to our foes, as the fires we’ve sparked across the Middle East spread. Success in the next phase depends on what our military leaders have learned from their failures. Today a senior general gives a demonstration.

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 Encyclopedia Mythica



  1. What have our generals learned after 14 years of 4th Generation War?
  2. We crank the Darwinian Ratchet & empower our foes
  3. Why our strategy fails
  4. For More Information


(1)  What have our generals learned after 14 years of 4GW?

See this Interview by Breaking Defense with Michael Flynn (Lt. General, US Army), retiring chief of the Defense Intelligence Agency. See his Wikipedia entry.  He shows what might be the defining characteristics of senior US military thinking in our Long War: blindness about the effects of our actions and obliviousness about the intents of jihadist groups.

I know that’s a scary thought, but in 2004, there were 21 total Islamic terrorist groups spread out in 18 countries. Today, there are 41 Islamic terrorist groups spread out in 24 countries. A lot of these groups have the intention to attack Western interests, to include Western embassies and in some cases Western countries. Some have both the intention and some capability to attack the United States homeland.

The general’s analysis has the sophistication of a boy explaining how the cookie jar “just broke”.

In 2000 the Middle East was relatively calm. There was, as there has been since WW2, turmoil about Israel. The Iraq-Iran War was over. The Taliban had brought peace to Afghanistan. There was persistent low-lever conflict in Lebanon, and small attacks on US personnel based in Saudi Arabia (1995 & 1996). The general does not mention what happened in the years before 2004 to set the region afire.  We invaded and occupied Iraq and Afghanistan, toppling a row of dominoes that’s still falling.

What makes this quite sad is the US military’s blindness to their role as useful idiots in bin Laden’s plan to incite a war between Islam and the infidel invader (that’s us) that would unify his people — as Bismarck used wars to unify small States to create Germany. We took the bait: invading Iraq and Afghanistan, attacking Pakistan, Yemen and now others in Africa.

(2) We still crank the Darwinian Ratchet, empowering our foes


Image source: Syed Zaid Zaman Hamid

“The genetics of disease resistance are worth discussing here. We can think of resistance to disease as an arms race. As a population gets exposed to more and more diseases, a darwinian ratchet effect occurs, and only those with stronger immune systems survive.”
— “What are the risks of a global pandemic?“, Nathan Taylor, Praxtime, 23 March 2013.

“We know that the Darwinian Ratchet can create advanced capabilities in stages — it’s a process that gradually creates quality — and gets around the usual presumption that fancy things require an even fancier designer.”
The Cerebral Code: Thinking a Thought in the Mosaics of the Mind (1996), William H. Calvin.

General Flynn explains that they have slowly learned, and now see the Darwinian Ratchet (aka Tactical Darwinism) at work. But again he talks as if this is “just happening”, ignoring our role as the fuel powering this process.

These various groups have learned from fighting the U.S. military for a decade, and they have created adaptive organizations as a means to survive. They write about and share ‘Lessons Learned’ all the time. That was something Bin Laden taught them before he died. These proliferating Islamic terrorist groups have also for years been developing connective tissue to each other and back to al-Qaeda senior leadership in Pakistan’s tribal regions. Some of those connections are pretty strong. We’re not talking bits and pieces or nascent connections.

… when Bin Laden was killed there was a general sense that maybe this threat would go away. We all had those hopes, including me. But I also remembered my many years in Afghanistan and Iraq [fighting insurgents] … We kept decapitating the leadership of these groups, and more leaders would just appear from the ranks to take their place. That’s when I realized that decapitation alone was a failed strategy.

My first posts about the Iraq War (Sept 2003 and Oct 2003) explained 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.

{For more about this see Our tactics are an obstacle to victory in the Long War, as the Darwinian Ratchet works against us, 19 April 2011}

This locks us into the Red Queen’s race, so we must run ever faster just to stay abreast of our enemies in the Long War. Insurgents prove more resilient than we expect, so we use more force. We kill more locals, destroy more of their infrastructure. We recruit more jihadists, further alienate the local population. US intelligence has long warned of this, as in this from the 2006 National Intelligence Estimate “Trends in Global Terrorism: Implications for the United States“.

We assess that the Iraq jihad is shaping a new generation of terrorist leaders and operatives … The Iraq conflict has become the “cause celebre” for jihadists, breeding a deep resentment of US involvement in the Muslim world and cultivating supporters for the global jihadist movement.

Our leaders ignored these warnings, as they have so often ignored intelligence advice that didn’t suit their needs.


(3) Why our strategy fails

We involve ourselves in foreign civil wars, often allying ourselves with corrupt tyrannical governments. That does not imply that the insurgents are better, merely that we have no nature role in these conflicts.  Our involvement globalizes these conflicts, expanding the insurgents’ visions. Being bombed by robots operated by foreign infidels does that.

There is an alternative. Involve ourselves only when defending core national interests. Minimize our involvement, and our footprint especially.

The late American strategist Col. John Boyd (USAF) said that a grand strategy focused our nation’s actions — political, economic, and military — so as to:

  1. Increase our solidarity, our internal cohesion.
  2. Weaken our opponents’ resolve and internal cohesion.
  3. Strengthen our allies’ relationships to us.
  4. Attract uncommitted states to our cause.
  5. End conflicts on favorable terms, without sowing the seeds for future conflicts.

— From Patterns of Conflict, slide 139

(4)  For More Information

(a)  For more about the Darwinian Ratchet:

  1. The Growing Sophistication of Iraqi Militants“, Stratfor, 27 December 2004 — About “Tactical Darwinism”
  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

(b)  Posts about the Long War:

  1. The Fight for Islamic Hearts and Minds, 20 February 2012
  2. A look at al Qaeda, the long war — and us, 7 August 2013
  3. How I learned to stop worrying and love Fourth Generation War. We can win at this game., 18 September 2013
  4. Handicapping the clash of civilizations: bet on America to win, 24 September 2013

(c)  Posts about Islam

  1. Are islamic extremists like the anarchists?, 14 December 2009
  2. Hatred and fear of Islam – of Moslems – is understandable. But are there hidden forces at work?, 3 August 2010
  3. Should we fear that religion whose believers have killed so many people?, 4 August 2010
  4. Hard (and disturbing) information about schools in Pakistan – the madāris, 1 May 2011
  5. The Fight for Islamic Hearts and Minds, 20 February 2012



16 thoughts on “A senior US general explains that we’re learning to fight 4GWs, but slowly”

  1. The behavior of the United States is not nearly so feckless as FM suggests once we abandon the silly notion that the purpose of the so-called “War on Terror” is to win.

    No, the purpose of the “War on Terror” is to justify mammoth DOD and related expenditures, with promotions for the military, profits for the contractors, and similar benefits.

    (Exhibit A: The F-35 )

    One of the really disturbing aspects of the ISIS episode is that it is the first intimation that we could not only fail to win but actually lose this thing.

    But meanwhile, the band plays on.

    1. Duncan,

      “No, the purpose of the “War on Terror” is to justify mammoth DOD and related expenditures, with promotions for the military, profits for the contractors, and similar benefits.”

      (a) As I have pointed out before, you state theories (aka guesses) as facts. It’s a serious analytical flaw.

      (b) Whatever the motivation of our leaders, that we have killed so many people makes it a war. So what you call “a silly notion” is not so silly. Especially if some of the relatives of those we’ve killed get sufficiently angry to strike at us.

      (c) The concept of “winning” in any war is complex, protean. That’s even more so in 4GW.

      (d) I often wonder if you read these posts. Your comments often seem curiously disconnected from their content.

    2. I agree with Duncan that this apparent failure may not be that at all.

      From the Fabius Maximus post on 8/16/14: “How can we infer the goal of an individual or group? First, see the effect produced. Assume that what they got is their intended result.”

      Although it is impossible to look into a man’s heart, I think the best way to infer his intentions are to look at his actions.

      Even more – these people are not stupid. Far from it, they are some of the best and brightest around. So, for a very large group of very intelligent individuals to repeatedly fail at something over a very long period of time, one would either conclude that a very bizarre sociological effect was at work, or that perverse incentives had misaligned the goals of the individuals from those of the group.

      1. Todd,

        Your reasoning is logical, but disproven by history. Even with the highest stakes, leaders often make mistakes that continue for years, or decades, or generations. See WW1, in which errors of Europe’s ruling class cost the lives of many of their sons.

        Or the Hundred Years War, in which France refused to update their tactics and equipment despite horrific defeats over a century.

    3. FM: Assuming that it was the nature of my rhetoric and not the underlying substance with which you take issue, please be assured that their acerbic flavor was not aimed at you but rather at those who have been conducting the “War on Terror.”

  2. As for ied we faced this before, the west never had an answer for the mounted archer from the Huns to the mongols until gunpowder came along.

  3. Sorry but I tend to agree w/Duncan. “Procurement, Procurement, Procurement.” IMO one could make a good case for the vast majority of the military shortcomings (i.e., failures) you so accurately describe are due to careerist, yes-men and 6-figure salaries in the MIC upon retirement. All readily achievable by honoring the commitment to “Procurement” (huge DOD budgets).

    Used to work in Big Pharma … “there is no money in cures.” IMO that little corollary to capitalism goes hand-in-hand w/ “procurement” and makes a good case for the tactical approach (seemingly always kinetic and self-defeating but incredibly expensive) that lead to the military foul-ups you describe. Let’s not forget about the Big Oil (the unstated national security protectorate) and the spook/intel nexus intent on taking other people’s oil. Shake and stir for a witches brew.

    Didn’t we all go over this at Lind’s blog years ago?

    1. Dissenter,

      You might be correct. But it is just a guess. That’s fine since most discussions about political reform are as serious as fantasy football. Why not just guess!

      But real world programs require more than guessing for analysis, where time and money are wagered on the conclusions.

  4. ” … due to careerist, yes-men and 6-figure salaries in the MIC upon retirement.” With all due respect, I believe that’s a pretty accurrate paraphase of Chuck Spinney’s. I don’t think he’s guessing. And, “… there is no money in cures.”, not guessing, real world, personal experience, w/time and big money on the line.

  5. I still don’t understand the framework for victory in the War on Terror. Are we to criticize the military for their practices or the outcomes? Or both? Are they just a tool wielded by the CIC? I can see that the man in the Oval office does matter significantly to the missions the US military takes on. 4GW be damned, seems the most important driving factor is the politics of the POTUS. If we had 8 more years of the Bush Doctrine, driven by a true believer in the White House, would things be different? Vastly different?

    I do strongly agree with Duncan and Dissenter that our military is first beholden to procurement “in the bubble” of the executive branch mission in the ME. While the difference between the Bush and Obama directives is not the same, in military terms we have not done a 180. FM your list:

    Increase our solidarity, our internal cohesion.
    Weaken our opponents’ resolve and internal cohesion.
    Strengthen our allies’ relationships to us.
    Attract uncommitted states to our cause.
    End conflicts on favorable terms, without sowing the seeds for future conflicts.

    is a wonderful list, but we do none of these things now and being a student of the Cold War, we did none of these at a tactical level either.

    My rudimentary belief:

    The US military is like a custome-built supercharged hot-rod sitting in the garage. It serves no purpose unless you take it for a spin as often as possible.

    1. From The Best and the Brightest, David Halberstam (1972):

      At an early intergovernmental meeting on the importance of psychological warfare, one of {General} Harkins’ key staffmen, Brigadier General Gerald Kelleher, quickly dismissed that theory. His job, he said, was to kill Vietcong.

      But the French, responded a political officer named Donald Pike, had killed a lot of Vietcong and they had not won.

      “Didn’t kill enough Vietcong,” answered Kelleher.

      Ever great organizations change slowly. Average organizations change very slowly. Poor ones don’t change.

  6. It would be more accurate to say that the American population is learning to fight 4GWs against its out-of-touch rulers, but slowly. Events like Ferguson MO provide learning laboratories.

  7. Drake West remarks: The US military is like a custome-built supercharged hot-rod sitting in the garage. It serves no purpose unless you take it for a spin as often as possible.

    To add to that analogy, the U.S. military is like the Bugatti Veyron, whose tires cost $46,000 for a set of four and burn out in fifteen minutes at top speed and thus must be changed. The car’s 26-gallon gas tank empties in 12 minutes. The car’s maximum range is 51 miles. As a result, it is not practical to take it out on the street.

  8. I believe Duncan is perfectly correct when he states: “No, the purpose of the “War on Terror” is to justify mammoth DOD and related expenditures, with promotions for the military, profits for the contractors, and similar benefits.”

    To put it another way — we can tweak Clausewitz’s epigram by noting that “The War on Terror is the continuation of the Cold War (and its attendant funding levels) by other means.”

    The collapse of the Soviet Union produced a temporary crisis in the U.S. military-industrial complex because it placed the MIC’s funding in jeopardy. It therefore became necessary to invent an enemy to replace the USSR. Fortunately, 9/11 provided the pretext. Current American military/national-security funding levels make no sense if you examine them sensibly (spending circa one trillion dollars per year to track down and kill a few hundred extremists skulking around in caves in Waziristan armed with bolt-action rifles would be ludicrous even in a Monty Python movie), but as long as you maintain a soft focus and hand-wave vaguely about “the global terrorist threat” (two kids with a black powder bomb in Boston) and “weapons of mass destruction” (oil drums full of fertilizer and diesel fuel) you can convince a gullible public that doesn’t bother to read the newspaper.

    1. Nice summary.

      America is crazy.
      And mainly oblivious.
      Violent dead ender culture.

      Cops drive up hop out, pull the guns from the holster…..kid stole two cans of Energy Drinks.
      Bang, bang….nine shots.
      Then they cuff him, er his body.


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