We seek a future of war with Islam, while wearing a cloak of virtue

Summary:  Yet again the merchants of fear have set America buzzing about small numbers of people far away, people angry that we not only support their corrupt autocratic rulers but attack them (with little concern for collateral casualties). There are no angels in these wars, and many demons.

The American response to ISIS will probably be the same as we gave Saddam and the Taliban: the trinity of US Tactics. Massive firepower on civilians. Search and destroy sweeps. Popular front armies.  But after 13 years and two failed wars some in the military, some voices suggest that we should have a strategy — not just tactics. Jeremy Kotkin (Major, US Army) proposed one, described in yesterday’s post — The solution to jihad: kill and contain our foes. Give war another chance!

We discussed this article in the comments with Lt. Colonel Kotkin, who generously shared his thoughts. They deserve attention, especially as America lurches into new wars in the Middle East, in Africa, and probably other places still secret.

Flying Terminator
Flying Terminator: the Voice of America


LTC Kotkin opens the discussion

Well, you did a good job of parsing all the parts from it I specifically said were unacceptable by today’s standards. What I was doing with the ‘antithesis’ section was more or less building a strawman to get to the better strategy if we decide to take on ISIS (which I still think we *should not* because it doesn’t represent a threat to our interests). What truly focusing on the problem should look like however is a coordinated, cooperative, and focused approach by us and our allies using all the instruments of national power to contain and marginalize where the ideology comes from, where it’s funded from, and where it’s exported from. If you want to focus largely on one section of the essay then do so but don’t conflate it to be *the* conclusion or the policy recommendation.

This isn’t calling for anything retaliatory or indiscriminate on par with Dresden or our Search and Destroy missions in South Vietnam (‘we had to burn the village to save it’). That’s ridiculous. If the military option (hopefully only as a precursor to a larger containment strategy) is chosen, it should be targeted. On a larger scale than our current concepts of COIN kinetics, but not indiscriminate destruction bordering on any ‘genocide’ of people like you’re intoning. The intent (of the antithesis, I remind you) is looking to wipe a specific ideology out, not a people.

It will take more of a concerted effort than we’ve made so far to kill off Wahhabism coming from a few particular places in the Middle East. And again, if we can politically be honest enough to define that as the real problem at hand, not its symptoms. Until our foreign policy gets serious about it we can continue to deal with its symptoms and play our favorite counter-terrorism carnival game, whack-a-mole. Bombs on targets will be a good start at some certain level but concerted and cooperative foreign policy is the long term key. Muslims are obviously not the problem. Islam is not the problem. Monarchists in the Middle East who export and fund violence to satisfy their political/sectarian dominance fantasies are our problem. That we need to deal with better than we have been and that’s going to take a new foreign policy unencumbered by counterproductive alliances and relationships.


Jihad flag

My Reply

Thank you for your reply.  As for the representativeness of these excepts, that’s why I recommended at the start that people read your article in full. Each person will determine that for themselves. Also, for that reason I included longer excerpts than usual.

I believe your conclusion is quite clear. Especially this:

First, “the gloves are off” military operations to utterly destroy the concept of jihad and Islamic conquest in the places we can reach …

That conclusion seems logical (given your analysis) and consistent with the rest of your article. I don’t see how that message is negated by inserting a few notes that such actions are not likely to be taken. Advice is advice, no matter how unreceptive the audience.

I don’t know how much force your plan would require, or for how long, or in how many nations. But my guesses are “lots”, “very long”, and “many”. So I hope you are correct that the advice of hawks, like yourself, is unlikely to be taken. At least not on the scale you propose.

Rather than debate if these excerpts are representative, I’d rather discuss more substantive issues. Such as how you believe we should use force to achieve the broad objectives you recommend. Your article gives no clues. Also, why do you believe such interventions would have more success than the almost uniform failure of foreign interventions against local insurgencies?

I do agree that our current tactics are failing. Their failure was predicted before 9-11 by Martin van Creveld (e.g., in his 1991 book Transformation of War), and afterwards by those writing about 4GW (including, in a small way, me). Although our reasons differ.

Major Kotkin

And I agree: “Despite what the author claims, the record of foreign armies fighting local insurgents is one of almost uniform failure” (I didn’t claim differently). That’s why we shouldn’t get involved in the first place – not our insurgents, not our interests. We have a poor record as third-party counterinsurgents because we cannot control the political ineptitude of the host nation that gave rise to the insurgency in the first place. Unless insurgency hobbles one of our true allies (UK, Canada, etc) or vital interests, ‘not my circus, not my monkeys.’

United Nations
We had a plan after WW2

My reply

(1)  Your article, and comments, raise many interesting points. Most of all, your call for force — what seems like large-scale long-term force — is quite vague. Can you give examples of what you recommend?

(2)   “I didn’t claim differently.”

I was referring to this:

“How have successful counterinsurgencies been accomplished in the past? Certainly not Afghanistan or Iraq. There are examples out there. We just choose not to look at them.”

(3)  “We have a poor record as third-party counterinsurgents because we cannot control the political ineptitude of the host nation that gave rise to the insurgency in the first place.”

The problem is deeper than that. Since Mao brought 4GW to maturity everybody has a poor record as foreigners fighting local insurgents. As Martin van Creveld describes in Chapter 6.2 of The Changing Face of War (2006):

What is known, though, is that attempts by post-1945 armed forces to suppress guerrillas and terrorists have constituted a long, almost unbroken record of failure … {W}hat changed was the fact that, whereas previously it had been the main Western powers that failed, now the list included other countries as well. Portugal’s expulsion from Africa in 1975 was followed by the failure of the South Africans in Namibia, the Ethiopians in Ertrea, the Indians in Sri Lanka, the Americans in Somalia, and the Israelis in Lebanon. … Even in Denmark {during WWII}, “the model protectorate”, resistance increased as time went on.

Many of these nations used force up to the level of genocide in their failed attempts to defeat local insurgencies. Despite that, foreign forces have an almost uniform record of defeat. Such as the French-Algerian War, which the French waged until their government collapsed.

Major Kotkin

FM, thanks for the feedback. That’s what this essay was intended to do – to get people to think about our current policy and what the larger issues are aside from temporary and non-existentially threatening terrorist groups. Force as a solution in and of itself is not recommended. I’ve always said (at least through my FB page so I realize not everyone will understand my larger context) that ISIS itself represents an issue of which we should take absolutely zero military action. They are not a threat to us or our interests. They might be a threat to the Saudi monarchy and other Gulf theocracies but that’s not our problem.

However, *if* a fundamental shift in the understanding of geopolitics should occur within the White House, Senate, and State Department (unlikely) and we can begin to reassess our foreign policy that coddles these states who are antithetical to our American/Western interests, then a full-court press is necessary; a coordinated policy not seen in American strategy since WWII or the Cold War. And yes, there were military aspects to the Cold War even though it was ‘cold’ designed to hem in the Soviet ideological threat to our system. The military aspect wasn’t the primary one but it was there. And it was coordinated with our ideological allies.

So is a “gloves are off” military solution what I’m calling for? No. That’s only a minor part of the whole. Terrorists will continue to ‘squirt out’ from the Wahhabi nest and therefore there will always be people who need killing and that should be more unconstrained that what we’ve been fighting the GWOT with. But again, that’s only the tactical sideshow to the larger strategy. To date we have no larger strategy.

Successful counterinsurgencies, although unpalatable today, exist in the historiography of COIN. The French razzias, the American Indian Wars, The Philippine Insurrection, the real lessons learned about Malaya, not the population-centric bunk that FM 3-24 would have us believe, etc. The list goes on. And before you hone in on extrapolating that I’m saying we should ethnically cleanse the Middle East like the way we committed genocide against the Native Americans (which I’m not saying), their simply are other lessons of COIN that should build our left and right limits than the narrowness we’ve artificially created with current doctrine.

Again, I’m not saying those examples are useful as a template but a source of lessons learned. And again, these military lessons should only be employed *if* they are part of a larger strategy of containment and, like MMK pointed out, “disentanglement.”

I agree that foreigners fighting insurgents has a bigger pool of failure than success but I’m only concerned about our history. We *we* fight insurgents, our insurgents, we win. When we fight someone else’s insurgents, and someone else who is more often than not corrupt, illegitimately ruling, malfeasant, and inept, we lose. It’s as simple as that and this should be the only metric that matters as we craft our strategy. Other nations’ insurgencies are not our concern….unless it happens to us (I’m still keeping my eye on the Tea Party ;) ) or one of our *very* close allies.

Basis for Grand Strategy
The sound basis for Grand Strategy

My reply

One quick point. War evolves — I repeat, there are no successful counter insurgencies by foreign armies (I.e., taking the lead, as we did in Vietnam, Iraq, & Afghanistan) against insurgents since Mao brought 4GW to maturity.

Not for lack of trying. That is the essential point which the US military establishment refuses to see. Repeated failure is the price we pay for their willful blindness.


For More Information

(a)  Posts about the history of counterinsurgency:

  1. How often do insurgents win?  How much time does successful COIN require?, 29 May 2008
  2. Max Boot: history suggests we will win in Afghanistan, with better than 50-50 odds. Here’s the real story., 21 June 2010 — Boot discusses 7 alleged victories by foreign armies fighting insurgencies.
  3. A major discovery! It could change the course of US geopolitical strategy, if we’d only see it, 28 June 2010 — Andrew Exum (aka Abu Muqawama) points us to the doctoral dissertation of Erin Marie Simpson in Political Science from Harvard.  She examines the present and past analysis of  counter-insurgency.  This could change the course of American foreign policy, if we pay attention.
  4. A look at the history of victories over insurgents, 30 June 2010
  5. COINistas point to Kenya as a COIN success. In fact it was an expensive bloody failure., 7 August 2012

(b)  Grand Strategy

  1. The Myth of Grand Strategy , 31 January 2006
  2. Why We Lose at 4GW , 4 January 2007
  3. America takes another step towards the “Long War” , 24 July 2007
  4. America’s grand strategy: lessons from our past , 30 June 2008  – chapter 1 in a series of notes
  5. President Grant warns us about the dangers of national hubris , 1 July 2008 – chapter 2
  6. America’s grand strategy, now in shambles , 2 July 2008 — chapter 3
  7. America’s grand strategy, insanity at work , 7 July 2008 — chapter 4
  8. Is America a destabilizing force in the world?, 23 January 2009
  9. The US Army brings us back to the future, returning to WWI’s “cult of the offense”, 13 February 2009
  10. Look at America’s grand strategy. Why do we believe this nonsense?, 5 March 2013
  11. How America can survive – even prosper – in the 21st century, 17 February 2014


Carter talks about war



14 thoughts on “We seek a future of war with Islam, while wearing a cloak of virtue”

  1. Picking up from the last article, Major Kotkin proposed a toolset for a specific scenario – getting directly involved in a(nother) war in the Middle East. He also indicated that on a broader view the actual expression of violent jihad (ISIS et al) is a minor threat and it would be more worthwhile to look at the enabling players, inluding western political choices.

    I tend to agree that we have to look at these root causes. I definitely think that going in again with the same mindset is a very bad choice. Thankfully, my country didn’t get involed in Iraq. The german government was content with fighting in Afghanistan, with absolutely nothing to show for the effort.

    On a more strategic(?) level, we may observe the current events in the greater islamic world BUT we don’t have to play.

    As Major Kotkin mentioned the actual threat of terror to our neglible. ISIS et al are merely the kind of rabid attack dog seen time and time again in history, whether you call them Sondereinsatzgruppen, Red Guards or Khmer Rouge. They are always doing their job as shock troops for someone else, after fulfilling their mission they are most likely discarded.

    However, these groups might be the harbingers for a wider mutli-sided conflict in the region. After all, the middle eastern states are at their core artificial constructs on a map, the loyality of their citizens is more tribe- and sect-oriented and they are under pressure not just militarily. We might be watching the start of something comparable to the religious wars in europe. Outside intervention would be extremely counterproductive.

    All we need to do then is lean back, disengage and at most conduct a “passive” war – harrass those entities we do not like with creative burocracy, trade obstacles, financial ursury, visa- and exchange-bans, plain willfull disinterest.

    Such a course of action would require that we in the west do know and can articulate what we actually want. Instead we are hearing the hawks squaking about national security and the humanist lament about the need for muscular humanitarian intervention…

  2. Agree MMK. Although I unfortunately doubt POTUS’s ISIS speech this week or any changes to our foreign policy will be so broad.

    And why do you guys keep calling me major?

    -LTC Jeremy Kotkin. ;)

  3. Very sorry about the mix-up in rank, I took the lead from the FM post yesterday and didn’t find any rank in the war-is-cruelty article.

    To the point of President Obama addresing ISIS: he seems to buy himself ime and/or an excuse not to go in NOW. After all, airstrikes and drones are merely a kind of (expensive) pressure-valve, to diffuse the pressure on the domestic front. It’s certainly not a comprehensive cure to the problem.

    One of the main themes repeatetly showcased on FM is the stunning lack of strategy on any time-scale in the western camp.

    Grossly oversimplified, I think the US and UK prefer the hammer-nail approach (again, domestic reasons), continental europe by and large still believes in dialogue and an almost child-like wish for “can’t we just all get along” (also, domestic reasons).

    All parties hang on (publicly) to the idea that the states in the ME region may be westphalian states, with similar underpinnings in institutional organisation and political motivation. Thus the idea that we merely need to encourage democratic reforms to have states emerge similar to our own. Those we could talk to and understand.

    Sadly, those concepts don’t apply and we are currently dumbfounded. Add special interests and the situation stays utterly screwed.

  4. dashui – absolutely right. A failed state on our southern border is much more of a serious concern than a failed state on the Horn of Africa or in Central Asia. That’s where we should have been focused over the past decade, not Afghanistan, Somalia, etc. Concur completely.

    FM – I’m glad the thread took the direction it did and you gave me a chance to better and more fully explain myself. When I wrote the initial piece, of course I recognized that people would focus almost singularly on the ‘sensational’ or over-the-top nature of the antithesis section. I expected that, it’s human nature. But that is only part of the dialectic equation to tease out a better understanding. That’s what we’ve been getting to in the threads since if it didn’t come out in the synthesis section.

    And that’s what this was all about anyway, trying to get people to think about our wars and our foreign policies they’re in support of (that was the subtitle, a ‘thought experiment’ to widen force the reader to widen his/her aperture). If people get as upset as they did while reading the antithesis section of my essay as they should be getting upset about the foreign policies we set on cruise control albeit from the facts and realities of the world we’re in, we might get someplace.

    Thanks again,

    1. LTC Kotkin,

      I thank you for your insightful comments!

      Re: Mexico

      Roughly 20 years ago Martin van Creveld was lecturing at Langley. In the Q&A he was asked what was the greatest threat to the USA. From Mexico, he said. That blew their minds.

      He referred to the demographic trends — which often proved decisive in the clash of civilizations. And to the 4GW threat, as criminal and military organizations fuse to form new and virulent hybrids.

      4GW theory predicted that long ago; now it’s happening.

  5. Things are complicated as they are enemies-sometimes. They are frenemeies like Mafia once were.

    Hillary Clinton is the Grandmother of the Islamic Caliphate

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ alastair-crooke/isis- wahhabism-saudi-arabia_b_ 5717157.html

    You Can’t Understand ISIS If You Don’t Know the History of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia

    Islamic State: Ideological Challenge to Saudi Arabia

    Precursor to ISIS, founder of Saudi Arabia used it for own purpose until no longer useful-all the while he was client of British Govt!
    To What Extent Did the Alliance of Ibn Saud and the Ikhwan During the 1920s Lead to the Achievement of their Respective Goals?

    This also discusses it on pg 94 and elsewhere. Google title and page number and see what it says.
    Britain and Saudi Arabia, 1925-1939: The Imperial Oasis

    Secret Jordan base was site of covert aid to insurgents targeting Assad

    Other articles elsewhere have mentioned the Jordan camp.


    Airbridge transporting jihadis from Jordan to Turkey

    A Time Bomb?
    Jordan is America’s ‘Habibi’

    ‘Thank God for the Saudis’: ISIS, Iraq, and the Lessons of Blowback
    U.S lawmakers encouraged officials in Riyadh to arm Syrian rebels. Now that strategy may have created a monster in the Middle East.

    Why is Turkey supporting Islamic State fighters in Iraq?
    ISIS grew strong not in Iraq;but from Syria:
    Iran-Contra Redux? Prince Bandar Heads Secret Saudi-CIA Effort to Aid Syrian Rebels, Topple Assad
    America’s Allies Are Funding ISIS
    The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), now threatening Baghdad, was funded for years by wealthy donors in Kuwait, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, three U.S. allies that have dual agendas in the war on terror.
    Saudi Arabia’s Muslim Brotherhood predicament

    Saudi Arabia and the Brotherhood: What the ‘New York Times’ Missed

    Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam
    Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam

  6. War is “blade to blade”. http://english.pravda.ru/opinion/columnists/30-05-2011/118047-US_COIN-0/

    I just sent someone the FM link that needs to do some reading.

    Let’s see: Tonight we formalize another war that will take us where?

    Now we’ve got Islamic Caliphate, Ukraine-Russia, South China Sea-China, Somalia, Colombia, Boko Haram, AQ….And the economy is stagnant….

    Full moon tomorrow…See the face of Allah (PBUH), prepare to travel, another cycle in Islamic life…


  7. One more thing on strategy: We are totally focused on what is going on outside the borders. The homeland situation is not good: unemployment,income gaps, poverty, infrastructure, birth weight, etc. etc….We are about to spend billions on overseas operations that we desperately need here. So what’s to come: more austerity to pay for more war?

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Scroll to Top
%d bloggers like this: