A lesson about counterinsurgency that could change America’s future.

Summary: As we move forward to a new round of interventions let’s take a moment to look backwards. What can we learn from our failed interventions since 9/11, and more generally from the scores of failed counterinsurgency programs waged by foreign armies since WWII (when Mao brought 4GW to maturity)? There is a simple lesson, one that if learned could change our future. But the national defense complex (like Satan, it goes by many names) doesn’t want you to learn it. So you won’t (probably).  {2nd of 2 posts today.}

“The local fighter is therefore often an accidental guerrilla — fighting us because we are in his space, not because he wishes to invade ours. He follows folk-ways of tribal warfare that are mediated by traditional cultural norms, values, and perceptual lenses; he is engaged (from his point of view) in “resistance” rather than “insurgency” and fights principally to be left alone.”

— David Kilcullen in The Accidental Guerrilla (2011).

Knowledge + Action is power

Our FAILure to learn, a weakness negating our great power.

Since 9/11 the US national security establishment has demonstrated its inability or unwillingness to learn.

By January 2007 it was evident that our occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq had failed (something I had seen by 2003, and many others had seen earlier), yet it was not clear why. I wrote a post (imo one of my best) with an explanation. I sorted insurgencies into 2 groups: local vs. locals (insurgents fighting their government), and foreign vs. local (when foreign forces took a major role fighting local insurgents) — and saw that foreigners almost always lose. Popular counter-insurgency works (e.g., Kilcullen’s “28 Articles: Fundamentals of Company-Level Counterinsurgency”) showed why we this was: insurgency has a powerful home court advantage, which foreigners usually ignore.

Chet Richards’ 2008 magnum opus If We Can Keep It: A National Security Manifesto for the Next Administration took that insight and expanded it. A 2008 RAND study examined the history of 89 insurgencies and came to the same conclusion, as did the 2010 dissertation of Erin Marie Simpson (Political Science, Harvard).

For anyone not paying attention, the denouements of our interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq should have provided ample evidence. For those wanting deeper analysis, Martin van Creveld wrote The Culture of War (2008).  But DoD doesn’t want to see that foreign interventions almost always fail, so we don’t. No matter how obvious. We believe what we’re told, and can see no other truth.

Weaponizing Anthropology (2011)
Available from Amazon.

A book that will open your eyes.

I recommend reading Weaponizing Anthropology: Social Science in Service of the Militarized State (2011) by David H. Price (Prof of anthropology at St. Martin’s U; bio here). He describes one facet of America’s militarization: how the flow of DoD money influences scientists to break their professional ethics (that process is far more advanced in the physical sciences, of course) and how this contributed to our failed wars since 9/11. Tomorrow we’ll look at this in more detail.

His analysis confirms my theory about the two kinds of insurgencies, and disproves my analysis of why the military’s use of social science in COIN failed to work.

Fake Churchill about success
Among the dumbest advice ever. Churchill didn’t say it.

Foreigners fighting = Failure in counterinsurgency.

Price gives another 2008 citation showing recognition of the 2 kinds of insurgencies (apparently 2008 was the year this was widely recognized; I was a year ahead of the pack):

One thing this cloak is hiding is the likelihood that once a nation finds itself relying on counterinsurgency for military success in a foreign setting it has already lost. … The insurmountable problem that the COIN Team faces is that expressed by a senior French commander who told journalist Eric Walberg that: “We do not believe in counterinsurgency” because “if you find yourself needing to use counterinsurgency, it means the entire population has become the subject of your war, and you either will have to stay there forever or you have lost”.

The quote is from Walberg’s 2008 CounterPunch article, which is from Doug Sanders’ still-fascinating Globe and Mail article from 2008: “Afghanistan: colonialism or counterinsurgency? Americans bring Afghans their new 60-year plan.” The two easy lessons from this. First, we were told that our wars were failing but choose not to listen. Second, read the British press to learn about America.

The Counterinsurgency Center
Too bad they keep losing.

A summary of the problem.

Here’s a summary of the counterinsurgency problem from Chapter 6.2 in Martin van Creveld’s The Changing Face of War (2006). Despite the consistent record of failure by foreign armies, we repeat mistakes of the past.

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 Eritrea, 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.


“Men and nations behave wisely when they have exhausted all other resources.”
— Abba Ebban (Israel’s Minister of Foreign Affairs), 19 March 1967. Let’s not wait until then.

As so many have explained since 9/11, the leaders of our national security apparatus run it for the money; success in our wars is optional.  We’re beginning a new round of foreign interventions having learned nothing from our failures. Since we’re fighting foes who have learned much, more failures seem probably.  We’re the only unknown quantity. Will we learn and then assert ourselves? Or will we watch this play out on TV, cheering or nodding wisely (depending on our tribal loyalties)?

Einstein on problems and solutions
A fake quote (here’s his actual words), but it’s good advice.

Other posts in this series

  1. A lesson about counterinsurgency that could change America’s future.
  2. We weaponized anthropology. Why didn’t it work?
  3. Why a decade of assassinations hasn’t helped America.
  4. Recommended: Why we lose so many wars, and how we can win — a summary at Martin van Creveld’s website.

For More Information

See a brilliant review of Weaponizing Anthropology by Maximilian Forte at Zero Anthropology. If you found this post of use, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. Also see the history of COIN (we close our eyes so as not to learn from it):

  1. How often do insurgents win?  How much time does successful COIN require? — Analysis by Robert W. Chamberlain (Captain, US Army).
  2. Max Boot: history suggests we will win in Afghanistan, with better than 50-50 odds. Here’s the real story.
  3. A major discovery! It could change the course of US geopolitical strategy, if we’d only see it.  — 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. — A study by RAND.
  5. COINistas point to Kenya as a COIN success. In fact it was an expensive bloody failure.

9 thoughts on “A lesson about counterinsurgency that could change America’s future.”

  1. As so many have explained since 9/11, the leaders of our national security apparatus run it for the money…

    Money’s part of it, but the U.S. military-prison-police-surveillance-torture complex also serves many other valuable functions for our rulers. It provides an excuse to exert mass social control which would otherwise prove unacceptable to the general population (“These extreme measures are necessary for the duration of the emergency!”); it offers a convenient political platform (“Vote for us and we will save you from the horrible terrible terrorists!”). It lets many military and police and bureaucratic and political officials enjoy illustrious careers with lots of perks an boundless room for promotion. It creates jobs in states with military contractors. It enables limitless empire-building among the military and police and surveillance bureaucracies. Best of all, it allows stateside mission creep, so that institutions like the DHS originally create to combat terrorism can be repurposed as (for example) corporate copyright cops.

    1. Comment submitted via email

      I think most of the people replying like that have a stake, perhaps emotional, in COIN. It would be as if you questioned the existence of God to a Catholic.

      1. Reply to emailed comment:

        That’s a powerful analogy. So these people demand human sacrifices to their great God COIN. That puts a new perspective on the troops we sending to the Middle East. Advisers, trainers, air cavalry, etc.

        This doesn’t make me feel better.

  2. Least you believe I exaggerate our FAILure to learn from experience…

    There is an active thread at the Small Wars Council about this post, the members of which know more about war than the average American (and many are vets or on active duty). 10,880 words burned so far. We only cut through the chaff at the end, but those comments were priceless. I’ll give just one example.

    “We did not lose the Iraq counterinsurgency, particularly not in 2007 and beyond.”

    This sparked a flashback in history to On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War by Harry G. Summers Jr. (1982):

    “You know you never defeated us on the battlefield” – Colonel Harry G. Summers, Jr. (Chief of the U.S. Delegation, Four Party Joint Military Team)

    ”That may be so, but it is also irrelevant.” – Colonel Nguyen Don Tu (Chief, North Vietnamese Delegation).

  3. A note about the RAND report cited in this post

    This is among the most interesting evidence about the two kinds of insurgencies cited in this post because it’s by RAND — started and to this day still largely a government-funded research center. Organizations seldom act against the interests of their customers — and especially their top customer. So RAND’s conclusion in this report about COIN — that US military interventions in foreign insurgencies are unlikely to work — is remarkable.

    It’s somewhat like what attorneys call an “admission against interest“, and so deserves special attention.

    Contrast that with another episode in RAND’s history. Its about Robert Hirsch, one of America’s top energy experts (who ran the fusion program in the 1970s, walking away when he realized it was not going to work in his lifetime). As the Washington Post wrote in 18 March 2003:

    “Rand hired Hirsch in January 2001, and he began work on the report “Energy Technologies for 2050,” a $200,000 study commissioned by the Department of Energy’s Fossil Energy Program. His mission was to develop a methodology that could be used to evaluate the viability of energy technologies over the next 50 years.”

    Oil was then roughly $23/barrel, bouncing back after crashing in the 1998-99 downturn. Hirsch’s draft report said that the world was headed for an energy crisis, and the US had to start preparations immediately to prepare. Let nobody say that the government cannot act quickly. DoE staff contacted RAND and demanded a more comforting report. RAND fired Hirsch in October and produced a report saying that oil was just fine.

    As oil prices spiked up, DoE realized their mistake and funded a team headed by Hirsch to produce (re-produce) his study. Which he did in February 2005: “Peaking of World Production: Impacts, Mitigation, and Risk Management” (aka “Mitigations”). It’s still the closest thing we have to an energy policy (i.e., it was ignored).

  4. Pingback: Why Has America Stopped Winning Wars? | Bill Totten's Weblog

  5. Pingback: Why America Finds It Impossible To Abandon, Or To Win, In Afghanistan – Geopolitics Made Super

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