Why a decade of assassinations hasn’t helped America.

Summary: During the past decade we have deployed our most skilled warriors and most advanced technology in an assassination program with few precedents in history. Result: the Middle East in flames and our foes resurgent. I and others predicted this, the natural result of putting the force of evolution to work for our foes. It’s called the Darwinian Ratchet. It’s many seen many times by military and academic experts, but we prefer not to understand. And so we don’t. Victory remains impossible until we overcome this self-imposed weakness.  {2nd of 2 posts today.}

Charles Darwin
Not someone you want working for your foes.

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)

The great mystery of our post-9/11 wars is our FAILure to learn, not just from history but also from our own experience. Tuesday’s post discussed our blindness to the consistent failure by foreign armies fighting insurgents since WWII. Yesterday Andrew Cockburn raised an equally important problem: “The Mystique of High-Value Targeting: Why Obama’s Hopes of Decapitating the Islamic State Won’t Work.” He discusses its failure in our wars and the DEA’s 1992 “Kingpin Strategy”.

The explanation, so the analysts concluded, was that dead leaders were invariably and immediately replaced, and almost always by someone (often a relative ready for revenge) younger, more aggressive, and eager to prove himself. The same held true on a wider scale. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Iraqi al Qaeda leader widely cited as the source of all our troubles in Iraq, was duly targeted and killed in 2006, only to be succeeded by Abu Ayyub al-Masri, who turned out to be an even more deadly opponent. He too was duly killed, and instead we got Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, who created the Islamic State, now lord of six million people and an area the size of Great Britain.

This effect was the subject of my first posts about the Iraq War (Sept 2003 and Oct 2003) and has been a major theme since. An insurgency brings into play a “Darwinian ratchet,” in which our efforts in effect empower the insurgency.  Not just spurring recruitment (as many saw), but forcing improvement in their leadership and methods.  It’s one of the fundamental dynamics of our post-9/11 wars.


Human brain.
Humanity’s most powerful weapon.

We’re all familiar with how this works with bacteria. Administer antibiotics in non-lethal doses and soon you have a colony of drug-resistant bacteria. It works with people, too. The security services cull the pack of insurgents, eliminating the slow and stupid. This cleares space for the “best” to rise in authority, 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 can occur. The more severe the efforts at exterminating the insurrection, the more capable the survivors.

Hence the familiar activity pattern of a rising sine wave:  successes by the security forces, a pause in activity, followed by another wave of activity – but bigger and more effective.

This locks us into a 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 kill more locals and destroy more of their infrastructure. Our actions recruit more — and more effective — jihadists and further alienate the local population.

The “Darwinian ratchet” was a new idea in military theory when I wrote about it in 2003-2005. How is it possible that we still don’t understand it in 2015? As the following excerpts show, it’s been often mentioned by military and civilian experts. Can you explain our refusal to learn except by willful blindness?

(1)  The concept is originally from biology, but spread to other fields, as in this example from The Cerebral Code: Thinking a Thought in the Mosaics of the Mind by William H. Calvin (1996).

“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.”

(2)  By 2006 some awareness of this appeared in official reports, as in 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.

JFK: rise & fall of nations
Good news for our foes; bad news for us.

(3)  By 2008 the A-team of COINistas were talking about it, as in this presentation by David Kilcullen: “Dinosaurs versus Mammals: Insurgent and Counterinsurgent Adaptation in Iraq“, RAND Insurgency Board, 8 May 2008 (posted at Sic Semper Tyrannis).  This is a brilliant and subtle presentation. Like all of Kilcullen’s serious work, it warrants carefully consideration.

Opening:  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: 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. 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).

Bruce Lee on Defeat
Inspiring news — for our foes.

(4)  By 2009 academics were writing about it. “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.

(5)  A concept has hit the mainstream when Stratfor mentions it: “Pakistan: The South Waziristan Migration“, 14 October 2009.

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.

Viva La Evolution
Still not helping.

(6) 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 — No longer online.

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?

(7)  Our military technology has forced the jihadist to become more sophisticated technologically:  “Bombs away“, The Economist, 4 March 2010 — 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.

Muslims victory
The opposite of helping.

(8) What are the risks of a global pandemic?“, Nathan Taylor, Praxtime, 23 March 2013

“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.”

(9)  An interview by Breaking Defense with Michael Flynn (Lt. General, US Army), retiring chief of the Defense Intelligence Agency, 7 August 2014. See his Wikipedia entry.

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.

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


There are some weaknesses that no strength can overcome. I suspect that a failure to learn is high among these. Perhaps we should worry less about those seeking to overthrow foreign governments and more about those who lead us so badly.

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”
— Upton Sinclair in I, Candidate for Governor: And How I Got Licked (1935).

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.

For More Information

See all posts about our defense strategy and military theory. Of special interest are those about the Darwinian Ratchet:

  1. The Fate of Israel
  2. The bad news is that Lind’s good news is wrong.
  3. Another “must-read” presentation by Kilcullen about COIN.
  4. Our tactics are an obstacle to victory in the Long War, as the Darwinian Ratchet works against us.
  5. A senior US general explains that we’re learning to fight 4GWs, but slowly.
  6. Business 101 tells us what to expect next from jihadists: good news for them, bad for us.



19 thoughts on “Why a decade of assassinations hasn’t helped America.”

  1. One of my friends saw Bruce Lee at the San Jose Karate tournament. He put on a demonstration, then was eliminated in the first round of competition.

  2. FM asks why we still haven’t learned the lessons of the Darwinian Ratchet. I have an hypothesis.
    It seems to me that America is operating a reverse or perverted OODA loop.
    In Boyd’s original OODA loop, you start with Observation of reality. Then you move on to the Orientation phase, where the organization ascertains which aspects of observed reality diverge from the organization’s belies and actions. Then comes the Decision phase, in which the organization decides which of their beliefs they need to change to close the gap with observed reality; and finally the Action stage where the organization takes action based on the new belief that will eliminate the gap between observe reality and the organization’s actions.
    But in the reverse or perverted version of the OODA loop, America follows the first two of Boyd’s prescriptions — Observation of reality, then Orientation.
    But the perverted OODA loop used in America changes the third and fourth stages. In the third stage of the perverted OODA loop, America decides which aspects of observed reality to deny or rewrite in order to eliminate the gap between reality and belief. And in the fourth stage of America’s perverted OODA loop, America takes action to rewrite or deny whatever aspects of observe reality are needed to eliminate the gap between ostensible reality (now rewritten or denied) and America’s actions.
    In Boy’s original OODA loop, the nation takes steps to change its behavior to eliminate the gap with observed reality. In America’s new spiffy reverse OODA loop, the nation takes steps to rewrite or deny reality to eliminate the gap.
    Methinks this will not end well.

      1. Robyn,

        “I think that is because the USA doesn’t even know what it is fighting for”

        That has to be stated more specifically to have meaning. We all speak of “the USA” as if it were a person, but it is not.

        My guess (emphasis on guess) is that our leaders know quite well why they have put us in these wars. It keeps the people in America agitated, fearful — supporting growth of the security services, more domestic surveilance, militarized equipment and tactics of police, and slow erosion of our rights. Plus these wars are immensely profitable for corporations, whose senior execs express their joy in tangible fashion to supporters of the war in DC.

        Understanding why the American people support the war is easy. We have been lied to, and gullibily believe what we’re told.

  3. I far as I can tell, this mission statement set by President Bush in his address to a joint session of Congress and the nation on Sept. 20, 2001 is still operative:

    “Americans are asking “Why do they hate us?” They hate our freedoms. They want to overthrow existing governments in many Muslim countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. They want to drive Israel out of the Middle East. They want to drive Christians and Jews out of vast regions…”

    This is why we must pay any price, including the ultimate price, to search for and kill anyone in the world who hates “our” freedoms, doesn’t like Israel, or doesn’t like “freedom loving” governments like US ally Saudi Arabia. That’s quite a task. Is such a task even possible? Apparently, our leaders don’t care if it is, and they don’t care about the price:

    “The Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, taken together, will be the most expensive wars in US history—totaling somewhere between $4 trillion and $6 trillion. This includes long-term medical care and disability compensation for service members, veterans and families, military replenishment and social and economic costs. The largest portion of that bill is yet to be paid.”

    —Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government 2013 report

    1. Gloucon,

      This is like the Bush Admin’s speeches about Saddam’s WMDs and now Obama’s speech about Venezuela — our enemy because of their human rights violations (so unlike our ally the Saudi Princes) and its threat to America.

      They have us so well trained that the lies no longer even need to make sense. Any sort of nonsense confidently delivered, echoed by the govt’s loyal servants in the media and elsewhere, will suffice to set us in motion.

  4. Yes, well said. I’m guessing there will continue to be no action against Saudi royals who run a vicious, freedom-less police state that beheads people. This is from an article on the new farcical action against Venezuela:

    The White House said the order targeted people whose actions undermined democratic processes or institutions, had committed acts of violence or abuse of human rights, were involved in prohibiting or penalizing freedom of expression…

  5. Americans are people from America, that is why I didn’t use the term. Maybe I should have said USAisans, as another commenter referred to

    1. Robyn,

      You comment was quite clear with respect to what nation you referred to. My comment was that we’re not a unitary entity. It’s not accurate to speak of what “Americans” believe in this context, imo — since there is a large gulf between the ruling elites and the people.

      It is imo extremely incorrect to say that our elites “doesn’t know” why we’re waging these wars. They know quite well; they just don’t tell us. Rulers often believe that the less the people know, the better.

      It is problematic to say that the American people — the ruled — “don’t know” why we’re waging these wars. Some don’t know. A small fraction know the elites’ reasons. Polls show that the major “know” why, albeit incorrectly (having been fed a diet of lies since 9/11, which they unquestionably accept).

    1. Todd,

      The Darwinian Ratchet is an analogy to Darwin’s theory, not an application of it. You can believe in it with respect infections or counter-insurgency without belief in evolutionary biology.

      I consider these separate domains of knowledge. The first two concern things that can be observed, used (or painfully ignored), and tested in our own lives. Belief in evolutionary biology (or current cosmology theory) are of little relevance and untestable to individuals in their own lives.

  6. Well, I was specifically talking about those responsible for war strategy. If they don’t know why they are fighting, how can they do a good job?

    1. Robyn,

      “If they don’t know why they are fighting, how can they do a good job?”

      Define “good job”. Our leaders almost certainly do know what they’re doing. As the results show.

      • Massive profits for defense contractors, both the traditional equipment vendors and the need breed service providers (they’ve esp benefited from the growth in the intel industry).
      • Career success for those in the military, and those in journalism who boost our wars.
      • Career success for the politicians who support our wars, both Left and Right (e.g, President Obama and Democratic Party front-running Presidential candidate Hillary).

      I could continue, but you get the idea. It’s about money and success at home. Victory overseas is incidental. They’re lock corrupt doctors treating a chronic disease. A cure means loss of their jobs.

  7. If it is as you say, then you are doing a good job. Either that or the failure has not been when fighting against insurgents. It has been fighting in the first place

    1. Robyn,

      “If it is as you say, then you are doing a good job.”

      I’ve written against these wars since 2003. I can’t imagine what you’re trying to say.

      “or the failure has not been when fighting against insurgents. It has been fighting in the first place.”

      Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that direct combat by foreign armies against local insurgents almost always fails. No, in the sense (as I have said several times) our wars have worked quite well for our ruling elites. They haven’t worked well for the rest of us, but that makes no difference unless we …

      1. realize what’s happening, and
      2. speak out.
  8. :) I did not mean “you, Fabius Maximus ED” are doing a good job; obviusly you cant be fighting these wars and making the elites richer on your own, I meant “you”, as in “you, the people”, as those who made it possible.

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