Good news: our military sees that we face skillful foes!

Summary: The Wall Street Journal brings a rare bit of good news about our foreign wars, a story acknowledging our foe’s military skill. We should applaud recognition of reality, however belated, as a step forward. With luck next might come awareness that their skill results in part from our tactics.  {2nd of 2 posts today.}

“People, ideas and hardware, in that order!”
— the late John R. Boyd (Colonel, USAF), quoted in Chet Richard’s Certain to Win.

Advertisement by our foes

This week the Wall Street Journal published a rare perspective on our jihadist enemies: “How Islamic State’s Win in Ramadi Reveals New Weapons, Tactical Sophistication and Prowess” — “Examination of Ramadi’s downfall reflects complex plans and new weapons.”

U.S. defense chief Ash Carter has blamed Ramadi’s fall mainly on Iraqi forces’ lack of will to fight. But Islamic State’s battlefield performance suggests the terrorist group’s tactical sophistication is growing — a development the Iraqis and the U.S.-led coalition have so far failed to counter, said Iraqi officials, former U.S. officials and military analysts studying the organization.

An examination of how Ramadi fell indicates that Islamic State commanders executed a complex battle plan that outwitted a greater force of Iraqi troops as well as the much-lauded, U.S.-trained special-operations force known as the Golden Division, which had been fighting for months to defend the city. Islamic State commanders evaded surveillance and airstrikes to bring reinforcements to its front lines in western Iraq. The group displayed a high degree of operational security by silencing its social media and propaganda teams during the Ramadi surge.

The group also churned out dozens of formidable new weapons by converting captured U.S. military armored vehicles designed to be impervious to small-arms fire into megabombs with payloads equal to the force of the Oklahoma City bombing. Over the three-day surge in Ramadi, Islamic State fighters launched at least 27 such vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices, or Vbieds, that destroyed Iraq security forces’ defensive perimeters and crumbled multistory buildings.

Military analysts said the new formidable weapon was the latest development showing how the group appears to be learning from battlefield defeats like the one in Kobani, Syria, last summer in pursuit of its goal to control the Sunni-majority areas of Syria and Iraq.

“It’s very frustrating,” said Bill Roggio, senior fellow at the Defense of Democracies think tank and managing editor of the Long War Journal, which chronicles the U.S. war on terror. “These guys are showing a good degree of tactical awareness.”

Our military and civilian experts attributed our foes’ victories to their evil tactics (terrorism), to their religion, to our allies’ weakness, and to our virtue (e.g., reluctance to kill civilians). They seldom gave much credit to our foes’ competence, adaptability, and ability to innovate — all supposed to be American’s advantages vs. foreigners.

This denigration of our foes has been a consistent aspect of our post-9/11 wars. They “are hard dead-enders” (SecDef Rumsfeld, March 2002). They are “criminals … who are willing to be guns for hire” and “foreigners who have come in small numbers”” (Major General David Petraeus of the 101st Airborne, November 2003).

Only slowly have we recognized the competence of their leaders and dedication of their troops. Even then we attribute these to the remnant of Saddham’s officer corps — disbanded 12 years ago. To people like our officers. It’s too disturbing to credit the militia leaders who, lacking the formal education we prize above all things, learned their lessons on the battlefield — and win without our technology and equipment.

Charles Darwin

Why they learn faster than us

Charlie Winter, a researcher who studies extremist groups at Quilliam, a London think tank {said} “They displayed admirable operational security … They understand the element of surprise. And they understand how [the coalition] can track them.”

My very first post 12 years ago explained how 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. The US military machine relentlessly prunes our foes of the slow and stupid. Only the best survive. It’s one of the fundamental dynamics of our post-9/11 wars. As I wrote in March (also citing others’ work on this)…

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 clears 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?

The last point shows the dark thread connecting our failures since 9/11: our FAILure to learn from experience. Some of this results from our hubris, unwarranted confidence that our military is the best in the world (see here). Some from the fact that our foes are in many ways the opposite of our military, and therefore must be less competent.

Hubris is among the most expensive of luxuries.

Human brain.
Humanity’s most powerful weapon.

More good news (file under recognition of the obvious)

“My first company commander told me that there’s two ways to learn: blunt trauma and mindless repetition.” — Mike Few (Major, US Army, Retired).

A gentle debunking of the fear mongerers: “How Much Does ISIS Really Threaten America?” by Alex Ward in today’s The National Interest. How sad that we need such articles 14 years after 9/11. The long war might teach us that the two sins God always punishes are slow and stupid.

For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about our officer corps, and these about the long war…



14 thoughts on “Good news: our military sees that we face skillful foes!”

  1. Um, flashback to 2007: “Some Fighters in Iraq Adopt New Tactics to battle the U.S.
    Edward Wong, NYT:

    FORWARD OPERATING BASE CALDWELL, Iraq, Nov. 23 — Sunni Arab militant groups suspected of having ties to Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia have established training camps east of Baghdad that are turning out well-disciplined units willing to fight American forces in set-piece battles, American military commanders said Thursday.Officers said that in that battle, unlike the vast majority of engagements in Diyala, insurgents stood and fought, even deploying a platoon-size unit that showed remarkable discipline. One captain said the unit was in “perfect military formation.” Insurgents throughout Iraq usually avoid direct confrontation with American troops, preferring to use hit-and-run tactics and melting away at the sight of American armored vehicles.

    Lt. Col. Andrew Poppas, commander of the Fifth Squadron, 73rd Cavalry, a unit of the 82nd Airborne Division, said in an interview that the fighters at Turki “were disciplined and well trained, with well-aimed shots.” “We hadn’t seen anything like this in years,” he said.

    1. Mike,

      It’s recognition of their troops, for sure, to say they’re disciplined and well-trained — willing to fight. Considering the losses we took in some of the battles in Iraq, it would have been difficult to deny that they had these basic skills.

      However, I think the recent articles show recognition of higher skills — good tactics, operational security, intel, and most especially references to their skillful leaders.

    2. FM,

      I’m a bit more skeptical that this is good news. One article eight years late does not equal learning.

      Just a cursory Google search today listed 20 articles about how ISIS is on our doorstep in Mexico.

      This is an outlier.


      1. Mike,

        Yes, I might be celebrating too early. One Robin does make it Spring…

        But ISIS is winning on a scale larger than anything we have seen so far. If not now, how long can we continue to pretend ISIS does not have highly competent leaders?

        Now or latter, the big question remains. Yesterday’s post was about our inability to see the two kinds of insurgencies. Today’s post is about our inability to see the Darwinian Ratchet. FAILure to learn has become our distinguishing characteristic. Why?

  2. FM remarks:

    “FAILure to learn has become our distinguishing characteristic. Why?”

    Quite true. And the answer was given in previous comments. Large-scale land wars are now a thing of the past, as unheard-of today as buttonhook shoes or whalebone corsets. They don’t exist anymore. Economic conflict has now replaced large-scale land wars as the arena in which civilizations clash.
    That being the case, losing a foreign proxy war no longer leads to the traditional dire results of past lost wars: tens of millions of your citizens dead, the wealth of the nation wiped out, whole cities razed to rubble, a generation of creative talent lost forever. Instead, the typical price America pays for losing a war like the Afghan conflict is…2,312 dead soldiers total, 1/3 of them from suicide.
    This is simply insignificant in the larger scale of things, to a nation-state. Americans lose 32,719 citizens per year in automobile accidents (as of 2013) and don’t blink an eye. 2,312 soldiers is a rounding error. It doesn’t even register on the national radar scope.
    America’s military and politicians refuse to learn from our lost wars because our lost wars carry absolutely no significant dire consequences. America’s overseas wars have become the equivalent of the Sioux indians’ process of “counting coup.” It’s a ritual undertaken for social reasons, and “winning” or “losing” has absolutely no importance for the society as a whole.

    1. Thomas,

      I can’t say your explanation is wrong, since it’s the same one I give (most recently in Why the West loses so many wars, and how we can learn to win). It’s a conventional one, of the type popular among economists and political scientists. However, I am unhappy with it.

      It’s filled with holes — but as Thomas Kuhn says, paradigms always have holes — but a paradigm cannot be disproven, only replaced. And I don’t have a convincing alternative theory.

      This one explains why senior officers (i.e., senior flag officers, senior defense officials) like our wars. It does not explain why they’re popular with field grade officers and below who should see their futility. No, I don’t believe they rate career success over watching their buddies get maimed and killed for no good reason. It does not explain why such a large fraction of the US public supports our wars despite their record of failure.

      I got nothing better to offer, however.

  3. There appears to be a deeply seated human trait that desires something against which to push. Political strategists worked out back in the 70s that, all things being equal, more people will turn out to vote against a given idea than will vote to support it. Opposition is a fine motivator. I’m told that thriller writers judge their competition on the quality of their villains, not the protagonist hero, with all of Joseph Campbell’s trimmings. Even actors appear to prefer playing a villain to the heroic lead. Hannibal Lecter, Darth Vader, The Joker, Prof. Moriarty etc. Heroes are usually dull, but rise to greatness in proportion to the dragon slain. (Nordic myth doesn’t demand that the hero win, just that a good fight was fought and a noble death attained.)

    Street gangs work hard to find an enemy and prosecute a fight. Rather than seek arbitration and avoid costly territorial conflict, effort is poured into violent competition because it is simply more satisfying than a money-spinning peace. If leadership did want such a thing, who would listen?

    Only the struggle is necessary – success is entirely optional. Look how many people will bang a drum long after it becomes apparent the cause is forever lost.

    1. Slack,

      “Street gangs work hard to find an enemy and prosecute a fight.”

      I would like to see some evidence for that from the massive literature of those working with or studying gangs. It’s not been my experience (limited as it is), or what I’ve read (little as it is).

    1. Info warriors,

      That is a great question! But these things are complex.

      The Middle East’s wars are increasingly becoming conflicts among ethnic militia, with varying degrees of external aid. These forces do well in their home zones, generating vivid stories in the gullible western press of new Wehrmachts marching invincibly forward. And astonished reports when they suffer “unexpected” defeats as they venture outside their core areas.

      But such things can change. Weak militia can evolve into forces capable of sweeping all before them, by force or legitimacy (e.g., the Tailiban’s advance that first put them into power).

      Also, the balance in these wars often tips when the ethnic mix of fighters changes. If the Sunni Arab communities in Syria were, for example, to mobilize proportionate to their numbers then the situation would change radically. Such things are difficult for even locals to predict reliably, let alone for glib westerners thousands of miles away to do so.

      Worse the news flow is of low reliability, despite the ability of NY, DC, and LA Pattons to read Reuters and confidently predict outcomes.

      So I will venture no opinion. I have a great forecasting record because I track the results AND make so few.

  4. US gives them helping hand. Jihadis strategic asset, as noted in that Defense document released by Jusdical Watch Notice cozy treatment of Jihadis at Bucca.

    US Prison camp in Iraq accidentally formed ISIS by housing the most radial jihadists together and allowing them to organize terror group
    How a US prison camp helped create ISIS

    Part of redirection?

    This time, the U.S. government consultant told me, Bandar and other Saudis have assured the White House that “they will keep a very close eye on the religious fundamentalists. Their message to us was ‘We’ve created this movement, and we can control it.’ It’s not that we don’t want the Salafis to throw bombs; it’s who they throw them at—Hezbollah, Moqtada al-Sadr, Iran, and at the Syrians, if they continue to work with Hezbollah and Iran.”

    The Redirection” by Seymour Hirsh in the New Yorker, 5 March 2007

    1. Winston,

      Color me skeptical. The first two of your sources cite tabloids. Other than the sports and weather columns, I suggest not taking anything in them seriously. If they come up in a Google search, I suggest ignoring them.

      The third refers to the Saudi Princes actions helping creating jihadist movement. That’s pretty obvious by now, but doesn’t mean the US government was involved — or even knew much about their role until after 9/11.

    1. Winston,

      Yes, that’s been a pattern in our post-9/11 wars. Our forces — military and CIA — have proven quite gullible. Unlike in the Cold War, when we’d build proxy armies that would march off and die on hopeless revolts (Eastern Europe, Bay of Pigs). The good old days when we’d betray them, not vice versa.

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