Darwin explains the futility of killing insurgents. It makes them more effective.

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 a well-known concept in science, but one we prefer not to see. Victory remains impossible until we overcome our inability to learn this and other basics of modern warfare.  This is cross-posted on Martin van Creveld’s website; he described this as “absolutely fascinating.”

“What does not kill him, makes him stronger.”
— Friedrich Nietzsche in Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One Is (1888).



  1. Our learning disability
  2. Biologists explain the Darwinian Ratchet.
  3. The Darwinian Ratchet at work in war.
  4. Conclusion
  5. For More Information.
  6. An insurgent’s theme song.

(1) Our learning disability

The great mystery of our post-9/11 wars is our inability to learn from history and our own experience. My previous post discussed one aspect of this: our blindness to the consistent failure since WWII of foreign armies fighting insurgents. Another aspect is what Martin van Creveld calls the “power of weakness”. This essay discusses a third aspect, how an insurgency brings into play a “Darwinian ratchet” in which our efforts empower an insurgency.

This post shows the origin and history of the “ratchet” concept and its slow recognition by American geopolitical and military leaders. But there are no answers to our inability to adapt our tactics to the ratchet, just as there are none for our failure to learn from the history of insurgencies (as explained in Why the West loses so many wars, and how we can learn to win).

(2) Biologists Explain the Darwinian Ratchet

It’s an old concept in biology, first developed by Herman Muller in his famous 1932 article “Some genetic aspects of sex”. We’re personally experience the Darwinian ratchet when we take antibiotics in too-low doses or for too short a time, creating a colony of slightly drug-resistant bacteria. When done by a society we breed superbugs, as Nathan Taylor explains in “What are the risks of a global pandemic?“ (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.”

The literature of biology and medicine has many articles about the Darwinian ratchet, ranging from complex (Alexander Riegler’s “The Ratchet Effect as a Fundamental Principle in Evolution and Cognition”, Cybernetics and Systems, 2001) to the incomprehensible. The concept has spread to other fields, as in William H. Calvin’s The Cerebral Code: Thinking a Thought in the Mosaics of the Mind (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.”

Some scientists have extended the concept to humanity as a whole, as Ruth DeFries did in The Big Ratchet: How Humanity Thrives in the Face of Natural Crisis (2014): “In every cycle, new obstacles emerge. And in every cycle, millennium after millennium, humanity as a whole has muddled through.”

Charles Darwin

(3) The Darwinian Ratchet at work in war

“Never engage the same enemy for too long … or he will adapt to your tactics.”
— Falsely attributed to Clausewitz but still insightful. From Lions for Lambs (2007).

My first posts about the Iraq War in Sept 2003 and Oct 2003 discussed the ratchet (possibly its first mention in military theory). We killed the insurgents, but in effect recruited even more while alienating the local population (a pattern that we now understand but we still repeat). I showed an even worse effect: we culled the pack of insurgents — eliminating the slow and stupid while clearing space for the more fit insurgents to rise in authority. Hence the by now familiar pattern of a rising sine wave of insurgent activity: successes by the security forces, a pause in activity, followed by another wave of activity – but larger and more effective. To which we reply with more killing.

We lock ourselves into a “Red Queen’s race” in which we must run ever faster just to stay abreast of our enemies in the Long War. Since they learn faster and try harder (it’s their land), we tend to fall behind. This help accounts for our inexplicable (to us) defeats in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Yemen. Richard Dawkins explains its effects: “As the generations unfold, ratcheting takes the cumulative improbability up to levels that — in the absence of the ratcheting — would exceed all sensible credence”. In 2006, after 5 years of war, some awareness of this the ratchet bean to appear in official reports, such as the 2006 National Intelligence Estimate “Trends in Global Terrorism: Implications for the United States“. It said…

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

By 2008 the best among the COINistas spoke about the ratchet, such as David Kilcullen in his presentation “Dinosaurs versus Mammals: Insurgent and Counterinsurgent Adaptation in Iraq“ (RAND Insurgency Board, 8 May 2008). Like all of Kilcullen’s serious work, it is a brilliant and subtle presentation that deserves close attention. (Red emphasis added in these excerpts.)

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).

By 2009 some academics were writing about it, such as “Darwinian selection in asymmetric warfare: the natural advantage of insurgents and terrorists“ by Dominic Johnson (Reader, Dept of Politics & International Relations, U of Edinburgh; bio here) in the Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences, Fall 2009.

“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:

  • 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).
  • Selection — stronger sides apply a greater selection pressure on weaker sides than the other way around, resulting in faster adaptation by the weaker side.
  • 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.”

A concept has become mainstream when Stratfor mentions it, as they did in “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.”

A stronger sign of mainstream acceptance is its appearance in the writings of military professionals, such as “Insurgent career planning or insurgency darwinism“, J. J. Malevich (Lt Colonel, Canadian Army; 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 it 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?”

Eventually even journalists learned about the ratchet, although in an unsystematic way. For example, The Economist explains how our military technology has forced the jihadist to become more sophisticated technologically in “Bombs away“ (4 March 2010).

“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.”

US Generals usually talk to us only in terms of winning, but after 14 years of failure a note of realism occasionally slips in. As in this interview by Breaking Defense with Michael Flynn (Lt. General, US Army), retiring chief of the Defense Intelligence Agency, on 7 August 2014. He describes the ratchet, but not by name.

“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.”

Andrew Cockburn’s “The Mystique of High-Value Targeting: Why Obama’s Hopes of Decapitating the Islamic State Won’t Work” shows the Darwinian ratchet at work in a non-trinitarian conflict other than war: 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.”

Clear vision

(4) Conclusion

“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 speaking about Rome in David Anthony Durham’s novel Pride of Carthage (2005).

These examples show that some experts see this basic element of modern war, but our military and geopolitical institutions cannot learn it even from 14 years of experience. Just as they refuse to recognize the dismal record of success by foreign armies fighting insurgencies since WWII. That’s bad news, since slow learning is a weaknesses even our great power cannot easily overcome. Perhaps we should worry less about insurgents in distant nations and worry more about those who lead us so that they gain while hurting America.

Or we can wait until our enemies teach us a lesson we cannot ignore.

“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).

(5) For More Information

This is a follow-up to Why the West loses so many wars, and how we can learn to win. Also see “Assassinations: Where Accounting Meets Human Resources” by Gary Brecher (the War Nerd), 11 February 2011.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.  See all posts about assassination, about counterinsurgency, and especially these…

(6) An insurgent’s theme song

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,
Stand a little taller, …
What doesn’t kill you makes a fighter.
— Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger”.

16 thoughts on “Darwin explains the futility of killing insurgents. It makes them more effective.”

  1. So Editor, any thoughts on the relation of the chinese crash and the NYSE? please indulge me in your crazyness…

      1. Oh….took me a minute to remember. You had the “Insurgents Song” at the bottom of your post. I thought you’d enjoy Toby Keith playing over an actual video of Taliban in Helmand. No worries. Just a bit of levity. I enjoy reading your blog.

        Be safe…Dave

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  3. Perhaps a similar effect is at work here when the IS is confronting the Kurds in Syria. Who with the assistance of us airstrikes defeat ISIS 100% of the time.

    1. infowarrior,

      I think that’s an exaggeration. The Kurds have had some success, but not on the scale you imply.

      Also, much of what we’re told is almost fiction. See these maps at VOX showing zones of control in Syria. Look at that detail (Syria is about 270 miles across, roughly the size of the State of Washington). It looks like something generated by US Census surveys on May 28 and June 19. What is the data allowing such detail in real time? Guessing.

      1. infowar,

        As the old saying goes, Truth is the first casualty of war. I suggest regarding these claims quite skeptically. Remember the sad story that America believed about Iraq soldiers killing Kuwait babies? Clever propaganda to fool us (details here). Other people know our weakness: we’re gullible.

  4. I suppose it all depends on what you mean by ‘working’. Plainly it’s not having a cooling effect on recruitment or support at ground level, though from what I’ve read the continual attrition of high level officials *is* having the effect of emphasising factional issues as groups compete to replace the deceased. Then there’s the positive morale effect of ‘hitting back’ at the enemy. But it all seems very short term without any obvious winning line to be crossed.

    Even so, I’d prefer the long game of penetrating their organisations and using the intelligence to interfere with operations and make sure we have effective planning for what they’re planning. But that takes time and must be conducted in complete secrecy, so it’s always going to be problematic when there’s an appetite for blood and guts NOW!

    OTOH, the rapid cycling of leadership figures is going to mean people lower in the hierarchy get promoted faster, providing more opportunities to get agents into the chain of command.

    Having said all that, your comments about the Darwinian Ratchet are accurate, relevant and too often ignored.

  5. I suspect that the assassination program is doing exactly what its creators intended: increasing the profits of the wealthy and disengaging the US public from the public policy process. Any gains in reducing the incidence of terrorism are strictly incidental and are welcome but not expected.

    As you point out, the unintended consequences of our actions could lead to horrific consequences but our leaders choose to believe that the future balance of power will be the same as the past. And they will be right up to the moment that their collective mistakes ensure that they are not.

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    1. Larry Kummer, Editor


      There are articles and books beyond count about these matters. This post does not claim to list them all. How could it?

      But you raise an interesting issue. I am familiar with the book – imo it’s interesting, but filled with oversimplifications and errors. I believe you are referring to one of the latter examples. Page 61:

      “Those who understand bacterial resistance in the biological domain completely fail to grasp the dictum by Seneca in De clemencia about the inverse effect of punishments. He wrote: ‘Repeated punishment, while it crushes the hatred of a few, stirs the hatred of all … just as trees that have been trimmed throw out again countless branches.’ For revolutions feed on repression, growing heads faster and faster as one literally cuts a few off by killing demonstrators.

      “The crowds, at some point, mutate, blinded by anger and a sense of outrage, fueled by the heroism of a few willing to sacrifice their lives for the cause (although they don’t quite see it as sacrifice) and hungry for the privilege to become martyrs. It is that political movements and rebellions can be highly antifragile, and the sucker game is to try to repress them using brute force rather than manipulate them, give in, or find more astute ruses, as Heracles did with Hydra.”

      First, he misunderstands his analogy. That’s not how bacterial resistance works. Second, his theory is quite false. Governments almost always extinguish insurgencies, and extreme force usually works quite well. As shown by his quote from Seneca. Despite his nifty aphorism, the Roman Empire lasted for 3 more centuries despite its use of oppression (e.g., see the Jewish rebellion).

      Third, his theory has little resemblance to what I describe in this post.

      • I use Darwinian evolution has an analogy.
      • It applies only to foreign forces fighting local insurgencies.

      I can point you to posts that describe these dynamics in more detail.

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