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Why Trump’s plan for Afghanistan will fail

Summary: Trump has announced his new strategy for Afghanistan. It got bipartisan applause, except from those who want even larger escalation. Here are the reasons why it will fail. How pitiful that we have learned so little after 16 years of war. This failure to learn is among the worst of our weaknesses, able to offset the power of even the greatest nation.

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

Our new strategy, the same as our old strategy.

On Monday Trump announced a new strategy for our current war in Afghanistan, now in its 16th year. This would be a new chapter for our involvement which began in 1979 with Operation Cyclone (“Charlie Wilson’s War”), our arming of jihadists to fight the communist regime and its Soviet Union allies. That brought the Taliban to power. Then came 9/11 and NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) — disbanded in December 2014. Now Trump follows the advice of the generals who crafted Obama’s “surge”. Since they have not had a new idea in decades, Trump’s new plan is the same as Obama’s.

It will fail, just as Obama’s plan failed. First — Trump’s speech provided few specifics, leaks from Congress say that he plans to increase our Troops from 8,400 by half. Expecting much from that is daft. The ISAF had over 130,000 troops in 2012, when the Taliban was weaker. A tenth of that will accomplish little or nothing.

The second reason is more fundamental. Foreign armies almost never defeat insurgents.

The two kinds of insurgencies.

In January 2007 I sketched out a simple dichotomy explaining who wins against insurgencies (i.e., in counterinsurgency, aka COIN). Look at insurgencies by the degree of involvement of outside armed forces.

  1. Violence between two or more local groups, who can form from any combination of clans, governments, ethnicities, religions, gangs, and tribes.
  2. Violence between two or more sides, where at least one is led by foreigners – comprising, as above, any imaginable combination of factions.

Local governments usually win conflicts of the first kind, often with foreign assistance. Their key to success is control of political and military conduct of the war. For example, see David Kilcullen’s insightful analysis of the Indonesian government’s defeat of insurgencies in West Java and East Timor. COIN enthusiasts often conflated these with insurgencies of the second kind, as if victories by local governments are similar to the defeats by foreign armies.

An intermediate kind of conflict is a colonial power granting independence to local elites (through whom it has ruled), winning at COIN by trading away sovereignty for an influence with the newly independent State. Examples are the British wars in Malaysia (1948 – 1960) and Kenya (1952-1960) — of course the British took full credit for these in the histories they wrote).

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Foreign armies usually lose to insurgents.

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).

Counterinsurgency is an ancient form of conflict, usually successful. The odds shifted when Mao brought insurgency war to maturity after WWII. This new mix of methods is called Low Intensity Conflict (LIC), 4th generation war (4GW), or non-trinitarian warfare. With this new tool, insurgencies proliferated. Most of the West’s wars since WWII have been fighting insurgents in foreign lands.

Martin van Creveld was one of the first to fully understand the consequences for foreign armies. See this from The Transformation of War: The Most Radical Reinterpretation of Armed Conflict Since Clausewitz (1990). He begins by looking at modern military machines, the expensive pride and joy of many nations large and small.

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“One would expect forces on which so many resources have been lavished to represent fearsome warfighting machines capable of quickly overcoming any opposition. Nothing, however, is farther from the truth. For all the countless billions that have been and are still being expended on them, the plain fact is that conventional military organizations of the principal powers are hardly even relevant to the predominant form of contemporary war. …

“Without a single conventional war being waged, colonial empires that between them used to control approximately one half of the globe were sent down to defeat through LIC’s …In the process, some of the strongest military powers on earth have suffered humiliation…

“…how well have the world’s most important armed forces fared in this type of war? For some two decades after 1945 the principal colonial powers fought very hard to maintain the far-flung empires which they had created for themselves during the past four centuries. They expended tremendous economic resources, both in absolute terms and relative to those of the insurgents who, in many cases, literally went barefoot. They employed the best available troops, from the Foreign Legion to the Special Air Service and from the Green Berets to the Spetznatz and the Israeli Sayarot. They fielded every kind of sophisticated military technology in their arsenals, nuclear weapons only excepted.

“They were also, to put it bluntly, utterly ruthless. Entire populations were driven from their homes, decimated, shut in concentration camps or else turned into refugees. As Ho Chi Minh foresaw when he raised the banner of revolt against France in 1945, in every colonial-type war ever fought the number of casualties on the side of the insurgents exceeded those of the ‘forces of order’ by at least an order of magnitude. This is true even if civilian casualties among the colonists are included, which often is not the case.

“Notwithstanding this ruthlessness and these military advantages, the “counterinsurgency” forces failed in every case.”

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He give a briefer summary 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 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.”

Why foreign armies usually lose to insurgents.

Foreign forces almost always lose when they take the lead fighting insurgents — with exceptions from unusual circumstances — because the locals have two great advantages. First, they play defense. They need only to outlast the foreigners. As Clausewitz said in On War, Book 1, Chapter 1…

“As we shall show, defense is a stronger form of fighting than attack. … I am convinced that the superiority of the defensive (if rightly understood) is very great, far greater than appears at first sight.”

Second, insurgents have the home court advantage. David Kilcullen unintentionally described this in his famous “Twenty-Eight Articles: Fundamentals of Company-Level Counterinsurgency” (Military Review, May – June 2006). For example, consider article #1…

Know the people, the topography, economy, history, religion and culture. Know every village, road, field, population group, tribal leader and ancient grievance. Your task is to become the world expert on your district.

This is delusional advice to an American or British company commander. The “world expert” on “your” district already lives there and probably was born there. US company commanders on twelve month rotations cannot acquire such deep knowledge in foreign cultures, no matter how thick their briefing books. It might be difficult for some of them to do so in Watts or Harlem.

Time brings insight to those who pay attention.

“Hear this now, O foolish people,
Without understanding,
Who have eyes and see not,
And who have ears and hear not.”
— Jeremiah 5:21.

By the year after my article this grim fact had become clear to a widening circle of observers. Chet Richards (Colonel, USAF, retired) expanded this insight in his 2008 magnum opus If We Can Keep It: A National Security Manifesto for the Next Administration. In 2008 RAND came to the same conclusion after examining “Eighty-Nine Insurgencies: Outcomes and Endings” (Appendix A by Martin C. Libicki in “War by Other Means – Building Complete and Balanced Capabilities for Counterinsurgency“ by David Gompert and John Gordon et al). Here is a summary.

Some officers with experience on the front lines tried to warn us, as in this quote from Doug Sanders “Afghanistan: colonialism or counterinsurgency? Americans bring Afghans their new 60-year plan” (Globe and Mail, 31 May 2008).

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”.

In 2010 Andrew Exum referred us to Erin Marie Simpson’s doctoral dissertation in political science from Harvard: “The Perils of Third-Party Counterinsurgency Campaigns” (17 June 2010; available through Proquest). Her conclusion was expressed in a DoD-sympathetic fashion…

Ultimately, I argue that third parties {foreign armies} win when they’re able to overcome these intelligence challenges before public support runs out. This typically requires rather substantial military reforms and complex deal-making with local leaders. Unfortunately, the nature of selection effects in these cases gives rise to a population of insurgencies whereby these conditions are very unlikely to be met.

Too bad they keep losing.

The core problem.

“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).

Why do so few people see this history (e.g., see the near-total refusal to see it at this Small Wars Council comment thread)? Why do our armies — led by the best-educated officers in history — repeat the tactics that have failed in so many similar wars?  This is especially unfortunate, since we face foes that have learned so much from the wars of the post-WWII era.

The most plausible reason, as so many have explained since 9/11, is that the leaders of our national security apparatus run it for the money. Our wars keep the funds flowing to the military-industrial complex and boost the power of the Deep State. Victory is nice but optional.  “War is the health of the state“, as true today as when Randolph Bourne wrote those words in 1918.

How can we win?

“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.

First, stop “repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results” (that’s insanity per an ancient insight of Alcoholics Anonymous, who know all about dysfunctionality). Eventually this will go badly for us. Second, admit that we do not have the best military in the world at fighting these “unconventional wars” (i.e., most wars of the post-WWII era).  Third, fight only where the stakes are high and we have reason to believe we can win (see this post for details).

Fourth, stop listening to people whose advice has been so wrong. As Martin van Creveld’s said in “On Counterinsurgency: How to triumph in the age of asymmetric warfare“, a speech given at the Henry Jackson Society (26 February 2008).

So when people ask about how we should study counterinsurgency, the first step should be to gather 95% of all the literature on the subject, put it aboard the Titanic and sink it. In fact, there is so much of it that if you put it aboard the Titanic the iceberg becomes unnecessary!

The logical answer for why the materials on counterinsurgency are so inferior is that most of them were written by people who failed to achieve victory. Ninety-five percent of the literature is written by the losers, who in trying to justify their own actions, put the blame for their failure on others. Therefore there is little reason to expect the literature to be any good. Indeed, the best thing to do with it is to put it away.

Last, rely on methods that have worked for America in our past. Let’s try a defensive strategy in America’s wars, and win.

War often forces harsh choices. We will continue to lose until we confront them. The pressure to do so must come from below the most senior ranks of our defense agencies and from civilians. Neither will happen fast or easily, but we must start soon. Time is not our ally.

A fake quote (see his actual words), but good advice.

For More Information

For a deeper analysis of these matters see The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World by General Sir Rupert Smith.

If you found this post of use, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. Also see all posts about COIN, and especially these…

  1. Max Boot: history suggests we will win in Afghanistan, with better than 50-50 odds. Here’s the real story. From 2010!
  2. Return of the COINistas (the zombies of military theory).
  3. Is victory impossible in modern wars? Or just not possible for us?
  4. Darwin explains the futility of killing insurgents. It makes them more effective.
  5. Two generals chat about Afghanistan (a funny, sad, horrifying look at our war).
  6. Doug Macgregor asks what happened to “America First” in national security?