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Octavian Manea Interviews General David Petraeus

Monday, September 2nd, 2013

[by Mark Safranski a.k.a. “zen“]

Octavian Manea has had an excellent series of COIN  interviews at SWJ and this is one of the more important ones:

Reflections on the “Counterinsurgency Decade”: Small Wars Journal Interview with General David H. Petraeus

SWJ: In his recent op-ed published in the New York Times, “The Pipe Dream of Easy War”, General H.R. McMaster warned against the fantasy of “a new era of war”, and especially about the dangers in the blind faith in the transformative effects that technology promises to have on war. He argued that over the past counterinsurgency (COIN) decade we relearned a few lessons that we really should keep in mind as we head into the future: “American forces must cope with the political and human dynamics of war in complex, uncertain environments”. His warning reminds me of an article you wrote in 1986 with General John Galvin about “uncomfortable wars”. You warned to take into consideration “the societal dimension of warfare”. To what extent do you see that prophecy still holding true post Iraq and post Afghanistan?

General Petraeus: I think the essence of the article back in 1986 with General Galvin was frankly the importance of the human terrain in each particular situation, and the importance of understanding the terrain, having a very nuanced, detailed feel for the context of each situation, not just nationally, but sub-nationally and literally all the way down to each valley and each village. That kind of knowledge was achieved in Iraq and helped us enormously during the Surge. We had a greater understanding there, earlier than we did in Afghanistan, just because we had so many more forces on the ground, 165,000 American military alone at the height of the surge. In Afghanistan at the height of our deployment, we had 100,000 US troopers and about 50,000 coalitional forces, and we maintained that level for a relatively brief period of time. As I noted on a number of occasions, we never really got the inputs close to right in Afghanistan until late 2010.

So, noting the importance of human terrain, I believe, is a fundamental aspect of crafting a counterinsurgency campaign. In fact, it was the biggest of the big ideas when we launched the Surge in Iraq, and we knew that since the human terrain was the decisive terrain, we would had to secure it as our principal focus – and to do so by living with the people, locating forward operating bases/joint security stations in the neighborhoods and villages, and specifically right on the sectarian fault-lines across which the heaviest fighting was ongoing in the capital. We ultimately established 77 additional locations just in the Baghdad area of operations alone, and many dozens more elsewhere throughout the country. There were other big ideas to be sure:  e.g., that you can’t kill or capture your way out of an industrial strength insurgency, such as we faced, therefore you need to reconcile with as many of the insurgents as was possible, seeking to maximize the number of the reconcilables; correspondingly, we also needed to intensify our campaign of targeted operations against the irreconcilables. But I think, fundamentally, it comes back to this issue, that it is all about people, counterinsurgency operations are wars in, among, and, in essence, for the people. And the first task of any counterinsurgency campaign has to be to secure those people.

Read the rest here.

How to Lose a War: A Primer

Sunday, July 28th, 2013

[by Mark Safranski a.k.a. “zen“]

Since Pakistan is now attempting to get its victory over the United States in Afghanistan formally ratified, now seemed to be a good time to reflect on the performance of American statesmen, politicians and senior generals.

It has occurred to me that we have many books and papers outlining how to win wars. Certainly the great classics of The Art of War, The History of the Peloponnesian War and On War are the foremost examples, but there are also other useful classics in the strategic canon, whole libraries of military histories, memoirs of great commanders and an infinite number of PDFs and powerpoint briefs from think tanks and consultants. Strangely, none of these have helped us much. Perhaps it is because before running this war so few of this generation’s “deciders” read them en route to their law degrees and MBAs

We should engage in some counterintuitive thinking:  for our next war, instead of trying to win, let’s try to openly seek defeat. At a minimum, we will be no worse off with that policy than we are now and if we happen to fail, we will actually be moving closer to victory.


While one of these principles may not be sufficient cause for losing an armed conflict, following all of them is the surest road to defeat.

1. War is the Continuation of Domestic Politics:

The point of politics is to acquire, hold and enjoy using power. When we lose sight of this fact due to romantic notions of “national interest” or “duty” and spend too much attention prosecuting a war against foreign armies then our real enemies – the political opposition – can take advantage. What good is overseeing a global victory over an epochal tyranny if the result is you get immediately voted out of office like some hapless loser? While on the surface, it might seem wise during a war to staff a government with able statesmen, experienced generals, capable diplomats and other experts, the truth is that if you do so you will have very few plum jobs left with which to reward the cronies, ideologues, campaign consultants, activists, wealthy grafters and partisan hacks who got you into power in the first place. Without their continued support, you will not be long for political office.

The fact is that the nation can survive many lost wars far longer than your career will survive lost elections.  Once you view the war solely through the prism of how any action might impact your fortune in domestic politics, you will have a marvelous clarity that the war is the best pretext upon which to expand your power at the expense of the opposition and the people.

2. Policy is the True Fog of War:

Having a clearly defined, coherently articulated policy based upon vital interests and empirical facts that sets a few realistic objectives in a way that makes possible shared understanding and broad political support is no way to go about losing wars.

Keeping in mind #1, the point of war policy is to generate a set of politically compelling slogans that remain ill-defined enough to serve as an umbrella  under which many contradictory and competing agendas can cohabit until some of them can be opportunistically realized. These agendas may not be realistic – in fact, it is easier to put them forward as attractive fantasies for the public if your administration is unburdened with officials with genuine expertise in warfare, economics, foreign cultures, history and other inconvenient information that the media and the political opposition will only be too happy to seize upon. The more abstractly and arcanely expressed the policy the harder it is for critics to demolish and the  better it is for losing wars. “Unconditional surrender” for example, is bad because it is too concrete and easily evaluated – either an enemy is totally defeated and in your power or he is not. “Make the world safe for Democracy” by contrast,  is better as it is more ill-defined and subjective, permitting a larger range of politically tolerable bad outcomes.  “Responsibility to Protect” and “War on Terror” are even more abstract, being essentially unlimited, open-ended, process goals that do not have any point of “victory” whatsoever and can thus not only potentially bring about losing wars but very long ones.

3.  Strategy is a Constraint to be Avoided:

Strategy is about lining up Ends-Ways-Means to construct a theory of victory. While that might give us hope of prevailing over an enemy in an armed conflict, forging a strategy – any strategy -comes with a severe cost: namely the discipline of the government adhering to a strategy requires choices be made about the use of limited resources rather than keeping “all options open” to react  to transient and trivial political concerns on a moment’s notice. Strategy for the nation equates with diminished political flexibility and mobility for the politician.

In other words, having a strategy might require elected officials expend their precious political capital in order to pursue it without getting anything in return that might expand their powers or further their personal careers.  Doing strategy would mean prioritizing winning the war over other possible objectives and putting key decision-makers in the uncomfortable position of having to say “No” or “Not now” to powerful and influential people or factions. Worse, having a strategy also implies that the results can be quantified and evaluated for success, costs, failure and ultimately, personal accountability for leaders.

Obviously locking ourselves into a strategy is something to be avoided if we wish to stay in power, so “strategy” is only invoked rhetorically to mean a wide and confusing array of other non-strategy things – tactics, goals, operational art, planning,  public relations, nation-building,  diplomacy, policy, routine procedures, withdrawal dates, theories, fantastical pipe dreams and so on.  When “strategy” means anything and everything it ultimately means nothing.

4. All Lost Wars are based on Self-Deception: 

It is not enough to avoid strategy, there must also be a collective political determination to avoid reality enforced from the inception until the bitter end.

Wars have real and physically destructive consequences for the people who fight them, but unless you are engaged in a desperate struggle to repel a foreign invader, chances are the battlefield is far away from your home territory. This gives political leaders wiggle room to manipulate perceptions – most importantly their own – to political advantage by controlling information about the war and shaping the ideological boundaries of acceptable public discourse. This will eventually lead to a vicious cycle of bad decisions as misinformation and deceit corrupts the OODA Loop, but political leaders will maintain their political advantage over their critics, at least until the day of reckoning arrives.

Here we must begin with an insistence of a position of firmly held ignorance regarding the prospective enemy, their military capabilities, economic resources, the geographic characteristics, their cultural attitudes toward conflict and their history as a people. Should such information become widely known, it might result in popular skepticism about the wisdom of the entire enterprise, the difficulties that might be encountered and the prospects for success. If you wish to lose a war ignominiously, the less you know the better.

Likewise, once war has begun, the initial jingoistic overconfidence that greeted the war will quickly fade unless actively sustained by preventing an honest analysis of  events and providing a steady stream of rationalizations for the gullible public. It would be a good idea to ban discussion that accurately characterizes the form of warfare  or the nature of the enemy, though these things alone will not be sufficient. The intelligence process itself should be corrupted when possible to provide the “right” answers and censored or circumvented when it is not; while public assessments should use irrelevant metrics divorced from their  context so that they will not have to be gamed later.  Critics, truth-tellers, whistleblowers and those not towing the party-line should be retired, fired, demonized and punished.

5. Isolate the War and those Fighting it from the People: 

A war forgotten by the folks at home is a war that is much easier to quietly lose.

At the outset of the war, ask no sacrifice of the people because that will give them too much of a stake in a victorious outcome and raise expectations about your own leadership. Neither raise their taxes (at least not for the war at any rate) nor conscript their sons. Do not even issue a national call to the colors for volunteers, instead encourage people to be at ease and go about their business. Supplement your small regular army that increasingly feels itself a caste apart with highly paid mercenaries and foreign paramilitaries while neglecting the needs of your own troops. Speaking of the troops, always lavish the soldiers with superficial public pieties about service, sacrifice and heroism, but cynically break faith when it comes to your obligations to look after their interests.

6.  Complexity= Opacity and Micromanagement= Power

Most things in war are simple, but they are not easy. By deliberately making everything incredibly complicated, war can also become impossible too

While adding superfluous complexity does not help win wars, it does offer a number of immediate benefits for the political class. First, in real life the consequence of increasing complexity in any governmental endeavor (not just war) is that you will have more jobs and contracts to hand out to followers as bureaucracy and regulations require new inspectors, secretaries, managers, clerks, lawyers, advisers and in a military context, also new commands, staff officers, promotions, headquarters, increased budgets and so on. Chances are, most of these new jobs will continue on, if not forever, for a very long time.

Secondly the sheer complexity and number of offices, bureaus, agencies, departments, teams, commands, commissions and committees offer excellent “cover” for carrying out unpopular or illegal actions “under the radar” and with diffusion of responsibility, should these antics come to light.  If everyone is in charge, then no one is.  So if your military, intelligence agencies, diplomats, cultural advisers, aid and development people and senior administration officials talk and behave as if they are all hailing from different planets, you are well on your way to losing the war.

Third, the control of people at the top is reinforced by excessive complexity because the initiative of lower levels is strangled by micromanagement. If every idea from the field ( or even basic actions) requires two, three or more levels of command approval with consultation with lawyers at each step the answer is always going to be “No” or a very delayed “Yes” long past the point of being useful. This, plus making examples of those who exercise initiative and act without orders, teaches everyone in the system to eschew risk, value passivity, play it safe and wait for higher-ups to spoon-feed them instructions. With modern, networked online communications every colonel, brigadier to three-star can play company commander while the President of the United States can ride virtual shotgun on SEAL team raids.

7.  Enormous Tail, Tiny Tooth: the Worse the ROI the Better

When you regularly use hundred million or billion dollar platforms to kill illiterate tribesmen with AK-47s and RPGs and build food courts in the Hindu Kush, something is eventually going to give.

Generally, a reasonably well governed country at war can afford to employ either a massive military force for a short campaign or a small, “light footprint“, force for the long haul. What few nations in history can afford, unless it is Persia under Xerxes, is to field a massive force disproportionately composed of rear echelon support troops and what used to be called “camp followers” and “auxiliaries” for years on end. There are two ways this can bring you to defeat.

First, obviously, fielding an enormous army for too long can lead to bankruptcy as costs of the war exceed tax revenues and the state begins to rely on various forms of credit, foreign bankers and debasing the currency to carry on. This does not guarantee an economic collapse or hyperinflation as war can also greatly stimulate production and other variables are always in play, but the risk of dire negative economic effects is significantly increased.

The second issue is that if you are moving your armed host into a desperately poor region to wage war against an impoverished enemy, the passage and encampment of your own military introduces the economic surplus to the local economy the enemy needs to afford to wage war. You are like a red hot iron in a bucket of ice water. Through bribery, extortion and theft the enemy will siphon from you money, arms and contraband and eventually, corrupt your own officials and officers.

 8. Cultivate Hatred and Contempt:

If you wish to lose a war, be hated but not feared.

While most principles of losing a war  are political, strategic or operational in nature and therefore the province of incompetent politicians and generals, cultivating contempt and hatred in all observers can be done at anytime by anyone regardless of rank, experience or status. Technology has revolutionized this sphere of losing warfare: where once undermining an entire war effort could only be done by an arrogant national blowhard, today any grinning idiot on a battlefield with a smart phone is only a tweet away from an international media firestorm.

It is import in cultivating hatred to remember that mere violence, an inevitable part of all wars, is not sufficient. One can respect and admire an honorable but fierce opponent. Conveying a bullying attitude of casual cruelty to all onlookers by mistreating prisoners and civilians, especially if you humiliate and abuse them is a surefire goad to hatred while also alienating allies and neutrals, especially when doing so contradicts the nation’s deeply held values.  Hatred can also be stirred in less dramatic ways, from posing with Nazi flags to widespread ignorance of and expressions of disdain for local customs and mores. Disrespect has legs.

Contempt by contrast, is earned more by exhibiting moral weakness and truckling appeasement of the enemy and his sympathizers. For example, have your own PA and diplomatic organs in speaking to the media, repeat enemy propaganda against your own soldiers and abuse the military justice system to prosecute soldiers for splitsecond combat decisions in order to appease these critics. Loudly trumpet the “culturally appropriate meals” to the guys you are going to waterboard and appoint enemy sympathizers as “cultural advisers” and “liaisons” to government security and law enforcement agencies. Do nothing as your own heavily infiltrated host nation “ally” repeatedly frags your soldiers.

9. Protect that Which is Most Unimportant:

Organizations signal what they really value not by what they say, but what they spend time and money on.

Make sure that as the war is steadily being lost that top brass and their civilian overseers frantically emphasize politicized trivialities and institutional martinet nonsense. Reflector belt mania, giving everyone and their brother breathalyzer tests, cultural sensitivity training, counterproductive regs for MEDEVAC helicopters, promoting the gender equality of foreign societies and gender-neutrality of our own should bump out boring, old training exercises for future combat deployment in terms of priority. Remember, the military is not really there to win wars – it is a captive social engineering project for things the wackier members of Congress wish they could impose on their constituents were it not for those damned free elections.

10. Level the Playing Field: Paralyze Your Own Tactical Advantages.

While a war is often lost by having a bad strategy or no strategy at all, the power of crapping away your tactical advantages to no purpose ought not be underestimated. There are thousands of ways to do this but if you are cutting the enemy repeated breaks you can’t go wrong.

First and foremost, you wish to avoid bringing all of your combat power to bear on the enemy’s weakest point in a combined arms assault because he very well may break and then where the hell will you be? You can hardly lose a war if the enemy dies or surrenders first.

Treat your combat arms, services and host nation military as separate, autonomous and almost unrelated units, each with their own objectives and set of ROE guidance more restrictive than required by the Laws of War (while mixing in allied and host nation forces of varying levels of capability and different ROE). Make it difficult for fire support, armor and air to work with your infantry commanders dealing with unforseen circumstances, who you should also spread thin over remote operational areas the size of, say, Iowa to maximize their vulnerability. If a battalion is needed, send a company. If a company is called for, send a squad. Allow the enemy to have safe havens in adjacent countries whose military power is dwarfed by your own by many orders of magnitude. Make sure that your intelligence and public diplomacy services are shorthanded on personnel  fluent in the languages used by the enemy, whom you allow to practice perfidy without punishment.

Remember, there are no guarantees in war. No matter how badly you screw up, the enemy might still be more poorly led and less adaptive than are you. That said, if you practice these ten principles you can become a master of the art of defeat.

“Optimizing the Potential of Special Forces”

Sunday, July 14th, 2013

[ by Mark Safranski – a.k.a “zen”]

A remarkably blunt article on SF/SOF (“special forces” is being used as an umbrella term for both) in the context of policy and strategy, from the perspective of an emerging great power by LTG Prakosh Katoch of the Indian Army. The American example of SOCOM in Afghanistan/Iraq/GWOT has obviously had an impact here, as has the negative example of Pakistani use of terrorists as proxy forces and ISI covert operatives for direct action in Indian territory and elsewhere. Quite aside from global conflicts and the bilateral rivalry with Pakistan, India also faces more than a dozen long term irregular conflicts with their own dynamics, such as the Naxalite-Maoist insurgency , which Katoch places in the context of Chinese strategic ambitions against India.

A must read.

Optimizing the Potential of Special Forces

….In India, the lack of strategic culture, more on account of keeping the military out from strategic military decision making, has led the hierarchy to believe that conventional forces coupled with nuclear clout can deter us from irregular threats. Nothing can be farther from the truth. Pakistan, though conventionally inferior, has been successfully playing her ‘thousand cuts policy’ knowing full well that India has failed to develop the required deterrent. It is our inability to find a cure to this Achilles’ heel, that has led China, which was hitherto using Pakistan as proxy to wage irregular war on India, now directly aids and supports insurgent and terrorist outfits inside India.

….Why the US has managed to secure its mainland post 9/11 is not only because of an efficient Homeland Security organisation but because the US Special Forces (USSF) are operating in 200 countries including India. Significantly, USSF have undeclared tasks such as conducting proactive, sustained ‘man-hunts’ and disrupt operations globally; building partner capacity in relevant ground, air and maritime capabilities in scores of countries on a steady – state basis; helping generate persistent ground, air and maritime surveillance and strike coverage over ‘under-governed’ areas and littoral zones and employing unconventional warfare against state-sponsored terrorism and trans-national terrorist groups globally. Before 26/11, Al-Qaeda had planned similar operations against New York but could not because the USSF had infiltrated Al-Qaeda. One cannot guard the house by simply barricading it. You must patrol the streets and the area outside.

Growing inter-dependence and interlinking of terrorist groups regionally and internationally should be a matter of serious concern. It is not the US alone that has deployed its Special Forces abroad. This is the case with most advanced countries including UK, Russia, Israel, China and even Pakistan. Pakistan’s SSG was operating with the Taliban in Afghanistan and has been active in Jammu and Kashmir, Nepal and Bangladesh, primarily training anti-India forces. There is a strong possibility of their presence in the Maldives and Sri Lanka as well, aside from presence within India. The Chinese have been smarter. For all the development projects throughout the globe, including in Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan-POK, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Seychelles, contracts underway by PLA-owned/affiliated companies employ serving and veteran PLA soldiers and disguised Special Forces with assigned tasks, including evacuation of Chinese citizens from that country in case of emergencies. 

Read the rest here.

Is 4GW Dead?: Point-Counterpoint and Commentary

Tuesday, May 28th, 2013

4GW theory has always attracted overenthusiasts and  raging haters ever since the concept emerged way back in 1989, so debates about the merit of 4GW are nothing new; in fact, the arguments became so routine that they had largely gone sterile years ago.  After T.X. Hammes published his excellent  The Sling and the Stone and John Robb  went to the next level with Brave New War , it seemed that  little new was left to be said. In the late 2000’s, intellectual energies shifted to arguing the nuances and flaws of Pop-centric COINwhich proved in time to be even more bitter than those about 4GW.

Generations of War Theory Visualized by Chet Richards

What is different recently is that the person taking the affirmative on the question “Is 4GW dead?” was Dr. Chet Richards, who for years ran the premier but now defunct 4GW site, D-N-I.net, now archived here by the Project on Government Oversight.  Richards is no Clausewitzian true-believer or Big Army MBA with stars, but a former collaborator with John Boyd and a leading thinker of the 4GW school who had written several books with that strategic theme.

Therefore, not a critic to be dismissed lightly. Here’s Chet:

Is 4GW Dead? 

….The first thing to note is that 4GW is an evolution from 3GW, which they equate to maneuver warfare and the blitzkrieg as defined in MCDP 1 and Boyd’s Patterns of Conflict. These are styles of warfare conducted by state armies against other state armies, although the paper does invoke the notion of transnational terrorists near the end.

At some point in the late 1990s, the theory bifurcated. Bill Lind and Martin van Creveld began to emphasize the decline of the state and focus on transnational guerrilla organizations like al-Qa’ida. Tom Barnett called this the “road warrior” model. T. X. Hammes, on the other hand, characterized 4GW as “evolved insurgency” and envisioned the techniques described in the paragraphs above as also useful for state-vs-state conflicts.

….The 9/11 attacks, by a transnational guerrilla movement, seemed to confirm 4GW in both of its forms. In the last few years, however, everything has gone quiet. Transnational insurgencies, “global guerrillas” as John Robb terms them, have not become a significant factor in geopolitics. “Continuing irritation” might best describe them, whose primary function seems to be upholding national security budgets in frightened western democracies. The state system has not noticeably weakened. So it might be fair at this point to conclude that although 4GW was a legitimate theory, well supported by logic and data, the world simply didn’t develop along the lines it proposed.

A prominent critic of 4GW, Antulio J. Echevarria, may have been correct:

What we are really seeing in the war on terror, and the campaign in Iraq and elsewhere, is that the increased “dispersion and democratization of technology, information, and finance” brought about by globalization has given terrorist groups greater mobility and access worldwide. At this point, globalization seems to aid the nonstate actor more than the state, but states still play a central role in the support or defeat of terrorist groups or insurgencies.

Why? I’ll offer this hypothesis, that the primary reason warfare did not evolve a fourth generation is that it didn’t live long enough. The opening of Sir Rupert Smith’s 2005 treatise, The Utility of Force, states the case….

Chet’s post spurred a sharp rebuttal from William Lind, “the Father of Fourth Generation Warfare”:

4GW is Alive and Well 

So “the world simply didn’t develop along the lines it (4GW) proposed”? How do you say that in Syriac?

The basic error in Chet Richards’ piece of April 19, “Is 4GW dead?” is confusing the external and internal worlds. Internally, in the U.S. military and the larger defense and foreign policy establishment, 4GW is dead, as is maneuver warfare and increasingly any connection to the external world. The foreign policy types can only perceive a world of states, in which their job is to promote the Wilsonian nee Jacobin, follies of “democracy” and “universal human rights.” They are in fact, 4GW’s allies, in that their demand for “democracy” undermines states, opening the door for more 4GW.

In most of the world, democracy is not an option. The only real options are tyranny or anarchy, and when you work against tyranny, you are working for anarchy. The ghost of bin Laden sends his heartfelt thanks.

Third Generation doctrine has been abandoned, de facto, if not de jure, by the one service that embraced it, the U.S. Marine Corps. The others never gave it a glance. The U.S. military remains and will remain second generation until it disappears from sheer irrelevance coupled with high cost. That is coming much sooner than any of them think.

….In many of these cases, including Egypt and Pakistan, the only element strong enough to hold the state together is the army. But the “democracy” crowd in Washington immediately threatens aid cut-offs, sanctions, etc., if the army acts. Again, the children now running America’s foreign policy are 4GW’s best allies.

Fourth generation war includes far more than just Islamic “terrorism,” and we see it gaining strength in areas far from the Middle East. Gangs have grown so powerful in Mexico, right on our border, that I predict the state will soon have to make deals with them, as the PRI has done in the past. Invasion by immigrants who do not acculturate is a powerful form of 4GW, more powerful than any terrorism, and that is occurring on a north-south basis (except Australia) literally around the world. Remember, most of the barbarians did not invade the Roman Empire to destroy it. They just wanted to move in. In fact, most were invited in. Sound familiar?

What should concern us most is precisely the disconnect between the internal and external worlds. Externally, 4GW is flourishing, while internally, in the US government and military, it does not exist. This is the kind of chasm into which empires can disappear….

Fabius Maximus – who is a both a pseudonymous blogger and a group blog, also responded:

Update about one of the seldom-discussed trends shaping our world: 4GW 

One of the interesting aspects of recent history is the coincidence of

  1. the collapse of discussion about 4GW in US military and geopolitical circles,
  2. victories by insurgents using 4GW methods over foreign armies in Iraq and Afghanistan, &
  3. most important, the perhaps history-making victory by Bin Laden’s al Qaeda.

The second point is important to us, but the usual outcome since WW2 (after which 4GW became the dominate form of military conflict; see section C below).  The third point is the big one. Based on the available information, one of Bin Laden’s goals was to destabilize the US political regime. Massive increase in military spending (using borrowed funds). The bill of rights being shredded (note yesterday’s House vote to tear another strip from the 4th amendment). Our Courts holding show trials of terrorists — recruited, financed, supported by our security services. Torture and concentration camps.

….We — the Second American Republic — have engaged in a war with nationalistic, Islamic forces using 4GW.  So far we are losing.  For various reasons we are unable to even perceive the nature of the threat. In DoD the hot dot is again procurement of high-tech weapons — new ships, the F-35, the hypersonic cruise missile, etc.  All useless in the wars we’ve fought for the past 50 years, and probably in those of the next 50 years….. 

A few comments.

4GW has been heavily criticized – and accurately so – for making selective use of history, for unsupported maximal claims, for an excessively and ahistorically linear argument and for shifting or vaguely defined terms. Presented rigidly, it is relatively easy for critics to poke holes in it simply by playing “gotcha” (some of the criticism of 4GW did not get beyond ad hominem level garbage, but more intellectually serious detractors made very effective critiques of 4GW’s flaws).

That said, there were a number of useful elements or insights in the body of 4GW writings that retain their utility and I think are worth recalling:

  • Whatever one thinks of 4GW as a whole, the school drew attention to the threat of non-state irregular warfare, failed states and the decline of state vs. state warfare and did so long before it was Pentagon conventional wisdom or trendy Beltway talking head spiels on Sunday morning news programs.
  • While the state is not in decline everywhere in an absolute sense, it sure is failing in some places and has utterly collapsed elsewhere. Failed, failing and hollowed out states are nexus points for geopolitical problems and feature corruption, black globalization, insurgency, tribalism, terrorism, transnational criminal organizations and zones of humanitarian crisis. Whether we call these situations “irregular”, “hybrid”, “decentralized and polycentric”, “LIC”, “4GW” or everyone’s favorite, “complex” matters less than using force to achieve political aims becomes increasingly difficult as the interested parties and observers multiply. Some of the advice offered by the 4GW school regarding “the moral level of war”, de-escalation and the perils of fighting the weak in such a conflict environment are all to the good for reducing friction.
  • The emphasis of the 4GW school on the perspective of the irregular fighter and their motivations not always fitting neatly within state-centric realpolitik, Galula-ish “Maoist Model” insurgency, Clausewitzian best strategic practice or the Western intellectual tradition, were likewise ahead of their time and contrary to S.O.P. Even today, the effort to see the world through the eyes of our enemies is at best, anemic. Red teams are feared more than they are loved. Or utilized.
  • The bitter criticism the 4GW school lodged of the American political elite being allergic to strategic thinking and ignorant of strategy in general was apt; that American strategy since the end of the Cold War has been exceedingly inept in thought and execution is one of the few points on which the most rabid 4GW advocate and diehard Clausewitzian can find themselves in full agreement.

The lessons of 4GW will still be relevant wherever men fight in the rubble of broken societies, atomized communities and failed states.

Are Insurgencies “Antifragile”?

Thursday, May 16th, 2013

I have been reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s latest book,  Antifragile . It’s a highly intriguing book and I will give it a full review soon, but Taleb’s core concept of antifragility is important  and lends itself to wide application. Here’s Taleb on what constitutes “antifragility” – things that gain or improve with disorder – which he was careful to distinguish not just from “fragility” but also from “robustness” and “resilience”:

Almost all people answer that the opposite of “fragile” is “robust”, “resilient” , “solid”, or something of the sort. But the resilient, robust (and company) are items that neither break nor
improve, so you would not need to write anything on them – have you ever seen a package with
“robust” stamped on it? Logically, the exact opposite of a “fragile” parcel would be a package on which one has written “please mishandle” or “please handle carelessly”. It’s contents would not just be unbreakable, but would benefit from shocks and a wide array of trauma. The fragile is the package that would be at best unharmed, the robust would at best and at worst unharmed. And the opposite of fragile is therefore what is at worst unharmed. [31]

Italics in original.

Taleb uses a number of metaphors – the Phoenix, the Hydra – as well as examples to get across the point that an antifragile entity overcompensates in reaction to stress/damage/disorder by becoming better, growing stronger, more powerful, adaptively improving itself. Think of the effects of weight training in building muscle or a wildfire spurring bountiful growth in an ecosystem. There’s more to Antifragile than this but the gist is sufficient for now.

Which brings me to the question, “Are insurgencies antifragile?”

The study of insurgency, terrorism and revolution, while important and useful tend to suffer from several drawbacks. One is compartmentalization and academic specialization. As Robert Bunker pointed out in Narcos Over the Border,  a problem like “criminal-insurgency” attracts very different reactions from Law enforcement, intelligence analysts, the military, counter-terrorism officials and other experts (to say nothing of politicians) which makes consensus over a common analytic framework very difficult. Sometimes even defining the problem across domains is frustrating. As a result, many studies are too narrow and the few admirably ambitiously broad ones are deeply stamped in the political lens of the era in which they were researched and written – i.e. imperialist Small Wars, the Cold War, the War on Terror, Pop-centric COIN of Iraq and Afghanistan wars etc.  It is a subject that requires both more (and more intellectually creative) scholarship and a greater degree of synthesis.

In the meantime, I’d like to offer some speculation in an effort to answer the question:

  • The characteristics of “antifragility” in terms of at least some kinds of insurgency bears a striking resemblance to that of “wicked problems“, which has also been used to categorize some enduring irregular conflicts. Particularly in the sense of not having natural stopping points , manifesting complex interdependencies and resistance to simple, silver bullet solutions that could destroy it.
  • Moreover, most successful insurgencies are not, contrary to Maoist theory, autochthonous  – they draw many resources from external sources – black globalization, foreign patrons, legitimate trade, fundraising – and from the very state waging counterinsurgency warfare against them. The Afghan Taliban would be a much poorer military force without the vast amount of American aid passing through the hands of Pakistan and the Karzai regime
  • An insurgency’s claim to being “antifragile” may rest as much or more upon the general political and socioeconomic environment being relatively chaotic than on the nature of the insurgent organization itself.  The Chinese, Russian and Lebanese civil wars, Mexico’s narco-insurgency, West Africa and Afghanistan in the 1990’s, the Congo basinand Iraq in the 2000’s all had polycentric and disorderly environments that allowed  irregular groups to rapidly rise and fall on a local and regional basis. By contrast, “bilateral” insurgency vs. state dynamics can stabilize conflict for decades
  • An insurgent organization may lose antifragility as it restructures itself over time to become either more robust (ex. -Hezbollah) subnational entity or to accept greater fragility in order to acquire state-like hierarchical advantages ( political discipline and specialization). Note that “fragile” does not mean “weak”, it means “vulnerable”. States can be very strong and concentrating massive amounts of resources and coercive force, yet be strangely vulnerable to internal coups, popular uprisings, economic collapse, strategic myopia or even natural disasters. One of the great dangers today are complex systems that combine epic power with extreme fragility – small disruptions by irregulars yield huge ROIs.
  • States might be able to seek a strategic advantage over insurgencies by improving their robustness and smother the relatively ineffectual kinetic attacks of guerrillas or terrorists with inertia, refusing to “feed” the growth of an antifragile insurgent opponent, starving them of material resources and political oxygen. India has trucked along with something like seventeen ongoing insurgencies and episodic acts of major terrorism for decades without the Indian state remotely being in jeopardy of being overthrown by, say, the Naxalites, Sikh extremists or Kashmiri Islamists. Compare that with the rapid collapse or retreat of the state in places like Somalia, Yemen, Libya, Mali, Syria and so on.
  • The effects of globalization and information technology, the ability to have  John Robb’sopen source” decentralized, fast-evolving, insurgencies, give an an impetus to insurgencies becoming antifragile. At a minimum, it improves the odds.
Comments welcomed

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