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More Mackinlay – On Why the USG Doesn’t “Get” AQ as a “Global Insurgency”

Monday, April 19th, 2010

I continue to be impressed with Dr. John Mackinlay‘s  The Insurgent Archipelago . You might not agree with everything Mackinlay has to say on insurgency or COIN theory but his book is deeply thought-provoking the way The Pentagon’s New Map, Brave New War or The Genius of the Beast are thought-provoking books. As a reader, you highlight. You underline. You scribble praise, condemnation or some relevant factoid in the margins.

This is going to be an influential text.


In Mackinlay’s view, America and the West have failed to adequately understand what and whom they are fighting in the War on Terror. The phenomenon that has eluded them is that alongside older, Maoist iterations of guerrilla warfare, the cutting edge of insurgency has evolved up into a decentralized, networked, partly virtual, Post-Maoism. General staffs, intelligence services, national security officials and diplomats remained hypnotized by the Maoist model that was so frequently aped in the 60’s and 70’s by secular leftists and Third World Marxists in Vietnam, Algeria and subsaharan Africa.

Some excerpts, followed by my analysis, which you are free to disagree with or just put in your own two cents about in the comments section:

Mackinlay writes [p. 164]:

….NATO governments and a majority of their security staff did not recognize post-Maoism as a form of insurgency either. Although they lived in a post-industrial era and directly experienced its social consequences, they dealt with post-9/11 insurgent phenomenon from a Maoist perspective; they neither saw it nor engaged it as a global movement that involved a greater array of dispersed supporters. They also failed to recognize it as an insurgency.

Very true. Even though if the organizational behavior of al Qaida and its affiliated movements had taken place within one nation-state, Cold War era graybeard officials and international law NGO activists of 2001-2004 vintage would have called them a guerilla movement; that al Qaida’s activities took place across many international borders seriously confounded them in an intellectual sense. Obviously, they must be common criminals, no different than junkies who stick-up a 7-11, to be properly mirandized! Call the FBI and have OJ’s dream team ready when we make an arrest! Or Osama is a state-sponsored terrorists of Saddam! No, wait, of Iran!

And so it went, and still goes on to this day as the USG contorts itself into a legal pretzel  in order to never have proper war crimes trials or execute convicted war criminals. Or even admit they are “Islamists” motivated by a reified ideology (Mackinlay’s term “Post-Maoist” may soon come in to vogue at the NSC).

America is like the Gulliver of COIN, bound fast by the cords of politically correct nonsense.

….Because few academics had explained insurgency as a multidisciplinary, as opposed to a narrowly military, process they failed to see how their own populations were vulnerable to insurgent movements, and that when it happened to them it would not look like its classic Maoist antecedent. Countering insurgency required a counterintuitive effort and making this intellectual leap was problematic when military planners had such an idee fixe of insurgency as eternally Maoist form.

I interpret this paragraph as Mackinlay blending the Euro-Anglo-American state of affairs, but it does not apply equally to all, in my view.

Humanities and social science academics are simply not as good at or as intellectually comfortable with true multidisciplinary thinking as are their counterparts in the hard sciences. Nor are the social science faculty particularly friendly, in most universities, toward the US national security and intelligence communities or the Pentagon (though I suspect the situation in 2010 is better than in 2000 or 1990). Nor are American universities oversupplied with military historians or scholars of strategic studies.

Academia, however is not at fault as much as Mackinlay indicates. Even if we had Clausewitz collaborating with Ibn Khaldun and Marshall Mcluhan to write our white papers, the USG interagency process is fundamentally broken and could not execute their recommendations. State is grossly underfunded, institutionally disinclined to turn out FSO’s in the mold of Errol Flynn and is in need of a systemic overhaul. USIA and USAID need to be reborn as heavyweight players. The CIA has problems almost as severe as does State and does not play well with others, including the DNI. There is no “whole of government” approach present that could approximate an “operational jointness”, so presidents increasingly rely on the military as the hammer for all nails ( the military may not do the right thing but at least it does something, as the saying goes).

Mackinlay writes [p. 164-165]

….By 2008 the most up-to-date doctrine was still stuck in expeditionary form, in other words focused on a campaign epicentre that lay in a particular overseas territory and its traditional, or at best modernising, society. The following characteristics that distinguished post-Maoism had not been engaged:

  • The involvement of multiple populations which challenged the concept of a center of gravity
  • Mass communications and connectivity
  • The migration factor
  • The virtual factor
  • The centrality of propaganda of the deed in the insurgent’s concept of operations
  • The bottom-up direction of activist energy
  • Absence of plausible end-state objectives in the insurgent’s manifesto

Mackinlay gets much right here but some things wrong – and what is incorrect is arguably quite important – but as an indictment of the failure of the West to adequately address globalized insurgency, it is spot on in many respects.

First, in regard to Mackinlay’s attack on Clausewitzian theory, I am not persuaded that a “center of gravity” for our enemies does not exist or apply so much as its form is not a particularly convenient one (i.e. -easily targetable) or politically comfortable for our elites to acknowledge.

We could conceive of al Qaida’s CoG being Bin Laden’s inner circle hiding somewhere in Pakistan – probably Rawalpindi – that we do not yet dare to strike. Or we could say that the CoG is al Qaida’s “plausible promise” that the “far enemy” of radical Islamism, the US, can be brought down, as was the USSR, by being bled to death by drawing America into endless and expensive wars. Or that the CoG is al Qaida’s peculair, Qutbist-inspired, takfiri, revolutionary Islamist ideology. Our elites recoil from openly confronting any of those possible scenarios but that does not mean that a CoG is not present, only that we lack the will to attack their CoG head-on.

US COIN doctrine is expeditionary – essentially internal COIN for America ended with the Compromise of 1877 and the end of three centuries of “Indian Wars”. Political correctness, not doctrinal rigidity, precludes recognizing Islamist lone wolf terrorists like Maj. Hasan as anything other than mentally ill spree killers, no different from the school shooters at Columbine or Andrew Cunanan. The USG would not recognize an insurgency in the states as an insurgency even if it had flags, a government-in-exile, an air force and armored divisions. Even the capture of verified and admitted members of al Qaida inside the United States, who are covered by a properly authorized AUMF, causes an epidemic of pants-wetting among the elite, if we proceed to try them with military tribunals or commissions.

We do not have a political elite as a national leadership who are prepared to entertain the full strategic ramifications of the existence of a “globalized insurgency”. They do not ignore it completely – the COIN doctrine articulated best by David Kilcullen and John Nagl is to de-fang al Qaida as a strategic threat by isolating it from the “Accidental Guerrilla” groups whose Islamist concerns are parochial and national in character rather than global. So, al Qaida is seen by the American national security community as a de facto globalized insurgency with a reach that extends everywhere – except of course inside the United States. Unless we intercept foreign Islamist terrorists crossing the border or boarding a plane, any violent actions committed here resembling terrorism are purely a law enforcement issue and must be wholly unrelated to Islamist extremism.

It’s a bizarrely illogical strategic worldview – and I fear its’ ostrich-like mentality has already spread from War on Terror policy to matters related to the empirically demonstrable, but continuously downplayed, spillover effects of Mexico’s growing narco-insurgency, where high officials prohibit unvarnished “truth telling” from practitioners in the field from reaching the ears of key decision-makers. It’s no way to run a war – or a country – unless the intent is to lose the former by systematically crippling the ability to respond of the latter.

Mackinlay’s characteristics of “Post-Maoism” strike directly and the political and methodological nerve clusters of a Western elite whose power and status are invested in hierarchical, bureaucratic, institutional structures that are defended from urgent demands to reform, in part, by their ideology of political correctness.

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