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

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.

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

  1. Visitor Says:

    "The USG inter-agency process is fundamentally broken and could not execute their recommendations." ""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).""
    Very interesting statements Sir. Have you ever in the past or do you presently work for the U.S. Government, any of the Agencies you’ve described above or have you served in the U.S. Military? If you have not, I ask…. How do you plan to solve a problem in your Government, if you’re not part of it? How are you getting involved to help fix what you’ve described above?
    Additionally, I enjoyed this statement, "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”."
    What exactly would you like to do to solve this problem? Should the US Government and it’s people repeal the The Posse Comitatus Act (18 U.S.C. § 1385) passed on June 18, 1878???? Perhaps we should also repeal the Insurrection Act of 1807, both laws which were designed specifically to substantially limit the powers of the federal government to use the military for law enforcement.
    Despite both of these laws, from 2002 – 2008, the United States Military / Department of Defense was violating both Posse Comitatus Act and Insurrection Act by designing, using and employing individuals within a group called the Counterintelligence Field Activity (CIFA) to spy on, detain, arrest, question and investigate individuals who they believed were domestic or international terrorists. Many of these individuals in CIFA had no Federal Law Enforcement Training, they didn’t know the legal requirements for Title III warrants for electronic eavesdropping, and they acted like a hit-squad many times violating the privacy and 4th amendment rights of its citizens they swore to uphold and defend. These are activities and people who you will not read about in your newspaper. Ironically, members of the JTTF will have limited information or knowledge of CIFA as it was a TS/SCI program.
    CIFA was disbanded by Congress in the Spring of 2008. Why do you think it was disbanded?
    According to some people, the Administration at the time had broadly defended its domestic eavesdropping, analyzing and investigating activities by CIFA- by stating that they are acting within the law as provided by the Constitution. Specifically, Article Two of the United States Constitution, that suggests that the President has the chief responsibility to protect America from attack. In addition to Article Two, the President (and CIFA) may rely on Congress’ specific Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists ("AUMF"), and the War Powers Resolution as foundation, though many Congressional representatives asked about this have stated that they do not support this interpretation, and that it was not their intention on signing the AUMF to give the military the ability to spy, eavesdrop, collect information, investigate analyze information, detain, arrest, question subjects and prosecute subjects in secret court. So as of right now, the only individual’s who can spy, eavesdrop, collect information, investigate analyze information, detain, arrest, question subjects and prosecute subject’s inside its boarders, who are believed to be Domestic (lone wolf) or International Terrorists / members of Narco-Trafficking Groups- is the FBI. What’s so bad about that?
    CIFA was beginning to sound a little like the Stasi, wasn’t it? At least the FBI is regulated and they do a pretty good job of investigating terrorism, doing things by the book and protecting U.S. Citizens within its boarders.
    As for our current problems with COIN, our new administration needs to think outside the box and about designing new laws that will protect our people and government, without compromising (too drastically) our personal freedoms. After all, if we don’t have any personal freedoms, why call ourselves the United States of America?
    With Liberty and Justice for all……

  2. J.N. Kish Says:

    "America and the West have failed to adequately understand what and whom they are fighting in the War on Terror."This is so true.  So, who are we fighting?  The answer is actually so simple that, for many, it is simply beyond belief.http://jnkish.blogspot.com/2009/12/friend-or-foe.html

  3. zen Says:

    Hi Visitor,
    Welcome, my foreign friend. First, I have to compliment you – your English is excellent and you do a passable imitation of Ron Paul type paleocon arguments though your idiom is not quite right.  An "A" for effort though.
    If you are sophisticated enough a fellow to throw all those red herrings together while surfing the net, I’ll just cut to the chase in answering your question. Law enforcement always should have a role in COIN but in this case, it is the FBI CI division whose help is needed, not the criminal division which is – as is historically the case – far too subject to political pressures from your fellow travelers and front groups operating here through their friends in our political parties and on Capitol Hill. Nothing new there though, this problem went on for much of the 20th century and it’s just a cost of maintaining our open society.

  4. Visitor Says:

    Hard to believe you think JTTF’s can’t do the job Zen.  You have no faith in your country or the Department of Justice, do you?  Perhaps we should make you Director of FBI, to clean up our COIN problems inside our boarders… 

    BTW-  FBI CI Division, is a lot like walking into the middle of Masterpiece Theater, so I’ve been told.  Rows and rows of cubicles lined with individuals wearing tweed jackets with a pipe clinched in their teeth….many consumed reading their scholarly journals and  books.  Probably 75% of them working on Graduate Research Projects or proficiency in a language, so they can become a cunning linguist or polyglot. 

    Most of the people in the CI Division unfortunately are Analysts, not Agents.  Most have specialties in specific regions, fields and languages, but lack skills, intellect or physical ability the ability to become DOJ certified professionals in federal law enforcement.

    As far as COIN, I believe it was Scotland Yard with the assistance of a man with the code-name "Steak-knife" who was responsible for cutting the head off the IRA.  Your words, "should have a role" might need to change to "plays a major role" in COIN.  Think about it.

    You also might want to do a little more research on CIFA and why it was disbanded.  Like I said, it might answer major questions on how the U.S. can improve COIN Operations inside its boarders. 

    I’m not criticizing you here Zen, merely trying you to do a little research.  That’s all. 

  5. zen Says:

    To clarify, my knock is not on career ppl at agency "X" – it is on the USG having many "cylinders of excellence" that do not integrate well – or, sort of sabotage each other over turf.
    Hmmm…not an expert on the Irish troubles, but my recall is that the Brits may have bent a few rules in pursuing the IRA. Scotland Yard and the FBI are both law enforcement agencies but their rules and procedures as I understand them are not quite the same. The British Isles are not my area of study though.
    Re: COIN – historically, no two situations are exactly the same. An insurgency of, say, white racist hillbillies decamped in Idaho might be handled differently than one which is primarily a network of foreigners, aided by domestic sympathizers who may be violent or may be primarily engaged in espionage, subversion and support activities of terrorism occurring in third countries. Or if the insurgency is in a third country, the best option may be to not get involved at all. Context matters.
    Re: – CIFA. Cursory investigation  leads me to say it looks like something that might have been a Rumsfeld project. Hard for me to say right now without talking to more knowledgeable ppl or seeing documents.

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