America takes another step towards the “Long War”

Part I

By Fabius Maximus
Archive of Commentaries

July 24, 2007

Indeed, the safest road to Hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.

The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis, Chapter 12 (1959)

The flood of information and commentary available today can obscure events of the greatest significance. We see that today, as America takes another step towards the long war. Without thought or reflection, without debate by our elected officials, without our consent. In many ways just like the Cold War.

If the US starts a new long war, it is our war – for good or ill. Congress and the President are our agents no matter how they conduct our affairs. As bin Laden reminds us, following our leaders does not relieve us of responsibility.

Wars put all that we that we have, all that we are, on the table to be won or lost. Before we enlist ourselves and our children in a new war, let’s think. Is the wager worthwhile? Are the odds in our favor? Are there alternatives other than war?

In the past we have neglected these questions to our sorrow.

Repeating history

US entered the Cold War with the sending of the “Long Telegram” in February 1946 by George F. Kennan, the State Department’s Minister-Counselor at the Moscow Embassy. In this and later works he presented evidence that the Soviet Union considered itself an enemy of the US, and that our best response was a long-term policy of containment (largely economic in nature).

The American people learned of their government’s decision to confront the USSR only in July 1947, when Kennan pseudonymously published “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” in Foreign Affairs.

Similarly, today the US government may have enlisted America in to another long war. Cited here are a variety of official documents, but this paper focuses on a recent work by David J. Kilcullen. Officer in the Australian Army, anthropologist, top expert in counter-insurgency. (See the appendix for a brief biography.)

Kilcullen no more “declared the long war” today than Kennan started the Cold War in 1946. Unlike when war was the ‘sport of Kings”, modern conflicts result from the needs and imperatives of vast bureaucracies – not necessarily understood even by the participants. The work of individuals (like Kilcullen) can provide windows into the working of this large and mysterious machinery.

In this metaphorical sense, the long war was publicly announced in Kilcullen’s widely circulated May 2007 article “New Paradigms for 21st Century Conflict”, eJournal USA (published by the US Department of State).

Kilcullen’s article builds upon his earlier work. Perhaps the most relevant – and his best – is “Countering Global Insurgency” in the Journal of Strategic Studies (August 2005).


This report is just a sketch, some thoughts that hopefully spark discussion about America’s rush to war. It proposes the following:

  • There is as yet insufficient evidence that America is threatened sufficiently to justify the large-scale mobilization of citizens that we call “war.”

  • There is insufficient public evidence that al Qaeda or Islamic jihadists are such a threat.

  • The war was begun in Iraq and Afghanistan with inadequate analysis and planning, and those errors continue to this day.

  • Even if this threat is of sufficient magnitude, war is not necessarily the solution.

  • To the extent that force is required, at present we are not equipped to employ it in the manner needed. A scimitar makes a fine weapon, but a poor scalpel.

Going off to war

 Not the cry, but the flight of the wild duck, leads the flock to fly and follow.

Chinese proverb

Often used in leadership training classes, this sounds good. But it says that we follow our leaders into battle without explanation. To a Confucian this is how it should be, but it is fundamentally alien to the spirit of a democracy. Let’s see what our leaders are doing and think before we follow. Let’s not act like ducks.

The Long War

The “Long War” is a term for the conflict that began in 1914 with the First World War and concluded in 1990 with the end of the Cold War. The Long War embraces the First World War, the Bolshevik Revolution, the Spanish Civil War, the Second World War, the Korean War, the War in Vietnam and the Cold War.

The Long War can be understood as a single conflict fought over the constitutional issue of what form of the nation-state — fascist, communist or parliamentary—would succeed the imperial states of the 19th century.

The “market-state” is the latest constitutional order, one that is just emerging in a struggle for primacy with the dominant constitutional order of the 20th century, the nation-state. Whereas the nation-state based its legitimacy on a promise to better the material well-being of the nation, the market-state promises to maximize the opportunity of each individual citizen.

Interview with Philip Bobbit, author of The Shield of Achilles (2003)

The 1914 – 1991 long war pitted two different visions of the state against each other.

  1. The modern western state, devoted to the material welfare of its citizens and seeking accommodation between citizens of different spiritual/theological beliefs.

  2. A vision of the State in which non-material higher values dominate, and therefore the State oppresses inferior or heretical views. Examples: Fascism and Communism.

Fighting a radical or fundamentalist form of Islam perfectly fits this mold. If so, then we may have just begun another round of the long war.

Step one: create enthusiasm for the war

Mass war fought by modern state requires mobilization of the citizenry. Throughout history elites have used fear as an easy and effective tool to arouse their people. The Cold War was typical in this respect.

 Fine, said Senator Arthur Vandenberg, but “if Truman wants it he will have to go and scare hell out of the country.

David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest (1969).

This widely-cited bit of cold war apocrypha1/ captures a key element of the fear-mongering characteristic of early Cold War. The following excerpts show the same dynamic at work today.

Our Declaration of the Long War – the long form

Kilcullen was partly responsible for the inclusion {in the Quadrennial Defense Review} of the phrase “the long war,” which has become the preferred term among many military officers to describe the current conflict.

George Packer, “Knowing the Enemy”, The New Yorker, December 18, 2006.

In February 2006 the Defense Department issued its Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), charting the way ahead for the next 20 years as it confronts current and future challenges and continues its transformation for the 21st century.” The opening lines:

The United States is a nation engaged in what will be a long war. Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, our Nation has fought a global war against violent extremists who use terrorism as their weapon of choice, and who seek to destroy our free way of life.

But despite its 92 pages it never clearly defines the enemy beyond saying…

The enemies in this war are not traditional conventional military forces but rather dispersed, global terrorist networks that exploit Islam to advance radical political aims.

The QDR mentions Islam only four times, plus two brief quotes by Ayman al-Zawahiri. Al Qaeda is mentioned only six times.

In the opening of “Countering Global Insurgency” Kilcullen described the threat in similar terms, a vague but violent Islamic menace.

In practice, as will be demonstrated, the ‘War on Terrorism’ is a defensive war against a world-wide Islamist jihad, a diverse confederation of movements that uses terrorism as its principal, but not its sole tactic.

This paper argues that the present conflict is actually a campaign to counter a globalised Islamist insurgency. Therefore, counterinsurgency theory is more relevant to this war than is traditional counterterrorism. …

In this paper, the term ‘Islamist’ describes the extremist, radical form of political Islam practised by some militant groups, as distinct from ‘Islamic’, which describes the religion of Islam, or ‘Muslim’, which describes those who follow the Islamic religion. In this paper the term is used to refer primarily to Al Qa’eda, its allies and affiliates.

How does the QDR define victory in this long war?

Victory in this war comes when the enemy’s extremist ideologies are discredited in the eyes of their host populations and tacit supporters, becoming unfashionable, and following other discredited creeds, such as Communism and Nazism, into oblivion.

How bizarre! These objectives have no obvious connection with “war”, nor is it clear how force can achieve them. Communism was defeated by its own inability to compete with western societies, and its inability to adapt and reform because of its internal contradictions (as Kennan correctly predicted). Nazism was defeated because it took the form of nation states, which we crushed. The first is irrelevant to the “war on terror”; the second is irrelevant to the current “enemy.”

How does the QDR propose we achieve these victory conditions?

This requires the creation of a global environment inhospitable to terrorism. It requires legitimate governments with the capacity to police themselves and to deny terrorists the sanctuary and the resources they need to survive. It also will require support for the establishment of effective representative civil societies around the world, since the appeal of freedom is the best long-term counter to the ideology of the extremists.

Commendable and logical, but how is this war? How can our military forces assist in these projects, other than our special operations forces? As post-WWII history clearly shows, and as we have learned again in Iraq, occupying foreign lands often incites terrorism and saps the legitimacy of allied governments.

The QDR explains well how we fight, but tells us little about who we fight or why.

More steps toward war: putting a face to our enemy

United States-led counterterrorism efforts have seriously damaged the leadership of al-Qa’ida and disrupted its operations; however, we judge that al-Qa’ida will continue to pose the greatest threat to the Homeland and US interests abroad by a single terrorist organization. We also assess that the global jihadist movement — which includes al-Qa’ida, affiliated and independent terrorist groups, and emerging networks and cells — is spreading and adapting to counterterrorism efforts. …

We assess that the global jihadist movement is decentralized, lacks a coherent global strategy, and is becoming more diffuse. New jihadist networks and cells, with anti-American agendas, are increasingly likely to emerge.

Declassified “key judgments” of the National Intelligence Estimate
“Trends in Global Terrorism: Implications for the United States” (April 2006)

Al-Qa’ida is and will remain the most serious terrorist threat to the Homeland, as its central leadership continues to plan high-impact plots, while pushing others in extremist Sunni communities to mimic its efforts and to supplement its capabilities. We assess the group has protected or regenerated key elements of its Homeland attack capability …

We assess that the spread of radical—especially Salafi—Internet sites, increasingly aggressive anti-US rhetoric and actions, and the growing number of radical, self-generating cells in Western countries indicate that the radical and violent segment of the West’s Muslim population is expanding, including in the United States.

Press Release about the new National Intelligence Estimate
“The Terrorist Threat to the US Homeland" (July 17, 2007)

Declaration of the Long War – the short form

In “New Paradigms for 21st Century Conflict” Kilcullen opens strongly, going to the heart of our geo-political crisis.

Despite our rather rosy hindsight view of World War II, there was considerable dissent at the time about the war's aims, conduct, and strategy. But virtually no one disagreed that it was indeed a war or that the Axis powers were the enemy/aggressors.

Contrast this with the war on terrorism. Some dispute the notion that the conflict can be defined as a war; others question the reality of the threat. Far-left critics blame American industrial interests, while a lunatic fringe sees September 11, 2001, as a massive self-inflicted conspiracy. More seriously, people disagree about the enemy. Is al-Qaida a real threat or a creature of Western paranoia and overreaction? Is it even a real organization? Is al-Qaida a mass movement or simply a philosophy, a state of mind? Is the enemy all terrorism? Is it extremism? Or is Islam itself in some way a threat? Is this primarily a military, political, or civilizational problem? What would "victory" look like? These fundamentals are disputed, as those of previous conflicts (except possibly the Cold War) were not.

These are critical questions requiring answers before unleashing the dogs of war. Before spending vast sums. Before spilling blood, our own and those of the inevitable “collateral casualties.” The answer…

 In truth, the al-Qaida threat is all too real.

No evidence. No discussion of the magnitude of the threat (the world is filled with real threats, few of which warrant substantial attention). On this thin basis rests his new paradigm, five “notions — a new lexicon, grand strategy, balanced capability, strategic services, and strategic information warfare”. They are “speculative ideas that suggest what might emerge from a comprehensive effort to find new paradigms for this new era of conflict. “

His article contains much bad news. Among the worst, al Qaeda may be just the first of many such foes.

All these trends would endure even if al-Qaida disappeared tomorrow, and until we demonstrate an ability to defeat this type of threat, any smart adversary will adopt a similar approach. Far from being a one-off challenge, we may look back on al-Qaida as the harbinger of a new era of conflict.

Kilcullen designates al Qaeda as our primary (but not sole) enemy in Iraq and globally, as seen in these excerpts.

The enemy adapts with great speed. Consider al-Qaida's evolution since the mid-1990s…

These attacks are often described as "home grown," yet they were inspired, exploited, and to some extent directed by al-Qaida. …

Al-Qaida is highly skilled at exploiting multiple, diverse actions by individuals and groups, by framing them in a propaganda narrative to manipulate local and global audiences. Al-Qaida maintains a network that collects information about the debate in the West and feeds this, along with an assessment of the effectiveness of al-Qaida's propaganda, to its leaders. They use physical operations (bombings, insurgent activity, beheadings) as supporting material for an integrated "armed propaganda" campaign. The "information" side of al-Qaida's operation is primary; the physical is merely the tool to achieve a propaganda result. The Taliban, GSPC (previously, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, now known as al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb), and some other al-Qaida-aligned groups, as well as Hezbollah, adopt similar approaches.

The enemy is al Qaeda, or so we are told

Kilcullen is not the only one describing al Qaeda as our most important enemy. The US government has in the past few months increasingly done so, despite a large body of evidence – from both government and private sources – stating that this is not so.

Hayden catalogued what he saw as the main sources of violence in this order: the insurgency, sectarian strife, criminality, general anarchy and, lastly, al-Qaeda.

Washington Post account of CIA Director Michael V. Hayden
briefing the Iraq Study Group on November 13, 2006.

Question: Are you saying that al Qaeda in Iraq is now the sort of principal enemy of the U.S. forces stationed there?

General Petraeus: …I think it is probably public enemy number one….

DoD News Briefing with Gen. David Petraeus from the Pentagon (April 26, 2007)

Al Qaeda is public enemy number one in Iraq.

President George W. Bush (May 2, 2007)

Analysis of the “al Qaeda as meta-enemy” meme is beyond the scope of this paper. As a start, attention to the following articles is recommended.

• “Everyone we fight in Iraq is now al-Qaida”, Glenn Greenwald, Salon, (June 23, 2007)

• “Bush plays al Qaida card to bolster support for Iraq policy”, Jonathan S. Landay, McClatchy Newspapers (June 28,2007)

• "Seeing Al Qaeda Around Every Corner," Clark Hoyt, New York Times (July 8, 2007)

• "Bush Distorts Qaeda Links, Critics Assert," New York Times (July 13, 2007)

• “Al Qaeda in Iraq – Heroes, Boogeymen or Puppets?”, Malcom Nance, Small Wars Journal Blog (July 14, 2007)

What is al Qaeda? How serious a threat to us?

Not only did al Qaeda draw first blood in this conflict, according to Kilcullen they declared war in their “Jihad against Jews and Crusaders” on February 23, 1998, (see appendix A of “Countering Insurgency”). Except, of course, this actually says that we declared war on them (i.e., Allah) by occupying Iraq, basing forces in Saudi Arabia, and supporting Israel. It is important to realize that in their minds, they are on the defense, they’re just responding to our aggression.

Everybody wants to own the moral high ground; everyone wants to be the victim. In this, as in so many things, American culture takes the lead.

But even if al Qaeda has declared and waged war against us, that does not, by itself, make them a major threat against America. We have many enemies, in all shapes and sizes. Magnitudes matter, as we cannot devote unlimited resources to combating every threat.

What is al Qaeda? Is it a powerful stateless global conspiracy, like SPECTRE in Ian Fleming’s James Bond stories? Or COBRA in the GI Joe comic books? A real world precedent would be useful here. Unfortunately, there is none.

Al Qaeda might be a powerful global terrorist conspiracy. Unique does not mean impossible. There are, however, alternative explanations that equally well fit the available data. Al Qaeda might be …

  • A small number of terrorists with delusions of grandeur like the 19th Century anarchists.

  • A 21st century version of the post-WWII leftist revolutionary groups, most of which disappeared after their support from the Soviet Union – and the Soviet Union itself – disappeared (e.g., Japanese Red Army, German’s Red Army Faction, America’s Weather Underground, Italy’s Red Brigades).

  • Little more than a brand name or self-identification by radical Islamic groups, an attractive concept utilized by copycats – most of whom lack substantial resources or training.

  • Worst of all, have we conflated disparate threats in order to create support for a broader war? Combining Sunni Arab insurgents in Iraq, jihadists, Taliban in Afghanistan – eventually al Qaeda means little more than “the enemy.”

Despite the millions of words burned in confident guessing, it’s clear that nobody on our side has a certain answer to this question – at least, so far as can be determined from public sources.

All of these alternatives imply some danger to us, but likewise none elevate al Qaeda to the status of a superpower-level threat. And what is left of the “worldwide global jihad” without “Al Qa’eda, its allies and affiliates”? Not much of a threat, as yet.

Getting a second opinion about al Qaeda

One of Stratfor’s top analysts, Peter Zeihan, gives more color to the threat of al Qaeda in his July 10 report “The Many Faces of Al Qaeda.”

Al Qaeda is a small core group of people who share strategic and operational characteristics that set them apart from all other militants – Islamist or otherwise – the world over. All signs indicate this group is no longer functional and cannot be replicated. Whether or not Osama bin Laden is still alive, al Qaeda as it once was is dead.

… al Qaeda is no longer that core of highly trained and motivated individuals who tried to change the world by bringing down the World Trade Center, but a do-it-yourself jihadist franchise that almost anyone can join. … But few to none have any real connections to al Qaeda.

… This does not mean would-be "al Qaeda" groups are not dangerous, or that the "war on terror" is anywhere near over. While some of the would-be al Qaeda groups almost seem comical, others are competent militants in their own right – with al-Zarqawi perhaps being the most lethal example. Their numbers are also growing.

… Luckily, links between these new groups and their erstwhile sponsor are limited mostly to rhetoric. …They are not coordinated in their operations or even working toward a common goal. And while many of these new al Qaedas might be competent militant groups, they lack the combination of strategic vision and obsession with security that ultimately allowed the original al Qaeda to move mountains.

What is the Long War of the 21st Century?

Returning to “New Paradigms”, Kilcullen’s penultimate paragraph gives us the grim news.

The Cold War is a limited analogy for today's conflict: There are many differences between today's threats and those of the Cold War era. Yet in at least one dimension, that of time, the enduring trends that drive the current confrontation may mean that the conflict will indeed resemble the Cold War, which lasted in one form or another for the 75 years between the Russian Revolution in 1917 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991. Many of its consequences—especially the "legacy conflicts" arising from the Soviet-Afghan War—are with us still. Even if this confrontation lasts only half as long as the Cold War, we are at the beginning of a very long road indeed, whether we choose to recognize it or not.

The new threats, which invalidate received wisdom on so many issues, may indicate that we are on the brink of a new era of conflict. Finding new, breakthrough ideas to understand and defeat these threats may prove to be the most important challenge we face.

Threat Comparison: the Soviet Union and al Qaeda

An excerpt from the Long Telegram provides a useful comparison, especially as Kilcullen quotes part of it in “Countering Global Insurgency”. In these passages Kennan describes why the USSR is a serious threat to the United States.

First, they have powerful motivation – as does al Qaeda.

In summary, we have here a political force committed fanatically to the belief that with U.S. there can be no permanent modus vivendi, that it is desirable and necessary that the internal harmony of our society be disrupted, our traditional way of life be destroyed, the international authority of our state be broken, if Soviet power is to be secure.

Second, they have the power – unlike al Qaeda (unless they take power in several countries):

This political force has complete power of disposition over energies of one of world's greatest peoples and resources of world's richest national territory, and is borne along by deep and powerful currents of Russian nationalism.

Third, they have the necessary tools – which Kilcullen believes al Qaeda also has, but about which he gives little evidence.

In addition, it has an elaborate and far flung apparatus for exertion of its influence in other countries, an apparatus of amazing flexibility and versatility, managed by people whose experience and skill in underground methods are presumably without parallel in history. Finally, it is seemingly inaccessible to considerations of reality in its basic reactions.

In the first fourteen pages of “Countering Global Insurgency” Kilcullen describes the threat in greater detail, but with not much more evidence. It is perhaps the strongest case yet made for this long war. Read it and decide for yourself!

Failing to remember lessons from the Cold War, repeating our recent mistakes

Kilcullen’s article marks the start of a new cycle, an expansion of the Iraq and Afghanistan War – another long war just as we wind down from fifty years of confrontation with the Soviet Union. Amazingly, it appears that we – America – will fail to learn from successful aspects of the Cold War, and repeat mistakes of the past five years.

1. Initiating a conflict without clearly explaining the danger to the America people, providing analysis and evidence, exploring alternatives, and obtaining approval from Congress. We need public analysis of the threat, its size and nature.

Note: Congress neither debated nor approved the changed goals for the Iraq expedition –beyond removing Saddam and finding the WMD’s – nor its colonization (e.g., opening it to western oil companies, building “enduring bases” from which to project power over the Middle East, a the massive Embassy from which to in effect rule Iraq).

2. Clearly formulating both strategic and operational plans, including clear definition of the enemy and what constitutes victory.

Now we are four years into another long war. Begun without plan, victory conditions, estimates of its cost – without forethought, against a poorly conceived enemy. Let’s take a step back and consider what we are doing.

Dangers of the Long War

There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare.

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

We won the Cold War. More accurately, we outlasted the Soviet Union at the cost of some terrifying close calls (e.g. Berlin, Cuba), many “brush wars”, and expenditure of vast sums – which otherwise could have put to use in other ways.

We “won,” but at a great price. The “guns and butter policy” of the Johnson and Reagan resulted in large debts. Fifty years of covert operations eroded away much of the world’s trust in America. Fifty years of wartime lies eroded away much of Americans’ trust in their government. Street-wise children know to “never believe any story about the government until they deny it for the second time.”

Worse, we are starting this new cycle of war from a far weaker position than that of 1946. We began the Cold War as the world’s dominant superpower, owning a large fraction of the world’s remaining industrial infrastructure. Now we are the world’s largest debtor, borrowing the incredible sum of 6% of our annual national income (GDP), mostly from Asian and OPEC central banks.

We are demographically weaker. We started the cold war with the baby boom, a flood of youthful vitality. We start the new war as these baby boomers’ retirement begins the almost certain bankruptcy of our public retirement and medical systems – unless we radically rewrite the government’s “social contract.”

These are weak foundations for a long war.

Even if al Qaeda is the threat, is war the solution?

Kilcullen’s article is about the changed nature of war in the new millennium.

But ambiguity arises because this conflict breaks existing paradigms—including notions of "warfare," "diplomacy," "intelligence," and even "terrorism." How, for example, do we wage war on nonstate actors who hide in states with which we are at peace? How do we work with allies whose territory provides safe haven for nonstate opponents? How do we defeat enemies who exploit the tools of globalization and open societies, without destroying the very things we seek to protect?

Perhaps he misses the key point. Is the conflict against a global Islamic jihad – even if serious – a “war”? Does calling it war turn us away from effective alternatives? It has happened before.

  • Kennan recommended economic containment of the USSR; instead the Cold War saw a massive military and nuclear escalation which he abhorred.

  • Thomas P.M. Barnett recommended a force of “System Administrators” to stabilize and develop unstable “gap” nations. Instead we did a conventional invasion and occupation of Iraq, with no plan and few resources. Barnett is appalled.

Now Kilcullen recommends sophisticated and subtle methods to wage war on the jihadists. How will his recommendations be used? Will the Government use his warnings about the threat but not his advice on how to fight it? Will Kilcullen eventually repudiate the results of his current work?

It’s easy for an expert like Kilcullen to brilliantly explain how to win modern wars. Hundreds or thousands of papers like this have been written since WWII, of which articles on fourth-generation war (4GW) form a small subgroup. It’s not that any of these ideas are wrong, in a theoretical sense. But are they relevant to what the US military actually does?

How well can US troops – not trained for security or police work, not knowing the language or culture – do counterinsurgency operations? On a larger scale, will the US military wage war according to new paradigms, or in the conventional way it has perfected over the past 70 years?

Most importantly, discussed later in this paper and at greater length in the next, how can these ideas – however brilliant – move from paper to practice in the US military?

Police and Intel done by soldiers; listen to those who have been there

"I can't really fault military intelligence," said Specialist Reppenhagen, who said he raided thirty homes in and around Baquba. "It was always a guessing game. We're in a country where we don't speak the language. We're light on interpreters. It's just impossible to really get anything.”…

Sgt. Geoffrey Millard, 26, of Buffalo, New York, served in Tikrit with the Rear Operations Center, Forty-Second Infantry Division, for one year beginning in October 2004. He said combat troops had neither the training nor the resources to investigate tips before acting on them. "We're not police," he said. "We don't go around like detectives and ask questions. We kick down doors, we go in, we grab people."

First Lieut. Brady Van Engelen, 26, of Washington, DC …He served as a survey platoon leader with the First Armored Division in Baghdad's volatile Adhamiya district for eight months beginning in September 2003. "That's really about the only thing we had," he said. "A lot of it was just going off a whim, a hope that it worked out," he said. "Maybe one in ten worked out."

Sergeant Bruhns said he uncovered illegal material about 10 percent of the time, an estimate echoed by other veterans. "We did find small materials for IEDs, like maybe a small piece of the wire, the detonating cord," said Sergeant Cannon. "We never found real bombs in the houses."

In the thousand or so raids he conducted during his time in Iraq, Sergeant Westphal said, he came into contact with only four "hard-core insurgents."

“The Other War: Iraq Vets Bear Witness”, The Nation, (July 30, 2007)

America’s way of war

Kilcullen doesn’t believe that an entirely “soft” counterinsurgency approach can work against such tactics. In his view, winning hearts and minds is not a matter of making local people like you …but of getting them to accept that supporting your side is in their interest, which requires an element of coercion.

Packer, ibid

In Iraq and Afghanistan, the euphemism “a touch of coercion” means massive force applied from both land and air. This means civilian casualties. Men, women, and children – in numbers, as several studies have indicated, that mock our emphasis on intelligence in war and render almost meaningless our talk about the political and social dimensions of counterinsurgency.

General Petraeus’ speeches and Kilcullen’s articles are the urbane and sophisticated face of American power. Almost indiscriminate use of firepower is, unfortunately, the reality of it. Many articles have described the impact on civilians of modern war, in which the enemy strikes and runs – hiding amongst sympathetic non-combatants. The frustration of fighting an invisible enemy places tremendous stress on our troops, neither trained nor equipped for this kind of war.

Brigadier Nigel Aylin-Foster makes this point about the US military with a light touch throughout his article “Changing the Army for Counterinsurgency Operations” (Military Review, November – December 2005).

  • The US Army has “a pre-disposition to offensive operations”.

  • “universally those not from the U.S. considered that the Army was too ‘kinetic’. This is shorthand for saying U.S. Army personnel were too inclined to consider offensive operations and destruction of the insurgent as the key to a given situation, and conversely failed to understand its downside.”

  • “US Rules of Engagement (ROE) were more lenient than other nations’” “Intuitively the use of options other than force came less easily to the U.S. Army than her allies.”

  • “High levels of emotivity, combined with a strong sense of moral authority, could serve to distort collective judgement and invoke responses to insurgent activity that ultimately exacerbated the situation.”

Others are blunter and give more detail. Tom Engelhardt has been the single best source of information about the air war in Iraq and Afghanistan, one of the most important yet under covered stories of the war. His articles are a “must read” for anyone interested in learning why success eludes us in Iraq after four years of war.

We in the U.S. recognize butchery when we see it the atrocity of the car bomb, the chlorine-gas truck bomb, the beheading. These acts are obviously barbaric in nature. But our favored way of war war from a distance has, for us, been pre-cleansed of barbarism. Or rather its essential barbarism has been turned into a set of "errant incidents," of "accidents," of "mistakes" repeatedly made over more than six decades. Air power is, in the military itself, little short of a religion of force, impermeable to reason, to history, to examples of what it does (and what it is incapable of doing). It is in our interest not to see air war as a possibly the modern form of barbarism.

"Accidents" of War: The Time Has Come for an Honest Discussion of Air Power”, Tom Engelhardt (July 9, 2007)

See Appendix #2 for links to the TomDispatch articles about the American air war.

Can counter-insurgency succeed?

Much of the literature on counter-insurgency overlooks a basic point: since Mao brought 4GW to maturity, domestic insurgencies sometimes win – but insurgencies against foreign occupiers usually win.

Installing “friendly” governments, applying the newest in technology and theory, applying unrestrained violence and massive resources ... all for naught. Very few have succeeded – whether western, eastern, or emerging nations – Democracies, Communists, or tyrants. Much of the 4GW literature explains the dynamics of these failures.

Note: As always, there are grey areas. In the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960), how much of the credit goes to the Malaysian government vs. the UK? Was the UK an occupying government, as Malaysia gained independence in 1958? Even more absurdly, is the UK a foreign occupier of Northern Ireland?

In "Counter Global Insurgencies," Kilcullen develops a model of insurgencies as biological systems, a sophisticated extension of the traditional “enemy as disease” imagery. (In his "Long Telegram," Kennan says “World communism is like malignant parasite which feeds only on diseased tissue.”)

However Kilcullen overlooks the most obvious application of his metaphor. A nation can reject foreign occupation as the body rejects an infection, with the insurgency acting as its immune system. The greater the gains sought by the foreigners, the stronger their exertions – the broader and more intense the “immune” response. We see this clearly at work in Iraq, and in an earlier stage in Afghanistan.

That’s bad news for us. America fights by, among other means, occupying foreign states. As in Iraq and Afghanistan, this allows us to obtain resources, build bases from which to project power across the region, mold local government to our needs, attack non-state organizations we consider enemies, suppress ideologies we fear, and deny bases for jihadist activity.

Granted mobility, security (in the form of denying targets to the enemy), time, and doctrine (the idea to convert every subject to friendliness), victory will rest with the insurgents, for the algebraical factors are in the end decisive, and against them perfections of means and spirit struggle quite in vain."

T.E. Lawrence, “Guerrilla”, Encyclopedia Britannica (14th edition)

Of course, the history of failed occupations since WWII does not mean that a successful occupation of other States – a working COIN methodology – is impossible. In the words of one theorist (obviously not American):

Hypothesis after hypothesis has been tried, and still we can’t find it. Yet we must never lose hope; more and more complicated theories, fuller and fuller collections of data, richer rewards for researchers who make progress, more and more terrible punishments for those who fail – all this, pursued and accelerated to the very end of time, cannot, surely, fail to succeed.2/  

For those who don’t find this appealing, the 2008 elections might be our last easy opportunity to stop this rush to war.

And if COIN works, so what?

That the excellence that was achieved in the realm of tactics did not win the war for Germany does not make the revolution that occurred between 1914 and 1918 any less significant. Good tactics, after all, are worthless unless the battles that are won with them are combined to make a successful campaign and the campaigns are fought in a way that supports strategic goals. The failure of the German Army in 1918 was not a failure then of German tactics at the squad, platoon, company, battalion, regimental, division, or even army level, but a failure of German operational art, German strategy, and German national policy.

Bruce I. Gudmundsson, Stormtroop Tactics: Innovation in the German Army, 1914-1918 (1989)

Perhaps the “surge” is working on the streets of Baghdad, forcing insurgents to hide or run. To what end, especially as we see no political progress towards a stable Iraq state. This means tactical success but operational failure.

Similarly, how will it help us to master counter-insurgency tactics? We can prop up weak governments, with little legitimacy in the eyes of their people. Will that give us strong allies – or lay the foundation to develop new enemies?

In how many nations has the counter-insurgency activities of the CIA and Special Forces won friends for us? Have their successes outweighed the damage to America’s reputation and prestige?

Is counter-insurgency the search for tactical solutions to operational problems and operational solutions to strategic needs? If so, we are racing up a dead-end alley.

The missing element needed for victory

Of the many articles explaining how to win modern wars, only a small number describe the structural basis for current American tactics and the need for change (e.g., those by Brigadier Nigel Aylin-Foster and LTC John Nagl).

Only a tiny fraction grapple with the key question: what is the structural basis for the American military’s inability to change. Until this is understood and overcome, all recommendations are futile.

I now realize – after much sour searching and years of leading and training soldiers, and after four years of research and writing – the army’s problems are not the result of venality lack of integrity, or lack of intelligence on the part of senior officers. The problems are virtually all systemic in nature, a complex mix of traditions, conditioned responses, and institutional reactions to the contemporary world…Is the army evolving into a force to fight in the 21st century? The answer is no.

Major Donald Vandergriff, USA, Retired.  The Path to Victory. (2002)

Unfortunately, structural problems remain orphans in Washington because few senior leaders will initiate difficult reforms whose gains occur after they are gone.

Optimistic works describing ways our current forces can win put an author on the road to fame. A host of sages – of all kinds – have ridden the Iraq War to prominence: Kilcullen, Ralph Peters, Tom Friedman, Frederick Kagan … to name a few, plus many bloggers.

But those who have accurately forecast events in the war remain obscure, including most of the 4GW community (e.g., Lind, van Creveld). This anomaly is a signal to us: accuracy in forecasting does not yield career success in broken systems. Neither in Troy, as Cassandra discovered, nor in the US national security apparatus.

The next part of this series has more about this, but here are a few comments about solutions. The books of Martin van Creveld describe how we fell into this hole. His latest, The Changing Face of War, is an excellent historical summary and description of our predicament.

At home I have a shelf reserved for works describing solutions – real solutions that explain how we can change the US military apparatus. The only books on this shelf are Vandergriff’s The Path to Victory and Raising the Bar, plus Chet Richards’ Neither Shall the Sword. Let’s hope this shelf fills up over the next few years.

Especially watch Vandergriff’s efforts. He has redefined an old military aphorism; today we should say “amateurs talk tactics, professionals talk logistics, reformers talk personnel (selection, training, retention).” As an introduction, two of his presentations are available here on DNI:

  • “The Future Personnel System”

  • “Raising the Bar”

Kennan’s advice to us

Kennan’s words speak to us as powerfully today as they did to Americans of his time. The threat differs, but the challenge is similar and Kennan’s advice worth consulting. Here are the concluding paragraphs of “The Sources of Soviet Conduct”.

It would be an exaggeration to say that American behavior unassisted and alone could exercise a power of life and death over the Communist movement and bring about the early fall of Soviet power in Russia. But the United States has it in its power to increase enormously the strains under which Soviet policy must operate, to force upon the Kremlin a far greater degree of moderation and circumspection than it has had to observe in recent years, and in this way to promote tendencies which must eventually find their outlet in either the breakup or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power. For no mystical, messianic movement – and particularly not that of the Kremlin – can face frustration indefinitely without eventually adjusting itself in one way or another to the logic of that state of affairs.

Thus the decision will really fall in large measure on this country itself. The issue of Soviet-American relations is in essence a test of the overall worth of the United States as a nation among nations. To avoid destruction the United States need only measure up to its own best traditions and prove itself worthy of preservation as a great nation.

Surely, there was never a fairer test of national quality than this. In the light of these circumstances, the thoughtful observer of Russian-American relations will find no cause for complaint in the Kremlin's challenge to American society. He will rather experience a certain gratitude to a Providence which, by providing the American people with this implacable challenge, has made their entire security as a nation dependent on their pulling themselves together and accepting the responsibilities of moral and political leadership that history plainly intended them to bear.

Appendix #1: Who is Kilcullen?

It’s often the person, not the title or office held, that changes the flow of history. To crudely paraphrase Nietzsche, the world revolves around the creators of new insights – revolves invisibly.3/

Leadership can be defined variously; as used here, the term is applied to the one at the apex of a movement; the one that is more or less out in front, or the first to do a given bit of behavior that others follow.4/

This article examines Kilcullen’s work not only because of its intellectual merits, but also due to his education, accomplishments, and key role in the US defense apparatus. Examining his résumé, he appears well-suited act as our generation’s George Kennan.

  • Ph.D. in anthropology. His doctoral thesis was the “political consequences of military operations in Indonesia 1945-99, a fieldwork analysis of the political power-diffusion effects of guerilla conflict” (2000).

  • Lieutenant colonel in the Australian Army (currently in their Reserve).

  • His operational experience includes service as an intelligence officer in Cyprus, as operations officer of the Peace Monitoring Group in Bougainville, and as an infantry company commander during the INTERFET campaign in East Timor. He commanded Australian Army training and advisory teams with the Indonesian Army in 1994-95, was a tactics instructor with the British Army in 1995-97 and was a consultant on Asymmetric Warfare to the government of the United Arab Emirates in 2004.

  • Chief strategist in the our Department of State's Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism

  • The Pentagon's special adviser for irregular warfare and counterterrorism on the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review

  • In 2006 awarded the Defense Department's Medal for Exceptional Public Service

  • Author of many widely read works on counter-insurgency and the Iraq War, written for both professional and general audiences.

  • Currently senior counterinsurgency adviser to the commanding general, Multi-National Force - Iraq.

Kennan was a senior Foreign Service officer, an expert on the Soviet Union. Kilcullen writes as an expert on counterinsurgency for the US military. However, the recommendations of both emphasized the non-military dimensions of US power.

Appendix #2: list of TomDispatch articles on American airpower in Iraq and Afghanistan

  • Incident on Haifa Street (September 19, 2004)

  • Dahr Jamail on Life under the Bombs in Iraq (February 2, 2005)

  • Icarus (Armed with Vipers) Over Iraq (December 5, 2005)

  • Michael Schwartz on Iraq as a Killing Ground (January 10, 2006)

  • Air War, Barbarity, and the Middle East (July 28, 2006)

  • Nick Turse on America's Secret Air War in Iraq (February 7, 2007)

  • Nick Turse: The Air War in Iraq Uncovered (May 24, 2007)


1/  “Eric Goldman first reported this remark in The Crucial Decade. No contemporary account, either by Vandenberg or other participants in the meeting, attributes this remark to Vandenberg.” From “The Cold War as Rhetoric: The Beginnings, 1945-1950”, by Lynn Boyd Hinds and Theodore Otto Windt Jr. (1991)

2/  Excerpt from a letter written by the demon Screwtape to his nephew Wormwood. The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis, Chapter 19 (1959)

3/  Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Friedrich Nietzsche (1885)

4/  “Leadership in a Flock of White Pekin Ducks”, W. C. Allee, Mary N. Allee, Frances Ritchey, Elizabeth W. Castles, Ecology (July, 1947)


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Fabius Maximus was the Roman leader who saved Rome from Hannibal by recognizing its weakness and therefore the need to conserve its strength. He turned from the easy path of macho “boldness” to the long, difficult task of rebuilding Rome’s power and greatness. His life holds profound lessons for 21st Century America.

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