Why We Lose.
Part four of a series about the US expedition to the Middle East
January 4, 2007
This pitiful little vignette shows one reason why we lose: structural failures in the Department of Defense. Among the thousands of support people in DoD, a battalion commander found nobody better to help understand Iraq than a mathematical physicist. A science advisor to the Joint Chiefs found no better expert on the Middle East than an anthropologist with no specific expertise in that area.
From this a logician could infer the full story of America’s inability to successfully wage 4th Generation Wars (4GW), just as from a drop of water “a logician could infer the possibility of an Atlantic or a Niagara without having seen or heard of one or the other” (Sherlock Holmes in "A Study in Scarlet," part 1, chapter 2).
However, logicians are rare. For the rest of us, here is a brief attempt to explain one of the great puzzles of our time: why the US has lost – is losing – and will continue to lose – 4th Generation Wars (4GW).
An early symptom of impending defeat is loss of confidence in one’s tactical doctrines. In a strong military culture, though, this can spark a burst of creativity. In WWI, this resulted in the perfection by the German Army of infiltration tactics. Later, with new technology, this became blitzkrieg.
How has the prospect of defeat in Iraq affected the US military?
The first effect has been to grasp at our strengths, the attributes that have proved insufficient in Iraq. Like a “drop of the hair of the dog that bit you” on the morning-after, it does not help.
Enthusiasm for the work of David Kilcullen clearly shows this dynamic at work. He has a strong background in modern military theory: Lt. Col in the Australian Army, Ph.D. in anthropology, Chief Strategist in the Office of the State Department’s Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism, recently awarded the Medal for Exceptional Public Service, and subject of a glowing review in the New Yorker article quoted above.
Let us look at the most widely circulated of his major pieces on counterinsurgency: “Twenty-Eight Articles: Fundamentals of Company-Level Counterinsurgency” Military Review, May – June 2006 (203 KB PDF)
Explicitly written for a Coalition company commander just warned for deployment in Iraq or Afghanistan, Kilcullen implicitly directs “28 Articles” at senior DoD leaders. It gives practical applications of innovative ideas from his other, more theoretical articles, such as “Countering Global Insurgency: A Strategy for the War on Terrorism.” In which he states:
Although his ideas appear similar to standard western military doctrine, Kilcullen proposes how to radically alter the tactical equation in our favor. Some of these “articles” resemble proposals made by 4GW theorists, such as William Lind and Greg Wilcox. Perhaps his work can be seen as a bridge between the two.
Does this help company commanders? That is important, but this paper considers a larger and more vital question: Do Kilcullen’s recommendations help us win today’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?
Note: An insurgency is a rebellion; insurgents are rebels. Guerrilla warfare is a method; guerrillas are its practitioners. Kilcullen does not make these distinctions in “28 Articles”, neither, for simplicity, does this paper. So I will sometimes use “4GW,” “insurgency” and “guerrilla warfare” as if they were synonymous. For the purposes of this paper, such conglomeration will cause no great problem, although it may lead to protests by purists.
Begin at the beginning …
With admirable clarity, at the opening Kilcullen defines his subject.
As noted, Kilcullen, and I, are not drawing distinctions between guerrilla warfare, to which this statement applies, and insurgency. With that in mind, we can then ask whether it is possible for us “to win the hearts, minds and acquiescence of the population”?
The answer is “no,” and the rationale is critical to appreciating why Kilcullen’s lessons learned for tactical commanders may mislead politicians who try to generalize it to a war-winning strategy (just implement his tactics and we win) or even worse, to grand strategy. For the explanation, we must look at the different types of 4GW.
The Two Forms of 4GW
As a simple dichotomy for analytical purposes, we can say that 4GW’s come in two types, reflecting the degree of involvement of outside interests (obviously there are many other ways to characterize 4GW).
4GW victories by governments are usually of the first kind, local governments fighting insurgencies. Often foreign assistance is important or even decisive, but the local government leads in such areas as political reform and tactics. Western governments have “won” a few type two insurgencies, but only by assisting the locals – with the locals carrying the primary burden. That is, the foreign interest may lead, but the local government must implement.
Examples of type one insurgencies:
After the late 1940’s, western states fighting 4GW’s in other lands – type two wars – usually lost. This is the bright line marking a new age of military history, the ascendancy of 4GW. It began with three epochal events.
The era of successful colonial and neocolonial wars is over. (Note that the war in Iraq increasingly resembles a neocolonial war, as did Vietnam.)
This schema generates four powerful insights.
First, 4GW’s (and insurgencies in general) are easiest to defeat at home.
Second, do not look to wars won by the locals for lessons how we can win when fighting in foreign lands.
Third, that we avoid foreign wars, except when we only assist local forces – a different approach from that attributed to Kilcullen, as we will see below. As Germany learned in WWII and we are learning in Iraq, excellence in tactics and personnel cannot overcome a fundamentally flawed strategy.
Kilcullen has been misinterpreted by those who confuse the two types of 4GW!
[Editor’s correction to above: Marx said this about Hegel, not Kilcullen.]
Kilcullen describes how to win a 4GW when fighting on one’s home ground. Although greatly advancing 4GW theory, it does not help us win in Iraq and Afghanistan
Perhaps in the future we will have an insurgency on American soil. Then we can use Kilcullen’s “28 Articles” to fight it.
Let us check this logic by a second look at Kilcullen’s starting point.
This nicely defines the nature of competition for a local group waging 4GW. We can catalog Kilcullen’s “28 Articles” as an insurgent’s handbook, filed on the shelf next to Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Not bad company.
Now we can read Kilcullen’s ”28 Articles” and appreciate their full power.
Article #1 – Know your turf.
It is easy to read this as important but banal. Centurions posted to remote Roman provinces were probably told to “know your turf.” This ignores the depth of Kilcullen’s insight.
Kilcullen here describes the “home court advantage.” It is a powerful advantage in 4GW, perhaps one reason for the consistent victory of locals over foreigners.
This is not a new aspect of war.
Unfortunately, in the Middle East everyone but us has this advantage. The world expert on “your” district already lives there and probably was born there.
US company commanders on six to twelve month rotations cannot develop anything comparable to the locals’ knowledge about their home, especially in so foreign a culture. It might be difficult for some of them to do so quickly in Watts or Harlem.
However, as so often with the US military, we hope deus ex machina will save us.
Since there are so few Arabic-speaking, Iraq-expert social scientists in the US (even fewer for Afghanistan), these laptops’ data will come from the locals. That is, our maps of the social terrain will be that of various partisans in the Iraq civil war. (There are no neutrals in a civil war.) A high-tech way of making their enemies into our enemies.
Also, this illustrates our confusion between "data" and "knowledge." Even if the data is correct, most of our company commanders will lack the contextual understanding – the wider view of Iraq or Afghanistan society – needed to successfully apply it.
Article #2 – Diagnose the problem.
Having “strategic corporals” was insufficient. Now we need “sociologist captains.” This is not a task for company commanders, already carrying a complex and heavy load of managerial and leadership duties.
Nor does Kilcullen explain how to apply this advice. Once you have understood the insurgents and diagnosed the problem, how do you construct a solution? A handbook offering these answers could solve many of America’s own domestic problems.
Worst of all, this advice crashes on our lack of the home court advantage. How can someone newly arrived in a foreign culture – Iraq and especially Afghanistan are very foreign to most Americans – do this without speaking the local languages? (Note that Afghanistan – and to a lesser extent, Iraq – is home to many languages.)
As the Iraq Study Group discovered, we have few American translators for Middle Eastern languages. (For more on this see this New Republic article from 2003, still largely true today.)
We can hire English-speaking locals, (often of uncertain loyalty), but that is a long, slow way to gain deep knowledge of a foreign culture. (For simplicity, this paper ignores any difference between linguists and translators.)
This advice highlights a difference between the UK experience in Malaysia and our current expeditions to the Middle East. The UK had over a century’s experience governing Malaysia, local knowledge that we lack and cannot quickly develop.
Note that, like #1 above, this advice works better for the insurgents. They know us better than we know them. Few Americans watch Iraq or Afghanistan movies, or speak their languages. Many people in Iraq and Afghanistan speak English, and the whole world watches and reads US media.
Relevance of these 28 articles to our defense policy
Can we follow Kilcullen’s advice? Even if not as well as insurgents, does not implementation of these 28 articles help us?
Yes, but that misses their key significance. These are the competitive advantages of insurgents. To borrow Michael Porter’s phrase, these are insurgents’ “core competencies.”
In conventional wars, such as WWII, armies could copy tactical innovations from their enemies. In 4GW’s what works for the insurgents often does not work well for foreigners – a basic tenet of asymmetric warfare.
We can learn from our enemies, but we will continue to lose these wars unless we find other, different, advantages vs. the insurgents. The search for these continues, but for us this is at present a “Handbook for Losers.”
Moving on to the next of the 28 articles…
Article #3 – Organize for intelligence.
I’m not a tactician, but this strikes me as excellent advice for the insurgents. Their familiarity with the area and wealth of local contacts makes this easy for local units or cells to do.
Can we do this? I think it unlikely, for all the reasons stated above. In any case, I don’t understand how we can ever do it as well as the locals, unless we occupy Iraq for real and in a sense become colonial rulers.
Wishing for what we lack is not a tactical doctrine; or rather, it is a doomed one. Why not just ask for ten divisions of multi-lingual MP’s and be done with it?
Let us skip ahead to number ten, as it illustrates how our military and political leadership still have not come to terms with 4GW.
Article #10 – Be there.
This is good advice for insurgents, well known since Mao said that the guerilla is like a fish that swims in the sea of the people. In chapter 37 of Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lawrence wrote words that apply equally today (although in a different context) to the insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan (bold emphasis added):
Will this work for us? Perhaps Kilcullen is correct that “these seem more dangerous than they are”, but in insurgent-held areas patrolling has run up casualties with no evident benefit.
Kilcullen might have in mind the Marine’s combined action platoons (CAP), Marines deployed to live in Vietnamese villages. They proved effective in Vietnam’s largely neutral (i.e., apolitical) rural areas.
Iraq is highly urbanized, with a far more politically "mobilized" people than Vietnam’s 1960’s rural peasants. Dropping a unit of Marines into an Iraq town might be …
I doubt there are many intermediate situations, except for what are in effect urban war zones like Baghdad, where coalition forces are bunkered in the Green Zone. Anyone suggesting the “residential approach” in Baghdad should be invited to be to test it out, personally.
Kilcullen’s expectations for our company commanders
We have fielded some of the best-educated and trained company commanders the world has ever seen. We can ask much of them, but not everything of them.
Increasing their responsibilities should not substitute for the military’s lack of effective doctrine and operational intelligence.
Simplifying their job might produce better results than making it more complex. Certainly, the insurgents’ operational doctrines do not require leaders with a college degree, let alone graduate studies. Perhaps we can learn something from them in this respect.
Furthermore, they are products of America – perhaps our finest “products.” As such, they carry with them both the strengths and weaknesses of our culture, and it is not realistic to expect them to quickly free themselves from what they are.
In general, since early childhood they have been indoctrinated to value and believe in freedom and equality, and to consider opposing beliefs are unreasonable. However fine and just, this does not help them understand and empathize a culture with different values – such as Iraq and, even more so, Afghanistan, where religion and tribal/ethnic loyalties play a much larger role.
Good commanders can do much. Great commanders can do almost anything. However, nobody can do everything. Perhaps Kilcullen asks too much.
Kilcullen is a social scientist, and that orientation is fundamental to his recommendations. Science is the most rational of human endeavors. That probably aided his rapid acceptance with our military, so many of whose officers have degrees in engineering, science, and management.
Our company commanders come from a culture that esteems rationality perhaps above all other facets of human nature. Unfortunately, war is the most unreasonable of human endeavors. To quote Clausewitz (On War, chapter one) on the nature of war:
Also, earlier in chapter one:
By our standards, the insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan are unreasonable, spurning our efforts to re-build their society into a little America. We produce manuals and books, hundreds of pages long. Rational, logical, analytical. (Martin van Creveld suggests “smothering our enemies” by bombing them with the thousands of manuals that have been written about modern warfare. Truly horror from the sky.)
While we think and write, they send suicide bombers.
Who has tapped better into the irrational roots of war? Defensive war directly taps love of home, group, and family. Offensive wars are fueled by passion: the promise of booty, to expand the faith, etc.
We are fighting an offensive war without power of these primal drives. Perhaps that is one reason we are losing.
Liberation or Conquering a Colony?
Perhaps because his advice is directed towards tactical commanders, Kilcullen seldom mentions the governments of Iraq and Afghanistan. The locals, however, will sense this attitude, with disastrous effects. First, they will likely give “their” government even less respect. Second, our contempt for their sovereignty will brand us as imperialists.
The past hundred years proves, to the extent that history can prove anything, that locals will reject western armies when perceived as invaders – no matter how benign our intentions. This differs from Germany and Japan, whose populations for the most part accepted our right to be there both as a result of legitimate victory in war and then to defend against a common enemy, the USSR.
The large permanent bases in the Iraq desert, which we built at a cost of many billion dollars, suggest that the insurgents’ fears are well founded – that Stratfor was correct, that the US from the beginning planned to stay in Iraq, install a puppet government, and use Iraq as an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” from which to project military power across the Middle East.
Fourth generation warfare has become the primary form of war in the 21st century. As the Iraq War has shown, we do not know how to win such conflicts. Despite our wealth and power, we are losing both wars in the Middle East theater.
Kilcullen shows how western peoples have brought to bear on this problem an even greater strength: our free, competitive intellectual climate. Formally, it is called the Delphi method. People write proposals, which circulate and receive intense review. As scientists know, even failure moves us forward by showing us what does not work.
Eventually we find a solution. I doubt al-Qa’ida has anything like this.
Analysis of Kilcullen’s work suggests that the defense has again become the strongest form of war, fought at home or abroad only when assisting strong local forces. Here is the germ of an insight that might produce a successful strategy for America in the 21st century.
Stay tuned to DNI for additional chapters in this series. At some point we will get to those describing how to end these wars, and after that, ways America can win at 4GW.
Please send your comments and corrections on this article to
Also, my thanks to the participants of the Small Wars Council, whose criticisms were so helpful in refining this article. This site deserves attention by anyone seeking information or discussion about the small wars that dominate today’s military scene.
Some of Dr. David Kilcullen’s other works
His other works are of even greater depth and insight. Please email me if you would like to see them discussed in this series of articles.
Three Pillars of Counterinsurgency
Countering Global Insurgency
Fabius Maximus was the Roman leader who saved Rome from Hannibal by recognizing its weakness and the need to conserve and regenerate. He turned from the easy path of macho “boldness” to the long, difficult task of rebuilding Rome’s strength and greatness. His life holds profound lessons for 21st Century America.
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