Small Wars Journal

A Lesson About Counterinsurgency That Could Change America’s Future.

Wed, 03/11/2015 - 4:29pm

A Lesson About Counterinsurgency That Could Change America’s Future. By Fabius Maximus.

As we move forward to a new round of interventions let’s take a moment to look backwards. What can we learn from our failed interventions since 9/11, and more generally from the scores of failed counterinsurgency programs waged by foreign armies since WWII (when Mao brought 4GW to maturity)? There is a simple lesson, one that if learned could change our future. But the national defense complex (like Satan, it goes by many names) doesn’t want you to learn it. So you won’t (probably).  {2nd of 2 posts today.}…

Read on.


Fabius Maximus

Tue, 07/28/2015 - 7:56pm

In reply to by Madhu (not verified)


"Why can't it be multifactorial?"

I completely agree! As I said, "CIA bagman are perhaps the most effective weapon the CIA has ever wielded" -- not the <b>only</b> weapon of the CIA, and certainly not the only weapon the USA has.

I believe van Creveld has put non-trinitarian warfare (his term, not exactly the same as 4GW) in a wide frame. See ...
<li><em>The Transformation of War: The Most Radical Reinterpretation of Armed Conflict Since Clausewitz</em> (IMO the best work to date about modern war),</li>
<li><em>The Changing Face of War: Combat from the Marne to Iraq</em>,</li>
<li><em>The Culture of War</em> (my favorite),</li>
<li>and most importantly the dense but mind-opening <em>The Rise and Decline of the State</em>.</li>

Madhu (not verified)

Tue, 07/28/2015 - 10:31am

@ Fabius:

A CIA guy think the CIA is key? Kidding. Schroen seems ok. Why can't it be multifactorial? And CIA throwing cash sometimes works, sometimes doesn't. Let's see, we worked with anti-Taliban forces, paid cash, provided air power, and parts of the Taliban leadership were retracted, almost a kind of strategic depth retraction (?) Operation Evil Airlift is interesting not only for the claims but the very nature of relationships in the region and how they played out.

I don't disagree but I don't think one factor can explain everything.

You make great points, our being there creates the worst problems for us but the world is complicated. What I miss in Creveld's work is an embedding of the 4GW phenomenon within global, regional and local frameworks that contribute to violence and disorder. Unless I've missed that part b/c my main exposure is through your site.

Move Forward

Wed, 07/29/2015 - 9:30am

In reply to by Bill C.

<blockquote>Martin van Creveld: "During the past decade we have deployed our most skilled warriors and most advanced technology in an assassination program with few precedents in history. Result: the Middle East in flames and our foes resurgent."</blockquote>

Trump-like hyperbole. That’s like saying our best police continue to arrest criminals and our court system executes some of the most egregious. Result: Crime and gangs continue? There is no proven causation in either case. We do not produce more criminals by aggressively pursuing them. When leaders of organized crime are taken down, we do not speculate that it will breed more equally capable leadership and technical personnel. Crime and war are unfortunate parts of the human condition. Factors such as greed, lack of education and economic opportunity, motives, opportunistic search for a quick buck, and anger cause criminals. Similarly, Islamic extremists are created by a multitude of factors beyond a skewed version of their religion that include lack of economic or social assimilation and opportunity at home or in adopted nations, and other political and government legitimacy factors.

<blockquote>Obviously van Creveld gets this wrong. "The Middle East in flames and our foes resurgent" is because, as I have outlined below, (1) our determination to transform Middle Eastern states and societies more along modern western political economic and social lines</blockquote>
It confounds me that you continue to make the claim that the West is trying to force its culture on the Middle East and rest of the world when:

• The number of personnel who legally and illegally immigrate and flee to the West (see Libya boat people and Syrian refugees) indicate that we have done a pretty poor job of forcing our culture onto other areas. Otherwise they would have no incentive to leave their homeland.

• GCC countries have modernized quite nicely while retaining Muslim beliefs and cultural norms rather than western ones (although many embrace western practices even if they don’t admit it, no thanks to any organized western efforts)

• OIF and OEF had nothing to do with transforming Middle Eastern or South Asian states. They were about revenge and an errant perception of the need to halt WMD.

• The Arab Spring or more accurate “Fall” was not organized by the West. Our leadership may have tried to guide it through poor support for Egypt’s former rulers and our premature embracing of a Muslim Brotherhood leader who hardly welcomed Western political, economic, and social norms.

• Those who have been to Egypt know it has plenty of modernization and western attractions supporting tourism that largely were eviscerated by the Arab Fall just as we saw the recent Tunisia Beach incident kill tourism. I wouldn’t take my family to Egypt now, yet felt perfectly safe in 1990 during the height of Israel’s first Intifada.

• Turkey was largely secular until recently. As we discussed in the past, Iran and Afghanistan enjoyed modernization efforts for decades in their attempts to move into the 20th and now 21st century prior to 1979. Extremist elements since then have rejected much of that modernization as anti-Islamic.

• Whole of government diplomacy, USAID, and NGO workers attempting to work in many areas today would do so at great risk of losing their head or being ignored. Only sanctions have had some success yet ones on Iran would hardly have been possible had we not free Iraqi oil by our invasion to keep supplies up. That was not our motivation or intent, but it had that unintended effect, just as commitment or lack thereof to any conflict can have unintended major consequences.

<blockquote>And (2) the resistance of native populations to this initiative. Noteworthy efforts -- undertaken along these "transformational" lines -- include the regime changes, invasions, and/or forced political, economic and social transformations the United States, et. al, have undertaken in various countries in the Middle East (Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya?) over the past 15 years or so. Assassinations? Only a very small (and much less visible compared to invasion) part of this process.</blockquote>

Forced political, religious and social transformation is the modus operandi of ISIL, not the U.S. The resistance of Kurds, Alawites/Shiites, and moderate Sunnis to ISIL and other extremism is evident and the predominant motivation for continuing conflict. Lack of government concern for minorities, and majorities in Syria’s case, have also sparked conflict. Radicalized Muslims living in Western areas are more guilty of trying to transform <strong>our cultures</strong> to fit theirs rather than assimilate or practice their religion quietly within their own groups. Instead, you see calls for jihad and sharia law in areas where Muslims are a small minority.

Generalizations by van Creveld and Fabius about negative and exclusively-responsible influences of external coalition support in “failed” overseas conflict ignore that a multitude of other factors lead to success or failure. What best practices were employed? How long do gains continue? What influences, such as our complete withdrawal from Iraq, lead to subsequent problems? How does continued external support by next-door or ideological neighbors effect the conflict (Vietnam-China-Russia, AfPak, Iraq-Iran, Syria-Iran-Russia, etc).

The scale of the geographical area and size and cultural proportion of its population are another factor. The size and adjacent nature of Northern Ireland and Israel in no way reflect how the U.S. or other coalition fights larger-sized remote conflicts. The availability of tools brought to bear by the U.S. and smaller Western or other countries differ. The historical decade in which the conflict occurred is a factor affecting the effectiveness or very existence of those tools (body armor, MRAPs, helicopters, CAS and precision weapons, UAS). The civil leadership’s errors and commitment to the conflict play a major role.

Beyond that, there is a blurring of lines between types of conflict and plain old deterrence and engagement. Forward presence and its resulting deterrence (as well as peacekeeping), can evolve into insurgency, civil war, or scaled levels of wider conflict and terror that are ignored at our peril. Western isolationist tendencies offer no guarantee that others will not stay the course or join the fray with wide-ranging impacts. We had forces in Muslim areas of GCC nations and Egypt for decades in relative peace. Even Jimmy Carter arranged our troops to be in the Sinai as a buffer between countries that previously fought major wars. Troops have been in the Balkans since the 90s playing a larger role than a brief 78-day bombing spree of 1999. No attempt was made at transforming any of their societies. No large costs in blood and treasure resulted.

Peacekeeping and forward presence for deterrence and raiding purposes do not equal regime change or invasions/occupations. How many U.S. casualties have occurred in Iraq and Afghanistan in the past few years even when we had larger than current numbers? Relatively few have occurred because as we transitioned to host nation control it no longer was necessary for our troops to be outside the wire on the ground. But by drawing down completely, we were unable to provide the raiding enablers that could have precluded ISIL invasions of Iraq and Syria.

The same risk exists in Afghanistan unless we retain forces and monetary support for their security forces for an acceptable number of years at far lower costs than we have borne in Europe and Korea where peace has continued for decades. Even after all that time of forward U.S. presence, one hardly could say that we forced our culture onto them or actually “occupy” their lands. Some folks and religions just need a thicker skin and a willingness to live and let live.

Fabius Maximus

Tue, 07/28/2015 - 8:07pm

In reply to by Bill C.


As for the future, who can say? The history of counter-insurgency by foreign armies since WWII has been one of armies relying on hope over experience. The history of such ambitious social engineering -- foreign or domestic -- has been one of almost total failure, with the occasional disaster (I'll bet a vote of SWC members would agree, by a large margin).

Perhaps the the future will be different. I don't believe that's the smart bet. But I can comment on two details:

<b>(1) </b> "Obviously van Creveld gets this wrong. 'The Middle East in flames and our foes resurgent.'"

It's high praise to confused me with MvC! however, those are my words, which MvC posted at his website.

<b>(2) </b> "is because, as I have outlined below"

You explain <b>why</b> these things happened ("because"). Even if correct (I doubt it), that does not prove my statement about the situation is inaccurate ("wrong").

Bill C.

Tue, 07/28/2015 - 3:39pm

In reply to by Fabius Maximus


First, let's look at the Darwinian ratchet:

Martin van Creveld: "During the past decade we have deployed our most skilled warriors and most advanced technology in an assassination program with few precedents in history. Result: the Middle East in flames and our foes resurgent."

Obviously van Creveld gets this wrong. "The Middle East in flames and our foes resurgent" is because, as I have outlined below, (1) our determination to transform Middle Eastern states and societies more along modern western political economic and social lines and (2) the resistance of native populations to this initiative. Noteworthy efforts -- undertaken along these "transformational" lines -- include the regime changes, invasions, and/or forced political, economic and social transformations the United States, et. al, have undertaken in various countries in the Middle East (Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya?) over the past 15 years or so. Assassinations? Only a very small (and much less visible compared to invasion) part of this process.

Next, let's remind ourselves -- and re: my "transformation" construct below -- that the application of "CIA bagmen, state department dues, members of our business community, etc., has (a) much less to do with such short-term projects as the coercing and overthrow of non-cooperative regimes and (b) much more to do with (1) working with our and our international partners' whole-of-government assets to (2) transform these outlying states and societies more along modern western political, economic and social lines. Thus to see regime change, when necessary, as only Step One of a hundred step process.

As to the idea of incompatibility re: (a) having our special operations and air forces deal with the elements of the population that are actively resisting transformation while (b) our other WOG assets work with those elements of the population who may be less resistance-to-transformation inclined; this would seem to be a necessary and reasonable hand-in-glove plan. To wit: a "pincer"/"carrots and sticks" effect with one group (SOF; air) taking care of the hard-core bad guys (those that will fight, kill and die rather than transform), while the other group (USAID, etc., etc., etc.,) works with the more malleable members of the populations.

So why does the United States not take the same approach as China ("development" only -- no SOF, air or other military involved)?


a. China, it would seem, believes that efforts to transform outlying states and societies more along foreign/alien/profane lines (1) does more harm than good and (2) gets in the way re: "modernizing" and, thereby, better exploiting these less-developed nations. While

b. The US/the West seems to believe that political, economic and social transformation (along modern western lines only), while difficult, is essential to properly modernizing (and thereby properly exploiting) these potential assets (which today are -- more often than not -- liabilities).

Herein, it is important to see that:

a. From the US/the West's perspective, it is the harnessing of the "human resources" -- to the commercial plow -- that is considered most important. (Thus, the absolute requirement to transform these folks politically, economically and socially.) While,

b. With China (who is being short-sighted here?) -- at least at this time in their history -- it is more important to simply "mine," more effectively, the "natural (non-human in this case) resources" of these other states and societies. (This such task not requiring that the human resources, therein, be "culturally" transformed.)

Fabius Maximus

Mon, 07/27/2015 - 8:08pm


As I said before, imo you are one of the few creative thinkers writing about these things! Here are my guesses (emphasis on guess) as to the likely outcomes, with links to posts giving details:

<strong>(1) </strong> "think special operations and air forces), for a longer/indefinite period of time."

Fighting fire by pouring gasoline on it. The resulting pushback from this is probably almost stronger than the force we apply. Odds of success: near zero. I and others have written a lot about this. Martin van Creveld published this of mine on his website: <a href="; target="_blank">Killing insurgents drives the Darwinian ratchet &amp; making them more effective</a>.

<strong>(2)</strong> "CIA "bagmen," state department dudes/dudetes, members of our business community, investors, development specialists, AID folks"

I agree, this is the way to go. For example, CIA bagman are perhaps the most effective weapon the CIA has ever wielded, used to great effect in post-WWII western Europe and after 9/11: <a href="…; target="_blank">Who overthrew the Taliban: Special Forces’ guns or CIA’s cash?</a>

<strong>(3) </strong> "working with or without the aid of our special operations and air forces"

Only without. They're 2 incompatible paths.

<strong>(4) </strong> "This approach, might we say, is also likely to avoid the label -- and stigma -- of "colonization?"

No need to guess. China is employing this strategy in Asia and Africa with great success: <a title="FM" href="; target="_blank">How China builds its commercial empire</a>.

Move Forward

Wed, 07/22/2015 - 4:18pm

In reply to by Bill C.

<blockquote>a. While we may be fighting "to make the world a safer and more stable place." (Apples.)

b. They, on the other hand, may be fighting for their highest beliefs and convictions, for their very existence and/or for the existence of their group and their preferred way of life. (Oranges.)</blockquote>

Bill C, while eloquent, don't believe it is that simplistic. Many potentially serious second and third order effects could result even from small wars. The reality that some are fighting for their "highest beliefs and convictions" makes them unpredictably dangerous whether Putin in Europe, ISIL in Syria/Iraq, or other state-sponsored extremists like Hezbollah.

For instance, apparently you view the Korean War as a limited war, but what would have happened had it become entirely communist with short-range missiles now immediately adjacent to Japan and no modern South Korea now giving us Samsung and Hyundai. What if MacArthur had not stabilized Japan and the Marshall Plan had not helped Germany with large occupation forces in both. Could the Soviets have expanded East Germany to the West and China gained control of both Koreas, subsequently invading Japan? Those two allied economic power houses would not exist to help stabilize and deter in Asia and Europe. What if we had stayed isolationist sans any Pearl Harbor and had never even battled Japan or Germany in WWII. We now could be facing <strong>their</strong> nuclear missiles aimed our way with them getting the bomb and long-range missiles (von Braun) first.

Martin van Creveld and Fabius appear to believe that small inconsequential wars are the future, yet we should avoid fighting them in any substantially supportive manner. They argue that bad outcomes will result from external leadership even though Iraq was largely stable with our substantial presence from 2008 until our complete withdrawal in 2011. He then argues that intrastate war is unlikely due to nuclear weapons. Rational actors will never pull the trigger it is argued even though little is rational in the Middle East. This does not acknowledge that ISIL or Hezbollah could access such weapons and really not care about concepts like MAD making potential outcomes <strong>very</strong> consequential. It also fails to consider that one state leader may not be altogether rational or may have apocalyptic beliefs.

Whether we want to admit it, oil also is a regional key national interest that guides our actions in the Middle East. We admit that influence in the Pacific when it comes to sea commerce. The secondary effect of the failed no-fly zone and "Oil for Food" imposed on Iraq would have precluded effective oil sanctions on Iran had we not invaded Iraq to free their oil exports. Now we have a potential Iran nuclear agreement giving us time to build many F-35s and perhaps some LRS-B. In the ten years, our F-22s/F-35s/bombers (or Israeli F-35s) will be able to penetrate Iran to take out future nuclear weapons development that Hezbollah or the IRGC might otherwise employ/smuggle under the protection of Russian air defenses that would threaten 4th generation aircraft.

No conflict can be labeled as a "large" or "small" war when its outcomes are so thoroughly unpredictable in terms of scale and effect. The counterfactuals and second/third order effects of any-sized conflict can be realistic and scary. This is particularly true if other external parties choose to continue participation in any-sized conflict and we do not. Likewise, bad outcomes may result should we limit our involvement excessively as currently appears to be happening with ISIL and Ukraine, previously occurred in Libya and Yemen, and with Afghanistan threatening to go light-to-no U.S. footprint, as well.

A key tool to creating regional stability in any size war is persistent air-ground forward presence, air-ground maneuver should deterrence fail, and stability operations. Below in this thread, Fabius posted a Marine's article and video on Maneuver using the British spelling. A key theme in that video is the idea that exploitation and pursuit are key elements of maneuver that we seldom practice in training and completely avoided in Desert Storm leading to OIF and today's ISIL problems. One aspect missing from exploitation and pursuit is its military attribution to solely "offense" when "stability operations" also is a good fit.

In addition, the Marine Captain's and van Creveld's/Fabius views of blitzkrieg miss the key aspect of logistics. By culminating rapidly during WWII, the Germans were able to avoid the shortcoming of their largely horsedrawn sustainment. When they could not culminate on the Eastern Front, and became mired in the cold and later mud, it led to disaster with the Soviets giving us time to come to our senses after Pearl Harbor. Logistics is a key aspect of any war and a reason why friendly support originating from an external coalition far from the conflict vs. adversary support operating from adjacent country sanctuary can spell much of the difference in conflict outcomes.

So when Fabius speaks of how our Revolution defeated the British it fails to consider the months it took to move British forces and supplies by sea. It again was a factor in the War of 1812 which essentially was a draw and saw Washington D.C. burning. If the British had been next door to America as they are in Northern Ireland and as Israel adjoins Gaza and Lebanon, the logistics and mobilization aspects would have been far less challenging. Plus, no large overseas deployment and movement far inland would have been essential. That was the bulk of the cost in treasure in OIF/OEF and led to blood losses due to IEDs in resupplying forces spread over a wide area.

Rebuilding bombed out infrastructure and securing it and urban areas was another large cost in blood and treasure in Iraq. Ground maneuver has potential to seize and stabilize during exploitation and pursuit while special operations and airpower have much less potential in that respect due to shortcomings in equipment and motivation of their partners being trained on the fly.

Fabius Maximus

Tue, 07/28/2015 - 9:04am

In reply to by Bill C.


I posted a reply to your comment, but it appeared at the top (out of sequence).

Bill C.

Mon, 07/27/2015 - 1:20pm

In reply to by Fabius Maximus


Given the context of many modern counterinsurgencies, to wit:

Native peoples resistance to:

a. Attempts by foreign powers (in recent years, either communists or capitalists) to eliminate their different -- but time-honored -- ways of life, ways of government, institutions, and values, attitudes and beliefs which underpin same. And

b. The imposition, by foreign powers (see "a" above) of alien and often profane ways of life, ways of government, institutions and associated values, attitudes and beliefs (to wit: those preferred by these foreign powers).

Given this context, a counterinsurgency, it would seem, cannot claim to be successful -- and/or "end" -- until such time as:

a. Those individuals who are resisting such transformations and assimilations have

b. Formally decided to (1) abandon their old ways of life, etc., and, in the place of these, formally decided to (2) adopt/embrace the foreign, alien and often profane ways of life, etc., that the foreign power demands that they accept.

Thus, counterinsurgency, in this context, would not seem to be a project which ends with a temporary termination of resistance and/or hostilities; even if such resistance/hostilities ends for a period of years or even decades.

Rather, and in the context offered above, a counterinsurgency of this type ends when a people have -- virtually for all time -- been successfully "transformed."

It is against this challenge that foreign powers --

Who are unable to achieve this such transformation of native peoples via such things as their "soft power" --

Send forth, in one form or another, their "whole-of-government" assets.

As to military assets (the communists' and/or ours') applied to this project, "more," applied for a shorter period of time, has not worked. (Unrealistic, might we say, given [1] the scope of the job at hand [radical, complete and comprehensive state and societal transformation] and [2] the resistance to such an endeavor that one should anticipate).

Therefore, a consideration now is being given to "less" (think special operations and air forces), for a longer/indefinite period of time. (A more realistic approach, shall we say, given the scope of the job at hand -- and the resistance to same -- that we now understand will be forthcoming?)


a. CIA "bagmen," state department dudes/dudetes, members of our business community, investors, development specialists, AID folks -- working with or without the aid of our special operations and air forces -- to achieve, not regime change, but radical, complete and comprehensive state and societal transformation; this is, more or less, consistent with the "less" (less military)/"longer" approach outlined above. Yet

b. This approach, might we say, is also likely to avoid the label -- and stigma -- of "colonization?"

Fabius Maximus

Tue, 07/21/2015 - 9:36pm

In reply to by Bill C.


As for the future, who can say? The subject of counterinsurgency by foreign armies is dominated by hope over experience, which is why so many nations have tried these during the past seven decades despite the dismal record.

"the foreign power has pursued for fifty or more years."

It's the "hair of the dog that bit us" strategy. When foreign armies take the lead role in the fighting the host government loses legitimacy -- usually for good reason. So we'll double down and dig in to stay.

My guess is that the people of a foreign nation are likely to consider that colonization. You know the batting average for that since WWII.

As for the "small" strategy -- applying our magic bullets of special ops and airpower -- that seems unlikely to work, imo. (The legendary success against the Northern Alliance was imo as much do to CIA bagmen buying warlords' support as our men on horseback. It's the Jessica Lynch story, but larger).

But that's a subject for another day.

Bill C.

Tue, 07/21/2015 - 5:56pm

In reply to by Fabius Maximus

Might the answer to your narrower question be found in your choice of the words "long" and "large."

We have come to understand that, re: these "limited" (read discretionary, non-existential) wars, the term "long" may apply only to those projects that the foreign power has pursued for fifty or more years.

As to the term "large," we have come to believe that -- not "large" but, rather, "small" -- may be the way to go. (Through this term "small" to understand how public support might be retained, indefinitely, for these open-ended and less-than existential projects.)


a. Understanding -- and clearly articulating -- that the job will, in fact, take a very, very long and, indeed, indefinite period of time. And by

b. Applying less -- rather than more -- military assets (think mostly special operations and air forces) we, thereby, are more likely to:

1. Retain indefinite public support for these "limited" jobs at hand. Thereby,

2. Defeating our enemies' (consistent post-World War II?) strategy. (See link below). A strategy which relies on

(a) The foreign power going "large" and, thus,

(b) Pulling up "short;" both in terms of the time that its public support might be retained and, indeed, in terms of "victory."…

Fabius Maximus

Tue, 07/21/2015 - 2:35pm

In reply to by Bill C.


I agree. You describe what might be a decisive factor in the frequent defeat of foreign armies by insurgents since WWII. And not just in modern times. It was a factor in our successful Revolution.

The narrower question discussed in this post (and the others I cite) is why long and large military expeditions fail -- so that the project loses support at home? Developed nations and less developed nations, with almost every form of advantage in equipment and training, using all manner of tactics (including almost genocidal force), consistently lose.

Here is Move Forward responding to the 1975 article I provided at another thread:

"The allure of SF and airpower is the deception that it costs less in blood and treasure. Yet, little current or past evidence exists that it alone makes our world a safer and more stable place. We think we are safe because threats are far away and only a few are fighting/advising. Yet Pearl Harbor, Task Force Smith, Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, and 9/11 illustrate that while we may not be interested in war, war is interested in us."

With the exception of Pearl Harbor and WWII (not a "limited war"), I think that Move Forward has this pretty much right here. I would, however, state the case somewhat differently as follows:

The key to understanding why a great power, such as the United States, might move to pursue its "limited war" aims, more via the use of its special operations and air forces, is because such a move allows that the great power might, via this approach, retain its public's support, over the long haul, for these "nice to have" -- rather than existential -- problems and projects.

Herein to suggest that the reason why great powers may lose small wars is simply because:

a. To the great powers, these are, in fact and as stated, "small" (read "inconsequential"?) wars.

b. Whereas, to the native combatants -- fighting within and outside of these states and societies -- these are anything but small and inconsequential wars.

This "higher stakes"/"Apples v. Oranges" argument stated another way; in this case, using Move Forward's good words:

a. While we may be fighting "to make the world a safer and more stable place." (Apples.)

b. They, on the other hand, may be fighting for their highest beliefs and convictions, for their very existence and/or for the existence of their group and their preferred way of life. (Oranges.)

Re: the Algerian conflict, and as an additional illustration of this "higher stakes" argument, a Algerian rebel, I believe, once summed it up this way:

"France is fighting in Algiers for the price of tomatoes. We, however, are fighting for higher principles."


Sun, 07/19/2015 - 9:42am

In reply to by Move Forward

MF: For those reasons and others, I've always found it baffling that the British treat The Troubles as the gold standard of COIN case studies. The British have certainly conducted successful COIN operations in the past, and Northern Ireland is one of them (though there's speculation in the UK that the current peace is merely a temporary lull). That said, in the same way that I've previously criticized the DoD's myopic focus on the Gulf War, the British focus on Northern Ireland is comparably myopic. It was a fairly limited campaign, under extremely specific conditions, most of which don't apply the the wider range of insurgencies. (I came to a number of these conclusions after being dumbfounded at a number of the claims made by Louise Richardson of Harvard's Radcliffe Institute when <A HREF="">interviewed by Berzerkeley's Harry Kreisler</A> in 2007 - most of which was derived from her experiences in Ireland.)

Move Forward

Sat, 07/18/2015 - 11:36am

In reply to by thedrosophil

Thedrosophil, that is what I suspected after admittedly only brief research of the Northern Ireland conflict.

There is something unique about Islamic extremism vs. mainstream Muslim beliefs. Far fewer radical Christians are ready to blow up abortion clinics than there are ISIL-admirers and other state-sponsored groups who want to kill infidels.

BTW, here is the link to the 2008 speech that Martin van Creveld gave that is in the revised blog he posted.…

I was surprised to see that Catholics and Protestants each represented about 40% of Northern Ireland's population and they were pretty well integrated unlike the Sunni/Shiite/Kurd populations of Iraq (outside Baghdad) and many areas of Afghanistan where Pashtuns are only a small minority.

Only about 275-300 IRA members died over decades in contrast to 1100 British security forces and I think it was another 2000+ collateral damage civilians from IRA bombs. There also were only about 10,000 total IRA members over decades in contrast to the numbers in ISIL, the numbers of mad Sunnis, and the number of Taliban, plus foreign fighters in all those areas.


Sat, 07/18/2015 - 11:08am

In reply to by Move Forward

It's worth clarifying that the conflict in Northern Island was only "sectarian" because the two respective interest groups (Republicans and Unionists) tended to fall along sectarian lines (Catholics and Protestants). The dispute is political (e.g., should Ulster be a part of the United Kingdom or a united Irish republic), rather than religious.

Also, I continue to find it disconcerting that such credibility is afforded to Martin van Creveld. My impression has always been that van Creveld is a competent military historian, but not the strategic genius that some consider him. MF, your remarks would seem to corroborate that.

Move Forward

Sat, 07/18/2015 - 9:54am

In reply to by Fabius Maximus

Not much difference that I could ascertain. I noted one 2008 speech added (?) in which he proposed using either a Northern Ireland let-them-kill the British counterinsurgent without becoming provoked approach or using Assad's father's Machiavellian genocide approach in which 30,000+ were slaughtered in one area during a brief time frame. Seems that Assad learned his dad's lesson well and has far surpassed him in death tolls. You may think I'm not portraying his suggestions accurately but read it for yourself. I won't address the Machiavellian slaughter approach as it is unrealistic for the Western world.

As for Northern Ireland, it is actually smaller than Israel where van Creveld hails. It also is immediately adjacent to the rest of the U.K. greatly simplifying British logistics and transport. The size and scope of the insurgent Catholic population (under one million) and the area in which it lives in Northern Ireland was relatively small as it is in Israel. Ireland itself is similarly small and poor unlike GCC and Iran that could support insurgents from nearby. The often-referenced Dhofar rebellion area was similarly small in scale and scope. Israel similarly is immersed next to its insurgent Palestinians which also reduces sustainment and maneuver challenges. Both countries appeared to make good use of walls to separate the populations in conflict. Both appeared to have had success.

External help was provided to both Northern Ireland insurgents and this is an area van Creveld and Fabius still have not addressed. We can avoid providing external counterinsurgency support but that does not preclude others from actively supporting insurgents over a prolonged period, particularly if they are sharing common borders.

Northern Ireland is 98% white so there was no ethnicity diversity compounding the religious differences driving some of that conflict. With the exception of Northern Ireland, there has been little conflict between Christian religions for many centuries. So that conflict largely appears to be as much about governing autonomy vs. disagreements over religion in contrast to the Shiite and Sunni divide. As I tried to point out to Bill C in an earlier article about asymmetric warfare written in 1975, the U.S. had been actively supporting Afghanistan in Little American Helmand province for nearly 30 years until the Soviet invasion in 1979. Likewise, we had good relations with the Shah of Iran until 1979 and Iranians there were modernizing. The Arab-Israeli wars of the late 60s/70s, the 1979 Soviet invasion, hostage crisis in Iran, and other events appears to have radicalized many Muslims in ways previously not seen.

Thus in our current Iraq and Afghanistan we have two insurgencies that were Texas-sized rather than Israel-sized challenges far from our shores and that of other coalition members. The borders were too big to secure to preclude sanctuary just as in Vietnam. Compared to Vietnam, the cost in blood was not nearly as severe except perhaps in Iraq. The cost in treasure has been far more extreme driven by the distances involved far from our shores and far inland from sea transport.

Fabius Maximus

Fri, 07/17/2015 - 12:22pm

Martin van Creveld requested an improved version of this essay to post at his website. Here it is:

"<a href="; target="_blank">Why we lose so many wars, and how we can win.</a>"

It covers several of the issues raised in these comments.

Fabius Maximus

Mon, 06/22/2015 - 6:54pm

For a different perspective on why we cannot learn these lessons about fighting insurgencies (aka a form of 4GW) I recommend reading...

<h4>“<a title="Marine Corps Gazette" href="; target="_blank">A Manœuvre Renaissance: Overcoming the attritionist tendency</a>“</h4>

By Daniel R. Grazier (Captain, USMC) in the <em>Marine Corps Gazette</em>, June 2015.

For those of you without a subscription to the MCG, <a href="…; target="_blank">here's an ungated copy</a> (posted with permission).

Captain Grazier (USMC) writes another chapter in America's post-9/11 diary explaining <em>why we lose at modern warfare</em> despite the training, size, and fantastic tech of our forces. It's another article by a Marine officer explaining our military’s internal struggle to overcome its attritionist tendency (i.e., fighting 21st wars with WWI methods). He explains the complexities of our wars (debunking the “kill until we win” mindlessness that often dominates discussions of our wars).

We should listen when he says that learning faster and better is the key to future success.

For another ground-level perspective on this see problem <a href="; target="_blank">The Attritionist Letters in the <em>Marine Corps Gazette</em>.</a>

Fabius Maximus

Sat, 06/06/2015 - 9:39am

In reply to by Bill C.


That is the kind of out-of-the-box thinking that can help us break out of the post-WWII tactical rut that's led so many armies to defeat fighting foreign insurgencies!

Bill C.

Fri, 06/05/2015 - 1:14pm

In reply to by Fabius Maximus

A follow-on thought:

If we cannot point -- as the reason for these across-the-board failures -- to an imprudent reliance by the foreigner on the "overwhelming appeal" of his way of life, way of governance, etc.,

This, because other/various foreign armies have consistently fought -- and have consistently lost -- whether they relied (re: their interventions) a little, a lot or not at all on these such matters (to wit: "overwhelming appeal"),

Then might we consider the reverse of my such thesis; this being:

That the reason for these across-the-board failures of foreign armies -- in post-World War II conflicts -- is due to the foreigners DISCOUNTING OF/FAILING TO GIVE DUE CONSIDERATION TO the power and appeal of alternative (indigenous and/or other foreign) state and societal organizing concepts and ideals?

(This such argument adequately dealing with the short-comings that you noted re: my initial attempt above, to wit: that I addressed U.S./Western conflicts only; and, re: these, only counterinsurgencies?)

In this manner (to wit: via my reverse thesis above), to see me trying, one more time, to find the reason for failure more in the "hearts and minds" arena -- rather than via some concept that does not rely, more extensively, on these such matters for explanations.

Fabius Maximus

Thu, 06/04/2015 - 1:41pm

In reply to by Bill C.


Your reasoning is similar to Tierney's in the essential respect: you focus on our experience in these post-WWII counter-insurgencies. But that's only a small fraction of these conflicts. Other foreign armies fought in different ways (few relied on appear of the foreignes' way of life), at different levels of intensity -- yet almost all lost.

To be useful, conclusions must draw on the full range -- not just ours. We often seem unwilling or unable to do so, as seen in the comments here, in Tierney's article, and in Mark Kukis' at aeon. The last 2 are especially odd attempts not to see, describing the age of post-WWII victory parades (so many wars!) as one of "unwinnable wars".…

I've written brief reviews of both the Tierney and Kukis articles; links available on request.

Bill C.

Thu, 06/04/2015 - 1:37pm

In reply to by Fabius Maximus

My scary proposal for why we "lost/lose" post-World War II conflicts:

Because -- during conflicts of the Cold War and re: "containment" -- and during conflicts of the post-Cold War and re: "expansion" -- we relied (imprudently it now appears) -- too heavily -- on the (supposed) overwhelming appeal of our way of life, etc.; this, to:

a. Garner for us much more of the viable (fighting; supporting) population and much more of the population as a whole. And, thus, via the overwhelming appeal of our way of life, etc., to

b. Win the battle almost immediately (via regime change; partition, etc.) and/or to decisively turn the tide of battle in our direction.


a. "Overwhelming appeal" was disproved/failed us during the Cold War (in such places as Korea, Vietnam, etc.), and because

b. It appears to have been disproved/failed us again in the post-Cold War (in such places as Iraq, Afghanistan, etc.),

We have had to go back to "square one."

To wit: trying to find ways to make our way of life, etc., become (a) sufficiently attractive so as to be (b) strategically effective. (This as re: combat/interventions, etc.)

Via this "make ourself look better" approach to, hopefully,

a. Win these conflicts "without fighting." Or

b. Win them should fighting be required.

Move Forward

Thu, 06/04/2015 - 10:54am

In reply to by Fabius Maximus

<blockquote>It’s a paradox of war: <i>The United States loses because the world is peaceful.</i> The decline of interstate conflict and the relative harmony among great powers is a cause for celebration. But the interstate wars that have disappeared are the kind of wars that the United States wins. And the civil wars that remain are the kind of wars that the U.S. loses. As the tide of conflict recedes, it leaves behind the toughest and most unyielding internal struggles.

It’s also hard to win great victories in an era of peace.</blockquote>

I read Dominic Tierney's article several days ago when it appeared on Google News under <i>The Atlantic.</i> In the quote above from that article, the italicized section and first sentence of the subsequent paragraph indicate Tierney’s mischaracterization of current and past proxy war and a skewed understanding of what constitutes peace and consolidation of gains following any conflict. WWI led to WWII. The Cold War led to today's UW and Political Warfare. Korea and Vietnam were proxy wars and it defies reality to count Korea as a loss given the enduring separation of adversaries for the next 60+ years.

For that matter, Desert Storm and the recent Libya were only marginal “wins.” Delayed elimination of Hussein and the inadequate no-fly zone caused continuing Iraq problems. Likewise, Egypt nearly collapsed after eliminating its strong man, the Sunni-Shiite-Kurd divide hindered post-Hussein Iraq, and tribal and extremist elements of post-Qaddafi Libya left unresolved instability. In that context, were El Salvador and other Central American IW (and Panama) wars a win when decades later many of those nation's have socialist governments? Likewise, was Vietnam a loss when today’s regime is our friend?

As for interstate war, Outlaw gives us daily updates on fighting between Russia and Ukraine. Syria and Iraq are affected by the interstate claims and fighting of ISIL and state-sponsors supporting both sides. China and its neighbors (and their U.S. ally) quarrel over interstate claims over resource-rich waters. Yemen, that once was two states, now has internal conflict supported on one-side by Iran and the other by the GCC and Sunnis. Africa fighting often involves Islamic extremism rather than internal ethnic civil war.

However, beyond these points, Tierney fails to recognize how WMD turn civil war into an interstate and cross-territory threat. More on that in this next quote from his article:

<blockquote>Battlefield loss can leave leaders facing what chess players call zugzwang, or “move anguish,” an unfortunate situation where every possible move worsens your position. You might prefer not to move at all but you have to do something—and that something hastens your downfall. Leave too quickly and everything might collapse, forcing your return. Leave too late and you may expend blood and treasure only to alienate the local population and step further into the mire.</blockquote>

His mention of not moving at all and leaving too quickly exemplify problems in Syria and Iraq and Assad’s genocide of Sunnis that led to an ISIL that crossed state borders and created millions of refugees . He could have added that half-assed initial commitments likewise lead to problems evidenced by OIF’s under-resourced initial Stability Operations phase, and OEF’s first 8 years. The air war over Iraq and Syria are another example where attempts to save blood and treasure will ultimately prolong the conflict and spread ISIL’s influence through the appearance of success.

But Dominic Tierney fails to recognize that as WMD proliferate, so too will availability of nuclear and other modern weapons to non-state actors. Hezbollah and Hamas may ultimately gain access through Iran’s nuclear program. ISIL and al Qaeda may finally realize such weapons from Pakistan and GCC countries that react to Iran’s nukes. That’s why Martin van Creveld is wrong to believe that an Iran bomb is not a threat to Israel. Even if Iran is a rational actor, the same cannot be said for its proxies or those of their GCC nemesis factions. You don’t need a missile or aircraft to infiltrate a nuke into another state.

Worst of all as in Fabius Maximus and van Creveld’s works, Dominic Tierney’s article is rich in Captain Obvious criticism without offered solutions to problems that won’t evaporate just because we don’t want to commit ground troops into what we perceive to be “other’s” civil wars.

Fabius Maximus

Wed, 06/03/2015 - 6:09pm

For those of you who find our analysis too bleak, here's a more popular one -- an example of the emerging and fun theme of "it's not our fault; we're still great!"

"<a title="The Atlantic" href="…; target="_blank">Why Has America Stopped Winning Wars?</a>" by Dominic Tierney (Associate Professor of political science at Swarthmore), in the current issue of The Atlantic. It's an excerpt from his new book:

<a href="…; target="_blank"><img class=" wp-image-85291 size-medium aligncenter" src="…; alt="The Right Way to Lose a War" width="223" height="300" /></a>

Madhu (not verified)

Thu, 06/04/2015 - 11:31am

In reply to by Madhu (not verified)

It's the nature of proxy support (whether Saudi Arabia in Syria, or, er, Saudi Arabia and others in Afghanistan, etc.,) that is the problem for us. A localized insurgency and our adding to it via our presence is only one part of the equation. It's the way the game is played and it keeps focus away from the larger strategic picture. In this way, 4GW theory inadvertently works in the same way, while interesting and useful, it is insufficient by itself. After all, the US and our coalition of the willing removed Saddam and we support the Taliban and jihadi groups quite literally through our state to state relationships as well. Aid is fungible. And in order to cover for allies, we do the work of obscuring relationships.

Madhu (not verified)

Thu, 06/04/2015 - 11:27am

In reply to by Sparapet

<em>We became the ally to Northern Alliance and then wound up doing the lion's share of the work...some alliance.</em>

Given that we are defacto Taliban allies given our relationships with Pakistan, China, Saudi Arabia, the UK, our own DC influence agents (arms selling, bureaucratic budgets, etc.), we kind of made the heavy lifting that much harder for ourselves. Some alliance indeed (cough**NATO**cough).

Localized insurgencies! The importance of the Pashtuns! Non-State Actors!

Hey, don't pay attention to proxy support over here, pay attention to localized insurgencies over there: Pashtuns, Iran, Russia, Non-State actors....look over there....

Fabius Maximus

Wed, 06/03/2015 - 4:06pm

In reply to by Move Forward

Move Forward,

(1) Yes, that's the relevant point.

(2) 1995 study not relevant?

I believe the 50 years of modern wars provides a sufficient base upon which to draw conclusions. First, that includes the bulk of 4GWs (or LIC, or non-trinitarian conflicts, etc) since WWII -- the anti-colonial insurgencies. Second, I doubt that the innovations in insurgent methods since then are that drastic, or substantially change the numbers.

Also, in military literature 20 years is seldom considered old. Sun Tzu, Clausewitz, etc. To say so requires showing that conditions have changed that affect the conclusion -- rather than pointing to the calendar.

(3) Obviously "foreign" is a continuum. But folks who have lived as neighbors (even fighting neighbors) have fewer of the relevant foreign characteristics as folks from thousands of miles away. Most notably familiarity with the local languages, customs, and social structures. Hence people looking at this speak of a "a large grey area". But the usual great power interventions tend to lie outside these.

(4) Citing WWII? Quite remarkable. I suspect most people looking at this subject realizes that those State-State wars have different dynamics than the insurgencies discussed here. That was a key point in this literature circa 1960.

Move Forward

Wed, 06/03/2015 - 9:01am

In reply to by Fabius Maximus

Agree that Sparapet always has great input.

Four brief notes:

1) Don't believe the 2014 version of FM 3-24 (and its change 1) have force ratios identified. However, lessons of an under-resourced OIF and OEF logically led to a longer transition than might have occurred with a larger ground force for early stability ops and host nation training.

2) A 1995 article about Force Requirements in Stability Ops probably has limited relevance in light of more recent conflict lessons.

3) Per your final point, perhaps a Northern Alliance-dominated ANSF in a Pashtun area, a Shiite militia trying to stabilize a Sunni or Kurd area, a NATO troop in the Balkans, a Hezbollah unit in Sunni areas of Syria, an MFO multi-national trooper in the Sinai, an Israeli Soldier in the West Bank, or a Russian force trying to placate Ukrainians under their control are equally considered foreign in nature.

4) I wonder how many U.S. troops learned German or Japanese during their occupation or truly fit into those cultures. My own half-German wife does not even speak German and she spent many more years there with me and her dad than most occupation forces ever would. Nor do we go out of our way to teach deploying GIs either German, Japanese, or Korean or their cultural norms. Nor do we attempt to win their hearts and minds.

Fabius Maximus

Tue, 06/02/2015 - 10:44pm

In reply to by Sparapet


Lots of great material in that comment! Here are two brief notes.

(1) About controlling the local populations

One reason there are no more colonies is that mustering sufficient troops to control all but the smallest foreign nations is not practical (and seldom profitable). For details see "<a title="Parameters" href="…; target="_blank">Force Requirements in Stability Operations</a>", James T. Quinlivan, <em>Parameters</em>, Winter 1995.

The COIN manual, FM 3-24, echoed Quinlivan's conclusions:
<blockquote>No predetermined, fixed ratio of friendly troops to enemy combatants ensures success in COIN. The conditions of the operational environment and the approaches insurgents use vary too widely.

A better force requirement gauge is troop density, the ratio of security forces (including the host nation’s military and police forces as well as foreign counterinsurgents) to inhabitants. Most density recommendations fall within a range of 20 to 25 counterinsurgents for every 1000 residents in an AO. Twenty counterinsurgents per 1000 residents is often considered the minimum troop density required for effective COIN operations; however as with any fixed ratio, such calculations remain very dependent upon the situation.</blockquote>

(2) "The CPA was nothing less than that. It was not a foreign power in the sense of far off was foreign in terms of understanding."

I agree, but there is another dimension to this. The major factor is, imo, how the locals regard us. To them we were infidel foreigners in Iraq and Afghanistan.


Mon, 06/01/2015 - 1:38pm

Perhaps I am not cynical as much as despondent about the reasons for our failures. But what strikes me over and over again is the weakness of our professional dialogue on COIN. The current crop of O-3s to O-5s have spent the entirety and majority (respectively) of their careers fighting insurgents. Yet the fingerprints of those experiences on our force design and doctrine are surprisingly inconspicuous. Now, don't get me wrong, a lot has been written and many a working group had.

Yet looking around the ground forces I see a lot of hvy/light/air mixing with a healthy dose of networking and that's about it. That kind of adaptation could have been spurned by any opponent. That's the thing about it...what are adapting to exactly? Our force mixes allow us more lethality at smaller scales...there is value in that. Our network fixes allow us greater information flow...value in that too. Our tech fixes allow us fewer lethal systems per effect...yup, also potentially good (caveat: depending on cost). But, uh, what exactly are we doing to allow us to effectively gain and maintain control of human populations? Considering that this last part is one of the main reasons for the very existence of land armies, our lack of sophistication on this topic, after 13 yrs of "practice", is what drives my pessimism.

Perhaps COIN campaigns are won mostly by domestic forces. In fact, I think in order to have a COIN campaign one must be domestic by definition. One cannot have an insurgency without something to "surge" against. Thus, the notion is a bit of tautology. Consider then the idea that when a foreign Army sets up shop in a foreign land as an occupation, it becomes the domestic force. On May 1, 2003, we became the default domestic power in Iraq, as much as we didn't want to. We avoided that fate in Afghanistan, but wound up being unwilling (and ignorant/naive/useful-idiot) power brokers in a hot mess of a State. We became the ally to Northern Alliance and then wound up doing the lion's share of the work...some alliance.

In any case, controlling populations by using land armies is as old as civilization. Perhaps COIN can only be reasonably won by native powers, and foreign powers need time to "go native" if they intervene. But rebellion is only one possible future in controlling a population, and it is one future that is most directly dependent on the domestic power's relationship with the people. And rebellions are hard and they suck; I don't recall any historic figure relishing a rebellion, though they might have been itching for a grand campaign against a foreign enemy.

NOTE: There is a vast difference between being a native power and domestic power. The former is a cultural relationship, the latter is a political relationship. It's complex enough to where I would say that we should abandon the idea of domestic. We became a domestic power in Iraq. The CPA was nothing less than that. It was not a foreign power in the sense of far off was foreign in terms of understanding. Otherwise it was perfectly accessible to local politics. A colonial government in that sense is domestic, though its patron state may be foreign, as the colonials reside and exist in the same time and space as the people it governs and may well be staffed by the people there. But it's structure and understanding of law and management may be non-native. This is also our greatest weakness in our "help" to other states. What we introduce to their governance is domestic institutions, but they are not native. Their foreign-ness isn't tied to the identity of the people sitting behind the Minister's desk, but in the structure that Minister presides over. But I digress...

Fabius Maximus

Fri, 05/29/2015 - 7:45pm

In reply to by Bill C.


That's taking this reasoning to the next level, moving from describing "how" we have acted to the more difficult question of "why".

Most of these interventions have worked through the locals (e.g., CIA overthrowing local elected governments, DoD arming & training local governments), often successfully -- at least in a short-term sense (i.e., ignoring the long-term hatred and mistrust produced in the local people).

How much of this m.o. will work in the 21st C? Perhaps more importantly, how must our goals change? So far we've pursued something close to the opposite of John Boyd's ideas for grand strategy.

Interesting times ahead.

Since World War II, our interventions would seem to fall into two categories:

I. During the Cold War:

a. To attempt to PREVENT the Soviets/the communists from gaining greater power, influence and control throughout the world.

b. This, by attempting to PREVENT them from further advancing their political, economic and social norms and institutions -- and by attempting to PREVENT them from further advancing their values, attitudes and beliefs which underpinned same.

c. These such interventions to be understood under the heading of our containment strategy.

II. Post-the Cold War:

a. To CAUSE the U.S./the West's to gain of greater power, influence and control throughout the world.

b. This, by FACILITATING the advance of our political, economic and social norms and institutions -- and by FACILITATING the advance of our values, attitudes and beliefs which underpin same.

c. These such interventions to be understood under the heading of our expansionist strategy.

In this context, to see and understand interventions/conflicts post-World War II.

Thus, THE common characteristic of these such post-World War II interventions and conflicts is that indigenous personnel are being asked/forced, by one great power foreign government or another (or, indeed, by both!) to:

a. Throw off ways of life, ways of governance, and values, attitudes and beliefs which -- often for millennia -- have sustained them. And, in the place of these, to:

b. Adopt foreign, alien and often profane ways of life, values, etc.

(A definition of "profane" might be helpful here: Relating or devoted to that which is not sacred or biblical -- secular rather than religious; treat [of something sacred] with irreverence or disrespect.)

In this context, to consider "failures."

Herein to suggest that interventions -- in one form or another -- and whether routinely successful or not -- will continue.

This, due to:

a. Our continuing determination to try to prevent the advance of/eliminate other ways of life, values, etc., and

b. Our continuing determination to try to advance, in the place of these, our such attributes.

Move Forward

Sun, 05/31/2015 - 7:29pm

In reply to by Fabius Maximus

The following quote from Manea's interview of Dave Maxwell fits this argument:

<blockquote>You first have to have the ability to understand the problem that you have and then apply the right ways and means to address the problem in accordance with national policy and strategy. The important thing is that we cannot look to any model to copy. I am really resistant when I hear people talking about models. The conditions may be different. You just don’t apply models. You’ve got to develop a unique strategy for each situation.</blockquote>

As Dave points out, any historical comparison that purports to be a model involving countless diverse variables renders history, particularly non-recent history, a poor teacher. The 2008 RAND study's number of variable and extensive conflicts are too old, too different, and too dissimilar in how they were fought and by whom to narrowly pass judgment on foreign influence's effect on insurgency and counterinsurgency. At least the 2010 RAND study attempted to cover some of the other past best and poor practices that differentiated the conflicts. Even then, ancient <strong>past</strong> by other parties in different places under widely varied conditions and motivations <strong>is not prologue</strong> for future insurgencies elsewhere.

As for your points one and two, you asked us to accept that intervention by foreign armies has limited value--but caveated it to say it was acceptable provided it was limited in scope and not in the lead. I offered the immediate, very recent examples of Iraq following the Surge in 2008-2011 where we still had a dominating presence, and what happened after that became far more limited post-2011 when we departed, and Iran gained a greater foothold in Iraq.

Libya, Syria, Ukraine, and Vietnam demonstrate that insurgency and counterinsurgency go beyond <strong>our</strong> support for one side. Other parties invariably support the opposite side. Thus your immediate comparison of who leads the COIN effort fails to consider who is supporting the opposition. Obviously, when we do little to nothing to support:

1) stability in Libya after bombing it,
2) the opposition in Syria or enforce red lines,
3) the Kurds/Sunnis after our withdrawal in 2011 when ISIS seized territory,
4) the government and Army of Ukraine,
5) South Vietnam by adequately bombing sanctuaries of North Vietnam that forced the North to the Peace Table and could have halted their conventional invasion in 1975,

things tend to go to hell in a hand basket.

When the other side continues to offer support and we do not, the other side has the advantage. External and internal radicals are helping Libyans oppose any reasonable government. The Russians and Iranians help Assad. The Iranians help the Shiite militias and GCC radicals support ISIS. The Russians help create an artificial insurgency in Ukraine that actually is a Russian-sponsored "stealth war." The Russians and Chinese supported North Vietnam. Pakistan's ISI and Haqqanis, and now ISIS outsiders influence the fighting in Afghanistan.

As for your point three, I read Martin van Creveld's conclusion only (from a 2005 article lacking updated lessons of recent conflicts) and saw no solution there to current world events in areas that are vital national interests. I will offer my suggestions frequently made here:

1) Surge early with the Joint force to include an adequate ground force to counter insurgents <strong>or</strong> provide deterrence to attacks
2) After our Joint victory or deterrence (with limited air attacks on infrastructure that therefore does not need rebuilding) <strong>stabilize</strong> with ground forces
3) Negotiate and establish new borders if necessary to eliminate sources of future conflict. Build walls and fences as in Israel and Iraq to separate sectarian and external influences.
4) Train separate forces in new borders, build combat outposts for them, and transition rapidly
5) Retrograde to our own safe haven area (e.g. Kurd) where a residual force and whole of government can continue to influence events through aid, and aerial QRFs of air attack and air assault by conventional and SF/SOF forces to assist host nation forces.
6) Employ best COIN practices throughout as illustrated by the 2010 RAND study, but with less emphasis on Build

This section edited due to poor original wording:

Please provide your own specific solutions or those of Martin van Creveld. Hopefully, your or his solution does not include the belief that vital national interests will fix themselves with only limited U.S. and "coalition" support involving just airpower and SF/SOF. If important enough for U.S. involvement, all elements of national power are required to include more than just token forces in the air, ground, sea, and human whole of government domains--particularly when external parties show no hesitation to continue exerting their own influence. If the solution involves spoons immersed in salt water as in his conclusion, that is insufficiently specific.;)

Fabius Maximus

Sat, 05/30/2015 - 9:21pm

In reply to by Move Forward

Move Forward,

(1) "some foreign assistance is valuable 'so long as the locals control' the items mentioned. That being the case how do you explain the Iraqis ... Syria..Ukraine?"

Valuable does not mean "decisive" or "guarantees victory". Do you disagree, and believe that foreign assistance is not valuable?

(2) The RAND study

Since they looked at a tiny sample, I don't believe we can draw much information from their brief statements. Insurgencies cannot be sampled like rolls of dice. Also, we hashed that over in earlier comments -- probably writing more words than in that study's analysis of this question.

(3) "Read your new piece and still don't see a solution to the problems we face in many insurgencies."

Did you read the section "How can we win?" It gives a summary, and links to Martin van Creveld's long essay for more detail.

Move Forward

Sat, 05/30/2015 - 5:58pm

In reply to by Fabius Maximus

Read your new piece and still don't see a solution to the problems we face in many insurgencies. Let's start with this quote from your piece:

<blockquote>In January 2007 I gave a more detailed explanation to van Creveld’s conclusion. As a simple dichotomy for analytical purposes, we can sort insurgencies by the degree of involvement of outside armed forces (of course, there are other ways to characterize 4GW).

1.Violence between two or more local groups, who can form from any combination of clans, governments, ethnicities, religions, gangs, and tribes.
2.Violence between two or more sides, where at least one is led by foreigners – comprising, as above, any imaginable combination of factions.

Local governments often win conflicts of the first kind, often with valuable foreign assistance — so long as the locals control political strategy, tactics, and the major combat forces.</blockquote>

If reading it right, the main thing you adjusted was that some foreign assistance is valuable "so long as the locals control" the items mentioned.

That being the case how do you explain the Iraqis having control over all that since 2011 and everything going south vs. 2008 when we still had primacy and Iraq was largely at peace? Iran has provided limited assistance to Iraq wouldn't you say? How does your theory explain Assad being unable to control the insurgency of ISIS and now more moderate opposition despite the limited assistance of Iran?

How does this theory explain Ukraine where major assistance from Russia has enabled crushing defeats of the main Ukraine government? There is nothing limited about that assistance other than empty claims of non-involvement.

And once again, you fail to mention the later RAND study that showed that multiple best practices play a role in success or failure of counterinsurgencies. Military assistance alone is not a determinant.

Finally, you seem to criticize the role of U.S./Coalition/NATO primary assistance without providing an alternative that would work in Iraq and Afghanistan. Certainly you aren't claiming that were we to abandon Afghanistan now that all would fix it has so far in Iraq, Libya, and Ukraine?

Fabius Maximus

Thu, 05/28/2015 - 4:06pm

Many of the comments here -- especially those raising questions about the wider implications of this theory -- are answered in an article of mine up today at Martin van Creveld's website: "<a title="Martin van Creveld" href="; target="_blank">Why we lose so many wars, and how we can win</a>" -- Summary:

As the western nations begin a new round of interventions against insurgencies in the Middle East, let’s look at the record of such conflicts since WWII. They teach a simple lesson that if widely recognized could change our future. But the leaders of our national defense institutions do not want to see it, so we probably will not either. Failure to learn is among the most expensive of weaknesses, one which can offset the power of even great nations.

Fabius Maximus

Mon, 06/01/2015 - 10:33am

In reply to by Fabius Maximus

Move Forward,

(1) I appreciate the complement, but calling what I wrote a "model" seems a bit grand. It's just one insight from post-WWII history about what has not worked, plus pointers to what has worked.

(2) "As for your points one and two, you asked us to accept that intervention by foreign armies has limited value--but caveated it to say it was acceptable provided it was limited in scope and not in the lead."

We have been over this too many times. I said that *one* form of foreign intervention has not worked -- armed force, where the foreign party takes the lead. Your repeated generalization of what I wrote -- to the point of absurdity -- suggests either a reading FAILure or debating trick.

(3) "Please provide..."

An essay of under 2,000 words can only go so far. The comments here suggest these points remain unclear to this audience, so further expansion hardly seems worthwhile at this point in time.

Also, I appreciate your implied praise by asking for more. But I don't believe comments here or anywhere are a useful forum for so large a work.

Fabius Maximus

Fri, 04/10/2015 - 11:44am

<h4>A note about the RAND report cited in this post</h4>

This is among the most interesting evidence about the two kinds of insurgencies cited in this post because it's by RAND -- started and to this day still largely a government-funded research center. Organizations seldom act against the interests of their customers -- and especially their top customer. So RAND's conclusion in this report about COIN -- that US military interventions in foreign insurgencies are unlikely to work -- is remarkable.

It's somewhat like what attorneys call an "<a title="Wikipedia" href="; target="_blank">admission against interest</a>", and so deserves special attention.

Contrast that with another episode in RAND's history, more typical of such things. Robert Hirsch is one of America's top energy experts (he ran the fusion program in the 1970s, walking away when he realized it was not going to work in his lifetime). The Washington Post wrote about this interesting story in 18 March 2003:

<blockquote>"Rand hired Hirsch in January 2001, and he began work on the report "Energy Technologies for 2050," a $200,000 study commissioned by the Department of Energy's Fossil Energy Program. His mission was to develop a methodology that could be used to evaluate the viability of energy technologies over the next 50 years."</blockquote>

Oil was then roughly $23/barrel, bouncing back after crashing in the 1998-99 downturn. Hirsch's draft report said that the world was headed for an energy crisis, and the US had to start preparations immediately to prepare. Let nobody say that the government cannot act quickly! DoE staff contacted RAND and demanded a more comforting report.

RAND fired Hirsch in October and produced a report saying that oil was OK and not likely to spike again.

As oil prices spiked up, DoE realized their mistake and funded a team headed by Hirsch to produce (re-produce) his study. Which he did in February 2005: “<a title="DOE" href="…; target="_blank">Peaking of World Production: Impacts, Mitigation, and Risk Management</a>” (aka “Mitigations”). It's still the closest thing we have to an energy policy (i.e., it was ignored).


Wed, 03/18/2015 - 7:11pm

In reply to by Fabius Maximus

I suggest that <I>you</I> read "World Politics and the Evolution of War" by John J. Weltman, as he explains the wider strategic context of the "loss" in Vietnam. Vietnam was ceded as part of the American overture to China, which further aggravated the Sino-Soviet split and facilitated the strategic defeat of the Soviet Union by 1990. Vietnam was an operational loss (aggravated by Congress' failure to fund the Vietnamese after 1975) that facilitated a long-term strategic victory.

Post WWII, the United Kingdom fought two insurgencies in Oman, the Jebel Akhdar War and the Dhofar Rebellion, and won both. Post WWII, the United Kingdom fought an insurgency in Malaya and won. Post WWII, American special forces fought a small scale insurgency in El Salvador, and won. Post WWII, America has fought and facilitated a lengthy counterinsurgency campaign in Colombia, and although the commitment is ongoing, substantial progress against the FARC rebels has been made at a fairly low cost. Post WWII, America has fought and facilitated a successful COIN campaign in the Philippines. I'm sorry, sir, but you are simply wrong in your blanket assertions.

Fabius Maximus

Wed, 03/18/2015 - 6:52pm

In reply to by Move Forward

Move On,

I'll wrap this us, as nobody seems to be interested in the past frequency of success by foreign armies at COIN. That makes this discussion quite pointless.

That you think the difference between "almost always" and "destined" is a "nuance" is interesting. It's not as odd as conflating "support" with "fighting".

"We did not lose the Iraq counterinsurgency, particularly not in 2007 and beyond."

I can imagine no better illustration of our FAILure to learn than that sentence, a perfect place to end this discussion. It's a flashback in history, from "On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War" by Harry G. Summers Jr. (1982):

“You know you never defeated us on the battlefield” – Colonel Harry G. Summers, Jr. (Chief of the U.S. Delegation, Four Party Joint Military Team)

”That may be so, but it is also irrelevant.” – Colonel Nguyen Don Tu (Chief, North Vietnamese Delegation).

Move Forward

Wed, 03/18/2015 - 6:33pm

In reply to by Fabius Maximus

A sentence from your initial summary paragraph:

<blockquote>What can we learn from our failed interventions since 9/11, and more generally from the scores of failed counterinsurgency programs waged by foreign armies since WWII (when Mao brought 4GW to maturity)?</blockquote>
We can learn that many factors affect the success or failure of a counterinsurgency. Victory has a thousand fathers and defeat has an equally large flawed strategy set. Beyond that your contention that failure resulted from our interventions and that of many other foreign armies is utterly unsupportable:

a) We did not lose the Iraq counterinsurgency, particularly not in 2007 and beyond. The premature complete U.S. withdrawal that led to the vacuum filled by Iranian influence and an ISIS invasion restored the insurgency. Sounds like lack of "continuation and contestation" in the RAND 2010 study.

b) We have not lost the Afghanistan counterinsurgency yet, but will if the same mistake is made by President Obama in withdrawing all U.S. forces prematurely.

From this same blog post:

<blockquote>I sorted insurgencies into 2 groups: local vs. locals (insurgents fighting their government), and foreign vs. local (when foreign forces took a major role fighting local insurgents) — and saw that foreigners <strong>almost always lose.</strong></blockquote>

Destined to lose...almost always lose...sorry I failed to note the nuance;).

Fabius Maximus

Wed, 03/18/2015 - 6:05pm

In reply to by Move Forward

Move Forward,

"insurgencies with external parties supporting the host nation counterinsurgency were destined to lose while those fought internally only had more frequent success."

That's not even close to what I said.

(1) I said nothing even remotely like to "destined to lose". Rather it's a matter of odds: "foreigners almost always lose." As was explicitly stated in the studies I cited.

(2) I explicitly said "when foreign forces took a major role fighting local insurgents." Not "support", but combat. I'm certain the people on the SWC well understand the difference.

In other posts I discussed the high value of non-kinetic support to local governments fighting insurgents: money, equipment, training, etc.

(3) Yes there are other factors, especially useful to consider when determining if a host government can defeat insurgents. But the primary point relevant to our interventions today is the role of *American* troops in combat -- our blood spent in these wars.

This discussion is a clear example of our inability to see clearly, and hence learn from our experience. Can any magnitude of national power overcome such a weakness?

Move Forward

Wed, 03/18/2015 - 5:39pm

In reply to by Fabius Maximus


Of course I read your blog post and several others you linked to it. Correct me if wrong, but it appeared to me you were arguing that counterinsurgencies with external parties <strong>supporting</strong> the host nation counterinsurgency were destined to lose while those fought internally <strong>only</strong> had more frequent success.

I reminded you that when insurgencies have external support from another cross-border (or distant communist, or Islamic) partner, that it greatly affects the outcome. This RAND study supports that.

This study also points out in its title alone, not to mention the best practices cited, that <strong>multiple</strong> factors affect the counterinsurgent and insurgent. Your desire to limit it to just two factors makes little to no sense.

It is equally flawed to examine historical insurgencies with varied sizes of land and population, different technologies and players, divergent proportions of ethnicities/cultures within each, and equate them all as apples. They are apples and oranges at best and apples and vegetables in most cases. You also asked for more recent examples and every one of these 30 insurgencies was more recent--not ancient history.

Fabius Maximus

Wed, 03/18/2015 - 5:19pm

In reply to by Move Forward

Move Forward,

It's as I suspected. Most of the people commenting about this post did not read it.

The RAND study you cite has zero -- none -- relevance to my post. This looks at victories losses by insurgents & counter-insurgents. Mine was about a subset -- the relevant subset to us: COIN by foreign armies.


Thu, 03/26/2015 - 9:08am

In reply to by Fabius Maximus

<BLOCKQUOTE>If you read the post, you saw the studies cited. What more would you like to see?</BLOCKQUOTE>

I saw the studies you cited, but I believe that you have drawn conclusions from them that they do not support. I was also unimpressed with the non-RAND links you provided, and especially with your fawning review of Dr. Price's book. As such, I'd like to see you provide any evidence to answer our challenge: that you have drawn conclusions from the studies you cited that are not supported by the studies themselves, and which are fatally undermined by the contradictory citations and case studies that MF and I have provided. I would also like to see you defend the DoD's definition of "counterinsurgency", which I believe I have conclusively demonstrated to be too broad to be of any academic or operational value. However, I concur with MF's determination that your responses have not been especially productive, and perhaps it is time for us to table the discussion.

Fabius Maximus

Thu, 03/26/2015 - 2:23am

In reply to by thedrosophil


(1) "I'm eager to see you provide some of them."

If you read the post, you saw the studies cited. What more would you like to see?

"You accused both Move Forward and I of having neglected to read your article"

(2) Yes. You incorrectly said that I believed "none" had read the post. The others appeared to have done so. Two out of all commenters is "some".


Wed, 03/25/2015 - 3:23pm

In reply to by Fabius Maximus


<BLOCKQUOTE>First, I didn't say "none" read. Some obviously did.</BLOCKQUOTE>

You accused both Move Forward and I of having neglected to read your article or your comments. I am telling you, I can't speak for anyone else, but I've read them in their entirety, and I gather from Move Forward's comments that he has as well.

<BLOCKQUOTE>Second, I gave examples showing that specific commenters were unable to accurately state the simple point made in that post about the success rate of foreign insurgencies.</BLOCKQUOTE>

I've repeatedly restated your point, as has MF. You did a poor job of providing evidence to support that point in your post, and have continued to do a poor job of supporting that point in your comments here. At the risk of tooting my own horn, I'm pretty confident that MF and I have done a reasonably good job of quoting your own words to clarify your point, and providing evidence to undermine that point. You've been dismissive, taken our rebuttals out of context, and seemingly just ignored them. It's been frustrating.

<BLOCKQUOTE>I also cited the comments about the RAND study given as rebuttal, which in fact evaluated an issue totally unrelated (i.e., most of the conflicts studied were local governments vs local insurgencies, with little or no foreign fighters).</BLOCKQUOTE>

I agree with MF: this statement is simply incorrect. In addition, I provided additional examples that rebut your point, e.g. Jebel Akhdar, Dhofar, Malaya, and other campaigns, which you have ignored.

<BLOCKQUOTE>Most of the rebuttals were irrelevant to the issues discussed in my post. They read as if written in response to the title, or to some different article.</BLOCKQUOTE>

I disagree. That was part of the reason why MF and I were so careful to quote your post, and your comments here. The title of your post is extremely vague, so rebuttals of any substance required the interlocutor to address the substance of your post, rather than the title. If anything, your title fell into the "clickbait" category.


I agree. I'm eager to see you provide some of them.

<BLOCKQUOTE>I see only 4 quotes from the post in this 12 thousand word thread. It would have been more useful if the rebuttals *had addressed* direct quotes. As I repeatedly noted, most were to other issues entirely, or to things I didn't say.</BLOCKQUOTE>

Directly from your post, that may be correct - I have higher priorities than to do a count for myself. However, we addressed those items, and then addressed your subsequent comments. For example, it was in this comment thread that you said that your post was inspired by Dr. Price's book, which makes that point entirely relevant to both your post and your comments here. With all due respect, it's a pretty weak defense to criticize us on the grounds that we're not solely addressing your post, given that we're treating your post and your comments about that post as a single body of discussion.


Thu, 04/09/2015 - 4:13pm

In reply to by Fabius Maximus

I'm still waiting for you to provide any evidence. I just reread your original article/post, start to finish, every word. It's rambling, and the closest thing to "evidence" you provide is a link to a RAND study that you seem to be taking out of context. You cite a bunch of people I've never heard of who happen to agree with your preconceived views (that's called confirmation bias), none of whom appear to boast any recognized expertise with which to afford their commentary any credibility. Who is Chet Richards? Who is Walberg? Why should I consult The Globe and Mail, a Canadian newspaper, as a journal of record on warfare? We've discussed Dr. Price ad nauseum already. You include plenty of self-aggrandizing about how you figured one thing or another out earlier than other people, without actually sustaining any of those arguments, or really event stating a coherent thesis in the first place. You season this with some out-of-context quotes from Kilcullen and van Creveld that, while not directly contradicting your vague thesis, don't really sustain it either.

I've been studying counterinsurgency since around '03/'04, including at the postgraduate level. I've studied within the DoD context, and outside the DoD context. I haven't been shy, here or elsewhere, about discussing shortfalls in the way the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq have been administered. All of that established, I find your argument, such as it is, to be poorly developed, articulated, and sustained. Even accounting for a word limit (which appears to be arbitrary - your website is basically a blog), your article doesn't meet basic academic or journalistic standards commensurate with undergraduate work, let alone serious, quantitative analysis of campaigning or strategy. I focus on your post/article, but I haven't seen anything better in the discussion. So, again, I'm fairly confident that this is not a failing on my part, nor on the part of Move Forward or any other commenters. Your scholarship is simply not up to snuff, particularly given your contempt for any and all counter-arguments and the strength of your conviction.