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The Fallacies of Big Expeditionary Counterinsurgency: Interview with T.X. Hammes
T.X. Hammes is a distinguished research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, National Defense University. He is a retired U.S. Marine Corps officer who studies strategy and future conflict. He is the author of The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century.
SWJ: How different is Mao’s people’s war compared with what you call 4GW (Fourth Generation Warfare)? Is 4GW an updated, evolved form of people’s wars? In the end, isn’t 4GW focused on people and minds, on influencing people and minds?
TX: Mao is a little bit different because (in China) it was a domestic insurgency and focused on wearing down the nationalists and changing the minds of the warlords who supported them. In the case of 4GW, the focus is overseas. People you can’t reach with force, you must reach with the message. 4GW is an evolved form of insurgency. It is also important to note that Maoism is a type of insurgency that essentially fits a hierarchical society, not a tribal one. It always ends with a conventional campaign to destroy the government’s army as the final step in overthrowing the government. You can’t run a Maoist insurgency in the mountains of Afghanistan, the society won’t tolerate that kind of structure. Nor can you do it in Iraq. 4GW covers both because its objective is not the military defeat. 4GW does not focus on the destruction of the enemy’s armed forces, but on changing the minds of the enemy’s political decision makers. 4GW directly attacks the will of enemy decision makers. Once the outside power has been ejected, the conflict can continue until resolution.
SWJ: Tell us about the center of gravity in a 4GW.
TX: The center of gravity in a 4GW is the will of the policymakers of the other side. 4GW war uses all available networks – political, economic, social and military – to convince the enemy’s political decision makers that their strategic goals are either unachievable or too costly for the perceived benefit. 4GW is not necessarily targeted at the people. If the war is small enough, it can run on for years like El Salvador. In that case, the US commitment was small enough there was no major political cost to US decision makers to continue supporting the El Salvadorian government.
When you look at the counterinsurgent side, I am more and more convinced that as a foreign power you can only do indirect counterinsurgency. You can advise and assist. But keep it small - the host nation has to make it work. We, the United States, have done this successfully a number of times. Admittedly, we have not created the perfect nations that the nation-builders want, but that wasn’t the goal. The goal was to achieve US strategic goals. And we achieved our strategic goals in the Philippines, El Salvador, Columbia and Thailand. In a 4GW, the insurgent is not trying to win over the people as a whole. But the counterinsurgent must do so. In a tribal society, you can do what Kilcullen refers to as wholesale COIN - if you persuade the tribal chief everybody flips. In a more democratic society, you have to convince the people. It is more of a retail operation. It is critical to understand the society you are in and tailor your counterinsurgency and insurgency accordingly.
SWJ: Is 4GW what Al Qaeda is waging against the West and inside Ummah?
TX: This is interesting. The first time when my work was widely quoted was on Al Qaeda’s website. They were convinced that they could win by employing 4GW. It is about the long game. At that time (2002), core Al Qaeda stated they were trying to wage 4GW. Fortunately, there is no viable way for them to win. They are a fringe and nobody wants them around. They can attempt to change people’s minds, but that doesn’t mean that they can. I don’t really see Al Qaeda as an insurgency. It is really a terrorist organization. It has metastasized, it will be nasty and ugly around the world, but they will be a lot like the anarchists before WWI. They will have impacts with their actions but they are not going to create the Caliphate. I can see Al Qaeda franchises winning locally. The question is should we care? In many cases, we shouldn’t care if local franchises take over a government. Only if they try to strike at U.S. interests should we be concerned.
SWJ: It seems that in some corners of Latin America, transnational criminal groups/gangs evolved into full-fledged insurgencies. Are they waging 4GW?
TX: The gangs are criminal international organizations. And criminals are not insurgents. Criminals do want territory, especially areas with weak governance, but they don’t want to run it. In Mexico, when pressured, some gangs did not stay and fight. They moved to El Salvador or Honduras. They will simply move out of the way. The solution to them is not so much counterinsurgency but drying up their profits. It is a business in the end. If the profit goes away, so does the criminal activity. But as long as the demand remains, the crime can only be suppressed or displaced, not eliminated.
SWJ: Do you see urbanization as a recipe for more insurgencies? Especially in the megacities?
TX: If the new urban areas are actually integrated into the city, it is actually hard for an insurgent to work there. The problem is most new urbanization is not integrated. It evolves in the form of densely packed slums, places where the government doesn’t go. Still, the slums are governed, but they are governed differently. So they will require a different approach. What you need to do is to work out deals with whoever is governing them and work out some kind of power sharing. This is going to be a power-block to power-block negotiation. Americans will be very hesitant to be involved in something like that. We thought Baghdad was fun, but try Nairobi or a dense slum somewhere in Brazil. The question is do we care? Everyone wants to fix Syria and do something. Ok, let’s agree that we need to do something. Now what? If we intervene directly, we will unify all against us. We did that in Somalia. First we were heroes, and then we become an irritant and pretty soon everyone wanted us gone. I find very difficult to think of a place where we want to get directly involved in an insurgency.
SWJ: In the U.S. Military’s quest for rebalancing I see an emphasis on high-tech-drones, Air-Sea Battle, and Revolution in Military Affairs kinds of solutions to warfare. Are these the right “silver-bullets” in countering 4GW?
TX: I think the Air Force and the Navy are going in that direction very fast – and for good reasons. The Army and the Marine Corps won’t. Remember, after Vietnam the Russians were looking 9 feet tall. A decade after the end of Vietnam, they invaded Afghanistan, they were looking really big and threatening. It was absolutely logical to invest in the conventional side. The Army and the Marine Corps are resisting that now - but what they need to figure out is how to stay relevant. If you assume the role will be advise and assist, it is a very different force than if you think you will be doing big and direct counterinsurgency. Thus the Army and Marines can effectively prepare to work across the spectrum from advise/assist to full combined arms operations.
Overall, even as a certain aversion to counterinsurgency rises, the capability has enduring relevance; it is an essential element of national security today. We shouldn’t see COIN as a strategy, but must understand the need to maintain a counterinsurgency capability to advise and assist. We must maintain a capability to intervene in insurgencies that threaten its vital interests.
SWJ: How do we counter 4GW?
TX: We make fun of winning “hearts and minds” but this in fact an effective approach under the right conditions. If you study the success in El Salvador, Columbia, Philippines in the 50s, and Philippines today, the failure against the Naxalites in India, all of these things indicate that if a domestic power does a hearts and minds campaign that actually addresses the underlying grievances, it can get results. They key is to not delude yourself that an outside power can do that. An outside power can go in and advise the host nation authorities. Also remember that deportation, immigration, ruthless suppression, decapitation, and mowing the grass are COIN methods that have succeeded in the past. The last two can even be used by liberal democracies. So the question is why do we default to hearts and minds if it is not appropriate? We may be trying to fix a society that is beyond our ability to fix.
Once again, the key is to determine U.S. strategic goals and focus on achieving those. The other huge fallacy I worry about is America’s default position that democracy is the only way to run any country. Europe needed 600 years to come to democracy that included an enormous amount of bloodshed. But never is democracy given, it is always taken from below. There has to be competing power centers. If we were in the days of Henry V and we told him that he needed to grant the peasants the right to vote that would have been madness. This whole idea that we are going to parachute in and create democracy is dubious at best. Instead, we need to understand the economic, social and political conditions of the host nation and act accordingly.
In FM 3-24 (Army-Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual), Chapter 4 is all about design. It is about understanding the problem in depth. But Chapter 5 is very prescriptive about what will solve the problem. This is a major disconnect, a gap. Chapter 5 doesn’t seem to care too much what the problem is.
As I understand it, the Marine Corps was more interested in understanding the problem, and the Army needed a doctrine which was already decided. Chapter 5 provides that doctrine. No matter the problem, if you do these things you will win. FM 3-24 went from being based on design (Ch 4), which all wicked problems require, to being a prescription (Ch 5) which means it is going to fail. I think now, in rewriting FM 3-24 they are trying to go back to design and suggest that there is a broader frame.
Don’t misunderstand me; FM 3-24 was absolutely necessary for where we were in Iraq at the time. The US Army cannot function without doctrine. It is just the way that organization works. And it worked in Iraq. Unfortunately, when the United States tried to move this doctrine into Afghanistan, it did not match the conflict there. Thus it is failing. I think that eventually, Afghan will go back to the Afghan way: the ruler will run Kabul and the ring road, with a power sharing mechanism between the center and the peripheries. And that’s OK for now. If you look at Europe, the feudal system worked until cities rose. They were a game changer because they created alternative power centers. In time, a rising middle class began to demand sharing power. Magna Carta is not about rights for the peasants, but about the rights of key stakeholders. If the king would have refused to grant those rights, they would withdraw their support. It was a starting point but England did not achieve full rights for citizens until over 400 years after the Magna Carta. It only did so when a sufficient middle class had grown to demand it. Thus power sharing was forced from below.
SWJ: The Philippines during Ramon Magsaysay and now, Colombia after Alvaro Uribe, and El Salvador are all cases of successful indirect expeditionary COIN. Can we identify common variables that are correlated with a successful outcome?
TX: I think from our point of view the most important thing is to stay small enough that no one in the U.S. is interested. If the COIN effort stays small enough, no department will try to run this operation from thousands of miles away. I bet that in the Pentagon almost no one has a clue within 100 people of how many people we have in Philippines. And that is perfect. Because in the end, what you need is local knowledge. People tend to stay for longer and develop real local expertise. They stay in support of the local forces because they too small to try taking over. Americans want to take action. Thus, we often get impatient and take over in order to make it happen. Keeping it small is critical. This will insure that the advisors cannot take over the fighting. It will also keep Washington from being interested. It will insure the American population is not interested. The last is very important because major interest from the American public will impose a timeline. We know that this kind of war runs long. We also know that once Americans focus on a conflict, the government has about 3 years to get results, or the American people will demand an end to our participation.
At the other end, it depends upon the host society and how well it adjusts. Successful counterinsurgency efforts require reform in both the political and security arenas. The successes seem to result in an oligarchy of some kind. They are not a true dictatorship, but a sharing of power among competing power centers. Your role is to encourage the power centers to compete peacefully and agree that fighting is a waste of time and effort. Over time, they will have to share power in some way. None of the small COIN campaigns brought real rights to peasants, but they are a little better off. Simply bringing peace improves the lot of the peasants. You are building an economy that in time will create a middle class that eventually will demand equality. But it is likely to take decades or even a hundred years. It won’t happen overnight. That is the key thing. Keep it small, indirect, keep your experts there, make sure that nobody in Washington cares because once that happens it will bring a lot of toxicity. You are totally dependent on the host nation administrative governance infrastructure, but the thing is that you are totally dependent when you are big too. You just don’t know it. But when you are big they don’t have any reason and incentive to change. If you stay small and indirect, you can threaten to leave. You have real leverage. A small U.S. commitment to a host nation COIN effort can make it much easier to sustain the long term support the host nation needs to make the difficult political, social and economic changes necessary to neutralize the drivers of an insurgency. The only way you resolve these things is through political change. Rarely, an insurgency will be completely defeated but if the underlying issues are not addressed, it will return in a different form. There has to be a political compromise. The presence of great wealth and power from the outside discourages compromise. And if you look at any nation in history, the timeline to develop a nation is not 2-3 decades, it is a century or more. I don’t know if there is any way to speed that up. It took the United States from the signing of the Constitution in 1789 until the Civil Rights Act of 1965 to establish the legal rights of a major portion of our population.
SWJ: To what extent do you see classic “whole-of-government” principles (of the type emphasized by Robert Thompson to counter Maoist insurgents) as being relevant in countering 21st century insurgents?
TX: The problem with a whole-of-government approach by the U.S. government is that nobody joins the Department of Commerce to play overseas. This is another problem that we have when we look at the way the British operated in Malaya. It is one of the ways that the British truly cursed us. FM 3-24 drew most of its best practices and big ideas from what essentially were domestic counterinsurgency efforts of the British in Malaya and North Ireland and the French in Algeria. The British and French were the government rather than an outside power assisting the government.
We also forget that the British had a Colonial Office. They signed up to spend 20 years overseas with the full expectations that the locals will kill you somewhere on the border and in some places probably they will eat you. OK, the Colonial Office guys were good with that, but it required a different personality. The U.S. Commerce guys sign up to work in Washington DC for 20 years. Here, not there. If he spends one year out, overseas, he is no longer in the promotion system. So he will piss off is boss and fellow workers. He is saying he doesn’t want to be promoted. He doesn’t mind getting shot at, and knows there is no VA (if he is crippled, his family is going to take care of him). Where is the incentive for other elements of the U.S. government to sign up for the whole of government approach? We need thousands of these people. We don’t even have them here in the U.S. Whole-of-government is based on the flawed assumption we can generate enough people from the rest of government to assist in governing the host nation. Even if we use contractors, there is a great chance they won’t match the job requirements. The perfect example is the Human Terrain Teams. It is a great idea but since we were conducting a direct and large operation we simply could not find enough people with the necessary depth of expertise. There is also the problem that you cannot create civil society until you have security. The idea that you are going to put these people out in unsecure areas is unworkable.
SWJ: Can a traditional top down Weberian bureaucracy fight effectively against a contemporary insurgency, in an environment that favors networks and super-empowered small groups? In the end, as General Stanley McChrystal emphasized in Iraq and Afghanistan, it became clear that to defeat a networked enemy we had to become a network ourselves.
TX: The problem is that all these adaptations are on the operational side. Nobody addresses the personnel side. As long as the personnel system is perceived as ending a person’s career for one mistake, people will not be able to operate effectively. We talk a lot about fixing the personnel side but nothing significant seems to change.
SWJ: What kind of soldier is best suited for expeditionary COIN? Is the military in general the right instrument? Or the answer is in the non-military branches of the government?
TX: It is for the military because there are too few people in other agencies willing to do this. I think if you are able to teach people how to do maneuver warfare as conceived by General Al Gray we can make it work. Maneuver is about analyzing the problem you have, looking at your and their strengths, looking at your and their weakness, and then pitting your strengths against their weaknesses. There is no formula and there is constant interaction, reevaluating and a continual thinking process. Moreover there is a moral responsibility to speak up if you think that your superiors are doing the wrong thing. If you have that standard, probably you will have the right soldier. The problem is that our entire personnel system is hostile to this. It does not reward any of the things you need.
SWJ: Does Edward Lansdale represent the right typology for an indirect advising COIN support mission?
TX: Yes, more along that line. It requires a personality that has an inherent ability to blend with the host nation society. In the end it was not so much Edward Lansdale, but Magsaysay changing the structure, the narrative. It is not about you driving it. There has to be a great deal of modesty in indirect COIN. You go in, set structures to assist, but it is not about your role. It must be about what the host nation does right.