The United States and other nations have spent billions of dollars and invested untold effort, not to mention lives, in a global campaign against Islamist terrorism—and yet the threat landscape is arguably worse now than it was on 9/11.
Despite the importance for national security of understanding how to wage irregular warfare effectively, something in the American way of war, the fundamental culture of the US military, prevents us from doing so. Our guests discuss the question of what needs to be done to reverse this trend and thus ensure that the United States can recover from the mistakes of the past, restore its credibility, and return to its place of prominence on the global stage.
William Wechsler is director of the Rafik Hariri Center and Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council. His most recent government position was deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations and combating terrorism, a role in which he advised several secretaries and helped coordinate interagency policies on a wide range of direct and indirect actions. Previously, Wechsler served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for counternarcotics and global threats, overseeing military and civilian programs around the globe. His key areas of focus included integrating law enforcement operations into our military campaigns in Afghanistan and institutionalizing military counter–threat finance structures and doctrine.
Dr. Liam Collins is the executive director of the Viola Foundation, the executive director of the Madison Policy Forum, a senior fellow with New America, and a permanent member with the Council on Foreign Relations.
Liam served in the US Army for twenty-seven years. As a career Special Forces officer, he conducted multiple operational and combat deployments to Afghanistan, Iraq, Bosnia, South America, and the Horn of Africa. Liam retired from the military in 2019 as the founding director of the Modern War Institute and the director of the Department of Military Instruction at the United States Military Academy at West Point. Previously he served as retired General John Abizaid’s executive officer for his secretary of defense appointment as the senior defense advisor to Ukraine, and as the director of West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center.
Our two guests discuss how the United States and our partners have responded and adapted to the various extremist groups that have emerged across the world over the last three decades. The story covers campaigns ranging from the war against narcoterrorists in Colombia to the French intervention in Mali to, inevitably, triumph and tragedy in Afghanistan. They explain the significance of the lessons that we have learned—or should have learned—for national security in this era of great power competition. And they describe how our adversaries have adapted too, often managing to stay several steps ahead of us, as the current situation in Afghanistan bears testament.
Emerging from their discussion is a common theme: the US military and body politic are culturally ill prepared for the kind of long-term, light-footprint, civil-military effort that is needed to garner lasting results in these campaigns. Events of the last two decades, and perhaps most conclusively in the last week, have signaled to the world the end of American leadership—pointing instead to a nation in decline.
At the same time, our guests offer some constructive advice. It’s not too late to reverse this trend, they argue, but it will take a determined commitment from across the national security enterprise, from policymakers and practitioners alike.
The Irregular Warfare Podcast is a collaboration between the Modern War Institute and Princeton University’s Empirical Studies of Conflict Project. You can listen to the full episode below, and you can find it and subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, TuneIn, or your favorite podcast app. And be sure to follow the podcast on Twitter!
Image credit: Sgt. Pete Thibodeau, US Marine Corps
Much can be learned, I suggest, by looking at the very first sentence of our podcast introduction page above:
"The United States and other nations have spent billions of dollars and invested untold effort, not to mention lives, in a global campaign against Islamist terrorism—and yet the threat landscape is arguably worse now than it was on 9/11."
Now let's change this — to make it both more accurate and more understandable — for example, as follows:
"The United States and other nations have spent billions of dollars and invested untold effort, not to mention lives, in a global campaign to alter the ways of life, the ways of governance, the values, etc., of the states and societies of the world (to include these in the U.S./the West itself); this, so that same might be made to better provide for and better benefit from such things as capitalism, globalization and the global economy. Accordingly, if one wishes to understand why, since 9/11, there (a) has been an increase in "conservative" terrorism in the Greater Middle East, etc. and, indeed, in the U.S./the West also, then — obviously — (b) this must be understood in terms of (1) the world's negative reaction to (2) the U.S./the West's such "revolutionary" global political, economic, social and/or value "change" initiative and goals.
Bottom Line Thought — Based on the Above:
Based on the "cause and effect" relationship that I suggest above, it might be useful, now, to (a) consider the third-to-the-last paragraph of our podcast's introduction page above; this (b) also as alter by me:
From our podcast introduction page above (see the third-to-the-last paragraph):
"Emerging from their discussion is a common theme: the US military and body politic are culturally ill prepared for the kind of long-term, light-footprint, civil-military effort that is needed to garner lasting results in these campaigns. Events of the last two decades, and perhaps most conclusively in the last week, have signaled to the world the end of American leadership—pointing instead to a nation in decline."
Now, this quote altered by me below; this, so as to be consistent with my earlier changed paragraph above:
"Emerging from their discussion is a common theme: the US military and body politic are culturally (and indeed otherwise) ill prepared for pursuing "revolutionary" political, economic, social and/or value "change" initiatives and goals; these, either here at home or there abroad. The question thus becomes: Does THIS EXACT AND SPECIFIC FACT signal to the world the end of American leadership — and a nation in decline?"
As to my contention above, that (a) the increase in terrorism throughout the world, this might be traced to (b) the U.S./the West's efforts to alter the ways of life, the ways of governance, the values, etc., of the states and societies of the world (to include certain of those such attributes even in the U.S./the West itself); as to this such contention, consider the following four supportive items:
1. As to our overseas such "transformative" efforts:
a. From David Kilcullen's "Counterinsurgency Redux:"
" … But, in several modern campaigns – Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Chechnya, for example – the government or invading coalition forces initiated the campaign, whereas insurgents are strategically reactive (as in ‘resistance warfare’). Such patterns are readily recognisable in historical examples of resistance warfare, but less so in classical counter-insurgency theory.
“Politically, in many cases today, the counter-insurgent represents revolutionary change, while the insurgent fights to preserve the status quo of ungoverned spaces, or to repel an occupier – a political relationship opposite to that envisaged in classical counter-insurgency. Pakistan’s campaign in Waziristan since 2003 exemplifies this. The enemy includes al-Qaeda-linked extremists and Taliban, but also local tribesmen fighting to preserve their traditional culture against twenty-first-century encroachment. The problem of weaning these fighters away from extremist sponsors, while simultaneously supporting modernisation, does somewhat resemble pacification in traditional counter-insurgency. But it also echoes colonial campaigns, and includes entirely new elements arising from the effects of globalisation.”
b. From the Small Wars Journal article entitled “Learning From Today’s Crisis of Counterinsurgency” by Octavian Manea:
“Robert Egnell: Analysts like to talk about ‘indirect approaches’ or ‘limited interventions’, but the question is ‘approaches to what?’ What are we trying to achieve? What is our understanding of the end-state? In a recent article published in Joint Forces Quarterly, I sought to challenge the contemporary understanding of counterinsurgency by arguing that the term itself may lead us to faulty assumptions about nature of the problem, what it is we are trying to do, and how best to achieve it. When we label something a counterinsurgency campaign, it introduces certain assumptions from the past and from the contemporary era about the nature of the conflict. One problem is that counterinsurgency is by its nature conservative, or status-quo oriented – it is about preserving existing political systems, law and order. And that is not what we have been doing in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, we have been the revolutionary actors, the ones instigating revolutionary societal changes. Can we still call it counterinsurgency, when we are pushing for so much change?”
2. As to our such at home "transformative" efforts:
a. From “The American Interest” article “The Reality of Russian Soft Power” by John Lloyd and Daria Litinova:
“Liberal democratic societies have, in the past few decades, undergone a series of revolutionary changes in their social and political life, which are not to the taste of all their citizens. For many of those, who might be called social conservatives, Russia has become a more agreeable society, at least in principle, than those they live in. Communist Westerners used to speak of the Soviet Union as the pioneer society of a brighter future for all. Now, the rightwing nationalists of Europe and North America admire Russia and its leader for cleaving to the past.” And:
b. From the “National Review” article entitled: “How Russia Wins” by David French:
“Compounding it all, Russia’s dictator has achieved all of this while creating sympathy in elements of the Right that mirrors the sympathy the Soviet Union achieved in elements of the Left. In other words, Putin is expanding Russian power and influence while mounting a cultural critique that resonates with some American audiences, casting himself as a defender of Christian civilization against Islam and the godless, decadent West.”
Bottom Line Thought — Based on the Above:
Given that both "conservative" Islamic terrorism, and indeed "conservative" U.S./Western terrorism; given that both of these have increased since 9/11, should we not consider, therefore — as the common "root cause" of these such phenomenon — the above-noted phenomenon of U.S./Western political, economic, social and value" "change" initiatives; those undertaken both here at home in the U.S./the West (see my item "2" above) and there abroad in such places as the Greater Middle East (see my item "1" above)?
(All these such "change" initiatives, might we agree, being undertaken so that all these states and societies — to include our own — might be made to better provide for, and better benefit from, such things as capitalism, globalization and the global economy?)
As to these such (honorable?) endeavors — both at home and abroad — where did we go wrong?
So as to my final question, in my second comment above, the following additional ideas, from Dr. Robert Egnell in the Small Wars Journal article that I referenced above, may prove useful?
Dhofar, El Savador and the Philippines are all campaigns driven by fundamentally conservative concerns. When we are looking to Syria right now, it is not just about maintaining order or even the regime, but about larger political change. In Afghanistan and Iraq too, we represented revolutionary change. So, perhaps we should read Mao and Che Guevara instead of Thompson in order to find the appropriate lessons of how to achieve large-scale societal change through limited means? That is what we are after, in the end. And in this coming era, where we are pivoting away from large-scale interventions and state-building projects, but not from our fairly grand political ambitions, it may be worth exploring how insurgents do more with little; how they approach irregular warfare, and reach their objectives indirectly."
I think that the US fails in Irregular Warfare because it assumes to fight infantry vs. infantry with just infantry (like Vietnam)…and the US doesn't solve its own problems identified in the field.
For instance, the M4 vs. AK-47/SVD/RPK/RPG range issue is well known and yet the US solution was the M-14 EBR and M240. For a nation that excels in making guns, the US in 20 years never really addressed this small arms range limitation problem. Now with the captured weapons and night vision, the opponent has a mix of Russian and US small arms for BOTH CQB AND LRPFs!
NOW the US is addressing the small arms range and lethality issue with the 6.8mm NGSW, but that is for peer nation combat…tell that to all the US soldiers who served and died in Afghanistan using 5.56mm M4s. The new NGSW is too late for GWOT.
The US assumed that Afghanistan was solved with tactical MRAP combat trucks with open turrets armed with WW2-era .50cal machine guns. Against mass hordes of infantry, it is very hard to find pinpoint targets, even with .50cal. by "spraying and praying" the mountains with gunfire. The US never did find a technological fix besides expensive CAS. US never fielded small light cheap portable artillery to saturate the hillside with shrapnel and high explosives, or mini drone swarms to flood the area seeking IR body heat (ad the 40mm MK-19 wasn't it). The US may field RWS like CROWS II for better survivability, but someone has to get out to reload the CROWS II RWS.
So it's not just the US tactical, leadership, or political issues, but the discerning fact that the US military doesn't seem to SOLVE problems identified in the field with newer tactics, equipment, technology, tools, and arsenal and inventory. The Chinese and Russians are the opposite with light tanks and IFVs that can be easily transported and offer firepower unmatched against infantry forces. The Russian and Chinese tactical combat trucks have armored turrets for allowing to reload under armor. The Russian and Chinese have a range of light to heavy weapons and vehicles to achieve missions compared to the US.
The USAF and SOCOM stalled on the cheap COIN Light Attack Plane, using fast expensive and large jet fighters, attack helicopters, bombers, and AC-130s to provide CAS. The analogy of "Killing am ant swarm by rolling over it with pickup truck tires" comes into mind. The Afghan Air Force with the A-29s and MD 530 was a good start, but maintenance and logistics were an issue, and the Afghan Air Force was small.
This is NOT to say that the Afghan National Army (ANA) and police didn't fight and die—tens of thousands did. But against mass enemy infantry forces, a small group of ANA that were hungry, poorly armed, not reinforced, and lacking logistics support (sounds like Vietnam) were no match against an enemy who always praised each other and believed that they were winning and kept pressing forward in fast mobile ways. Armor has a deterrence all its own and the IED prevented the employment of mobile armor. As such, the SPH should have been king in Afghanistan and the US had no SPH that was light, mobile, and cheap enough to provide LRPF deterrence covering vast sectors like Vietnam Firebases.
Bringing robots and UGVs into the fight wouldn't have really helped, because again, the US is searching for point targets for a machine gun to hit when there was so many enemy on foot, in pickups, on motorcycles, etc. Aggressive "Run and gun" tactics such as using Russian BTRs, BMPs, GAZs, and light tanks may have worked because the largest fear in Afghanistan was the RPG and IED…stop the RPG with ERA and Active Protection and the war may have been more mechanized.
The other main problem is US stalling and cancellation…the US DoD stalled and delayed on SO MANY Next-Gen programs from Active Protection Systems to the Mobile Protected Firepower to the 155mm FCS NLOS to the Light Attack Plane, to the AMPV mortar to the JLTV to the M5 RIPSAW that may have helped turn the tide. All these future systems are still being tested. It just takes too fracking long to field something new in the DoD. Thus, it was back to the M4 carbine and M240 machine gun against the Russian infantry weapons that can out-range and provide precision firepower with little artillery support and the hope for CAS.
Even in these final Evacuation days, the US DoD admitted that it has no light portable air defense against enemy mortars that may rain down on the airfield parked full of expensive USAF cargo transports. It's not that the US cannot make such defenses (Iron Dome or AI-controlled CIWS), it just didn't invest in any Programs of Record to address what has inherently has to have been a headache for US and NATO commanders. The Centurion 20mm Phalanx CIWS was destroyed in place at the Kabul Embassy because it can't be trucked out to the airport in time, being large and unwieldy. The DoD never did develop a CIWS that was lighter, cheaper, and more effective.
The loss of GWOT isn't just that the native soldiers didn't fight or that corruption made the money and arms disappear, but the fact that the problems identified and reported WERE NOT SOLVED at all levels of DoD and the government from the Presidents to the privates. It's not about mission success or failure, but that the US didn't solve its issues to win the war–even with analysts, Intelligence, Think Tanks, experts, and supercomputers offering suggestions and recommendations. One will never win a war if one doesn't adapt to the battlefield issues that the privates were complaining about. That leads to demoralizing and questioning the motive and focus of the GWOT. For example, one can make a dent in the ant swarm by spraying pesticides from a can, but it needs a true pest exterminator to really get rid of the problem by digging it out at the source…the US DoD just bought more cans of pesticide and kept on spraying year after year for body counts. For issues that affect US National Security, the US had better make sure that it solves these issues in the future.
Essentially, Afghanistan boiled down to: The enemy can see the US, NATO, and Afghan National Army, know where they are, attack, and the Blue and Green Force cannot see or know where the enemy was at all times. And if the Blue and Green Force did know the location of the enemy, more enemies came. Yes, the US fought such (and all its) wars like this before with some wins and losses.